Montale began writing poetry while a teenager, at the beginning of what was to be an upheaval in Italian lyric tradition. Describing the artistic milieu in which Montale began his life's work, D. S. Carne-Ross noted in the New York Review of Books: "The Italian who set out to write poetry in the second decade of the century had perhaps no harder task than his colleagues in France or America, but it was a different task. The problem was how to lower one's voice without being trivial or shapeless, how to raise it without repeating the gestures of an incommodious rhetoric. Italian was an intractable medium. Inveterately mandarin, weighed down by the almost Chinese burden of a six-hundred-year-old literary tradition, it was not a modern language." Not only did Italian writers of the period have to contend with the legacy of their rich cultural heritage, but they also had to deal with a more recent phenomenon in their literature: the influence of the prolific Italian poet, novelist, and dramatist, Gabriele D'Annunzio, whose highly embellished style seemed to have become the only legitimate mode of writing available to them. "Montale's radical renovation of Italian poetry," according to Galassi, "was motivated by a desire to 'come closer' to his own experience than the prevailing poetic language allowed him."
Montale explained his effort to cope with the poetic language of the day and the final outcome of this struggle in his widely-quoted essay, "Intentions (Imaginary Interview)," included in The Second Life of Art. "I wanted my words to come closer than those of the other poets I'd read," Montale noted. "Closer to what? I seemed to be living under a bell jar, and yet I felt I was close to something essential. A subtle veil, a thread, barely separated me from the definitive quid. Absolute expression would have meant breaking that veil, that thread: an explosion, the end of the illusion of the world as representation. But this remained an unreachable goal. And my wish to come close remained musical, instinctive, unprogrammatic. I wanted to wring the neck of the eloquence of our old aulic language, even at the risk of a counter-eloquence."
For Montale coming close meant a private focus in his poetry that caused many critics to label his work as obscure or hermetic. He is often named along with Giuseppe Ungaretti and Salvatore Quasimodo as one of the founders of the poetic school known as hermeticism, an Italian variant of the French symbolist movement. Montale himself denied any membership in such a group, and observed in his essay "Let's Talk about Hermeticism" (also included in Galassi's anthology): "I have never purposely tried to be obscure and therefore do not feel very well qualified to talk about a supposed Italian hermeticism, assuming (as I very much doubt) that there is a group of writers in Italy who have a systematic non-communication as their objective."
Whether hermetic or not, Montale's poetry is difficult. Noting the demanding quality of Montale's work, Soviet poet and critic Joseph Brodsky stated in a New York Review of Books essay that the "voice of a man speaking—often muttering—to himself is generally the most conspicuous characteristic of Montale's poetry." Many of Montale's poems are undiscernible to most casual readers, just as the meaning of the words of a man talking to himself is difficult for another to grasp. Problems in comprehension arise because Montale, in an effort to eliminate in his verse what Parnassus: Poetry in Review contributor Alfred Corn called "the merely expository element in poetry," sought not to talk about an occurrence in his poems but to simply express the feelings associated with the event. According to Corn, "this approach to poetic form allows for great condensation and therefore great power; but the poems are undeniably difficult." Montale's chief interpreter in recent years, Ghan Singh, examined Montale's poetic complexities in Eugenio Montale: A Critical Study of His Poetry, Prose, and Criticism, remarking: "Of all the important twentieth-century Italian poets Montale is the one in whose case it is most difficult to proceed by explicating, through definite formulations and statements, what a particular poem is about. In other words, what comes out through the reading of the poem and what was in the poet's mind when he wrote it, seldom lend themselves to a condensed summary."
In Three Modern Poets: Saba, Ungaretti, Montale, Joseph Cary echoed the thoughts of other critics on Montale's verse in general while pointing in particular to the obscurity of Montale's The Occasions. "As Montale himself has written," Cary observed, "it is a short step from the intense poem to the obscure one. We are not talking of any grammatical-syntactical ellipsis here but of the nature of the poet's dramatic methods, his procedural assumptions. To be plunged, with minimal or no preparation, in medias res, which is to say, into the midst of an occasion dense with its own particular history, cross-currents, associations and emotional resonances, seems to me to be a fair description of the difficulties typically encountered in certain of the Occasioni poems."
