Italian poet Eugenio Montale addresses most of his lyrics in The Occasions (1939) and The Storm and Other Things (1956) to three women – crepuscular Arletta, angelic Clizia, and voluptuous Volpe (“Fox”). Taking as a starting point Montale’s self-description as a poet besieged by the absence-presence of his beloved, I compare the different ways in which each woman is absent-present to the poet, with the aim of assessing the importance of the notion of absence-presence in the middle Montale, and characterising its unfolding from The Occasions to The Storm and Other Things. I conclude that by portraying his beloved as absent-present beings, the poet assimilates his experiences of love with his condition as poet in limine, whilst remarkably changing his attitude towards that liminal condition from The Occasions to the last sections of The Storm and Other Things.
In his autobiographical article “Two jackals on a leash” (1950), Montale describes the situation of the lyrical speaker of his Mottetti as “the typical situation… of any lyric poet who lives besieged by the absence-presence [assenza-presenza] of a distant woman.” Although the distant woman in question is “one Clizia named after she who, according to the myth, was turned into a sunflower,” her condition of assenza-presenza is common to at least two other female figures prominent in Montale’s work: Arletta or Annetta, intermittently addressed from Cuttlefish Bones to The Storm to his later poetry, and Volpe, who appears most conspicuously in Madrigali privati and ‘Flashes’ e dediche. As an analysis of these three women in The Occasions (1939) and The Storm and Other Things (1956) will show, the exact relation between absence and presence varies with respect to each. Yet, one generalization about their assenza-presenza—incisively captured in a poem from Satura II—seems useful:
la tua caparbia volontà di essere sempre assente
perché solo così si manifesta
la tua magia… (“Ex voto”)
Echoing the vow the poet makes in “Crisalide” (Cuttlefish Bones), the “ex voto” which names this later poem invites one to think that the poet’s addressee might be the same of “Crisalide.” Irrespective of the exact identity of the woman, however, in “Ex voto” the poet explicitly recognises her absence as a necessary condition for her manifestation, and thus her presence. Further, “la tua magia” characterises her manifestation as a prodigy or a spell, thus pointing to a second way in which the woman’s absence can be seen as essential to Montale’s love poetry: as it will emerge from The Occasions and The Storm, absence—whether understood as a literal absence, or as a psychological distance between the poet and the woman—is indispensable not simply to her manifestation, but to her manifestation as a miracle or “incantesimo.” It is the woman’s absence and unattainability, Montale once noted, that makes her the appropriate subject of “alta poesia,” allowing for her sublimation into a higher being and her endowment with super-human, miraculous powers: “The Lauras and the Beatrices became what they became because [they were] unattainable.”
The fact that Arletta, Clizia and Volpe are all in some way absent or separated from the poet, and that all could be seen as embodiments of what he calls “the miracle,/ the unnecessitated act” do give one reason to consider all three as belonging to a common type, which Baldissone distinguishes from the Montalean categories of the monstrous (or bearded) woman and the woman as sister or friend. A list of Montalean muses under the common heading of assenza-presenza, however, would be at best incomplete, at worst inaccurate and simplistic. For within the relation to assenza-presenza which all share, remarkable differences emerge between Arletta, Clizia and Volpe with respect to (a) their characters, (b) the position the poet occupies in relation to each, and (c) the nature of the miracle that each carries with her or embodies.
This essay is a limited attempt to map these differences in some detail, with the aim of assessing the importance and complexity of the notion of assenza-presenza in Montale’s The Occasions and The Storm and Other Things. As it turns out, by portraying his beloved as absent-present beings, Montale assimilates his experiences of love with his condition as poet in limine—a condition of awareness of and separation from an elsewhere which is usually only negatively defined as that which is not ‘this’ and ‘here’. In many of the Occasions and Storm poems, that elsewhere is the poet’s beloved. But these women’s assenza-presenza does something more than allowing the poet to define his elsewhere positively, and to integrate his love experiences into a long-standing concern with liminality: as the Volpe cycle will make especially clear, their assenza-presenza allows him, however sporadically, to change his attitude toward his being in limine, and even (if only fleetingly) to leave the limen behind.
Described by Montale as the character most real and most enduring of his poetry, Arletta has been widely acknowledged as Montale’s “crepuscular woman, […] marked by death.” As some of his correspondence revealed, she was a girl who died young, whom Montale met during a holiday and with whom he was never romantically involved. Usually more incorporeal than Clizia and Volpe, Arletta often appears as an ineffable revenant, identifiable as female by virtue of gendered pronouns and adjectives, but—were it not for Montale’s indication of the poems which he considered as inspired by Arletta—never conclusively identifiable as one particular woman. Whether she is portrayed as living or dead, her apparent frailty and fleetingness explain the characterisation of her returns as extra-ordinary occurrences which can cause a sense of surprise and wonder in the poet:
While in “Eastbourne” Arletta’s return seems surprising to the poet insofar as she was previously absent and lost, in “Stanze” her physical presence is a reason for wonder and admiration not because of a change from a previous state of absence, but rather because she is exceptionally alive in the deadly “rotting swamp of foundered star” that surrounds her. Since one defining feature of prodigies or miracles is their fundamental inscrutability, the impossibility to individuate Arletta’s origin (“il punto onde si mosse”) and to explain how she could come to be in a reality as inhospitable to life as a rotting swamp further accentuates the prodigious character of her presence. The vital lymph which flows within her appears as a mystery to the poet, just as the body which that lymph nourishes—her hands, wrists, eyes, and “the subtle network of [her] nerves”. But despite her physical presence, Arletta is absent in that she is unknowable to the poet, and her absence—in this case her unknowability—is one source of her elevation into a prodigious being. More than her inscrutability and her immunity to the “rending agony” around her, however, it is her ability to travalicare (trespass, cross over) that distinguishes her from the poet:
In te m’appare un’ultima corolla
di cenere leggera che non dura
ma sfioccata precipita. Voluta,
disvoluta è così la tua natura.
Tocchi il segno, travalichi.
… La dannazione
è forse questa vaneggiante amara
oscurità che scende su chi resta.
As the metaphor of the corolla of fine ash suggests, the poet associates the woman with something delicate, consumed and, its trajectory being determined by the wind, passive. Yet the woman’s frailty reveals itself as a strength as soon as one realises that it is precisely her lightness that allows her to be carried by the wind, which in turn enables her to “hit the mark,… overshoot it [travalichi].” In “Bassa marea,” the poem which immediately precedes “Stanze,” the association between Arletta and the possibility of travalicare seems anticipated by the “swift flights” which “slant (varcano) across the wall”; her ability to travalicare is even more explicitly rendered in “L’estate,” where the poet sees her as a fluvial nymph (“dead maiden Arethusa”) whom he recognises in the flash of a trout. As the end of this poem suggests, she probably instantiates that “something going by” which the poet opposes to all that which “won’t pass the eye of the needle,” thus paralleling the contrast between dynamic, trespassing Arletta and those who are left behind in “Stanze.”
Although the poet never explicates where exactly one’s travalicare would lead (what lies beyond the wall of “Bassa marea”? What would one see if one were to look through the eye of the needle of “L’estate”?), he does define that “beyond” negatively, as that which is not the agony and the darkness that surround Arletta in “Stanze.” Arletta’s miracle, then, is at least two-fold, consisting of both her manifestation to the poet—whether as a tangible body (“Stanze”), a breath, a voice (“Eastbourne”) or a shining trout (“L’estate”) —and her ability to access a “beyond,” an alternative to the condition of immobility of those who are left behind.
