ENGLISH AND AMERICAN readers of poetry who

could not read Italian had to wait until the middle and late 1960s to find out that a great poet named Eugenio Montale had survived two wars and the rule of Mussolini while producing a body of lyric poetry nearly unrivaled in this century for originality and beauty. I well remember the rising excitement with which I first shuttled clumsily between the Italian text and the English prose version of a Montale poem in The Penguin Book of Italian Verse; Keats' figure for his encounter with Homer is scarcely an exaggeration: "Then felt I like some watcher of the skies/ When a new planet swims into his ken."

We are still learning new facts about the planet Montale. The revelation provided by this handsome volume is that he was a man of letters in the full sense of the term, a writer of essays on a wide range of subjects-- politics, history, geography, and theory and practice in the arts, with literature always the central concern. Many of these pieces were journalistic, necessitated in part by the need to earn a living. But that they represented a practice entirely congenial to the poet's temperament is clear to anyone who goes browsing in Jonathan Galassi's excellent selection for The Second Life of Art. Montale himself understood his tendencies clearly, as a letter written in 1926 to Italo Svevo, who was urging him to take up fiction, demonstrates:

"I shall continue to write poems for several years, because it is the one form that I feel is possible for me today. Don't be surprised that there can be a temperament directed toward the lyric and literary criticism: from Baudelaire to Eliot and Val,ery, how many have experienced the same fate?"

The writer of that letter, just turned 30, puts himself in very good company, but the comparison, as this collection demonstrates, is just. Montale as an essayist shows the range, tact, imagination and sound judgment that characterize his models, and we must be grateful to Jonathan Galassi for bringing such a substantial number of Montale's writings (from 1925 to 1975) into clear and supple English.

This is not a book that requires cover-to-cover reading; it is rather a collection to browse in. You can join the author in "A Visit to Brancusi," which will show you Montale's command of history and theory in the visual arts, along with his superb gifts as a storyteller:

"He signaled for me to enter, went up to the 'works,' and began uncovering and then instantaneously re- covering them with their hoods. In a flash of light I saw highly polished torpedo-like forms, spiral rings, columns of wood on which an eye or an ear was faintly marked, two cubes side by side (Les pigeons), several other structures of ramified metal, a pair of funnel-shaped umbrella stands; but the inexorable hoods fell over everything, and after an instant I found myself confronted with a hostile beard and a look devoid of all human sympathy."

And if you decide to seek insights into the poets of our own language, you won't come away disappointed. Montale is compassionate and appreciative, but he never fudges on matters of judgment. Pound and his followers, he recognizes, "were rich in an abridged, night-school, accelerated-course culture." The observation comes in a review of an Italian translation of The Pisan Cantos, where Montale offers us this astute summary:

"Philosopher, economist, aesthete, desperately individualist and egocentric, an aristocratic socialist who denied both Marx and the rights of man; antidemocratic, anti-capitalist, anti-American, and, alas, anti-Semitic and pro-Nazi, Pound turned these feelings over and over in his Cantos, in bits and pieces, in sobs and hiccoughs . . ."

Elsewhere, Pound's achievements are duly noted, and we learn that the two men were friends; but Montale says here what must be said if one is not simply to be a disciple.

Even T.S. Eliot, whom Montale admired most of all ("a poet whose career and significance I consider exemplary") does not escape clear-eyed assessment:

"T.S. Eliot has the tone of a great poet, but in him music and thought often have difficulty harmonizing. The Waste Land seems to me to be only externally unified, sewn together with thread. His first lyrics, several of the Ariel Poems, and various scenes from The Cocktail Party are probably his high points. Eliot can talk all he wants to about classicism: to succeed he has to make us smell the odor of chloroform."

There is nothing acerbic or envious about such judgments; one is simply in the presence of a poet who reads literary texts with great acumen and reports his reactions with total candor. The results are continuously refreshing.

To leave the impression that the book is all visits to Brancusi and musings on Pound and Eliot, however, is to do it an injustice. It is finally a composite self-portrait of a man who lived through catastrophic events, trying to remain true to his art and clear as to his values. While Montale's poems can be startlingly visionary, his prose shows how much he valued steadiness, reason and erudition in daily life. Planting his feet and folding his arms, as it were, he tried to see the world about him, a swirl of political factions and artistic manifestos, coolly but sympathetically. A statement he made in an interview in 1960 seems to me to characterize the sensible underpinning he maintained for those poems that sometimes soar to dizzy altitudes. Asked about "social involvement" as an imperative for poets, he replied as follows:

"The poet's engagement is total, and the poet, as an individual, may even belong to a political party (though he need not necessarily do so): but the poet is certainly not obligated to write 'political' poems. He may do so, he may even have to, if his inspiration dictates them. But social engagement doesn't operate in only one narrow direction. Haven't there been revolutionary writers (or poets) who have believed they were professing reactionary ideas? (Baudelaire and Dostoevski, for example.) Art isn't made with opinions, though there are cases where opinions become one's lifeblood, and then they too enter into the realm of art. Very occasionally, this has also happened to me."

There's nothing astonishing about that statement, but it cuts through more nonsense and has more wisdom and balance than most things one sees on the subject. For insights of the kind, this is a book that anyone who cares for literature and its complex relation to history and culture will want to treasure and celebrate.