When he received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1975, Eugenio Montale saw his work as a poet rewarded. In the speech he gave in Stockholm—“È ancora possibile la poesia?” (“Is Poetry Still Possible?”)—he made a point of reminding his audience that he was also a librarian, translator, literary and musical critic, and even unempioyed after his publicly stated lack of belief in the fascist regime. Montale was first and foremost a free and independent man, even before being the most important Italian poet of the 20th century. The man and his work were both to be honored by the Republic of Italy when Montale was made a senator for life in 1967.
Ossi di sepia (1925; Cuttlefish Bones), Montale’s first poetry collection, already revealed his metaphysical despair. Against the descriptive background of his native Liguria, between seascapes and arid landscapes, Montale explored both the seriousness and the absurdity of the world. He expressed himself entirely in negativity, denial, passivity, and ultraconservatism, using a new poetic language that came close to prose but deliberately stopped short by playing with sounds derived largely from his musical youth. We immediately see the clean break he made when faced with the rhetoric of D’Annunzio or Carducci on the one hand, and the futurists’ experimentations of the period on the other. His contemporaries bracketed him with the negative poetry of Leopardi, or the esoteric tendencies of Ungaretti or Quasimodo. But as one collection followed another, the critics were to discover that Montale’s poetry went beyond conventions. He, in turn, influenced a number of Italian poets after him.
At the same time as writing poetry, Montale early on embarked on a career as a journalist. In 1920 he began working for L’Azione (The action). Two years later he founded the short-lived magazine Primo Tempo (First time). In 1925, in the columns of L’Esame (The examination), he published “Omaggio a Italo Svevo” (Homage to Italo Svevo), after making a passionate discovery of that author, whom he was to meet the following year. Over more than 40 years, through essays, articles, or lectures, Montale was to wage an unceasing battle as a critic to give the novelist from Trieste a place in Italian literature. These various writings were brought together in Lettere con gli scritti di Montale su Svevo (1966; Letters and writings by Montale on Svevo).
In 1929, after a spell with the publisher Bemporad, Montale was appointed director of the scientific and literary body Vieusseux, the famous Florentine cultural institute. He was dismissed from his post nine years later for refusing to join the fascist party. There then began a period of intense work for various magazines such as Solaria and Letteratura (Literature) that made clear their cultural opposition to the regime in power and advocated openness to international literature at a time when national self-sufficiency was recommended. In these and other magazines, Montale published short critical essays on poetry and prose (reprinted in Sulla poesia [1976; On poetry]).
At the end of the war, Montale began contributing to Il Corriere della Sera (The evening courier), writing for it for nearly 30 years. It was his column in the daily paper which made the poet known to the public. He was, of course, writing journalism in prose, but even so, the same autobiographical and stylistic background was visible here as in his poetry, though more clearly articulated, and occasionally softening tragedy and metaphysical agonizing with a degree of humor. Most of these pieces, critical or factual, were collected in La Farfalla di Dinard (1956, 1960; The Butterfly of Dinard) and Auto da fé (1966). Subtitled Cronache in due tempi (Chronicles in two times), this latter collection of pieces clearly demarcates the two stages of Montale’s cultural and militant activity. In the immediate postwar years, he was questioning the relationship between fascism and literature, the moral value of art and its need to be independent, and the loneliness of the artist. In a later period, he placed art within a technological and industrial society, denouncing the boredom of mass art, artistic utilitarianism, and fashionable, commercialized art. Without undue bitterness, and denouncing sterile nostalgia, Montale grew uneasy about the role of art and the artist in a constantly changing world. Even in an earlier short essay (“Stile e tradizione” [1925; Style and tradition]) reprinted in the collection, Montale, while defining his idea of a poetic art, is already questioning the links between literature and society.