If one considers the poet’s position in these poems, however, it becomes clear that while he can witness Arletta’s passage through the varco (breach, narrow passage, breakthrough), he is unable to participate in it: in “Stanze,” for instance, the deictic questa in “questa vaneggiante… oscurità” indicates that the poet includes himself among those who are left behind; similarly, in the earlier poem “Casa sul mare” (Ossi), he explicitly denies the possibility that he might break through with the woman. Concerning no one but herself, Arletta’s travalicare seems, to borrow the language of “Crisalide,” a “barren secret”; being inefficacious on the poet and the rest of those who are left behind, her self-regarding miracle is a failed miracle.
Nonetheless, it would be inaccurate to conclude that Arletta’s fleeting presence has no effects on the poet, for she does affect him on both an affective and an intellectual level. Beginning from the latter, Arletta’s appearances often afford the poet knowledge (or at least what he presents as knowledge) not only about the woman’s nature, but also about his own condition, and human existence in general.
As he recognises her breath in the celebrating crowd of “Eastbourne,” for instance, he seems to soar and—as though looking on the celebration from a wide-ranging, bird’s-eye view —he realises that “it will all seem pointless,” and that “[e]vil wins… The wheel doesn’t stop.” These notions of vanity and evil would of course require a separate analysis; here it may suffice to note that the poet formulates his insights as truths, and that he makes claims of a similar tenor in many of the Arletta poems in The Occasions and The Storm. The content of these gnomic statements is rarely, if ever, uplifting. In “Bassa marea,” for instance, the poet’s memory of Arletta occasions a somber reflection on the limitations of memory, and on the impossibility to recover or recreate the past: “Those days are gone” —reads the Leopardian-sounding close of one of his memories concerning Arletta. In the later “Due nel crepuscolo” (The Storm), the only certainty which the poet has while conversing with the revenant woman is the knowledge of an even greater distance between them: “I have never/ been so divided from you as in this late returning.” And, to make one last example, in “L’estate,” the passage of the trout-Arethusa-Arletta prompts the rather elliptic thought that “[t]oo many lives are needed to make just one.”
Returning to the concern which initiated this brief survey, one might wonder whether the knowledge which Arletta brings to the poet is sufficient to argue that the miracle she embodies really acts upon the poet in any way. While the question might be answered in the negative on the grounds that this knowledge is neither extraordinary nor in any way salvific or even useful to the poet, an alternative answer seems preferable: despite the fact that the poet’s knowledge is not salvific, it is valuable to him. And since any source of value appears as a prodigious fact in the “rotting swamp” which he tends to think we inhabit, his knowledge could after all be seen as the small, very human miracle which Arletta’s presence occasions and in which the poet can participate.
That the lyrical speaker of The Occasions and The Storm values knowledge for its own sake clearly emerges from the prose “Visita a Fadin,” where the poet affirms that “to know” is “what matters, even if the why of the performance escapes us.” When one’s knowledge happens to consist of hard, disheartening truths, however, the hypothesis that one might be better off not knowing cannot be ignored, even if one ultimately decides to reject it. Before that moment, the attitude of the knower will be one of ambivalence toward her knowledge. Montale does express such ambivalence, though not only the kind of ambivalence just described. This attitude, it seems to me, can be seen as a major source of the poet’s ambivalence toward Arletta’s manifestations, being as they are occasions of knowledge.
By turning to the attitudes he expresses toward her, one can also turn to consider how Arletta’s appearances operate on the poet on an affective or emotional plane, as distinct from an intellectual plane. One poem which seems particularly relevant in this respect is “Il ritorno” (Occasions):
eccole che t’ascoltano, le nostre vecchie scale,
e vibrano al ronzio
allora che dal cofano tu ridésti leggera
voce di sarabanda
o quando Erinni fredde ventano angui
d’inferno e sulle rive una bufera
di strida s’allontana;….
Initially light and laughing in the poet’s memory, in the last lines Arletta is eventually associated with the cold Erinyes, her return being thus likened to that of a revengeful goddess with snakes in her hair. While the nature of her threat and the reasons of her malevolence toward the poet remain unknown—an obscurity which is linguistically reflected by the relative rareness of lexemes such as “sarabanda,” “Erinni,” and “angui—the “storm of screaming” that accompanies her heightens the infernal character of the scene, whilst preparing its climactic close:
… – ecco il tuo morso
oscuro di tarantola: son pronto.
Arletta’s return is at the very least undesirable: tarantulas are obviously not the most companionable of animals, and their bites, though not necessarily fatal, are poisonous and painful. Yet, the lack of hesitancy in the poet’s declaration that he is ready to receive her bite adds ambiguity to the apparent repulsiveness of such a possibility: does his readiness merely express his resignation for a return which he regards as ineludible, or rather a fascination with her and a desire to be ‘bitten’ (out of metaphor, affected by her presence) in spite of the consequences this might have? A broader look at the Arletta poems of The Occasions and The Storm suggests that all these attitudes—desire, resignation, and dread—are constitutive of the poet’s affective state when he is in Arletta’s presence or when he presages one of her returns. In “Due nel crepuscolo,” for instance, the experience of self-alienation he has as she reappears to him causes him feelings of bewilderment and astonishment, and yet he speaks of his state as a witchcraft (sortilegio) to which he yields without any hint of resentment, thus suggesting that such a sortilegio is either too powerful to be resisted, or that it is after all benign enough to make his resistance useless. Similarly, in the earlier “Eastbourne,” he sees Arletta as “light-in-darkness” opposed to all evil, but also as a presence capable of releasing “[t]he power/ that bonds living and dead tightly together” —a power that may be just as threatening as consoling.
If these examples are sufficient to claim that the poet’s attitude toward Arletta is ambivalent, one will have to ask why that is the case. As suggested while discussing the intellectual effects of Arletta’s presence on the poet, it seems plausible that the poet oscillates in his attitudes toward her because he also oscillates with respect to the kind of insights which are associated with her presence. A second source of the poet’s ambivalence toward her, one might further suggest, is her voluble nature:
disvoluta è cosi la tua natura. (“Stanze”)
By describing her as both wanted and unwanted, the poet concisely characterises her as a complex, contradictory being. Indeed, she is both free to travalicare and imprisoned like in “Eastbourne”; both vulnerable (“Stanze,” “Eastbourne”) and powerful (“Stanze,” “Il ritorno”). She is often pale and other-worldly—as when she manifests herself as a “voice of blood” or a breath—but she can also be a tenaciously vivid, living presence like in “Stanze,” “L’estate,” and “Bassa marea.” Further, she appears alternately benign and obscurely threatening, alternately ignorant of the existential swamp that surrounds her, and aware of the evil forces which in “Eastbourne” prevail over everything else: “Evil wins…// You knew it, even you” (emphasis mine). It is perhaps because of her destabilizing, unknowable character that the poet never seems to actively seek Arletta’s presence. As the next section attempts to show, this is only one of the many differences between her and the angelic absent-present Clizia, whom Montale longs for from the time of Mottetti.
Supposing one could measure the distance between the poet and Arletta, Clizia and Volpe, it seems that the greatest is that which separates him from Clizia, despite the fact that Arletta’s more sporadic apparitions in The Occasions and The Storm may easily give one the impression that she might be the most absent of the three. While in Mottetti the distance between the poet and Clizia is primarily determined by her physical absence, in The Storm their distance seems less literal, and rather becomes a function of Clizia’s gradual sublimation into an emanation of the divine, a “messenger… of my [the poet’s] God.” In contrast with Arletta’s manifestations—generally unexpected and gratuitous—Clizia’s are anxiously sought by the poet, who often represents himself as in a state of vigilant anticipation of her presence. So prevailing is this state of awaiting that one could describe the speaker of the Clizia poems as a poet who stands “at the threshold,” neither willing to renounce Clizia nor capable of bridging the distance between them. Since the poet’s standing at the threshold denotes the condition of someone who struggles to establish some kind of communion with the absent woman, and since this difficulty is common to both the Arletta and the Clizia poems, it might be tempting to claim that the description of Montale as a poet in limine equally applies to both poetic cycles. But this would be inaccurate without two further distinctions.
