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Eugenio Montale and his Literary Landscapes

Above the cliffs of the Ligurian coast, where azure waters embrace rugged rocks, many poetic journeys began. This journey, characterized by introspection and connection to nature, is embodied by none other than the famous Italian modernist poet Eugenio Montale. Within his works, Montale leads the reader into a realm where the Ligurian landscape, with its eternal union of land and sea, serves both as muse and mirror. However, Montale's poetic voyage is not undertaken in isolation; it is anchored within the intricate tapestry of Ligurian literature that flourished during his time.

Liguria is a region located in northern Italy, bordering France and the French Riviera, with which it shares a sea. Eugenio Montale was born in its state capital, Genoa, in 1896, and because of his poor health, he had to spend his summers in Monterosso, one of the Cinque Terre, where his family had a villa. The link to this specific place, as well as Genoa, will play a major role in his works throughout his whole career. Before dipping into the quest for the Ligurian landscape in his poetry, it should be understood that the bond between an artist’s life, being a poet or a painter, and his works exist (Hirsch, 1967), even though many do not accept this as an absolute truth (e.g. Barthes, 1967). This article will follow the idea that geography can shape an author’s literary experience.

Figure 1: Drawing of "Il porto" ("the Harbour") (Montale, 1950).

This article contains a dual exploration: one that unearths Montale's unique stylistic dimensions within the context of 20th-century Italian poetry and another that situates Montale within the intricate web of Ligurian literary output during his era. The Ligurian landscape becomes, in Montale's hands, an allegorical mirror reflecting his internal journey of self-discovery while simultaneously capturing the essence of a region whose identity is profoundly entangled with its maritime scenery. This article will focus only on one of the many themes that occur in Montale’s works: the relationship with his geographical land and how these physical aspects reflect on his imagery.

Eugenio Montale: Life

Eugenio Montale, born in Genoa Italy, in 1896, came from a family of businessmen. His early aspirations of becoming an opera singer shifted to writing after his vocal coach’s death in 1923. Eugenio Montale, one of the most influential figures in 20th-century Italian literature, lived a life intricately entwined with the rugged landscapes of Liguria, his native region. Montale's early years were marked by the stark contrasts of Liguria, a region that could be unwelcoming and nurturing in equal measure. Just as Liguria itself is often perceived as a land of closed, insular communities, Montale also carried a reputation for being somewhat reserved. The harsh, sun-scorched cliffs, relentless winds, and arid terrains of Liguria, which he often described in his works, not only shaped the backdrop of his poetry but also became a mirror to his inner struggles and contemplations, and a mirror of its people.

Montale's debut work, Ossi di seppia (Cuttlefish Bones), published in 1925, marked him as a uniquely original and experimental poet. His style melded archaic language with scientific terminology and colloquial expressions. Despite his early literary recognition, he faced dismissal from his role at the Gabinetto Vieusseux research library in 1938 due to his refusal to join the Fascist party.

Figure 2: Eugenio Montale in 1966, photographed in his apartment in Genova (n.d.).

Because of his refusal, he retreated from public life and he turned to translating English authors like Shakespeare, T. S. Eliot, and Eugene O’Neill. His transformative books, Le occasioni (The Occasions, 1939) and La bufera e altro (The Storm and Other Things, 1956), solidified his position as a foundational figure of the hermetic school of Italian poetry, even if he never admitted his affiliation with the movement (Galassi, 1940). Relocating to Milan in 1948, he became a literary critic for the Corriere della Sera newspaper. Beyond poetry, Montale authored essays, short fiction, travel accounts, music critiques, and translations, and he also had a passion for painting.

Montale's correspondences included notable figures such as Ezra Pound, Italo Svevo, and Salvatore Quasimodo. Honored with multiple degrees and recognitions, he was appointed a lifetime member of the Italian Senate in 1967 in acknowledgment of his literary contributions and staunch opposition to fascism. Following a hiatus from poetry, Montale penned four collections in the last decade of his life: Satura (Miscellany, 1971), Diario del ‘71 e del ‘72 (Diary of 1971 and 1972, 1973), Quaderno di quattro anni (Notebook of Four Years, 1977), and Altri versi e poesie disperse (Other and Uncollected Poems, 1981). His enduring impact was acknowledged with the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1975 for his poetic expressions that poignantly interpreted human values from a realistic perspective. Montale passed away in Milan in 1981 at the age of eighty-five.

