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. 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 humanity, conveyed in a dreamlike, impressionistic manner with very personal imagery. (See also CLC, Vols. 7, 11, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 19-20; obituary, Vols. 25-28, rev. ed.; Contemporary Authors Permanent Series, Vol. 2.)
[The wartime poems of L'Allegria modulate Ungaretti's] voice in its simplest form, as a naming of things which is at the same time an acknowledgment of existence, of its mystery and stark "givenness." They are generally statements of the human condition made in wonder and awe. (p. 97)
This is the dawning form of vocation or calling: the poet cast into exile and war calls created things and resigns himself to their protection, even to their indifference since it is a guaranty of reality, of indestructibility. Or we should say, rather, that he names them as a kind of reassurance. "The things exist, therefore I exist." The calling, a silent one, comes from the things themselves; and such a mood continues with notable deepening into the Sentimento del tempo collection, which marked, in the early thirties, Ungaretti's "hermetic" evolution. He contemplates things, or listens to them, in a posture of wonder…. Elemental stupor begets myth … and then we have a thing like Nascita d'aurora (Birth of Sunrise), where pure perception shapes an evanescent, inchoate goddess. But the intentness of contemplation and listening gradually shifts the focus from the presence of things to their absence; and then the mode of vocation becomes one of evocation. The poet is "illumined with immensity," and "listens to a dove of other deluges."… One is always struck in Ungaretti by the periodical return to elemental utterance on the threshold of the inarticulate. This movement is balanced, though, by the development of regular rhythms (the hendecasyllable of Italian tradition) and closed sentences in the Petrarch-Góngora style. But our poet does really borrow them: he evolves them out of his own experience of first beginnings. The voice recapitulates a history of the language.
The moment of evocation, turning inward, makes for greater self-consciousness, with some attendant complications. We have a "hermetic" closure, an attempt at selfsufficient magic…. In Alla Noia, in contrast, there is a posture of torment, for this is not enough; the sustaining certitude of elemental things has withdrawn, and the poet struggles with his own phantoms as a dissatisfied magician. The state of mind is far more complex, utterly unstable, and the verbal medium is correspondingly denser…. [The] relatively easy...
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What immediately strikes the reader [of Allegria] is the sense of solitude and consequent on that, the sense of anguish of the man, Ungaretti, who in the trenches on the Front, feels so utterly alone—cut off from his fellow men, cut off from God…. [These sentiments, however,] are not the point of arrival but merely the point of departure, for it is precisely from this same sense of solitude, of anguish and fragility that is germinated the desire for their opposites and that is, brotherhood (with a consequent reduction of anguish) and permanence. It is precisely the recognition of his fragility which links Ungaretti to his fellow men and it is this union with them through love—the Eluardian 'de l'horizon d'un homme à l'horizon de tous'—which points out to him the origin of his fragility and the means to convert it into permanence. His fragility is a lack of love on a divine plane…. Now given the connection in Ungaretti between life and poetry … it is clear that his attempt to reach spiritual harmony in life will be corresponded on an artistic level. Therefore if we are to give credence to the Poet—and no one doubts Ungaretti's sincerity—the lack of torment, the so-called 'formalism' of the later collections of his poems … indicate a relative lack of torment in Ungaretti, the man—a peace or as he himself would say a 'certezza' reached in life. This spiritual calm or 'certezza' which Ungaretti finds in religion is given sharper definition over the years. The years of maturity bring with them an acceptance on the poet's part of the transient nature of his material being—this stoic acceptance had been lacking in Allegria, hence the anguish and torment of those poems—and a greater confidence in his spiritual self. It is … the change over with the years from carnal man to spiritual man capable of 'recollecting in tranquility' the experiences and emotions of youth and expressing them poetically through memory…. This 'recollection in tranquility' of his emotions is already attempted in Allegria…. Here, however, it helps merely to escape the horror of the present. It is a means to an end…. To turn from Allegria to Sentimento del tempo … is to turn...
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[L'allegria] is informed by a vision of Edenic innocence and unification. This central myth is variously expressed by Ungaretti in [the volume]….
