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The Magic of Leopardi

The English translator faces a dilemma here, for Leopardi filled his poems with what he considered to be the most poetic and historically laden parole—words such as notturno, antico, and lontano, as well as a host of others, all of which are generic to an extreme. Leopardi believed that these highly sonorous common words with ancient Latinate roots allow for a maximum freedom of association in the mind of the native Italian—a mind that contains within its deeper recesses a latent memory of the history and even prehistory of the Italian language. Indeed, parole cannot resound in the mind of someone who was not born into their specific language family. Thus antico and “ancient” are very different words in this respect, even if they signify the same concept. Even if they would not lose their native resonance when translated into non-Romance languages—as they necessarily do—Italian parole still could not arouse the same accessory images and associations in the English or American reader.

Take the opening lines of his famous poem “To Silvia,” where the key parola is the word mortale, “mortal,” which sustains its resonance throughout the rest of the long poem:

Silvia, rimembri ancora
Quel tempo della tua vita mortale….

Most translators cannot bear to translate the Italian literally, since the phrase “your mortal life,” with its unproductive redundancy, falls so flat in English. Thus Robert Lowell, transcribing this poem in his book Imitations, writes: “Sylvia, do you remember the minutes/in this life overhung by death…” Eamon Grennan also avoids the word “mortal”: “Silvia, do you still remember/The time in your brief life here…” Galassi, in collaboration with Tim Parks, has the courage to translate the lines literally: “Silvia, do you remember still / that moment in your mortal life…” By opting for “mortal life,” Galassi and Parks preserve the distant echo of classical epic and drama, where the life of mortals receives its scope and measure by comparison to the immortal life of the gods.

Leopardi deliberately deployed these kinds of words—which often die on the page in English translation—throughout his poems. Indeed, some people believe that they often die on the page in Italian as well, despite the elegant theory of historical resonance that Leopardi marshaled to justify his use of them. This was the gist of D’Annunzio’s complaint that Leopardi wrote poetry “like a philologist.” He did write like a philologist, and he always knew exactly what he was doing when it came to his use of words in verse.

One of the reasons why Leopardi put such a premium on accessory images, lateral connotations, and etymological undertones, and why he deliberately inserted archaic constructions into his otherwise distinctly modern idiom, is because he abhorred the present when it was stripped of its connections with the past, just as he abhorred objects when they were perceived in their literal actuality. He introduced untimely elements into the very prosody of his poems in order to give a temporal penumbra to the phenomena they evoke or describe. Only when memory and imagination infused perception could Leopardi feel delivered from the horrid nudity of the chronological present. At thirty years of age he wrote in his notebooks:

To the sensitive and imaginative man, who lives, as I have lived for a long time, feeling and imagining continuously, the world and its objects are in a certain sense double. He will see with his eyes a tower, a countryside; he will hear with his ears the sound of a bell; and at the same time he will see another tower, another countryside, he will hear another sound. In this second sort of object lies all the beauty and pleasure of things. Sad is the life (and yet such is life for the most part) that sees, hears, senses only simple objects, [namely] those of which eyes, ears, and the other senses receive a mere sensation.

Decades before Baudelaire lamented the reductionist tendencies of his era, Leopardi saw in the modern age a catastrophic loss of poetic memory and an increasing impoverishment of this stereoscopic, or stratified, type of perception. The reality of the real was asserting its claims ever more brutally against the only faculty that for Leopardi made life barely tolerable—the imagination. For Leopardi, as for so many after him, poetry offered ongoing resistance against the tyranny of the real in its drive to abolish the recessive depths of time.

Militancy takes a completely different form in poetry than it does in other domains. Thus the most remarkable poem of the entire Canti, “L’Infinito,” draws us into the inner activity of an utterly quiet mind engaged in the sort of depth perception that allows our experience of the real to transcend its ordinary limits. It is one of the few unconditionally affirmative poems in Leopardi’s corpus:

This lonely hill was always dear to me,
and this hedgerow, which cuts off the view
of so much of the last horizon.
But sitting here and gazing, I can see
beyond, in my mind’s eye, unending spaces,
and superhuman silences, and depthless calm,
till what I feel
is almost fear. And when I hear
the wind stir in these branches, I begin
comparing that endless stillness with this noise:
and the eternal comes to mind,
and the dead seasons, and the present
living one, and how it sounds.
So my mind sinks in this immensity:
and foundering is sweet in such a sea.
(Galassi’s translation)

All the action takes place within the mind of a sedentary subject looking out over a landscape, yet the action could hardly be more dramatic as the chronological “now” dissolves into a sea of spatiotemporal immensity. How does the experience of infinity come about? It comes about precisely through an active comparison of the perceived sound of the wind and the hush in the poet’s mind (“comparing that endless stillness with this noise”). By virtue of the coincidence between the perceived and the imagined, “the eternal comes to mind.” The Italian says, “mi sovvien l’eterno,” which means literally “I remember the eternal,” or, even more literally, “the eternal comes over me.”

