Ungaretti, Giuseppe (Vol. 7)
Ungaretti, Giuseppe 1888–1970
Ungaretti, an Italian poet of international reputation, was born in Alexandria, Egypt. His innovative poetry, significantly released from traditional Italian form, was considered hermetic—intentionally obscure. Ungaretti always denied that charge. His poetry is intensely personal, lyric, economical. He called poetry the ability to express oneself "with absolute candor, as if it were the first day of creation." (See also Contemporary Authors Permanent Series, Vol. 2.)
Ungaretti was the first to face unequivocally the problematic, terrible task of every modern Italian poet, the task that takes its toll in silence: to resurrect or to bury the cadaver of literary Italian. Ungaretti resurrected. But so drastic were his means—sweeping away the clamorous inconsequences of D'Annunzio, the tenuous meanderings of the Crepuscolari (the Twilight School), and almost all after Leopardi—that resurrection was revolution. 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.
Only the pious resurrect, and the "piety" of Ungaretti—his search for innocence without the loss of memory, for renewal without denial of the past—has been fundamental to his poetry, however much his cadences may once have shocked the self-indulgent Italian ear. And that piety has set him always in sharp contrast to Eugenio Montale, whose first volume, Ossi di seppia, appeared in 1926. The polarity between these two major figures is the central fact in all modern Italian poetry. Montale, the younger of the two, buried—or ignored—the cadaver. With an expansive verbal fantasy, he ransacked prose for poetry, and with an agonizingly minute graphic precision, he fashioned, of myriad visual epiphanies, the various hell that is his world. Montale's mainspring is the restless horror of any immobility, a vision of nothing but vacuous repetition in the permanent. Ungaretti's point-of-origin is much more traditional: anguish in the face of mutability, a longing for claritas, for static quiet at meridian point of insight, beyond the weight of world and body. Montale changes sites as quickly as the eye can shift. Ungaretti's I is grave and slow, intensive rather than far-ranging; and his longing gains its drama precisely because that I is not a random center of desperations, but a sōma bound by weight, by earthly measure, a hard, resisting substantial object, not wished but willed, not dreamt-upon but "excavated". And his central images, in a metaphorical repertory almost obsessively limited, are images of earth. Montale, the visual poet, peoples his world with vagrant faces, objects, places seen, re-visited, depicted. Ungaretti, the kinesthetic poet, does not recall but re-presents the quality, the shape of sentiment, as in an eternal present, redeeming memory by ridding it of all pastness.
Thus, the impressionism, the softness, the fragile revery found at times in the early verse was but a fleeting phase. It soon gave way, especially in the war-time poems, to a hard, rhythmically incisive inscription-style: brief periods, staccato strophes of outcry, invocation, lament, set against silences whose duration Ungaretti used as effectively as speech. The elements were almost always drawn from a uniform level of intensity, the most intense, with no relaxing or relapsing. Passion seeking precise language gives L'allegria, beyond the ferment and clamor of Futurism and the season of La Voce and Lacerba, an immediacy long-since lost by other works of the period.
The slow elaboration of less fragmented forms begins with Sentimento del tempo (1933) and is accentuated in Il dolore (1947). The early poems in Sentimento del tempo are still poems of passage, forming part of the season of L'allegria. But the essence of Sentimento del tempo lies in the attempt to reconstruct, out of the broken-line inscriptions of L'allegria, a more sustained utterance. (pp. xi-xii)
At intervals during the composition of Il dolore and, more intensively, in the years since then, Ungaretti has been at work on La Terra Promessa, published in "final" form in 1950. In the season of his life, in the autumn of his life that followed Sentimento del tempo, Ungaretti's meditations on mutability and the word mingled with Virgilian evocations. (p. xiii)
The incompleteness of La Terra Promessa marks the struggle of an essentially lyric poet with a conception requiring dramatic form, if only as oratorio. Its perfections mark the slow distilling of Ungaretti's last lyric testament. And if the published volume be slender, few poems since L'Après-midi d'un Faune are so densely rich as the "Canzone", the "Choruses of Dido", and the "Recitative of Palinurus", the three poems that form the core of the work. Respectively lyric, dramatic, and narrative, more intimately seen, the three poems emerge as a formal summation of Ungaretti's life-work, and a precise fusion of capacity and intensity in the several parts and persons of the poem. (p. xiv)
Allen Mandelbaum, in his introduction to Life of a Man, by Giuseppe Ungaretti, bilingual edition (© 1958 by Arnoldo Mondadori Editore), New Directions, 1958, pp. xi-xv (and reprinted in Selected Poems of Giuseppe Ungaretti, edited and translated by Allen Mandelbaum, Cornell University Press, 1975).
