Giuseppe Ungaretti 1888-1970
Italian poet, essayist, and translator.
Ungaretti was an influential figure in twentieth-century Italian poetry, who strove to create a poetry of condensation that stressed purity of images stripped of lyricism and rhetorical excess. Throughout his long and productive career, however, Ungaretti moved from the radical compression of his early works—which led to frequent charges of hermeticism—to an embrace of traditional meters and syntax in an effort to connect modernist poetry to Italy's literary heritage. Ungaretti continually revised his poems, and the variants reveal both his efforts to refine and perfect his works and his progression from innovation and experimentation to adoption of classical forms. Ungaretti's large body of work, much of it dealing with time and with overcoming the alienation of the individual, is intensely personal. A preoccupation with the mysteries of life, the condensation of ideas, and a desire to suppress the superfluous are hallmarks of his poetry. In Allen Mandelbaum's words, “Ungaretti purged the language of all that was but ornament, of all that was too approximate for the precise tension of his line. Through force of tone and sentiment, and a syntax stripped to its essential sinews, he compelled words to their primal power.”
Ungaretti was born on February 8, 1888, in Alexandria, Egypt, the second son of Antonio Ungaretti and Maria Lunardini. Alexandria at the time was a cosmopolitan city, with a strong European—particularly British and French—presence. The family lived in an outlying quarter of the city called Moharrem Bey, where his mother operated a bakery. His father died in 1900 in an accident during excavations at the Suez Canal. From 1904 to 1905 Ungaretti attended the elite French upper school Ecole Suisse Jacot, where he was introduced to European culture. Intrigued by the literary climate of the early twentieth century, he spent time in cafés with writers, artists and intellectuals. Around this time Ungaretti began a correspondence with Giuseppe Prezzolini, editor of the Florentine journal La Voce and frequented the Red Shack, a meeting place for political subversives and exiles. His discovery of nineteenth-century Italian poet Giacomo Leopardi became a major influence on his verse, as did his exposure to the works of Charles-Pierre Baudelaire, Stéphane Mallarmé, Arthur Rimbaud and Friedrich Nietzsche. In 1912 Ungaretti left Egypt to study in Paris; en route, he saw Italy for the first time. While in Paris he attended classes at the Sorbonne and studied under philosopher Henri Bergson. He also became friends with poet Guillaume Apollinaire, who shared Ungaretti's desire to experiment with verse form. In 1915 Ungaretti published his first two poems in the Futurist journal Lacerba. In the spring of that year, with Italy's entrance in to World War I, Ungaretti volunteered for the Italian army and was sent to the Austrian front, where he served in the Nineteenth Infantry Regiment. Here he began writing the poems that would make up his first collection, Il porto sepolto (1916; The Buried Port). Following the war, Ungaretti moved back to Paris and became the Paris correspondent for Il Popolo d'Italia, a newspaper founded by Benito Mussolini. In 1919 he published two volumes of verse, Allegria di naufragi (Joy of Shipwrecks) in Italian and La guerre (The War) in French. Ungaretti married Jeanne Dupoix the following year, and the couple settled in Rome, where Ungaretti worked for the foreign ministry. The first major recognition of Ungaretti's poetry came in 1932, when he won the Premio del Gondoliere in Venice. The publication of his controversial collection of poems Sentimento del tempo (1933) provoked accusations of obscurantism but brought him to the forefront of Italian poets. From 1936 to 1942 Ungaretti served as Chair of Italian Literature at the Universidade do Saõ Paulo in Brazil. He returned to Italy in 1942, when the Italian government named him to the Academy of Italy and he assumed the Chair of Modern Italian Literature at the University of Rome. In the last decades of his life Ungaretti received numerous accolades and continued to write and travel. While on a trip to the United States in 1970 he was stricken with bronchitis and died in Milan on June 2.