Corn and Carne-Ross regard Montale's group of twenty brief poems, "Motets" (originally included in the collection, The Occasions), as a leading example of Montale's condensed form of poetry. "Even a hasty reading," wrote Carne-Ross, "reveals their singular formal mastery (they have been compared to Mallarme's octosyllabic sonnets); even a prolonged reading is often baffled by these impenetrable little poems. The images are always sensuously lucid ... , but they often point back to some 'occasion' which it is impossible to reconstruct, and as a result we do not know how to relate the images to each other or to the poem as a whole." Montale's technique in "Motets" is comparable to that used in the poetic sequence "Xenia" (included in the English translation of Satura: 1962-1970 ), written after the death of the poet's wife in 1963. Brodsky contended that in these later poems "the personal note is enforced by the fact that the poet's persona is talking about things only he and [his wife] had knowledge of—shoehorns, suitcases, the names of hotels where they used to stay, mutual acquaintances, books they had both read. Out of this sort of realia, and out of the inertia of intimate speech, emerges a private mythology which gradually acquires all the traits appropriate to any mythology, including surrealistic visions, metamorphoses, and the like."
The image of a man talking to himself can be used not only to allude to the opaque quality of Montale's verse but also to refer to what, according to critics, is a dominant characteristic of his poetry, that of the poet talking to an absent other. So frequently did Montale address his poems to a female—named or unnamed—that John Ahern observed in the New York Times Book Review that the reader could "surmise that for Montale life, like art, was quintessentially speech to a woman." "Motets" and "Xenia," for example, are addressed to absent lovers; the first to Clizia, the second to his dead wife, known as "la Mosca." Glauco Cambon studied the similarities and differences between the two sequences of poems in his Books Abroad essay on Montale in which Cambon referred to "one central feature of Montale's style, the use of a sometimes unspecifiable Thou to elicit self-revelation on the part of the lyrical persona." Elsewhere in the same piece Cambon commented: "Obviously la Mosca fulfills in Xenia a function analogous to that of Clizia in 'Motets' and in various other poems from Le Occasioni and La Bufera: to provide a focal Thou that draws the persona out, to conquer his reticence about what really matters, to embody the unseizable reality of what is personal. Distance, absence, memory are a prerequisite of such polar tension, as they were for Dante and Petrarch. In Clizia's case distance is geographic, while in la Mosca's case it is metaphysical, being provided by death."
Cambon is only one of many critics who made a comparison between Montale and the great early fourteenth-century Italian poet, Dante. Singh, for example, observed "Montale's use of Dante's vocabulary, style, and imagery," but also noted that "if while deliberately using a distinctly Dantesque word or phrase, Montale succeeds in making it do something quite different, it is because his thought and sensibility, his mode of analyzing and assessing his own experience, and the nature of his explorations into reality are as profoundly different from Dante's as they are characteristically modern." Both Arshi Pipa, who wrote a book-length study of Montale's resemblance to Dante entitled Montale and Dante, and Galassi concluded that one of the ways Montale was able to break with tradition and renovate Italian literature was by actually paying homage to that same tradition. "Montale's solution to the problem of tradition, certainly one of the most successful solutions achieved by a poet in our century," Galassi explained, "involved an innovative appropriation of the Italian literary past to serve his own very personal contemporary purposes. To Pipa, who sees Montale's relationship to Dante as the central issue in understanding this aspect of Montale's achievement in renewing Italian literature, 'he has continued tradition in poetry by recreating it, and this he has done by going back to its origin, where he has established contact with one who may well be called the father of the nation.'"
