Giuseppe Ungaretti’s poem “Variations on Nothing” first appeared in his 1950 collection La terra promessa (The Promised Land), published in Italy. Some early critics felt the collection marked a different style from Ungaretti’s typical truncated images and brief lines, yet today the collection is heralded as one of his best works. Even if the poems in this collection take up a little more space on the page than Ungaretti’s early poems, they are undeniably still sparse, compelling, and highly imagistic.
In “Variations on Nothing,” as in many of Ungaretti’s works, the poet concentrates on a single, simple idea and fleshes it out with powerful, descriptive words. The subject in this poem is the fleeting time of human life and the endurance of nonhuman earthly objects. An hourglass may depend on a person’s hand to turn it over in order to repeat its measurement of time, but when the hand is gone, the object continues to measure the passing of time. While the overall message is philosophical and obviously abstract, the poet conveys this message with precise images of tangible objects and real-life moments that are both striking and accessible.
Above all else, the poem depends on its ability to evoke specific pictures in the mind and then to translate those pictures into stimulating, provocative contemplation for the reader. Ungaretti’s work is known for its obscurity and symbolism, as opposed to logical, concrete expression, and “Variations on Nothing” is an apt example of his subjective style. It should be read as much for the beauty of its expression as for any specific meaning in its lines.