Books: The full Montale

He is one of Italy's greatest modern poets, but is fiendishly difficult to translate. Olivier Burckhardt on the attempts to make hermeticism less ... hermetic
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Along with Salvatore Quasimodo and Giuseppe Ungaretti, Eugenio Montale (1896-1981, a Nobel Prizewinner in 1975) is considered Italy's great modern poet. The trio form a holy Trinity of the Italian poetic school of hermeticism.

As for most of Europe, the development of Italian poetry in the 20th century was characterised by a series of identity crises arising from the search for coherence after the chaos of the two World Wars. In 1917 the Italian front collapsed to the advancing Austro-German forces, and by 1922 Italy was under the fascist rule of Mussolini that was to last for 21 years. Finally, 1946 saw the establishment of a democratic republic which, with more than 45 changes of government since its formation, reflects the tensions within the Italian way of life.

The hermetic school was formed in recognition of the timeless values that transcend the subjective viewpoint and contrast the individual experience with the infinite. This was in direct opposition to the symbolist-decadents as exemplified by Gabriele D'Annunzio (1863-1938), whose best work, Alcyone (1903), offered an instinctive exploration of the all-subjective self.

The decadents' craving to delve into the individual's sub- and unconscious remained anchored to a narrative mode until 1909, when the Italian Filippo Tommaso Marinetti published his Futurist Manifesto in the Paris Figaro. Its call for rebellion against the whole of 19th-century values and the final sweeping away of lingering romanticism included a freeing of poetic language from all rules. Unlike the later dadaist and surrealist manifestos of France, the futurists were concerned with a heroic, almost fascist, image of an aggressively dynamic brave new world.

Counterbalancing the egocentric abandonment of the decadents (but sharing some of its art-for-art's-sake approach) there arose, on the brink of the First World War, a strong call for "pure poetry". In part, the aesthetics of expression and language of Benedetto Croce (1866-1952) introduced the figure of the poet as pre-eminent creator and poetry as the primary manifestation of the human spirit. Above all, Croce offered a philosophical perspective of poetry which fought the dehumanising materialism without recourse to irrationality or morality; the contemplation of both tumultuous chaos and serene stillness; a lyrical distillation of the human condition.

In 1915 Arturo Onofri published an article entitled "Tendenze" (Tendencies) in La Voce, which took Croce's view of poetry as the intimate and intuitive revelation of the spirit a step further. Poetry, he argued, is not a product, but a process; what counts is not the finished poem but the moment of creation and in that moment there can be no rules. The poem is not an expression of something; it is an expression in itself. The image is the poem and the poem is the image.

Onofri's eulogy for the creative process and for a poetry free of its decorative and logical elements, a "naked poetry", dissolved the need for a traditional language of logic. The creation of a new poetic language stemmed as much from a rejection of the old styles as from a shift in perception. The poesia pura of Ungaretti and Montale was not the unrestrained flow of disconnected images from the poet's subconscious (which the symbolists advocated), but the search for, to use Ungaretti's definition, "the blend of objects that best evoke the metaphysical divination".

The difficulty in Montale's work, most evident in his first collection of poems, Ossi di Seppia, stems both from his vocabulary (arcane and dialect terms occur throughout) and a halting rhythm that contorts and twists.

Both devices force the reader to pause, to begin again, to retrace. The result is not a succession of images that melt into each other, but a series of superimposed images. Ultimately Montale's poetry is an attempt to give an image of the unnameable. As with all intuition, what is revealed is partial: a portion of the reality remains hidden. The attempt to analyse Montale's work, to unearth and unravel all the obscure references and words demystifies the poetry but in the process can all too easily dismantle the image.

"There is a middle road," wrote Montale in an article on obscurity and textual criticism, "between understanding nothing and understanding too much, a juste milieu which poets instinctively respect more than their critics."

Given the hermetic quality of Montale's work, the translation of his poetry intensifies the problems associated with rendering poetry written in one language into another. Notwithstanding Jonathan Galassi's scrupulous and painstaking annotations to the poems, culled from the enormous body of Italian and English criticism as well as Montale's own comments and views (the textual notes, some 170 pages, follow the bilingual texts), the translation of the poems into idiomatic American English free verse lends Montale the tone of an ordinary voice which is alien to the original.

The volume, published in the US by Farrar, Straus & Giroux where Galassi is editor-in-chief, and Carcanet in the UK, seriously raises the issue of the English languages. It is not a question of UK versus US English - both are perfectly valid forms. The point is that they are not the same, and an American translation will, indeed must, differ from a British one. It is not a question of incomprehensibility: there are no words or idiomatic expressions in this translation which will be obscure to a non-American reader, but that a tendency or shading of the language, especially so in the translation of poetry, will alter our response and ultimately our receptiveness to the work.

In translating poetry something is inevitably sacrificed, be it the form, metre, rhyming scheme, parallelism or juxtaposition, or in the actual content which makes up the image. Galassi, who is not only a poet but also the president of the Academy of American Poets, in his translation of Montale's major poetic output from 1920 to 1954 strives for that simplicity and clarity which is the hallmark of American poetry. It has a tendency to cut the Gordian knot, a solution which never did face the problem of the mystery that cannot be unravelled.

The result is a Montale bereft of the difficulty that reading him in Italian entails, an eloquent Montale whose images drift into the mind and fade. Alas, one wonders if Hermes, messenger of the gods, would welcome this Montale into his circle.

'Eugenio Montale: Collected Poems 1920-1954' translated and annotated by Jonathan Galassi, is published by Carcanet, pounds 29