Montale and Writing: Creation or Expression?

Clodagh Brook

Department of Italian

Eugenio Montale, Nobel prize winner of 1975, critic, writer and poet, theorises in both his poetry and prose on the nature of language. This article is an attempt to resolve one of the issues central to Montale’s poetry: whether language, in the process of expression, creates something quite different and perhaps independent of any original state of mind. The research is confined to the earlier Montale, that is to the Montale of the Ossi di seppia, Le occasioni and La bufera e altro.

In the process of linguistic expression two parts have often been identified. The first part of the process is the ‘translation’ of non-verbal fragments and images into the inner verbal language of the individual, which may or may not be subsequently expressed publicly. The second part would be the outer expression of either inner verbal images or of fragments of personalised language in public written language.

A number of issues are at stake here: whether there is any possibility of a prior non-linguistic experience; whether this, if existent, can be expressed through a linguistic medium; or whether, on the other hand it can be considered genuinely inexpressible, as any expression of it would be a betrayal.

The first issue to be discussed is whether there is a duality within the inner experience before public expression takes place. Those who argue that all experience is linguistic would naturally reject any such duality. Hester writes that Wittgenstein posits language as a vehicle for thought in the Philosophical Investigations, rather than seeing thought as internal,(1) and sees thinking not as a mental activity, but as an activity of operating with signs.(2) Many theorists believe that no object exists without a word for it existing. If a duality is posited this would imply that the inner experience includes linguistic and non-linguistic elements.

This issue is very controversial and difficult to assess. It is probably impossible to say definitively how the mind is arranged in terms of linguistic or non-linguistic elements and any kind of satisfactory exploration of this issue also lies largely beyond the bounds of this article. Whether or not these non-verbal elements actually exist, the belief, which is commonly held, that they do exist may well contribute to the sensation that some experience which is beyond language and alien to language does exist. And this sensation in turn is one of the contributing factors to the idea that something inexpressible, lying beyond language, exists. If one believes that there are elements in the mind that are in an alternative non-linguistic form, then the ‘translation’ of those elements into a linguistic form is likely to cause a radical change in their constituency — tantamount to a betrayal of their original existence.

There is some evidence that Montale believed in the inner non-linguistic/linguistic duality. He in fact claims that the visionary poem “Iride” in La bufera was translated from a non-existent language: ““Iride” is a poem which I dreamt and then translated from an inexistent language; I am perhaps more its medium than its author”.(3) Though he does not specify where the poem came from, it could be postulated that it originated in some area of the mind which is not linguistic in the normal sense. The non-existent language may be the condensed language of dreams. If this is true, it has implications for the way the inexpressible is to be seen in Montale’s poetry. In the case of “Iride” the inexpressible may be seen to correspond to an untranslatable, dream experience. Expression of such experience is inexpressible. However, this type of experience in relation to the inexpressible is not common in most of his poetry, and though he mentions dreams or dreaming in thirteen places in his poems he says (again in relation to “Iride”) that he has not written any other truly oneiric poems.(4)

The relationship between the inner experience (whether linguistic or not) and outer expression is more easily established than that of a possible inner-inner experience. Furthermore, Montale has professed views on the relationship between the inner and outer in relation to expression. He does not see expression as a direct translation of inner thoughts and experiences into a communicable outer form, but instead repeatedly testifies to the importance of the intervention of language and style in the process of expression. Thus, Montale sees the expressive act as at least partially creative. His criticism of Croce’s aesthetics sheds light on this. Croce says in the Aesthetic :

We must condemn as erroneous every theory which annexes the aesthetic activity to the practical […]. The aesthetic fact is altogether completed in the expressive elaboration of impressions. When we have achieved the word within us, conceived definitively and vividly a figure or statue, or found a musical motive, expression is born and is complete; there is no need for anything else. If after this we should open our mouths […] to speak, or our throats to sing […] this is all an addition, a fact which obeys quite different laws […] This second movement is a production of things, a practical fact or fact of will. […] For the work of art (the aesthetic work) is always internal; and what is called external is no longer a work of art.(5)

