His mother rejoiced when her children died in infancy. They would go straight to heaven and would not weigh upon the family budget. Great poet though he might become, Giacomo Leopardi would always have problems with faith and thrift. His father, Count Monaldo Leopardi, had squandered the family fortune through “generosity, pride, or folly” and was deprived by papal order of the right to handle money. Pious and penny-pinching, his wife, Marchesa Adelaide, took over the management of their estates. This was in 1803, on the dusty hills above the southern Adriatic, scorching in summer, freezing in winter. The noble couple were in their mid-twenties and their firstborn son was then just five.
To assert offended manhood, Monaldo cultivated literary ambitions—an interminable production of bigoted and reactionary tracts—which it was felt could not lead to the same economic catastrophe as his previous sallies into politics and trade. Nevertheless, he lavished considerable sums on building up what, for the very small town of Recanati, was a vast library of 25,000 volumes. Through this library he entered into a relationship with young Giacomo that was at once one of complicity, against Adelaide, and of competition, with each other. For the next thirty years, when Giacomo the poet asked Monaldo the pamphleteer for money, Monaldo could make a point of surreptitiously conceding it to a fellow sufferer behind his wife’s stiff back, or of informing his young rival that he would have to confront the formidable matriarch in person.
The story of Giacomo’s youth spent entirely in his father’s library has assumed legendary status in the history of Italian literature. Rarely emerging to play with brothers and sister, the boy had no companions at all outside the family and no interests outside books. By age ten he had mastered Latin, Greek, German, and French. Hebrew and English would soon follow. Presumably destined for the priesthood, he received the tonsure at twelve and donned a monkish habit. His tutors were outstripped and admitted as much. Left to his own diligent if random devices, he produced philological commentaries, sonnets, tragedies, epigrams, philosophical dissertations, a History of Astronomy, a Life of Plotinus, and any number of translations from the classics. Adolescent self-consciousness was developed to the point that “thinking about breathing,” as Monaldo later wrote, he would have difficulty getting his breath, and again, “reflecting on the subtleties of urination,” he would be unable to pass water. Much pacing to and fro was required before he could steal from himself “a moment’s inattention.”
All the same, when his beautiful cousin Gertrude made a three-day visit with her much older husband, the boy managed to fall in love. In a pattern that would repeat itself throughout his life, the lady paid him no attention and left without saying goodbye. Giacomo reacted with A Diary of First Love and a number of Petrarchan sonnets. When the effect wore off he embarked on a translation of Hesiod’s Theogony.
The whole situation was grotesque, and in his late teens Giacomo at last awoke to find the outward sign of that grotesqueness. Under the priest’s habit he was hunchbacked, the result of a long-untreated scoliosis. How could he not have seen what was happening? The study that had seemed the passport to his father’s respect and the scholastic glory that must ensue had become his curse and set him apart forever. Beset by asthma and constipation, insulted by street urchins, already aware that no woman would ever find him attractive, Giacomo was more and more often afflicted by a death wish he had felt since earliest infancy. From age eighteen on, his overriding obsession was escape.
Concomitant with this anguished awareness of lost youth came what Giacomo would refer to as his three “conversions”: literary, political, and philosophical. From the arid erudition of his father he moved almost overnight to an appreciation of the value of beauty in poetry. Immediately he set out on translations of the first book of the Odyssey, the second of the Aeneid. This at seventeen. A year later, he jettisoned Monaldo’s blind defense of papal dictatorship and declared himself in favor of a united Italy. Immediately he wrote a number of long patriotic hymns. Finally, at twenty-one, he abandoned his parents’ and above all his mother’s Christianity. Having once walked in superstitious dread of treading on the crosses formed by paving stones, he now discovered a world, as he put it, of “solid nothingness.” In the cold light of reason, both religion and youthful illusion evaporated and happiness became “forever unavailable.” Thus in 1819, in one of the most backward towns of the most backward state in a decidedly backward and obscurantist Italy, Giacomo Leopardi stepped tentatively into the world of the absurd, a mechanistic universe going nowhere and to no end.