First, what the poet longs for from his liminal position differs in the two cycles of poems: while in the Arletta cycle of The Occasions and The Storm his desire to travalicare like Arletta is mainly a desire to evade the state of immobility in which he feels caught, in the Clizia poems he desires travalicare primarily as a means to reach Clizia herself. Of course, the poet still desires to evade his condition of stasis, but this is now a secondary concern, for the only possible evasion or change in the poet’s existential condition—his stasis—is Clizia, or more precisely the possibility of a communion with her, whether romantic or not.
Second, in the Arletta poems which I considered the poet never succeeds in travalicare, so that his state of suspension usually issues in a confirmation of his belonging to “the race of those/ who cling to the shore.”. In particular, the poet seems to travalicare—in this case, to establish a link with Clizia—whenever the woman manifests herself through her signs or senhals. Indeed, considering the Mottetti one could safely contend that in these early poems Clizia’s miracle is quite simply her appearance:
e io mi chiesi se questo che mi chiude
ogni senso di te, schermo d’immagini,
ha i segni della morte o dal passato
è in esso, ma distorto e fatto labile,
un tuo barbaglio:
(a Modena, tra i portici,
un servo gallonato trascinava
due sciacalli al guinzaglio).
(“La speranza di pure rivederti…”)
The situation presented in this much commented-upon poem is typical of the motets: a “screen of images” interposes itself between the poet and the woman, or rather between the poet and the possibility of feeling the woman’s presence despite her absence. His hope already waning, he is struck by the sight of two jackals on a leash, which makes him wonder whether this might be Clizia’s “barbaglio,” a signal sent by her. As Cary points out, the lyric “dramatizes an interpretive dilemma,” or, as Contini puts it, a “heuristic of the sign.” The possible outcomes of this interpretive act are various, ranging throughout the Mottetti from the persistence of the poet’s doubt about the import of the sign—like in the present case—to his confident recognition of it as Clizia’s manifestation, to his realisation that the alleged sign is no sign at all: “The reed that softly/ sheds its red feather-fan/…/ the grassy path along the ditch…/ and the dog that comes panting home…/ here, today, I needn’t recognize.”
Although the Modena motet is most explicitly representative of Montale’s heuristic of the sign, its philosophical echoes anticipate an aspect of Clizia’s nature which will become prominent in Finisterre and Silvae, namely her unattainability despite her manifestations and even her interactions with the poet. In particular, the metaphor of the screen of images might remind one of the Platonic allegory of the cave, where the prisoners’ view is limited to the shadows of people and things cast upon “a low wall…like the screen in front of puppeteers above which they show their puppets.” In Plato’s myth, the screen and the projected shadows stand for the realm of sensible particulars, while the prisoners tragically ignore that what is real is in fact the invisible and intangible Forms of those particulars. If one may read a Platonic allusion in the Montalean screen, the poet of Mottetti seems to imply that what is concrete and real to his senses is in fact less real than what the screen hides from view—his addressee. Alternatively, one could avoid distinguishing the screen from Clizia in metaphysical terms, assigning a different degree of reality to each; instead, one might interpret that distinction in terms of value, and argue that the screen separates the poet from the truly valuable. In either case, the motet implicitly elevates Clizia into a higher being, a presence-from-afar that no sign can fully represent because her “stampo,” her ‘form’ or essence, is always “altro,” always a little beyond whatever sign the poet might devise to speak of her.
The transcendental status that is accorded to Clizia in many of the Mottetti becomes even more conspicuous in the fourth section of The Occasions, as well as in The Storm, where she is consistently portrayed as an angelic figure. Old senhals such as palms, lightning, sunflowers and curious animals continue signaling her presence, but less recondite physical features become increasingly frequent signs, such as her forehead, wings, feathers, hands, eyes, jewels and precious stones. The transformation Clizia gradually undergoes, however, is far more substantive than these formal changes might suggest, extending to the scope of her powers and the kind of miracle she embodies. With respect to the latter, I previously suggested that in the Mottetti the miracle experienced by the poet is Clizia’s sudden manifestation, rather than an effect of her presence, or something that she does in addition to being present. This is not equally true of subsequent poems, where Clizia’s miracle seems to consist primarily in her clear-sightedness, her resistance to “a cosmic and terrestrial war, with neither purpose nor reason,” and the work of salvation she accomplishes to the benefit of everyone. Of course, her presence is still in itself miraculous, but her presence alone no longer exhausts the miracle she effects upon the poet and the world. Bearing strong resemblance in setting, the early motet “Ecco il segno; s’innerva…” and the Silvae poem “Nella serra” may offer an illustration of this difference:
In the first two stanzas of “Nella serra” (Silvae), the poet is alert to the minutest sounds and visual details of the greenhouse: “a skittering of mole paws”, “a rosary/ of cautious waterbeads,” a cochineal blazing on the persimmons. But over the perceptual experience of the poet there prevails a different experience, il sogno (the dream) “Drenched” with his addressee, he experiences a kind of union with her that seems to blur the contours of their distinct identities. His breath is Clizia’s “forma”; her face becomes his in a way reminiscent of the mingling of his blood with hers at the end of the early motet “Ecco il segno”. But in contrast with “Ecco il segno” —which closes with (the memory of) an experience of communion with the woman—the poet’s state of rapture in “Nella serra” issues in “the dark// idea of God.” As its “descent” suggests, this idea is dynamic and unintentional like a thought which strikes one without having been summoned; further, the fact that it descends on “the living few,” and not on the poet alone, confirms the impression that this idea is no ordinary thought, but rather a presence external to the poet. In brief, by the end of the poem the poet’s experience seems to have turned from a union with a particular “tu,” which was the endpoint of the motet –, to a communion with a higher being. What is typical of The Storm in “Nella serra” is Clizia’s role as mediator of the poet’s transition from one order of desires and miracles, his longing for an individual absent woman, and the woman’s manifestations to a higher order of hoped-for miracles; moments of communion with a being or principle who may grant universal salvation from the cosmic war which constitutes the background of the entire collection.
Considering Clizia’s mediation between the poet and the divine, many critics have spoken of her as “broadly analogous to Beatrice.” Indeed, in his fictional interview “Intentions” Montale described her as “Cristofora,” and throughout Silvae he addresses her as God’s messenger, as the “forma” of a supernatural work of universal salvation (“Iride”). Paralleling Christ’s and Beatrice’s salvific missions, Clizia’s work requires her sacrifice, as “La primavera hitleriana” famously makes clear: “Look, Clizia, look up,/ on high, it’s your fate, …/ until the blind sunlight you bear within you/ goes dark in the Other, consuming itself/ in Him, for all…” The parallel between Beatrice and Clizia as figures of Christ is furthered in “L’orto,” where Clizia is presented as a triumphant saviour, participating in the “inhuman suffering” brought about by the war, and yet remaining uncorrupted by it: “the day of Wrath… did not divide you, undivided soul… did not fuse you/ in the awful fire, heart of amethyst!”
