Salvatore Quasimodo

Banquet speech


Salvatore Quasimodo’s speech at the Nobel Banquet at the City Hall in Stockholm, December 10, 1959


I have always thought of Sweden as a country adopted by the men who received the Nobel Prize, that unique and brilliant distinction in contemporary civilization. No other nation, in fact, has succeeded in proposing, much less realizing, a similar prize. Although it originates in a country of a few million men, the Nobel Prize is a model of universality, charged with an active and spiritual significance.

The Prize, an award not easily attainable, arouses the passions of men of every political faction in every nation – a sign of its omnipresence and of that gulf which the writer, or poet, or philosopher finds opening before him. Culture, however, has always repulsed the recurrent threat of barbarism, even when the latter was heavily armed and seething with confused ideologies. Here around me are the representatives of one of the most ancient Northern civilizations, which in the course of its rugged history has found itself fighting next to those who have determined the extent of human liberties. It is a civilization which has produced humanist kings and queens, great poets and writers. These poets, both past and contemporary, are known in Italy today, even if only for the volatile side of their restless temperaments and their brooding spirits. From an allegorical presence, inspired by the fabled memories of the Vikings, these difficult and musical names have come to be honoured by us. They speak more forcefully to us than do the poets of other civilizations that are decaying or already buried in the dust of a Renaissance rhetoric. My purpose is neither to eulogize nor subtly to congratulate myself, but rather to criticize the intellectual condition of Europe, when I affirm that Sweden and her people through their choices have consistently challenged and influenced the culture of the world. I have already said that the poet and writer help change the world. This may seem presumptuous or merely a relative truth, but, in order to justify tumult or acquiescence, one need only think of the reactions that poets provoke, both in their own societies and elsewhere. You know that poetry reveals itself in solitude, and that from this solitude it moves out in every direction; from the monologue it reaches society without becoming either sociological or political. Poetry, even lyrical poetry, is always «speech». The listener may be the physical or metaphysical interior of the poet, or a man, or a thousand men. Narcissistic feeling, on the other hand, turns inward upon itself like a circle; and by means of alliteration and of evocative sounds it echoes the myths of other men in forgotten epochs of history.

Today we can talk of a neo-humanism on earth in an absolute sense – a neo-humanism without equal for man. And if the poet finds himself at the centre of this temporary physical structure, which was made in part by his spirit and intelligence, is he still a dangerous being? The question is not rhetorical but an ellipsis of the truth. The world today seems allied with the side opposed to poetry. And for the world, the poet’s very presence is an obstacle to be overcome. He must be annihilated. The force of poetry, on the other hand, fans out in every direction in organized societies; and if literary games escape the sensibilities of men everywhere, a poetic activity that is inspired by humanism does not.

I have always thought that one of my poems was written for the men of the North, as well as for those of the Dark Continent or of the East. The universality of poetry is crucial to its form, its style, let us say (that is, the concentrated power of its language). But universality is also what was not there before and what one man contributes to the other men of his time. Such universality is not founded on abstract concepts or on a harmful morality – even worse when moralism is involved – but rather on a direct concreteness and on a unique spiritual condition.

My idea of beauty is embodied not only in harmony but also in dissonance, for even dissonance can attain the precision of a poetic form. Whether we think of painting or sculpture or music, the aesthetic, moral, and critical problems are the same; and likes and dislikes are similar. Greek beauty has been imperiled by contemporary man, who has destroyed form only to seek a new form for his imitation of life – an imitation, that is, which will reveal the very workings of nature. I speak of the poet, of this singular imperfection of nature, who builds his own real existence piece by piece out of the language of men. This language, however, is constructed from a sincerely reasoned syntax, not from a deceptive one. Every experience in life (whether lived or felt) initially involves an unexpected moral disintegration, a spiritual imbalance manifesting itself gradually, and a fear of prolonging a spiritual condition which has already collapsed under the weight of history. For the man of letters as for the transitory critic, the poet always keeps an inaccurate diary, always plays with a terrestrial theology. Indeed, it is certain that this critic will write that such poems are but ponderous restatements of an ars nova – restatements of an art, of a new language which did not exist before these poems were written (thus the history of poetic form is overturned). Perhaps the latter is a way of rendering solitude bearable and of naming the coldest objects that enclose it. The poet’s evil influence? Perhaps, because no one ever fills the silence of those men who may read just one poem of a new poet, certainly not the fragile critic, who fears that a sequence of fifteen or twenty verses may be true. The investigation of the concept of purity is yet to be done in this century of divisions which are, in appearance, political; a century in which the lot of the poet is confused and hardly human. His latest rhapsodies are always viewed with suspicion for their understanding of the heart.

I have spoken here not to propose a poetics nor to establish aesthetic standards but to salute a land for its sturdier men, who are very precious to our civilization, and who come from the adopted country of which I spoke before. I now find myself in this country.

I salute and profoundly thank your Majesties the King and Queen of Sweden, Your Royal Highnesses, and the Swedish Academy. Its eighteen members, wise and stern judges, have decided, in awarding the Nobel Prize to my poetry, to honour Italy, which has been very rich during this first half century, up to the most recent generation, in works of literature, art, and thought fundamental to our civilization.

Prior to the speech, E. Johnson, Member of the Swedish Academy, addressed the Italian poet: «You are, Mr. Salvatore Quasimodo, the winner of this year’s Prize in Literature. In you Italy has found a restorer of her modern poetry. Your poetic work bears the mark of a country and basks in the light of a culture both of which have for centuries given much to civilization. You have entitled one of your poems ‹Uomo del mio tempo›. In it the tone and the images evoke the often brutal reality in which we live. You yourself are a man of our time, in the most profound sense of the word. Your work reflects the trials, the miseries, and the hopes of our epoch. You understand the problems of our society, and your heart is compassionate toward the unfortunate, the disinherited. Such is the fundamental quality of your poetry».

From Nobel Lectures, Literature 1901-1967, Editor Horst Frenz, Elsevier Publishing Company, Amsterdam, 1969

Copyright © The Nobel Foundation 1959

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