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The Strange Case of Leopardi

The Moral Essays

by Giacomo Leopardi, translated by Patrick Creagh
Columbia University Press, 265 pp., $12.50 (paper)

Pensieri

by Giacomo Leopardi, translated by W. S. Di Piero
Oxford University Press, 180 pp., $6.95 (paper)

A Leopardi Reader

edited and translated by Ottavio Casale
University of Illinois Press, 271 pp., $8.95 (paper)

Universally recognized in his own country as one of the greatest of Italian writers, outside Italy Leopardi has uncertain status. In the nineteenth century he enjoyed a European reputation. Nietzsche praised him, Arnold and Sainte-Beuve admired and wrote about him, but in the present century his fame has receded. Although Pound translated one of his poems, he made little or no mark on the great modernists or influential critics, and critical discussion of Romanticism can still be conducted with little reference to his work. I think it is true to say that, except at home, Leopardi is not fully on the literary map.

Hence his recent emergence in translation, while very welcome, is rather mysterious. From Columbia we have the set of dialogues and essays he called Operette Morali, the first of a promised five-volume edition, and another version of the same work, with the facing Italian, from California, a very handsome piece of book making. Louisiana State University Press provides the Pensieri in an admirably idiomatic version by W.S. Di Piero, while from Illinois comes a comprehensive Leopardi Reader, edited and translated by Ottavio Mark Casale.

English-speaking readers now have the means of getting acquainted with Leopardi, but he has more to offer than is provided here, for although his life was relatively brief (he died in 1837 at the age of thirty-nine), he was a prolific writer. Extremely precocious, he produced a large body of juvenilia and a good deal of marginal work mostly of an erudite character, which can properly be left to specialists. But his enormous daybook, the Zibaldone, cannot, for it is the indispensable key to the development of his art and thought. Since it is unlikely ever to be translated in its entirety (the Mondadori edition runs to 2882 pages), the “extensive selections” to come from Columbia will be much worth having. There are also over nine hundred letters, some very moving and revealing.

At the summit of this large production stand the thirty-six lyric poems, the Canti. I say the summit since it has always been held and, despite some shift of emphasis, still is, that Leopardi is above all a great lyric poet and if he is to be granted his proper place in the canon it must be primarily for his poetry. Is he a difficult poet? Yes and no. Difficult in the sense that his near contemporary HĂślderlin is difficult, or MallarmĂŠ or the twentieth-century masters are difficult, no. And yet his poetry is not quite easy of access, especially for those approaching it from the perspective of our own poetic tradition, for Leopardi’s writing, his prosa d’arte no less than his verse, is rooted in the long and very different Italian tradition which is now unfamiliar to many well-read people.

It is a tradition that has distinguished sharply between literary language and the spoken word and laid great stress on the art of writing. Leopardi speaks of “that most laborious and minute perfection in writing” without which, he said, he would not care to compose. And, a point he liked to dwell on, Italian kept open the lines of communication with its own past resources, classical as well as native. On the eve of modern times, D’Annunzio can describe September as “il TibĂŹcine dei pomarii” (“the flute player of the orchards”), an exquisite Latinism that would be scarcely thinkable in any other literature of the period, and in the more perfectly tempered language of the Canti too there are passages (the first fourteen lines of the poem “To Spring,” for example) almost as hard to construe as one of the knottier odes of Horace. Even when Leopardi is writing with an apparently artless simplicity, the diction has a patina of antiquity, with words and phrases drawn from the fourteenth or sixteenth centuries and yet seeming pliant and natural as everyday speech.

All this the reader not much at home with Italian, or approaching Leopardi through translation, is going to miss. In any event he is likely to wonder, when told that Leopardi is one of the great if neglected writers of modern times, in what sense he is modern. If the fearful experience he called noia, the sense of being surrounded, stunned, by solid nothing, may seem to point forward to Baudelairian ennui, it has perhaps more in common with Pascal. Leopardi shares a number of themes with other writers of the Romantic period, yet he differs from them in important ways. He too has much to say on the power of the imagination, yet he insisted that what imagination grants is not truth but illusion.

Truth, for Leopardi, was truth as he had learned it in the school of Descartes, which told him that mind is irreparably separated from the material universe, a dead, spiritless affair with no care for our concerns. Imagination provided the life-giving fictions by the light of which we live, but fictions they unalterably remain. A speaker in one of the dialogues of the Operette Morali (“a defence of the work against the modern philosophers,” he called it), declares:

I never cease to deplore, oppose, and reprehend the study of that miserable and cold truth, the knowledge of which is the source of either indifference and apathy, or of baseness, iniquity, dishonesty, and perversity of customs; while, on the contrary, I praise and exalt those beliefs which, though untrue, produce actions and thoughts that are noble, vigorous, magnanimous, virtuous, and useful to the common and private good; those beautiful and happy images which, though empty, make life worthwhile; the natural illusions of the mind.