Major Poetic Works
Ungaretti's experiences during World War I greatly influenced his early poetry. The Buried Port, Joy of Shipwrecks, and The War all treat the horrors of battle but also speak to how out of such terrible situations humanity can come together. His 1933 collection, Sentimento del tempo, demonstrates Ungaretti's interest in time and myth and the postwar generation. A poet known for his reworking of earlier verse, Ungaretti collected revisions of poems from The Buried Port and Joy of Shipwrecks in L'Allegria (1931), a work was later incorporated into his twelve-volume Vita d'un uomo (1942–74). This latter work, spanning Ungaretti's poetic career, consists of three different parts, each of which contains revisions of earlier work, previously unpublished poetry, as well as new verse. The first part of Vita d'un uomo includes six volumes and appeared between 1942 and 1954; the second part includes three volumes and was published between 1946 and 1950; the third part contains three volumes and was issued between 1961 and 1974. The definitive collected edition of the poems of Ungaretti, Tutte le poesie, appeared in 1969.
Ungaretti's consistent efforts to pare down and attain the purest form in his verse have led some critics to judge his work labored and obscure. However, it was his continual need to refine and rework his material that has proven most influential. Furthermore, his efforts to link modernism with both the Italian and the larger European poetic traditions significantly changed the course of Italian poetry and created a sense of continuity between the past and the present. While there remains much controversy over Ungaretti's approach to language and metrics, his choice of material, and his continual revision of his works, he is often considered, as Luciano Anceschi has declared, “the most penetrating and influential and … insinuating master of poetry Italy has had” in the twentieth century.
Il porto sepolto [The Buried Port] 1916
Allegria di naufragi [The Joy of Shipwrecks] 1919
La guerre [The War] 1919
Sentimento del tempo [A Sense of Time] 1933
Il dolore [Grief] 1936; revised edition 1947
Vita d' un uomo. 12 vols. [Life of a Man] 1942-1974
La terra promessa [The Promised Land] 1950
Un grido e paesaggi 1952
Il taccuino del vecchio [edited by Leone Piccioni] 1960
Ungaretti: Poesie [edited by Elio Filippo Accrocca] 1964
Tutte le poesie 1969
Il deserto e dopo [The Desert and Afterward] (travel sketches) 1961; revised as Prose di viaggi e saggi, 1969
Vita d' un uomo: Saggi e interventi [edited by Mario Diacono and Luciano Rebay] (essays and conversations) 1974
*This work includes revised poems from Il porto sepolto and Allegria di naufragi.
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SOURCE: Anceschi, Luciano. “Ungaretti 1919-1927: The Word ‘Broken into Pauses’.” Forum Italicum (1992): 25-35.
[In the following essay, translated by John deMeo and David Jacobson from the Italian version originally published in 1974, Anceschi investigates the arc of Ungaretti's poetic career by examining his work in relationship to Futurism.]
I. A POETIC “MASTER”
Ungaretti has been the most penetrating, influential, and—if I may put it this way—insinuating master of poetry Italy has had in this century. This seems more a statement of fact than a mere opinion of his readers. It must be said that he formulated a system that served his own poetry but was useful to younger poets as well; and that, whatever the outcome of his own poetry, the lesson he provided created a line of continuity between past and present, a line further extended by those critics most receptive to the so-called “new lyricism.” All this gives his lively, at times sensational, presence in the literary culture of his day a rare exemplary status.1 Without Ungaretti, almost none of the poets after 1920 would have written quite as they did. And certainly the problems raised by Ungaretti's metrics and language, his predilections, his choices, and, in the way he approached them, even his readings, together with his sense of Italian and European tradition, have had a profound impact on...
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SOURCE: Mandelbaum, Allen. Preface to Selected Poems of Giuseppe Ungaretti, translated and edited by Allen Mandelbaum, pp. ix-xvi. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1975.
[In the following essay, Mandelbaum introduces translations of Ungaretti's poetry and traces the heritage from which Ungaretti's poetry emerges.]
