By Giacomo Leopardi
Translated and annotated by Jonathan Galassi
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 498 pp., $35)
Imagine yourself a genius trapped in a small Italian town under the thumb of two dictatorial parents: a mother who is such a fanatical Catholic that she thinks the best fate for a child is an early death, so that he can go to heaven with the fewest possible sins; and a father who is a political reactionary and who has ruined the family fortune, so that although the family has land, there is no cash (or at least none that the mother, bent on restoring the lost wealth, will disburse). Imagine yourself tutored by priests until your own learning, by the time you are twelve, has surpassed that of any local tutor: eaten up by intellectual curiosity, you begin ingesting and translating the classical Latin authors found in your father’s library, staying up through the night reading and writing by the light of a single candle, and teaching yourself Greek, Hebrew, English, French, and Spanish, until you damage your eyesight. As you come to realize that nobody else in the town reads or talks about books, or has intellectual pursuits, you chafe more and more at your surroundings, and long to go somewhere—anywhere—away from this backward town. Also you are riven by personal sorrow: from scoliosis and rickets, your body has grown deformed and asthmatic, and you become a hunchback jeered at by people in the street. You despair of ever being loved by a woman.
Under the current law, you need a passport to leave your town. You write secretly to a friend of the family to obtain one, but the friend deliberately sends the passport to your father instead of to you. Your father leaves it for you, openly, knowing that you will feel unable to use it, and he is right. You say of your father, “I know for certain that he has declared that we shan’t leave here while he is alive.” Made guilty by your parents’ “prayers and grief,” you abandon your plan. Until you are twenty, you are not permitted out of your father’s house unaccompanied.
By the time you reach your majority, you have been driven to a savage melancholy. Convinced by your reading of Latin and Greek authors that Christianity represents a huge error in the evolution of thought, you see the doctrines of Catholicism as vulgar superstition, and find disgusting the domination of Italy by Rome and its clerics. You are alienated entirely from the beliefs, religious and reactionary, of your family. As time goes on, they decide that since you are immersed in the books of your father’s library, and clearly will not marry or have children, you should become a priest: what else is there for you to do? (You write to a friend, with fine irony, “God preserve me from the clerical habit with which they would muzzle me.”) You repudiate their solicitations, and later you reject a clerical sinecure that they have procured. (Your brother takes it.) You despair of finding paid work that will enable you to escape; in your stratified culture, there are only peasants doing menial work, landed nobles who do not work, and the clerical establishment, in which you refuse to work. Your parents will not fund your living elsewhere; they see no reason why you should not stay home.
And that—imprisonment in a family hell in a wretched backwater—is the opening of the life of Giacomo Leopardi, who in his short unhappy span rose to become the most famous poet in Italy in the nineteenth century. Although he wrote prose with phenomenal speed, compiling—in fifteen years—a 4,526-page Zibaldone, or “grab-bag,” filled with intellectual ruminations, philosophical epigrams, pensées, and sarcastic remarks on modern society, and although he became famous for a series of imaginary prose dialogues, often sardonic, collected as his Operette Morali, Leopardi’s most lasting imprint on literature was made by his poetry, begun at the age of eighteen. It is a body of work charged on the one hand with a helpless longing, both sexual and philosophical, and on the other hand by a bitterness that was both personal and political. At twenty-one he abandoned for good his familial Catholicism. His growing incredulity that anyone could take seriously the notion of a supernatural realm and supernatural causes, his conviction that the classical world was radically superior—in its rationality, its materialism, its ethics, and its myths—to the Judeo-Christian one, and his vast learning, philological, philosophical, and literary, in ancient and modern languages, made him a lonely figure of intellectual passion, shy and sensitive in person but uncompromising in conviction and written expression.
At twenty-four, he got away temporarily to Rome; at twenty-seven, he visited Bologna and Milan, where he published his first Idylls, while also editing Cicero and writing a commentary on Petrarch’s lyrics; at twenty-nine, he lived in Florence and then in Pisa. But he disliked society and its small talk, and was happy solely with fellow intellectuals, particularly those who could see beyond his invalid and disfigured body to his extraordinary spirit. (One such friend, Antonio Ranieri, a decade younger than Leopardi, took care of him in Rome and Naples for the last seven years of his brief life.) At thirty-two, supported in part by admirers of his work, and in part by a stingy stipend wrested from the family, Leopardi could at last leave his father’s house. He fell unwisely in love with a Florence salonnière, but hoped in vain; she tired of him and his conversation. When he was thirty-seven, his Works (supported by seven hundred subscribers) appeared in two volumes: the first contained his Canti, the lyrics newly translated by Jonathan Galassi, the second a selection of his Operette Morali. He died in 1837, at the age of thirty-eight.