Nonetheless, two differences between the Dantean and the Montalean donna-angelo suggest that too close a parallel between Clizia and Beatrice is unwarranted. First, while Beatrice angelicata is beyond all threat or harm, Clizia isn’t. As a brief look at “L’orto” has shown, the poet does seem to think of her as ultimately victorious, but this is only the last chapter of a long war which has seen her repeatedly threatened and hurt, and finally sacrificed so that she may “pa[y] for everyone,…expiat[e] for everyone.” An analysis of Finisterre—a section of The Storm—would be necessary to fully illustrate this point. Here it may suffice to note that Clizia’s powers are fallible unlike Beatrice’s, and proceed to consider the second difference between them, being as it is more directly relevant to the notions of absence and presence.
One of the distinguishing features of post-mortem Beatrice (and all Dantean souls) is her persistence as herself, i.e. as the individual woman whom Dante loved and celebrated in Vita Nova. As such, not only can Dante-pilgrim recognise her from her voice, her smile and—if only later—her eyes, but he also continues to love her and marvel at her as the Beatrice he knew in his youth. In contrast, as Clizia becomes an angelic presence intermediating between the poet and the divine, it becomes increasingly difficult for the poet to identify her with the distant yet more human Clizia he longed for in Mottetti. His love for her, he claims in “La primavera hitleriana”, is unchanged; but is she the same woman he addressed in Mottetti? The anaphora which punctuates “L’orto” —where the first three io non so se [“I don’t know if”] all introduce the clause “è quello che mi colse un’altra estate” —reiterates the poet’s doubt in this regard:
Io non so, messaggera…
io non so se nell’orto…
io non so se il tuo piede
io non so se il tuo passo che fa pulsar le vene
se s’avvicina in questo intrico,
è quello che mi colse un’altra estate
io non so se la mano che mi sfiora la spalla
è la stessa che un tempo
sulla celesta rispondeva ai gemiti
d’altri nidi, da un folto ormai bruciato. (“L’orto”, emphasis mine).
The doubt that the divine messenger of The Storm might no longer be the Love-bearer “frowning messenger” of The Occasions seems to find resolution in “Iride,” where the poet implies that although Clizia’s appearances may still elicit from him memories of a shared past, to believe that this angelic presence is the same Clizia of the past would be a mistake: “But when you return, it isn’t you, your earthly/ story has been transformed.” In this and other poems of Finisterre and Silvae, Clizia is clearly present, her salvific powers—the divine miracle she mediates—at least potentially operative on the poet and the world. Yet she is absent in two respects: given her angelical nature, she is bound to remain unreachable for the poet even when she is present; and, as “Iride” suggests, since her elevation into the role of angelic saviour implied a loss of identity (“it isn’t you”), she continues to be absent insofar as part of her—the private Clizia whom Montale addresses in Mottetti—no longer exists (or if she does, she does only in memory). So understood, Clizia’s absence in The Storm ironically appears as a necessary condition for her presence, her manifesting herself and acting in her role of universal saviour. As a result, the poet seems once again to stand at the threshold—saved by Clizia like everyone else, but simultaneously condemned to renounce her as a woman, and to renounce the exclusivity —the “secret passion” —of their relationship from afar.
Identified by critics with poet Maria Luisa Spaziani, Volpe is the addressee of all the Madrigali privati and some of the ‘Flashes’ e dediche in The Storm and Other Things. Though less frequently commented-upon than Clizia, she has elicited conflicting responses from critics: some, like Becker and Carpi, have tended to see her as an “anti-Beatrice,” in line with Montale’s own description of her as a very terrestrial character, and even as Clizia’s opposite. Others, like Baldissone and Marchese, have underlined elements of continuity between the two women, the former claiming that Volpe oscillates between absence and presence just as Clizia and Arletta; the latter making the stronger claim that physical and psychological differences between Clizia and Volpe are simply “not pertinent” to an analysis of Montale’s poetry as a “meditation on the salvific task of the visiting angel,” since these differences supposedly lack “sure epistemic value.” Even more dismissive of alleged differences between Volpe and Clizia, Cary seems to completely ignore them, treating “Volpe” as another senhal for Clizia.
While I think that the epithet “anti-Beatrice” suggests too stark a contrast between Volpe and Clizia, Marchese’s dismissal of what distinguishes them as irrelevant seems equally unbalanced. Apart from the fact that it is unclear how one should understand his claim that Volpe’s and Clizia’s differences in character lack “sure epistemic value,” to consider these differences seems crucial to an assessment of Volpe’s assenza-presenza and her relation to the poet. If one may speak of Clizia topoi to indicate the typical guises and situations in which she tends to appear, one might argue that in Madrigali privati Montale introduces tropes—some evident, others more subtle—which simultaneously establish Volpe’s connections with and breaks from the visiting angel of Finisterre and Silvae. An attempt to delineate how Montale represents Volpe’s presence and her absence, and how both conditions affect the poet, could begin precisely from an analysis of some of these tropes:
Se t’hanno assomigliato
alla volpe sarà per la falcata
prodigiosa, pel volo del tuo passo
che unisce e che divide…
– o forse solo
per l’onda luminosa che diffondi
dalle mandorle tenere degli occhi,
per l’astuzia dei tuoi pronti stupori,
per lo strazio
di piume lacerate che può dare
la tua mano d’infante in una stretta… (“Se t’hanno assomigliato”)
From the first lines of “Se t’hanno assomigliato…” where the senhal “volpe” appears for the first time, the woman’s “miraculous… stride” suggests exceptional liveliness and resolve, while the oxymoronic “soaring step” characterises her as an angel- or bird- like, yet clearly terrestrial creature. Even the poet’s discovery of wings showing from her scapulae does not fully identify her as donna-angelo: after all, his discovery does not falsify all the earthly, animal traits which the poet implicitly recognises in Volpe as he attributes to others—the unexpressed subject of “se t’hanno” —the likening of her to a “blonde/ carnivore, to the faithless genie of the undergrowth… to the loathsome/ fish with his shock, the stingray.” Unlike Clizia, whose sublimation into a salvific angel required a break from her terrestrial life, Volpe seems to combine both a celestial and a terrestrial nature, thus retaining both while participating fully in neither.
A particularly striking situation which illustrates Volpe’s dual nature is presented in “Nubi color magenta,” where the poet addresses the woman as “angelo mio” while inviting her to pedal harder on their tandem bike. Although the poet uses this epithet primarily to express his familiarity with Volpe rather than to make a statement about her nature, the juxtaposition of “angelo mio” with an ordinary activity such as bicycling conjures up the unconventional image of a pedaling angel: a creature both earthly and celestial.
A number of variations on motifs which Montale typically associates with Clizia confirm his conception of Volpe as a creature poised between the human and the divine. Like the donna-angelo Clizia, for instance, Volpe is often associated with light; unlike the “disembodied goddess” of “Gli orecchini”, however, in the first poem of Madrigali Volpe does embody with her flesh a divine ray of sun. Further, in contrast with the suddenness and violence of Clizia’s lightening, the “onda luminosa” which Volpe spreads around her in “Se t’hanno assomigliato” suggests an even, lasting propagation of light which, combined with “the [tender] almonds of [her] eyes”, is evocative of a softer, more approachable presence than that of steely-eyed Clizia. The list of tropes could continue: among those which convey her (very human) sensuousness and playfulness, one could mention her “gently/ powerful lip,” so different from Clizia’s “dumb lips, parched from [her] long/ journeying down the pathway shaped of air”; or contrast her “incandescent brow” with Clizia’s flawless cherub brow; or, remembering Clizia’s hand that searches for the poet among the dead of “Il tuo volo”, one could consider the capricious playfulness of Volpe’s “child hand,” and then note that the “havoc/ of feathers” that she causes with her clutch might stage the two women together, Volpe tearing Clizia’s wings, or, less literally, warding off the donna-angelo type that dominated Montale’s previous poetry.
