The Lemons by Eugenio Montale

The Lemons

Listen to me, the poets laureate move only among plants with rare names: boxwood, privet and acanthus. But I like roads that lead to grassy ditches where boys scoop up a few starved eels out of half-dry puddles: paths that run along the banks come down among the tufted canes and end in orchards, among the lemon trees.

Better if the riot of the birds dies out, swallowed by the blue: we’ll hear more of the whispering of friendly branches in not-quite-quiet air, and the sensations of this smell that can’t divorce itself from earth and rains a restless sweetness on the heart. Here, by some miracle, the war of troubled passions calls a truce; here we poor, too, receive our share of riches, which is the fragrance of the lemons.

See, in these silences where things give over and seem on the verge of betraying their final secret, sometimes we feel we’re about to uncover an error in Nature, the still point of the world, the link that won’t hold, the thread to untangle that will finally lead to the heart of a truth. The eye scans its surroundings, the mind inquires aligns divides in the perfume that diffuses at the day’s most languid. It’s in these silences you see in every fleeting human shadow some disturbed Divinity.

But the illusion fails, and time returns us to noisy cities where the blue is seen in patches, up between the roofs. And the rain exhausts the earth; winter’s tedium weighs the houses down, the light turns miserly – the soul bitter. Till one day through a half-shut gate in a courtyard, there among the trees, the yellow of the lemons is revealed; and the chill in the heart thaws, and deep in us the golden horns of sunlight pelt their songs.

Translated by Jonathan Galassi

The lemon trees

Eugenio Montale

Listen to me, laurel-wreathed poets move only among plants with noble names: boxwood acanthus or privets. I, for one, love roads that lead to grass covered ditches where in partly desiccated puddles children catch the occasional eel: the lanes that coast these banks descend through tufts of cane and open onto orchards thick with lemons.

Better if the chirruping of the birds dissolves, swallowed by the azure: more clearly, then, resounds the murmur of the amicable branches in an air that is almost still, and the essences of this fragrance which cannot separate itself from the terrain and showers our breast with tumultuous stillness. Here our unsettling passions are miraculously put to rest, here we poor beings too may enjoy our share of wealth and it’s the fragrance of the lemons.

You see, in this silence in which all things abandon themselves and seem close to betraying their ultimate secret, we sometimes expect to find a fault in Nature, the dead nub of the earth, the weak link, the thread that untangled finally places us within reach of a truth. Our eyes search all around, our mind probes accords partitions in the fragrance that sweeps over us when the day is most sluggish. It is the stillness in which we see in every human shadow that drifts away some disturbed Deity.

But the illusion is incomplete and time restores us to the noisy cities where the azure appears in wedges, high above us, between the cornices. The rain then wearies the earth; the tedium of winter thickens over the houses, the light becomes dim – grim the soul. Then one day through a half-open gate among the trees in an orchard we see a glimpse of yellow lemons; and the ice in our hearts melts, and in our breast thunder their songs the golden trumpets of radiance.

Translated by Matilda Colarossi