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Saba, Umberto

SABA, UMBERTO (pseudonym of Umberto Poli; 1883–1957), Italian poet. Saba's mother, a niece of S.D. *Luzzatto, was abandoned by her Catholic husband before the birth of her son, and some scholars have argued that he adopted the Hebrew surname Saba ("grandfather") as a tribute to Luzzatto; but more likely the surname was chosen by him for its assonance to his Slovenian nurse's name, Saber. In his youth, Saba struggled with hardship and poverty and, after abandoning commercial studies, joined the mercantile marine and later the army, enlisting in an infantry regiment in 1908. His early Versi militari date back to those years and were later collected, with others, in Coi miei occhi (1912), the book which first brought him renown. Saba opened a secondhand bookshop in Trieste, his birthplace, which became a rendezvous for poets and writers. For almost 30 years he continued to publish poetry, but, despite its favorable reception by critics, he remained a literary outsider. Antisemitic persecution did not spare Saba: aware of the conflict between the two worlds to which he belonged, he chose to share the fate of the Jews. He immigrated to Paris, but returned to Italy in 1943, and remained in hiding until the end of World War II. Sick and exhausted, he then returned to Trieste.

Saba is considered one of the major contemporary Italian poets. His themes include Trieste, its sailors and people, his troubled youth, his wife, daughter, and friends, human suffering, animals, and nature. His verse is tinged with melancholy and pessimism, and enriched with a deep feeling for the world's misery, and eagerness for warm human contacts. With his lucid style, and a language that is almost prosaic in its use of everyday words and expressions, Saba achieves a musical and deeply poetic effect. His works include Il Canzoniere (1921), Autobiografia (1924), Figure e canti (1926), Tre Composizioni (1933), and Parole (1934). Poems of the years 1900–54 appear in a second Canzoniere (1963), while a complete edition of his poems has been published in a dozen volumes.

In order to explain the inner development of his poetry, Saba wrote a detailed self-critical and autobiographical essay in Storia e cronistoria del Canzoniere (1948). Autobiographic details also appear in two other prose works, Scorciatoie e raccontini (1946) and Ricordi-Racconti (1956). In the latter, some chapters collected under the title "Gli Ebrei" ("Jews," pp. 22–87, with a preamble by Carlo *Levi) give sketches of the life of the Jewish community of Trieste in the author's boyhood years. Among these sketches there is a description of an episode in the life of the young Luzzatto. Notes at the end of each narrative show that Saba had some knowledge of Hebrew and of the vernacular of Trieste's Jews. In his introduction to "Gli Ebrei" Saba emphasizes, somehow apologetically, that these tales, describing Jewish life in Trieste in an ironical and not always sympathetic way, were written at the beginning of the 20th century, far before the explosion of antisemitism in Europe and the tragedy of the Holocaust. Also in his poetry Saba shows ambivalence towards his Jewish roots, sometimes identifying himself with his Jewish ancestors and relatives, and sometimes criticizing them. Many of his poems have been translated into other languages.


G. Debenedetti, Saggi critici, 1 (1929), 91ff.; idem, in: Nuovi argomenti (1958), 7–18; S. Solmi, Scrittori… (1963), 32–38, 72–77, 135–40; G. Ravegnani, I Contemporanei (19602), index; W. Binni, Critici e poeti dal Cinquecento al Novecento (19632), 223–36; G. Titta Rosa, Poesia Italiana del Novecento (1953); F. Portinari, Umberto Saba (It., 1963); E. Caccia, Lettura e storia di Saba (1967); G.G. Ferrero, L'Opera poetica di Umberto Saba (1958); N. Baldi, Il paradiso di Saba (1958). ADD. BIBLIOGRAPHY: G. Voghera, Gli anni della psicanalisi (1980), 53–102 and passim; H. Stuart Hughes, Prisoners of Hope (1983), 32–33; G. Lopez, "Umberto Saba e l'anima ebraica," in: M. Carla and L. De Angelis, L'ebraismo nella letteratura italiana del Novecento (1995), 87–99.