In 1958, I published, under the title Life of a Man, the first volume-length selection of Giuseppe Ungaretti's poems to appear in English translation.1 Ungaretti's work had already undergone precocious immortalization, and his death in 1970 has not slowed that process. But the growth and consolidation of Ungaretti's significance have not rendered invalid the opening portion of what I said then. I cite it here in uninterrupted form, allowing what I have added now to follow from its own terrain in time:
The epigraph for all of Giuseppe Ungaretti's work is the poem that opens this volume: “Between one flower gathered and the other given / the inexpressible null.” The given word: the moment of “unmerited” poetic Grace, the word that waits not on will, but on humble expectation. The gathered word: the word wrested, won from silence or from the inertia of dying forms. Both words, the gathered and the given, were present in Ungaretti's first volume, Il Porto Sepolto (1916), written in the trenches on the Italo-Austrian...
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SOURCE: Jones, Frederic Joseph. “Personal Aesthetics and Cultural Perspectives.” In Giuseppe Ungaretti: Poet and Critic, pp. 23-59. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1977.
[In the following essay, Jones details the aesthetics of Ungaretti's poetry through multiple brief examinations, as well as considering Ungaretti in relation to other major poets.]
Any attempt to examine Ungaretti's aesthetics is bound to pose a large number of problems, partly because of the complexity of his lyrical vision and partly because his poetic manner is overlaid by an equally complex network of borrowed literary features drawn mainly from Petrarchan sources. It will not be possible to deal with all these difficulties in the space available at present, except perhaps in the broadest outlines; but by adopting a cumulative technique we hope to add more flesh and connective tissue later, when we come to an analysis of his actual poetic texts. Since Ungaretti's critical views, moreover, tend at times to determine his aesthetic interests, his consideration of other poets' work will also throw a greater light on the way in which his lyrical attitudes deepen progressively with the passage of time.
POETRY AS RE-CREATION
The foundation on which the poet's aesthetic ideas are based is the concept of creativity. Oddly enough, his first vital step in the process of poetic creation is a...
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SOURCE: Wells, Will. “Pound and Ungaretti: A Resonating Silence.” Paideuma 24, no. 2-3 (fall-winter 1995): 69-77.
[In the following essay, Wells discusses the influence that Ezra Pound had on the poetic career of Ungaretti.]
Giuseppe Ungaretti and Ezra Pound did not establish personal contact until the late 1950s, by which time both had achieved a reasonably final form in poetic practice. Nonetheless, collectively, these poets and their works have continued to exert substantial influence upon the development of virtually all major new voices in Italian poetry over the subsequent four decades. Given the particular veneration in which The Cantos are held by contemporary Italian poets, it is even arguable that Pound has usurped the mantle which Ungaretti had assumed for himself—to revolutionize the diction, gesture and aesthetics of Italian verse. Yet considering the complete trajectories of their poetic careers, a clear resonance is readily detectable. Though the question of mutual influence has yet to be fully explored, it appears to have been rather one-sided, of Pound upon Ungaretti. At the very least, these poets provide a fine example of parallel lives, and of the “natural process” of Imagism as it evolved separately in their writing.
For those unfamiliar with Ungaretti's life, a brief overview. He was born in 1888 in Alexandria, Egypt where his father was a minor...
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SOURCE: Musolino, Walter. “Physics and Metaphysics: Capture and Escape. Two War Poems of Wilfred Owen and Giuseppe Ungaretti.” Forum Italicum 30, no. 2 (fall 1996): 311-19.
[In the following essay, Musolino compares two anti-war poems, a subgenre emblematic of Ungaretti and poet Wilfred Owen.]
The tradition of war has traditionally given rise to an equal imperative in power: the tradition of poetry about war. However, if, from Homer to the French songs of chivalry, from the “Romanzo cavalleresco” of the middle and late Renaissance to the nineteenth century European patriotic odes, the grandeur of military adventure was the vision advanced, then the First World War pared away the peripheral hordes, hosts and heroes to target the minutiae of frailty, solitary consciousness and the wounded mind. Between 1914 and 1918, English war poets undoubtedly composed the most sustained body of ‘new’ war poetry—“There had been nothing like poetry of the Great War before; there had been no war like the Great War”1—and among them Wilfred Owen came to epitomize the best of their battle-cries of protest.2 In Italy, Giuseppe Ungaretti produced arguably the most influential of Italian war poetry.3 Indeed, major poets like Owen and Ungaretti were bound by a common enlistment in the poetic cause against war, or, at least, in the cause of defying war, yet the respective...