Montale, in a paper given in the nineteen sixties, replies to Croce’s ideas as follows:

Because for Croce […] the intuitive act is purely ideal and the work of art is already perfect in it. The painted picture, the written poem, the music translated into notes are extrinsifications of the ideal work. They belong to the communication of the work, not to its creation. And this is the stumbling block which Croce appears not to notice.(6)

Montale does not agree that the outward public expression is just the pure communication or translation of some already perfect inner act. He believes that the act of writing itself is creative:

Is the lyric “a state of mind expressed”? Yes and no, as the lyric has a starting point, a state of mind, but it also has a point of arrival which is often unforeseeable and which is never, or hardly ever, the exact translation of that state of mind.(7)

And furthermore in “Tutti in pentola” (1963) he writes:

The true poet never knows where he has to arrive at: if that was not the case every distinction between industry and art would collapse.(8)

Though he does believe in something vague, a “state of mind”, which pre-exists outer expression (and therefore, even though he says at one point that for man today there is no difference between inner and outer,(9) Montale does posit this duality) his descriptions of the expressive process point to the importance of the expressive medium itself — language — in the creation of meaning in poetry.

However, the use of written language has a negative side. It has often been seen as a betrayal of an original ‘pure’ inner thought, as when Lukács (with whose work Montale appears to have been acquainted)(10) writes:

Any gesture with which [...] a man might wish to express something of his experience would falsify that experience, unless it ironically emphasised its own inadequacy and thus cancelled itself out.(11)

This negative view regarding expression sees the creativity of language as a distorting mirror and presupposes that the inner experience is more valid than the outer. Taken in its extreme form, this theory leads back to Croce’s “stumbling block” and to the impossibility of the verbal arts. And though Montale does not favour such overt idealism (as his articles cited above prove), there is evidence that a more subtle form of this idea informs much of his poetry leading to a distrust in the ability of language to express many things. This distrust of language gives rise to the via negativa, used in a secularised form in a number of his poems (“Non chiederci la parola” is the most well-known example of this, and is the poet’s most overt statement of the weakness of assertions and the need for negative modes of expression: “Codesto solo oggi possiamo dirti, ciò che non siamo, ciò che non vogliamo [We can tell you only this, what we are not, what we do not want]”.) However, traces of the via negativa are in fact also present in many poems in which the progressive removal of superfluous aspects of things occurs. The ending of “Antico, sono ubriacato” is a case in point:

E svuotarmi cosÏ d’ogni lordura
come tu [the sea] fai che sbatti sulle sponde
tra sugheri alghe asterie
le inutili macerie del tuo abisso.

[And to empty myself thus of all filth as you (the sea) do, flinging up on the beaches among corks, seaweed, starfish, the useless debris of your abyss.]

Later on in the Occasioni (“Il ramarro che scocca”) Montale’s attempts to find and describe the absent woman are bound to fail, and signs of the woman are progressively stripped away until as the poem ends she is seen only as wholly Other: “altro era il tuo stampo [Your kind was other]”. The distrust of language is also evident in the use of such techniques as contradiction and paradox which undermine the logical progression of language, suspension dots which suggest the text’s breaking off into temporary silence, and clauses dependent on if, perhaps or less frequently a subjunctive (such as the subjunctives found in “Non chiederci la parola” which indicate lack, in this case lack of a word which can declare and give form) which throws the dependent clauses into doubt and undermines their ability to assert positively.

What is it that intervenes between the original “unexpressed state of mind” and the expressed poem? The answers are many and include the past history of words, grammar, associative fields, metaphors, rhyme and rhythm and phonetic motivation.

Barthes, in Le degré zéro de l’écriture, explains how writing is not really free, how it is only free in “le geste du choix”.(12) Language imposes restrictions, and one of these is that words contain a remembrance of past usage, something that Barthes notes when he writes that “l’écriture est précisément ce compromis entre une liberté et un souvenir”(13) and describes how, when a person begins to write, the past starts to drown out the present.