Sharing in earthly life more than Clizia ever did, Volpe is more present to the poet insofar as her nature is closer to his. Of course, from this one should not infer that she is in no way absent. Analogous to many motets, one may find the poet in hopeful expectation of a sign that he may recognise as the woman’s manifestation: “With the very first light I started/ casting my lure for you… I spent my whole day searching, peering/ for you.” And in a way clearly reminiscent of the motets, her sudden appearances may be seen as small prodigies, surprising fulfillments of his longing for her: “I tracked you until dark,/ unaware that three small boxes – SAND SODA SOAP…/ would open only for me.”
Part of what distinguishes the motets and the Arletta poems from the Volpe cycle, however, is the way in which Volpe’s prodigious presence affects the poet. Compared in “Incantesimo” to Diotima—the woman who taught Socrates both “the art of love” and what love is—Volpe imparts the poet new knowledge which, though never explicitly formulated as in the Symposium, might be summarised as his experiential insight that amore profano (Eros) can be transformative and redeeming. Through his love for Volpe, the poet is made phoenix-like – “new, burnt to ashes,” experiencing a change which enables him to respond in novel ways not only to her presence, but also to her absence:
Like the Clizia poem “La bufera,” both “Per album” and “Se t’hanno assomigliato” close with a parting scene. The poet’s focus, however, has changed: while in “La bufera” Clizia’s farewell is swallowed by a threatening darkness which anticipates the cosmic war in which she will be involved, Volpe’s departure appears less final and dramatic because of the poet’s emphasis on what she leaves with him, rather than on her disappearance. And what Volpe leaves with him is an awareness of the value (“the gold I carry inside me”) of Volpe herself, and – possibly for the first time since Cuttlefish Bones – a state of happiness or at least temporary bliss, however indirectly expressed through a pathetic fallacy which describes the effects of her steps: “your terrace,/ the streets by the Cottolengo, the meadow/ the tree you named for me, all moist and conquered,/ shudder with joy.”
But even more than the poet’s changed attitude toward his occasional separations from Volpe, it is striking how his position in relation to Volpe presente differs from the Clizia and Arletta cycles. For reasons discussed above, I previously argued that Montale might be said to stand “at the threshold” in relation to both Clizia and Arletta. Keeping in mind that the description of the condition which the poet associates with the threshold varies in the two poetic cycles, I suggested that at least one comparative statement between them is nevertheless possible: while in the poems dedicated to Arletta the speaker tends to deny the possibility that he might escape his liminal position, in the Clizia cycle this tends to be a possibility that is open to him, and occasionally fulfilled either by means of Clizia’s manifestations (Mottetti) or by means of her universal work of salvation (Finisterre and Silvae). In either case, however, the poet’s travalicare fails to bridge the gap between him and Clizia, since she either continues to be physically absent, and her manifestations of difficult interpretation (Mottetti); or she continues to be absent insofar as her sublimation into an angelic saviour makes her increasingly difficult to recognise as Clizia (Finisterre and Silvae). In light of these observations, it seems an exceptional fact that in several poems dedicated to Volpe the poet is not only able to leave the threshold and bridge the distance him and the woman, but also able to do so without having to renounce anything essential to the individual she is, and even benefiting to some extent from her semi-angelic transformative powers:
Surprisingly, in Madrigali the poet “of the race of those/ who cling to the shore” finds himself capable of participating in Volpe’s flights. It is in the flight of “Nubi color magenta,” or in his wish that “[his] swallow be the hawk” that one might see the poet’s travalicare—a crossing over which seems primarily psychological, since these flights are firmly bound to earth. Indeed, Volpe’s and the poet’s flights paradoxically tend to occur on land, in proximity of or inside caves or grottos, or, to use the image which the poet explicitly links to Volpe’s terrestrial life, “sul… fondo” (“at the bottom”). It is somewhat ironic that through his love for the most consistently present and earth-bound of the three women discussed, the poet can perform what is perhaps his highest flight or “salto” —a travalicare which consists in the completely new certainty of a personal renewal, even a redemption from a personal evil:
Dal tempo della tua nascita
sono in ginocchio, mia volpe.
È da quel giorno che sento
vinto il male, espiate le mie colpe.
The exact content of the evil which Volpe succeeds to defeat is of course a matter of speculation. Whether it be the “delirium… of inertia” which Arsenio/Montale laments in Meriggi e ombre, or the sometimes overwhelming sense that everything may be worthless (“Estbourne”), or yet something else, the poet’s evil seems disproven by Volpe herself and the dono her presence brings to the poet in “Anniversario.” Some gifts—the poet seems to imply throughout Madrigali—are after all both possible and worth having.
I began this essay by adopting Baldissone’s view of Arletta, Clizia and Volpe as standing together in contrast to other categories of Montalean women, and by identifying what Montale calls the miracle as the central aspect of the patterns of assenza-presenza that are common to all three. A closer look at the miracle itself, however, has shown that any further generalisation about these three women would lead one to overlook substantial differences between them and their relationships with the poet. One generalisation which I nevertheless think these differences do invite one to draw is that the liminal space in which Montale positions himself as a love poet is wider than one might have expected, especially if one thought of it as a narrow confine, a wall, or a threshold. Indeed, the poet’s limen is wide enough to allow him to change position within it in the course of his experiences of love, or—less metaphorically—wide enough to allow him to change his attitude toward his condition of stasis, as well as toward the miracle which his loved ones bring to him in their assenza-presenza. In particular, as one proceeds from The Occasions to La bufera and Madrigali privati in The Storm and Other Things, the possibility that the limen itself may be finally crossed and left behind seems to become increasingly viable, and momentarily fulfilled in Volpe’s presence. What precisely this crossing consists of, and how it relates to other kinds of crossing and failures to cross, are questions which a fuller discussion of Montale’s love poetry should address in relation to the multifarious question of liminality in the Montalean corpus.
Baldissone, Giusi. Le muse di Montale: galleria di occasioni femminili nella poesia montaliana. Novara: Interlinea, 1996.
Bonora, Ettore. “Anelli del ciclo di Arletta nelle Occasioni”. Le metafore del vero. Saggi sulle Occasioni di Eugenio Montale. Rome: Bonacci, 1981.
Becker, Jared. Eugenio Montale. Boston: Twayne, 1986.
Brook, Clodagh J. “Silence”. The Expression of the Inexpressible in Eugenio Montale’s Poetry. Oxford: Clarendon, 2002.
Cary, Joseph. Three Modern Italian Poets: Saba, Ungaretti, Montale. London: Chicago UP, 1993: 287-327.
Contini, Gianfranco. “Montale e La bufera”. Una lunga fedeltà. Turin: Einaudi, 1974.
Huffman, Claire de C. L. Montale and the Occasions of Poetry. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1983.
Leopardi, Giacomo. Canti. Ed. N. Gallo & C. Garboli. Turin: Einaudi, 1993.
Marchese, Angelo. “Visiting Angel”. Visiting angel: interpretazione semiologica della poesia di Montale. Turin: SEI, 1977.
Montale, Eugenio. Cuttlefish bones. Trans. William Arrowsmith. New York: Norton, 1993.
———————- New Poems. Trans. G. Singh. New York: New Directions, 1976.
———————- Sulla Poesia. Ed. Giorgio Zampa. Milan: Mondadori, 1976.
———————- The Occasions. Trans. William Arrowsmith. New York: Norton, 1987.
———————- The Storm and Other Poems. Trans. William Arrowsmith. New York: Norton, 1985.
———————- Tutte le poesie. Ed. G. Zampa. Milan: Mondadori, 2005.
