Giuseppe Ungaretti 1888-1970
Italian poet, essayist, and translator.
Ungaretti was an influential figure in twentieth-century Italian poetry, who strove to create a poetry of condensation that stressed purity of images stripped of lyricism and rhetorical excess. Throughout his long and productive career, however, Ungaretti moved from the radical compression of his early works—which led to frequent charges of hermeticism—to an embrace of traditional meters and syntax in an effort to connect modernist poetry to Italy's literary heritage. Ungaretti continually revised his poems, and the variants reveal both his efforts to refine and perfect his works and his progression from innovation and experimentation to adoption of classical forms. Ungaretti's large body of work, much of it dealing with time and with overcoming the alienation of the individual, is intensely personal. A preoccupation with the mysteries of life, the condensation of ideas, and a desire to suppress the superfluous are hallmarks of his poetry. In Allen Mandelbaum's words, “Ungaretti purged the language of all that was but ornament, of all that was too approximate for the precise tension of his line. Through force of tone and sentiment, and a syntax stripped to its essential sinews, he compelled words to their primal power.”
Ungaretti was born on February 8, 1888, in Alexandria, Egypt, the second son of Antonio Ungaretti and Maria Lunardini. Alexandria at the time was a cosmopolitan city, with a strong European—particularly British and French—presence. The family lived in an outlying quarter of the city called Moharrem Bey, where his mother operated a bakery. His father died in 1900 in an accident during excavations at the Suez Canal. From 1904 to 1905 Ungaretti attended the elite French upper school Ecole Suisse Jacot, where he was introduced to European culture. Intrigued by the literary climate of the early twentieth century, he spent time in cafés with writers, artists and intellectuals. Around this time Ungaretti began a correspondence with Giuseppe Prezzolini, editor of the Florentine journal La Voce and frequented the Red Shack, a meeting place for political subversives and exiles. His discovery of nineteenth-century Italian poet Giacomo Leopardi became a major influence on his verse, as did his exposure to the works of Charles-Pierre Baudelaire, Stéphane Mallarmé, Arthur Rimbaud and Friedrich Nietzsche. In 1912 Ungaretti left Egypt to study in Paris; en route, he saw Italy for the first time. While in Paris he attended classes at the Sorbonne and studied under philosopher Henri Bergson. He also became friends with poet Guillaume Apollinaire, who shared Ungaretti's desire to experiment with verse form. In 1915 Ungaretti published his first two poems in the Futurist journal Lacerba. In the spring of that year, with Italy's entrance in to World War I, Ungaretti volunteered for the Italian army and was sent to the Austrian front, where he served in the Nineteenth Infantry Regiment. Here he began writing the poems that would make up his first collection, Il porto sepolto (1916; The Buried Port). Following the war, Ungaretti moved back to Paris and became the Paris correspondent for Il Popolo d'Italia, a newspaper founded by Benito Mussolini. In 1919 he published two volumes of verse, Allegria di naufragi (Joy of Shipwrecks) in Italian and La guerre (The War) in French. Ungaretti married Jeanne Dupoix the following year, and the couple settled in Rome, where Ungaretti worked for the foreign ministry. The first major recognition of Ungaretti's poetry came in 1932, when he won the Premio del Gondoliere in Venice. The publication of his controversial collection of poems Sentimento del tempo (1933) provoked accusations of obscurantism but brought him to the forefront of Italian poets. From 1936 to 1942 Ungaretti served as Chair of Italian Literature at the Universidade do Saõ Paulo in Brazil. He returned to Italy in 1942, when the Italian government named him to the Academy of Italy and he assumed the Chair of Modern Italian Literature at the University of Rome. In the last decades of his life Ungaretti received numerous accolades and continued to write and travel. While on a trip to the United States in 1970 he was stricken with bronchitis and died in Milan on June 2.
Major Poetic Works
Ungaretti's experiences during World War I greatly influenced his early poetry. The Buried Port, Joy of Shipwrecks, and The War all treat the horrors of battle but also speak to how out of such terrible situations humanity can come together. His 1933 collection, Sentimento del tempo, demonstrates Ungaretti's interest in time and myth and the postwar generation. A poet known for his reworking of earlier verse, Ungaretti collected revisions of poems from The Buried Port and Joy of Shipwrecks in L'Allegria (1931), a work was later incorporated into his twelve-volume Vita d'un uomo (1942–74). This latter work, spanning Ungaretti's poetic career, consists of three different parts, each of which contains revisions of earlier work, previously unpublished poetry, as well as new verse. The first part of Vita d'un uomo includes six volumes and appeared between 1942 and 1954; the second part includes three volumes and was published between 1946 and 1950; the third part contains three volumes and was issued between 1961 and 1974. The definitive collected edition of the poems of Ungaretti, Tutte le poesie, appeared in 1969.
Ungaretti's consistent efforts to pare down and attain the purest form in his verse have led some critics to judge his work labored and obscure. However, it was his continual need to refine and rework his material that has proven most influential. Furthermore, his efforts to link modernism with both the Italian and the larger European poetic traditions significantly changed the course of Italian poetry and created a sense of continuity between the past and the present. While there remains much controversy over Ungaretti's approach to language and metrics, his choice of material, and his continual revision of his works, he is often considered, as Luciano Anceschi has declared, “the most penetrating and influential and … insinuating master of poetry Italy has had” in the twentieth century.