Alan Tucker

Introduction to Montale's Mottetti

Montale's Mottetti, eventually a sequence of twenty short poems, partly rhymed, were written between 1934 and 1938. They are addressed, I understand, to Irma Brandeis, an American Jewish specialist in Italian literature, see Galassi pp423 et seq. 'Clizia', as he named her, shared Montale's culture of reference, the echoes of Dante for example, and many other literary allusions.

I first read Montale in George Kay's Poesie/Poems in the 1960's, original texts with his facing page translations. Jonathan Galassi's Eugenio Montale Collected Poems 1920-1954, bilingual edition, Farrar Strauss Giroux, 1998 is now the book to have, 625 pages including over 200 of notes etc.

'Montale's Eastbourne', Michael Hofmann's review of Jeremy Reed's The Coastguard's House in the Times Literary Supplement, 23 May 1991, offers a superb summary of the situation at that time (pre-Galassi). The essay is collected in his Behind the Lines: Pieces on Writing and Pictures, Faber, 2001. He writes, 'In translations where the punctuation is scrupulously mimicked, I tend to fear that a similar attention has been paid to the words'. This is probably a Wilde statement. Certainly it couldn't be applied to Dana Gioia's edition of 1990, which quite startled me when I came across it this year.

Gioia offers attractively readable rhyme-free translations and makes a sound case for a common sense approach in his introduction. Even so I was sure too much was missing and decided to work through the Italian texts using a standard dictionary. To hell with Hofmann, I slid the words, and the punctuation, across the page to see if that helped make sense of what Montale actually wrote, rhymes and all. If rhyme doesn't matter to these poems, why did Montale use it? How essential is it?

Images are easier to find than significant rhymes. I suspect Montale built the poem around certain words or phrases that came to him – 'in the night' one would say of Milton – flashes of inspiration in the dark. The images are to that extent more 'arbitrary' than the words. Their 'pictures' are placed, used, as manifestations of light and darkness. Montale plays games with Eliot's 'objective correlative', a potent idea in the 1930's

Are these love poems? Of course. But love of what? Maybe Clizia offered a mind he could address, conveniently distant, someone who would actually read the poems and share delight in them. Jackals on a leash.

Alan Tucker

28 November 2006


HARBISON,John. Mottetti di Montale.(a cycle of twenty songs). Janice Felty and Margaret Lattimore mezzo-sopranos, with College New Music, director David Hoose. Koch International Classics, CD No. KIC-CD-7545. Excellent settings in the tradition of Ravel's Schéhérezade: try No 11 as a sample. Booklet has Italian texts (as set) with good facing page translations.

MONTALE,Eugenio. Pastelli & Disegni.con uno scritto di Franco Russoli. Milano 1966. the only Italian publication noted here, an exhibition catalogue with 18 plates, some in colour, of Montale's doodles, almost as bad – no, worse than Elizabeth's Bishop's. My copy was very cheap from a London catalogue.

KAY,George. Eugenio Montale POESIE / POEMS. Edinburgh 1964. MONTALE,Eugenio. Selected Poems. New Directions 1965. The classic American anthology of versions by many translators including Ben Belitt (who has published his own collection) Cid Corman, G.S.Fraser Mario Praz, and Lowell 'imitations'.

MONTALE,Eugenio. New Poems. A Selection from Satura etc trs & intro G.Singh with an essay on Xenia by F.R.Leavis. Chatto 1976.

MONTALE,Eugenio. 'The Coastguard's House' English versions by Jeremy Reed. Bloodaxe 1990

MONTALE,Eugenio. Collected Poems 1920-1954 bilingual edition translated and annotated Jonathan Galassi.. Farrar Straus Giroux NY 1998. ISBN 0-374-12554-6 an absolute masterpiece and essential.

MONTALE,Eugenio. Poems. Penguin 2002. good introduction by Harry Thomas with brief comparative study of five translations of one poem. An anthology of versions and invaluable as an overview of various translators including Samuel Beckett, dated (very)1930. also a previously unpublished Lowell version of Flux next to George Kay's. Has only a few sample Italian texts.

GIOIA,Dana. Mottetti – Poems of Love. The Motets of Eugenio Montale. Graywolf Press 1990. complete facing page translations.

odds: G Singh has translated Montale's Selected Essays. Gian-Paolo Biasin's Montale, Debussy, and Modernism, Princeton 1989, has section on Morandi.

BURNSHAW,Stanley, editor. The Poem Itself (150 European poems translated and analysed) USA 1960, UK Pelican paperback 1964. essential reading.