O’Neill, Tom. “Dante, Montale and Miss Brandeis: A (Partial) Revisitation of Montale’s Dantism”. Montale Words in Time. Ed. G. Talbot, D. Thompson. Hull: Troubador, 1998.
Pegorari, Daniele M. “Amore cercato, amore perduto: Dante, Beatrice, Montale”. Dante. 4 (2007): 55-76.
Plato. Complete Works. Ed. J. M. Cooper. Indianapolis: Hackett, 2012.
Scarpati, Claudio. Invito alla lettura di Montale. Milan: Mursia, 1976.
Valentini, Alvaro. “Due nel crepuscolo”. Lettura di Montale, Le occasioni. Roma: Bulzoni, 1975.
 “[L]a tipica situazione… di ogni poeta lirico che viva assediato dalla presenza-assenza di una donna lontana” (Montale, Sulla Poesia 84). Translation from the Italian is mine.
 Ibid., p. 84. “[U]na Clizia portante il nome di colei che secondo il mito fu mutata in girasole”. Translation mine.
 Throughout this essay, I will refer to Ossi di seppia, Le occasioni and La bufera e altro by their English titles. I will refer to specific sections within any of these collections, as well as to specific poems, by their Italian titles (e.g. Madrigali privati, “Ex voto”).
 “I quite understand/ your obstinate wish to be always/ absent, for only thus/ can your magic be revealed. Your innumerable tricks/ I quite understand” (Trans. G. Singh, New Poems).
 “Le Laure e le Beatrici divennero quello che divennero perché irraggiungibili” (Montale in Brook, p. 170). Translation mine.
 “[I]l miracolo,/ il fatto che non era necessario” (“Crisalide”). Translation from the Italian by W. Arrowsmith, Cuttlefish Bones.
 Baldissone, p. 8. In Italian, “donna mostruosa (o barbuta)” and “donna complice e sorella”.
 Since the “nature” of a miracle might be by definition beyond the possibility of description, in this essay I use this phrase as shorthand for (i) the miracle’s signs (but since the signs of the miracle are often those through which the psychological and physical characteristics of each woman are hinted at, this criterion will also be relevant to [a]); (ii) its effects on others, and particularly on the poet; (iii) its effects on the woman herself; and (iv) the conditions (apart from the woman’s absence) which make the miracle possible.
 Bonora, pp. 11, 13. Translation from the Italian is mine.
 Montale in Musolino, p. 160; Bonora, p. 12.
 “And you come/ even you, imprisoned voice, liberated/ soul, gone astray,/ voice of blood, lost and restored/ to my twilight” (All translations of poems from The Occasions by W. Arrowsmith).
 “I seek in vain that point from which/ the blood you’re nourished by began…/……/ in a rending agony you never knew, living/ in this rotting swamp of foundered star. And now/ lymph, not blood, invisibly/ traces your hands, pounds at your pulses/ flames or blanches your face”.
 “In you I seem to see a last/ corolla of fine ash crumble into falling/ flakes. Willed,/ unwilled, that is your nature. You hit/ the mark, you overshoot it…/……./…Maybe damnation/ is this wild, bitter blindness descending/ on the one who’s left behind”.
 “Maybe in the silver flash of the trout/ swimming upstream, you too/ return to my foot, dead maiden/ Arethusa”.
 “…un miracolo fallito”, “Crisalide”, Cuttlefish Bones.
 “Tutto apparirà vano……. Vince il male… La ruota non s’arresta”.
 “Non più quel tempo”.
 Cf. Leopardi, “Le ricordanze”, ll. 148-153: “Altro tempo. […]/ Passasti. […]/ Ma rapida passasti; e come un sogno/ fu la tua vita” (Emphasis mine).
 “[M]ai diviso/ fui da te come accade in questo tardo/ ritorno” (All translations of poems from La bufera e altro by W. Arrowsmith).
 “Occorrono troppe vite per farne una”. If the single life referred to here is that of the few who can travalicare like Arletta, and if the too many lives are those of the ones who cannot, then the poet seems to imply that his and others’ failure to pass through the varco might be necessary for the successful travalicare of a single life, in this case Arletta’s.
 “[S]apere è ciò che conta, anche se il perché della rappresentazione ci sfugge”.
 In “Tempi di Bellosguardo”, for instance, he affirms that “non c’è scampo: si muore/ sapendo o si sceglie la vita/ che muta ed ignora: altra morte” (“there’s no escape: we die/ and know it or we choose the life that changes/ and doesn’t know: a different death”), where “si muore/ sapendo” can be read as (a) “one dies with knowledge” or (b) “one dies despite knowing (i.e. death is inevitable regardless of whether one chooses knowledge or ignorance), or (c) “one dies (or may die) from knowing”. By adopting (a), one leaves it open the possibility that the poet might think that, despite the inevitability of death, knowing is preferable to not knowing. Readings (b) and (c), by contrast, seem to imply a negative view of knowledge, the former reading emphasising the vanity of knowledge in light of death, the latter suggesting that some pieces of knowledge might be so hard to bear as to cause the knower’s metaphorical death.
 By this I do not mean to imply that the poet never expresses uncertainty in Arletta’s presence. In “La casa dei doganieri”, for instance, he does not know “who’s staying, and who’s leaving”; in “Due nel crepuscolo”, he ignores whether he really knows the revenant Arletta (“I don’t know/ whether I know you”). Acknowledging these instances of ignorance seems to me compatible with the contention that the Arletta poems are, in general, occasions of knowledge (or, again, occasions of belief which the poet implicitly treats as knowledge, i.e. as true belief).
 “There it is, our old stairway, listening to you,/ vibrating to the murmur/ when you waken from the phonograph/ a light saraband voice,/ or when icy Furies blow hellish/ snakes, and over the storm/ of screaming recedes”.
 “…here’s your dark/ tarantula bite: I’m ready”.
 “[L]a forza/ che nella sua tenace ganga aggrega/ i vivi e i morti”.
 “Willed, unwilled,/ this is your nature”.
 “…sulle soglie”, “Serenata Indiana”, The Storm.
 “Sparir non so, né riaffacciarmi” (“I can’t vanish, can’t reappear”), in “Su una lettera non scritta”, The Storm.
 “[L]a razza di chi rimane a terra”, “Esterina”, Cuttlefish Bones.
 Montale in Cary, pp. 305-6.
 Montale himself used this term to refer to Clizia’s signs as early as in 1950, in his Corriere della Sera article “Due sciacalli al guinzaglio”.
 “[A]nd I asked myself if what sunders me/ from any sense of you, this screen of images,/ bears the signs of death, or if, out of the past,/ it still preserves, elusive, blurred, some brightness of you:// (At Modena, among the porticoes,/ a flunky in gold braid was tugging/ two jackals on a leash.)”
 Cary, p. 293.
 Contini 90. Translation mine.
 La canna che dispiuma/ mollemente il suo rosso/…/ la rèdola nel fosso…/…/ e il cane trafelato che rincasa…// oggi qui non mi tocca riconoscere” (“La canna che dispiuma”, emphasis mine).
 Plato, Rep. 514b-c.
 “Il ramarro, se scocca…”, Mottetti.
 As in, e.g., “Lungomare” (“Dalla palma/ tonfa il sorcio, il baleno è sulla miccia”); “La bufera” (“il lampo che candisce alberi e muri…”); “Su una lettera non scritta” (“ch’io fugga dal bagliore/ dei tuoi cigli”); “Giorno e notte” (“il raggio che gioca a rimpiattino/ fra i mobili”); “La primavera hitleriana” (“e gli eliotropi/ nati dalle tue mani…”), etc.
 Montale in Scarpati, 99. Translation mine.
 Montale in Cary 307.
