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This article is taken from PN Review 218, Volume 40 Number 6, July - August 2014.

Eugenio Montale: Making the Balance Line Gerry McGrath
Poetry is well used to ghosts, those vaguely familiar figures who stand unerringly by its codes and ciphers, whispering their influence, shaping a poet’s choices. Then there are those others, who bear a minor resemblance to forgotten deities and demonstrate a sidereal disinterest that is as destructive as anything the future can bring. Unfathomable, they can squeeze the living breath out of poetry, condition it to silence. Just as spontaneously they can spark it to reasoned new being; poetry that reveals the accretions of life, humanly recognisable, the voice of a singular imagination.

Such was Eugenio Montale’s stature as a poet it seems right to discuss him in terms of direct antecedents rather than influences. Dante was his cynosure, became increasingly so in later years. In middle life, Montale reflected on the poetry he had written as a younger man and reiterated the urge he had felt then to ‘wring the neck’ of his immediate predecessors, to rid Italian poetry of its ‘aulic voice’. This uncompromising view sprang from what the poet had seen as the need to recapture and redefine the Petrarchan tradition, not break with it.  

The psychological motivations for such a desire are not hard to work out. Montale began and remained his entire life a poet of deep encounters, with family, nature, landscape, but also in the abstract, with history, tradition, religious and cultural identities. These ‘themes’ rang through his poetry from the first and, while his early verse owed an enormous debt to the domestic gods of Pascolism, its defining quality ...


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