[Nobody] now could imagine modern Italian poetry without Ungaretti, and Ungaretti himself without his remote African [Alexandrian] birth. What might have been a hopeless handicap—his coming into the world and growing up in a place so utterly alien to Italian culture and not even peripheral to the Italian linguistic area—became a unique asset. It impelled him to seek, on many levels, the "promised land" of his fathers…. [The] myth of a Promised Land has shaped Ungaretti's poetry as a quest for roots, for fulfillment, innocence, and form; and he owes the poignancy of that quest to the accident of birth which placed him in the predicament of a prodigal son of Italian culture…. His work therefore develops through the several stages of an ever-renewed quest which is as personal as any confession can be and yet transcends the merely personal. (pp. 3-6)
Ungaretti has ripened without stagnating. The kind of Petrarchan classicism into which he has increasingly tended to reshape his style is the conquest of a tireless experimenter and not a matter of acquiescence to the literary past. This will be even clearer if we bear in mind that the peculiarly Petrarchan stylization of absence and memory has alternated in Ungaretti with a Jacoponic (and very modern) convulsiveness, to the point where, at times, smooth melodic rhythm and stressed syncopation enhance each other contrapuntally in the same poem. (pp. 21-2)
[There] are thresholds where the poet is about to leave vision and poetry itself for a mystical silence that yawns within and around his utterance, so strongly dependent is it on resonant pauses; but thresholds they are, rather than normative examples, even if we want to emphasize the haiku-like tendencies of Ungaretti. (p. 28)
[Ungaretti] is one of very few modern writers who pursued both a goal of "absolute poetry" and a breakthrough to dramatic immediacy and historical relevance. A deep faith, with the strength to question everything one has been and done; a language repossessed; a word spoken in time, but for all time. Nomad Ungaretti has indeed found his home in the Italian language, though as civilized man he is at home in so much of the world, and as believer he must keep looking through the sands of time for the Promised Land which cannot be finally granted to the living. (pp. 41-2)
Glauco Cambon, in his Giuseppe Ungaretti (Columbia Essays on Modern Writers Pamphlet No. 30; copyright © 1967 Columbia University Press; reprinted by permission of the publisher), Columbia University Press, 1967.
Is there any significance in Ungaretti's calling his [Diario: una sua bella biografia] biografia rather than autobiografia? Surely it is intended to emphasize an aspiration toward "third-person" objectivity, an attempt to qualify drastically the usual associations of diario with egocentricity and impressionism. In the preface to La terra promessa Ungaretti has characterized the main "direction" of his work as that of "elevating" personal experience into "ideas and myths." The (incomplete) manuscript and complete textual variants which he has wished published with his "finished" poems are witness to his struggle against the merely historical or circumstantial. His revisionary trend is always ascetic, reductive, suppressing whatever seems anecdotal or documentary….
For Ungaretti,… even his variants are a relevant part of his story—on moral grounds. In his preface to L'Allegria he speaks of his inveterate habit of revising:
… His poems represent his formal torments, but he would appreciate it if once and for all it were recognized that form torments him solely because he insists that it adhere to the variations of his soul; and if he has made some progress as an artist, he would wish that this indicated some perfection achieved as a man.