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SOURCE: Lang, Ariella. “The Sound of Silence: Words of Exile and Liberation in Ungaretti's Desert.” Rivista di Letterature moderne e comparate LIII, no. 3 (2000): 323-36.
[In the following essay Lang explores the relationship of Ungaretti's verse to his relationship with his birthplace, Egypt, versus his ancestral homeland, Italy. Lang conducts this analysis by utilizing some biographical information in her discussion of Ungaretti's poem “In Memoriam.”]
In his poem “In Memoriam”1, Ungaretti reflects upon the tragic suicide of his childhood Egyptian friend, Moammed Sceab. As a young adult, Sceab, like Ungaretti, moves to France. In his desire to assimilate into the French culture of his adopted homeland, Sceab forgets the customs of his people. This amnesia culminates when Sceab changes his name from Moammed to Marcel; his rejection of ‘Moammed’, reflective of Sceab's Arab heritage and a symbol of the very origins of the Islamic religion, represents a rejection of his family and culture. While Moammed's name change marks his attempt to forget his past and adopt a new identity, he can never fully divorce himself from his Egyptian heritage. And yet his attempts to assimilate into French society require that he erase his past. Thus Marcel excludes himself from Arab culture because he must repress all memory of his former identity. With his adoption of a new name, Sceab becomes...
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SOURCE: Frisardi, Andrew. “Giuseppe Ungaretti and the Image of Desolation.” The Hudson Review LV, no. 1 (spring 2002): 75-89.
[In the following essay, Frisardi offers a general assessment of Ungaretti's poetry through the lens of many of the details of the poet's life.]
When I read a “hermetic” poet like Ungaretti, I often get the sense that his language has been pared by doubt, as if he felt that breaking the semantic threads of grammar would clear the way for a renewed sense of meaning in his doubting heart and mind. Or maybe his stitched-together fragments represent vestiges of faith or confidence in life's meaningfulness. Either way, it is an effort, and we feel the strain of it, of a religious sensibility to construct a cloister of language in a secular age.
Allegria di Naufragi (Joy of Shipwrecks, 1919), Ungaretti's first full-length collection, established his reputation overnight as one of the leading Italian poets of his generation. Ungaretti's poetry was as new, strange, and, for many Italian readers, exciting, as “Prufrock” or “Mauberley” were to American and English readers of that period. As Eugenio Montale would say years later, the innovators of modernist poetry in Italy set out to “wring the neck of the old aulic eloquence”—namely, and immediately before them, the romanticism of Carducci, the sentimental decadence of Pascoli, and the...
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Brose, Margaret. “Dido's Turn: Cultural Syntax in Ungaretti's La Terra Promessa.” Annali d'italianistica 16 (1998): 121-43.
Looks at the textual and psychological complexities in Ungaretti's use of the figure of Dido in his unfinished poem La Terra Promessa.
Cambon, Glauco. “Giuseppe Ungaretti.” Columbia Essays on Modern Writers, no. 30 (1967): 1-48.
Chronicles the Ungaretti's career through an examination of his poetic works.
Carle, Barbara. “Ungaretti and Valery: From Intertextuality to Hypertextuality.” Italica 68, no. 1 (spring 1991): 29-42.
Explores the function of innocence and memory in Ungaretti's works.
Ghazoul, Ferial J. “The Hermetic Correlatives of Egypt in the Poetry of Ungaretti.” In Images of Egypt in Twentieth Century Literature, edited by Hoda Gindi, pp. 323-54. Cairo: Professional Printing Press, 1991.
Examines the influence of Egypt on the poetics of Ungaretti and attempts to explain how Ungaretti came to identify with Egypt.
Godorecci, Maurizio. “The Poetics of the Word in Ungaretti.” Romance Languages Annual 9 (1998): 197-201.
Examines the poetics of Ungaretti in relationship to the use of time in his works.
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