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An anthology of four contemporary Italian poets: Umberto Saba, Giuseppe Ungaretti, Eugenio Montale, Salvatore Quasimodo.

By Sergio Pacifici, editor
New York: s.f. vanni, 1957
155 pages

Comments by Bob Corbett
July, 2014

I have been trying to read and comment on the works of everyone who has won the Nobel Prize for Literature. I was having a very difficult time finding works in translation of either Eugenio Montale or Salvatore Quasimodo so I was delighted to discover this anthology which had at least a few poems of each. This is the first of more than 75 Nobel winning authors which I have now read and commented upon where I wasn’t able to find a full volume of some work of either author that has been translated in English. Perhaps I will find other bits and pieces of translated works by them, or even whole books which I just haven’t yet come into contact with.

In any case, I decided to extend the comments to include the other two poets published in this work since I was reading the entire volume anyway.

Henri Peyre

Henri Peyre says of these poets: They return to an earlier notion of poetry as

“. . . a sensitive elaboration and clarification of complex personal problems . . . (and) is therefore less interested . . . with abstract moral problems and issues.”

The first three poets (Umberto Saba, Giuseppe Ungaretti and Eugenio Montale) were of an earlier period than Salvatore Quasimodo. While Quasimodo’s earlier works were quite esoteric, in this volume he is represented by powerful, touching and quite accessible poems relating to World War II.


Several of his poems in this volume are written to his wife, wooing poems I would think. Yet “To My Wife” is also comical. His wife is compared to a chicken hen, a pregnant heifer, (“. . . a long little bitch”), a timid rabbit, a swallow and lastly, a frugal ant. I couldn’t help but giggle at this delightful poem and hoped it amused and didn’t aggravate his wife!


Henri Peyre says of Ungaretti:

“Ungaretti’s work is extremely lyrical: his vocabulary warm and personal; his poetry, especially the earliest he wrote, often resembles the intimate confession of a sensitive friend.”

I was especially taken with his poem “July” in which he accepts the brutality of July’s weather as a natural and inescapable fact of life to be borne in modest good will.


“When it throws itself upon us,
The beautiful foliage is made
In the sad color of the rose.

It grinds ravines, drinks rivers,
Pulverizes rocks, dazzles.
It is a fury that persists; it is the implacable,
It pours out space, makes dung-hills blinding,
It is summer and thorough the centuries
With its searing eyes
It goes, despoiling the skeleton of the earth.”


“Cuttlefish Bones” seems to me a striking poem actually celebrating the meaninglessness of all things, but instead, grudgingly embracing an acceptance of the world as it is. This theme seems to run through his poetry.


“To lie in shadow on the lawn
by a crumbling wall, pale and withdrawn,
and spy in the weeds the gliding snake
and hear the rustle blackbirds make –

To watch in the cracked earth and grass
battalions of red ants at drill,
that break and form ranks, pass and repass
in busy marches on some small dunghill –

To catch, each time the leaves blow free
the faint and pulsing motion of the sea,
while ceaseless, tremulous and shrill
the cicadas chatter on the bald hill –

Rising to wander in bewilderment
with the noon’s dazzle and the sorry thought
how all our life and all its labors spent
are like a man upon a journey sent
along a wall that’s sheer and steep and endless, dressed
with bits of broken bottles on its crest.”

As a long-time chess player I was delighted with Montale’s gentle comments on the chess player in his poem in “New Stanzas.”

“Now that the last shreds of tobacco
die at your gesture in the crystal bowl,
to the ceiling slowly
rises a spiral of smoke
which the chess knights and the chess bishops
regard bemused; which new rings follow,
more mobile than those upon your fingers.

The mirage, that in the sky released
towers and bridges, disappeared
at the first puff; the unseen window
opens and the smoke tosses. Down below
another swarming: a horde
of men who do not know this incense of yours,
alone compose.

My doubt was once that you perhaps ignored
yourself the game that on the board
evolves and now is storm cloud at your doors.
Death’s frenzy (for you inciting
the god of chance, when he helps) subsides at no
small cost, if small be the flame in your gaze,
but, past the close-meshed curtain, asks
a further blaze.”


“On the Branches of the Willows” is a touching and powerful poem of what the Italians suffered from the Fascists in WWII.

“And how were we to sing
with the alien foot upon our heart,
among the dead abandoned in the squares
on the ice-hard grass, at the lamb-like
lament of children, at the black cry
of the mother who walked toward her son
crucified on the telegraph-poles?
On the branches of the willow, as a vow,
Our lyres were hung up also,
And they swayed, light in the unhappy wind.”

He continues his mourning of dead and the despoliation of the Italian life and culture during the war with the poem “Snow,” whose beautiful and innocent white contrasts with the life and death around them.

“Evening descends: again you leave us,
o dear images of the earth, trees,
animals, poor people enclosed
in the cloaks of the soldiers, mothers
with insides made barren by tears.
And the snow lights us from the meadows
like moonlight. Oh, these dead. Beat
on the forehead, strike deep to the heart.
Let someone at least cry out in silence,
In this white circle of the entombed.”

“Elegy” celebrates a brave soul who dares to begin to resist simply by cleaning up the destruction caused by the intruders.”

“Frozen messenger of the night
You have returned clear to the balconies
Of destroyed homes, to light up again
the forgotten graves, the derelict remains
of a smoking earth. Here rests
our dream. And solitary you turn
toward the North, where every thing speeds
unlighted to death – and you resist.”

Overall I just was not terribly impressed with the poetry of any of these four writers. I don’t mean that as any criticism of them. Rather, I just am being honest about my own lack of response or special joy in reading them. I am fairly certain the lack in not THEIRS, but MINE. Some of the Nobel Prize winning poets I have read have become real favorites of mine, especially the two Poles, Czeslaw Milosz and Wislawa Szymborska. But these two Nobel winning Italian poets just didn’t much excite me.

Bob Corbett


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Bob Corbett