The Strange Case of Leopardi

The Moral Essays

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


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 Hölderlin is difficult, or Mallarmé 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 Tibìcine 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.”

Some friendships he did achieve, notably with the Neapolitan Antonio Ranieri who took care of him during the last years of his life as his health steadily worsened. The love of a woman was never granted him, and what few relations there were ranged from unsatisfactory to disastrous. In 1830 in Florence he fell heavily for one Fanny Targioni Tozzetti, a society beauty of sorts, who indulged “her little hunchback” for a while, apparently because she was attracted to Ranieri who in turn was occupied with a local actress. Or so the wretched story runs. Matter at best for a third rate farce, it prompted the brief, powerful poem “To Himself,” as desperate a piece as literature records.

A writer can absorb and probably needs his portion of misfortune, but too much may damage his work. I take Cesare Pavese to be a case in point. There is a sour smell of personal unhappiness about his writing that, to me at least, makes it less valuable than it should be. Leopardi, a greater writer and a still more unhappy man, at his finest transcends his sufferings completely, but they are responsible for some curiously bad poems and leave a certain amount of his prose skewed, so that statements about human life proposed as generally valid are felt to apply primarily to Leopardi himself. Not that a writer need be every man or every woman, but a writer of any stature had better share some common ground with the rest of us. Leopardi’s life was aberrant. Most people do not spend their formative years as he did, do not have to encase themselves in a sack of feathers to keep warm, as Leopardi did during one hard winter at Bologna, or need to stay in bed all day to avoid the light.

Nothing could save him from the physical consequences of the years of hard labor in his father’s library, but he was released from the seemingly arid spirit that then possessed him by what he called his conversions: the first, at the age of eighteen, to poetry and the imagination, the second in 1819 with the discovery that he was a philosopher, for such he continued to insist that he was. On this matter opinion has differed. The traditional view, as expressed for instance by Croce, is that he was a great lyric poet whose “pseudo-philosophy” damaged a number of poems. A contemporary critic, however, Giovanni Carsaniga, warns us against the mistake of “denying the philosophical validity of his speculation, of reducing him [sic] to the status of a mere lyric poet”—even if a great one, Carsaniga has the grace to add.1

This may well be the direction in which criticism is going to move—Di Piero in the introduction to his translation of the Pensieri speaks of Leopardi’s “vast speculative intelligence”—and I think it can easily go too far. He was a voracious reader and since he had a great deal of spare time on his hands, his curiosity reached out to countless questions of the day and indeed of the ages. And since he possessed a keenly analytical mind, he sought to possess intellectually the fundamental experiences that nourished his poetry, the whole tangle of year-long questionings that, in one of his finest poems, converges in the desolate simplicity of the wandering shepherd’s call to the moon, a lonely wanderer like himself, to explain il perché delle cose, “the why of things.” I doubt all the same if too much independent value should be claimed for his “philosophy.” In an entirely honorable sense, it was rigged, as a poet’s thinking often is, to serve his art.

However this may be, the place to study the relation between Leopardi’s poetry and thought is the Operette Morali, his principal work after the Canti. Like almost everything else he wrote, it raises certain problems, beginning with the title. Cecchetti chooses Essays and Dialogues, which describes the contents accurately enough, but these “small works” are, for Leopardi, “moral,” his parva moralia, as an Italian critic elegantly put it. They are moral in the sense, the old sense, that they claim to tell us how, reality being what it is, we should live in this difficult world. It is true that Leopardi himself described the Operette as “a book of poetic dreams, or melancholy inventions and caprices, or an expression of the author’s unhappiness,” but this is defensive and not wholly sincere, written after the cold reception accorded the first edition of 1827. He really believed that the subject matter of the work was “profound and entirely philosophic and metaphysical.”

The first piece, “The History of the Human Race,” cast in the form of a myth or fable, touches on most of the themes to be developed in the course of the book. In a restrained and pensively ironical style it chronicles the successive attempts by a benevolent Jove to make men happy, and the successive failure of those attempts. In the childhood of the race, the small world that opened up to our delighted sense promised “little less than the conviction of happiness,” but before long delight turned to boredom and then to a disgust which led some to self-slaughter. So Jove tried again, enlarging and diversifying the world for our benefit, but in time this more various world too began to pall.

Jove next sent the flood and provided the new race that emerged with some real afflictions, to keep them occupied, and also with beautiful “phantoms” like Virtue and Justice to inspire them with noble ideals. But, insatiably unsatisfied, they demanded more, so Jove sent down Truth, the deadly truth that the beautiful phantoms are illusory and that the happiness we yearn for is “alien to the nature of the universe.” In his mercy, however, he let Love dwell briefly with a few rare souls, a consolation Leopardi himself was not to know.

