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This article is taken from PN Review 237, Volume 44 Number 1, September - October 2017.

Talking to a Nanny Goat: Umberto Saba Revisited Patrick Worsnip
Alive I spoke to a nation of the dead.
Dead I refuse laurel and ask oblivion.

THAT SEEMS AN ODD EPITAPH for a poet to write on himself after a lifetime seeking greater public acclaim and receiving it in his final years. But then, Umberto Saba, who was born in Trieste in 1883 and died in nearby Gorizia in 1957, and who is now considered one of the three greatest Italian poets of the twentieth century (along with Eugenio Montale and Giuseppe Ungaretti), was in many ways an odd man.

Take that surname. The writer (he also composed short stories and an unfinished novel) was born Umberto Poli to a Jewish mother and a father who, though born a Roman Catholic, had converted to Judaism in order to marry her, making Umberto, by Jewish reckoning, a full Jew. But from the start of his literary activities he experimented with pseudonyms – admittedly not an uncommon practice at that or other times. These included Umberto da Montereale (the town his father’s family came from), Umberto Lopi (an anagram of Poli) and even Chopin. But the one he settled on, and eventually officially changed his name to, was Saba.

Academics have long debated what it means and why he chose it. Theories have come and gone, including that it is a Hebrew word for ‘bread’ or was somehow linked with his beloved wet-nurse, a Slovenian Catholic named Josefa Gabrovic. The one thing that seems certain is that he borrowed it, with permission, from a fellow Triestine Jew, Giorgio ...

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