Ligurian Aesthetic Sensibility

The region of Liguria is well known for its rugged coastline, maritime history, and distinct character. For example, the word for 'cliff' in Italian comes from the Ligurian dialect, 'scoglio'. This piece of information helps us understand the impact that any region can have on the primary language (Toso, 1989). In fact, many terms referring to sailing, sea, and maritime geography come from this area. It should come as no surprise that the Ligurian authors have some kind of deep attachment to the sea, considered as a container of values and symbols—Montale is not an exception to this.

To depict an internal landscape is complicated: in some way, places shape our experience and the perspective we choose to have. As Meschiari says in his article Non chiedo lineamenti fissi. Geografie Montaliane (2009), the problem lies within the fundamental concept of turning any landscape into a logical thought. The encounter between these two parts, an emotional and personal perspective and a public and distinctive one, is the task of each poet embarking on this journey.

Figure 3: Porto Venere in the National Park of the Cinque Terre (n.d.).

Like many writers before him, Montale has a group of thematic words as the core of his poetry. They tend, especially in the very first moments of his poetic career, to entangle with the maritime vocabulary and also the wind. All these keywords refer to a systemic process he uses to keep the reader vigilant and to reason with him. This process is summed up in his Modernism. Modernism is a broad movement that arose during the 19th and 20th Centuries as a reaction to the transformation that overcame the traditional Western Society. Modernism seeks a unique and new approach to arts, stressing the importance of technology and disorientation compared to how arts were produced and perceived before. The way Montale uses Modernism in his works is peculiar, as he mainly focuses on the role of “things”. These things are supposed to be the representation of universal feelings and are called the "objective correlatives", as theorized by T. S. Eliot in 1920 in his book The Sacred Wood (Ferroni, 2017). By speculating on objects, such as the Cuttlefish Bones, the reader will be able to understand what the author meant on a secondary level.

In some of his articles, Montale tries to explain the concept of the difficult process of translation. The kind of translation he refers to is not only the one from one language to another but also the transformation of an internal language, made up of landscapes, images and thoughts, towards the page. He mentions this mechanism as the shift between a landscape and a wordscape (Montale, 1956). Moreover, when he describes his own visual sources, he says that he “wanted to adhere to the nature of the terrain of my land, of Liguria, more nervously, I wanted to make poems that were built like a dry stone wall, a poetry, let's say, tight-lipped” (Montale, 1961). The fact that he chooses to mention the dry stone walls gives a striking clue to his way of writing. As well as the other term, 'scoglio', pointed out before, words recall the notion of dryness as a literary ideal.

Nature as a Reflection of the Self: Ossi di Seppia

In Ossi di Seppia, Montale's poetic lens acutely focuses on the Ligurian coastal landscape and its dryness, a fundamental point of his early poetry. The rugged cliffs, tumultuous seas, and the maritime history of his native region converge to become a symbolic terrain. Here, Montale navigates themes of transience, isolation, and the human quest for meaning. Nature in Montale's verse transcends its physical form to embody an allegorical dimension, where waves crashing against rocks reflect the currents of human emotions. This mingling of the external and the internal, the terrestrial and the emotional, transforms the Ligurian landscape into an apt reflection of Montale's own inner tumult.

Figure 4: A Cuttlefish Bone on a beach (n.d.).

Within Ossi di Seppia, Montale's verse often dances between evocative descriptions of the Ligurian environment and introspective examinations of his own psyche. The cuttlefish, a recurring motif in the collection, encapsulates the theme of duality, representing life's fleeting moments and the enduring essence beneath the surface. This dichotomy echoes Montale's exploration of the human condition, where the transient nature of existence coexists with a deeper, more immutable core. Through his interlacing of nature and self, Montale creates a dialogue that resonates beyond the Ligurian shores, inviting readers to confront their own internal landscapes.