Despite severe ophthalmia, another lifelong plague, the young man’s busy pen was now occupied on three fronts: lyric poems, invariably as sad as they were beautiful; brief philosophical dialogues of bizarre whimsy and unparalleled pessimism; and finally the pages of his Zibaldone, or day book, a diary of his intellectual and emotional development that would ultimately run to almost 3,000 pages. Now in open conflict with his parents, he was desperate to leave. But how could Monaldo let this boy with his weak health, great talents, and dangerous views out into a world where liberalism and revolution were everywhere in the air? How could Adelaide even contemplate the unnecessary expense of lodging him anywhere but home? Giacomo attempted to acquire a passport and escape north with money stolen from the family safe but was foiled and humiliated. His dream of a “land full of marvels” away from the “living burial” of Recanati would have to wait until he was twenty-four, when Monaldo finally relented and allowed his son to visit Adelaide’s brother, Marchese Antici, in Rome.
Thus far the story of Giacomo Leopardi presents little problem for biographers. The family palazzo and above all the library where he grew up are still there to be visited. They make up a small and sharply defined world in which the poet’s youth and the dynamic of relationships that shaped it are well documented in an abundance of letters and memoirs. Most of all the economy and direction of the story are obvious and our sympathies undivided. The frail, sensitive if, alas, ugly genius will finally escape his monstrous parents to spread his wings in the wider and more generous society of those splendid Italian cities that so inspired his English, French, and German contemporaries.
It was not to be. Leopardi hated Rome, as later he would never be on anything but the most uneasy terms with Milan, Bologna, Florence, and Naples. “All the greatness of Rome,” he wrote back to his sister Paolina, “has no other purpose than to multiply the distances and numbers of steps you have to climb to see anyone at all.” The place was dirty and noisy, the people stupid. On his first day he met the elegant and erudite Abbot Cancellieri, a man not only well placed to introduce Giacomo into Roman society but kind enough to have praised the young prodigy’s philological studies in his own publications. “A prick,” Giacomo wrote back to his brother Carlo, “an endless stream of gossip, the dullest and most despair-inducing man on earth.” But surely, the envious Carlo replied, in a big city “there’s always a pretty whore to look at.” This was true, but would the whores look at a sickly hunchback? “The ugliest, crassest Recanati tart was better than all the streetwalkers of Rome,” came the poet’s improbable retort. Despite winning the unqualified admiration of a number of scholars, and in particular the Prussian ambassador Barthold Georg Niebuhr, Leopardi was soon longing to be home. Monaldo was delighted to have him back. Another week or two and the young man was desperate to leave again.
It is at this point, and as if in self-defense, that most biographers and critics will begin to speak of there being a distance—a distance that they will ultimately insist is a gulf—between Leopardi’s sublime poetry on the one hand and his profound pessimism and capricious behavior on the other. Thus in Leopardi: A Study in Solitude, the only substantial biography in English, now reprinted after many years, Iris Origo remarks:
There are two Leopardis: the poet and the man. The man, as he revealed himself in many of his letters and his diaries, was a querulous, tortured invalid, mistrustful of his fellow men, with a mind sometimes scornful and cantankerous, and a heart intolerably sad and lonely. But to this unhappy man was granted a poet’s gift: a capacity for feeling so intense and an imagination so sensitive and lively that he could perceive, in the most common sights of daily life, the “heavenly originals” of which, according to Plato, all earthly objects are but copies.
In an essay that appeared in these pages the scholar D.S. Carne-Ross wrote: “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.”1
One of the consequences of taking this view is that Leopardi’s poetry, and in particular the thirty-six lyric poems eventually collected together to form the Canti (“Songs”), is to be elevated to the highest of pedestals (“English, for all its riches, has nothing to set beside the best of these poems,” says Carne-Ross), while the reflections in the prose dialogues collected as the Operette morali or indeed in the quite extraordinary Zibaldone are to be dismissed, or damned with faint praise. Basing her remarks on an essay by Benedetto Croce, Origo writes: “On the problems of life he [Leopardi] bestowed much thought, and he clothed that thought in fine language, but the conclusions which he reached cannot be said to possess any great novelty.” She then simplifies his vision thus:
The universe, he says, is an enigma and an insoluble one; human life, when weighed in the balance, is an unhappy affair, and the more highly developed a man is in feeling and in intelligence, the less fitted he is to live happily. Such happiness as men do enjoy is founded upon “illusion.”
Albeit with some bet-hedging, Carne-Ross reaches the same conclusion. “I doubt…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.”
