Friday, August 5, 2016

Do not leave me, suffering, stay! - later Ungaretti poems

I find that Giuseppe Ungaretti becomes more cryptic as he gets away from his war poems.  Images, or perhaps the associations of specific words, seem more arbitrary to me.


I hear a dove from other floods.


D’altri diluvi una colomba ascolto.

That is a complete poem from 1925.  A narrative can be pulled from this line, with the poet on some kind of ark, metaphorical, I suppose, soon after a catastrophe, like, say, a world war.  But past the Noah reference, it could mean anything, private or public.

In 1939, Ungaretti lost his nine-year-old son to appendicitis.  The poems in his 1947 book Il Dolore (The Grief), at least the examples translated by Mandelbaum, are impossible to separate from that event, or from the second war that surrounded Ungaretti.


Stop killing the dead,
Outcry no more, do not outcry
If you would hear them still.
If you would not die.

Their whisper is imperceptible.
They are no louder
Than the growing of the grass,
Happy where man does not pass.

Ungaretti may be referring to a stanza of his 1935 “Greetings for His Own Birthday,” from before his public and private tragedies:

Yet and yet I would outcry:
Swift youth of the senses
That, in the darkness, keeps me from myself,
Allowing images to the eternal,

Do not leave me, suffering, stay!

What a terrible irony or bit of fate-tempting.  I believe the verb Mandelbaum translates as “outcry,” “gridare,” is more commonly translated as “shout” or “cry,” neither of which must have seemed anguished enough.

Ungaretti’s poems are on the miserable side.  The 1953 “Secret of the poet” begins “Alone I have the night as a friend,” which sounds practically Goth in English.  A companion poem is titled “Variations on Nought”:

This null-and-nought of sand that flows away
Within the silent hourglass and settles,
And, fugitive, the imprints on the flesh,
Upon the flesh that dies, of a cloud…

Ellipses in the original, but in the original original, there are so many repetitions of words across the three stanzas that I wonder if there is some kind of system to the poem, as if it is a relative of the sestina.  As so often with Ungaretti, the emphasis turns out to be on individual words rather than images or even sense.

I’ll leave Ungaretti with a song, one full of life, until the end:


A woman wakes and sings
Wind follows and entrances her
And stretches her upon the earth
And the true dream takes her.

This earth is nude
This woman is warm
This wind is strong
This dream is dead.

Una donna s’alza e canta
La segue il vento e l’incanta
E sulla terra la stende
E il sogno vero la prende.

Questa terra è nuda
Questa donna è druda
Questa vento è forte
Questa sogno è morte.


  1. "Questa terra è druda" should be "Questa donna è druda".

  2. This poem has been a favorite of mine since I was a teenager:

    Quando ogni luce è spenta
    E non vedo che i miei pensieri,

    Un'Eva mi mette sugli occhi
    La tela dei paradisi perduti.

  3. The different syntax in the English versions makes the emphasis totally different. In the Dove, the Italian version delays the verb until the final word, and 'other floods' opens the poem. This end-focusing creates a totally different effect, lost in the translation. Who was it said poetry is what can't be translated (or words to that effect)

  4. No one said poetry can't be translated! No one worth listening to. The end-focusing creates a totally different effect, gained in the translation.

    I wish I had had the good sense to read Ungaretti when I was a teenager.

    1. " The end-focusing creates a totally different effect, gained in the translation."... but it loses the effect of Ungaretti's original.
      Perhaps that is the definition of a good translation: a good poem becomes a different good poem in another language. A great translation os when it is somehow the same poem in another language.

      Sorry, but what are you and Di talking about below and where is it?

    2. Your definitions are pretty much the ones I use.

      The Argumentative Old Git wrote a good piece about some difficulties translating a line form Tagore. It attracted, almost inevitably, the usual "can't be done, nope, can't be done" nonsense.

      I was surprised, just because of the coincidence that it was so soon after that other discussion, to see Simon bring up that pernicious internet-eyewash pseudo-Frost quote about poetry being what is lost in translation. That's actually where my joke about "No one worth listening to" is going - there is no evidence that Robert Frost ever said or wrote any such thing, but the attribution is now smeared all over the internet. So the answer to Simon's question is actually "No one knows who said that (although a lot of people think they know)."

  5. "No one worth listening to."

  6. Cryptic. You're not referring to what you said on Himadri's post, are you?

  7. You see why I was so sure that your first statement there, which you later clarified and contradicted, was written in error. You couldn't possibly believe that.

  8. Poetic translation is hard, huh?. So let’s see. The last line of Ungaretti's poem is stately and suggestive, thanks to Milton we can match it somehow

    The cloth of paradises lost.

    The third line is easier, it’s magic twofold, the unspecificity of the Eve in question and the revelation at the line’s very end of the fulcrum to the poem: eyes

    Some Eve covers my eyes

    The second is the toughest one, I cannot get it right

    And all I can see are my thoughts

    The first line is very mellifluous in the original, hard to match in translation:

    When all the lights have grown dark
    And I see nothing but my thoughts
    Some Eve pulls over my eyes
    The wool of paradises lost.