Leopardi’s fellow poets in Germany and England were finding a way out or back into a vital universe where subject and object were again united, a universe animated by the human spirit. Leopardi could surely have done so too, but in the deepest sense he did not want to. He knew that he must not escape from the impasse to which his thought led him, for it kept him close to his central intuition, a sense of loss, of some blessed power that has failed or withdrawn, an absence so profound that it may seem to hold out the trembling promise of an eventual return, though Leopardi himself never dared to hope for so much. He had rejected the religion of his fathers and knew of no other.

I doubt, then, that it is wise to approach Leopardi in the belief that he is, in whatever sense, “modern.” It is exciting, of course, to discover the contemporaneity of a writer from the past and show that, beneath his old-world trappings, he is one of us. It is still more exciting to catch, in Stevens’s phrase, “a sound, / Which is not part of the listener’s own sense.” This unknown or unfamiliar sound normally issues from what is radically new. May it not also be heard in older work that unexpectedly surfaces, an alien yet arresting presence in our midst?

Whether or not the prose is the best place to begin with Leopardi, it is accessible in translation as the verse can never be, and is moreover becoming generously available. And since in the prose we meet or seem to meet Leopardi the man, some knowledge of his life, a strange and desperately unhappy one, is needed. He was emphatically not one of those poets who begin in gladness.

Giacomo Leopardi was born in 1798 in Recanati, a somber little town in the Marche not far from the Adriatic. He came of a provincial aristocratic family impoverished by his father’s youthful imprudence and dominated by his mother, a woman of life-denying Catholic austerity who sought to stifle every natural human impulse she detected in her children. Despite her best endeavors, Leopardi seems to have been a normal high-spirited boy until, at the age of ten or eleven, he withdrew into his father’s extensive library and set out on a freakish pursuit of learning. He absorbed all the Latin he could from a resident clerical tutor, then continued on his own, and on his own acquired a profound knowledge of Greek, apparently a certain amount of Hebrew, and effortlessly picked up the main European languages. The fruit of these labors was not long in coming. At fifteen he compiled a History of Astronomy, and edited Porphyry’s Life of Plotinus the next year. There followed an Essay on the Popular Errors of the Ancients, a work on the Roman rhetorician Fronto, and a good deal else, including a number of classical translations.

So far as I know, Leopardi never tried to discover what drove him to this extraordinary course. It was quite unlike the five years of private study which Milton spent at Horton, for that was a deliberate preparation for the great poem he knew it was given him to write. Leopardi was pursuing erudition for its own sake, minute philological toil on work that for the most part meant nothing to him. Certainly he was not concerned with poetry. “I despised Homer, Dante, all the classics,” he wrote in a letter of 1817. “I didn’t want to read them and wallowed in a kind of writing which I now detest.” When he wrote those words, the change of direction had come and he looked back with the bitterest regret at what he had done, the seven years of “mad desperate study” which left him physically deformed (he suffered from a slight curvature of the spine), his eyesight impaired, and his health permanently ruined.

A bad start, certainly. And yet much as one must often pity Leopardi, it is hard sometimes not to feel, with a certain exasperation, that he deliberately made bad worse, as though to prove a point about the inevitable wretchedness of existence. He never ceased to complain about Recanati (“this barbarous native town of mine,” he wrote in a poem, “among a mean and boorish people”), but almost everywhere else was still more disagreeable. He tried to get away to Milan in 1819. For this he needed a passport which had to be procured secretly since his father, fearing that he would be exposed to subversive political influences, preferred to keep him safely at home. The plot was accidentally discovered, his passport was confiscated, Leopardi stayed where he was. Complete fiasco. Two years later he was finally allowed to set out, flanked by a couple of uncles, on a visit to Rome to seek some sort of employment to bolster the family’s straitened finances. He found the eternal city not at all to his taste. “I do not take the least pleasure in all the fine things I see,” he at once wrote to his brother. Rome was too big, there were too many steps, the young women did not even bother to look at you. After five months, with no post and no prospects, he was back in “the horrible dark of Recanati,” hoping, as he put it, “for nothing but friendship and love.”

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