How vigorously Leopardi would have disagreed! Indeed he did disagree, for he frequently faced the same criticism during his lifetime. Praising the style of the Operette morali as “the finest prose in Italian this century,” his archenemy, the supremely Catholic critic Niccolò Tommaseo, nevertheless referred to Leopardi as “a frog endlessly croaking ‘There is no God because I’m a hunchback, there is no God because I’m a hunchback.”‘ Dutifully Origo documents Leopardi’s standard response to such attacks: that critics should seek to confute his ideas (which actually are far from simple2 ) rather than blame his deformity. But one has to turn to a very different kind of biography, Rolando Damiani’s All’apparir del vero (sadly unavailable in translation), to find the poet’s most spirited rebuttal. On hearing, in 1834, that an article in a German review had once again ascribed his negative thinking to his desperate state of health, Leopardi wrote: “It seems people have the same attitude to life that an Italian husband has to his wife: he needs to go on believing she is faithful even when all the evidence is to the contrary.”
The tension and ambiguity that everywhere galvanize Origo’s fascinating biography spring from her attempt to reconcile an honest account of Leopardi’s unhappy existence and corrosive thought with this same, as the poet saw it, banal but absolutely necessary desire to believe that “life is a beautiful thing.” The irony she never quite grasps is that both the philosophy she largely ignores and the poetry she loves are inspired by Leopardi’s prolonged meditation on the same contradictory impulses that are driving her writing as she seeks at once to tell her story truthfully and escape its implications unscathed. In short, as Leopardi saw it, Nature has endowed us with a reasoning faculty which inevitably pushes us toward an awareness of the utter insignificance of our existence, yet at the same time and paradoxically Nature also offers us considerable resources for putting that reasoning faculty to sleep, and in particular for inventing all kinds of grand ideas, national, religious, romantic, and social, to keep the brutal truth at bay.
Such ideas and the adventures that sprang from them were, in his view, to be cultivated at all costs—hadn’t Leopardi himself espoused the national cause? Didn’t he fall in love on three occasions? Wasn’t his very writing driven by a ludicrous ambition for literary glory? Yet he insisted to the end that such aspirations, and indeed all the fruits of the imagination, whether individual or collective, were “illusions.” The end result would always be sickness and death. It is as if, sitting beside Coleridge as he wrote his “Ode to Dejection,” Leopardi had, yes, encouraged him to rediscover “the beauty-making power of imagination” but then pointed out that whether he succeeded or not, he would all too soon be back with “the inanimate cold world” again, and hence dejection. For “nothing is more reasonable than boredom.” And after years of disillusionment and dejection death could only be welcome.
Interestingly, it was a death that prompted Iris Origo to write her biography of Leopardi. As she emerges in her engaging autobiography, Images and Shadows, this rich and beautiful daughter of Berenson’s Chiantishire is almost the last person you would expect to take a serious interest in Leopardi. True, her father dies young and her mother is neurotic and narcissistic to a degree—not the perfect childhood—but loving grandparents give a sense of solidity, the palatial family villa (originally built for Cosimo de’Medici) is full of famous friends and lively conversation. To top all, first love, when it comes, is wonderfully and romantically requited: Antonio Origo has an Italian title, Iris has American cash. Who could ask for more?
Together they buy an entire Tuscan valley and set about turning it into productive arable land with a system of farms run on the old mezzadria system where the peasants give half their produce to the padrone. Fascism offered subsidies for such developments. It was still possible at this point to imagine the regime was benevolent.3 Within the year a son was born, Gianni. Inspired by a genuine spirit of philanthropy, underpinned by a successful marriage, the Origos’ project progressed to the benefit of everyone, and the pages of her account of those years turn to that scent of warm earth and crushed olives that has sold so many books to the idle dreamers of colder climates. Above all, Iris herself was overwhelmingly busy, resourceful, powerful, happy. “I have never in my life found a day too long,” she tells us.
What on earth, you wonder, has such a woman to do with a man reputedly determined to be wretched, a man who never got further in love than holding a beloved’s hand, or collecting autographs for her (how humiliating!), or playing go-between for a rival (even worse!), a man who changed his shirt only once a month, dribbled his food, smelled, ate on his own at ungodly hours, ogled courting couples from his bedroom window, accepted money for jobs he never meant to finish, ridiculed both the liberal vision of progress and the consolations of religion?
