Nicely Combed

Matthew Reynolds

In Italy you can buy poetry T-shirts featuring lines by Dante, Leopardi and others. The Ungaretti shirt is good value: it gives you a whole work, though not a very long one. ‘Mattina’ (‘Morning’) reads in its entirety as follows:


In books, those words are tethered to a particular location, Santa Maria la Longa, 26 January 1917; but there is a rightness about their transplantation to innumerable present-day torsos. The genius of the poem is in the way it laminates the unique and the general; the way it recognises that while being illuminated with immensity may feel like a miracle to a soldier who has lived through a night – or night after night – in the trenches, it is to most people at most times just the start of another day.

The features that render ‘Mattina’ so amenable to mass reproduction make it a nightmare to translate. On the one hand, extreme paucity of paraphrasable content; on the other, extreme subtlety of nuance. Andrew Frisardi illustrates the first difficulty rather painfully when, in the introduction to this new Selected Poems, he attempts to say what ‘Mattina’ ‘literally means’: ‘something like “I turn luminous in an immensity of spaces.”’ But Ungaretti’s poem mentions no spaces and says nothing about turning. The verb ‘illuminarsi’ means ‘to light up’, not ‘to turn luminous’: your porch might ‘illuminarsi’ when you get home, at which point your children’s faces ‘s’illumineranno’ with joy. Still, one can see why Frisardi felt the need to bulk up ‘Mattina’ with some SF rhetoric (or is he thinking of nuclear apocalypse?). Taken ‘literally’, ‘Mattina’ means not very much at all.

But the suggestions inhering in the poem’s shape, rhythm and tone – everything the word ‘literally’ shuts out – are many. The reflexive verb form, ‘m’illumino,’ quite standard in Italian, is tantalising to the English reader because it leaves open a question about agency which our language tends to close: it is neither ‘I illuminate myself’ nor ‘I am being illuminated,’ but somewhere undecidably between the two (Ungaretti is fond of such constructions and of the uncertainties they bring into focus). The timescale is no more definite: released from narrative context, the present-tense ‘m’illumino’ can refer equally to a sudden revelation and to the slow brightening of the dawn. Phonetically, ‘Mattina’ is composed of soft words of the sort which Dante, in a delightful passage of De vulgari eloquentia, called ‘womanly’ and ‘nicely combed’ (‘pexa’); rhythmically, the little lines combine to form a classically harmonious seven-syllable verse, a settenario, such as might have been written by Tasso or Leopardi. The illumination, then, is neither revolutionary nor harsh. In fact, the implied smile in the poem is almost a grin. There is something comic about the way the big noun and verb pile into the pronoun ‘mi’ and preposition ‘di’, leaving them squished; and surely there is a cheekiness in writing such a short poem on immensity, the more so when it is located in a place called ‘Santa Maria la Longa’. ‘Longa’ is not the Italian for ‘long’ (‘lungo/a’) – but it nearly is.

This particular conjunction of threads is, of course, unique to Italian and we might in consequence pay ‘Mattina’ the ritual homage of saying that it is untranslatable. And yet, in line with a not unfamiliar law of desire, the poems that are least translatable are those that offer most stimulation to the translator. Words that can readily be rendered into other languages – ‘Fire Exit’, ‘I love you’ – give the translator little to do, and, once translated, afford readers no stylistic surprise. Literary translation begins where literal translation becomes impossible; the translators’ nightmare is, from another point of view, their dream. When we read literary translations we should not expect them to provide us with an ‘equivalent of’ their source. We should instead – as Walter Benjamin proposed in his visionary essay ‘The Task of the Translator’ – ask how the imaginative life of the source text has been prolonged, what has been done by the translation, what it points to, throws light on, or mimes.

Take the first of two versions of ‘Mattina’ by Allen Mandelbaum:

I illumine me
with immensity

We could go on about how much is missed: the colloquial ease, the visual comedy. But these absences are the condition for what has successfully been registered: the reflexiveness of the verb and the formal unity. Again, I do not want to say that these aspects have been ‘caught’ or ‘mirrored’ or ‘carried across’: the difference coexisting with the likeness is greater than those metaphors would imply. ‘I illumine me’ is no substitute for ‘m’illumino,’ while the iffy rhyme of ‘me’ and ‘immensity’ is both louder and less harmonious than the murmuring link of Ungaretti’s terminal vowels. The English emulates with difficulty the swift gestures of the Italian, producing something that is outside its usual syntactic range (neither ‘morning illumines me,’ nor ‘I illumine myself’) and therefore not – or not yet – natural. Faced with a translation of this kind – a ‘foreignising’ translation, in the jargon of translation studies – it can be hard to decide whether the expressive resources of English are being extended or merely strained. But certainly there is more vigour and acuity here than in the revised version Mandelbaum published in his Selected Poems of Ungaretti in 1975:

illumines me

Those words are more at home in English and less good as translation.

