Giuseppe Ungaretti

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Giuseppe Ungaretti

The Italian poet Giuseppe Ungaretti (1888-1970) was the creator and major representative of Italian hermetic poetry.

Giuseppe Ungaretti was born on Feb. 10, 1888, in Alexandria, Egypt, of Italian parents who had emigrated from the countryside around Lucca. At an early age he lost his father, who had been working as a laborer on the Suez Canal project; his mother continued to run a baker's oven to maintain the family. Until 1905 Ungaretti frequented the Istituto Don Bosco and the École Suisse Jacot, and in 1912 he went to Paris to study at the Collège de France and the Sorbonne. He met and befriended poets and artists such as Guillaume Apollinaire,Pablo Picasso, Giorgio de Chirico, Georges Braque, and Amedeo Modigliani. In 1915 his first poetry was published in the journal Lacerba.

During World War I Ungaretti served as an infantry soldier on the Italian front and in the Champagne. After the war he settled in Paris and in 1919 married Jeanne Dupoix. In 1921 the couple moved to Rome, where Ungaretti held a job in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. In the early 1930s he traveled as a special correspondent for the Gazzetta del popolo and also went on several lecture tours throughout Europe.

During a congress of the Pen Club in Brazil in 1936, Ungaretti accepted the offer of the chair of Italian language and literature at the University of São Paulo. Upon his return to Italy in 1942, he was elected a member of the Italian Academy and took the chair of modern Italian literature at the University of Rome. After the death of his wife in 1958, he traveled extensively. He died in Milan on June 1, 1970. He was the recipient of numerous literary prizes.

While still in school in Egypt, Ungaretti became acquainted with French symbolist poetry, particularly that of Stéphane Mallarmé. The example of the French symbolists, and later that of Paul Valéry and Apollinaire, led him to adopt his particular hermetic "technique of obscuration." Such a closed diction derives its characteristics from the basic symbolist beliefs in the magic qualities of the word and the conviction that the poet is the keeper of arcane secrets. Thus, as Ungaretti once said, true poetry must have the "obscure sense of revelation." The technique avails itself of all possibilities to give the single word greater relief, be it through abolition of punctuation, typographical or stylistic isolation, or epigrammatic composition. Ungaretti always professed to be preoccupied with ultimate questions of man's existence, with the mysteries of life, and he gave his entire work the title Vita d'un uomo.

Ungaretti's first collection of verse, Il porto sepolto (1916), was published in an edition of 80 copies and represented a definite break with traditional forms. The poems grew out of his first year's experience in the trenches of Monte San Michele. Allegria di naufragi (1919) is a testimony of self-revelation after the experiences of war. Typical is the long poem I fiumi, in which he tries to define his heritage. The central collection of Ungaretti's poetry, Sentimento del tempo (1933), appeared after an interval of 14 years, and he spoke of the "most slow distillation" of this work. Il dolore (1947) is a group of 17 poems written under the impression of the death of his son at the age of nine. With the sequence of the compositions contained in La terra promessa (1950) Ungaretti adopted more extensive poetic forms and also returned to a modified hendecasyllable. Un grido e paesaggi (1952) contains poetry written between 1939 and 1952.

Further Reading

The most concise monograph in English on Ungaretti is Glauco Cambon, Giuseppe Ungaretti (1967). A substantial study of Ungaretti's work in the broad context of hermetic poetry is in Joseph Cary, Three Modern Italian Poets: Saba, Ungaretti, Montale (1969). Recommended for general historical background are the preface in Carlo Luigi Golino, ed., Contemporary Italian Poetry: An Anthology (1962), and Eugenio Donadoni, A History of Italian Literature (2 vols., trans. 1969). □