The previous usages of words restrict their present usages and intervene in expression. Montale acknowledges the frustration caused by this in his poem “Potessi almeno costringere” (in the Ossi) where he contrasts the sea’s spontaneous delirium with his own “balbo parlare [stammering talk]”. The sea has multiple voices (“dato mi fosse accordare / alle tue voci il mio balbo parlare [if I could harmonise my stammering talk to your voices]”) and salty, strongly flavoured words which can overcome the boundaries between art and nature. Montale, on the other hand, has only the “lettere fruste / dei dizionari [worn-out letters of dictionaries]”. The language which will mould and in fact create his expression is a worn-out one, and thus he is left with the problem that “l’oscura / voce che amore detta s’affioca, / si fa lamentosa letteratura [and the obscure voice that love declared, fades, making doleful literature]”. As he writes language, language restricts him. The public language which necessity compels him to use is not personalised, it holds overwhelming traces of the past and belongs to society in general, not just to the individual:

Non ho che queste parole
che come donne pubblicate
s’offrono a chi le richiede;

[I only have these words which like harlots offer themselves to whoever wants them].

A reaction against the public and general nature of language can be seen in Montale’s many attempts to renew language and to find the “specific truth”,(14) by using obscure, less published and prostituted words (“pubblicate” implies both meanings), often employing altered forms of quite common words, such as those to which suffixes and prefixes, either coined by Montale or found only rarely in literary language, have been added. These renew a word without compromising its intelligibility, as for example, words such as “ingrigia” (in “Il canneto rispunta”), “si dismemora” (in “Clivo”) “concitamento” (in “Tempi di Bellosguardo”) and “lordura” (in “Antico sono ubriacato”).(15) A further reaction against the public nature of language is his reworking the old metaphors of the lyric tradition.

A second way in which written language intervenes in the process of expression is through grammar. The poet is not only restricted by the set meanings of dictionaries which includes that of prior usage, his language must, to a very large extent, be bound by grammatical norms. Grammatical choices are limited. However, the constraints of grammar though obviously an important factor in expression, are of far less concern to Montale than the constraints of lexis. There is, in fact, little evidence of a deliberate attempt to break grammatical rules on his part, and he does not toy with them as he often does with the lexicon. Neither does he overtly acknowledge the place of grammar in expression.

Thirdly, associative fields surrounding words are very important to the choices available to the poet when he wants to write. Aitchison shows how experiments in word-association show that individuals, when faced with any one word and asked to provide associations for it, are most likely to provide co-ordinates (i.e., words from the same lexical field).(16) After co-ordinates, they are then most likely to provide collocations (i.e., words most likely to be collocated or found together). Then the individuals may name superordinates, and may even occasionally use synonyms. The significance of these experiments is obvious. Montale, in order not to produce banal relationships between words must dissolve or deconstruct ordinary co-ordinates, collocations, synonyms, and even perhaps superordinates. This means that inner fragments of language constructed into banal forms must often be changed when written.

Examples of the effect of associative fields on Montale’s language are naturally very widespread, though synonyms and superordinates are far less common and important than co-ordinates and collocations. Superordinates, contrary to Aitchison’s findings regarding normal word-association, are in fact rather a rarity in his poetry, as Montale tends to prioritise specific members of a group (the hoopoe, the zinnia, the mullet) over the generic group (bird, flower, fish).

Often, common co-ordinates and collocations remain — suggesting acceptance of the patterns of common language. An examination of any poem will illustrate this:

La farandola dei fanciulli sul greto
era la vita che scoppia dall’arsura.
Cresceva tra rare canne e uno sterpeto
il cespo umano nell’aria pura.

Il passante sentiva come un supplizio
il suo distacco dalle antiche radici.
Nell’età d’oro florida sulle sponde felici
anche un nome, una veste, erano un vizio.

[The farandola of children on the dry river-bed was life exploding from the scorching heat. Between the few reeds and a thicket a human tuft grew in the pure air. The passer-by felt as agony his detachment from the ancient roots. In the flourishing golden age on the happy banks, even a name, even clothing was a vice.]