Ungaretti was familiar with the pains and gains of reaching back and forth between languages. He was born and grew up in the multilingual environment of Alexandria, where a Sudanese wet nurse and Croat housekeeper must have nourished what turned up in some of his later writing as frank Orientalism (‘Now I constantly see Dunja, beautiful, young, appearing in the oases, and the desert’). A happier influence on his work came from the French which was much spoken around him and whose poetry he discovered in the pages of the Mercure de France. When he left for Europe in 1912, he touched base in Florence, where he met the editors of the avant-garde though anti-Futurist magazine La Voce, then carried on to Paris, where he listened to Bergson and edged his way into artistic circles. There is an appropriateness to this trajectory. In their comparative abstraction, melancholy timbre and interest in the passing of time, Ungaretti’s early poems are in the tradition of Leopardi, a debt which the title of his first full collection, Allegria di naufragi (‘Happiness of Shipwrecks’, 1919), signals with its reference to the line that appears on the Leopardi T-shirt: ‘E il naufragar m’è dolce in questo mare’ (‘And shipwreck is sweet to me in this sea,’ from ‘L’infinito’). Ungaretti’s mellifluousness owes something to d’Annunzio, and his occasional ironies echo the ‘crepuscular’ poet Aldo Palazzeschi. But his decisive novelty in Italian – the tiny lines, the absence of punctuation, the consequent focus on each individual word – owes more to the stimulus of Mallarmé and Apollinaire.

Traces of Ungaretti’s expatriate origins are evident in his verse. There are gestures of intense attachment to the newly discovered mother country: in ‘Italy’, he likens his soldier’s uniform to ‘my father’s/cradle’. And then there is his extreme linguistic scruple. The poetry is not so much composed in Italian as made out of it. It does not speak in what reviewers like to call ‘a confident new voice’, determined to find its place in a speech community. It is, rather, a poetry of syntax and semantics, in which the aspects of the language that belong in dictionaries and grammar books are subjected to minute examination. In this respect, his nearest counterpart in English is perhaps Christina Rossetti, herself bilingual. Like hers, his crystalline poems often emerged from a process of cutting; in his work, as in hers, the placing of words has an almost pictorial suggestiveness. When he began composing poetry soon after the outbreak of war, Ungaretti wrote in both French and Italian: where a poem exists in both languages, its verbal patterning is thrown into greater relief.

The work now known as ‘Soldati’ appeared under the title ‘Militari’ in the Bolognese magazine La Raccolta in 1918, and then as ‘Militaires’ in La Guerre, a pamphlet published in Paris a year later. The Italian was as follows:

Si sta
come d’autunno
sugli alberi
le foglie

And the French:

nous sommes
telle en automne

la feuille

(Later editions alter the lineation of both versions and slightly adjust the French wording.) Frisardi balks at the challenge of this poem, but it has been well translated by Andrew Wylie as ‘Soldiers’: ‘Stand like/trees’/autumn/leaves’ (along with many other alert translations this was printed in an Ungaretti special issue of Agenda in 1970). The starkest difference between Ungaretti’s two versions – that in Italian there are plural leaves and trees but in French a single tree and solitary leaf – is designed to preserve a pattern, not so much of word painting as of word pointillisme. The phrase ‘d’autunno’ blurs two words together, and ‘sugli alberi’ similarly becomes one in Italian pronunciation, something like ‘soullialberi’. After these foggy expressions, ‘le foglie’ stand out ominously distinct, as though they have come into focus in the sights of a sniper. If it followed the Italian word for word (‘sur les arbres/les feuilles’), the French would lose the effect that Ungaretti’s alteration manages to retain: ‘l’arbre/la feuille’.

The genius of the early poems is in such minute details of typography, semantic weight and grammatical relation: these are what a translator should strive hardest to indicate in English. Wylie’s ‘Soldiers’ succeeds in this respect: after the possessive ‘trees’’ and the adjectival ‘autumn’, the plain noun ‘leaves’ has a sudden weight which is increased by its ambiguity, a gift from the English language (soldiers want leave; the leaves are about to leave the trees). Occasionally, Frisardi’s versions reach a comparable standard. A sequence describing the trail of steam from a ship’s funnel, ‘The puffy line/dies,’ alters the order of Ungaretti’s words – ‘La linea/ vaporosa muore’ – in order to imitate the movement of fading away: ‘puffy’ feels fatter than the ‘line’ which ‘dies’, rather as ‘la linea’ passes through the less substantial ‘vaporosa’ on its way to ‘muore’. But on the whole Frisardi is blind to such particularities. He will give you a sense of what the poems ‘literally mean something like’, but not of why Ungaretti matters as a poet. The best sampling of Ungaretti in English is still the Selected Poems translated by Patrick Creagh (1971).

