Here is a great, if difficult, war poem. It’s from the first page of La Bufera e altro (The Storm and Other Things), a book that Eugenio Montale began in fascist and Nazi-occupied Italy during the Second World War and published in 1956. My amateurish English translation follows. Click for some commentary and the magnificent Italian text.
Princes have no eyes to see these great marvels
Their hands now serve only to persecute us
–Agrippa D’Aubigne, à Dieu
The storm that drums on the hard
leaves of the magnolia its long March
thunder and hail,
(the sounds of crystal in your nocturnal
nest surprise you, of the gold
squandered on the mahogany, on the gilt edge
of the bound books, a sugar grain
still burns in the shell
of your eyelids)
the flash that candies
trees and walls and surprises them in this
eternity of an instant–marble manna
and destruction–that you carry
carved in you by decree and that binds you
more than love to me, strange sister,–
and then the rough crash, the sistri, the shudder
of the tambourines above the ditch of thieves,
the tramp of the fandango, and above
some gesture that gropes. —
just like when
you turned around and with your hand, cleared
your brow of its cloud of hair,
waved at me–and went into the darkness
(See the online Italian text here.) This poem makes repeated, if oblique, reference to Canto V of Dante’s Inferno. Like Paolo and Francesca, the narrator and the tu of “La Bufera” are bound together in a hellish storm for an unchanging eternity by something that resembles love, without exactly being love. Like Montale’s you, Francesca was a “strange sister,” since she was both Paolo’s sister-in-law and his lover. The tu in Montale’s poem has been sentenced (“condanna“), just like one of the damned in the Inferno. Finally, Montale chooses for his title “la bufera,” a highly unusual word for “tempest.” Given the rareness of the word, it clearly alludes to Canto V (lines 31-33):
The hellish tempest that has never stopped
whips the spirits in its passion:
a twisting, hounding, mad assault.
La bufera infernal, che mai non resta
mena li spirti con la sua rapina
voltando e percontendo li molesta
Several features of “La Bufera” are typical of the poems in Montale’s three major books, which he presented as a trilogy comparable to the Divine Comedy. The diction is stark, astringent, and basically informal, although there is much specialized vocabulary. (For example, “sistri” is the Latin word–retained in both Italian and English–for the rattles shaken by ancient Egyptians.) Occasionally, Montale uses traditional forms such as the Shakesperean sonnet, but usually, as in “La Bufera,” he prefers free verse that is distinguished from prose by density of imagery, heavy alliteration and assonance, and significant line endings and breaks. Like many of his poems, “La Bufera” consists of a list of objects and actions; it is not a complete sentence, because there is no main verb. As in all of Montale’s writings, there are layers of reference to past literature. Finally, the poem is an intimate address to an unnamed “you,” a female who is known to the narrator and who shares private references and memories with him. This “tu” frequently appears, and the narrator always has intense difficulty communicating with her.
One way to read “La Bufera” is biographically. Montale knew an American scholar named Irma Brandeis in Florence before the War. Later, both parties were reticent about the nature of their relationship; we do not know that it was romantic. When Brandeis left Italy in 1938, Montale lost contact with her and may have feared that she was dead. Brandeis was a Jew, and Montale was aware of the Holocaust. Thus the storm of “La Bufera” is fascism, the War, and Nazism. Brandeis is the “you” who is surprised by the breaking of crystal (perhaps a reference to Kristalnacht) and who disappears in the last line of “La Bufera,” bound to the narrator more by fascism than by love. (The subject of the phrase “binds you to me” is the “flash” of lightning that stands for tyranny or war.) For the rest of the book, she is absent–just as Brandeis was actually away while Montale wrote–but she acquires profound symbolic meaning. Already in the title poem, she combines Jewish and classical references (“marble” and “manna”); these recur throughout the book, and there is an additional sense that she has become a Christ-figure or a Christ-bearer, suffering to redeem a sinful Europe. The narrator struggles to understand her, sometimes resorting to angry, misogynistic complaints about her absence and infidelity; sometimes worshipping her. I suspect that there is dramatic irony in both extremes; there is no reason to think that the author shares the narrator’s full range of emotions.
There is plenty of evidence to support this biographical reading, including Montale’s own notes. It is, however, only one layer of meaning. The “you” of the poem is also a kind of avatar of Beatrice, Francesca, Laura, and the other famous lovers from Italian poetry. Montale’s predecessors had had trouble understanding the women they loved and usually failed to win their faithful attention; but in La Bufera e altro the problem is no longer moral. It is not the narrator’s unworthiness or the lover’s infidelity that prevents the two from communicating. Now the problem is political and epistemological: political, because the fascists have driven Irma Brandeis out of Europe and imposed silence and fear on all Italians; and epistemological, because moderns know that nothing can be represented or understood realistically. Connecting with “you” is the narrator’s moral and spiritual goal, yet it is impossible. As Roberto Unger writes, “The modernists often combine acknowledgement of the supreme importance of personal love with skepticism about the possibility of achieving it or, more generally, of gaining access to another mind.”
The book La Bufera e altro has been compared to a novel and analyzed for its plot and characters. But if it is a narrative, it’s a strange one. The reader cannot tell what literal events have occurred or in what order, or even how many major characters there are. (Is the “you” always the same person? Is the narrator always identical?) Montale admired novels and operas, but in La Bufera, he indicates that he cannot tell a coherent story. All he can do is to string together fragmentary, personal images in a poignantly failed attempt to depict another human being and express his love for her.
Montale belongs to school of Modernism in which literal truth is treated as elusive, and the attention of the reader or viewer is directed instead to the work of art itself. It is very easy to notice and enjoy the sounds of Montale’s words, but difficult to concentrate on what, if anything, is being described. The opposite is true in more traditional poetry. Usually, writes, Charles Rosen, “first we take in the text visually, and we understand it almost as we take it in, and afterward we find it interesting or beautiful.” So we immediately know what Pope or Wordsworth is writing about, and we must force ourselves to notice the poet’s technique. But Stéphane Mallarmé and his successors stood “the classical way of reading poetry on its head” by making their subjects and plots very hard to decode. “Withholding the referential meaning concentrates attention initially upon the technique of representation: the poem refuses to allow the reader to substitute immediately the concept for the description. To understand we must return over and over again to the lines. Mallarmé fixes the attention of the reader where it properly belongs–on the words of the poem, the assonance, the rhythm, the juxtaposition of images, the emotional associations.” The same could be said of Montale. However, while Mallarmé (and Rosen) think that it is right to focus on the form of poetry, Montale appears to struggle to use his poetic language for representation. He wants to tell us about his “you,” even though what we see most easily is the poem’s assonance, imagery, and the shape of the lines on the page. Although the aesthetic aspects of Montale’s work are the most accessible, he is against aestheticism–for moral reasons.
The best Italian text is in Jonathan Galassi, ed., Collected Poems of Eugenio Montale, 1920-1954 (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1998), p. 268. Unger, from Passion: An Essay on Human Personality (1984), p. 38. Chares Rosen, from “Mallarmé the Magnificent,” The New York Review of Books, May 20, 1999