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."
A Shropshire Lad A. E. Housman
This entry represents criticism of Housman's A Shropshire Lad. For more information on Housman's life and career, see PC, Volume 2.
Housman's reputation as a poet rests primarily on A Shropshire Lad (1896), a collection of short lyrical ballads set in rural England and focused on the adolescent passions and loss of innocence of a young yeoman. Housman uses the pastoral setting of A Shropshire Lad to explore themes of death, lost love, and the passing of youth in a merciless universe devoid of divine grace or mercy.
Plot and Major Characters
A Shropshire Lad contains sixty-three poems, most of them a page or less in length. As few of the poems were titled by Housman, critics tend to refer to individual poems within the volume by number of the order in which they appear or by the first line, phrase, or word of any given poem. The central character of this verse collection is the Shropshire lad, Terence Hearsay, a young yeoman of Shropshire, England. A Shropshire Lad is pastoral, evoking a strong sense of place in the setting of rural England, peopled by farm laborers, artisans, and country lasses, as well as soldiers who come from such settings. Housman's poetry makes use of colloquial English diction in lyrical verse of traditional form, meter, and rhyme. He frequently uses the four-line ballad stanza, with an alternating rhyme scheme of abab. Also characteristic of Housman's verse are pithy one- to three-line epigrams, as well as dramatic monologues.
Many of the major themes of A Shropshire Lad have been characterized as essentially adolescent. Among Housman's central themes are youthful passions, the loss of innocence, and the passing of youth. Other major themes include the inevitability of death and the destructive nature of time. Time and the passage of time are treated by Housman as agents of loss and death. Time is thus the enemy of youth, friendship, and love. Throughout the volume, Housman expresses a preoccupation with life's transience. The theme of death is expressed through instances of suicide, premature death, and murder. His focus on mortality is presented pessimistically and as inevitable in a harsh, uncaring universe abandoned by God. John W. Stevenson observed that the Shropshire lad symbolizes “man's search for identity in a world he never made.” Youth, though treated by Housman with a degree of sentimentality, is also represented as a bitter period of unrequited love, lost love, and passing beauty. Stevenson commented that the Shropshire lad further symbolizes “the precarious yet certain progress of man from youth to maturity in which always inheres the nostalgic yearning for the simplicity of the past.” Housman's setting of rural Shropshire and his strong sense of place serve to characterize A Shropshire Lad as pastoral. While some critics regard Housman's pastoralism in the tradition of the Romantic poets, others suggest that it is not idealized but rather a setting in which the harsh realities of nature are played out. In light of such pessimism, Housman expresses a sense of urgency by which youth are encouraged to seize the day and experience what life has to offer before it ends.
Housman is widely recognized as a minor English poet. His enduring literary reputation has been characterized by the contrast of continuing popularity with the reading public and general neglect by critics and scholars. Several critics have tried to account for this strong discrepancy between readers and critics in regard to Housman, which spurred the critic J. B. Priestley to describe A Shropshire Lad as a volume of verse that has been “courted in private and shunned in public.” Critics generally agree that what makes Housman a minor poet is his limited range in tone, theme, and subject matter and his uninventive use of traditional verse forms. Many have observed that Housman's verse never developed beyond the adolescent sensibilities of his earliest work. A number of critics have commented that the poems of A Shropshire Lad are so simple and direct as to preclude the necessity for extensive analysis. B. J. Leggett observed in 1970 that, “No opinion was so predominant among Housman's early commentators as that which asserted that his verses are marked by an essential simplicity of form and thought, and this view is still in evidence today.” Some critics, however, refer to Housman's verse as deceptively simple. Leggett, for example, argued that “Housman's poetry is more subtle and more complex than has been acknowledged by his commentators,” adding, “But only rarely have critics looked beneath the smooth surface of his poems to glimpse the perplexities of his themes and structures.” Others have contended that A Shropshire Lad is in fact transparently simple, with little hidden complexity beneath its surface level simplicity. Many critics agree that Housman, for all his limited range, demonstrates skilled craftsmanship in the creation of traditional verse ballads. However, others, such as A. R. Coulthard, argue that even in the realm of craftsmanship Housman is largely flawed. Coulthard asserted that A Shropshire Lad is rife with awkward diction, odd syntax, lapses in taste, and clichés. According to Coulthard, “Despite Housman's reputation as a craftsman, much of his poetry gives the impression of casual, formulaic composition.”
The popularity of A Shropshire Lad was slow in building. The first edition was published in only five hundred copies, at Housman's own expense. It took two years for this limited edition to sell out. With several subsequent editions, however, the volume gained a broader readership. In the first few years of the twentieth century the popularity of A Shropshire Lad increased dramatically, and the volume eventually became one of the all-time best-selling books of English verse. Early posthumous critical response to Housman was largely negative, as his simple, traditional, romantic themes were at odds with the modernist sensibilities of the 1930s and 1940s. More positive critical attention was often concerned with tracing the autobiographical elements of A Shropshire Lad, based on Housman's own personal experiences. Some critics were particularly interested in the expression of Housman's homosexuality through his verse. Leggett has commented that Housman “has suffered, like Byron, from the fact that his personality is of more interest to many readers than his poetry, and that for some scholars the poetry is valuable only as a key to the personality.” Stevenson concurred, “The history of Housman criticism is almost wholly a history of finding the mystery of the man in his poetry as if it were a key to the private world of the creator of A Shropshire Lad.” Critical discussion of A Shropshire Lad today tends to focus on the phenomenon of its enduring popularity, despite Housman's undisputed status as a minor poet. Various critics have tried to account for both Housman's continuing appeal to readers and persistent neglect by critics. Stevenson, writing in 1986, asserted that Housman's enduring popularity can be accounted for in part because “The Shropshire voice spoke to some far longing in the soul of modern man.” Commentators continue to discuss the specific strengths and weaknesses of A Shropshire Lad, some maintaining that Housman is a more skilled poet than critics give him credit for, and others asserting that his verse is even more seriously flawed than his reputation suggests.