Other articles were collected in Nel nostro tempo (1972,; Poet in Our Time) and Trentadue variazioni (1973; 32, variations). Prime alla Scala (1981) brings together Montale’s writings about music. Fuori di casa (1969; Away from home), on the other hand, is a collection of various pieces written between 1946 and 1964, when he was abroad, mostly for Il Corriere della Sera. From these journeys in Europe, New York, and the Middle East, Montale brought back slices of life and ideas; the accounts of the real world sometimes provided material for poetry.
Not only in his poetic writings, but in his articles and essays as well, “Montale’s poetic heart continued to beat beneath the lucid and ironic mask of ideological and cultural polemic, behind occasional dips into literary criticism” (Marco Forti, 1974).
Born 12 October 1896 in Genoa. Studied at schools in Genoa to age 14; studied opera singing under Ernesto Sivori. Infantry officer in the Italian army, 1917–19. Met Rusilla Tanzi (La Mosca), 1926, maintained close relationship for many years, and married, 1963 (La Mosca died, 1963). Founder, with others, Primo Tempo literary journal, Turin, 1922.
Staff member, Bemporad publishers, Florence, 1927–28. Curator of book collection, Vieusseux cultural institute, Florence, 1929–38. Worked or wrote for La Fiera Letteraria (The literary fair), 1938–48, Il Mondo (The world), 1945–48, Il Corriere della Sera, 1948–73, and Corriere d’lnformazione (The information courier), 1955–67. Life member of the Italian Senate, from 1967.
Awards: several, including Marzotto Prize, 1956;
Feltrinelli Prize, 1962; Nobel Prize for Literature, 1975; honorary degrees from four universities. Died in Milan, 12 September 1981.
Essays and Related Prose
La Farfalla di Dinard (autobiographical sketches), 1956; revised edition, 1960; as The Butterfly of Dinard, translated by G.Singh, 1970
Auto da fé: Cronache in due tempi, 1966
Lettere con gli scritti di Montale su Svevo (includes letters), 1966
Fuori di casa, 1969
La poesia non esiste (cultural burlesques), 1971
Nel nostro tempo, edited by Riccardo Campa, 1972; as Poet in Our Time, translated by Alastair Hamilton, 1972
Trentadue variazioni, 1973
Sulla poesia, edited by Giorgio Zampa, 1976
Selected Essays, edited and translated by G.Singh, 1978
Prime alla Scala, edited by Gianfranca Lavezzi, 1981
The Second Life of Art: Selected Essays, edited by Jonathan Galassi, 1982
Other writings: many collections of poetry.
Barile, Laura, Bibliografia montaliana, Milan: Mondadori, 1977
Almansi, Guido, Eugenio Montale: The Private Language of Poetry, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1977
Avalle d’Arco, Silvio, Tre saggi su Montale, Turin: Einaudi, 1970
Barbuto, Antonio, Eugenio Montale, Rome: Edizioni dell’Ateneo, 1972
Becker, Jared, Eugenio Montale, Boston: Twayne, 1986
Cambon, Glauco, Eugenio Montale, New York: Columbia University Press, 1972
Cataldi, Pietro, Montale, Palermo: Palumbo, 1991
Contini, Gianfranco, Una lunga fedeltâ: Scritti su Eugenio Montale, Turin: Einaudi, 1974
Forti, Marco, Montale, Milan: Mondadori, 1974
Luperini, Romano, Montale o l’identita negata, Naples: Liguori, 1984
Manacorda, Giuliano, Montale, Florence: La Nuova Italia, 1969
Marasco, Armida, editor, Per Eugenio Montale: Gli interventi nella stampa quotidiana, Galatina: Congedo, 1982
Martelli, Mario, Eugenio Montale: Introduzione e guida allo studio dell’opera montaliana: Storia e antologia della critica, Florence: Le Monnier, 1982
Nascimbeni, Giulio, Montale, Milan: Longanesi, 1969
Ramat, Silvio, Montale, Florence: Vallecchi, 1965
Ramat, Silvio, L’acacia ferita e altri saggi su Montale, Venice: Marsilio, 1986
Singh, G., Eugenio Montale: A Critical Study of His Poetry, Prose, and Criticism, New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 1973
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