The Moral Essays
A Leopardi Reader
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 …