Giacomo Leopardi (1798–1837) suffered from many ailments during his unhappy life—asthma, scoliosis, ophthalmia, constipation, dropsy, and spleen, to mention a few—yet insomnia is the one most closely associated with his genius. While everyone else in his provincial hometown of Recanati slept, Leopardi stayed awake reading, writing, translating, or moon-dreaming. As the firstborn son of a count, he could expect the household servants, despite their rage, to serve him breakfast in the afternoon and lunch at midnight. Always out of sync with the diurnal rhythms of the rest of the world, he was, in the best Nietzschean sense of the word, “untimely.”
He spent his youth among the ancients in one the largest private libraries in Europe—his father’s. When children his age were still reciting verb tenses, he had already mastered Latin and taught himself Greek, reading in chronological order all the Greek works on his father’s shelves. At sixteen he presented his father with a corrected text of the life of Plotinus, with Latin translation and commentary. In the same year he wrote a commentary on rhetoricians of the second century AD. He would soon learn Hebrew to read the Bible. The list of his juvenile translations and commentaries boggles the mind. Had he not compromised his eyesight and developed a curvature in his spine early on, as a result of spending too much time hunched over texts, philology would have gained a great genius, while literary history most likely would have lost a major poet.
In addition to his philological studies Leopardi pored over the poetry and prose of the Italian masters. He also studied modern science and Enlightenment thought, delving deeply into post-Copernican astronomy, British empiricism, and mechanistic theories of nature. By his mid-twenties he grasped the thought of Galileo, Pascal, and various Enlightenment thinkers as well as the metrics of Virgil. He read Voltaire, Locke, and scores of other moderns in their own tongues. Thus his erudition ranged widely across the ages, across disciplines, across languages ancient and modern, and across Europe, despite the fact that he did not venture beyond the confines of his native province until he was twenty-four.
Leopardi began writing the poems that would make up his Canti at around age nineteen, when he could no longer afford to overtax his health and eyesight by excessive reading. He experienced the onset of his aggravated health problems as an expulsion from the garden of youth and a fall into premature old age. In his earlier poems—“To Italy,” “On the Monument to Dante,” and “To Angelo Mai” (a noted philologist)—he projects onto a historical stage the pathos of lost youth, lamenting Italy’s severance from its illustrious past. In a fervent, beautifully stylized rhetoric, these patriotic odes attribute Italy’s present-day stagnation to its failure to reproject its heritage into the future. We encounter here a motif that recurs in many guises in his later writings, namely Leopardi’s profound aversion to the present when it loses its connections to the past.
He wrote most of the subsequent poems in his Canti either during or after a full-blown existential crisis that he underwent in 1819. His stark realization that he was condemned to a loveless future of disease, deformity, dependence, and early death converged with his equally stark conviction that there is no God, that the cosmos is indifferent to humankind, and that human suffering is without redemption. Indeed, the human condition is so fundamentally cruel and absurd that it is bearable only thanks to our innate human capacity for illusion and false consolation. Yet by his early twenties Leopardi had lost his capacity for illusion and could no longer believe in the redemptive promises of religion, nationalism, or the modern era’s myth of human progress (he was especially skeptical of the latter for the rest of his life).
We should resist the temptation to attribute Leopardi’s metaphysical pessimism to his personal misfortunes. His contemporary Niccolò Tommaseo, a militant Catholic, called Leopardi “a frog endlessly croaking ‘There is no God because I’m a hunchback, there is no God because I’m a hunchback’”—to which Leopardi replied that critics should target his arguments rather than his deformity. He claimed that his worldview represented a coherent, unself-deceived response to the findings of modern science—the kind of findings that had caused Blaise Pascal to declare, when confronted by the sheer relativity of the post-Copernican universe: “the eternal silence of these infinite spaces terrifies me” (a sentence Leopardi rewrites in his 1819 poem “Infinity”).
With the lucidity of a systematic Greek philosopher, Leopardi took stock of what science had discovered about the materialist basis of reality and drew what he believed to be inevitable conclusions about the groundlessness of human values and the utter indifference of nature to the fate of humankind. In so doing he became an avatar of our disabused modern outlook, anticipating Friedrich Nietzsche by making explicit—and without subterfuge—the moral consequences of modern science’s overturning of the religious and humanistic foundations of the Christian world order.
Toward the very end of his life, in his last great poem, “Broom,” Leopardi did finally affirm an irrevocable value—that of human solidarity in the face of nature’s inhuman severities. It probably would not have surprised him that many of his future readers would seize upon this poem’s affirmative gesture and uphold it as a beacon of light in the otherwise dismal night of Leopardian nihilism. Perhaps it was a final act of generosity, his parting gift to a humankind that “cannot bear very much reality,” as T.S. Eliot would put it a century after Leopardi’s death.
