Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Giuseppe Ungaretti by Mark Thompson

As the Sixth Battle peters out, a soldier on Mount San Michele makes his way over the boulders, through the foliage and insect-buzz down to the turquoise river. Off comes his woolen tunic, lousy, rank with sweat; he unwinds his puttees, unlaces his heavy boots. That night, back in his trench above the valley, he shelters near a tree stump. Moonlight in the river: silver in the distance. The artillery has thumped all day, somewhere to the east. The sector is quiet and his body, relaxing, remembers its sensations in the water. He finds a pencil, tears the corner of a cartridge box and scribbles on it:

This morning I lay back
in an urn of water
and like a relic
took my rest

The Isonzo's flow
smoothed me
like a stone of its own

I hauled myself, this
bonebag, up
and off I went
like an acrobat
on the water...

The writer is Giuseppe Ungaretti (1880-1970), a private in the 19th Infantry, Brescia Brigade. A dozen of his poems are still the best known Italian literature of the Great War. They broke the mould of poetry in his language, freeing it from late romantic rhetoric.

The poem, called "The Rivers" and dated 16 August 1916, has been an anthology piece for decades. After setting the scene, the poet tells how the water of the Isonzo restores him to himself, bearing him back to the other rivers of his life. He names the Serchio, a Tuscan river that watered the farmland where his ancestors lived. Then the Nile, from his birthplace in Egypt, and lastly the Seine, for it was Paris that awoke his vocation.

These are my rivers
summed up in the Isonzo.

The mood is blissful, almost anthemic. Rivers are ancient symbols of life, and Ungaretti feels his existence being affirmed. The rocks in the riverbed are no harder than his bones. His life is a river, the war is not strong enough to stop it. Why, he can walk on water.

This is the Isonzo
and here I best
recognize myself:
a yielding fiber of the universe

My torment's
when I
don't believe myself
in harmony

But those hidden
that soak and blend me
regale me with

Finally the poem circles back to the hillside, alights like a barn-owl on that 'mutilated tree', folds its wings and gazes at us:

now that it's night
and my life looks to me
a corolla
of darkness

In the trenches, Ungaretti grew immune to nationalist passion. "There is no trace in my poetry of hatred for the enemy, or anybody else.", he said later, truthfully. 'There's an awareness of the human condition, men's brotherhood in suffering, the extreme precariousness of their situation.' His prewar letters sometimes sound a Futurist note, he told a friend in 1913 that he was a Nietzschean, because he wanted 'a more heroic humanity' and a 'new aesthetic'. In his writings from the front, this note is no longer heard..he did not lapse into the ranting that poisons so much Italian wartime writing. In fact 'The Rivers' can be read as a humanist redemption of the nationalist motif- the Isonzo itself, named in a thousand bellicose speeches and articles. In May 1915, D'Annunzio told a crowd in Rome that Italian soldiers would soon turn the Isonzo red with barbarian blood. In Ungaretti's poem, by contrast, it is the uniform that is 'foul with war', not the river, which washes the squalor away...

Distrust of 'literature' was also a lesson of life in the trenches. For if he owed his comrades his education in humanity, he must also have been indebted to them for his plain idiom and staccato rhythm, as well as to his beloved friend Apollinaire, who showed him how to quit punctuation. His poems were written when Ungaretti's ears echoed day and night with the speech of peasants and labourers. To Papini he wrote: "My dear comrades have looked death in the face without knowing why.' Surely he wanted to write poetry that was true to the unquestioning acceptance that was, for him, the hallmark of his companions experience. While he shared their disgust at the politicking in Rome, he was no more inclined than they were to oppose the war. Ungaretti's artistic courage was not matched by independent thinking about the calculus that turned so much slaughter into so little gain. His nationalism was conventional. Healing immersion in the life of the troops was what he wanted, and got.

Life at the front encouraged modernist concision; for 'There was no time: the words you used had to be the decisive, absolute words, there was this necessity to express yourself in the fewest words, to cleanse yourself, not to say anything except what had to be said.' With their startling lack of connective tissue, his poems measure a duress that threatens to cancel individuality altogether, drowning out the personal voice- the voice of poetry. They imitate the posture of the infantry, crouching to minimise their exposure. The wondrous musicality of Italian has been internalized, driven inside the word or phrase. Rhythms lie low until the pulse of speech releases them. Syllables are cherished like comrades' lives, and spent reluctantly. These poems skirt the brink of silence: heroically minimal.