When parallels are drawn between Montale and writers outside the Italian tradition, they are most often between Montale and T. S. Eliot. "Comparison between the two poets is inevitable," according to Galassi, "for both turn to a re-evaluation of tradition in their search for an authentic means of giving voice to the existential anxiousness of twentieth-century man." A London Times writer observed that both poets possessed similar styles and "a common predilection for dry, desolate, cruel landscapes." This tendency is evident in the poem, "Arsenio" from The Bones of Cuttlefish, for example, which Carne-Ross called "in a real sense Montale's Waste Land, " referring to one of Eliot's best-known poems. "Arsenio," like much of Montale's early work, depicts the rugged, tormented Ligurian coastline of Cinque Terre, the part of the Italian Riviera where Montale was born and to which he returned every summer of his youth. The starkness of the area can be seen in Mario Praz's translation of the first lines of "Arsenio," which appears in The Poem Itself: "The whirlwinds lift the dust/ over the roofs, in eddies, and over the open spaces/ deserted, where the hooded horses/ sniff the ground, motionless in front/ of the glistening windows of the hotel." Praz maintained that the book's suggested "the dry, desolate purity of [Montale's] early inspiration: white cuttlefish bones stranded on the margin of the beach, where the sea casts up all its drift and wreckage. The white cuttlefish bones lie helpless among the sand and weeds; a wave every now and then disturbs and displaces them, giving them a semblance of motion and life." In this description of perceived motion or life amidst symbols of death critics find another relationship between "Arsenio" and "The Waste Land." While both poems are filled with desolate description, they both also embrace a desire for redemption or rebirth.
Other critics, such as Singh and Wallace Craft, see more differences between the two poets than similarities. In a Books Abroad essay on Montale published shortly after the poet won the Nobel Prize, Craft recognized that with similar intent Montale and Eliot both described nature as a series of fragmented images. The critic then went on to examine the dissimilarities between the two writers. "Both Eliot and Montale explored this fragmented world," observed Craft, "in order to fathom the mystery of human life. It must be pointed out, however, that Eliot emerges from his existential wilderness or wasteland to find resolution in the framework of Christianity. Montale's quest, on the other hand, never leads to final answers. The fundamental questions regarding life, death and human fate posed in the early poetry are deepened, repeated but not resolved in later verse."
Although his poetry was largely responsible for Montale's worldwide fame, he received considerable critical attention in the United States with the posthumous publication of Galassi's translation of a compilation of his essays, The Second Life of Art: Selected Essays of Eugenio Montale. Even though in the last three decades of his life Montale came to be regarded—mainly due to his position as literary editor for Milan's Corriere della Sera —"as the Grand Old Man of Italian criticism," according to a London Times writer, this book of essays was one of the first collections of the Italian's critical prose to appear in English. Galassi saw theses essays as both "selections from an unwritten intellectual autobiography" of Montale and "the rudiments of a context in which to view Montale's greatest work, his poetry."
- Ossi di seppia (also see below), Gobetti (Turin), 1925, reprinted, Mondadori, 1983, translation by Antonio Mazza published as The Bones of Cuttlefish, Mosaic Press, 1983, reprinted as Cuttlefish Bones: 1920-1927,W. W. Norton, 1992.
- La casa dei doganieri e altri versi (title means "The Customs House and Other Poems"; also see below), Antico Fattore (Florence), 1932.
- Le occasioni (includes poems originally published in La casa dei doganieri e altri versi; also see below), Einaudi (Turin), 1939, reprinted, Mondadori, 1970, translation by William Arrowsmith published as The Occasions,Norton, 1987.
- Finisterre(also see below), Collana di Lugano (Lugano), 1943.
- Poesie, Mondadori, Volume I: Ossi di seppia, 1948, reprinted, 1968, Volume II: Le occasioni, 1949, Volume III: La bufera e altro(also see below), 1957.
- La bufera e altro (includes poems published in Finisterre), Neri Pozza (Venice), 1956, translation by Charles Wright published as The Storm and Other Poems, Oberlin College, 1978, translation by Arrowsmith published as The Storm and Other Things,Norton, 1986.
- Poems,translation by Edwin Morgan, School of Art, University of Reading (England), 1959.
- Poesie di Montale(bilingual edition), with English adaptations of Montale's poems by Robert Lowell, Lanterna (Bologna), 1960.
- Accordi e pastelli,Strenna per gli Amici, 1962.
- Satura (collection of five poems), [Verona], 1963, translation by Donald Sheehan and David Keller published as Satura: Five Poems, Francesco, 1969, revised Italian edition published with "Xenia"(sequence of poems; also see below) as Satura: 1962-1970(also see below), Mondadori, 1971.
