Giuseppe Ungaretti’s poem “Variations on Nothing” first appeared in his 1950 collection La terra promessa (The Promised Land), published in Italy. Some early critics felt the collection marked a different style from Ungaretti’s typical truncated images and brief lines, yet today the collection is heralded as one of his best works. Even if the poems in this collection take up a little more space on the page than Ungaretti’s early poems, they are undeniably still sparse, compelling, and highly imagistic.
In “Variations on Nothing,” as in many of Ungaretti’s works, the poet concentrates on a single, simple idea and fleshes it out with powerful, descriptive words. The subject in this poem is the fleeting time of human life and the endurance of nonhuman earthly objects. An hourglass may depend on a person’s hand to turn it over in order to repeat its measurement of time, but when the hand is gone, the object continues to measure the passing of time. While the overall message is philosophical and obviously abstract, the poet conveys this message with precise images of tangible objects and real-life moments that are both striking and accessible.
Above all else, the poem depends on its ability to evoke specific pictures in the mind and then to translate those pictures into stimulating, provocative contemplation for the reader. Ungaretti’s work is known for its obscurity and symbolism, as opposed to logical, concrete expression, and “Variations on Nothing” is an apt example of his subjective style. It should be read as much for the beauty of its expression as for any specific meaning in its lines.
The title of Ungaretti’s poem “Variations on Nothing” is as much a part of the poem summary as any of its twelve lines. There is a resounding sense of negativity that recurs throughout the brief but poignant work, and the premise of “nothing[ness]” and “negligib[ility]” makes for an unsettling poetic environment overall. In the first line, it is a “bit of sand” that is “negligible”—a word meaning something so small and insignificant that it can be disregarded and forgotten. While the irony of the word is not evident in this first mention of it, later its important paradox will be revealed.
Line 2 explains that the sand is in an “hourglass” and that it slides “Without a sound and settles” at the bottom of the container. The description of the granules silently falling into place serves to emphasize their negligibility. It is like any natural phenomenon conforming to the natural laws of physics, without any say-so or any ado—in this case, the sand simply responds to the laws of gravity.
Line 3 seems to come out of nowhere because the beginning “And” implies a direct connection between what has just been said and what is about to be said, but the new image is completely different. The grainy sand dropping through an hourglass now seems to flow into “the fleeting impressions on the fleshy-pink.” This line introduces another “variation” on what the title of the poem refers to as “nothing.” The initial conjunction “and” refers only to the connections between examples of the overall variety of nothingness, not to an explicit similarity of images.
This line qualifies the fleshy-pink as “perishable.” Once again, the sense of negativity pervades a word like perishable, which acts as a counterpart to the previous “negligible.” Line 4 also reveals that the description is “of a cloud,” perhaps one typically seen in the sky at sunrise or sunset, when the sun’s dim light results in pinkish streaks of “fleeting impressions” across the horizon.
Like line 3, this line appears to be a continuation of the previous one because of the opening word, “Then.” Also like line 3, a completely different image is introduced compared to the previous image. This time the image is of a human “hand that turns over the hourglass.” There is still a very...
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