Giuseppe Ungaretti’s Il porto sepolto (the buried harbor) came out of the peculiar circumstances of World War I; Ungaretti had volunteered in May of 1915 to join the Italian military. Each of the thirty-three poems of this, Ungaretti’s first volume, is tagged with the date and place of composition. Two of the poems were written in December, 1915, and twenty-eight were composed between April, 1916, and September, 1916. They are for the most part placed within the volume in chronological order. Thematically, the collection explores solitude and the various ways in which human beings try to bridge the spaces between themselves and others. It shows the heights to which human aspiration can ascend, even out of the depths of trench warfare.
Il porto sepolto forms one of three parts of a larger collection, Allegria di naufragi (1919; the joy of shipwrecks). The “harbor” that is “buried” is most likely the harbor off Pharos at Alexandria, Egypt, the city of Ungaretti’s youth. The harbor become mythic for Ungaretti. Like the legendary lost city of Atlantis, the harbor is so far below the surface, and so legendary, that it represents the unfathomable depths of the human psyche as well as the height of the most intense consciousness. It is to him, he writes, “the mirage of Italy”; it represents that part of one’s early life that is submerged in the subconscious “or in the intense heat of the mirage.”
The human condition of separateness and the striving of the human mind and spirit to overcome that condition is addressed in the poem titled “Pilgrimage.” In it, the poet refers to himself as “Ungaretti/ man of pain,” who gains courage from illusion. This statement is paradoxical: The first stanza shows the individual in the trenches in war, “in these bowels/ of rubble” where “hour on hour” the poet-soldier has “dragged” his “carcass/ worn away by mud/ like a sole.” Ungaretti’s illusion is the illusion of light beyond those pathetic, degrading, and dehumanizing—because disconnecting—conditions. He writes, “Beyond/ a searchlight/ sets a sea/ into the fog,” showing his illusion to be the possibility of order, of light, of form rather than chaos, of purification (the sea) instead of putrefaction (“bowels of rubble”). Toward the close of the poem, the faculty of the imagination is shown to lift the human spirit above the physical and psychological depths of the trenches: From the trenches, the poet perceives the essential similarity and the ultimate connectedness of things and seeks to communicate that vision in his poetry. The title “Pilgrimage” indicates more than a mere journey; it is a religious journey from the physicality of despair into the open air of spiritual aspiration.
Ungaretti was rooted in more than one literary and philosophical tradition, and he derives imagery from Italian and other Western cultures, from Asian literary traditions, and from the modern world. His images and symbols evoke thereby a curious admixture of resonances, often concerned with the search for identity. Such a theme is explored in “In Memoriam,” written on September 30, 1916, at Locvizza. This funereal and contemplative poem concerns Mohammad Sheab, a friend of Ungaretti from his days at a French school in Alexandria and with whom he later attended school in Paris. Ungaretti perceived Sheab, an Arab, and himself as individuals estranged from their roots, and on this estrangement Ungaretti blames the suicide of Sheab, “Descendent/ of emirs of nomads,” who changes his name from Mohammad to Marcel, who cannot remember how to live with Arab culture, and who takes his own life at 5 Rue des Carmes, to be buried in Ivry. In contrast, Ungaretti, the soldier-poet, finds his connection to Italy and to the Italian people.
The fact that Ungaretti was a man of both Asian and Western cultures, that he was fluent in at least three languages and was a writer in three literary traditions, becomes apparent again in “Phase,” in which he describes the depths of love as being in the “eye/ of thousandth-and-one night,” clearly an...
(The entire section is 1689 words.)