Giuseppe Ungaretti, “La Notte Bella”

With thanks to Abigail Schreiber and Charmi Vince

Lovely Night (trans. Diego Bastianutti)
Giuseppe Ungaretti

Devetachi August 24, 1916

What song has surged tonight
That weaves
The stars
With the crystal echo
Of the heart

What vernal joy
Of wedded heart

I’ve been a stagnant
pool of darkness

Now like a child at breast
I gnaw
This void

Now I’m drunk
With the universe

Comment:

So here we are, entrenched in the Dolomites near Croatia. The landscape might have a beauty of its own, but perhaps the present marvel of the ground is its combination of tedium, fighting and death.

It seems anything which contrasts would be subject to romanticizing, including the simple motion of looking up. Appropriately, Ungaretti starts his poem not with the milkiness of the stars, but with what may be within him (“what song has surged;” “the heart”). At first, this song does seem to be beyond him, not just his own whimsy or wistfulness. “The heart” has a “crystal echo:” it receives starlight an indirect way. Light is made a mere sound. The song itself weaves the stars with what little the heart receives.

But Ungaretti continues his praise. This song is at least partly within him, somehow. He describes his heart as “wedded,” with “vernal joy.” He is reborn, his heart has found a completion of sorts. The quickest way through the puzzle is to declare the heart itself the “crystal echo.” He is singing, to be sure, but this song is part of a greater whole.

While the heart now may be a crystal echo, he himself has been “a stagnant pool of darkness,” much like one part of the night sky. The milkiness of the stars, the childlike wonder at how the universe could be so vast, returns him to his heart. This is tricky. Ungaretti moves us to his felt solution, his experience, and it is difficult to see the problem.

I don’t think the problem primarily involves the parallel between fighting on a battlefield and a baby’s desire for sustenance. That may be suggested, though very indirectly. The bigger problem is how we’re a void ourselves that might comprehend anything at all. This is why I’m emphasizing a distance between the heart and the stars, talking about the heart as only a crystal echo. Ungaretti’s beautiful, delicate image has a power which can lead us to think the heart has grasped a truth which strengthens. Far from it.

To put it another way – that night sky is prelude to bombardment, to impending doom. Talking about man as having found some kind of wholeness makes almost no sense in this context. I wrote some notes for a poem after yesterday’s attack in Boston:

The Joker spoke:
not the body count,
not the carnage,
but perceived purpose
makes a horror
a victory
and vice versa.

Here we are
silent before death.
No declaration
from an enemy.
Only the waiting –
it is always too late –
and the fragments
of our time spent.

Not “our stars,” where our heart lies, not the nourishment of nature. We are fragmented creatures who at critical moments may put the fragments together or be overwhelmed by the uselessness and the triviality of it all. And even if we put the fragments together – what then? Suicide bombers die with a sense of purpose.

Still, Ungaretti’s on to something. “Stagnant” and “vernal” are almost hidden. The childlike man does not simply stay a child: “The child is the father of the man.” The question was not whether one would come to a tragic end doubting oneself, wrapped in the horror of the moment. The question was whether there is any possibility we could grow beyond ourselves, see beyond crippling limitations. Ungaretti points to a universe full of possibilities.

1 Comment

  1. I found the original poem by Ungaretti and tried my own translation which probably isn’t very good, as I did it very quickly.
    Usually translation is a life and detah sturggle. The problem is that replicating the original text can come across very flat in the ‘target’ language, so you have both to take some liberties while remainig as faithful as you can to the original. You have to betray in order to be faithful. The last two lines are the hardest to translate:

    The lovely night

    What song has arisen during the night
    To weave its threads
    With stars that echo
    Crystal clearly to my heart

    Whatseason arose
    Of hearts and bridal festivities

    I have been a pool of stagnant water
    Lost in darkness

    Now, like a child,
    I bite at the nipples of space

    Now I reel like a drunkard
    In the universe that surrounds me.

    Swallows me, no, absorbs, absorbed, no, nothing with ‘drink’ as we already have drunkard before

    With apologies,
    Felix

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