After the war, Ungaretti married and then settled in Rome, where he earned a living by producing digests of foreign newspapers for a government publication. There were lecture tours and trips abroad for the sake of travel-writing (later gathered into a volume, Il deserto e dopo) but, apart from the years between 1937 and 1942, when he was teaching in Brazil, he was to remain based in Rome, becoming encrusted with plaudits and honours, until his death in 1970. He had been an early enthusiast for Fascism: a pamphlet of 1923 included a preface by Mussolini and a 1927 essay is entitled ‘Originalità del fascismo’. In later years, opinions expressed too loudly on a train and in a restaurant got him into trouble with the law, though not enough to prevent him from being appointed Professor of Modern Italian Literature at the University of Rome on his return from Brazil. In his sparse political writings there are echoes of his voluminous pronouncements on poetry – the working classes should be empowered as representing the ‘anima’ of the Italian nation; the poet should write in such a way that the mind is subjugated to the ‘anima’ – but the politics of his verse are neither very specific nor very strong. By contrast with (for instance) Pound, the ‘promised land’ fragmentarily envisioned in Ungaretti’s later poetry has little to do with Mussolini.

A context that matters much more to Ungaretti’s work of the 1920s and after is the Baroque art and architecture of his adopted city. Looking around him in Rome he saw conflict: between the vivacity of baroque sculpture and the inanimate material from which it is formed, between pagan and Christian, and above all – especially after his religious conversion in 1928 – between the Christ of Michelangelo’s Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel and the Christ of the Pietà . It now seemed to Ungaretti (in this respect something of a latter-day Coleridge) that the task of the poet was to fuse these wayward elements, and he bent his imagination to his will. The poems collected in his second major volume, Sentimento del tempo (1933), have longer lines which often fall into the seven and eleven syllable patterns traditional in Italian verse: the individual perceptions that had seemed so isolated and therefore so generalisable in the earlier writing are here accommodated to the inherited forms of a national culture. Landscape and sky are still sharply observed (there is much impassioned writing about the heat of Italian summers) but they tend now to be animated by personification or inspirited with mythical figures (Apollo, Juno). There is a good deal of oxymoron, much of which has an air of platitude. A question Ungaretti will have heard posed by Bergson – ‘How do we pass from inner time to the time of things?’ – still bothers many of the poems, but whereas previously time had been more acutely registered for not (or barely) being mentioned, asserting itself instead in the choice of a tense or the position of a line break, now it is explicitly described (‘Time, fugitive tremor’). It is also announced, like a set topic, in the book’s title: ‘Feeling of Time’.

By this point, Ungaretti saw himself as continuing the work of Petrarch, in whose verse (he thought) the fragments of history and past experience become unified in the continuous present of memory. Since Petrarch had nourished writing in several European languages, a full appreciation of his legacy required translation; and so from about 1930 onwards, Ungaretti worked on versions of poets who seemed to him in one way or another Petrarchan: Góngora, Mallarmé, Racine, Shakespeare and – surprisingly – Blake. The activity of translation brings you uniquely close to a writer: you have to find his words again for yourself in your own tongue. Since we cannot translate our own language into itself (or only from texts that have become archaic), it is, paradoxically, with foreign writing that we can become most intimate. Translating Shakespeare’s sonnets, Ungaretti entered into a relationship with Petrarch (or at least his residue in Shakespeare) which Petrarch’s own poems would not permit him to establish.

Ungaretti recognised an ‘explosive disequilibrium’ in Shakespeare, but thought that this resolved itself into ‘magical harmony’ on further reading. His translations do that reading for us, asserting the harmony at the cost of the explosiveness and thereby bringing the poems into line with his idea of the Petrarchan. For instance, a peculiarity of Sonnet 30 (the one which begins ‘When to the sessions of sweet silent thought/I summon up remembrance of things past’) is that, while some of the memories are straightforwardly of dead friends or vanished sights, others reach back, not to the ‘things’ themselves, but to the condition of desiring them or the awareness of their loss. What is being mourned is the absence of an absence: ‘I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought.’ The poem gives the impression of stumbling into a mental chaos, groping frantically in an attempt to gain purchase on material that will not cohere into an orderly landscape of the past, after which the effect of gazing on the beloved is the more refreshing: ‘All losses are restored, and sorrows end.’ Committed to bringing out the ‘psychological substance’ underlying Shakespeare’s words, Ungaretti reduces their complexity. Not for him the strangeness of sighing the lack of a lack; instead: ‘Piango assenza di tante cose nell’anelito vive’ (‘I sigh the lack of many a thing that lives on in desire’).

