Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Montale's Eel

I'm reliably informed (by Marco Sonzogni of Victoria University) that there are now more than fifty English-language versions of Eugenio Montale's famous lyric "L'anguilla" [The Eel], from his late collection La bufera ed altro [The Storm and Other Things] (1956).

So what's wrong with one more? (Mine's a little on the free side, as you'll observe from the version I've included underneath):


frigid ice-queen
of the Baltic
who quits her haunts

to plumb our river
branch to branch

capillary to capillary
deeper deeper
into the rock

writhing through ditches
till one day
a flash of light

glancing off chestnuts
ignites her
in the stagnant pond

lightstick birchwand
Love’s arrow on earth

led downhill through
Apennine gullies
to green fields

still waters
through dust & drought
the spark that says

Just do it
when everything’s
burnt toast

your spitting
iris recognition

would suggest
mired in this life
can you not call her


Here's a more literal translation for anyone else who'd care to try their hand:

Eugenio Montale (1896-1981):
L’anguilla / The Eel

L’anguilla, la sirena
The eel, siren
dei mari freddi che lascia il Baltico
of the cold seas that quits the Baltic
per giungere ai nostri mari,
to come to our seas,
ai nostri estuari, ai fiumi
to our estuaries, to the rivers
che risale in profondo, sotto la piena avversa,
rising from the deep, under the downstream surge,
di ramo in ramo e poi
from branch to branch and then
di capello in capello, assottigliati,
from capillary to capillary, slimming itself down,
sempre più addentro, sempre più nel cuore
increasingly more inside, increasingly into the heart
del macigno, filtrando
of rock, infiltrating
tra gorielli di melma finché un giorno
between rills of mud until one day
una luce scoccata dai castagni
a light glancing off the chestnuts
ne accende il guizzo in pozze d’acquamorta,
lights her fuse in stagnant puddles,
nei fossi che declinano
in ravines cascading down
dai balzi d’Appennino alla Romagna;
from the flanks of the Apennines to Romagna;
l’anguilla, torcia, frusta,
eel, flashlight, birch,
freccia d’Amore in terra
arrow of Love on earth
che solo i nostri botri o i disseccati
that only our gullies or dried
ruscelli pirenaici riconducono
Pyrenean streams lead back
a paradisi di fecondazione;
to a paradise of insemination;
l’anima verde che cerca
the soul that seeks green
vita là dove solo
life there where only
morde l’arsura e la desolazione,
drought and desolation bite,
la scintilla che dice
the spark that says
tutto comincia quando tutto pare
everything begins when everything seems
incarbonirsi, bronco seppellito;
burnt to charcoal, a buried stump;
l’iride breve, gemella
brief iris, twin
di quella che incastonano i tuoi cigli
to the one your lashes frame
e fai brillare intatta in mezzo ai figli
which makes you shine intact in the midst of the sons
dell’uomo, immersi nel tuo fango, puoi tu
of man, immersed in your mud, can you
non crederla sorella?
not believe her sister?

So what's all that about? To find out, let's turn to the notes in Jonathan Galassi's magisterial translation of Montale's Collected Poems 1920-1954 (2000), p.594 et seq:

Arrowsmith [in his dual-text version of La Bufera ed altra, 1985] emphasizes that the eel should not be read as essentially phallic, but that it incorporates both sexes, incarnating an "undifferentiated 'life force' akin to Bergson's elan vital" ... 'The Eel,' then, should be viewed as a cosmic love-poem, an account of the phylogeny of the human spirit as well as a dithyramb to the woman who inspired it, or as [Gilberto] Lonardi ... puts it, "the anabasis of the Anima, in the Jungian sense, of its author".

Just so. Couldn't have put it better myself.

I'd also recommend the fascinating discussion of Robert Lowell's strange translation / adaptation of the poem (included in Imitations, 1961) in Paul Muldoon's recent collection of his Oxford lectures on poetry, The End of the Poem (2006). Lowell ended up running this poem into the one which happened to be printed next to it in the Penguin Book of Italian Verse, as he didn't realise that the page divide was also the end of the poem ...


by kd said...

Wow, thanks for that. What a great poem + photo.
Your translation is an interesting piece in its own right. However I am bound to point out that it is not as slimy and tongue-ey as the real thing and I'm not sure about the burnt toast liberty. Burnt toast is dissimilar to stumps.

Dr Jack Ross said...

Touche. It's funny, though, that just as I read your comment the odour of burnt toast is wafting along the Massey corridors ... Maybe the universe is intervening, once again! Though I'm not sure if it means to reinforce your point or mine. I just found the stump image a bit intractable -- burnt toast is awfully ubiquitous and inescapable, don't you think?

I think Montale knows eels a lot better than I do. They used to swim around in the creek in the bvottom of our garden when I was a kid, but I was always a bit scared of them, to be honest.

You're sure you don't want to give it a go yourself? All those internal rhymes and complex rhythms might be right up your street ...

by kd said...

Sure. I'll have a go. (Then I'll be sorry...)
yes burnt toast is ubiquitous, sort of depressing and also easy to bring to the senses, so I think I see what you mean
even so, it's not apocalyptic enough. Frankly, the choice betrays a much too cheerful outlook on life.

by kd said...

