Giuseppe Ungaretti was born in Alexandria on 8 February 1888 into a family from Lucca. His father had moved to Egypt to work on digging the Suez Canal. The work was physically exhausting and he died leaving Ungaretti an orphan at the age of two. His mother, a woman of strong character and will, was forced to maintain the family by opening the bakery on the outskirts of the city.
Although his mother was at times strict, she was so devoted to her children that, despite the difficulties, she ensured that Giuseppe and his brother received a proper education. Giuseppe attended the prestigious École Suisse Jacot where he became acquainted with the poetry and poets of his far-off homeland, Italy, which was to remain for many years a ‘place of imagination but not of memory’.
The poets and thinkers of the time were a source of inspiration for the young Giuseppe, who became familiar with these also through the pages of the magazine La Voce, which featured articles, essays and poems by futurists and intellectuals. His long and productive exchange of letters with writer and journalist Giuseppe Prezzolini represented another piece in the puzzle of Ungaretti’s formative years, spent in a hospitable city, a meeting place and a crossroads, but unsuitable for settling down in - Alexandria, a world seaport.
When he became of age, he devoted himself to politics for a while in the company of anarchist and socialist Enrico Pea. After this, in 1912, Ungaretti left for Paris, where his mother enrolled him in the Law faculty at the Sorbonne. But the poet’s free spirit could not be bridled: in the French city he attended courses of a very different nature - from philology to philosophy - and Henri Bergson’s lectures became for him veritable lessons of life.
A life that made him to take part in interventionist campaigns when he finally moved to Italy in 1914. When his country entered the war he had some difficulty in signing up as a volunteer, but in December 1915 he finally enrolled in the 19th infantry regiment. His baptism by fire in the Karst region came all too soon, and Ungaretti found himself struggling not only to survive but also with two conflicting emotions: the tragedy of death and the joy of surviving – the feeling superbly defined by Cortellessa as the ‘pain of those left behind’.
Di queste case non è rimasto che qualche brandello di muro / Di tanti che mi corrispondevano non è rimasto neppure tanto / Ma nel cuore nessuna croce manca È il mio cuore il paese più straziato.
[Of these houses only a few sections of wall remain/ Of all those who wrote to me not even that much is left / But in the heart no cross is missing My heart is the village most torn asunder.]
(San Martino del Carso, Valloncello dell’Albero Isolato, 27 August 1916)
During the Great War, Ungaretti kept a notebook, a diary of his thoughts and poetry in which he jotted down his poems and essays. In 1916 in Udine, his friend and comrade-in-arms Ettore Serra had 80 copies of this notebook printed, under the title Il Porto Sepolto (The Buried Port). It was Ungaretti’s first collection and it made him the ‘war poet’.
Un’intera nottata buttato vicino a un compagno massacrato con la sua bocca digrignata volta al plenilunio con la congestione delle sue mani penetrata nel mio silenzio ho scritto lettere piene d’amore / Non sono mai stato tanto attaccato alla vita.
[A whole night spent lying next to a massacred comrade with his mouth in a grimace staring up at the full moon his hands swollen and rigid penetrated my silence I wrote letters full of love / I have never felt so attached to life.]
(Veglia, Cima Quattro, 25 December 1915)
His dry, Futurist-style verses devoid of punctuation give an account of the real substance of the conflict: the sickening stench, the thundering of shots, the rough rocks the soldiers used as beds, the red colour of the earth intermingling with red blood.
Soil became the focus of the attention of the poet when he returned to the Karst for the first time in 1966 as Claudio Maraini describes. ‘Then, the poet squinted […] and was attracted by a patch of bare red earth. He put his foot on it: that, he exclaimed, is the red earth of the war, the one that produced the mud in which the infantrymen lived together for so long!’
The experience of war transformed Ungaretti and his poetry, and made it mature painfully. He felt a sense of drunken contentment at having survived mixed with pain and suffering. Ungaretti during the war years was a ‘pained poet’ and he remained as such his whole life.
At the end of the war, Ungaretti published a new collection, Allegria di naufragi (The Joy of Shipwrecks), which contained poems from The Buried Port along with some new works. Between the two wars he frequented circles close to Fascism, and in 1923 Mussolini wrote the preface for the reprint of The Buried Port.
The poet from the Great War continued to spend his life moving from one port and another: Rome, San Paolo, Paris, occupying himself with travelling, family, university, teaching but above all else poetry. Until 1970, when he died in Milan at ‘ just over four times twenty years old ’.
The figure of Ungaretti and his poetry play a key role in the shared memory of the Great War. A literary park is dedicated to him in Salgado, on the Karst plateau.