So that the tendency indicated by Ungaretti and his variants is, at least in intention, one of approfondissement, a voyage from contingency to quintessence, a slow and difficult recognition (re-vision) of what was deeply meant in the first place, more a progress than a process. And hence the inclusion of variants in the Vita. (p. 136)
In general, the poetic of memory does not apply to L'Allegria, which is basically concerned with the violent abolition of time. Properly speaking,… L'Allegria is not hermetic.
Still, in Ungaretti's early poetics of the parola where the word or phrase is isolated as though to assay its emotional, tonal weight, or specific gravity, there is a link to be found with the hermetic poetics of memory as derived from the "philological" tendencies of Leopardi. (p. 175)
In his critical pronouncements during the 1920's, it is clear that Ungaretti is intent on forging a programmatic poetics that will serve as rationale and theoretical basis for approaching the considerable difficulties of the Sentimento lyrics. Essentially, this poetics integrates his two fields of literary "scholarship," that of French symbolisme, centering on Mallarmé (his specialty from Alexandrian days), and that of canto italiano, centering on Leopardi. (pp. 175-76)
When the controversy for and against "hermeticism" broke out in the 1930's, one of the main accusations levelled against it was its lack of italianità. Ungaretti's main response was to point out the example of his Leopardi. (p. 177)
The period spanned by the composition of the "Canzone" is something like fifteen years, from 1935 to 1950. The large number of variant versions (for the most part in the manuscripts, though two of them were published in periodicals before the definitive Mondadori edition of 1950) testify to the fact that the "Canzone" is one of the most tormented and self-conscious of Ungaretti's texts. This is a criticism: in my opinion its laborious genesis, conducted semi-publicly, has resulted in a wholly scholastic poem. The drastic life experience that it was meant to express has been frozen into something monumental and remote in the classical style, less Carduccian than Palladian. The "Petarchan tendency" in later Ungaretti has produced some of his supreme poems, but these will be found in the later chapters of Il dolore rather than in La terra promessa. Here it results in a literature of the academy, so freighted with classical allusions and mannerisms as to become at certain points sealed ("hermetically") to anyone but a specialist. (p. 223)
The last two installments of the Vita d'un uomo are slim and relatively minor Ungaretti…. Grido apart, the book turns out to be this "man of pain's" least anguished collection: for once memory is content to evoke the past without regret, as though for the sake of describing. The effect is of a slender album of snapshots exhibited by an old man in a relatively contented and expansive mood. (p. 227)
The quality of the experience offered by the bella biografia that Ungaretti leaves behind is extraordinarily consistent—a spiritual self-portrait in the strictest sense. We have had occasion to talk about spiritus loci in his poems, the paesaggi of Egypt, the Carso, Paris, Lazio, mezzogiorno, Brazil, Rome, and surely this old phrase seems peculiarly appropriate if used to designate the evaporative chemistry effected by Ungaretti's imagination when it comes in touch with matter; terrestrial locus rarifies into spirit or idea.
As for the "idea," it is very simple and very terrible: we are dying, all is vanity. Convinced that we inhabit a world of shifting and perishing appearances, this question then becomes metaphysical or, since it is a matter of faith rather than knowledge, religious. Is there a reality beyond appearances?
His three years as combatant in World War I brought him into intermittent contact with a holistic vision of a joyous cosmos in which all things were consumed and spiritualized. In those ecstatic moments of weightlessness and radiance he resembles his own description of the William Blake who wrote Songs of Innocence: "the inspired poet if there ever was one." War over and conditions radically altered, it seems he lost his contact and his sense of cosmic allegria. The themes grow dark—his songs of innocence become songs of experience. The present grows increasingly spectral; memory becomes both the subject and action of his poetry. His sense of sin, limit and decay becomes increasingly anguished, and the blows that time brings him—his dead—only augment this anguish.
Against his "horrid cognizance" he has two stays: the religion he was baptized into, and his poetry. The two constitute a connected experience. His tormented awareness of the poem as a mere solipsistic projection or fantasy (a "measure" unrelated to the "mystery") infects the icons of his Catholicism. His characteristic posture is a pietà, preferably fashioned by a Michelangelo advanced in years.
