Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 770

Ungaretti was one of the most influential figures in twentieth century Italian poetry and a founder of a poetry movement called Hermeticism. This movement was an effort to establish a newer, simpler form of poetry unencumbered by traditional ornamentation, such as rhyme, and based more on a dreamlike association of ideas than on logical order.

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Ungaretti published “La Pietà” in its first collection as part of a series of poems termed “Inni,” or hymns, which marked his return to a predominantly Christian view of life and literature, after he had explored less overtly religious modes of thought in his earlier work. Many writers and artists of the 1920’s saw life as bleak and unfulfilling; the return to religious faith was Ungaretti’s own response to a common perception.

The poem expresses disillusionment and discouragement with life in general and implies that the speaker is very much in need of mercy from God. This mercy would assuage the painful emptiness he has discovered in his life and renew the “light that goads us” in section 3, the sense of the divine which Ungaretti found missing from much European intellectual activity in the decades between World Wars I and II. The pity the speaker seeks is not expressed in traditional Christian terms of forgiveness for sins, but instead as redemption from the transitory and unsatisfying life in which he feels the human race is burying itself.

Ungaretti expresses the recurrent thought that the individual exercises a kind of dominion over his or her own life, but one which disappoints, suggesting that egotism is pointless. In section 1, the speaker parallels Adam, naming the animals in Genesis, but the speaker’s naming the “silence” of his life is an attempt to fill a void rather than to establish order in a new and promising world. He asks, carrying this image further but also reflecting his work as a poet, if he has become a slave of words which have no meaning, and finally concludes that he reigns “over phantoms.” In other words, his poetry is without value, substance, or significance. This image is brought back in the fourth section, where humanity (“Man, monotonous universe”) is compared to a demigod building an insubstantial world, one which only results in tombs and blasphemies. The speaker has progressed from seeing himself as an Adam presiding over a dead world to seeing humanity as a mockery of God’s creative power, and therefore implicitly in need of pity.

Another theme running through the piece is the suggestion that God could act to end the speaker’s spiritual stagnation. In section 1, the speaker pleads with God either to pity the human race or to mock it, as either would be better than the self-centered void in which even “those who implore” God only know the “name,” but not the reality, of the supreme being. In section 2, again, the speaker asks if God is “no more than a dream” and comments that at least the dream of God is the “clearest madness,” the closest approach to sanity, that contemporary people have. In the third section, he begs to be dazzled by light from the divine. At the very end of section 4 the speaker finds that humanity has only blasphemies—in this case, vague images—through which to think about God.

Ungaretti’s poem provides a glimpse of an individual who is weighing belief and unbelief, time and eternity. It can be painful to read, because the author describes the painful crisis of confidence involved in having the foundations of one’s life suddenly opened to doubt. It also is esthetically balanced between these extremes, giving it power. On one hand, God seems remote, but on the other hand, human effort to reach out to the divine seems useless. People cannot solve the dilemma on their own but must wait for God to do it for them. In the end, the journey suggested in the opening lines is an illusion—the only activity is that of a mind cataloguing its miseries and inabilities. Any meaningful occurrence must come from the divine.

Despite its Christian basis, the poem at times may remind readers of the Dao de Jing (late third century b.c.e.), as everything which human beings can speak, think, or do is revealed to be empty, while truth eludes them constantly. “La Pietà” marked Ungaretti’s own reexamination and ultimate affirmation of Christian belief, although the longing and emptiness the poem conveys may be appreciated by readers of any or no faith; like the grief in artistic depictions of la Pietà, the emotions are more universal than any one creed.

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