Not only the vision, but the language too of L'allegria is "edenically" pure. This fact has been noted by virtually all of Ungaretti's critics, and today we have a plethora of terms to describe L'allegria's linguistic purity…. (p. 342)
Ungaretti's ecstatic vision of a static Edenic innocence does not require syntactical periodicity and hierarchy. The language used to represent the vision is necessarily paratactical; and as the poems disclose an Edenic unification of all phenomena, the language of L'allegria relies upon rich, but terse, metaphorical figures.
L'allegria is Ungaretti's Eden. His fall out of Eden into time and history is clearly evinced by both the stylistic and thematic characteristics of his poetry after 1919. Time and history become, in fact, his thematic obsessions after L'allegria—as the title of his second collection, Sentimento del tempo (1933), denotes. After L'allegria, Ungaretti's syntax moves from a paratactical, monadic centering on the single word to a hypotactical style. The paradigmatic orientation of L'allegria gives way to the syntagmatic orientation of Sentimento del tempo; relationships of identity give way to relationships of mere contiguity. (pp. 342-43)
[Contrary to critical assumption,] L'allegria was not the "seed" which came to fruition in Ungaretti's later works; on the contrary, all his subsequent poetry seeks to earn once more the belief in the Edenic myth of L'allegria, the myth born in the trenches of World War I. Thus, that rupture in the Ungarettian corpus perceived by so many critics does indeed fall after L'allegria, in 1919. But the iter of that corpus describes a return to its beginning, L'allegria. And Ungaretti's ostensible "reconstruction" of traditional syntax and metrics, not to mention imagery, was viewed by the poet himself as part of his larger spiritual quest to retrieve that lost state of cosmic harmony and innocence….
It is in the light of this quest that we can better understand the relationship of L'allegria to Ungaretti's subsequent work and especially to La terra promessa, the mythification of that "paese innocente" within the world of history and time. (p. 344)
Immediately after L'allegria, this quest assumed two forms. On the one hand, Ungaretti began to experiment with a number of extra-linguistic instruments with which to reconstitute a sense of harmony and fullness: a thematic re-entrenchment in tradition, history, religion, and myth. This experimentation, expressed in Sentimento above all, was attended by yet another effort, which was to become Ungaretti's major theoretical and poetic preoccupation: the attempt to resacralize the poetic word, to re-endow it with L'allegria's innocence. (p. 345)
The vision of a promised land was, from the first, elaborated by the poet as a linguistic Eden. After the war, Ungaretti had lost faith in the instrument without which he could not function: language itself. His fall from primordial innocence was a fall into Babel. Language lost its ability to figure adequately the world, to fix reality immutably. The signified and the signifier had become dissociated. The poetic word, like the human soul, had to be purged of its historicity before innocence could be reattained. Ungaretti recognized this need as early as the 1920's. At that time his thoughts about the nature of poetry centered on the connection between "innocence" and "memory." Memory, in this context, is the weight of history which stands as a wall separating man from a vision of the primordial state of innocence. The true mission of poetry. Ungaretti believed, was to purify memory and thereby restore innocence. (pp. 345-46)
The apparent irreconcilability of Ungaretti's dual-binary terminology ("innocence-mémoire;" "mistero-misura") is … illusory: the terms stand in opposition to one another in their human incarnation (which is that of the flesh only), but are conceived of as mutually reinforcing in terms of our efforts to transcend that merely human incarnation; and finally, they are inseparable in that transcendent Eden where flesh and Word are one. (p. 347)
His poems of 1919–1935, collected in Sentimento del tempo, indicate his attempt to dispel the sense of the void by recourse to the regenerative power less of language per se than of tradition and religion. These two regenerative powers, tradition and religion, provide the inspiration and themes for the two principal sections of the collection: the first three chapters of Sentimento have as their subject matter the figures and motifs of pagan Classicism; the last four chapters, the myths and ideals of Christianity. This change in theme corresponds, of course, to Ungaretti's rediscovery of his familial religion. Yet despite the poet's "conversion," the two sections of Sentimento display a thematic and stylistic unity that...
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