Moving toward what he calls in the Ultimi cori the "great silence," he wonders whether he will learn at least "whether death only reigns over appearances." His occasional intimations that this might be so—the revisitations of the Leggende or the long vigil for Antonietto—make up his hope of salvation. His memories of mortal innocence then become tentatively prophetic, his witness to the ultimately triumphant spirit. But the triumph will only be substantiated by dying.
Ungaretti's poetry is the perfect vehicle for his haunted inwardness. Occasionally, as we have seen, his scholarship can swamp his inspiration, giving rise to a mere "neoclassicism." But the vast majority of the pages of Vita d'un uomo—that passionately literary and learned life—constitute a superb demonstration of the vital energy the great Italian tradition has to contribute to the expressive needs of the present. Marinetti sought to be freed of the past by suppressing it. Ungaretti lovingly and urgently solicits that past and finds what is alive in it. Marinetti produced a still-born "modernism." Ungaretti produces a body of work which is not only an extraordinarily resonant "measure" of one man's spiritual struggles in this difficult century, but a richly instructive lesson to his countrymen of the naturalnational resources at their disposal. He has prepared almost single-handedly the ground for what must be the essential condition for modernity in any land: an organic and nutritive relation with the past. (pp. 229-30)
Joseph Cary, "Giuseppe Ungaretti," in his Three Modern Italian Poets: Saba, Ungaretti, Montale (reprinted by permission of New York University Press; copyright © 1969 by New York University), New York University Press, 1969, pp. 135-234.
With Ungaretti … the exploitation of typographical and visual procedures is reduced to a minimum. On the white page the small phrases detach themselves and are isolated. The rare capitals mark the halts. Often the poem is made only from some flowering words on the blankness of a whole page. The "ordinary" reading of this little series of signs would require only a few seconds. But even their scarcity catches the vision. Those cries without voice, which make one think at first of the wreckage of an idea, are not however carried to the dynamic exasperation which the isolation of words produced with the Italian futurists or the Russian cubo-futurists. It was not resolved either in the astral abstraction which appeared to charge the words of Coup de Dès with a kind of magical strength as if they were the manifestation of a world provided with other dimensions than the ordinary world of men. Here the words, the little phrases, retained their human weight in a completely human proportion. And, moreover, they are no longer "objects" because daily usage has stripped them of all kind of suggestion, just as if time and habit had eaten them away. They are no longer the charming playthings that the decadent poets had perverted through the intervention of more and more complicated musical effects. It is as if the poet had invented them for the first time. They suggest to us once more, perhaps for the last time (when man is in the presence of such miracles he always believes it to be for the last time) the eternal problem of their ambiguous birth, all the strength of their evocative value and also the strength of their correspondence to harsh and heavy reality. The small phrases of Ungaretti have the weight which primitive people still attribute to the word: they give birth to things but they create at the same time.
Is this miracle simply a result of an understanding pushed to the extreme degrees of a certain possibility of the word? Is it the result of a deep meditation on the value of the isolation of words? Or does the secret of Ungaretti have its root in a deeper part of the mind? In fact the reader soon notices that these "traditional" justifications are not sufficient in giving a valid reason for the astonishing creative capacity of the words of this poet without complaisance either with regard to him or to others. It is clear that with him the process is of a more intimate nature. It is that Ungaretti discovered his language at the same time as his life. In writing his poems, the emigrant found in himself the truth of the gift of his mother, he realised that "foreign" words which he had absorbed together with his mothers' milk truly corresponded to a reality which he finally established on the lips of his "brothers". Each poem signifies for him not only the fixing of a feeling, but the "realisation" of its words. Moreover he says it with a moving precision: "What regiment are you from / brothers? Word trembling / in the night leaf barely born in the spasmed air / Involuntary revolt / of man confronted with his own / fragility Brothers".
