The Poetry Foundation’s website has a brief essay on Montale, helpful mostly for its generous quotations from critics and from the poet. The consensus among critics, unsurprisingly, is that Montale’s poetry is “difficult.”
Here is Ghan Singh: Of all the important twentieth-century Italian poets Montale is the one in whose case it is most difficult to proceed by explicating, through definite formulations and statements, what a particular poem is about. In other words, what comes out through the reading of the poem and what was in the poet’s mind when he wrote it seldom lend themselves to a condensed summary.
Joseph Cary, writing on a collection earlier than La Bufera e altro:
As Montale himself has written, it is a short step from the intense poem to the obscure one. We are not talking of any grammatical-syntactical ellipsis here but of the nature of the poet’s dramatic methods, his procedural assumptions. To be plunged, with minimal or no preparation, in medias res, which is to say, into the midst of an occasion dense with its own particular history, cross-currents, associations and emotional resonances, seems to me to be a fair description of the difficulties typically encountered in certain of the Occasioni poems.
The density of “particular history, cross-currents, associations and emotional resonances” only intensifies in La Bufera e altro.
But I am not easy with either of these critics’ approaches to Montale’s “difficulty.” First, I doubt whether it is in fact difficult to state what any poem is about. They are about recovering a vision of love in some of the most cruel and violent decades of twentieth-century Europe; they are about the effort at discovering a transcendent beauty and hope, so that sometimes a poem is about the yearning, at other times a poem becomes the event itself, and at other times the poem is a record, or a trace after the event. To say that a poem could do such a thing might seem to be parroting symbolist or Romantic mumbo-jumbo–but for readers who love Montale, it seems that the poems do just that.
Second, the difficulties of the poetry do seem to me largely to have to do with “grammatical-syntactical ellipsis” and their grammar and syntax in general; the length of periods, the juggling of clauses and verbs, the loss and return of guiding metaphors, and the sudden crystallization of vision in bright strong clauses…these are very much reasons that the poetry is difficult.
Third, I am aware reading the poetry that I do not even know the difficulty I face: a sufficient sense of what Montale was doing to and in the Italian language. Here is Montale on his ambition:
I wanted my words to come closer than those of the other poets I’d read. Closer to what? I seemed to be living under a bell jar, and yet I felt I was close to something essential. A subtle veil, a thread, barely separated me from the definitive quid. Absolute expression would have meant breaking that veil, that thread: an explosion, the end of the illusion of the world as representation. But this remained an unreachable goal. And my wish to come close remained musical, instinctive, unprogrammatic. I wanted to wring the neck of the eloquence of our old aulic language, even at the risk of a counter-eloquence.
As much as I am moved by William Arrowsmith’s translations, I do not know when I read them how much I feel that “risk of a counter-eloquence”–though perhaps twentieth-century English does not have a developed enough tradition of eloquence for it to be felt.
That said, when I hear “the risk of counter-eloquence,” and when I read critics on the nature of the difficulties of Montale’s poetry, it makes me recall a twentieth-century poet to whom Montale is not usually compared. The point of reference is almost always T.S. Eliot. But Montale’s poems, thick in personal association, affirming and dramatizing a single voice, a powerful self, often in relation to an absent other, and sometimes transfiguring that other into an Other, divine, almost inhuman, recalls me instead to Thomas Hardy, and above all the Hardy of the elegies of 1912-1913. Perhaps most crucially, Hardy is a twentieth-century English poet in whose words I can hear the “risk of counter-eloquence,” possible because he inherits, grows out of, and even believes in the “eloquence” that English poetry did have in the Victorian era; by which I mean the self-consciously artificial diction, syntax, and formal ranges of Victorian poetry, which set its language at a pitch apart from spoken English. The high Modernists, Eliot chief among them, would seek to undo that artifice, to break the Victorian plaster; but that is not “the risk of counter-eloquence,” and it is not to “wring the neck of the eloquence of our old aulic language”–something that Hardy, in his occasionally tortured register, his shocking rescue of archaisms, and his creative renovations of English rhythms and meters, sought.
One of Hardy’s “Moments of Visions” is not so far from Montale’s ” ‘Flashes’ e dediche” in La Bufera e altro. Here is “He Prefers Her Earthly”:
This after-sunset is a sight for seeing,
Cliff-heads of craggy cloud surrounding it.
—And dwell you in that glory-show?
You may; for there are strange strange things in being,
Stranger than I know.
Yet if that chasm of splendour claim your presence
Which glows between the ash cloud and the dun,
How changed must be your mortal mould!
Changed to a firmament-riding earthless essence
From what you were of old:
All too unlike the fond and fragile creature
Then known to me….Well, shall I say it plain?
I would not have you thus and there,
But still would grieve on, missing you, still feature
You as the one you were.
But whereas Hardy pulls earthwards, wanting to restore her to mundane reality, Montale pushes upward, to the heavenly vision. Here is “L’Orto”–“The Orchard” or “The Garden,” which is the title given to the translation by William Arrowsmith, which follows:
I don’t know, messenger
of my God (or maybe yours) whether in the medlar
orchard where the fledgling warblers
cry, fading toward evening–
I don’t know whether in the garden
where the acorns patter down and beyond the wall, airily
floating, the catkin tassels curl
from the hornbeams lining
the breakers’ foaming edge, a sail
cutting the diadem of underwater
reefs either black on black or shining brighter
than the first trickling star–
I don’t know whether your muffled step
passing by, the blind nightmare from which I’ve grown
toward death since the day I first saw you;
I don’t know whether your step, that makes my blood pound,
as it draws near this tangle
is the same that in some vanished summer snatched me up
before a gusting wind
grazing the Mesco’s bristled peak
shattered my mirror–
I don’t know whether the hand brushing my shoulder
is the same hand that once touched the celesta’s
keys and answered the anguished cries
from other nests, from a thicket long burnt out.