Giacomo refused to read the newspapers, but briefly in the summer of 1832, exactly 101 years before Origo began research on her biography, the poet did toy with the idea of launching a paper himself. It was to be called Le flâneur—the time-waster. Its selling point would be its com-plete lack of any positive ideas: it would be “nonliterary, nonphilosophical, nonpolitical, nonhistorical, nonfashionable, nonartistic, nonscientific.” Its imagined readership? Those “tolerant of all that is futile.” But at the first hint of problems with the Florentine censors, Giacomo characteristically dropped his project. An entertaining daydream, it had served its purpose. What has the busy likes of Iris Origo to do with a man like this?
The terrible answer comes without warning in a chapter of Images and Shadows harmlessly entitled “Writing.” After explaining that the big Tuscan farm left little opportunity to pursue adolescent ambitions, Origo tells us, “Then, in 1933, after Gianni’s death, in an effort to find some impersonal work which would absorb at least part of my thoughts—I turned back to writing again.”
Her eight-year-old son has died. No narrative, no explanation. “After Gianni’s death…impersonal work.” But how impersonal? For what is Leopardi’s great theme if not death, and in particular the death of young people, which is the most terrible unmasking of life’s illusions?
Cut off in the flower of my years
When life is sweetest, and before the heart
Can know how human hopes are all
In vain. It isn’t long before the afflicted
Learn to call on she who can save us
From all affliction, but death comes
Unconsolable to the young.4
Cruelly, Origo has been dragged from her busy life to join Leopardi where he always was, or imagined himself to be: at death’s door. Embarking for the first time in her life on a sustained project of scholarly research, she thus no doubt shared the experience that had been Giacomo’s since adolescence, that of seeking distraction in reading or translation only to find that the content of what one was working on brought one inexorably back to the pain that led one to seek distraction in the first place. Of twelve children born to Giacomo’s mother, Origo is bound to record in her opening chapter, only five survived, and only one outlived her.
Impersonal or otherwise as her approach may be, Iris Origo certainly did sterling work. She sifted through a wealth of original sources, and above all the vast Zibaldone, to give us an account of Leopardi’s life that still holds up excellently today.5 What she loses to the overwhelmingly meticulous scholarship and acute psychological insight of a more recent biography like Damiani’s, she makes up for in the at once eager but anxious nature of her engagement with the poet. Damiani, who edited and annotated the Zibaldone, is clearly at home with Leopardi’s pessimism and entirely familiar with such minds as Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, Cioran and Beckett, whom the Italian poet prefigures; he is familiar in short with the entire strand of negative Western thought that opposes to the Enlightenment the simple reflection that “knowledge has not helped us to live.”
For Origo, on the contrary, coming from a quite different tradition, Leopardi is a risk, indeed a peril, a dark sea she might never have plunged into had it not been for her son’s death. She senses that Leopardi has more to say about that death than perhaps anyone else, but it is not something she is eager to focus on in her own writing. Recreating scenes of Recanati life from fragments in the poetry, she tends to the sentimental and picturesque; she also thrusts upon Leopardi’s mature work a Platonism he entertained only briefly in his teens and attacked savagely in the Operette; she is clearly relieved to record Giacomo’s happier moments, notably sitting at café tables greedily tucking into ice creams as he watched the world go by. It is at these points that you feel Origo would be more at ease describing the colorful bustle of Italian street life than Leopardi’s tortuous lucubrations.
Yet faithfully she gives us the facts; she quotes the very darkest passages from the Zibaldone and even steels herself for the story of Leopardi’s unshriven death, at age thirty-eight. “Five years before,” she tells us,
…on almost the last page of the Zibaldone, Leopardi had written: “there are two truths which most men will never believe: one, that they know nothing, and the other, that they are nothing. And there is a third which proceeds from the second—that there is nothing to hope for after death.” This conviction, and with it a pride in rejecting “all the vain hopes with which men comfort children and themselves, all foolish consolations,” remained with him to the end.
The word “pride” discreetly registers Origo’s instinctive dissent.
Why is it that in a world long used to atheists and skeptics, Leopardi, more than any other writer I can think of, is still to be criticized for his negative vision? The answer, I suspect, is the same as answers to such questions as: Why did the poet’s contemporaries frequently seek to blame his atheism on evil influences, notably his early mentor, the revolutionary Pietro Giordani? Why were people constantly putting about the rumor that Giacomo had converted (to the extent at one point that some pro-papal tracts published by his father were widely assumed to be his own)? Why did a Jesuit priest publish a letter claiming to have led Giacomo to Christ? Or again, why were the Operette morali inscribed in the Vatican’s Index of Prohibited Books and actually hunted down and destroyed after his death, while the Canti, which include the same ideas, were not? How can it be that I libri dello spirito cristiano (Books of Christian Spirit—a religious list within the Rizzoli group) published, as recently as 1996, a collection of the Canti, claiming that they are of Christian inspiration?