- Poesie: Poems (bilingual edition), translation and introduction by George Kay, Edinburgh University Press, 1964, published as Selected Poems of Eugenio Montale,Penguin, 1969.
- Selected Poems(bilingual edition), introduction by Glauco Cambon, New Directions, 1965.
- Il colpevole,V. Scheiwiller (Milan), 1966.
- Provisional Conclusions: A Selection of the Poetry of Eugenio Montale, 1920-1970(bilingual edition), translation by Edith Farnsworth, Regenery, 1970.
- Xenia,translation by Ghan Singh, Black Sparrow Press, 1970.
- Trentadue variazioni,G. Lucini, 1973.
- Diario del '71 e del '72(also see below), Mondadori, 1973.
- Motetti: The Motets of Eugenio Montale (bilingual edition; poems originally included in Le occasioni), translation by Lawrence Kart, Grabhorn Hoyem Press, 1973, reprinted, Graywolf Press, 1990.
- Selected Poems(Italian text), edited with English introduction, notes, and vocabulary by Singh, with a preface by the author, Manchester University Press, 1975.
- New Poems (selections from Satura: 1962-1970 and Diario del '71 e del '72), translation and introduction by Singh, with an essay by F. R. Leavis, New Directions, 1976.
- Xenia and Motets(bilingual edition), translation by Kate Hughes, Agenda Editions, 1977.
- Tutte le poesie (title means "All the Poems"), Mondadori, 1977, revised edition, 1984.
- L'opera in versi (title means "Poetical Works"; two volumes), edited by Rosanna Bettarini and Gianfranco Contini, Einaudi, 1980.
- It Depends: A Poet's Notebook (bilingual edition), translation of Quaderno di quattro anni(also see below) and introduction by Singh, New Directions, 1980.
- Altre versi e poesie disperse (anthology), Mondadori, 1981, translation by Jonathan Galassi published as Otherwise: Last and First Poems of Eugenio Montale(bilingual edition), Random House, 1984.
- The Coastguard's House: Selected Poems,translation by Jeremy Reed, Bloodaxe, 1990.
- Collected Poems 1916-1956,translation by Jonathon Galassi, Farrar, 1997.
- Collected Poems, 1920-1954, Farrar, Straus, & Giroux (New York, NY), 1998.
- La solitudine dell'artista,Associazione Italiana per la Liberta della Cultura (Rome), 1952.
- La farfalla di Dinard (short articles, prose poems, and memoirs), Neri Pozza, 1956, expanded edition, Mondadori, 1960, translation by Singh published as The Butterfly of Dinard,London Magazine Editions, 1970, University Press of Kentucky, 1971.
- Eugenio Montale/Italo Svevo: Lettere, con gli scritti de Montale su Svevo (title means "Eugenio Montale/Italo Svevo: Letters, with Montale's Writings on Svevo"), De Donato, 1966, published as Italo Svevo-Eugenio Montale: Carteggio (title means "Italo Svevo-Eugenio Montale: Correspondence"), Mondadori, 1976.
- Auto da fe: Cronache in due tempi (title means "Act of Faith: Chronicles from Two Periods"), Il Saggiatore (Milan), 1966.
- Fuori di case (title means "Away from Home"; travel pieces), R. Riccardi (Milan), 1969.
- La poesia non esiste (title means "Poetry Does not Exist"), All'insegna del Pesce d'Oro (Milan), 1971.
- Nel nostro tempo, Rizzoli (Milan), 1972, translation by Alastair Hamilton published as Poet in Our Time,Urizen Books, 1976.
- Sulla poesia (title means "On Poetry"), edited by Giorgio Zampa, Mondadori, 1976.
- Selected Essays,translation and introduction by Singh, with foreword by the author, Carcanet New Press, 1978.
- Montale comenta Montale (title means "Montale Speaks on Montale"), edited by Lorenzo Greco, Pratiche (Parma), 1980.
- Prime alla Scala (title means "Openings at the Scala"; collected writings on music), Mondadori, 1981.
- Lettere a Salvatore Quasimodo(correspondence), Bompiani, 1981.
