What is Agony if not a life lived in immobility and darkness where there is nothing to do but to lament?

Agonia
 
Giuseppe Ungaretti  

Morire come le allodole assetate
sul miraggio  

O come la quaglia
passato il mare
nei primi cespugli
perché di volare
non ha più voglia  

Ma non vivere di lamento
come un cardellino accecato    
Agony

Giuseppe Ungaretti

To die like the parched skylarks
on the mirage

Or like the quail
once across the sea
in the first thickets
because to fly
it no longer has the will

But not to live of lament
like the blinded goldfinch

Translation ©Matilda Colarossi 2021

The poem “Agonia” was written by Giuseppe Ungaretti and is part of the collection L’allegria, in the section Ultime. He wrote it in December, 1915 when he enrolled in the Italian army to fight the war in the Karst.
As always the poetic elements that identify Ungaretti’s poetry are: brevity, free verse, analogy, simple, essential language, symbolism, lack of punctuation, anastrophe. But let’s take a closer look. Ungaretti uses birds to express the condition of man: Firstly, the lark, which is often caught using mirrors because they are attracted to the shiny surface that resembles that of water. The idiom specchi per le allodole, mirror for larks, refers metaphorically to an attractive offer―an illusion, in this case a mirage―for the gullible: I don’t know if Ungaretti already understood that the war he had enrolled to fight in, would be a great disillusion; but it is food for thought. Secondly, the quail, which is known to fly great distances when migrating and sometimes, due to the extreme physiological challenge it must face, falls to its death as soon as it reaches land (nei primi cespugli). And finally, the goldfinch, which was often blinded by hunters because they believed it would adapt to life in a cage better and sing more and attract other prey. The poem is made up of 9 verses divided into three stanzas (2/ 5/ 2). The first and last stanza contain a simile, and the first and last lines end with rhyming words assettato/ accecato that each recall the other, making the poem “circular”: in the first stanza, in fact, the lark is parched, thirsty (for life?) and is attracted to the light that shines off the mirror/mirage while in the last, the goldfinch who is confined to darkness merely laments. There is no rhyme to speak of except mare/volare (lines 4 and 6); and the poetic devices are alliteration in the first line (allodole assettate), consonance in the second stanza (quaglia, cespugli, voglia), enjambement, metaphor (line 2 “sul miraggio“, to mean mirrors, and line 5 “primi cespugli” to mean land after the long migration) and anastrophe, or inversion of the syntax, in lines 7-8 “di volare/non ha più voglia”. Although the poem contains no full-stops, every new stanza begins with a capital letter.

In this poem, therefore, Ungaretti tells us that life deserves to be lived: a life of action (even if unheroic) lived freely is far better than one of resignation like the goldfinch who does nothing but lament because it cannot see.

Obviously, there was little I could do to reproduce all the poetic devices; I concentrated, therefore, on the overall sound and worked on finding solutions that would portray the poets meaning without actually explaining it.


This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Painting by Jozsef Rippl Ronai, 1892 (MAGYAR NEMZETI GALÉRIA, HUNGARY)

3 thoughts on “Giuseppe Ungaretti: Agonia/ Agony

  1. Great interpretations freely accessible and so helpful – thank you!
    Question: So the circular construction is to show that indeed to die after having lived as an artist or a traveller / explorer is opposed to living as a dead man or caged bird or for example a blind bureaucrat? for the latter, the agony is to go on living a life which does not make sense, which does not matter. So the pair assettate / accecato is accompanied by the pair morire / vivere and both pairs sound together in order to express (or, better, multiply) the contradiction. Similarly the sequence miraggio – passagio – lamento creates a movement which ideally should go into the other direction: lamento – passagio – miraggio. This in my view is another expression of the need to liberate oneself so that one does not fly into the wrong direction. Thus the poem incarnates agony, however it might also be interpreted as a wild call to war, with a certain disdain for a peaceful life. Personally I see it as a comparison between a life of adventure / struggle and a life of hard-boiled indifference, of those confined by Dante to a stupid place outside of hell, purgatory and paradise.

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    • Thank you so much for commenting.
      It is important to keep in mind the historical moment (1914-1915): Italy was deciding whether to go to war to take back lands they considered, and are today, Italian (Trieste, Trento).
      Ungaretti himself was a man who chose to act. He preferred the hopes (miraggio) of the allodola and the drive of the quaglia, even if these meant dying of thirst or exhaustion, than the immobility of the cardellino which, blind (by indecision? fear? inability to take action?), only complains (about the lands Austria had taken?).
      Ungaretti was a volunteer soldier. He wrote it then, at the beginning of the war in 1915. It was, I believe, his way of explaining why he chose to enlist, why it was important for him to take action.

      I hope this helps.

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      • Good evening again, yes, quite helpful, tante grazie! I was not aware of the fact that Ungaretti was for many years a political activist, even after the 1st world war. The Italian wikipedia web site offers an unvarnished summary biography of his life. And there is more than one poem dealing with war in this or that way (often transcending the situation and expanding into human nature and destiny as such). However, I think that his poems, made of precious words, are like jewelry. You and me can wear them, make use of them in your own way and sometimes even find a new sense in life. Perhaps this makes his poetry so fascinating.

        Liked by 1 person

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