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Night Song of a Wandering Shepherd in Asia

What are you doing, moon, up in the sky;

what are you doing, tell me, silent moon?

You rise at night and go,

observing the deserts. Then you set.

Aren't you ever tired

of plying the eternal byways?

Don't you get bored? Do you still want

to look down on these valleys?

The shepherd's life

is like your life.

He rises at first light,

moves his flock across the fields, and sees

sheep, springs, and grass,

then, weary, rests at evening,

and hopes for nothing more.

Tell me, moon, what good

is the shepherd's life to him

or yours to you? Tell me: where is it heading,

my brief wandering,

your immortal journey?

Little old white-haired man,

weak, half-naked, barefoot,

with an enormous burden on his back,

up mountain and down valley,

over sharp rocks, across deep sands and bracken,

through wind and storm,

when it's hot and later when it freezes,

runs on, running till he's out of breath,

fords rivers, wades through swamps,

falls and rises and rushes on

faster and faster, no rest or relief,

battered, bloodied; till at last he comes

to where his way

and all his effort led him:

terrible, immense abyss

into which he falls, forgetting everything.

This, o virgin moon,

is human life.

Man is born by labor,

and birth itself means risking death.

The first thing that he feels

is pain and torment, and from the outset

mother and father

seek to comfort him for being born.

As he grows,

they nurture him,

and constantly by word and deed

seek to instill courage,

consoling him for being human.

Parents can do no more loving thing

for their offspring.

But why bring to light,

why educate

someone we'll console for living later on?

If life is misery,

why do we tolerate it?

This, unblemished moon,

is mortal nature.

But you're not mortal,

and what I say may matter little to you.

Yet you, eternal solitary wanderer,

you who are so pensive, it may be

you understand this life on earth,

what our suffering and sighing is,

what this death is, this final

paling of the face,

and leaving earth behind, abandoning

all familiar, loving company.

And certainly you comprehend

the why of things, and see the usefulness

of morning, evening,

and the silent, endless pace of time.

Certainly you know for whose sweet love

spring smiles,

who enjoys the heat,

and what winter and its ice are for.

You know and understand a thousand things

that are hidden to a simple shepherd.

Often, when I watch you

standing so still above the empty plain

whose last horizon closes with the sky,

or follow, step by step,

as I wander with my flock,

and when I see the stars burn up in heaven,

I ask myself:

Why all these lights?

What does the endless air do, and that deep

eternal blue? What does this enormous

solitude portend? And what am I?

This I ask myself: about this boundless,

splendid space

and its numberless inhabitants,

and all these works and all this movement

of all heavenly and earthly things,

revolving without rest,

only to return to where they started.

Any purpose, any usefulness

I cannot see. But surely you,

immortal maiden, understand it all.

This is what I know and feel:

that from the eternal motions,

from my fragile being,

others may derive

some good or gladness; life for me is wrong.

O resting flock of mine, you blessed beings,

who don't, I think, know your own misery!

How I envy you!

Not just because you travel

as if trouble-free

and soon forget each need, each hurt,

each deathly fear,

but more because you're never bored.

When you lie down in the shade,

on the grass, you're calm, content,

and so you spend the great part of the year

and feel no boredom.

I sit on the grass too, in the shade,

but an anxiousness invades my mind

as if a thorn were pricking me,

so that sitting here I'm even further

from finding peace or resting place.

Yet I want nothing, and so far

I have no reason for complaint.

What you enjoy, or how,

I can't say; but you are fortunate.

I enjoy far less, o flock of mine,

but it's not only this I mourn.

If you could speak, I'd ask you:

Tell me why it is

all animals are happy

at rest, at ease, while I,

if I lie down, am plagued with tedium?

Maybe if I had wings

to fly above the clouds

and count the stars out, one by one,

or, like thunder, graze from peak to peak,

I'd be happier, my gentle flock,

happier, bright moon.

Or maybe my mind's straying from the truth

imagining the fate of others.

Maybe in whatever form or state,

whether in stall or cradle,

the day we're born is cause for mourning.

Translated from the Italian by Jonathan Galassi.

By Giacomo Leopardi