Finally, how is it that in the still profoundly Catholic Italian education system, an apparent nihilist like Leopardi can be taught alongside Manzoni, the great pillar of Catholic achievement in modern Italian literature? Origo records Leopardi’s meeting with Manzoni at the Gabinetto Vieusseux in 1827. Manzoni’s great novel, The Betrothed, had just been published to ecstatic praise, an early edition of the Operette morali severely criticized. Manzoni, the handsome libertine turned fervent Christian, was surrounded by admirers; Leopardi, the erstwhile Christian turned atheist, sat alone. He “had no good news to impart,” observes Origo.
The answer to all these questions lies, I believe, in the peculiar nature of Leopardi’s achievement in the Canti. Toward the end of her autobiography, Origo apologizes for having said nothing about her son Gianni’s death. To speak of him is “intolerable,” she tells us. Yet in a wealth of reflections on the inextricable psychological tangle between pain and pleasure, happiness and unhappiness, one of Leopardi’s central intuitions in his poems was of the ways suffering can be transformed, albeit briefly, in the mental construct of language. In a note in the Zibaldone he thus describes what was clearly his own aspiration as a poet: “Works of [literary] genius,” he says, “have this intrinsic quality, that even when they capture exactly the nothingness of things, or vividly reveal and make us feel life’s inevitable unhappiness, or express the most acute hopelessness…they are always a source of consolation and renewed enthusiasm.” Leopardi saw, that is, how it was possible to say two contradictory things, or rather to make two contradictory gestures simultaneously, thus acting out a paradox he thought central to the core of human experience. But how was this done?
“Silvia, do you remember still the time of your mortal life?” Leopardi’s most famous lyric, “To Silvia” (printed at the end of this article), begins by establishing a space that is entirely mental, imaginary.6 The girl is dead ten years and more. How can we address her? What would it mean for her to be Silvia if she did not remember her mortal life? Does the word “still” suggest there might have been a period when she did remember, but now she has forgotten? In the Zibaldone Leopardi remarks that the mind takes pleasure from situations where it comes up against sensory limitations, intellectual enigmas, or merely sensory vagueness, because it is then free to fill in what is empty or inexplicable. His simplest development of the theme comes in the poem “L’infinito,” where, with his view of the landscape blocked by a small hill, the poet is free to conjure infinite spaces behind. Imagined immensity then allows for the mind’s “sweet shipwreck,” an effect Leopardi was always eager to achieve and is certainly looking for in this poem. At the same time, though, teased as we may be by conundrums, we are never allowed to forget that Silvia is dead, that she died young, and that there is no reasonable consolation for such a death.
Another note in the Zibaldone dwells at length on the curious pleasure generated by anniversaries, however unhappy, or by revisiting places where some important experience, however negative, was had. The fact that the mind rehearses the memory allows the event to live again, albeit as no more than a “shadow,” giving us the illusion that not all has been lost. Thus his poems frequently present a complex weave of present, past, and above all might-have-been. We look back on Silvia, looking forward to the future. She did not grow up and enjoy her lovers’ praises, but here we have all the beauty of imagining her doing so, or, even better, of imagining her imagining. Emblematic of man’s insignificance as a peasant girl’s death may be, Silvia nevertheless becomes through the poem one of the most celebrated figures of her time. Likewise the poet achieves the blessing of celebrity, if only for having described his wretchedness so beautifully. It is as if, after all these years, past and might-have-been can almost be made to merge.
A delicate play of antitheses underpins this mix of lament and celebration. “Life” is “mortal” (but what else could it be?). The eyes are “smiling,” but also (in the original) “fugitivi“—“fleeting,” “turning away,” a difficult word to get down in the translation. Silvia is “happy,” but “pensive.” The word “limitare” sits ominously beside “gioventù,” and so on throughout the poem. Meantime, both lexically and syntactically, Leopardi matches his temporal back and forth with a register at once disarmingly intimate in its speaking voice yet unapproachably distant in its archaisms and Latinate focusing. These are not archaisms that take us back to any one time, and certainly not to any preexisting style. Rather they fuse with the voice to create something that is as timeless and as beautiful a might-have-been as Silvia’s prospected amours.
