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Saba, Umberto (1883-1957)  

The bisexual poet who published under the name Umberto Saba wrote poems that expressed his love both of his wife and daughter and of adolescent boys.

Saba's real name was Umberto Poli. His Christian father abandoned his Jewish mother while she was pregnant, so Saba was brought up by his mother and some aunts in the Jewish quarter of Trieste. (He did not meet his father until the age of twenty.) He received very little formal education, a fact that probably contributes to the limpid quality of his verse.

In 1902, he gave up business to devote himself to poetry; he made his living by freelancing for newspapers. In 1908, he did a year's military service in Salerno and then returned to Trieste to get married. In 1919, he bought a bookstore in Trieste, and in 1921, published a collection of his poems under his own imprint. He gave them the title Il canzoniere (The Songbook).

With the poems arranged as if in a narrative order, the book derived its unity from being read as a continuous lyric autobiography. Saba gradually added to the volume, and new editions appeared in 1945, 1951, and 1961. Eventually it contained more than four hundred poems, written over a fifty year period.

Being of mixed race, Saba had to leave Trieste during the Nazi occupation. He fled to Florence and spent the duration moving from house to house to keep one step ahead of possible deportation.

This period apart, his life was uneventful, and the poetic autobiography is less concerned with events than with people--often with people he had loved. He spoke of his life as being "relatively poor in external events but rich in emotions and inner resonances."

Much of Saba's fame rests on poems he wrote about or to his wife Carolina (Lina) and his daughter Lina (Linuccia), who was born in 1910. But Il canzoniere is also full of boys. Saba once said that a poet is "a child who marvels at what happens to him when he grows up"; and, indeed, the spirit of the book is very close to adolescence.

A nostalgic aura of male puberty, whether the poet's own or that of boys his roving eye admires in later life, hangs over many poems. In "Un ricordo" ("A Memory"), Saba recalls a friendship that he now, in adulthood, recognizes as having been his first love affair. Nor does age diminish his capacity for "loving friendship" ("amicizia amorosa"), as he demonstrates in the poem "Vecchio e giovane," which begins with the words "An old man loved a boy."

The mood of the book is often melancholic but never depressive. It is true that each beautiful boy proves the older poet's mortality; but each also enables him to reacquaint himself with joys he first encountered when he, too, was young.

Late in his life, a few weeks after his seventieth birthday in 1953, when he had virtually given up writing poetry, Saba began the short novel Ernesto in which he revisited not only the scenes but also the moods of his puberty. Autobiographical at least in part--but to what extent is not clear--the novel chronicles a boy's sexual awakening, starting when he loses his virginity to a man he works with. Subsequently, he has his first heterosexual experience with a prostitute, forms a loving friendship with another boy, and in the end, meets the girl who will eventually become his wife.

Saba died in 1957. Ernesto was published posthumously in 1975 and subsequently filmed. Saba is generally ranked alongside the greatest of modern Italian poets, Eugenio Montale and Giuseppe Ungaretti. He should also be included in the canon of significant gay writers of the modernist period.

Gregory Woods


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Saba, Umberto. Il Canzoniere. Torino: Einaudi, 1961.

_____. Ernesto. Manchester: Carcanet, 1987.

_____. Thirty-one Poems. Manchester: Carcanet, 1980.


    Citation Information
    Author: Woods, Gregory  
    Entry Title: Saba, Umberto  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
    Publication Date: 2002  
    Date Last Updated November 16, 2002  
    Web Address  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 1995, 2002 New England Publishing Associates  


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