Giuseppe Ungaretti Ungaretti, Giuseppe - Essay


(Poetry Criticism)

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.”

Biographical Information

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

(Poetry Criticism)

Il porto sepolto [The Buried Port] 1916

Allegria di naufragi [The Joy of Shipwrecks] 1919

La guerre [The War] 1919

*L'Allegria, 1931

Sentimento del tempo [A Sense of Time] 1933

Il dolore [Grief] 1936; revised edition 1947

Vita d' un uomo. 12 vols. [Life of a Man] 1942-1974

La terra promessa [The Promised Land] 1950

Un grido e paesaggi 1952

Il taccuino del vecchio [edited by Leone Piccioni] 1960

Ungaretti: Poesie [edited by Elio Filippo Accrocca] 1964

Tutte le poesie 1969

Il deserto e dopo [The Desert and Afterward] (travel sketches) 1961; revised as Prose di viaggi e saggi, 1969

Vita d' un uomo: Saggi e interventi [edited by Mario Diacono and Luciano Rebay] (essays and conversations) 1974

*This work includes revised poems from Il porto sepolto and Allegria di naufragi.

Luciano Anceschi (essay date 1974)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Anceschi, Luciano. “Ungaretti 1919-1927: The Word ‘Broken into Pauses’.” Forum Italicum (1992): 25-35.

[In the following essay, translated by John deMeo and David Jacobson from the Italian version originally published in 1974, Anceschi investigates the arc of Ungaretti's poetic career by examining his work in relationship to Futurism.]


Ungaretti has been the most penetrating, influential, and—if I may put it this way—insinuating master of poetry Italy has had in this century. This seems more a statement of fact than a mere opinion of his readers. It must be said that he formulated a system that...

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Allen Mandelbaum (essay date 1975)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Mandelbaum, Allen. Preface to Selected Poems of Giuseppe Ungaretti, translated and edited by Allen Mandelbaum, pp. ix-xvi. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1975.

[In the following essay, Mandelbaum introduces translations of Ungaretti's poetry and traces the heritage from which Ungaretti's poetry emerges.]

In 1958, I published, under the title Life of a Man, the first volume-length selection of Giuseppe Ungaretti's poems to appear in English translation.1 Ungaretti's work had already undergone precocious immortalization, and his death in 1970 has not slowed that process. But the growth and consolidation of Ungaretti's significance have...

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Frederic Joseph Jones (essay date 1977)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Jones, Frederic Joseph. “Personal Aesthetics and Cultural Perspectives.” In Giuseppe Ungaretti: Poet and Critic, pp. 23-59. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1977.

[In the following essay, Jones details the aesthetics of Ungaretti's poetry through multiple brief examinations, as well as considering Ungaretti in relation to other major poets.]

Any attempt to examine Ungaretti's aesthetics is bound to pose a large number of problems, partly because of the complexity of his lyrical vision and partly because his poetic manner is overlaid by an equally complex network of borrowed literary features drawn mainly from Petrarchan sources. It will not be...

(The entire section is 14387 words.)

Will Wells (essay date fall-winter 1995)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Wells, Will. “Pound and Ungaretti: A Resonating Silence.” Paideuma 24, no. 2-3 (fall-winter 1995): 69-77.

[In the following essay, Wells discusses the influence that Ezra Pound had on the poetic career of Ungaretti.]

Giuseppe Ungaretti and Ezra Pound did not establish personal contact until the late 1950s, by which time both had achieved a reasonably final form in poetic practice. Nonetheless, collectively, these poets and their works have continued to exert substantial influence upon the development of virtually all major new voices in Italian poetry over the subsequent four decades. Given the particular veneration in which The Cantos are held by...

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Walter Musolino (essay date fall 1996)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Musolino, Walter. “Physics and Metaphysics: Capture and Escape. Two War Poems of Wilfred Owen and Giuseppe Ungaretti.” Forum Italicum 30, no. 2 (fall 1996): 311-19.

[In the following essay, Musolino compares two anti-war poems, a subgenre emblematic of Ungaretti and poet Wilfred Owen.]

The tradition of war has traditionally given rise to an equal imperative in power: the tradition of poetry about war. However, if, from Homer to the French songs of chivalry, from the “Romanzo cavalleresco” of the middle and late Renaissance to the nineteenth century European patriotic odes, the grandeur of military adventure was the vision advanced, then the First World...

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Ariella Lang (essay date 2000)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Lang, Ariella. “The Sound of Silence: Words of Exile and Liberation in Ungaretti's Desert.” Rivista di Letterature moderne e comparate LIII, no. 3 (2000): 323-36.

[In the following essay Lang explores the relationship of Ungaretti's verse to his relationship with his birthplace, Egypt, versus his ancestral homeland, Italy. Lang conducts this analysis by utilizing some biographical information in her discussion of Ungaretti's poem “In Memoriam.”]

In his poem “In Memoriam”1, Ungaretti reflects upon the tragic suicide of his childhood Egyptian friend, Moammed Sceab. As a young adult, Sceab, like Ungaretti, moves to France. In his desire to...

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Andrew Frisardi (essay date spring 2002)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Frisardi, Andrew. “Giuseppe Ungaretti and the Image of Desolation.” The Hudson Review LV, no. 1 (spring 2002): 75-89.

[In the following essay, Frisardi offers a general assessment of Ungaretti's poetry through the lens of many of the details of the poet's life.]

When I read a “hermetic” poet like Ungaretti, I often get the sense that his language has been pared by doubt, as if he felt that breaking the semantic threads of grammar would clear the way for a renewed sense of meaning in his doubting heart and mind. Or maybe his stitched-together fragments represent vestiges of faith or confidence in life's meaningfulness. Either way, it is an effort, and we...

(The entire section is 5038 words.)

Further Reading

(Poetry Criticism)


Brose, Margaret. “Dido's Turn: Cultural Syntax in Ungaretti's La Terra Promessa.Annali d'italianistica 16 (1998): 121-43.

Looks at the textual and psychological complexities in Ungaretti's use of the figure of Dido in his unfinished poem La Terra Promessa.

Cambon, Glauco. “Giuseppe Ungaretti.” Columbia Essays on Modern Writers, no. 30 (1967): 1-48.

Chronicles the Ungaretti's career through an examination of his poetic works.

Carle, Barbara. “Ungaretti and Valery: From Intertextuality to Hypertextuality.” Italica 68, no. 1 (spring 1991): 29-42.


(The entire section is 221 words.)