It is this extraordinary combination of archaism and intimacy in Leopardi’s poetry that has so far defeated, as he himself foresaw, all attempts at felicitous translation. Subjects of great immediate emotion and infinite sadness are allowed to take on a quiescent coolness, as if remembered from some extraordinary and disembodied distance. Not only is youth recovered in the musing limbo of the mind but the whole range of the Italian language is given a second if shadowy life. After all, as this poem reminds us, where had Leopardi spent his youth if not over archaic texts? The subtle deployment of the archaic is a reminder of youth, of lost youth, for Leopardi.
It is for this achievement of looking unflinchingly at the very worst and briefly recapturing it in a beautiful and breathless calm, the calm, as it were, of someone who has survived his own decease, that people come to Leopardi, perhaps especially a young woman who has lost her child. Yet Giacomo never allows us to forget that these poems are carefully constructed mental pleasures, short-lived illusions. A spoilsport by vocation, he frequently finishes a poem with “l’apparir del vero” (“the dawning of the truth”), that is, a tomb.
In “Ginestra, o il fiore del deserto” he offers as an image of his art “the flower of the desert,” which is to say the scented broom (ginestra) that grows on the lava slopes of Vesuvius above a ruined civilization. The past passion of human life is immensely, reassuringly distant. The broom flourishes and perfumes the air. But it will be the first to go, Leopardi tells us, when the lava flows again. His claim for the paradoxical effect of “works of genius”—quoted above—concludes thus: “Even if they have no other subject than death, they give their reader back—at least for a little while—the life he has lost.” After “the little while” is over, we are returned, of course, to the present—“the least poetic of times,” Leopardi observed. Deprived of the enchantment of the verse, the grim vision of life we have encountered and the death wish that lurks beneath it is once again open to attack. But since the experience of the Canti is so cherished—after all, a poem can be read and reread—the guns are turned on the Operette.
Irretrievably insomniac, he enjoyed a long acquaintance with the moon. Beneath the cold silver light it spread over so many of his verses, Giacomo is the wakeful shepherd, while the rest of humanity wallows in the stupor of unconsciousness. Servants were infuriated when he demanded breakfast in the afternoon, lunch at midnight. Seeking some form of employment that would allow him to sever the umbilical cord with home, he wandered uneasily from Milan to Bologna, from Florence to Rome. There was always a good reason for turning down what was offered. “I haven’t even the energy to die,” he joked.
Rejected by women (“My dear, he stank”), he struck up a passionate friendship with Antonio Ranieri, a handsome young Neapolitan, risking accusations of homosexuality to enjoy a vicarious experience of the man’s tormented love affairs. With astonishing kindness Ranieri and his sister looked after Giacomo in his last years in Naples. The sister talked to him about deodorants and hung his shirt out in the sun so the washerwoman’s nose would not be offended. Ranieri fought off a jeering crowd as the small hunchback tucked into one of his extra- large ice creams.
In 1837 an asthmatic fit “took his virginity,” as Ranieri put it, “intact unto the grave.” He thus didn’t live to see the happy moment, in 1839, when his mother, Marchesa Adelaide, would finally declare that she had accomplished her dream and restored the Leopardi fortunes to their former glory. “God forgive him,” she would say when her first-born was mentioned. He had lost both his faith and a great deal of money.
Some eight years after publishing her biography of Giacomo Leopardi, Iris Origo’s dreams were shattered once again, this time by the collapse of the Fascist regime and the Allied bombings. She took in displaced children, helped escaping British airmen, wrote an exciting war diary.7 But even after the carnage was over, the dream couldn’t be recaptured, for now the collective illusion of communism had replaced that of fascism and the farmers would no longer accept the mezzadria system. It was distressing that their aspirations didn’t fit in with those of the Origos. In 1952 Iris returned to her biography of Leopardi to make extensive revisions. A considerable amount of new material had come to light, she tells us. But one cannot quite quell the suspicion that she returned to Giacomo to savor once again his miraculous expression of all that she found intolerable to say, but could not sometimes help feeling.
Silvia, do you remember still
The time of your mortal life
When beauty shimmered
In your smiling, startled eyes
As, bright and pensive, you arrived
At the threshold of youth?
The quiet rooms
And streets outside
Echoed with your endless song
As you sat, busy at your woman’s work,
Happy enough with the hazy
Future in your head.
