Variations on Nothing

by Giuseppe Ungaretti

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Line 1 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 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 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.

Line 4 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.

Line 5 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 important direct connection between the images in lines 4 and 5: the reference to human flesh. The descriptor “fleshy-pink” refers to both a cloud and someone’s hand, specifically the one that upends the hourglass and sets the sand in motion again.

Line 6 This line, more than any other in the poem, is less imagistic and more rhythm and rhyme for its own sake. It directly connects with line 5, but takes on a flavorful, fluffy lilt with the rhyming words “going” and “flowing” stretched into “going back” and “flowing back,” both referring to the movement of the sand. In keeping with the poem’s title, lines 5 and 6 supply yet another variation on the main topic.

Lines 7–8 Line 7 includes the second mention of a cloud, but here the visible mass in the sky experiences a “quiet silvering,” as a cloud often appears to do in “the first few lead-gray seconds of dawn.” The cloud has gone from a pinkish color to the more somber shades of silver and gray, implying on one level the rotational changes that take place in natural phenomena everyday, but suggesting something deeper on another level. Human life has already been introduced in line 5 with the mention of the “hand,”...

(This entire section contains 962 words.)

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and the hand has already been linked to the color of the cloud—at that point, “fleshypink.” On the heels of this connection comes the “lead-gray” color, linked directly to the cloud again, but also indirectly to the hand. When one describes humans in terms of silver or gray, the obvious image is of an older or aging person.

Line 9 Line 9 and line 5 share similarities along with significant differences. In line 9 yet another dim image is used in conjunction with the human hand, here a “shadow.” The first time the hand is mentioned, in line 5, there is no specific environment designated with it. Also in line 5 the time is in present tense—that is, the hand turns over the hourglass. In line 9 the hand turned over the hourglass. As with the idea of someone turning silver or gray, the sudden switch to past tense suggests a passage of time, or more specifically a passage of life itself.

Lines 10–11 Line 10 is nearly a repetition of line 1, though the addition of “And” at the beginning indicates a continuation rather than the start of anything. It is important to note that the “bit of sand” is still “negligible,” so it appears that its worth has not improved in the time that has passed. In line 11 the opening phrase “And is silent” compares directly to the opening phrase in line 2, “Without a sound.” But the remainder of line 11 is the strongest suggestion so far that time has passed and human life has ended. The environment that surrounds the hourglass is so deathly quiet that even the “silent” flowing of the sand through it “is the only thing now heard.” Suddenly, the tiny granule of nonhuman matter does not seem so “negligible.”

Line 12 “Variations on Nothing” ends with a clear—and somewhat foreboding—proclamation about the difference between humanity and the earth on which it exists. In essence, the nonhuman world will endure long after human life has “vanish[ed] in the dark.” Here, the sand sliding through the hourglass keeps ticking away the seconds though the hand that turned it is no longer around. More importantly, the sand now has a voice in the world, and “being heard,” does not go the way of its fleshy counterpart.