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The Magic of Leopardi


by Giacomo Leopardi, translated from the Italian and annotated by Jonathan Galassi
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 498 pp., $35.00
Giacomo Leopardi; drawing by Tullio Pericoli

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
wakes me….

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.”

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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