In this poem, from the Ossi, the following associative patterns occur. Common collocations are found in “aria pura [pure air]”, “antiche radici [ancient roots]” and “età d’oro [golden age]”, all words commonly found together in Italian. There is also evidence of common co-ordinates such as “greto [dry river-bed]” — “sponde [banks]” (from the associative field of rivers) and “radici [roots]” — “canne [reeds]” — “sterpeto [thicket]” — “cespo [tuft]” (from the field of plants). The co-ordinates “sterpeto [thicket]” — “cespo [tuft]” are particularly interesting as it is possible that the literal “sterpeto” is the lexical motivation for the subsequent metaphorical use of “cespo” in “cespo umano [human tuft]”, thus showing how a common collocation may be responsible for instigating a novel one.

Despite the number of common collocations at work in the poem, there is an opposing movement in “La farandola” which reverses the normal patterns of language. “Cespo umano”, taking words from the human and plant associative fields, joins together two apparently opposing ideas, thereby creating a new one. “Sponde felici [happy banks]” similarly joins an emotion belonging to the animal or human world to the inanimate “sponde”. However, on closer examination these collocations yield up their history within literary (rather than common) language. “Sponde felici” is also found in Tasso’s Rime (642.11). “Cespo umano”, in its blend of human and plant, also points back to Ovid’s Metamorphoses. So in this poem collocations and co-ordinates have strong ties either to common or to literary usage and show how the constraints or possibilities of these have a large part to play in Montale’s poetry.

Another poem, this time taken from Le Occasioni, serves as further proof of this process:

Il ramarro, se scocca
sotto la grande fersa
dalle stoppie —

la vela, quando fiotta
e s’inabissa al salto
della rocca —

il cannone di mezzodì
più fioco del tuo cuore
e il cronometro se
scatta senza rumore —
E poi? Luce di lampo
invano può mutarvi in alcunché
di ricco e strano. Altro era il tuo stampo.

[The green lizard, if it darts under the great lash of the stubble — the sail, when it rushes out and then sinks at the steep rock — the midday cannon, fainter than your heart and the chronometer if it clicks noiselessly — ……. And then? Lightning light in vain could change you all into something rich and strange. Your kind was other.]

Common collocations here are “il cannone di mezzodì [the midday cannon]”, “il cronometro [...] scatta [the chronometer clicks]”, the use of “cuore [heart]” in conjunction with a timepiece (though “cronometro” is an unusual timepiece) and “luce di lampo [lightning light]”. Common co-ordinates are found centred around the central images of each of the first three verses (“ramarro [the green lizard]”— “scocca [darts]”; “vela [sail]” — “fiotta [rushes out]”; “cannone di mezzodì [midday cannon]” — “cronometro [chronometer]”).

There are also, though again in lesser proportion, novel collocations: “fersa dalle stoppie [lash of stubble]” and “ricco e strano [rich and strange]”. However, an examination of the second of these once again reveals its resonance within literary language: “Nothing of him that doth fade, / But doth suffer a sea-change / Into something rich and strange” (The Tempest, I, ii). The collocation of “cannone” with “cuore” is also novel even though immediately subsequent “cuore” is linked to a timepiece, thus presenting it more traditionally.

These two poems, broadly representative of the way in which Montale uses word associations, demonstrate that real novelty in this area is not frequent in Montale’s poetry, and many of the associations that go beyond the boundaries of common collocations or co-ordinates reveal themselves in fact as being associated with the literary tradition (particularly Pascoli and D’Annunzio, but also Petrarch, Dante, Leopardi and occasionally some of the English language poets such as Shakespeare).

Thus, as Montale comes to express some sensation or idea, however vague, the normal collocations and associations of language affect his choices whether or not he accepts their normal patterns or consciously tries to impose his own.

