Out of the First World War’s unprecedented devastation came poetry equally unprecedented in its disinclination to celebrate heroism and the glory of combat. The trenches produced few Tennysonian paeans to charging into the valley of death. What we have from that dire spell are poems such as Yeats’s “Easter, 1916,” Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” and Wilfred Owen’s “Dulce et Decorum Est.” A handful of poets, like Owen, Thomas Hardy, Siegfried Sassoon, Edward Thomas, and Isaac Rosenberg, made the war a major theme of their work, much of their verse based on firsthand experience of combat. (Owen, Thomas, and Rosenberg died on the battlefield.) Their poems encompass contempt and despair, expressing anger and bitterness, and elegiac beauty.
On the evidence of Giuseppe Ungaretti’s first collection, Allegria, the Italian modernist poet belongs to the list of profound Great War poets. Geoffrey Brock’s new translation of the 75 or so poems Ungaretti wrote between 1914 and 1919 should prompt a fresh appraisal of this body of work, mostly composed in the midst of conflict.
Ungaretti was born in Alexandria, Egypt, in 1888. His family hailed from Lucca in Tuscany. His father died while helping to build the Suez Canal; his mother, a baker, raised him Roman Catholic. As a student at the French-speaking Swiss School in Alexandria he read the likes of Baudelaire, Mallarmé, and Rimbaud, exposing him to some of the most experimental and transgressive voices of the French literary avant-garde.
In 1912, at age 24, Ungaretti moved to Paris; three years later he joined the Italian infantry to fight the Germans. During his brief stint in the French city, he studied with philosopher Henri Bergson and befriended a host of contemporary writers and artists, including Apollinaire, Modigliani, and several Italian Futurist painters.
The first of five sections of Allegria, titled “Ultime / Furthest,” is comprised of a dozen poems written in Milan in 1914, before the war broke out in July of that year. They establish Ungaretti’s modernist inclinations and free-verse practice, what Brock calls in an afterword “one of the starkest, most lapidary poetic styles of the twentieth century.”
The verses feature line and stanza breaks, but minimal syntax and punctuation. They are impressions, spare and lyric. Here’s the three-line “Night in May,” with its imagist traits:
The sky puts garlands of little lights atop the minarets
A nostalgia for Egypt pervades several of the most powerful early poems in the collection. “My People” opens, “Gone that lone flock of palms / and the infinite / moon over dry night,” and contains this cri de coeur: “O homeland your every age / wakes in my blood.”
The second and longest section in Allegria, “Porto Sepolto / The Buried Harbor,” comprises poems Ungaretti started writing on his first day in the trenches, around Christmas, 1915. He was stationed on the eastern edge of the Italian front, Brock tells us, “on a hill in the Karst plateau called Monte San Michele,” the site of some of the war’s deadliest battles.
According to the translator, many of the wartime poems were written on whatever scraps of paper Ungaretti could lay his hands on: “military postcards, the margins of old newspapers, blank spaces in letters he had received.” The poet noted the place and date of their composition so that one can trace his whereabouts during his time in the military.
The war is a vivid presence in many of these poems. In “Vigil,” composed at “Peak Four” in the Monte San Michele region on December 23, 1915, the poet recounts writing “letters full of love” all night long while “flung beside” a corpse of a “butchered / comrade / his teeth /bared / to the full moon.” The poem ends with an affecting declaration:
I've never felt so fastened to life
“Half-Sleeping,” written in a gully below Peak Four on August 6, 1916, evokes the terrors of Ungaretti’s situation, opening with the line, “I hear the night raped.” The air, he writes, is “riddled / like lace / by the gunshots / of the men / hidden / in trenches / like snails in their shells.” He likens the sound of gunfire to “a breathless / swarm of chisels” beating “the lava-stone pavers / of my streets.” His imagery is richly conceived, even surreal.
The poems reflect mood changes as the poet endures the war. The three-line “Tonight” acknowledges despondency — “A balustrade of breeze / tonight to lean / my melancholy on” — while “Fate” has an existential edge: “Bound to suffer / like any / created flesh / why is it that we complain?” “I Am a Creature,” ends with the statement, “We pay down / death / by living.”
The book’s longest poem, “My Rivers,” conjures the waterways of Ungaretti’s life, starting with the Isonzo (also known as the Soča River), which at the time formed the border of Italy and the Austro-Hungarian Empire and was the setting for some of the deadliest battles in World War I. He describes bathing in the river then crouching near his filthy “war clothes,” bowing “like a bedouin … to receive / the sun.”
In a manner that recalls Langston Hughes’s “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” Ungaretti calls forth the rivers that have run through his life, including the Serchio in Tuscany, the Nile, and the Seine, “in whose murk / I remade myself / and met myself.” The rivers activate a “homesickness” that nonetheless brings light to a soldier whose life “seems / a corolla / of shadows.”
The third and fourth sections of Allegria, “Naufragi / Shipwreck” and “Girovago / Wanderer,” reflect the poet’s emotional extremes in response to the intense pressure of combat. The two-line poem “Morning” infers a kind of elation: “I’m lit with / immensity.” By contrast, nighttime stirs dark thoughts: “My wretched / life / stretches on / ever more fearful / of itself” (“Night Again”).
A number of poems place Ungaretti solidly in the imagist school; “Flaming Rose” brings to mind Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro”:
On an ocean of tolling bells suddenly a different morning floats
In his notes to the text, Brock explains that Ungaretti had joined the army of a country he had barely known in part “as a way of proving he belonged to it [Italy], and it to him.” The poem “Italy” addresses this knotty relationship. “I am the fruit / of countless conflicting grafts / grown in a hothouse,” he explains. At the end, the poet confirms his allegiance: “And in this your soldier’s / uniform / I rest / as in my father’s /cradle.”
Composed in Paris and Milan in 1919, after the war had ended, the final section in Allegria, titled “Prime / Nearest,” brings the collection full circle. The poet takes stock of his existence, invoking a sense of postwar nihilism: “Things embroider a sprawling tedium of absences” reads the first line of the first verse, “Return.”
Ungaretti finds little comfort in city streets. “I’m sitting outdoors, in front of a tavern, with people / who are talking about California as if it were one of their / country homes,” he carps in the prose-like “Lucca.” The final poem, “Prayer,” points to a new beginning:
When I have woken from the dazzle of promiscuities in a stunned sphere of clarity When my own weight becomes light Allow me Lord to be shipwrecked at the first cry of that new day.
Over the past 20-plus years, Brock has established himself as one of the preeminent translators of modern Italian literature. In an interview with Maggie Paul for Poetry Santa Cruz in 2002, he explained that a good translation should “breathe on its own and not require the original text as a heart and lung machine.” He worked from the 1931 edition of Allegria, feeling it “best captures [Ungaretti’s] early genius.”
In “Envoi,” Ungaretti describes poetry as “world and humanity / and one’s own life / blooming from the word / the lucid marvel / of a raving fermentation.” The extremes of life and death he encountered in the trenches led him to try and convey what he called “an awakening to the human condition.” Brock’s translations, printed opposite the Italian originals, help fulfill that ambitious mission.
Allegria (2020) by Giuseppe Ungaretti, translated by Geoffrey Brock, is published by Archipelago Books.