Leopardi’s poetry distinguishes itself from other lyric corpuses of the modern era. It has an extraordinary ability to lay bare the universal disgrace of the human condition while enchanting readers through the incantatory magic of its music, imagery, and accents of pathos. The question that invariably arises with Leopardi is whether that poetic magic—that distinctive tension between what his poems say and what they do—can be rendered in any other words than those he himself laid down in his native language. In sum, can his Canti “sing” in a language other than Italian? I believe that the challenges his English translators face are enormous, more so than with almost any other Italian poet, and that we should not expect too much of even their best efforts.
Jonathan Galassi, who has spent several years translating Leopardi’s poems into English, would seem to agree with me. In the introduction to his new edition of the Canti he admits that his task seems nearly hopeless:
In approaching Leopardi, the hapless translator is often confronted with impenetrably perfect, sonorous expressiveness; in the end, the best he can manage is likely a close approximation of the poem’s literal thrust, which, if he or she is faithful or lucky, attains a modest aptness in the translator’s own language.
Galassi indeed does an excellent job of approximating the poems’ literal meaning, giving us eminently consistent and trustworthy translations, yet as he notes, it is very difficult to stay faithful to the meaning of Leopardi’s verses and at the same time convey their poetic density and sonority.
If literal approximation remains your main objective, you will deliberately suppress certain aspects of Leopardi’s poems for the sake of clarity. For example, Leopardi often stages an intricate dance between syntax and semantics in his poems. By conspicuously distancing subjects from verbs and modifiers from nouns—which rhetoricians call hyperbaton—he introduces syntactical capers, bounds, and sidesteps into his phrases. Furthermore, he will often juxtapose intricate syntax with punchy assertions, creating an inimitable mix of archaic and modern tones. Take the following verses from his poem “On the Marriage of His Sister Paolina”:
O miseri o codardi
Figliuoli avrai. Miseri eleggi. Immenso
Tra fortuna e valor dissidio pose
Il corrotto costume. Ahi troppo tardi,
E nella sera dell’umane cose,
Acquista oggi chi nasce il moto e il senso.
If one were to try to replicate in English the syntax of these verses, the result would be almost illegible, not to say stilted:
Or miserable or cowardly
Children you’ll have. Choose miserable. Immense
Between fortune and valor discord has placed
Corrupt custom. Oh too late,
And in the evening of human things,
Acquires today who is born movement and sense.
Remaining faithful not to the phrasing but to the gist of the original, Galassi renders the verses as follows:
The children that you’ll have will either be
cowards or unhappy. Let them be unhappy.
Corruption opened up a yawning chasm
between character and circumstance.
Alas, a man who’s born today
learns to act and feel too late,
and in the evening of human life.
All of Galassi’s choices here are perfectly sound, yet the readability of his version comes at a cost. It flattens out the original and renders it perforce more prosaic. This is not so much a shortcoming on Galassi’s part as it is a deliberate, and sensible, decision he makes in favor of the poem’s literal meaning.
At times, Galassi manages to convey both the literal meaning as well as the intricate phrasing of the original, as in the opening of Leopardi’s idyll “The Solitary Life”:
The morning rain—now that the hen
shut up in her pen exults and beats her wings,
and the field hand gazes out his window,
and, coming alive, the Sun shoots glistening rays
among the falling droplets gently
beating on my roof—the morning rain
Even though he has to repeat the main subject of the phrase just before the main verb that concludes it, Galassi does an excellent job with it.
A conventional misconception has it that, unlike prose, where sound and sense diverge, poetry fuses the two into an inseparable unity. In truth poetry does quite the opposite: through a variety of prosodic techniques, it introduces calibrated disjunctions between them. Paul Valéry put it elegantly when he called the poem “a prolonged hesitation between sound and sense.” Having learned the devices of syntactical inversion and hyperbaton from Greek and Latin authors, as well as Italian predecessors like Petrarch and Tasso, Leopardi could prolong the hesitation between sound and sense more effectively than any poet of the modern period. Unfortunately most, though not all, of his prolonged hesitations are extremely difficult, if not impossible, to carry over into English.
Another exasperating feature of Leopardi’s poetry for the English translator is its systematic deployment of common words. Leopardi sheds light on this practice in his notebooks, where he draws a distinction between what he called parole and termini, words and terms. Parole are words that have been in circulation through the ages and contain a number of associations, connotations, and latent meanings. Termini, by contrast, are unhistorical, univocal, often technical terms that do not connote, only denote. By preserving their metaphorical and sensory history, parole come with a host of “accessory images,” whereas termini “offer only a single idea of the object signified.” Leopardi elaborates: “If I call a plant or animal by the Linnaean name, I have aroused none of these [accessory] images, even though the thing itself is clearly indicated.”