Montale's mastery lies in his ability to intertwine the external beauty of Liguria with the complexities of human experience. His landscapes become vessels of emotion, reflecting the solitude and existential questioning that permeate his own life journey. As he navigates the Ligurian terrain, Montale's verse serves as both a poetic travelogue and an introspective diary, unifying the tangible and the intangible, the seen and the felt. Through this synthesis, Montale cements his place not only as a literary pioneer but as an interpreter of the intricate relationship between nature, self, and the universal human experience (Ferroni, 2017). Montale's Ossi di Seppia provides an entrancing portal into the fusion of self and environment, inviting readers to peer into the depths of both Liguria's coastal allure and the poet's inner world. The poetic interplay between landscape and emotion in this work resonates as a testament to the timeless connection between nature and human consciousness.

Liguria's Literary Identity

A pivotal axis of inquiry is the evolution of Liguria's literary identity during the era that nurtured Eugenio Montale's poetic expression. The Ligurian scenery, with its distinctive blend of salt-laden air, ceaseless winds, and arid terrains, not only acts as the physical backdrop of the region but also intertwines profoundly with the thematic tapestry of its literature. The nuanced marriage between poets and this geographic entity crystallizes in the works of Montale but also of contemporaries such as Camillo Sbarbaro and Giorgio Caproni in his early works. The Ligurian environment, with its unyielding personality, birthed a particular brand of poetry marked by its austerity, introspection, and a symbiotic relationship with the land. Indeed, some researchers (Meschiari, 2009) believe that without this distinct terrain, the poetry that emerged from it would be fundamentally altered if not rendered altogether obsolete.

Figure 5: A painting of Genova's rooftops (Sugars, 2019).

Montale's arrival onto the Ligurian literary stage carried dual significance, as he both enriched and disrupted the prevailing literary discourse. His oeuvre, while resonating with the spirit of Liguria, exhibited a layered divergence, marked by his distinct modernist exploration of language, emotion, and self. Montale's poetic vocabulary carried a rawness that defied the superfluous, echoing the very essence of Liguria's dry, salt-sprayed existence. This congruence between poet and region is echoed in the works of Sbarbaro and Caproni, where the Ligurian environment's harsh beauty, paradoxically stark yet enchanting, is one of the main characters. Sbarbaro, for instance, with his collection Il gobbo (The Hunchback, 1942), captures the Ligurian landscape's emotional intricacies with succinct sharpness, much like the terse winds that sweep through its cliffs. Caproni also echoes the Ligurian landscape's juxtaposition of austerity and allure in his work, revealing how the region's literary identity was shared by poets who, like Montale, found themselves both shaped and entrapped by the landscape.

Montale's contributions to Ligurian literature yielded a complex dynamic—his work emerged as a thread interwoven within the regional fabric, yet it also stood apart as an emblem of his individualistic voice. His Ossi di Seppia, Le occasioni and La bufera e altro resonated with Liguria's ambiance, yet their modernist undercurrents invited conversations that resonated far beyond the region's shores. This tension between individual innovation and regional resonance forms the essence of Montale's presence in the Ligurian literary continuum. Liguria's literary identity, often mirroring the contrasts of its landscape, was thus enriched by Montale's presence, even as his poetic innovations served as an evolving point of reference for future Ligurian poets.

In retrospect, Montale's intricate engagement with the Ligurian landscape and its distinct literary culture became a testament to the symbiotic relationship between poets and their native region. The Ligurian coastlines stood as an ever-present muse, infusing its unique temperament into the verses of Montale, Sbarbaro, Caproni, and beyond. This interplay between poets and the environment not only carved Liguria's literary identity but also illuminated the indelible connections between the art of words and the lands from which they spring.

Figure 6: Painting of the Ligurian Greenery of Riomaggiore (Signorini, 1894).

The Poem: Meriggiare Pallido e Assorto

Meriggiare pallido e assorto is one of Eugenio Montale's iconic poems, and it vividly encapsulates the Ligurian landscape's essence while weaving together themes of the sea and the region's characteristic dryness. He wrote the poem in 1916 when he was only twenty.

