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This report is taken from PN Review 24, Volume 8 Number 4, March - April 1982.Letter from Florence
'With Eugenio Montale dies the profoundest voice of Italian poetry of this century and one of the most eminent personalities of European and world culture.' So began the message sent by President Sandro Pertini, echoed by editors and critics in their public condolences and, of course, by his fellow poets; for Montale's death on 12 September has been met with nothing less than national mourning. Thousands of people visited the body lying in state on Sunday afternoon in Milan's town hall, Palazzo Marino, and even more attended his funeral service in the Cathedral the following day, including President Pertini, Prime Minister Giovanni Spadolini and other dignitaries, all paying him tribute.
Eugenio Montale was born in Genoa in 1896, the son of a business man who had a successful company importing chemical products. The family spent its summers in the Cinque Terre, at Monterosso, on the Ligurian coast: a landscape that features in many of Montale's poems, stony and deserted.
Because of poor health, his early education was interrupted. He did most of his studying in public libraries or with his sister's help. In 1915 he started taking music lessons, hoping to become a professional baritone-a wish which never really left him, though he discontinued his lessons on his call-up for the war, two years later. By this time he had written his first notable poem, `Meriggiare pallido e assorto', which he published in 1922 with a group of poems with musical titles, including the celebrated 'Corno inglese'.
He served as a second lieutenant of infantry, seeing action on the front, an experience which made other poets-Ungaretti, for example-but it was not until he returned to his private studies after the war that Montale produced his distinctive new voice in the poems he wrote between 1921 and 1925, published as Ossi di seppia in that year by Piero Gobetti. Remembering this first book in conversation with Claudio Marabini for La Nazione in February this year, he said that 'it had two or three brief reviews, polite enough'. In fact, recognition for him came very slowly, and only in old age was he accorded full honours. Ossi di seppia, with its sharp, terse lyrics of doubt and pain, still stands as his most original achievement.
Montale continued as a private man of letters until he took a position with the Florentine publisher Bemporad in 1927. Two years later he became Director of the Gabinetto Vieusseux, the famous library used by Browning and many other expatriates in the last century, still flourishing today. But as he was not enrolled in the Fascist Party, he was removed from office in 1938, though he remained in Florence during the war and published his second volume of verse, Le occasioni, in 1939.
After the war he moved to Milan, taking up an editorial post with the large Milanese daily Corriere della Sera, where he remained for over twenty years, editing the literary page and serving as music critic for the afternoon edition. A third collection followed in 1956-La bufera e altro-together with a volume of autobiographical pieces.
During his first years in Florence Montale met Drusilla Tanzi, the wife of a music critic. Soon he was living with her, and later they were married. He nick-named her Mosca (Fly). After the war she was discovered to have a bone disease from which she finally died in 1963. This was the occasion for Montale's 'Xenia' series, the opening of his fourth book, Satura (1971). In the decade leading up to this book Montale's work began to gain wide recognition. In 1967 President Saragat made him a life Senator, and he became a political as well as a cultural figure. Then, in 1975, he was accorded the Nobel Prize.
He lived his last years very quietly in narrow, curving via Bigli in Milan, rarely giving interviews or appearing in public, though he did see old friends and continue writing the 'Diary' poems published throughout the 1970s. A particular honour was the magnificent Opere in versi, collected poems edited painstakingly by Gianfranco Contini and Rosanna Bettarini, which appeared in December 1980, with full notes, critical apparatus and two sections of previously unpublished work. Some of the poems are dated 1980, and his translations are included-he translated widely, and his versions of Marlowe, Shakespeare and Eliot have wide currency in Italy.
Montale was interred beside La Mosca in the hillside cemetery of San Felice a Ema, just south of Florence. His tomb displays simply his name and date: no photograph, contrary to Italian custom, and no epitaph.
It is fitting to cite the five lines which an unknown mourner wrote in the commemorative visitor's book in the Palazzo Marino-lines from 'Corno inglese':
il vento che nasce e muore
nell'ora che lenta s'annera
suonasse te pure stasera
N. S. THOMPSON
This report is taken from PN Review 24, Volume 8 Number 4, March - April 1982.