 “Here’s the sign brightening/ on the wall, the wall gone golden:/ jagged edges of the palm/ scorched by the sun’s blazing.// The step moving/ so lightly from the greenhouse/ isn’t muffled by snow, it’s still/ your life, your blood in my veins”.
 “Rapt, buoyant, I was/ drenched with you, your form/ my hidden breathing, your face/ fusing with mine, and the dark// idea of God descended/ on the living few, sounds of heaven/ all around, cherubic drummings, globes of lightening hovering// over me, over you, over the lemons…”
 Cary, p. 304. Cf. also Pegorari (esp. pp. 68-76) and Marchese (esp. pp. 174-191).
 Cited in Cary 307.
 “[G]uarda ancora/ in alto, Clizia, è la tua sorte…/fino a che il cieco sole che in te porti/ si abbacini nell’Altro e si distrugga/ in Lui, per tutti”.
 “L’ora della tortura e dei lamenti… non ti divise/ anima indivisa… non ti fuse/ nella caldana, cuore d’ametista”.
 Montale in Cary, p. 307.
 “I don’t know, messenger………I don’t know whether in the garden……..I don’t know whether your muffled step……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…………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”.
 “Elegia di Pico Farnese”, Le occasioni.
 “Ma se ritorni non sei tu, è mutata/ la tua storia terrena” (“Iride”, emphasis mine).
 “…la chiusa passione”, in “L’anima che dispensa…”, Le occasioni (Mottetti).
 Becker, p. 96.
 Montale in Baldissone, p. 74.
 Montale in Bonora, p. 12.
 “[S]icuro valore conoscitivo”, Marchese, p. 194. Translation from the Italian mine.
 See Cary p. 315.
 What is, exactly, “epistemic value” [“valore conoscitivo”]? The value that makes something worth knowing? Or the value that something might have in virtue of its being knowable? Or the value which one might bestow upon something when one makes it an object of intellectual inquiry? Or…?
 “If they’ve likened you/ to the vixen, it must have been for the miraculous loping/ curve of your stride, your soaring step/ that binds and divides…/……..—or maybe it was simply/ for the wavering of light softly spilling/ from the almonds of your eyes,/ or the wiliness of your easy amazement/ or the havoc/ of feathers mangled by a single clutch/ of your cherub hand…”
 “[C]arnivoro biondo, al genio perfido/ delle fratte… all’immondo/ pesce che dà la scossa, alla torpedine”.
 See, e.g., “Gli orecchini”, “La bufera”, “Perché tardi?”, “Lungomare”.
 “[F]orte e morbido… labbro” (“Hai dato il mio nome a un albero?”).
 “[L]abbri muti, aridi dal lungo viaggio/ per il sentiero fatto d’aria” (“L’orto”).
 Clizia’s frangia is flawless in Elegia di Pico Farnese; her brow is “puerile” in “La frangia dei capelli”. Arrowsmith translates it as “cherub brow”, but an alternative translation could be “child brow”.
 “[M]ano d’infante”. As above, Arrowsmith translates “cherub hand”, but here a more literal translation seems preferable, as the original does not explicitly evoke any angel-like feature.
 As Brook points out, Volpe’s silence – a condition which she shares with both Arletta and Clizia – might be seen as another aspect of her character that expresses her absence (Brook 164-6).
 “Ho cominciato anzi giorno/ a buttar l’amo per te… Ho continuato il mio giorno/ sempre spiando te” (“Per Album”).
 “Ho proseguito fino a tardi/ senza sapere che tre cassettine/ — SABBIA SODA SAPONE… / si sarebbero aperte per me solo” (“Per Album”).
 “267uovo e incenerito” (“Luce d’inverno”).
 “And so you vanished into the uncertain horizon./ … / I lay down at the foot of your cherry tree, I was/ already too rich to contain you, alive”. [Emphasis mine].
 “[W]ith whom will I share my discovery,/ where will I bury the gold I carry inside me,/ the ember hissing within, if, leaving me,/ you turn away from the stair?”. [Emphasis mine].
 “[I]l tuo terrazzo,/ le strade…, il prato/ l’albero che ha il mio nome ne vibravano/ felici, umidi e vinti” (“Se t’hanno assomigliato”, emphasis mine).
 “I know a ray of sunlight (God’s?) can still/ be flesh and blood if here at the foot of Lucretia’s/ statue……/… I feel your face on mine./…………./ [I]n shadow, always. Since, if you dissolve/ the darkness, my swallow is the hawk”. [Emphasis mine].
 “…I cried out, “Pump hard! Harder,/ angel!” and, lurching up,/ the tandem bike broke free of mud/ and went soaring through the berries on the bank./………../ With you I fly, with you I stay…”. [Emphasis mine].
 “Nubi color magenta”, “Da un lago Svizzero”.
 Ibid. It might be noteworthy that one of the etymological meanings of “fondo” is “earth” or “soil”.
 “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”.
 In Cuttlefish Bones.
 “…il dono che sognavo/ non per me ma per tutti/ appartiene a me solo, Dio diviso/ dagli uomini…” (“Anniversario”).
Despite the fact that Eugenio Montale produced only five volumes of poetry in his first fifty years as a writer, when the Swedish Academy awarded the Italian poet and critic the 1975 Nobel Prize for Literature they called him "one of the most important poets of the contemporary West," according to a Publishers Weekly report. One of Montale's translators, Jonathan Galassi, echoed the enthusiastic terms of the Academy in his introduction to The Second Life of Art: Selected Essays of Eugenio Montale in which he referred to Montale as "one of the great artistic sensibilities of our time." In a short summary of critical opinion on Montale's work, Galassi continued: "Eugenio Montale has been widely acknowledged as the greatest Italian poet since [Giacomo] Leopardi and his work has won an admiring readership throughout the world. His ... books of poems have, for thousands of readers, expressed something essential about our age."
Montale began writing poetry while a teenager, at the beginning of what was to be an upheaval in Italian lyric tradition. Describing the artistic milieu in which Montale began his life's work, D. S. Carne-Ross noted in the New York Review of Books: "The Italian who set out to write poetry in the second decade of the century had perhaps no harder task than his colleagues in France or America, but it was a different task. The problem was how to lower one's voice without being trivial or shapeless, how to raise it without repeating the gestures of an incommodious rhetoric. Italian was an intractable medium. Inveterately mandarin, weighed down by the almost Chinese burden of a six-hundred-year-old literary tradition, it was not a modern language." Not only did Italian writers of the period have to contend with the legacy of their rich cultural heritage, but they also had to deal with a more recent phenomenon in their literature: the influence of the prolific Italian poet, novelist, and dramatist, Gabriele D'Annunzio, whose highly embellished style seemed to have become the only legitimate mode of writing available to them. "Montale's radical renovation of Italian poetry," according to Galassi, "was motivated by a desire to 'come closer' to his own experience than the prevailing poetic language allowed him."
Montale explained his effort to cope with the poetic language of the day and the final outcome of this struggle in his widely-quoted essay, "Intentions (Imaginary Interview)," included in The Second Life of Art. "I wanted my words to come closer than those of the other poets I'd read," Montale noted. "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."
For Montale coming close meant a private focus in his poetry that caused many critics to label his work as obscure or hermetic. He is often named along with Giuseppe Ungaretti and Salvatore Quasimodo as one of the founders of the poetic school known as hermeticism, an Italian variant of the French symbolist movement. Montale himself denied any membership in such a group, and observed in his essay "Let's Talk about Hermeticism" (also included in Galassi's anthology): "I have never purposely tried to be obscure and therefore do not feel very well qualified to talk about a supposed Italian hermeticism, assuming (as I very much doubt) that there is a group of writers in Italy who have a systematic non-communication as their objective."
