What is Agony if not a life lived in immobility and darkness where there is nothing to do but to lament?
Morire come le allodole assetate
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
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.
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Painting by Jozsef Rippl Ronai, 1892 (MAGYAR NEMZETI GALÉRIA, HUNGARY)