The intimate essence of the poetical weight, and also grace, (a severe grace, a grace whose elegance recalls the beauty of natural attitudes) does not rest, however, in the words themselves nor in the isolation of phrases, but in their relationship to the two poles of past and present which are at the origin of their birth. And a theme swarming with strange and disturbing noises runs like a filligree of fire through the blank spaces of the book. The nudity of little phrases evokes, above all, an arduous work of the spirit, the presence of a mind surprised to see them created within it, and at the same time, all the essential values capable of upholding, beyond the condition of a man constantly aware of death through his human condition, his condition as a poet.
Thus L'Allegria was born from the alliance of three elements, a kind of trinity one and three: the past (a past which dates from before the poet's physical birth) which is a humus dark and fertile; the present, which is the result of it, and the word in which the present and the past attain perfect fusion, a pure and living expression. (pp. 119-21)
Carlo Steiner, "The Early Work of Ungaretti," translated by Marion Masheder, in Agenda, Spring, 1970, pp. 111-21.
[There] are circumstances and events that any reader of [Ungaretti's] poetry must bear in mind: Ungaretti's birth and upbringing in Egypt and an education that was more French than Italian; the experiences of the First World War in which he fought and wrote; the death of his son. From his earliest printed works …, we feel that whenever Ungaretti mentions a desert it is more to him than a metaphor. Desert scenes and feelings arise spontaneously in him, part of his whole apprehension of the world. Alexandria, for Ungaretti, was a city that 'time is forever carrying away, at all times. It is a city where the feeling of time, of time the destroyer, is present before and above all.' He is speaking of Alexandria as though it were his own poetry. (p. 8)
During the war, with not much time to spare in the trenches, Ungaretti came out with a poetry that was miniature, simple, stripped to the feeling bone. It was based on a magic touch with language and unabashed truthfulness to the experience….
Spontaneous, simple, very condensed but without pretension, Ungaretti's poetry cut rhetoric dead. All the emphasis was on the word itself, each word, its sound, meaning, resonance, and the space it could be made to fill. (p. 9)
Though far from ingenuous, he was a genuine innocent. You will find sorrow and suffering, guilt and remorse in his works, but not bitterness or cynicism. He was as incapable of bearing a grudge against life as against an individual, and incapable of hate. In spite of proclaiming himself uomo di pena, man of sorrows, he was a poet of joy. (p. 11)
Patrick Creagh, in an Introduction to Selected Poems: Giuseppe Ungaretti, edited and translated by Patrick Creagh (copyright © Patrick Creagh, 1971; reprinted by permission of Penguin Books Ltd), Penguin Books, 1971, pp. 7-11.
From his earliest important poems, written in the trenches of World War I, to the last poems of his old age, Ungaretti's work is a long record of confrontations with death. Cryptic in utterance, narrow in range, built on an imagery that is drawn exclusively from the natural world, and displaying an obsessive preoccupation with only the most fundamental metaphysical themes, Ungaretti's poetry nevertheless continually escapes being predictable. In spite of the limitations of his manner, he leaves an impression of nearly boundless energy and invention. For no word in Ungaretti's work is ever used lightly—"When I find / in this my silence / a word / it is dug into my life / like an abyss"—and the strength of his verse derives precisely from this restraint. For a man who wrote for more than fifty years, Ungaretti published remarkably little before he died in 1970, and his poetic work amounts to no more than a few hundred pages. His poems are more a distillation of experience than a commentary on experience, and what they lack in variety, they make up for in intensity….
[His] importance is measured not only by his own achievement but by its effect on the history of the literature of his language. Before Ungaretti, there was no modern Italian poetry. When his first book, Il Porto Sepolto (The Buried Port), appeared in 1916 in an edition of eighty copies, it seemed to come from nowhere, to be without precedent. These short, fragmented poems, at times hardly more than notes or inscriptions, announced a break with the late nineteenth-century conventions that still dominated Italian verse. The horrible realities of the war demanded a new kind of expression; and for Ungaretti, who at that time was just finishing his poetic apprenticeship, the front was a training ground that taught the futility of all compromise….
