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THE CENTURY has been so crowded that each generation seems like an entire age, and the Paris of the Twenties in the memoirs of Fitzgerald and Hemingway appears as remote to us as the literature of the nineteenth century must have been to them. Surrealism is no more than a riotous fantasy rooted in the past; the period between the Wars emerges as a violent dream.
Last week, when the poet Giuseppe Ungaretti arrived in Cambridge on a voyage from Italy, it was as if the silence of history had been suddenly broken. Lissome and frail, miraculously animated for his eighty-one years, Ungaretti has been inexhaustible in the first days of his visit here, giving readings at Brandeis and Wellesley, drifting through Harvard Square, and talking far into the night about his life and of the age. Last Friday night he gave the first of two readings scheduled at Harvard, and brought to the small audience in Burr B a final sense of what poetry had been before the War: defiant, vociferous, marked by a refusal to acknowledge even the voice's limitations. Andrew Wylie read from his own translations, and Ungaretti followed each poem in Italian. Reciting "Tu Ti Spezzasti" ("You Shattered"), a lament on the death of his son at sea, he shuddered through each enjambing line, whispered, shouted, and collapsed:
Impossible not to shatter
In a so hardened blindness
You simple breath and glass,
Too human flash for the heathen
Forest, fierce, droning
Roar of a naked sun.
The following afternoon, in his Apley Court apartment, Ungaretti talked of how he could look forward to no future, of how his past was too enormous and confused. But as he spoke things only dimly known seemed to become realities. Giant figures of the past, obscured by the magnitude of their own reputations, had all been friends of Ungaretti's, and celebrants of his art. Collected in Il Tacciuno del Vecchio (The Notebook of an Old Man) is the homage of a generation: letters, essays, a poem by the Mexican Octavio Oaz and one by Henri Thuile:
I haven't forgotten at all, Ungaretti, the days when you came and danced on the sands of love
T. S. Eliot wrote: "Giuseppe Ungaretti is one of the very few authentic poets of my generation and a worthy representative of Italian poetry for the rest of Europe and America." And Jorge Guillen announced that:
every poem is open, and not closed, to all the winds of the spirit and the world; and the poetry of Ungaretti has always communicated to me a freshness, a free air, of boundless light and the persuasion of a voice both moved and moving . . . so sober, so precise with his phrases, so concise amidst the silences of white spaces.
And it has been this ceaseless warding off of despair, symbolizing his survival through disasters to which others succumbed, which has given to Ungaretti his remarkable capacity to speak amidst these silences and to shatter the mute world of Europe in the twentieth century.
Born in Alexandria, Egypt, in 1888, of Italian parents, Ungaretti was in his twenties before World War I broke out. He wrote his first poems in the trenches of Carso, on the French border, and published Il Porto Sepolto (The Submerged Seaport) in 1916. These earliest poems, laconic and unpunctuated, implied from the beginning a break with d'Annunzio and the traditions of Italian poetry. Glauco Cambon's study of Ungaretti in the Columbia series recalled the war poems as "flashes of insight bursting through the shell of established prosodic convention to capture the immediacy of inner experience." And Ungaretti himself reflected (in an essay titled "The Mission of the Artist") on the extent to which his culture has been wounded by the damages of war: "The recollection of iniquity and ruin lodges atrociously in our flesh and in our souls."
WHAT Ungaretti drew from the War was the peculiar knowledge of a "disabused modern consciousness," not d'Annunzio's heroic myth of the theatrical, but rather the awareness of anonymity and other sorrows. Influenced more by Giacomo Leopardi, the great Italian poet of the nineteenth century, and by Mallarmé, than by the aesthetic exigencies of his own age, Ungaretti shared with his close friends Apollinaire and the Fauvist Braque a profound despair over history's irrationality. But Apollinaire never survived the War, and those who did were so shattered and forlorn that their only response was that of an iconoclastic Dadaism.
Ungaretti survived both the War and many of his friends, and took up, on his own, a more gentle intransigence, the work of creative revolution which he and Appollinaire, among others, had begun in the Paris Academies before the War. The rage which warped so many artists in the years between two wars, verging on insanity and spilling into the excesses of Futurism, was a condition he avoided; Ungaretti took stylistic refuge in the Neo-Symbolist movement of "Hermetic" poetry, in an obscurantism that usually meant praise more than polemic.
The rigors of la poésie pure, the publication of his complete works under the title Vita d'un Uomo, and finally his unanimous election as President of the European Community of Writers in 1962 signaled a waking from the turbulence of his younger years to the task of what Glauco Cambon called "a generous asceticism." The narrative poem, "Choruses Descriptive of Dido's States of Mind," written during the Fifties, brings to Ungaretti's work the knowledge that, in Cambon's words, "Experience is the progressive exorcism of illusion":
Sea's shifting landscapes no longer
Lead me, or lacerating
Pallor of dawn on these or those leaves;
Old night I carry on my eyes,
I cannot set against the block.
Do I want with images? (Wylie)
Innocence and Memory, a collection of Ungaretti's essays translated from Italian into French by Philippe Jacottet, comprises in a sense the brilliant sum of his conclusions; and leaves us at the mercy of a memory that haunts us through history with its murmuring of guilt and horror. We must cut ourselves off from the terrors of the past, and Ungaretti's prophetic, guttural voice is the sign of that attempt. And innocence, the breaking off of memory, is not a Christian innocence, not piety, but a form which affirmation takes. "Innocence," Ungaretti writes, "we have learned of what it's made. It has appeared before us, and kept us beneath its still vast wings, through the disorders of our lives." JAMES ATLAS
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