Poetry, Eugenio Montale said in his Nobel Prize address, is not merchandise. On that basis he excused himself for having turned out comparatively few poems. Put together, however, they make a volume of impressive dimensions, especially if you count in the fourth dimension, time. Annotated with unimpeachable scholarly patience and critical judgment by Gianfranco Contini and his pupil Rosanna Bettarini, L'opera in versi is the book with a capital 'b', or libro with a capital 'l', which this great poet, as personally modest as he was vocationally proud, always looked forward to in trepidation and worked towards with confidence. Unless, which seems unlikely, Montale wrote a hill of material in the very year of his death, there is not much that escapes its purview. It contains all the poems, all the variants which led up to the established texts, and a closely relevant selection from the poet's prose, ranging from pertinent sentences drawn from already well-known articles and interviews to excerpts from letters never before seen in public. If this book is not the first and best way for the average reader to become acquainted with Montale, for the average reader who has become so acquainted it is likely to be appreciated as the ideal assemblage and distillation of everything he has come to know and respect about a great national poet. A national poet and a world poet, since his cultural significance extends to providing a living definition of civilisation applicable beyond any kind of national barrier, including that of language - and now that he is dead the living definition becomes more alive than ever.
LRB 15 October 1981 | PDF Download