The Bigness of Small Poems – # 28 in a Series – Montale’s Tragic Prescience


Eugenio Montale (1925-1977) Nobel Prize Laureate 1975

Eugenio Montale (1896-1981) Nobel Prize Laureate 1975


The ancients said that poetry
is a ladder to God. Reading mine, you may
not think so. But I knew it the day
you helped me find my voice again — a day dissolved
in a flock of clouds and goats  stampeding from the bank
to browse, slobbering, on marshgrass and thorn, and the lean faces
of sun and moon fused into one,
the motor had gone dead, and an arrow
of blood on a stone pointed
the way to Aleppo.

Eugenio Montale from The Collected Poems of Eugenio Montale, trans. William Arrowsmith, W.W. Norton & Company Limited, 2012

This poem. With its eerie echo, absolutely unintentional, of the recent horrors in Aleppo, Syria. An arrow of blood pointed/ the way to Aleppo. What a coincidence. This poem written in the early 1950’s far removed from the actual Syria of today. But none the less a poetic foreshadowing. Uncanny.

Eugenio Montale is said by many to be the greatest Italian poet of the 20th Century and with a greatness on par with Eliot, Yeats and Cavafy. I was familiar with him through some of his love poems translated by American poet Dana Gioia but without a larger sense of his poetic vision.

In preparation for leading my ten day retreat in Italy this summer I had been looking for Montale’s Collected Poems and found a mint condition copy in one of my favorite second hand book shops, Easton’s in Mount Vernon, Washington.

This poem caught me because of the idea of some divine presence, a mystery at the heart of poetry. The further idea that as Canadian poet Susan Musgrave says: it seems to me a poem knows more than I do and is wiser than I am. Also, the terror for a poet when words fail. The joy and relief when they come back!

Such a journey described in this poem according to a note to the poem by translator William Arrowsmith, which he says is based on comments by Montale. According to Arrowsmith:…the arrow of blood – pain and sacrifice – points towards reincarnation in the East of the spirit. The self is, as it were, dissolved, literally dying (along with the old poetic voice, the stale inadequate voice), to be renewed and restored.

At the end, the line that stays with me is this one: poetry is a ladder to God.
Or in other words poetry can lead us to a self that seems to know more of us than we do on a conscious level. And in that, lies the healing mystery of poetry.


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