If the brevity and hardness of his first poems seemed violent in comparison to most Italian poetry of the period, Ungaretti was not a poetic rebel, and his work showed none of the spirit of self-conscious sabotage that characterized the Futurists and other avant-garde groups. His break with the past was not a renunciation of literary tradition, but a way of affirming his connection with a more distant and vital past than the one represented by his immediate predecessors. He simply cleared the ground that lay between him and what he felt to be his true sources, and like all original artists, he created his own tradition. In later years, this led him to extensive critical work, as well as translations of numerous foreign poets….
Ungaretti was a cultural hybrid, and elements of his various past are mixed into his work. (p. 35)
"Innocence and Memory"—the title given to the volume of Ungaretti's essays translated in French—are the two contradictory aspirations of Ungaretti's poetry, and all his work can be seen as a constant effort to renew the self without destroying its past. What concerns Ungaretti most is the search for spiritual self-definition, a way of discovering his own essence beyond the grip of time. As in the war poem "Watch," the sense of life for Ungaretti is experienced most fully only when facing up to death, and in a commentary on another of his poems he describes this process as "the knowing of being out of non-being, being out of the null, Pascalian knowing of being out of the null. Horrid consciousness."
It is this preoccupation that distinguishes Ungaretti's work most sharply from that of Eugenio Montale, and the "polarity of these two major figures," as Allen Mandelbaum notes, "is the central fact in all modern Italian poetry."…
[If] Ungaretti's poetry can be described as basically religious, the sensibility that informs his poems is never monkish; he will not try to solve spiritual problems by denying the flesh. It is, in fact, the conflict between the spiritual and the physical that sustains the poems and gives them their life. Ungaretti is a "man of pain," as he calls himself in one of his poems, but also a man of great passions and desires…. His obsession with death … does not derive from morbid self-pity or a search for other-worldliness, but from an almost savage will to live, and Ungaretti's robust sensuality, his firm adherence to the world of physical things, make his poems tense with conflict between the irreconcilable powers of love and vanity.
In his later work, beginning with his second major collection, Sentimento del Tempo (Sentiment of Time) (1919–1935), the distance between the present and the past becomes a chasm that it is almost impossible to cross, either by an act of will or an act of grace. As with Leopardi, perceiving the void becomes the central metaphor of an unappeasable agony in the face of an indifferent universe, and if Ungaretti's conversion to Catholicism in the late Twenties is to be understood, it must be seen in the light of this "horrid consciousness." "La Pietà" (1928), the long poem which most clearly marks Ungaretti's conversion, is also one of his bleakest works….
In "The Meditated Death," a sequence that serves as a kind of hub to the whole of Sentimento del Tempo, and in nearly all the poems in his following collection, Il Dolore (The Grief) (1937–1946)—most notably the powerful poem written on the death of his young son, "You Shattered"—Ungaretti is determined to experience the extremes of his own consciousness. Paradoxically that is what allows him to cure himself of the fear of these limits.
By the force and precision of his meditative insight, Ungaretti manages to transcend what in a lesser poet would amount to little more than an inventory of private griefs and fears: his poems seem to us objects beyond the self for the very reason that he never treats himself as an example of all selves. One always feels the presence of the man in the work.
In the poems of his later years, Ungaretti's work comes to an astonishing culmination in the single image of the promised land. It is the promised land of both Aeneas and the Bible, of both Rome and the desert, and the personal and historical overtones of these final major poems—"Canzone," "Choruses Describing the States of Mind of Dido," "Recitative of Palinurus," and "Final Choruses for the Promised Land"—refer back to all of Ungaretti's previous work, as if to give it its final meaning. The return to a Virgilian setting represents a kind of poetic homecoming for him at the end of his career, just as the desert revives the landscape of his youth, only to leave him in a last and permanent exile…. "The Final Choruses"… reformulate all the essential themes of his work. Ungaretti's universe remains the same, and in a language that differs very little from that of his earliest poems, he prepares himself for his death…. (p. 36)
Paul Auster, "Man of Pain," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1976 NYREV, Inc.), April 29, 1976, pp. 35-7.