Sure. I'll have a go (then I'll be sorry...).

I had another read and I think I see what you mean about ubiquity. It's surprisingly easy to call up the taste of burnt toast. Also it's the right carbon/coal texture and, if one may say so, icky.

The problem is that toast isn't apocalyptic. The choice of word betrays a carefree outlook on life entirely out of keeping with the original tone.

Dr Jack Ross said...

I guess you associate burnt toast with domesticity, and see it as non-apocalyptic as a consequence. To be honest, I'm a little suspicious of the idea of the apocalyptic as being necessarily dignified -- the "fango" [mud] at the end, which I've rendered "mired in this life", inevitably (I think) recalls the marsh of the gluttons in Dante's Inferno (Canto VI) to Italian readers. What I like about it is the indignity with whch Dante protrays the damned gnawing at each other. It makes it worse, somehow, that it's grotesque rather than noble and Miltonic ... I suppose I do read Montale's poem as more playful than you do. What girl ever relished being compared to an eel? Clizia of the lashes must have felt it a somewhat backhanded compliment, surely?

Anonymous said...

The Eel


of ice-hemmed
waters, who quit the Baltic
to trawl our seas,
our rivers
& our estuaries

rising from the deep
through a downstream rip
branch upon branch, capillary
into capillary, smaller
now she squirms

& deeper
into the muddy banks,
infiltrating the rock heart,
until one day


chancing off the chestnuts,
sparks her wick in a stagnant pool--

flanked by
alluvial mutterings.



Carnal light!

arrow of earthly Love!

Led back
through gullies
& streams, in search
of the perfect conception. Led back
through droughts & hermetic dust:

a spark that says:
'Everything starts when everything
seems burnt to a cinder.'

Led back
to the brief iris recognition,
the double your eyelids
frame as their own,

immersed in mud,
do you believe her sister?

maps said...

If we're talking eels, how about Curnow's

'The eel's fluent silence in the pool'

from a 'Dialogue with Three Rocks'?

Gives me the shivers every time I recite it.

by kd said...


The eel, the irresistible girl
of the cold Baltic leaves
and lands in our seas,
in our estuaries, in streams,
reprises the deep,
strains beneath the flood
from artery into artery, from
vein into vein, whittling
the gut more deeply, more grimly
straining trickles of muck until
one day sun beams off a chestnut
lighting a flash in the scum,
down scores in the Appenine cliffs
to Romagna;
the eel, torch, whip,
love's dart on earth, alone leads
the cracked beds of the Pyrenees
back to developing heavens of sex;
that soul that wants green life
in the teeth of burning and waste,
that spark saying, "It all starts
just when it's all burnt black,
when the branch has been buried";

thatlittle eye twinned in your head
shining inviolably on all of us --
though plunged in your mud,
can you think you aren't blood?

by kd said...

The eel, the irresistible girl
of the cold Baltic leaves
and lands in our seas,
in our estuaries, in streams,
reprises the deep,
strains beneath the flood
from artery into artery, from
vein into vein, whittling
the gut more deeply, more grimly
straining trickles of muck until
one day sun beams off a chestnut
lighting a flash in the scum,
down scores in the Appenine cliffs
to Romagna;

Eel, torch, whip,
love's dart on earth alone leads
the cracked beds of the Pyrenees
back to developing heavens of sex;
that soul that wants green life
in the teeth of burning and waste,
that spark that says,"It all starts
just when all of it's charred,
with even the branch being buried";

thatsmall iris twinned in your head
shining inviolably bright among men --
though plunged in your mud,
how can you think you aren't blood?

Dr Jack Ross said...

Hmmm. I seem to have started something with this eel business. I still prefer my version to either of these, though there are things I really like in both: your "irresistible girl" is quite sexy, I think, KD, & I like the "sparks her wick" and the whole process of writhing into the bank in your, Michael (whoops, almost gave away your secret identity there). It's a surprisingly difficult poem to disentangle on the page, I think.

I also like the fact that all of us can think simultaneously that we've outdone the others ... room for many mansions in this house, obviously.

Richard said...

Jack as it ever occurred to anyone that the poem is about - well - it is about an eel?

Would we see it as anything else - except maybe some sort of life force - if we hadn't read scholarly works about works or read Freud and others - I find it hard to think of things as being anything than what they are?

Whatever what they are is of course... I just don't assume that they are symbolic of anything other than themselves.

Richard said...

I ate an eel once - we boiled it - great meal.

Richard said...

yes your photo is great

Anonymous said...

Interesting about Lowell's version. Is the confusion you claim a simple literary myth. My 1961 (admittedly fourth)edition of Imitations clearly ascribes the Eel to the two separate Montale poems L'anguilla, and Se t'hanno. Fusing the two poems together while a willful adaptation as usual by Lowell, and therefore morally and artistically questionable (I wouldn't have been pleased if I were Montale)has a certain validity as a dual portrait of the female life-spirit - and tunes in to Lowell's personal themes.

Dr Jack Ross said...

Yes, that's certainly a good point. In any case, I'm always happy to give Lowell the benefit of the doubt, given the long campaign of depreciation his work has had to endure over the past few decades ...

It still remains, as you admit, a curious procedure, though.