They might never have seen print. By chance, Ettore Serra, a lieutenant with literary interests, was strolling through Versa, 'a fly-bitten, dusty little village' where the 19th Infantry happened to be resting. His eye was caught by a ragged, insouciant soldier who was taking such pleasure in the sunshine that he failed to salute the passing officer. Serra wanted his name, which led to a conversation about a few early poems that Ungaretti had published in a magazine. Asked about his recent work, Ungaretti dug in his pockets for the scraps of paper. Serra took them away and turned them into a book that changed Italian poetry. Not that The Buried Harbor made much of an impact at the time, even on the poet's avant-garde friends in Florence and Rome, except Papini, who announced with relish that Ungaretti had 'strangled rhetoric'. Slipping onstage without benefit of manifestos, the implications of this debut would have been hard to see even without the distractions of war. The poet himself may not have grasped them at the time. For he was not having a quarrel with poetic tradition when he wrote his 'book of desolation', as he called it; he was just saving his sanity.

Ungaretti valued two kinds of calmness and found them both in the war. Away from the trenches, a receptive stillness of soul let him

to the drifting
of the limpid universe.

The reprieve from danger cast a halo around the sunlight on dewy grass, purple shadow thrown from the mountains, the carnal pink of a sunset, a green glade amid blitzed woodlands above the Isonzo. We hear the din of battle in the white silence of his words...

Then there was the endless resignation of the men in the trenches. The word that linked these states of being was docile: docile, meek, yielding. After Caporetto, he described the soldiers in retreat: 'They went in silence, meekly, as the Italians go, dying with a smile.'

Despite his ready grin, Ungaretti did not impress others as particularly docile himself. Explosive, rather; truculent; his own man. A friend was working at the Supreme Command when Ungaretti dropped by in June or July 1917. The poet was soon complaining loudly about the soldiers' condition and plummeting spirits. The friend told him to lower his voice: general Diaz was in the next office. But Ungaretti's nerves were shot after a year and a half on the Carso. "I'd like to know what's going on in your general's head,' he shouted. 'What's going on in all their heads, here? The soldiers are worn out, they're at the end of their tethers, and as for morale, that's been stagnant for a long time. Where's all this leading? Where?'

Three months later, the Twelfth Battle supplied the answer.


  1. The Italians paid a monstrous price for eastern Friuli, Trieste, Istria, the Trentino, and Alto Adige. The nineteenth century wars to unify the peninsula- the first three wars of independence- cost fewer than 10,000 lives. The war to annex these final territories killed 689,000 Italian soldiers: more than the total of Austro-Hungarian dead, missing and wounded on the Italian front (estimated at 650,000), and more, also, than the Hapsburg Italian population that was 'redeemed' by the victory. Adding the estimated 600,000 civilians who died due to the hardships of war, the Italian death toll reached 1.3 million- around three times the number that would perish in the Second World War.

    The price was also political. Orlando's and Sonnino's zero-sum strategy in Paris dealt a fatal wound to Italy's liberal system, already battered by the serial assaults of wartime. By stoking the appetite for unattainable demands, they encouraged the Italians to despise their victory unless it led to the annexation of a small port on the other side of the Adriatic, with no historical connection to the motherland. Fiume became the first neuralgic point created by the Paris Conference. Like the Sudetenland for Hitler's Germany and Transylvania for Hungary, it was a symbol of burning injustice. A sense of jeopardised identity and wounded pride fused with a toponym to produce an explosive compound.

  2. As soon as he was demobbed, in 1919, Carlo Gadda planned to write something that would 'break the circle of silence about the reality of the war, and make it impossible for anything like it to happen again. Not surprisingly, he never wrote that book, though he managed a chapter of steely aphorisms for his novel "The Castle of Udine" (1934), such as this: 'Speaking of war and peace as if they were myths, or earthquakes, is a disgusting thing in a man and a citizen', Maybe "A Farewell To Arms" made him so uncomfortable because he shared its anti-hero's distaste for patriotic rhetoric:

    "I was always embarrassed by the words sacred, and sacrifice and the expression, in vain...I see nothing sacred, and the things that were glorious had no glory...There were many words that you could not stand to hear and finally only the names of places had dignity...Abstract words such as glory, honor, courage, or hallow were obscene beside the concrete names of villages, the numbers of roads, the names of rivers, the numbers of regiments and the dates."

    If it is true that nobody in Europe of August 1914 would have understood what Hemingway was talking about in this famous passage, it was equally true that by 1916, even pro-war Italians were saying very similar things, in revulsion at the deceitful rhetoric that swilled around the nation like a polluting tide. That September, Gaddo told a friend that, if he died, the announcement should be as laconic as possible, avoiding words and phrases like "fatherland, honour, fervent youth, flower of youth, hated enemy, proud and grieving, etc." 'Fell in the course of combat would suffice'... It was in 1916, too, that Ungaretti wrote the pared-down poetry which passed a creative judgment on the bankruptcy of conventional expression.

    Hemingway was not saturated in Italian war language; but he did not need to be. His American artist's ear caught the poisoned sonorities of European nationalism, which his hard-bitten style satirised automatically in "Farewell To Arms". his best novel. It was a style that became influential around the world. Modern literature owes a debt-by-reaction to Italian war discourse.

  3. The White War; Life and Death on The Italian Front 1915-1919" by Mark Thompson; Basic Books, 2008