Along with the eternal, the dead seasons as well as the present one cloak the speaker’s mind. This liberation means that the present has overcome its isolation from the past, and even more dramatically, diachronic time has overcome its isolation from the timeless—all thanks to a series of untimely conjunctions between surface and depth perception. The “foundering” of the last line refers to a shipwreck (naufragar in Italian), which we must understand as a purely psychic event that revolutionizes or overturns the perception of the landscape. What began as a land poem ends as a sea poem, as the differentiated boundaries of time’s dimensions are liquefied by the imaginative activity that the poem tracks in the speaker’s mind. The fact that Leopardi’s hill is some ten miles from the Adriatic Sea gives an added concreteness to the elemental transcendence of the poem’s final image.

Just as the process of liquefaction dissolves the solidity of the earth, so too it dissolves the traditional solidity of poetic form. To put it more emphatically, it dissolves the boundaries of the traditional, fourteen-line sonnet. Robert Lowell devised a highly lively English version of this poem in Imitations, yet he made one big miscalculation in the process. He gave his English rendition seventeen lines instead of fifteen lines. Jonathan Galassi does not make that mistake. He preserves the exact line count of the original, and thereby preserves the extraordinary shipwreck of the sonnet form in that extra, overflowing, self-transcending fifteenth line. The fifteenth line of “Infinity” represents of one of the most silent, yet also one of the most momentous, revolutions of modern poetry.

Reading through Galassi’s edition, one gets a sense that Leopardi’s poems are well lodged in this home away from home that Galassi has given them in English. In addition to its fidelity to the literal thrust of the poems, his bilingual edition has other merits to recommend it. It contains all thirty-six poems of the Canti (plus five “Fragments” and four “Other Texts”). Its introduction ably recapitulates the essentials of Leopardi’s life, works, and poetic development. The layout of the book is elegant, with facing translations and luxurious empty margins around both the Italian and English. It contains extensive notes on each poem, many culled from reliable sources, and also contains a “Chronology,” a “Selected Bibliography,” and an essay on “The Structure of the Canti.” In short, neither Leopardi nor his English reader could ask for a finer apparatus than the one Galassi provides.

At the same time, for someone who reads Leopardi in Italian, as I do, and who considers him a truly wondrous poet when he is at his best, there is a certain sadness in the fact that even in this highly commendable edition his poems do not vigorously assert their virtues or show his unequivocal rank among the very best poets of the modern Western canon. One is left wondering whether the fault lies finally with Leopardi himself, rather than with the difficulties he presents to his translators.

Leopardi once declared: “Perfect poetry cannot be carried over into foreign languages.” Even if that statement is true in some ultimate sense, a great many poets have enchanted a great many readers even in translation. Many of them translate quite well—if not perfectly well—into other languages. Others have yet to be translated adequately—Baudelaire, for instance, has yet to come into his own in English—but meanwhile they still assert their claims among the foreign reading public. Not so with Leopardi. It is astonishing how few people in literary circles outside of Italy have actually read him, while in his own country he is so revered that tourists visiting his house in Recanati will often form a chorus and spontaneously recite one poem of his after another by memory as they tour the rooms and halls. (Nothing says more about Leopardi’s standing among his countrymen than the fact that a dense scholarly book on him by the venerable Italian literary critic Pietro Citati made the best-seller list in Italy in 2010.)

It could be that Leopardi was so profoundly untimely that, outside of Italy, his time will never really come. Perhaps he will always remain, at least for the non-Italian reader, out of season—difficult of access, inhabiting a wilderness of pain that finally is not nearly as universal as he himself believed it was. One thing is certain: Leopardi wrote one or two, if not three or four, of the greatest lyrics of the modern canon. In each of them he achieves the same remarkable result: he liberates the latent power of words to resound in the depths of existential as well as historical time, and in so doing liberates time from the tyranny of chronology. Perhaps only someone who grew up too fast, who was sick and “old” when he was still young, and who felt a desperate need to reach beyond the confines of the days and years that bounded his life could have written poems that play with time in the singular way his do. In their carefully crafted untimeliness, his poems restore the density and viscosity of the temporal element in which all of us find ourselves adrift but whose depths remain forever unfathomable, even when we founder in it.

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