The hour of torture and lamentation
that fell upon the world,
that hour whose coming you read as clearly as in a book,
your crystal-hard gaze piercing
down to the depths of things, where draperies of bitter
soot, rising on fire flaring
from the forge, once hid from sight
the work of Vulcan–
the day of Wrath, which more than once the cock
proclaimed to men foresworn,
did not divide you, undivided soul,
from the inhuman suffering, did not fuse you
in the awful fire, hearth of amethyst.
O dumb lips, parched from your long
journeying down the pathway shaped of air
sustaining you; O limbs I can hardly tell
from my own; fingers that slake
the thirst of the dying and inflame the living,
O purpose who created, beyond your measure,
the hands of the clock; who diffuse yourself
into human time, into human space, in rages
of demons made flesh, in angel brows
swooping downward….If the power
that moves the record already cut were some other
power, your destiny fused with mine would show
a single groove.
The contrast to Hardy is obvious: whereas Hardy’s moment of vision weighs on the movement of his verse, drawing it into regret and disappointment even as it opens into wonder, Montale’s moment charges the poetry with momentum, it drives ahead into hope of fulfillment. The “risk of counter-eloquence” in Hardy comes in his response, a staggering back, dazed, in awe, and saddened at once, from the vision; in Montale, I imagine the risk comes from his response. But the contrast between the two poets can be made (fruitfully, I think) because they stand on common ground; they are both poets of visionary love, loving what is beyond the world, but transfigured for them within it.
There is no erasing the difficulties of Montale’s poetry (nor should there be any desire to erase them), but there is some easing of their burden when we recognize that for a love poet, a poet whose works move by desire, the question we need to ask first and foremost is what the poet wants–and how and if the poem helps him to gain it. In other words, the poems are difficult if we focus only on what the poet moves away from; we need to focus also on what the poet moves towards, without hoping to define it. And we need to ask how the poems move there, what gets in their way, and when that goal appears within them. Those are not so difficult to answer.
All of Montale’s poems, like all of Hardy’s elegies of 1912-1913, are in a sense about the same thing–even if the women they are addressed to change, even if the locations differ. We are not being asked to perform biographical inquiry; they bear the details of circumstance, the soil of their composition, because they are about growth from that soil, towards the sun; they would not be poems without it. We might think the details are therefore contingent, arbitrary; yes, and no. Yes, because history is arbitrary, because life is contingent. No, because the poems are about the contingencies of circumstances, and so it is necessary that they record those circumstances. What is more, of course, over time, certain details re-appear, so that we gain a sense that not all circumstances are equal, that some particulars and contingencies impinge on the poet’s consciousness more than others; that some soil is more fertile than others.
But there is genuine difficulty in Montale’s poetry. The second to last section of La Bufera e altro is “Madrigali Privati” (“Private Madrigals”) and the last of these is a birthday poem for “The Vixen.” It is nearly, but not quite, a sonnet; it is also a bald expression of what the poems are about; it even contains the essential elements in Montale’s iconography. In Arrowsmith’s translation, “Anniversario”:
My vixen, since the day you were born,
I’ve been on my knees.
From that day on I’ve felt my war
with evil won, my sins repaid.
A flame burned and burned; on your roof,
on mine, I saw the horror spilling over.
Like a green stalk you grew; and there, in the cool
of the truces, I spied your plumage sprouting.
I’m still on my knees; the gift I dreamed of,
not for myself but for every man,
belongs only to me, God cut off
from men, from the blood clotted
on the high branches, on the fruit.
“Anniversario” is not a difficult poem for any of the reasons that the critics I’ve quoted have offered; but its difficulty cannot be ignored.
Montale is most often, as I mentioned, compared to T.S. Eliot; at least in terms of his place in literary history, that comparison is more just than the comparison to Thomas Hardy. Whatever other merits the comparison might have, I find one of Eliot’s critical statements helpful for understanding the difficulty of “Anniversario”:
It is possible that what distinguishes poetic drama from prosaic drama is a kind of doubleness in the action, as if it took place on two planes at once. In this it is different from allegory, in which the abstraction is something conceived, not something differently felt, and from symbolism (as in the plays of Maeterlinck) in which the tangible world is deliberately diminished–both symbolism and allegory being operations of the conscious planning mind. In poetic drama a certain apparent irrelevance may be the symptom of this doubleness; or the drama has an under-pattern, less manifest than the theatrical one. We sometimes feel, in following the words and behavior of some of the characters of Dostoevsky, that they are living at once on the plane that we know and on some other plane of reality from which we are shut out; their behavior does not seem crazy, but rather in conformity with the laws of some world that we cannot perceive. (“John Marston”)
The gift, Montale writes in “Anniversario,” belongs only to him; but being distant from it does not mean that we do not see that other plane of reality reflected; we need not search in the depths of the poem, and we should not, for risk of disrupting what is on their surface: a reflection of Montale’s reality, sometimes blurry and other times too bright, but always showing the movement towards love, visionary, divine, transfigured from earthly experience.