Eugenio Montale

La rondine vi porta
fili d’erba, non vuole che la vita passi.
Ma tra gli argini, a notte, l’acqua morta
logora i sassi.
Sotto la torce fumicosa sbanda
sempre qualche ombra sulle prode vuote.
Nel cerchio della piazza una sarabanda,
S’aggita al mugghio dei battelli a ruote.


Eugenio Montale

The swallow brings there
blades of grass, it would that life not wane.
But along the banks, at night, dead water
erodes the stone.
Under the smoky glow slips
forever a shadow on the deserted piers.
In the circle of the plaza the masses
stir to the whirr of the paddle-wheels.

Translation ©Matilda Colarossi


In the very first line of the poem, “vi porta…”may easily cause confusion in the Italian reader, and, therefore, the translator. It can, in fact, be translated as “The swallows bring you”; luckily the line is explained by Montale himself in a letter to Contini, dated August 15, 1945, in reference to a French translation of the poem. In the letter he, in fact, states: “ La rondine vi porta: brings there, evidente [mente] in rapport al titolo.” So, we know for a fact that what the poet wanted to say was “Le rondini vi (a Lindau) portano, fili d’erba/ the swallows bring there (to Lindau) blades of grass…”

The swallow is, as always, a symbol of spring and, therefore, life renewed, but here the nest is but blades of grass, a fragile refuge from the passing of time, as are the banks, in line three (a juxtaposition of the two states, and the only one present in the text) and the stones that are worn away by the “dead water”.

For “between the banks” we have Montale’s explanatory note: “Lindau: on Lake Costance”, an island which is connected to the mainland by a road bridge.

The “torcia fumicosa/ smoky glow” in line 5, takes us back to another poem by Montale: Costa San Giorgio, in which “Un fuoco fatua impolvera la strada”. The ignis fatuus, or will-o’-the-wisp, is an atmospheric ghost light seen at night over bogs, or marshes, and which resembles a flickering lamp. This light, as in the poem, Lindau, draws travellers from the safe path.

In line 5, the word “sbanda/ slips”, which is linked to the idea of the ignis fatuus, also calls to mind another poem, by another poet, Pascoli: Il giorno dei morti, in which: “Sibila tra la festa lagrimosa/ una folata, e tutto agita e sbanda…”

The rhyme is ABAB, CDCD. Something was, as usual, lost in translation.- M.C.

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