As we look down the table of contents of the Canti, we find poems that Galassi, in his sympathetic introduction, nicely groups under different modes: “the lyric and the didactic, the pastoral and the historic, the metaphoric and the argumentative.” He rightly says that they “express the same spirit in diverse ways,” and it was in that spirit that Italy found its modern lyric voice. Departing from the religious orientation of Dante, and from the erotic orientation of Petrarch’s sonnets, Leopardi dedicated himself to the material universe as described by empirical science: a universe indifferent to mankind, obedient not to Providence but to its own physical laws. With great bravery, he flung his atheistic convictions at his society.
It must be remembered that during Leopardi’s lifetime he had reason for pessimism, besides his personal suffering. Italy was occupied by the Austrians before it could carry out the revolutionary hopes that eventually brought about the Risorgimento. Although the poet took no stock in utopian prophecy, believing that there was no optimism possible with respect to the meaning and the destiny of individual life, he did long to see Italy freed from foreign rule. In his first youth this wish took the form of highly rhetorical poetry (“To Italy” and “On the Monument to Dante”) abounding in successive questions and exclamations. Addressing Dante, he cries:
tell me: has your love for your Italy died?
Has the fire that gave you life gone cold?
Will the myrtle that assuaged our sadness for so long
never turn green again?
Have all our crowns been scattered on the ground?
Will she never rise again
to resemble you in any way?
Did we die for all eternity?
Will our shame never end?
Effusions of this generalized sort become infrequent as Leopardi matures. Later, when he adopts a tragic style, Leopardi compresses his syntax into stabbing brevity. The suicidal assessment “A Se Stesso,” or “To Himself,” baldly, in a passage of seven lines, presents truncated sentences consisting of one word (“Perì”), two words (“Assai palpitasti”), and three words (“Posa per sempre”). English cannot be quite so concise, but Galassi does what English can:
Now you’ll rest forever,
worn-out heart. The ultimate illusion
that I thought was eternal died. It died.
I know not just the hope but the desire
for loved illusions is done for us.
Be still forever.
You have beaten enough.
This poem confesses the end of illusion, particularly the illusion of love. As Leopardi finely distinguishes between his genuine youthful hope for love (which turned out to be false), and his subsequent and shaming desire to be again deceived (but this time recognizing hope as deception), he reiterates the emotional antithesis between desire and realism analyzed and deplored throughout his poetry.
The naïveté of the poet’s youthful idealism was at first shocked into anger when he became conscious of the preposterous religious fictions (as he perceived them) in which he had been raised. He began his lifelong attempt to adjust his philosophical ideals to the stern materialism he had adopted from classical authors, Latin and Greek, and which he had then ratified in his own mind. He originally believed that in order to accomplish this attempt he had to reject idealistic language—to abjure the style of what he judged a delusive and uncorrected idealism. Then, after that energetic repudiation of both Christianity and false idealism, he arrived at a third phase, in which he struggled to reinstate, in the context of an Enlightenment materialism, the emotional values that were to be discovered in past idealism, which, he concluded, were indispensable to life, even if they could no longer exist in their formerly religious incarnation.
Thus the sweetness of youthful sexual attraction is allowed to produce passages of pure romance even in poems with tragic conclusions. In “To Silvia,” we see the young poet leaning from a balcony in his father’s house, watching, enraptured, a girl who is spinning. We learn at the end that she has died in her youth, but Leopardi has exposed a portion of time unmarred by despair:
I looked out on the cloudless sky,
the golden streets and gardens,
and, far off, the sea here and mountains there.
No mortal tongue can tell
all that I felt.
As we read, we recall, from later poems, the dark moments in which “lovely youth” barely survives in a single phrase. Shortly before he died, the poet wrote “Il tramonto della luna,” or “The Setting of the Moon,” in which he reiterates the Catullan distinction between nature’s selfregeneration and our permanent eclipse:
But mortal life, once lovely youth
has gone, is never dyed
by other light or other dawns again.
