Giuseppe Ungaretti, “Eternal”

With thanks to Tyler Travillian

Giuseppe Ungaretti (tr. Patrick Creagh)

Between one flower picked and the other given
the inexpressible nothing

[Tra un fiore colto e l’altro donato
l’inesprimibile nulla]


Dr. Travillian looked at “colto” and thought that maybe “cultivated” was a better word than “picked.” He also looked at an Italian commentary that rambled on about the word “nothing.” I gulped when we talked about that.

Then again, I had no plans to sit and talk about “nothing.” (I had plans to sit and ramble about everything.) Two stories are being told about two flowers. One is “cultivated,” the other “given.” The picking of a flower – that part where it goes from life to death – is perhaps only hinted at.

The really curious thing: why are we talking about two flowers? Why not just one? And that’s just it, isn’t it – where we go from life to death in our own lives is a matter of perspective. In order to see the possibility of humanity flowering fully, you’d need an eternal perspective. Perspective always requires two.

Obviously flowers don’t see each other. It’s the doubleness and the distance between the doubleness that’s suggestive; it’s growth and death being so disconnected that’s the problem.

And yet they’re not disconnected. Flowers that grow do get picked. It just so happened that one was cultivated and the other was given. Ungaretti didn’t title this poem “Chance” or “Fortune,” though. Instead, he chose “cultivated” and “given,” two words describing human action, and also “inexpressible,” describing speech in a way.

So what is Ungaretti talking about? For now, I’ll take this as a love poem with some dark tinges. We pledge love despite having no claim to eternity. That seems to reconcile the disconnect between growing and dying. Our pledging, after all, is a realm of its own. But the flower itself, the sign of love, suggests that growing and dying almost belong to two different lives. What is eternal is not chance, but that we take chances.

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