Sai dov’ è Dio? I was asked when I first encountered Montale’s poetry. Do you know where God is? It was 1963, I was twenty-three and in Florence, my first time out of Australia. I had taken a few weeks getting to Florence, via Rome, from Naples, where I had disembarked after a three-week boat passage. Florence was where I spent most of a year, and discovered Montale’s poetry.
Do you know where God is? Montale’s little poem asked me. Called Vento sulla Mezzaluna, or ‘Wind on the Crescent’ and written in Edinburgh, it goes like this:
Il grande ponte non portava a te. T’avrei raggiunta anche navigando nelle chiaviche, a un tuo commando. Ma già le forze, col sole sui cristalli delle verande, andavano stremandosi. L’uomo che predicava sul Crescente mi chiese ‘Sai dov’è Dio?’ Lo sapevo e glielo dissi. Scosse il capo. Sparve nel turbine che prese uomini e case e li sollevò in alto, sulla pece.
Living alone in Florence, adrift in a language I hadn’t really mastered, this poem both challenged and tantalized me. Like the preacher in the poem, it seemed to speak clearly and directly, it seemed to offer me a clarity that spoke directly to me. It spoke Italian that seemed to need no translation into English to be understood. Yet when I tried to grasp it in English, when I tried to internalize it in my own language, something always evaded me. The poetry was too complex, to nuanced, while being so beguilingly open. At the age of twenty-three, I felt I was reading a poet with a subtlety of knowledge and a power of understanding and its innumerable inflections that I could only admire and not emulate. Let alone translate. With a newly acquired humility I decided that my version of the poem could not be legitimately labelled a translation, so I called it simply ‘After Montale’:
The great bridge didn’t get me to you. I would have navigated even the sewers to reach you, at a word from you. Too late: the sun lit the veranda panes, my strength was going, wearing itself thin. The man who preached on the Crescent asked me “You know where God is?” I knew and I told him. He vanished whirled in the wind that seized men and homes and raised them up high, up into pitch dark, shaking his head.
It was forty years before I seriously went back to consider translating Montale’s poems. When I told a friend what I was doing, he replied, “Who hasn’t translated them?” In his Preface to the 2002 English selection of his poetry, Harry Thomas writes: ‘I have decided to include the work of fifty-six translators, but I might have included that of dozens more’ (xiii). Among those included are Jonathan Galassi, Charles Wright, Edwin Morgan, Jeremy Reed, Ben Belitt, Robert Lowell, Kevin Hart, Robert Bly, to name but a few. This immediately raises two obvious questions. With such a profusion of translations available in English, by so many people, why do more? And secondly, why have so many poets translated Montale in the first place? The answer to the second question also provides an answer to the first.
There are, in fact, two answers to the second question that seem relevant here. The first is the nature of Montale’s poetry itself. He is one of the great poets of the twentieth century, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1975. He had a great affinity with English language and culture, and visited England a number of times. I don’t know whether this is a consequence, but his poetry has, as I have suggested, a quality of plain speaking, of lucidity, which in no way detracts from its complexity – both emotional and moral. One is reminded a little of his contemporary, WH Auden, in this respect, although that is about as far as the similarity goes. But the quality of his poetry goes far beyond that, and I will try to illustrate that with some further examples. But anyone who has encountered it is drawn into it, and into the world or worlds it creates for us, and if you’re a poet, the challenge to grasp it and render it into one’s own language is almost irresistible.
The second answer to the question of why so many people have translated Montale concerns the nature of translation itself. Translation is always insufficient. It is not true that what can’t be translated is the poetry. Poetry can be translated, with varying degrees of success, yet something always has to be sacrificed, or have something substituted for it. Rhyme is the most obvious case in point, though not the only one. The English language is not an inflected language like Italian, in which most words end with a vowel. A translation that slavishly tries to reproduce the rhyme scheme of the original will inevitable lose out, whether in terms of rhythm, intonation or even word order. I have tried to emulate the rhyme of only one of Montale’s poems, and I think, at least I hope, that I’ve avoided the worst of the traps. Montale’s poem, from his first collection Ossi di sepia, published in 1925 and reissued in 1927, begins this way:
Meriggiare pallido e assorto presso un rovente mure d’orto ascoltare tra i pruni e gli sterpi schiocchi di merli, frusci di serpi. Nelle crepe del suole o su la veccia spiar le file di rosse formiche ch’ora si rompono ed ora s’intrecciano a sommo di minuscole biche.
