Salvatore Quasimodo was one of the most famous Italian poets of the twentieth century. He was honoured with the prestigious Nobel Prize in Literature in 1959. The Nobel Prize in Literature is awarded annually by the Swedish Academy, Stockholm on December 10. Since 1901 there have been six winners of Italian descent.
Birth and early years
Salvatore Quasimodo was born in 1901 of Sicilian parents in Modica a small town near Syracuse, Italy. He was the son of a railway officer. He had a sister and a brother. Although he started writing in childhood he attended technical school in Palermo and studying engineering at the Rome Polytechnic since his parents felt that technical training would be more practical. He also studied Greek and Latin at the university. Due to financial constraints he was unable to complete his engineering studies. Instead he qualified as a surveyor.
After leaving his engineering studies incomplete he held a number of jobs till 1929.
In 1929 he joined the Government service and worked in the Civil Engineering Department and was sent to various parts of the country. In 1938 he resigned form his government job and became an assistant to Cesare Zavattini an editor of several periodicals. He also became the editor of the weekly magazine Tempo. He moved to Milan and permanently settled there. In 1941 he was appointed to the chair of Italian Literature at the Guiseppe Verdi Conservatory in Milan.
His literary career
Salvador Quasimodo was an Italian poet, writer, translator and critic.
As a poet
Quasimodo had always loved to write and his brother-in-law Elio Vittorini a novelist encouraged him to write professionally. Vittorini also introduced him to the literary circles. In 1930 three of his poems were published in the avant- garde review Solaria in Florence. He was established as a member of the Solaria group. This group included Gianni Manzini, Eugenio Montale, Arturo Loria and Alessandro Bonsanti. They published his first book of verse Acque e terre (Waters and Lands) later in the same year. It included poems, which were written when he was eighteen years old. This collection contained nostalgic poems about Sicily. It revealed the moods of melancholy and loneliness the poet had experienced in his early life. The recurrent themes in Quasimodo’s poems are the recollection of his childhood and Sicily both of which have had a deep impact on him. Certain landscapes, their impact on him and his experience of them is the common line running through his poetry. He connected his impressions to historical and literary associations. He also connected them to the cultural heritage of the Greeks, Arabs, Romans and other invaders of Sicily.
During the 1930’s Quasimodo was a leader of the “hermetic” school of poetry. His fellow poets in the movement included Guiseppe Ungaretti and Eugenio Montale. Two years later in 1932 he published Oboe sommerso (Sunken Oboe). The main highlight of this collection is the rhythmical arrangement of words around a lyrical nucleus. It also was a collection rich in symbolism. In 1933 he published Odore di eucalyptus (Scent of eucalyptus).
In 1936 he published Erate e Appolion and in 1938 he published Poesie. His early poems were difficult to understand. They had a metaphysical and complex imagery. Although he followed the basic adages of the hermetic school using symbolism and deeply private imagery there is an originality of word and expression, which is very evocative. In these poems he used a lot of symbolism, which was characteristic of the hermetic school of poetry. The hermetic poets used verbal complexity in their poems to discreetly oppose the policies of Benito Mussolini.
In 1940 he moved away from this type of poetry when he published the translated work Lirici Greci (Greek Lyrics). This gained him widespread recognition. This also established his reputation as a translator. In 1942 he published Poesie Nuove (New Poetry). In this poem Quasimodo expressed a greater understanding of life in general as well as revealed the influence of classical stylists on his work.
After World War II there was a shift in his perspective. He became part of an anti-Fascist group. He was briefly imprisoned. After the war he joined the Communist Party. He resigned from the party in protest. He was disillusioned with the party as it wanted him to write political poetry. Quasimodo’s later works moved away from individualism towards society as a whole.
In 1942 he published his best known work Ed e Subito Sera (And Then it was Evening). This has remained his most widely read work. After 1943 he began writing on contemporary issues including the atom bomb, the Korean War. He now began writing with an intense awareness of contemporary history but with hope for the future. His post war publications reflected these sentiments.
In 1946 he wrote Giorno dopo giorno (Day after Day). This poem reflected the hardships faced by his country due to the war. It also expressed his personal anguish and horror at Italy’s role in the war. It has been characterized by some to be the best poetry that was written after World War II. He wrote La vita non e sogno (Life is not a Dream) in 1949. In 1956 he published Il falso e vero verde (The False and the True Green). In 1958 he published La terra impareggiabile (The Incomparable Earth).
This was his humane period where he was involved in social conditions, the horrors of war, contemporary history and human misery. He was deeply concerned with social issues and reflected deeply on the fate of his beloved Italy. He was committed to the plight of the modern man and expressed this sentiment through his poetry. He had a mature style and wrote sensitively. He continued writing in this vein till his death. His last four volumes of verse show his continuing concern for social justice. They also speak of old loves and old friends.
His last book of verse Dare e avere was (To Give and To Have) was published in 1966.
Some of his poetry and two of his critical essays have been translated in English as The Selected Writings of Salvatore Quasimodo in 1960 and his Selected Poems were published in 1965.
As a writer
In addition to his poetry and translation he was also a writer par excellence. In 1960 he wrote a collection of essays titled Il poeta e il politico e altri saggi (the Poet and the Politician and Other Essays). In this collection he spoke of the role of the poet in society. He also spoke of the nature of contemporary Italian verse. He also gave critical reviews of the works of Dante, Petrarch and other famous literary figures. In 1961 he also published a volume devoted to drama reviews called Scritti sul Teatro.
As a translator
He initially achieved his fame as a translator when he translated Greek Lyrics into Italian. However he also translated other famous literary works and famous poets and writers. He translated many Greek and Latin poets including Homer, Sophocles, Aeschylus, Catullus, Euripides, Ovid and Vergil. He also translated the works of the famous playwrights William Shakespeare and Moliere (Tartuffe). Some of the famous twentieth century writers including Pablo Neruda, Aiken and E.E, Cummings works were also translated into Italian by him.
The Nobel Prize
In 1959 Quasimodo was honoured with the prestigious Nobel Prize in Literature. He was awarded the prize for his lyrical poetry. The awardees felt that his poetry expressed the tragic experience of life in the current times with classical fire.
In 1953 he shared the Etna-Taormina International Prize in Poetry with Dylan Thomas. In 1958 he was honoured with the Premio Viareggio (Viareggio Prize). In 1967 he was bestowed an honorary degree from Oxford University. He has been translated by many authors from all over world and in most of the major languages of the world.
He was a small made man with a dark mustache. He was shy and quiet by nature. In 1920 he married Bica Donetti. After his wife died he married the dancer Maria Cumani in 1948. They had a son named Sandro and a daughter named Orietta. They got divorced in 1960.
While presiding over a poetry competition in Amalfi Quasimodo suffered form a massive cerebral haemorrhage and died in Naples on June 14, 1968. He was buried in Milan at the Cimitero Monumentale.
Elliot Carter has used some of Quasimodo’s works in his Italian song cycle Tempo e Tempi. The Ensemble Sospeso performed these songs in January 2004 with soprano Lucy Shelton. Thus Salvatore Quasimodo lives in the hearts and minds of the people decades after his death.
Alessandro Quasimodo the poet’s only living heir came up with the idea of setting up a Salvatore Quasimodo Literary Park. The specific purpose of this park is to preserve his poetry in the places that inspired it. The main base of the park is at Modica, Quasimodo’s birth-place, in the museum house named after him. In the town’s main square there is a spectacularly documented exhibition with panels that offer the visitor a virtual tour of his poetry. There is another permanent facility to augment knowledge on Quasimodo’s poetry in the Torre Saracena site in Roccalumera near Taormina.