She remains a widow all the way.
And the Gods determined that the night
which hides our other times ends in the grave.
Is Leopardi’s poetry translatable? A case of the translator’s difficulty may be seen in the poem just quoted. Galassi has, in his favor, a contemporary plainness. But his version also baffles the reader, who wonders who is this “she” who remains a widow. The referent is clear in the Italian—“la vita mortal”—because “vita” is a female noun. But in English “life” is not female (or male); it is an abstract concept existing in a language that does not confer gender on its common nouns. Arturo Vivante’s translation, which appeared in 1998, uses “it” instead of “she”:
But mortal life...
never colors itself
of other light, or other dawn.
Widow it is to the end.
Galassi’s version has sacrificed the reflexive verb of the original (which Vivante retains), using a passive instead: “life.../is never dyed/by other light or other dawns.” Vivante, wanting to keep life’s verb active, becomes entirely unidiomatic: we do not say in English that “life/never colors itself/of other light.” So readers, looking from version to version, may be inclined to agree with Leopardi himself, who remarked that “a poet, even a great one, would not be much acclaimed, and even if he were to become famous in his own country, would scarcely be known to the rest of Europe, because perfect poetry cannot be translated into foreign languages.”
What, then, do we have a right to expect from Galassi? We must welcome a translation of a great European poet into contemporary American English, since every generation has to cast off the antiquated diction of its forebears. We can no longer feel close to the version of R.C. Trevelyan, from 1941, that offers us the following address to the moon:
What dost thou, Moon?
What dost thou in the sky?
Tell me, thou silent Moon.
Rising at eve, thou goest
Contemplating the deserts, and then settest.
Hast thou not yet grown weary
Of travelling still the same eternal ways?
Does it not irk thee yet?
Galassi’s version is more natural to us:
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 tired
of plying the eternal byways?
Aren’t you bored?
But this readable passage lacks, as it must, both the rhyme of the original and the rhythmic impulses governing the scene. “You rise” is the literal meaning of the third-line Italian, but it does not do what the Italian does. Leopardi describes the action of the moon with a strong first syllable: “Sorgi” (imitated by Trevelyan in his “Rising”). With “Sorgi,” the moon rises up on the page. We are bound to feel deprived, knowing that so many such effects (as Galassi himself declares in his introduction) are irremediably lost.
Since so many of Leopardi’s poems are paralleled in his prose, the reader is grateful for Galassi’s hundred pages of generous and helpful notes, which do not merely clarify allusions, explain myths, identify landscapes, and so on, but also reproduce (as do Italian critical editions of the poet) comparable passages extracted from the copious prose. The prose exposition is usually more straightforward, the poems more intense. Here is a sample comparison. This is the prose, from Leopardi’s Pensieri, in which life is seen as an arduous journey made by a handicapped traveler who comes to a tragic end:
Life? It’s the journey of a sick and crippled man who carries a tremendous burden on his back and works his way up and down mountains, through dangerous and difficult places, through snow and sleet and rain and wind and unbearable heat, on and on, never once resting, until at last after many long days he comes to the edge of an abyss or a deep ditch and falls headlong into it.
And here is the corresponding passage in “Night Song of a Wandering Shepherd in Asia,” exemplifying the characteristic Leopardian unbroken syntactic cascade, dealt out by the wandering shepherd in sixteen continuous lines:
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,
in hot and freezing weather,
runs on, running till he’s out of breath,
crosses rivers, wades through swamps,
falls and climbs and rushes on
ever 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.
“Life,” which the prose puts first, is withheld in the poem till the end. Both the old man and the landscape are far more distinctly specified; and while the prose ends with physical fact, as the old man falls into the pit, the poem, focused inward, ends with his loss of consciousness. Most telling of all, in the prose the old man is not wounded, but in the poem he is “battered, bloodied,” “Lacero, sanguinoso.”
