- Pound and Montale—Nature, History, and Myth
Born ten years apart, Ezra Pound and Eugenio Montale enjoyed somewhat parallel poetic careers, met and read each other’s work, and for a while lived in proximity, Pound in Rapallo, Montale between Genoa (where he was born 1895) and the Cinque Terre—seaside villages twenty miles south of Rapallo, where the Montales had a summer house. Thus, two major twentieth-century poet-critics were working in the same historical and geographical setting, within sight of each other, a condition which resulted in different yet comparable works.
When they met around 1927, Pound was in his early forties, hard at work on The Cantos and Guido Cavalcanti. He had just collected his shorter poems in Personae, a copy of which he presented to Montale, stamping it in wax with his signet-ring. 1 Montale, who was duly impressed by “Provincia Deserta,” reported meeting Pound in a letter to the senior novelist, Italo Svevo, written from Florence on 22 August 1927:
I was talking some days ago with an American poet, a close friend of Joyce and Eliot, the poet Ezra Pound, to whom I would be grateful if you could send Senilità, which he admires because of salon hearsay (Address: Via Marsala, Rapallo.); now, this Pound, who passes for a genius (Eliot dedicated a long poem to him), disparages the Anglo-Saxon world and sings the praises of our world.
Bobi also is an admirer of Pound. What is one to make of this? 2
Montale wanted to enlist Pound in his (and James Joyce’s) campaign on behalf of the unjustly neglected Svevo, but he also recorded his surprise that a writer of Pound’s reputation [End Page 45] should have been so dismissive of the English cultural milieu while celebrating Italy, a country that had consigned itself to Fascism. Montale’s bewilderment was to continue through the years.
In 1927, Montale could have given Pound, in return for the autographed copy of Personae, his recently published first collection, Ossi di seppia (1925), which was quickly recognized as a major volume. Had Pound looked at it, he would have had trouble with the somewhat literary language, closed forms, and traditional subject matter. For example, the dedicatory poem begins:
Godi se il vento ch’entra nel pomario vi rimena l’ondata della vita: qui dove affonda un morto viluppo di memorie, orto non era, ma reliquiario.
[Rejoyce if the wind entering the orchard brings back the wave of life: this place where a dead knot of memories clings, is not a garden but a reliquary.] 3
Pound would have hardly been able to make out the exact sense of the Italian, but he would have gathered a general impression of satiety and Weltschmerz, somewhat Eliotic, quite alien to his own robust invocation of brave worlds, old and new. In any case, after 1925 Pound was generally incurious about developments in poetry, with the exception of acknowledged disciples such as Bunting and Zukofsky. So it is not surprising that he should not have taken notice of Montale and his major contemporaries—although doubtlessly his indifference rankled. One of the recurrent complaints of Montale’s articles on Pound is that, despite his rudimentary knowledge of Italian, he saw fit to pass judgment on Italian poetry, pronouncing it mostly dead since the days of Cavalcanti: a message that would displease a practicing Italian poet, who, in turn, was quite willing to read and admire Pound and his peers. But, in Italy, Pound was content to remain an outsider, with little contact among prominent writers and critics, appearing only in local periodicals with small circulations (such as Il Mare, the Rapallo weekly). It was only in 1939 that he gained regular access to a national organ, the literary weekly Meridiano di Roma, but this was because of his peculiar position as a pro-Fascist American writer. In general, Pound conducted not dialogues but soliloquies.
Therefore, the acquaintance between the two poets could not develop into friendship, although there were courteous exchanges of notes and visits. Montale remembered Pound’s terrace in Rapallo, and the “buona e fedele signora Shakespeare” (sic; Poesia, p. 448). He...