Montale was born in Genoa. While young, he studied opera singing with the baritone Ernesto Sivori. During World War I he served as an infantry officer and saw combat in Anghebeni and Cumerlotti. Afterwards, he turned to work as a poet.
In 1925, his first collection Ossi di seppia ("Cuttlefish Bones") appeared. The Mediterranean landscape of Montale's native Liguria was a strong presence in his first poems. The poem "Arsenio" appeared in T.S. Eliot's review Criterion.
Montale subsequently moved to Florence. From 1933 to 1938 he was acquainted with Irma Brandeis, a Jewish-American scholar of Dante who occasionally visited Italy for short visits before returning to the United States. After falling in love with Brandeis, Montale's recollection of her ceased to be literal and she became a mediatrix figure like Dante's Beatrice. Montale's second collection Le occasioni (1939) contains numerous allusions to Brandeis, here called Clizia.
La bufera e altro ("The Storm and Other Things") was published in 1956 and marks the end of Montale's most acclaimed poetry. Here his figure Clizia is joined by La Volpe ("the Fox"), based on the young poetess Maria Luisa Spaziani with whom Montale had an affair during the 1950s.
Montale's later poetry is wry and ironic, musing on the critical reaction to his earlier works and on the constantly changing world around him. Satura contains a poignant elegy to his wife Drusilla Tanzi.
In 1996 a work appeared called Posthumous Diary (Diario postumo) that purported to be a literary time-bomb constructed by Montale before his death with the help of the young poet Annalisa Cima. Critical reaction at first varied, with some believing that Cima had forged the collection outright, though now the work is generally considered authentic.