- I miei scritti sul 'Mondo': Da Bonsanti a Pannunzio,edited by Giovanni Spadolini, Le Monnier (Florence), 1981.
- The Second Life of Art: Selected Essays of Eugenio Montale,translation, introduction, and notes by Galassi, Ecco Press, 1982.
- Quaderno genovese (title means "Genoan Diary"; memoirs), Mondadori, 1983.
- L'arte de Leggere: Una Conversazione Svizzera, Interlinea (Novara, Italy), 1998.
- Herman Melville, La storia di Billy Budd,[Milan], 1942.
- Eugene O'Neill, Strano interludio,Edizione Teatro dell Universita (Rome), 1943.
- Quaderno di traduzioni(translations of Shakespeare, T. S. Eliot, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and others), Edizioni della Meridiana, 1948.
- Shakespeare, Amleto, principe di Danimarca,Cederna (Milan), 1949.
- John Steinbeck, Al dio sconosciuto,[Milan], 1954.
- Troilo e Cressida: Opera in tre atti(translation of Christopher Hassall's libretto), Carisch (Milan), 1956.
- Angus Wilson, La cicuta e dopo,[Milan], 1956.
- Jorge Guillen, Jorge Guillen: Tradotto da Eugenio Montale, All'insegna del Pesce d'Oro, 1958.
- Mario Praz, editor, Teatro,[Milan], 1942.
- A. Obertello, editor, Teatro elizabettiano,[Milan], 1951.
- E. F. Accorocca, editor, Ritratti su misura,Socalizio del libro (Venice), 1960.
- G. Macchia, editor, Teatro francese del grande secolo,[Turin ], 1960.
- Gianandrea Gavazzeni, editor, I nemici della musica, All'insegna del Pesce d'Oro, 1965.
- (Author of preface) Camillo Sbarbaro, Poesia e prosa, Mondadori, 1979.
- Almansi, Guido and Bruce Merry, Eugenio Montale,Edinburgh University Press, 1978.
- Biasin, Gian-Paolo, Montale, Debussy, and Modernisn, Princeton University, 1989.
- Burnshaw, Stanley, editor, The Poem Itself,Horizon Press, 1981.
- Cambon, Glauco, Eugenio Montale,Columbia University Press, 1972.
- Cary, Joseph, Three Modern Poets: Saba, Ungaretti, Montale,New York University Press, 1969.
- Contemporary Literary Criticism,Gale, Volume 7, 1977, Volume 9, 1978, Volume 18, 1981.
- Montale, Eugenio, The Second Life of Art: Selected Essays of Eugenio Montale,edited and with an introduction by Jonathan Galassi, Ecco Press, 1982.
- Pipa, Arshi, Montale and Dante,University of Minnesota Press, 1968.
- Singh, Ghan, Eugenio Montale: A Critical Study of His Poetry, Prose, and Criticism,Yale University Press, 1973.
- West, Rebecca J., Eugenio Montale: Poet on the Edge, Harvard University Press, 1981.
- Books Abroad,winter, 1947, summer, 1957, winter, 1967, autumn, 1971, winter, 1976.
- Los Angeles Times Book Review,February 24, 1985.
- Nation,October 9, 1976.
- New Republic,July 17, 1976, February 25, 1985.
- New York Review of Books,October 20, 1966, June 1, 1972, June 9, 1977, February 17, 1983.
- New York Times Book Review,May 30, 1976, November 14, 1982, November 18, 1984, February 23, 1986.
- Parnassus: Poetry in Review,spring-summer, 1977.
- Publishers Weekly,July 19, 1993, p. 239.
- Saturday Review of Literature,July 18, 1936.
- Times Literary Supplement,January 27, 1978, September 4, 1981, October 16, 1981, January 8, 1982, November 8, 1982, August 5, 1983.
- Village Voice,November 10, 1975.
- Washington Post Book World,January 2, 1983.
- World Literature Today, autumn, 1981, spring, 1984.
- New York Times, September 14, 1981.
- London Times, September 14, 1981.
- Newsweek, September 28, 1981.
- Publishers Weekly, September 25, 1981.
- Time, September 28, 1981.
- Washington Post, September 14, 1981.*