The Poem

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 256

“La Pietà” (the pity) is a poem of seventy-four lines arranged in four sections. The English translation is generally very close to the Italian original in meaning and identical in arrangement of line. Most stanzas are composed of only one line, although several contain more; moreover, the poem is divided into four parts, the first being composed of thirty-nine lines, the second of twenty, the third of only four, and the fourth of eleven. The lines are of irregular length in the original, and the translation follows the line length of the original as much as possible. For instance, in the second stanza, composed of four lines, the English translation has two lines of six syllables each, one of five, and one of four; in the original, each line has eight syllables. The lines, in both languages, are unrhymed. In both the original and the translation, the poem is written in grammatically correct, complete sentences, but with a simple, conversational style.

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The poem takes the form of a monologue, which occasionally becomes a prayer. The speaker begins by saying “I am a wounded man,” expressing a desire to “reach” pity, as if he were trying to journey to a place where he might be healed. In a sense, the rest of the poem describes a journey through various aspects of the speaker’s profound dissatisfaction with his existence. Ungaretti wrote “La Pietà” in 1928, when he was forty, and in it he reassesses life—as do many thinkers at that age—but in ways specifically his own.

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 455

The poem shares its general sentiment with some biblical psalms, as a lamentation over the human inability to find ultimate certainty or fulfillment. Like many psalms, it is a first-person meditation in which both personal grief and the fate of humanity are lamented. Also like biblical poetry, “La Pietà” repeats ideas in different words, as in the first section’s “You have banished me from life./ And will you banish me from death?” In both lines, God has somehow chosen to isolate the speaker from the world around him, and the lines repeat the thought, forming a pair that is more memorable than either line would be on its own. This biblical rhetorical strategy gives a traditionally religious feel to the poem.

Also, like the four movements of a classical symphony, the parts of the poem complement one another. Although each portion reflects the same general state of unhappiness with worldly life, each portrays a different aspect. The first section, which constitutes just over half the poem, recounts the poet’s disillusionment in detail. He compares himself to leaves being blown by the wind and claims he has been crying without an audible voice, suggesting total futility. In section 2, the poet speaks directly of a lack of joy and of an awareness of death in the midst of the bustle that is contemporary life. He once was joyful and knew purpose in life, but now is convinced his activities belong to a world already dead.

In the third section, the shortest of all, the speaker pleads for “light,” a renewed presence of the divine in his life. He begs for the light as being the greatest happiness possible, for it gives certainty and meaning. In section 4, he describes humanity as being cut off from the divine, from light and certainty. The speaker concludes that human attempts to think about God are only blasphemous, and that all men and women can truly do is mark the decay of the universe.

The message seems at first to be entirely of despair, and yet in the careful balancing of elements Ungaretti shows his readers an example of the richness of human thought. Perhaps the best example is in his title, which is also a term for traditional artistic images of the Virgin Mary holding the dead body of Jesus, such as the famous sculpture by Michelangelo (although neither Mary nor Jesus are referred to in the text). The association evokes ideas of both grief and compassion, more than a specific reference to Christ, and adds one more dimension to the speaker’s attempt to cry out to God, for the speaker becomes a reflection of the same intensity of feeling the artists show in the image of Mary.

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Themes