Leopardi’s grim metaphysics takes on, in the poem, the painful personal emotion kept in check in the prose. And as we reread the verse after seeing a version of its chief idea in prose, we come to a fuller realization of Leopardi’s strictly poetic techniques, noticing not only his sinuous rhythms, his syntactic complexity, and his variations on rhyme (he composed, for instance, a poem on first love in Dante’s terza rima), but also his recurrent symbolic counters. When a poet returns again and again to a symbolic image of talismanic force, that image loses a part of its factual reference and exists rather as part of an internal mutual system of all its own instances. In this way, experiencing a poem in its full context in the Canti is the only way to take its Leopardian measure.
Reading the deathbed poem “Il tramonto della luna,” or “The Setting of the Moon,” for example, with its evenly paced declarations of adult sorrow, one must remember the early “Alla luna,” or “To the Moon,” in which the poet, although in emotional torment, preserves his “graziosa luna” in all its ideality, addressing it as “mia diletta luna,” “my beloved moon.” Similarly, in the song of the wandering shepherd, Leopardi addresses the moon as “silent moon,” “virgin moon,” “unblemished moon,” “immortal maiden,” and “bright moon,” all epithets of ideal beauty. But one also must keep in mind the obverse of this serene and immortal moon in “Alceta,” which recounts a nightmare in which the moon crashes out of the sky and explodes:
she hit the ground in the middle of the meadow
big as a bucket, and vomited
a cloud of sparks that shrieked as loud
as when you dunk a live coal in the water
and drown it.
After the vomiting and shrieking of the moon-crash comes an even more sinister, even hellish, view: as the moon dies, it is “little by little slowly darkening,/and the grass was smoking all around.” Or, in Leopardi’s gorgeous Italian:
Anzi a quel modo
La luna, come ho detto, in mezzo al prato
Si spegneva annerando a poco a poco,
E ne fumavan l’erbe intorno intorno.
The last action one expects of the moon is that of (in literal translation) “blackening little by little,” just as the last action one expects of grass is to “issue smoke, around and around.” The echo of “a poco a poco” in “intorno intorno” cannot be maintained in the English, nor can the eerie effect of six lines in succession all ending in “o” (four of them quoted above). In fact, ten of the poem’s twenty lines end in “o,” the sound keeping the nightmare awake, as the sleeper finds himself “cold with fear.” Leopardi’s moon, like Keats’s nightingale, adjusts itself to fit the pitch of inner emotion.
The tension in Leopardi’s greatest poetry springs from his admirable determination to speak aloud the real and insignificant state of a human being—“a speck upon a ball,” in Dickinson’s formulation—and his equal determination to give full value to those illusions (hope, love, patriotism) without which life cannot be lived. To know that death is our only destiny, and that individual life is misery, is to live in a dry acknowledgment of the incompatibility between reality and desire, and yet to admit that no one is immune to the fantasies of desire. Leopardi is not a philosopher, and the idea of the insatiability of desire was not new, but he dared to give it voice not in logical or theological exposition but in highly original metaphorical and musical elaboration. In the verse, the paradox of unsatisfiable desire voluntarily pursued recurs, obsessively, literally, symbolically. Leopardi belonged to that tribe that Yeats (also a member) named “the sad, the lonely, the insatiable.”
At twenty-seven, repudiating his early adherence to the “affectionate and eloquent,” Leopardi declared that “I take satisfaction in ever more clearly discovering and tangibly feeling the wretchedness of men and things, and in experiencing a cold horror, reflecting on this unhappy and terrible strangeness of life in the universe.” Yet honesty compelled him to admit that human ideals, not less than human misery, appear perpetually resurrected in the heart:
Yet I feel the familiar
my breast is amazed
at all that it feels.
The Italian, in rhymed stanzas, expresses, aria-like, the amazed lilt of renewed love. Even if unreciprocated, love is exalting:
Pur sento in me rivivere
Gl’inganni aperti e noti;
E de’ suoi proprii moti
Si maraviglia il sen.