It would be impossible faithfully to reproduce Montale’s rhyme scheme in English and still write a poem that is both accurate and possessing the fluency of the Italian original. Since the rhyme scheme of the original is somewhat irregular anyway, I felt justified in taking advantage of the liberty this gave me to be more free, for example by employing half-rhyme or internal rhyme, and some assonance: the kind of sound echoes available in English. My aim was to give something of the musicality of a rhyming poem, but at the same time to keep the sense of the original without resorting to translationese. Since the original lacked a title, I have called mine ‘To loiter’:
To loiter, thoughtfully and pale under a scorching garden wall, to hear among the weeds and thorns blackbirds crackle, snakes rustle. In the cracked earth and on the vetch to watch the red ants in their files now breaking ranks, and then again tangled on top of tiny piles. To see through leaves the glittery scales of the far-off shimmering sea while from the treeless peaks comes up cicadas’ shrilling, tremulously. Then walking into the dazzling sun — to know with wonder tinged with awe how all of life and all its toil is in this following a wall topped by a trail of broken glass.
One further thing about translation needs to be said here. Not only is it always insufficient, but unlike the original it also dates. Translations of Montale in English are all mostly recent, many stimulated by the publication of Lowell’s versions in his 1962 volume Imitations. So they haven’t dated much yet, but they will. Including mine. So there is also an incentive for poets to write their versions in order to replace someone’s earlier version.
This is the second answer to the second question, and also the answer to the first. No previous translation is quite adequate to the original, no matter how many there are, so there is always the room for, and the incentive for, making a new one.
Montale’s early poetry has a very firm sense of place, most particularly the coast and hills of the Cinque Terre, that part of the Ligurian coast in northern Italy, where the Casa Montale still stands. On a visit there in 2005 I was struck by the vividness with which his poetry conjures the ear-splitting shrilling of cicadas, the smell of pines and the hot, dusty and rocky terrain, as I climbed the path up to the coastguards’ house that appears in his poem La casa dei doganieri (collected in his second volume Le occasioni, 1939. The poem first appeared in a chapbook of five poems in 1932, the year after his father died.) Here, as in so many of Montale’s poems, the landscape, for all its tangibility, is also a locale of loss. In other poems this is often of an unspecified nature. In this poem, there are hints of a lost relationship, though I suspect that the relationship was a fiction, as it was in his superb poem, ‘Dora Marcus’ which, I was told on good account, was a wholly imagined account of a woman whose photo Montale had seen in a magazine.
Montale’s employment of these fictions can be seen as an equivalent of TS Eliot’s objective correlative, and Montale knew Eliot’s work and translated some of it, along with American fiction and some Shakespeare. It was a way of giving tangibility to his sense that something was tragically missing from his times and life and, indeed, later from the politics and social fabric of the time, after Mussolini came to power. Possibly the loss of his father may have contributed to this sense in ‘The coastguards’ house’ too, though the poem hints at a lost relationship, or incident, involving a woman:
You don’t remember the coastguards’ house on the crag that juts over the reef. Deserted, it’s been waiting for you ever since that evening your thoughts swarmed in and hovered there, restless.
The final stanza turns to look out to sea, searching for a passage out of this sense of incompleteness and loss:
Oh, that vanishing horizon, where the lights of a passing tanker shine so rarely! Is that where the passage lies? (Surf hurls itself endlessly at the crumbling cliff…) You don’t remember this house nor my night here. And I don’t know who leaves or who stays.
Robert Lowell’s version of the last two lines is very free:
You haven’t taken my one night’s possession to heart; I have no way of knowing who forces an entrance.
Lowell did not claim that his Imitations, as he called them, would be any more literal that Pound’s ‘Homage to Sextus Propertius.’ They certainly have vigour, but as an accurate guide to what Montale actually wrote, as distinct from what Lowell gets from it, they are not a good guide. The original ends like this:
Tu non ricordi la casa di questa mia sera. Ed io non so chi va e chi resta.
With its sense of finality the rhyme provides an ironic contrast to the poem’s theme of unfinished business. But, as I argued above, Italian rhyme is almost impossible to replicate or echo in English, and although other translators have tried to approximate it, I chose to abandon it here to maintain the predominant mood of the poem.
Two of Montale’s most famous (and translated) poems are also concerned with, and celebrate, a female figure, in one case a woman, in the other an eel. The central figure of ‘Dora Marcus’ (130), which appeared in his second book, published in 1939, is strong, restless, and danger-prone, flaunting the conventions of men with ‘haughty whiskers’:
Your restlessness reminds me of those migratory birds that crash into lighthouses on stormy evenings – your gentleness too is a storm whirling, hardly visible and its moments of rest few and far between. I don’t know how you keep on, in that lake of indifference your heart.
From the point of view of conventional society her life is ‘a history of unperturbed / errors’, but the poem celebrates her vigor and independence in a world where ‘the hour / darkens – later and later’. That sense of approaching and encroaching negation might have been Montale’s response to Mussolini’s regime. On the other hand it echoes his perception of ‘the void at [his] shoulder’ which appears in one of his very early poems, and which is a recurring theme throughout his career, marking him out as a Modernist. Beneath the apparent solidity of the physical world, which Montale can recreate so immediately in his poetry, there is a metaphysical emptiness that must be acknowledged as much as defied.