The poem, which can be translated as "Noon, Pale and Absorbed", stands as a testament to Montale's ability to capture the interplay between the natural world and human consciousness (Cataldi, 2016). Set in the harsh, sun-drenched Ligurian landscape, the poem begins with the stark imagery of a noonday sun. The word 'meriggiare' carries connotations of noon and the scorching heat, immediately establishing the arid ambiance of the Ligurian midday. Montale describes the land as 'pallido' (pale), a word choice that binds the sun's brightness with the bleached, desolate quality of the terrain.

The Ligurian landscape's significance cannot be overstated in this poem. It serves as both the backdrop and the central subject. The dryness of Liguria, with its barren rocks and unforgiving sun, becomes a canvas upon which Montale paints his emotions and existential reflections. The land, as described in the poem, seems almost inhospitable, echoing the sentiment of isolation and alienation that often pervades Montale's work (Arvigo, 2001). The presence of the sea, a recurring motif in Montale's poetry, is also notable in this poem. In the Ligurian context, the sea is a source of both beauty and brutality. It offers a stark contrast to the dry, sun-scorched land, but it also represents the vastness and mystery of existence. The sea, with its relentless waves, embodies the unceasing passage of time and the inexorable forces that shape human existence.

Figure 7: Some sharp shards of glass in Liguria (2012).

Meriggiare pallido e assorto underscores the Ligurian landscape's role as a mirror to the poet's inner world. The land's harshness becomes a reflection of Montale's own emotional landscape. The poem evokes a sense of solitude and introspection, echoing the poet's own existential questioning. In the final stanza of the poem, Montale introduces a striking and unexpected image: "cocci aguzzi di bottiglia". These "sharp shards of glass" are a jarring contrast to the sun-drenched and arid landscape described earlier in the poem, and they represent the concept of “objective correlative” mentioned before. They introduce a note of danger and discomfort into the scene, emphasizing the harshness of the Ligurian environment. The choice of imagery here is significant. The sharp shards of glass can be seen as a symbol of the hidden perils and difficulties that often lurk beneath the surface of seemingly tranquil moments, but also the difficulty for each man not to feel isolated. It is life, indeed, that is compared to this wall upon which the shards of glass are. They represent the idea that even in moments of introspection and contemplation, there can be elements of pain and discomfort. Just as the poet is absorbed in his thoughts, he is also acutely aware of the sharpness of existence.

In essence, the reference to "cocci aguzzi di bottiglia" in the poem's conclusion serves to underscore the complexity of the Ligurian landscape and, by extension, the human experience. It reminds the reader that even in moments of stillness and reflection, there is a sharpness to life that cannot be ignored, a reminder of the ever-present challenges and uncertainties that shape our existence (Arvigo, 2001).

Bibliographical References

Arvigo, T. (2001), Montale. Ossi di Seppia, Carocci editore.

Barthes, R. (1967), The death of the Author, in Images, Music, Text 1977, Fontana Press.

Cataldi, P. (2016), Introduzione, in Ossi di Seppia, Mondadori.

Ferroni, G. (2017), Storia della Letteratura Italiana, Il Novecento e il Nuovo Millennio, Mondadori Università.

Galassi, P. (1940), Parliamo dell’ermetismo, in «Primato», a. I, n.7.

Hirsch, E. D. (1967), Validity in Interpretation, Yale University Press.

Meschiari, P. (2009), Non chiedo lineamenti fissi. Geografie Montaliane, in Paesaggio Ligure e Paesaggi interiori, Olschki.

Montale, E. (1956), Il secondo mestiere. Prose 1920-1979, Mondadori.

Montale, E. (1961) Biografie al microfono, intervista di Giansiro Ferrata 1961, in Il secondo mestiere, Mondadori.

Montale, E. (2008), Ossi di Seppia, Mondadori.

Toso, F. (1989), Letteratura genovese e ligure. Profilo storico e antologia, Marietti.

Visual Sources


Author Photo

Alessandra Cipolloni

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