Thursday, May 21, 2015

Coupled to life

One-hundred years ago -- on May 23rd, 1915 -- Italy declared war on Austria-Hungary, joining the Allies in The Great War (Italy would not declare war on Germany until 28 August, 1916).  In August 1914 when the war began, despite Italy's alliances with Germany and Austria-Hungary, it remained neutral.  Both the Central Powers and the Allies worked to persuade Italy to join their side, and in the secret Treaty of London of April 1915, the Allies promised Italy significant territorial gains held by the Austria-Hungarian Empire, including parts of Tyrol and Dalmatia, as well as the port of Trieste. 

Italian Front
Hours after declaring war, on 24 May 1915, Italy fired the first shells on what became one of the harshest fronts of the war: the Alpine border between Austria-Hungary and Italy.  Both armies attacked on impossibly steep mountain passes, and trenches were dug into the rocks and glaciers of the Alps at altitudes of nearly 10,000 feet.  By November of 1915, after the first four battles of the Isonzo (there would be eleven), nearly 25% of the mobilized Italian men had either been killed (60,000) or wounded (150,000).  One of Italy's most famous modernist poets, Giuseppe Ungaretti, served with his country's infantry on the lower Isonzo Front.  

Vigil
by Giuseppe Ungaretti

Italian soldiers 
A whole night long
crouched close
to one of our men
butchered
with his clenched
mouth
grinning at the full moon
with the congestion
of his hands
thrust right
into my silence
I've written
letters filled with love

I have never been
so
coupled to life.

Cima Quattro, 23 December 1915
Translated by Jonathan Griffin -- here is the poem in Italian.

Numerous poems from the First World War describe the experience of lying with a dead comrade (Rickword's "Trench Poets" is just one example).  Ungaretti's poem is unsettling when it portrays the dead comrade as less than human:  like an animal, he has been "butchered," and his clenched mouth "grinning at the full moon" seems more like that of a gargoyle than a man. 

But the last lines of the poem are the most shocking, using metaphors of romance to capture the experience, comparing it to the outpouring of emotion in "letters filled with love." With tenderness and deep feeling, the night has been seared into the surviving soldier's memory as one in which a corpse profoundly demonstrates what it means to be alive.  In his vigil with the dead, more than ever before, he recognizes himself like a lover "coupled" to life.  
Giuseppe Ungaretti


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