Whether hermetic or not, Montale's poetry is difficult. Noting the demanding quality of Montale's work, Soviet poet and critic Joseph Brodsky stated in a New York Review of Books essay that the "voice of a man speaking—often muttering—to himself is generally the most conspicuous characteristic of Montale's poetry." Many of Montale's poems are undiscernible to most casual readers, just as the meaning of the words of a man talking to himself is difficult for another to grasp. Problems in comprehension arise because Montale, in an effort to eliminate in his verse what Parnassus: Poetry in Review contributor Alfred Corn called "the merely expository element in poetry," sought not to talk about an occurrence in his poems but to simply express the feelings associated with the event. According to Corn, "this approach to poetic form allows for great condensation and therefore great power; but the poems are undeniably difficult." Montale's chief interpreter in recent years, Ghan Singh, examined Montale's poetic complexities in Eugenio Montale: A Critical Study of His Poetry, Prose, and Criticism, remarking: "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."
In Three Modern Poets: Saba, Ungaretti, Montale, Joseph Cary echoed the thoughts of other critics on Montale's verse in general while pointing in particular to the obscurity of Montale's The Occasions. "As Montale himself has written," Cary observed, "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."
Corn and Carne-Ross regard Montale's group of twenty brief poems, "Motets" (originally included in the collection, The Occasions), as a leading example of Montale's condensed form of poetry. "Even a hasty reading," wrote Carne-Ross, "reveals their singular formal mastery (they have been compared to Mallarme's octosyllabic sonnets); even a prolonged reading is often baffled by these impenetrable little poems. The images are always sensuously lucid ... , but they often point back to some 'occasion' which it is impossible to reconstruct, and as a result we do not know how to relate the images to each other or to the poem as a whole." Montale's technique in "Motets" is comparable to that used in the poetic sequence "Xenia" (included in the English translation of Satura: 1962-1970 ), written after the death of the poet's wife in 1963. Brodsky contended that in these later poems "the personal note is enforced by the fact that the poet's persona is talking about things only he and [his wife] had knowledge of—shoehorns, suitcases, the names of hotels where they used to stay, mutual acquaintances, books they had both read. Out of this sort of realia, and out of the inertia of intimate speech, emerges a private mythology which gradually acquires all the traits appropriate to any mythology, including surrealistic visions, metamorphoses, and the like."
The image of a man talking to himself can be used not only to allude to the opaque quality of Montale's verse but also to refer to what, according to critics, is a dominant characteristic of his poetry, that of the poet talking to an absent other. So frequently did Montale address his poems to a female—named or unnamed—that John Ahern observed in the New York Times Book Review that the reader could "surmise that for Montale life, like art, was quintessentially speech to a woman." "Motets" and "Xenia," for example, are addressed to absent lovers; the first to Clizia, the second to his dead wife, known as "la Mosca." Glauco Cambon studied the similarities and differences between the two sequences of poems in his Books Abroad essay on Montale in which Cambon referred to "one central feature of Montale's style, the use of a sometimes unspecifiable Thou to elicit self-revelation on the part of the lyrical persona." Elsewhere in the same piece Cambon commented: "Obviously la Mosca fulfills in Xenia a function analogous to that of Clizia in 'Motets' and in various other poems from Le Occasioni and La Bufera: to provide a focal Thou that draws the persona out, to conquer his reticence about what really matters, to embody the unseizable reality of what is personal. Distance, absence, memory are a prerequisite of such polar tension, as they were for Dante and Petrarch. In Clizia's case distance is geographic, while in la Mosca's case it is metaphysical, being provided by death."
Cambon is only one of many critics who made a comparison between Montale and the great early fourteenth-century Italian poet, Dante. Singh, for example, observed "Montale's use of Dante's vocabulary, style, and imagery," but also noted that "if while deliberately using a distinctly Dantesque word or phrase, Montale succeeds in making it do something quite different, it is because his thought and sensibility, his mode of analyzing and assessing his own experience, and the nature of his explorations into reality are as profoundly different from Dante's as they are characteristically modern." Both Arshi Pipa, who wrote a book-length study of Montale's resemblance to Dante entitled Montale and Dante, and Galassi concluded that one of the ways Montale was able to break with tradition and renovate Italian literature was by actually paying homage to that same tradition. "Montale's solution to the problem of tradition, certainly one of the most successful solutions achieved by a poet in our century," Galassi explained, "involved an innovative appropriation of the Italian literary past to serve his own very personal contemporary purposes. To Pipa, who sees Montale's relationship to Dante as the central issue in understanding this aspect of Montale's achievement in renewing Italian literature, 'he has continued tradition in poetry by recreating it, and this he has done by going back to its origin, where he has established contact with one who may well be called the father of the nation.'"
When parallels are drawn between Montale and writers outside the Italian tradition, they are most often between Montale and T. S. Eliot. "Comparison between the two poets is inevitable," according to Galassi, "for both turn to a re-evaluation of tradition in their search for an authentic means of giving voice to the existential anxiousness of twentieth-century man." A London Times writer observed that both poets possessed similar styles and "a common predilection for dry, desolate, cruel landscapes." This tendency is evident in the poem, "Arsenio" from The Bones of Cuttlefish, for example, which Carne-Ross called "in a real sense Montale's Waste Land, " referring to one of Eliot's best-known poems. "Arsenio," like much of Montale's early work, depicts the rugged, tormented Ligurian coastline of Cinque Terre, the part of the Italian Riviera where Montale was born and to which he returned every summer of his youth. The starkness of the area can be seen in Mario Praz's translation of the first lines of "Arsenio," which appears in The Poem Itself: "The whirlwinds lift the dust/ over the roofs, in eddies, and over the open spaces/ deserted, where the hooded horses/ sniff the ground, motionless in front/ of the glistening windows of the hotel." Praz maintained that the book's suggested "the dry, desolate purity of [Montale's] early inspiration: white cuttlefish bones stranded on the margin of the beach, where the sea casts up all its drift and wreckage. The white cuttlefish bones lie helpless among the sand and weeds; a wave every now and then disturbs and displaces them, giving them a semblance of motion and life." In this description of perceived motion or life amidst symbols of death critics find another relationship between "Arsenio" and "The Waste Land." While both poems are filled with desolate description, they both also embrace a desire for redemption or rebirth.
Other critics, such as Singh and Wallace Craft, see more differences between the two poets than similarities. In a Books Abroad essay on Montale published shortly after the poet won the Nobel Prize, Craft recognized that with similar intent Montale and Eliot both described nature as a series of fragmented images. The critic then went on to examine the dissimilarities between the two writers. "Both Eliot and Montale explored this fragmented world," observed Craft, "in order to fathom the mystery of human life. It must be pointed out, however, that Eliot emerges from his existential wilderness or wasteland to find resolution in the framework of Christianity. Montale's quest, on the other hand, never leads to final answers. The fundamental questions regarding life, death and human fate posed in the early poetry are deepened, repeated but not resolved in later verse."
Although his poetry was largely responsible for Montale's worldwide fame, he received considerable critical attention in the United States with the posthumous publication of Galassi's translation of a compilation of his essays, The Second Life of Art: Selected Essays of Eugenio Montale. Even though in the last three decades of his life Montale came to be regarded—mainly due to his position as literary editor for Milan's Corriere della Sera —"as the Grand Old Man of Italian criticism," according to a London Times writer, this book of essays was one of the first collections of the Italian's critical prose to appear in English. Galassi saw theses essays as both "selections from an unwritten intellectual autobiography" of Montale and "the rudiments of a context in which to view Montale's greatest work, his poetry."