I can’t blame Frisardi for not including any versions of Ungaretti’s versions of Shakespeare – the literary interest of retranslating translations isn’t evident until you have tried it. But Frisardi’s selection does document the presence in Ungaretti’s later writing of characteristics that the translations from Shakespeare and others helped to foster. Translation is ‘a compromise between two spirits’, Ungaretti said, and the habit of compromise spread into his other verse, producing what Giuseppe Contini has called a ‘choral’ tendency: regular rhythms, straightforwardness of statement, explicit moralisation. In many of the selections from La terra promessa (1950), Il taccuino del vecchio (1960) and Dialogo (1968), Frisardi’s versions seem less unsatisfactory than before, but that is because the poetry was less alive in the first place. Little is lost when a line such as ‘l’uomo, monotono universo’ is rendered as ‘man, monotonous universe’; on the other hand, there is little that could have been gained. Paul Celan was attracted by this later writing and translated much of it into German, but English poets have been less impressed. One could not compile a volume of responses by diverse hands to rival the recent Penguin anthology of Montale translations.

The book that stands out in the second half of Ungaretti’s career is Il dolore (1947), occasioned by a conjunction of griefs: the occupation of Rome, the death of Ungaretti’s brother, and of his nine-year-old son, Antonietto. The opening poem announces the fracture of those temporal, personal and cultural continuities which Sentimento del tempo had been concerned to engineer: ‘Tutto ho perduto dell’infanzia/E non potrò mai più/Smemorarmi in un grido’ (‘I have lost all of childhood/And I’ll never again be able/To forget myself in a shout’). Having forgotten how to forget – it is the same sort of knot that Ungaretti had untied in his translation of Sonnet 30. Memory is no longer a consolation. In ‘Tu ti spezzasti’, the most startling poem in Il dolore, the longing to bring back the lost child conflicts intractably with the pain of not being able to forget.

The poem begins with a splurge: ‘I molti, immani, sparsi, grigi sassi’ (‘The many, gigantic, jumbled, glaucous stones’, as Frisardi puts it). It is too much. And the forced description continues: there are ‘suffocated elemental flames’, ‘terrible virgin torrents’, a ‘dazzling glare of sand’. The stanza ends with an appeal for the vision to be shared, ‘non rammenti?’ (‘don’t you remember?’), which both pushes readers away – for obviously we don’t remember – and leaves us wondering whether the addressee, Antonietto, could possibly do so either, not only because he is dead, but because the landscape appears to have taken on its apocalyptic aspect as a result of his loss. ‘Non rammenti’ is saved from meaning ‘you don’t remember’ only by its question mark, and the hope that just about manages to emerge from the stanza is similarly fragile. This is the opposite of choral writing, so rawly personal as to be embarrassing.

How should a translator handle poetry such as this? The careful following of moves called for by the early verse would not be right here, for the peculiarity of ‘Tu ti spezzasti’ is in its expressive abandonment of precision. Robert Lowell’s notion, in Imitations, of endeavouring above all to catch ‘the tone’ or, failing that, at least ‘a tone’ seems a better guide. The waywardnesses which are wholly wrong in some of Lowell’s other translations have an aptness in his version of this poem. When, in the first stanza, he writes of ‘Amazon cataracts’ and ‘the sand’s/detonating dazzle’, the bad pun and loud synaesthesia are nowhere to be found in Ungaretti; but they do keep up the spasmodic imaginative impetus of the source, allowing its life – and its disgust at its life for not being Antonietto’s – to continue into English.

Ungaretti describes the pranks of his ‘musical, impulsive child’ in the nightmare landscape, sees the presence of ‘extraordinary turtles’ on a river-bed as a sign of doom, and brings in the tempting but rather facile possibility of consolation in some suitably wobbly hendecasyllables: ‘Non avresti potuto non spezzarti . . . Tu semplice soffio e cristallo’ (‘You could not not have shattered . . . You mere breath and crystal’). The style in which this thought is pursued implies its rejection, as a second choking rush of adjectives makes the sun’s glare seem like a personal affront:

Troppo umano lampo per l’empio
Selvoso, accanito, ronzante
Ruggito d’un sole ignudo.

Frisardi gives an acceptable translation of these lines, Creagh is elegant, Lowell is vigorous; but it is Robin Fulton, in a little volume published by London Magazine Editions in 1966, who best carries the energy of Ungaretti’s writing over into English:

a shining too human for the stark
uncouth flame-tempered hoarse
blustering of the bare-faced sun.

This is translation, not as compromise, but as an act of sympathy, by which the indignation of the source is reworded in English, and its grief shared.