Metaphor represents another important way in which language is creative. Metaphors create new perspectives by revealing new ways in which things are alike. Monroe Beardsley, for example, says that because terms possess connotations independent of our knowing them, new and utterly random combinations like “rubber hopes” may yield new meaning.(17) Though Beardsley’s argument takes metaphoric creativity to an extreme and some random metaphors do lead only to nonsense, Montale’s metaphors, which do not appear to be used randomly, often do offer new ways of perceiving the world. Cooper says, regarding metaphor, that:

talking metaphorically about X in terms of Y can, by itself, alter our concept of X, so that new thoughts and truths about X become possible. By creating new concepts, metaphor ‘creates’ new beliefs and thoughts.(18)

Language moulds the world we live in and metaphors, in their ability to cross associative fields and link two diverse elements in a relationship of similarity, can change the shape of the world. Montale’s metaphors often succeed in doing this, as when, for example, in “Il giglio rosso” he takes the traditional images of white lily and the heart and transforms them:

Il giglio rosso, se un dÏ
mise radici nel tuo cuore di vent’anni

[The red lily, if one day it takes root in your twenty-year-old heart].

The white lily and the image of the heart are conventional poetic images. However, these lines arrest the reader and result in the reconception of the lily, directing attention to the hidden roots (hidden both by the earth, and by poetic tradition which, in focusing on the flower-head, has failed to draw attention to the roots). The red of the lily not only overturns the notion of the white, pure lily but also points to Florence, of which the red lily is a symbol. In this way Montale redirects attention away from traditional assumptions, and makes the reader perceive a part of the world anew.

Expression is also governed and limited by its assumed audience. Expression is aimed at someone even if it is only the reading public at large or the shifting tu [thou] which may be the woman, the sea, or the poet’s alter-ego (the latter two being necessarily fictional readers). The fact that much of the poetry of the first three volumes is directed explicitly towards a tu affects the tone of the poetry, making it appear more intimate and private. This means that especially in Le occasioni and La bufera, where the tu is a more common interlocutor, events and things are often spoken about without any apparent clarification or explanation provided for a reader. Poems such as “Hai dato il mio nome a un albero?” and “Nubi color magenta” narrate in this way.

The formal elements of the poetic text in particular affect the text’s final outcome. The poem is not just a result of some original idea in the poet’s mind, but is also in some way self-propagating, its construction (its grammar, sound patterns and so on) actually partially determining its outcome. In this context, Bigongiari refers to “this continual birth of the text from itself understood as an affirmation of its being”.(19) David Lodge points out that both writer and poet set out to say something but that the poet is:

continually diverted from combining items in a natural, logical or temporal succession by the arbitrary demands of metrical form. Rhyme prevents a poet from saying what he originally wanted to say. It may lead him to say something else he would not have thought of.(20)

Though I disagree with Lodge’s division of style into the neat sectors of prose and poetry, as prose too is often lead by the conscious or subconscious demands of rhythms and phonetic elements, it is certain that he is correct in his analysis of the place of non-semantic elements in the creation of meaning.

Formal stylistic factors have a large part to play in the creativity of literary expression, though in the context of the twentieth century many of the stylistic restrictions are self-imposed, given that such poets as Ungaretti, Marinetti and most other twentieth-century Italian poets experiment with style, banishing or subduing end-line rhyme, and replacing the traditional hendecasyllable or settenario with more varied line lengths. In this climate of stylistic liberalism, Montale’s stylistic choices are largely self-imposed (though it is worth bearing in mind that examinations of Ungaretti’s Allegria have revealed that the rhythm of the traditional Italian line lies behind much of Ungaretti’s fragmented verse, showing that the dictates of traditional rhyme and rhythm may be present at an unconscious level).

Montale, according to Mengaldo, uses rhyme to a greater extent than his major contemporaries and about fifty percent of the lines in the Ossi are rhymed.(21) By the time of La bufera this percentage is even higher. Furthermore, phonetic patterning within the verses also plays an important role in his poetry and therefore it is not surprising to find that phonetic motivation often lies behind the particular choice of words in his poems. “Nella serra” (La bufera), can be taken as an example:

S’empì d’uno zampettìo
di talpe la limonaia,
brillò in un rosario di caute
gocce la falce fienaia.

S’accese sui pomi cotogni,
un punto, una cocciniglia
si udì inalberarsi alla striglia
il poney — e poi vinse il sogno.