This is his central vision of life. We are consumed by desire for “that plenitude of unfathomable happiness” (“quella pienezza di non intelligibile felicità“) which can be experienced only in the lost Eden of childhood and is recoverable, momentarily, by adults only through the deceits of the imagination. Art and, in its rare gracious appearances, love can rekindle the life-giving illusions, but nothing works for long, and in the latter stages of his writing Leopardi invokes the concept of human solidarity, calling on men to band together against the cruel power he came to call Nature. A bleak posture, leading him sometimes to sterile, even petulant complaints about the way things are, sometimes to the defiant posture that Italian critics like to call titanic, at his grandest to the ancient, sustaining sense of man’s hard and sorrowful condition. And yet this desolate landscape is visited every so often by memories or intimations of astounding joy.

The newcomer to Leopardi would I think do well to skip, at least on a first reading, the half dozen or so pieces that follow the “History,” slighter would-be humorous sketches “in the manner of Lucian,” his original intention for whole work. Since Leopardi was not a humorist or, with one exception, an effective satirist, they contrive for the most part to be both heavy-handed and trivial.2 Matters improve about a third of the way in with “The Wager of Prometheus” which, as Patrick Creagh puts it in the introduction to his translation, serves as “a modulation into the graver music of the later dialogues.” Here the high claims made for Leopardi become understandable. Plainly we are dealing with a notable writer. Somewhat arbitrarily one might single out two pieces for special attention, “The Dialogue of Frederick Ruysch and his Mummies,” and “The Song of the Great Wild Rooster.”

Ruysch was a Dutch anatomist who exhibited a crew of pickled corpses which looked as though they were alive, and the dialogue starts as he finds them singing. “What sort of game is this?” he enquires. “Have you forgotten you’re dead?” And so forth, good sardonic stuff for the most part in an unusually colloquial style. The dialogue is preceded, however, by something very different, a poem in Leopardi’s most solemn archaic manner in which the dead address the living from their world of death. They are imagined as being in a state of suspended animation, “happy, no, but safe from the old sorrow,” conscious of “that bitter point of time which bore the name of life” only as a dimly remembered nightmare. This is life seen from the perspective of death, a somber companion piece to Pindar’s brilliant vision of the gods looking down from Olympus at the marvel in the human world far below, the island of Delos, “farshining star of the bluedark earth.”

The Song of the Great Wild Rooster” begins with some erudite play on the obscure Hebrew source from which Leopardi is supposedly translating the song of this fabulous creature “whose foot rests on the earth and whose crest and beak touch the sky.” His song first calls on mortals to awake from sleep, the simulacrum and foretaste of the death which will before long free them from the burdens of existence, and this leads to a meditation on sleep. In Cecchetti’s translation:

If the sleep of mortals were perpetual and one and the same with life; if under the day star all living creatures languished in the most profound quiet all over the earth and there appeared no activity whatever: no lowing of oxen in the meadows, no roar of wild beasts in the forests, no singing of birds in the air, no murmur of butterflies nor buzzing of bees throughout the countryside, no voice, no movement arose in any place but that of waters, winds, and storms; then the universe would indeed be useless; but would there perhaps be in it a lesser quantity of happiness or a larger amount of misery than there is now? I ask you, O Sun, author of the day and guardian of our waking hours, in the course of the centuries that you have so far measured and consumed rising and setting, did you once see a single one of the living beings happy?

There follows a picture of men always and everywhere striving for a happiness they will never attain, unaware that they are seeking “the sole purpose of nature, which is death.” The song ends by looking ahead to the time when the universe will have run its course and nothing remains: “a naked silence and a most profound quiet will fill the immensity of space.”

Cecchetti rightly describes this piece as “one of the peaks in Leopardi’s work,” yet in any translation we are likely to get (and his own is perfectly serviceable) it may well seem a deadening exercise in rather empty pessimism. When the piece is read, meditated, in the original, the solemnity of the accent and syntax suggests that there is something here that cannot be dismissed as pessimism, even if we follow the Italians and label it “cosmic.” And those looking for a modern Leopardi should mark the serenity with which this vision of the cessation of all animate life is contemplated, at the furthest remove from, say, the derisive savagery of a genuinely modern work like Beckett’s Fin de partie. (“All is…all is…all is what?…Corpsed.”) The difference may seem primarily one of tone, yet it is more than that, for tone is the index of vision, and the classical sense of order, clarity, and intellectual coherence which marks Leopardi’s finest work tells us that he is reaching toward a position that is not of our day, to an understanding, which is also an acceptance, of what is, however grievous it may be.