That sense is not immediately apparent in, ‘L’anguilla’ (262), ‘The eel’. Instead, the poem revels in the dynamic energy of the eel as she ‘quits the Baltic / to come to our waters / our estuaries, climbing our rivers / deep under the downrushing flood, ‘ in her migration to spawn. She is a ‘torch, whip / arrow of Love on earth’. She is ‘that spark that declares / how everything starts when it all seems / to be turning to ash’. But that reference to ash hints at the nothingness, the sense of possible defeat, which the eel, in her relentless affirmation of life and procreation, triumphantly overcomes. The poem ends by asking ‘can you / not believe her your sister?’ ‘puoi tu / non crederla sorella?’. I take this to mean not some ecological sisterhood of the human and the natural world such as we find in much recent poetry, no matter how brilliantly that world is evoked. Rather, it is an affirmation of a shared metaphysical predicament, one in which love can triumph over nihilism only when impelled by tremendous energy.
During the Fascist period in Italy Montale turned to translation to earn a living, as well as writing his own poetry. After the war he had a distinguished career as a journalist and editor. In 1967 he received an honorary degree from Cambridge University, and was made an Italian Senator for life. In 1975 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.
In 1939 he and Drusilla Tanzi had moved in together, but they were not married until 1963, only a few months before her death. Tanzi was very small and near-sighted, and she was known as Mosca, the fly. Montale wrote a number of brief ironic but loving poems about her and their relationship, which were published three years after her death in a small collection titled Xenia. With their clear personal note, Montale’s wry humour conveys both his love for his wife and his sense of loss:
We practiced a whistle for the afterlife, a signal of recognition. I’m exploring variations on it in the hope we’re dead already, but don’t know it.
Avevamo studiato per l’aldilà un fischio, un segno do riconoscimento. Mi provo a modularlo nella speranza che tutti siamo già morti senza saperlo.
Another poem recalls an episode where Montale was being feted at a literary gathering in Portugal. The poem’s simplicity and clarity, and the self-awareness it manifests, are characteristic of his poetry at this stage. I quote my translation in full:
After hunting for ages I found you in a little bar on Avenida da Liberdade. You didn’t have a word of Portuguese, or rather one word only: Madeira. And a small glass came with a side dish of shrimp. That evening I was likened to renowned Lusitanians with unpronounceable names also to Carducci. I saw you, utterly unimpressed and crying with laughter, hidden in the crowd bored possibly, but a bit guilty.
Montale was seventy when these poems were published. The poetry is unadorned, direct, and utterly devoid of self-pity. Or perhaps, more accurately, the sadness he feels is balanced by a sense that life, and death too, may not be so distinct as is commonly believed. In a poem about an antique pendulum wall clock, he hears it whisper
there’s not a spring nor an electric charge that won’t run down one day. I who was Time, abandon it. And to you – my lonely listener – I say try to live beyond time, in that dimension no one can measure.
This was published in 1973, two years before he was awarded the Nobel Prize and eight years before his death.
There is much more that one could write about Montale’s poetry. I have been able only to give a brief sampling of what was a long and very productive career. (His Tutte le poesie comprises almost nine hundred pages.) But from that first venture into his poetry fifty-one years ago I have been both haunted and enticed by it. My attempts at translating a little of it have been motivated by this, and by a desire to share it, and my enthusiasm for it, with others. I have translated many more of his poems than I have mentioned here, including several overtly political, anti Fascist ones. Throughout all of it there is that distinctive voice that speaks so lucidly, that poses questions we can’t answer, but demands that we translate it into ways of understanding our own lives.
Eleven years ago it seemed likely that I might die of cancer, which had moved from my colon to other parts of my body and looked like taking over completely. Montale’s sense that life was always fragile, to be loved, worried about, and its loss elegised, got me back to his poetry after so many years. I can’t claim that his poetry is responsible for my good health today. But it certainly contributes to my understanding of how precious it is to be alive, even more so when we are constantly conscious, as he was, of the nullity that always threatens it.
Andrew Taylor made these translations during a six-month residence in the BR Whiting Library, Rome, with the support of the Literature Board of the Australia Council. He also gratefully acknowledges the assistance of Riccardo Duranti, who gave him valuable advice and support.
Eugenio Montale, Tutte le Poesie. Milano: Arnaldo Mondadori Editore S.p.A., 1984.
Robert Lowell, Imitations. London: Faber & Faber, 1962.
Andrew Taylor’s translations are published in his collection, The unhaunting (London: Salt Publishing, 2009).