Ungaretti, Giuseppe 1888–1970
An Italian poet, translator, and critic, Ungaretti is one of the major poets of the twentieth century. Considered by many to be the father of modern Italian poetry, he adapted the conventions of French blank verse to the Italian lyric, thus revitalizing that form. A concise craftsman, he concentrated on the power of the individual word, freeing his poetry of florid rhetoric. His work is often concerned with the spiritual quest of modern man, conveyed in a dreamlike, impressionistic manner with very personal imagery. (See also CLC, Vol. 7, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 19-20; obituary, Vols. 25-28, rev. ed.; Contemporary Authors Permanent Series, Vol. 2.)
[The "I" of "I fiumi" (The Rivers)] defines itself more strongly and completely than anywhere else in L'allegria. (p. 584)
Bits of personal history rise to the surface, whether the persona evokes his lost Africa or his more recently abandoned Paris. Mostly, though, in the other poems it is a nonhistorical self that emerges (or seeks resubmersion in the All), with fragments of memory floating around. But in "I fiumi" the "I" takes stock of its whole history; it repossesses its vital ambience; it momentarily finds the "innocent country" elsewhere so poignantly missed, and strikes roots in its native soil without having to surrender its mobility. It is a historical self. Accordingly, the poem takes shape as a total epiphany rather than as a fragmentary illumination. It does not merely pierce and subvert, it orders and recapitulates—a rare operation for any modern poet whose beginnings must be subversive. Not just the moment out of time, the timeless instant; but the duration, the river of time, which one can also ply backwards, toward the source…. [The] action of recognizing himself has sprung in the persona from [the] reviewing-reliving of his own past. Memory, the Bergsonian mémoire as opposed to the inertial opacity of matière, equals consciousness and is conceived as the liberating force, in sharp contrast to later phases of Ungaretti's work where memory will be equated with guilt and phobia, "Caino" in Sentimento del tempo providing the clearest example…. There (as in "Alla noia," where memory is apostrophized as "sad mockery" and "darkness of blood") memory is the negative existential principle, the doom from which deliverance is sought, and the poet opposes it to innocence (as in his essays).
Here instead, in "I fiumi," memory is the cleansing of consciousness, and it appears as individual as well as historical, ethnic memory which extends backward into prenatal memory—a kind of historical anamnesis (notice the pointed reference to Plato's concept in Ungaretti's Ragioni d'una poesia …)…. [In] "Risvegli" anamnesis deranges the persona who … risks losing himself utterly, and has to come back to himself in an "awakening" that is the opposite of the existential recognition attained in "I fiumi"…. And in "Girovago," anamnesis takes the form of déjà vu, leading to disenchantment and estrangement, for every new place the persona visits turns out to have been only too well known from earlier, indefinable phases. Not so in "I fiumi," where anamnesis is the natural projection of individual consciousness and thus helps the self to find, to recognize himself, by constituting his history as an offshoot of his prehistory. In "Risvegli" the persona has placed himself this side of the dark beyond which is his...
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Ungaretti's poems are of their time to such an extent that within the volume that collects Vita d'un uomo, four divisions are easily seen. These divisions are: L'allegria, in which a spare and hard language describes the trenches of World War I; Sentimento del tempo, in which a more peaceful time generally gives rise to a quieter language: Il dolore and Un grido e paesaggi, in which the sheer size of World War II was enough to shatter any semblance of fragility; La terra promessa, Il taccuino del vecchio, and the latest poems, which join the previous languages of war and peace for our time.
Of all Ungaretti's works, the most peaceful are furthest from us now. But how much peace is there in these poems? Very little; even in Sentimento del tempo and the poems since Taccuino, there is often an extremely violent language.
What Ungaretti has done in his poetry is similar to what the Viennese school did to the musical tradition. Like magnets brought close at the same poles, words stand next to their surrounding words in tension…. [This] is a matter of experimental time [alteration in tempi, of varying degree, intensity, and interval]. (p. 611)
Within each line, we experience a certain logic of the flow, only to have that logic "surprised" at the beginning of the next line.
Now [this] process can occasionally be seen in Ungaretti's early work, for instance in the beginning of "Veglia" (Watch): "Un'intera nottata/buttato vicino/a un compagno/massacrato". This is a common method in the later Sentimento del...
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[On first reading Ungaretti's poetry,] I was greatly moved by his delicate poetic sensibility, by the aesthetic beauty of his immaterial forms which seemed to belong austerely to "pure poetry," by the masterly technical elaboration with which he combined deeply moving emotions and situations. Parallel to this was the absence of every device of rhetoric of inflation. Instead, I found a classical brevity, a condensation achieved by masterful dexterity, which gave to his poems the impression of musical epigrams….
In the genius of Ungaretti, and in the new form which he was giving to the Italian lyric, I met something unprecedented, a renovation syncronized with new directions. (p. 616)
[I have read] Ungaretti, though a victim of his age, nevertheless represented the transition from a rhetorical and lyrical babbling to an austere and laconic style. Even so, this theory goes, Ungaretti had achieved nothing more than an "infertile formalism," in contrast to the perfections achieved by the newer Montale and Quasimodo.
Permit me to disagree with these arbitrary divisions, this false dividing line of the thirties. The flow of aesthetic evolution has been uninterrupted; no period has been isolated from another; and the age … has produced poets and writers who are among the glories of any literature—Rilke, Mallarmé, Appollinaire, Valéry, Claudel, Eluard, Yeats, Joyce, Eliot, Pound, Lorca, Caváfis,...
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[Ungaretti's] sense of guilt, of corruption in the nature of man—… man who, without the help of God's grace, cannot hope to redeem himself, which is at the centre of Jansenist doctrine [—is] to be found explicitly stated on more than one occasion in the critical writings of the poet….
This sense of guilt is to be seen in the consciousness of the fleetingness of time, in the transiency of human existence. (p. 61)
[Jansenist doctrine] is a point of departure from which [Ungaretti] will move out in search of an order and permanence on a spiritual level which will find correspondence in a search for order and permanence on an artistic level in the poetic form. The aim of the poet will be to achieve in his poetry that state of grace which, when achieved, will remove the sense of guilt in him and restore him to his original state of innocence before the Fall and give him once more a sense of measure which, given the link between life and poetry in Ungaretti, is never merely equated with a simple aesthetic metrical game. (pp. 62-3)
[Ungaretti's] destruction of the traditional metres of Italian poetry is not so much a destruction as a purification of that tradition in order to build it afresh. This reconstruction is seen … in the reintroduction of punctuation and traditional versification in Sentimento del tempo but … it is a reconstruction which is already present consciously in the poems of L'Allegria in the return to the individual word, the parola … according to the poet, the basic rhythmic unit of the Italian language. (p. 63)
[Right] from the outset of his poetic career there is in Ungaretti a concern for form and tradition and it is his concern for these, through a purification of them, that constitutes to a great extent his originality in these early years….
[The] consciousness of the fleeting nature of time and, along with this, the sense of...
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Ungaretti endows his verbal structures with thematic force [in L'Allegria]; the syntactic and semantic encodations converge in such a way that the former becomes a transcription of the latter. Encoded within the poems' structural patterns lies L'Allegria's central myth of Edenic harmony and cosmic immersion: the "paese innocente". The convergence is in fact threefold: syntax and semantics both parallel Ungaretti's psychological experience of Edenic unification in the trench. The most striking characteristics of that experience are the poet's sense of identification with his fellow soldiers and all natural phenomena, on the one hand, and the sense of spatial and temporal immobility, on the other hand....
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