mercoledì 4 marzo 2015

Giuseppe Ungaretti’s war poetry of solitude and solidarity

Giuseppe Ungaretti
by Olga Lenczewska


Ungaretti was born in Alexandria, where his Italian parents moved to find a job at the construction of the Suez Canal. Although they were from Lucca, Tuscany, the poet has not visited this or any other place in his home country until he was an adult. Having completed education at a French school in Egypt, he went on to study at Sorbonne in France. The first collection of Ungaretti’s poems, L’Allegria (The Joy), consists of his works from the period of First World War (1914-1919). Most of the poems from the collection present antitheses, such as happiness-sadness, life-death, nationalism-cosmopolitanism, or solitude-solidarity. In Ungaretti’s view, poetry cannot evolve in a static environment, and to write about the essential human experience is to wander well beyond the habits and boredom of everyday’s life. It is constant energy and movement that create true poetry, and the essence may be captured beyond the words only if they are full of tensions, antitheses, and dilemmas.

When First World War began, Ungaretti decided to be a soldier that he was able to get closer to his country by fighting at the Italian front in Carso. That was when he saw Italy for the first time. Due to distinct lack of one national identity and not feeling particularly attached to any country or tradition, Ungaretti faced an identity crisis and longed for national roots – cultural basis that would grant him a foundation for his literary expression and values. He considered his life and journey as a sort of nomadism, perceiving himself everywhere as straniero and admitting in one of his poems In nessuna / parte / di terra / mi posso / accasare (Girovago). As his poetry always expressed his direct experience and feelings, solitude in his writings manifests itself in this very experience of not having a fixed identity and constant need to search for a home. Solidarity, on the other hand, is linked to the poet’s experience of war as a soldier, where he had to cooperate with other soldiers who were the witnesses of the challenges and extreme situations he faced and who were undergoing similar to him internal changes.

To give a practical example of the dichotomy of solidarity and solitude in Ungaretti’s war poetry, I will briefly analyse one of him poems, Fratelli. This meditative poem draws its inspiration from a meeting between two patrols of soldiers. Even though war is an antithesis of peace, Ungaretti pictures the two patrols as groups of fragile people facing the same drama of fear, tiredness and uncertainty as to what is going to happen tomorrow. Thus, the poem is a description of a situation that unites the war partisans in the same experience and feelings. Their moral frailty is represented by a synecdoche of trembling words (Parola tremante / nella notte) and metaphorically expressed as a young leaf trembling in the shell-convulsed night air (Foglia appena nata). It is this very situation and war context that enable the soldiers realise how little and vulnerable, when facing the universe and the wheel of history, they are. The scarcely born leaf hints also to the fact that many of them are young and inexperienced, which makes the First World War a background of their process of becoming fully grown up. This notion of losing the opportunity to have a normal youth can be found also in Italia, where Ungaretti defines himself as il frutto (...) / maturato in una sera – somebody who, because of the war context, was forced to grow up too quickly.

The title of the poem gives primacy to a single, crucial word fratelli, which means both comrades and brothers. The notion of brotherhood shows how close the soldiers are linked, almost as if they were one body. Solidarity and strength unite the soldiers against their own precariousness and fragility. On the other hand, there is a single solider (uomo) to whom his fragility is presented. We can thus see the tension between a singular intense experience of sinking the existential individuality of a lonely and fragile person which is contrasted by the plural fratelli that symbolizes the solidarity of a brotherhood discovered in the tragedy of war.

As Ungaretti believes it is constant tensions between words and concepts that create true poetry, solitude and solidarity are never separated from each other and every poem that deals with these themes is a philosophical journey through human existence and crucial for life experience. As a poet, Ungaretti wanted to be heard by many of us and to do that he constantly searched for his national and cultural identity and roots that would grant him a foundation for his literary expression and values, for only by doing so could he pass this experience to future generations and stay close to his own feelings and dilemmas. His collection L’Allegria reflects thus what he thought to be true poetry: Ogni vera poesia risolve miracolosamente il contrasto d’essere singolare, unica, e anonima, universale [Ungaretti, Vita d’un uomo].

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