At the end of his life, living with his friend Ranieri at the foot of Vesuvius (which had recently erupted), Leopardi wrote his greatest poem, “Broom,” addressed to a plant that grows on the bare lava-slopes of the volcano. “Broom,” drawing on Leopardi’s whole life’s writing and reading, and redoing in Vesuvian terms Lucretius’s account in De Rerum Natura of the eruption of Etna, expands to a powerful and even violent synthesis, in 317 lines, of the poet’s turbulent and sublime emotions at the spectacle of Nature’s cruelty. When Leopardi—after opening the poem by naming the “terrifying mountain,/Vesuvius the destroyer”—suddenly modulates his tone into a woodwind tenderness as he addresses the broom with the familiar and even familial “tu” (impossible to reproduce with our all-purpose formal-and-informal “you”), we are introduced into the fundamental opposition of the poem, between nature’s barbaric destructiveness and the potential intimacy of human feeling. We feel the poet’s empathy with the slender broom, in all its frailty. After an excoriating segment on the volcano’s destruction of Pompeii and the probable repetition of eruption in the future, the end of the poem returns to the humble presence of the transient broom, “E tu, lenta ginestra”:
And you too, pliant broom,
adorning this abandoned countryside
with fragrant bushes,
you will soon succumb
to the cruel power of subterranean fire,
which, returning to the place it knew before,
will spread its greedy tongue
over your soft thickets.
But the doomed plant, unlike man, did not pray cravenly to its destroyer for succor; nor did it delude itself with proudly imagining a destiny for itself among the stars in lieu of its native place in a ruined wasteland. Knowing absolutely and realistically that it is destined to no future state—whether one gained by itself or one assigned by fate—the cherished plant becomes both a model for, and a solace to, the poet. As Leopardi projects his own submission to mortality onto the broom, we assent to its resignation because of the moral grace imputed to it in Leopardi’s grieving words.
Although “Broom,” like many of the poems in the Canti, avails itself of rhyme to complicate its cadences, it is Leopardi’s syntax that most impresses the mind. He thinks nothing of writing—here as in the song of the wandering shepherd—a sixteen-line sentence. Since modern syntax does not easily tolerate such complex syntactic relations, Galassi divides Leopardi’s lava flow into two sentences, inserting a period after the first eight lines. Even so, the translation ably maintains the momentum of Leopardi’s cinematic triple exposure—first the wilderness of lava fields through which the poet walks, then the innocent beauty of those same fields before the catastrophe, and finally the exterminating eruption itself:
strewn with sterile ashes, blanketed
by hardened lava
that echoes to a wanderer’s steps,
where the snake nests and coils under the sun
and the hare goes home
to his familiar cave-like den—
these were happy, prospering farms.
They were blond with wheat
and echoed with lowing cattle;
here were gardens, villas, welcome
respite for the powerful,
and famous cities, which, with rivers
pouring from its fiery mouth,
the implacable mountain crushed,
along with their inhabitants.
Leopardi’s pre-eruption Eden is a civilized landscape, not merely a pastoral one; it has farms with ripe wheat and classical lowing cows, but it also exhibits man-made gardens and villas for repose; and it even boasts famous cities. As his earthly paradise is crushed by fiery rivers of lava, the poet’s lament intensifies to its elegiac climax: the mountain crushed not only the farms and cities, but their inhabitants too. This sentence, so powerful in both Italian and in Galassi’s English—displaying, as it winds down the length of the page, its successive phases of aftermath, pre-existence, and extermination—carries the reader along in the wake of its unstoppable course. The reader flinches first at the ashes underfoot, then reposes in the nostalgic flashback in which the landscape reverts to its former beauty, and then is appalled by the inalterable violence of the “implacable mountain.” Sentences upon sentences of this sort illustrate Leopardi’s long flexible structures of thought as they twist through time and space. His long verse-paragraphs in “Broom” could be conceived only by someone meditating, like Wordsworth, “on man, on nature, and on human life.”
As his illness worsened—as his lungs became more and more compressed by spinal torsion, as he underwent pneumonia, increased asthma, and dropsy—Leopardi, like his contemporary Keats, was pressed into an accelerated maturity. A description of his considered late style, cited by Galassi, mentions “the disappearance of the ‘I’ into a collective voice: the overwhelming and seemingly conclusive imposition of thinking; the translation of this thinking into imagery; the development, in fact, and often in highly dramatic forms, of the poetry.” In achieving, in the arid landscape of “Broom,” a tragic but classical equilibrium of feeling, thinking, and imagery, in balancing human aspiration with existential despair, in including the lonely individual in the broad nation, Leopardi—at only thirty-eight—engraved on his pages the uncompromising voice of irreligious modernity.
Helen Vendler is a contributing editor at The New Republic. This article ran in the December 2, 2010, issue of the magazine.