Giuseppe Ungaretti believed that great poets write “seemly biographies,” for “poetry is the discovery of the human condition in its essence.” Friendship, love, death, and man’s fate, the great lyric themes, are the subjects of Ungaretti’s poetry. Though his poems show a contemporary concern for autobiographical material, they blend this material with the imagery of the poetic tradition. The form of this poetry is discontinuous, sensuous, and elusive. Metonymy, hyperbaton, ellipsis, surprising juxtapositions of images, and the cultivation of unusual language are all characteristic of Ungaretti’s style.
As “seemly biography,” Ungaretti’s lifework developed with the movement of his experience. His first major collection, L’allegria, reflected his experience of World War I. Sentimento del tempo, written during his first extended stay in Rome, unfolded around a religious crisis. Il dolore, the book Ungaretti said he loved most, chronicled the poet’s struggle to come to terms with the loss of his brother and son and the disaster Italy faced at the end of World War II. La terra promessa (the promised land) and the later works grew out of the realization that aging and its consequences, the fading of the senses and of feeling, offer a final challenge to the poet.
Ungaretti’s first major collection, L’allegria, includes revisions of two earlier collections, Il porto sepolto and Allegria di naufragi, which had been published separately, as well as a group of poems written in France just before World War I. L’allegria is a work of self-discovery. In his notes to Il porto sepolto, Ungaretti says that though his first awakenings came in Paris, it was not until the war that he fully came to know himself. The young Ungaretti was an atheist. There was for him no God, nor any Platonic ideals, somehow infiltrating time, to serve as a basis for life’s meaning. The war and its desolate landscapes came to take on something of the significance of his youthful experience of the desert. The desert was a void—as such it represented the emptiness of blind existence—but the desert was also a space in which mirages could blossom. So, too, the war brought Ungaretti to the bones of existence, and there he discovered his courage. The self-discovery he spoke of was the courage to resist the sweep of objective, hence depersonalized, events that depress the human spirit and force it into a life of merely private pleasures and pains. Poetry was the courage to transform the worn images of everyday existence into the perfection of dreams, to find an eternal moment even in the face of desolation. Of all the poets of World War I, Ungaretti is arguably the most affirmative. He cries out in “Pellegrinaggio” (“The Pilgrimage”), “Ungaretti/ man of pain/ you need but an illusion/ to give you courage.”
Also arising from Ungaretti’s Alexandrian experience of the desert is his identification of himself as a Bedouin poet. This image emerges as central in L’allegria and recurs throughout his works in any number of transformations. Ungaretti implies in the use of this image that the poet cannot be submerged in the familiar. Movement and change nourish the quintessential condition of poetry, disponibilità (availability to things). The Bedouin nature of the poet is required by the solitary reality that the emptiness of blind existence imposes on him. In the poem “Agonia” (“Agony”), Ungaretti pulls these themes together:
To die at the mirage
like thirsty skylarks
Or like the quail
past the sea
in the first thickets
when it has lost
the will to fly
But not to live on lament
like a blinded finch.
The migration of the Bedouin, like that of birds, is a kind of eternal return. Human individuals are not lost in time if they allow the mirage (beauty, or the flash of poetic insight) to beckon them to the depths of experience. The Bedouin poet’s courage is his recognition that thirst and the loss of the will to fly are circumstances, as death is a circumstance. Though he knows that these will overtake him, they do not diminish his passion for flight and song. The poet is always moving back, but with openness; the truth he finds can be held in an image, briefly, but it can never become fixed or permanent. Ungaretti’s spirit persists in its capacity to evoke the dream in the midst of the wasteland.
Ungaretti’s poetic vision shares a great deal with that of the French Symbolists, for whom the world is a kind of nullity until it is transformed by human subjectivity—hence Charles Baudelaire’s celebrated notion that man knows the world through “forests of symbols.” In Ungaretti’s poem “Eterno” (“Eternal”), there is a whole poetics in epigrammatic form: “Between one flower gathered and the other given/ the inexpressible null. . . .” If the gathering and giving of the flower stand for poetry, then every poem results from a struggle with the inexpressible, what Ungaretti calls the void, or blind existence. As in the Platonic idea of recollection, the soul perfects itself only through repeated struggles with forgetfulness until it gains real knowledge; so too, in Ungaretti, a movement through repeated loss and gain is implied. In his work, however, this movement is one of renewing, or re-creating, in such a way that the poet, thereby humankind, is brought in touch with his deepest nature.
In L’allegria, Ungaretti abandoned the rhetorical devices that had become rife in nineteenth century Italian poetry. He conceived the poet’s task to be an “excavation of the word” to release its latent power and music. In “Commiato” (“Leavetaking”), Ungaretti addresses his friend Ettore Serra, saying, “poetry/ is the world humanity/ one’s own life/ flowering from the word,” and concluding, “When I find/ in this my silence/ a word/ it is dug into my life/ like an abyss.” The abyss of which he speaks here is not the nullity between the gathered and the given word; it is, rather, the depth of memory that carries back beyond the individual into a mythic past. The abyss is present not in the expressive content of the words but in their power. “To find a parola [word],” Ungaretti declared in a note to the poems in L’allegria, “means to penetrate into the dark abyss of the self without disturbing it and without succeeding in learning its secret.”
The culmination of this vision in L’allegria is found in the poem “I fiumi” (“The Rivers”), which opens with a scene from the battlefront. It is evening, a world of moonlight; a crippled tree evokes the desolation of war. The poet recalls that in the morning, he had “stretched out/ in an urn of water/ and like a relic/ rested.” This is a ritual act, a baptism, for the poem goes on to recount something of a rebirth. Each epoch of the poet’s life is represented by a river—the Isonzo, the river of war; the Serchio, the river of his forefathers; the Nile, the river of his birth and unconsciousness; and the Seine, the river of awakening self-awareness: “These are the rivers/ counted in the Isonzo.” In the ancient image of the river, Ungaretti captures the subjective moment in which all the branches of his existence blossom together. Such a moment is a consolation and a confirmation of a path but is at the same time evanescent. There is the tantalizing sense that while the outward rivers are in a moment of vision, harmonious with the flow of one’s life, such moments do not last: “My torment/ is when/ I do not feel I am/ in harmony.” Nevertheless, Ungaretti suggests that there is a power working through his experience which is not identifiable with himself: “hands/ that knead me/ give me/ rare/ felicity.” In Giuseppe Ungaretti, Jones suggests that “hands” refers to the power of ancestors working through the poet and establishing a bond between him and his tradition. However one interprets this image, it is a statement of conviction that the poet has tapped the depths of his being. Unlike his friend Mohammed Sheab, who “. . . could not/ set free/ the song/ of his abandon,” Ungaretti found his voice. The poem concludes: “Now my life seems to me/ a corolla/ of shadows.”
Sentimento del tempo
The poems of Ungaretti’s second major collection, Sentimento del tempo, grew out of a confrontation with the spirit of Rome. Jones paraphrases Ungaretti’s reaction to the art of Rome: “. . . [he] tells us that the greatest shock he received after his transfer to Rome was precisely the sight of a totally Baroque architecture, one which on the surface at least appeared to lack all sense of cohesion and unity.” After that initial shock, he came to feel that in the Baroque style, things are “blown into the air,” and the resultant fragmentation opens the way for a new ordering of things.
For Ungaretti, the Baroque bespeaks the absence of God. In Baroque art, the sense of absence is covered by an elaboration of sensuous detail and by the use of trompe l’oeil. Although Ungaretti saw in this expression of God’s absence another manifestation of the...
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