Perhaps we can get at what Leopardi is doing in the “Song” by looking at the second movement of his poem, “La Vita Solitaria.” There too a series of negatives leads out to a region beyond negation, a condition of profound peace in which everything seems to come to a stop and dissolve, along with the conscious self, until nothing is left except the eternal quiet of being forever, no longer disturbed by the brief interlude of organic life and the fret of human doing. To find a parallel to this, we should go not to any modern author (except perhaps Freud, the Freud of Beyond the Pleasure Principle), but to one of the oldest literary texts in the world, the Babylonian creation poem where the repose of the primal deities of preorganic matter is shattered by the turbulence of the new active race of deities they have brought into existence and seek to destroy: “That quiet may be restored. Let us have rest!” The surface of Leopardi’s mind moved tirelessly among the many concerns of his day, social, political, scientific, but at the core of his being he was what Valéry said the true poet must always be, “un homme très ancien.”

The other work now available in English, the Pensieri, which Leopardi began preparing in 1832 but did not live to see through the press, is not on the same level. Among the several large claims which Di Piero makes in the introduction to his fine translation is that “the Pensieri constitutes a manual for self-preservation in modern Western society.” Irving Howe made a rather similar claim for Stendhal: “He knew that in [his] age the great problem for men of intelligence was simply to survive.”3 Stendhal, however, had what Leopardi’s strange, solitary life denied him, a wide experience of society. He knew what he was talking about. When Leopardi informs us that “the world is a league of scoundrels against men of generosity, of base men against men of good will,” it requires no undue benevolence toward our species to object that this is simply not so. A cold, disenchanted observer of the human scene, Guicciardini (whose book of maxims has been plausibly proposed as one of the models for Leopardi’s Pensieri) is surely nearer the mark: “Men are all by nature more inclined to good than to evil.” When Leopardi writes about things he understands, like the experience of noia (“the most sublime of human feelings…the chief sign of the grandeur and nobility of human nature”—it might be Pascal), he is magnificent. Too often the bitter comments on human behavior, derived from the limited vantage point afforded by his own dolorous existence, lack any real bite or penetration. A good selection from the Zibaldone would give a better idea of the quality of his mind and range of his interests.

But all reservations fall away when we come to the Canti, the slender volume that gives Leopardi his place among the supreme lyric poets of the world. A bilingual edition is promised from Columbia University Press, but most regrettably the translation is to be in verse, a quite hopeless undertaking. Lowell did a few poems, trying as usual to turn them into his own kind of poem, and he failed miserably. (Leopardi’s le sudate carte, “my laborious pages,” which implies a theory of composition, becomes “the heat/of my writings made the letters wriggle and melt/under drops of sweat.” Always the concrete image!) Straight versions are not exposed to the same hazards, but risking nothing they win nothing. Those Casale provides in his Reader are by no means indecent, yet inevitably they run up against the response he himself describes when he pictures the dismay of the foreign reader of Keats asked to accept “Every time I think I might not live long” as some sort of equivalent for “When I have fears that I may cease to be.”

The only translator who to my mind has occasionally been able to catch something of Leopardi’s poignant, almost unearthly accent is John Heath-Stubbs.4 Not in the poems written in the combination of seven- and eleven-syllable lines—the music of that conjunction is an Italian mystery which English six/ten will not reproduce—but in the eleven-syllable versi sciolti, most successfully in the passage from “Memories” where Leopardi laments the early death of the half-imaginary girl he calls Nerina, transfigured emblem of some blessed presence that has withdrawn from the earth. (See box on previous page.)

The fact is that English, for all its riches, has nothing to set beside the best of these poems, and only one English poet could have translated them, the Milton of our lost paradise, of “Lycidas” and parts of Samson Agonistes. Both poets were profoundly schooled in the secrets of classical style, both are often highly Latinate and yet, at their purest, reach beyond Latin to Greek. Both can sometimes write with the perfect gravity of Sophocles. The translator of the Canti who suspects that his powers are not of this order would do well to stick to plain prose and allow us, with its aid, to find our own way to the original and listen as best we may to what Santayana called that “unexampled heavenly voice.”

  1. 1

    Giacomo Leopardi: The Unheeded Voice (Edinburgh University Press, 1977), p. 121.

  2. 2

    His one successful satirical work is a longish poem in the meter of Don Juan dating from the last years of his life and dealing with the failure of liberal movements in Naples in the 1820s. It is forbiddingly entitled I Paralipomeni della Batracomiomachia (that is, “Matters Omitted from the Battle of the Frogs and Mice,” the pseudo-Homeric mock-epic which Leopardi translated no less than three times). In a minatory aside, Carsaniga claims that readers who “stop at the Canti ignore [this work] at their peril.” English-speaking readers are I am afraid likely to continue to do so until there is a translation or at least a fully annotated English edition, for the poem is in places rather difficult.

  3. 3

    Politics and the Novel (Horizon Press, New York, 1957), p. 33.

  4. 4

    Iris Origo and John Heath-Stubbs, eds., Giacomo Leopardi: Selected Prose and Poetry (New American Library, 1967); out of print.