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Lines of Thinking - September 2018: Eugenio Montale

If you are traveling along the coast of Liguria in Italy you will likely be drawn to the seaside villages of Cinque Terra. It has always been one of my favorite places, full of opportunity for heart-exerting hikes, stirring vistas, reading, drawing, writing, talking with friends next to the sea, and quiet contemplation almost anywhere along the way.

These days, the five communities are connected by train and a well-worn hiking path, but for many years, the interior villages were fishing/farming ports reachable only by boat or winding mountain roads. A temperate (Mediterranean) climate makes it possible to grow citrus and olives in the steep terraced hillsides facing the unbroken expanse of the Liguria Sea. This was the adopted patria of the Italian poet, Eugenio Montale, who was born in Genoa further to the north. His family spent holidays in the area and much of Montale’s early poetry was influenced by his study and experience of the Cinque Terra’s beautiful but isolated landscapes, a rugged geology into which human habitation had doggedly inserted itself over millennia.

Montale was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1975 and was a frequent subject of translation by English speaking writers, other poets especially, despite the fact that his poems were, according to Harry Thomas, editor of Montale in English, “notoriously difficult” to translate. 

Here are two Montale poems, the second one rendered by two different translators.


At dawn, when suddenly
the noise of a train
speeding through a tunnel
tells me of the men on journeys
trapped in stone,
lit only now and then
by a flash of sky and water:

at dusk when the woodworm
eating slowly through the desk
redoubles its efforts,
and the footsteps of the watchman
come closer:
at dawn and at dusk, even these
moments become human, if you
weave them together with your thread.

(Translated by Dana Gioia 1990)


The flower that rehearses
at the edge of the gorge
its forget-me-not
has no strain more joyous, more clear
than what emptiness we bridge.

A rasp of iron comes between us,
the pig-headed azure won't return.
In a palpable heat the funicular drops me
at the opposite station, already dark.

(Translated by JD McClatchy 1984)


The flower on the mountainside,
which keeps repeating its
forget-me-nots from cliff
to cliff, has no colors brighter
or happier than the space
set between us.

A screech of metal is pulling us apart.
The obstinate blue is fading. In a sky
so sultry you can barely
see through it, the funicular
carries me back to the other station
where it's already dark.

(Translated by Dana Gioia 1990)

Cinque Terra is a popular summer tourist and vacation spot and you will see why if you visit. The off-season past early November and into the harder weather months through early spring are also interesting times to visit and walk the far less-crowded trails. Sometime ago, I remember you could arrange for local poet guides to take you to places Montale captured in his work and there read for you. Or, you could just go with a volume of Montale and your imagination.

Finally, from Montale’s first collection of poems in 1925, OSSI DI SEPPIA:

The Lemon Trees

Hear me a moment. Laureate poets
seem to wander among plants
no one knows: boxwood, acanthus,
where nothing is alive to touch.
I prefer small streets that falter
into grassy ditches where a boy,
searching in the sinking puddles,
might capture a struggling eel.
The little path that winds down
along the slope plunges through cane-tufts
and opens suddenly into the orchard
among the moss-green trunks
of the lemon trees.

Perhaps it is better
if the jubilee of small birds
dies down, swallowed in the sky,
yet more real to one who listens,
the murmur of tender leaves
in a breathless, unmoving air.
The senses are graced with an odor
filled with the earth.
It is like rain in a troubled breast,
sweet as an air that arrives
too suddenly and vanishes.
A miracle is hushed; all passions
are swept aside. Even the poor
know that richness,
the fragrance of the lemon trees.

You realize that in silences
things yield and almost betray
their ultimate secrets.
At times, one half expects
to discover an error in Nature,
the still point of reality,
the missing link that will not hold,
the thread we cannot untangle
in order to get at the truth.

You look around. Your mind seeks,
makes harmonies, falls apart
in the perfume, expands
when the day wearies away.
There are silences in which one watches
in every fading human shadow
something divine let go.

The illusion wanes, and in time we return
to our noisy cities where the blue
appears only in fragments
high up among the towering shapes.
Then rain leaching the earth.
Tedious, winter burdens the roofs,
and light is a miser, the soul bitter.
Yet, one day through an open gate, 
among the green luxuriance of a yard,
the yellow lemons fire
and the heart melts,
and golden songs pour
into the breast
from the raised cornets of the sun.

(Translated by Lee Gerlach, 2002)

“Lines of Thinking," a monthly feature from College President Tom Manley. Each installment features a poem selected for its powers to transport us to some higher, lower or common ground, and, possibly in the process, provide fresh perspective and insight on the ground we occupy daily.