[The lemon-house filled with the trotting of moles; the sickle glistened with a rosary of cautious drops. A dot, a cochineal, caught fire on the quinces; the poney was heard rearing up against the curry-comb — and then the dream prevailed.]

In this poem, there are four lines with perfect rhyme (“limonaia” — “fienaia”; “cocciniglia” — “striglia”), two lines with imperfect (“cotogni” — “sogno”), and only two without end-rhyme. Rhyme limits choice of lexis, and though Montale does not choose a firm rigidity in patterning (the above poem has the pattern ABCB DEED, so that not only are there two lines without end rhyme, but also the second verse does not mirror the pattern of the first) the choice of words and their positioning in the line is still influenced by the self-imposed patterns of the rhyme. Though Montale’s use of certain rhyming and rhythmic structures obviously restricts him in one way, it also opens up new possibilities within these very constrictions. For example, in “Nella serra” the fact that the word “striglia” came into Montale’s mind at all probably results from the prior use of the word “cocciniglia” for which Montale may have wanted to find a rhyme. (Alternatively, of course, “cocciniglia” may have resulted from “striglia”: though the variants provide no evidence for this.)

Alongside rhyme, phonetic patterning affects choices of words in the two verses from “Nella serra” cited above: “talpe” — “falce”; gocce” — “cocciniglia”; “pomi” — “poney” as it does throughout Montale’s poetry. Alliteration also has its part to play (“falce” — “fienaia”), though alliteration in general plays a less important role in Montale’s poetry than other forms of phonetic patterning. Similar to rhyme, words with no semantic association can be linked by phonetic associations.

Rhythm also influences choices. The alternation of stresses, the patterning of words with similar stresses, and in his later poetry the partial return to the traditional rhythms of the hendecasyllable and the settenario affect the poet’s freedom to choose any word for his expression. The structure of the verse, the length of the lines and Montale’s experiments with the sonnet form in such poems as “Gli orecchini”, are further features which shape his expression.

By way of a conclusion, it is worthwhile once again to examine Montale’s own statements on expression. In a nineteen sixties article called “Eugenio Montale” he provides a remarkable insight into his views on the process of his own writing:

One of my old articles [...] had the following title: “Intenzioni [Intentions]”; but later I had to convince myself that I was not a poet of intentions at all, a poet who starts out from an aesthetic position which is already established in advance. [...] I could not explain how poetry is born in me. I only know that every one of my poems is preceded by a long and obscure period of gestation, in which however nothing is foreseeable: neither argument, nor title, nor the scope of the development. In certain cases I have the impression that two or three different poems “flung down” have been fused together. Once the period of incubation is over, I write rapidly and with few revisions. Once things are done, I read the critics and discover my intentions.(22)

Montale’s claims here are that he does not begin with any fixed or intended Crocean intuition of a poem which is already internally realised before its outward expression. The poem is unformed before the intervention of public language. He is not a poet who believes that there is some formed pre-existent expression that becomes inexpressible due to the intervention of an alien language. The process of writing and codifying within language creates the poem, creates the argument, the title, and the development of the argument. Certainly, Montale believes that ‘something’ precedes the public language, but that ‘something’ is self-confessedly vague and ill-defined. This coincides with Collingwood’s views when he writes that “until the man has expressed his emotion, he does not yet know what emotion it is”.(23) Therefore Collingwood justly argues that the act of expression is in fact also an act of exploration.

The outcome of all this is that the thing expressed — the finished poem — differs substantially in both form and content from the original idea that may have been its catalyst. The inexpressible therefore exists because the creativity of language leaves unexpressed the original catalyst. If expression, on the other hand, had been found to be a direct translation of the inner state, there would be no grounds for experiencing the sensation that an ‘inexpressible’ thing, not contained in the finished work, exists.

These findings also mean that Montale’s notion of expression can not be defined as it is in etymological terms, as a ‘pressing-out’,(24) the production of a linguistic replica for a pre-existent thought, but must instead be seen as a process in which language creates the final expression in words, while maintaining some connection with the catalyst which occasioned it.



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