It was fragrant
May: and so you passed your day.
I sometimes left the cherished books
And labored pages
On which my young years
And the best of me were spent,
To listen from my father’s balcony
For the sound of your singing
And your swift hand’s back-and-forth
On the heavy loom.
I looked out at the cloudless sky,
The golden streets, the gardens,
And, far off, the sea here and the mountain there.
No mortal tongue can tell
All that I felt.
What joyous thoughts,
What hopes, what hearts, my Silvia!
How human life and fate
Seemed to us then!
When I remember so much expectation
And rail anew against my own misfortune.
Oh nature, nature,
Why won’t you deliver later
What you promised then? Why do you lead on
your children so?
You, before winter had withered the grass,
Stricken, then overcome by secret sickness,
Were dying, gentle one. You didn’t see
Your years come into flower;
Sweet talk about your raven hair
Or your lovestruck, guarded glance
Never melted your heart;
And on Sundays you and your friends
Didn’t brood about love.
Before long, my sweet hope
Had died out, too: the fates
Denied me youth, also. Ah,
How truly, truly past you are,
Dear companion of my innocence,
My much-lamented hope!
Is this that world? Are these
The joys, love, deeds, experience
We talked so often of?
Is this the lot of humankind?
When the truth dawned,
You fell away in misery: and from afar
Pointed out cold death
And a naked grave.
(Translated from the Italian by Jonathan Galassi and Tim
Silvia, rimembri ancora
Quel tempo della tua vita mortale,
Quando beltà splendea
Negli occhi tuoi ridenti e fuggitivi,
E tu, lieta e pensosa, il limitare
Di gioventù salivi?
Sonavan le quiete
Stanze, e le vie dintorno,
Al tuo perpetuo canto,
Allor che all’opre femminili intenta
Sedevi, assai contenta
Di quel vago avvenir che in mente avevi.
Era il maggio odoroso: e tu solevi
Così menare il giorno.
Io, gli studi leggiadri
Talor lasciando e le sudate carte,
Ove il tempo mio primo
E di me si spendea la miglior parte,
D’ in su i veroni del paterno ostello
Porgea gli orecchi al suon della tua voce,
Ed alla man veloce
Che percorrea la faticosa tela.
Mirava il ciel sereno,
Le vie dorate e gli orti,
E quinci il mar da lungi, e quindi il monte.
Lingua mortal non dice
Quel ch’io sentiva in seno.
Che pensieri soavi,
Che speranze, che cori, o Silvia mia!
Quale allor ci apparia
La vita umana e il fato!
Quando sovviemmi di cotanta speme,
Un affetto mi preme
Acerbo e sconsolato,
E tornami a doler di mia sventura.
O natura, o natura,
Perché non rendi poi
Quel che prometti allor? perché di tanto
Inganni i figli tuoi?
Tu, pria che l’erbe inaridisse il verno,
Da chiuso morbo combattuta e vinta,
Perivi, o tenerella. E non vedevi
Il fior degli anni tuoi;
Non ti molceva il core
La dolce lode or delle negre chiome,
Or degli sguardi innamorati e schivi;
Né teco le compagne ai dì festivi
Anche peria fra poco
La speranze mia dolce: agli anni miei
Anche negaro i fati
La giovanezza. Ahi, come,
Come passata sei,
Cara compagna dell’età mia nova,
Mia lacrimata speme!
Questo è quel mondo? questi
I diletti, l’amor, l’opre, gli eventi,
Onde cotanto ragionammo insieme?
Questa la sorte dell’ umane genti?
All’apparir del vero
Tu, misera, cadesti; e con la mano
La fredda morte ed una tomba ignuda
Mostravi di lontano.
March 23, 2000
The traditional criticism of Leopardi’s thought is that it has neither novelty nor system. Leopardi, however, did not prize novelty, which could hardly be other than presumption and self-deceit in the observation of a phenomenon, the human condition, that has remained substantially the same for many thousands of years. This stance partly explains his tendency to undermine systematic philosophies by suggesting that they are based on a psychology driven by the need to develop comfortable illusion. In both this, and his sense that his own grim vision needed to be clothed in the creative playfulness of his dialogues, he looks forward to Nietzsche. Schopenhauer said of him: “No one in our time has explored this subject [the idea that the universe is governed by blind will] so deeply and exhausted it so completely, as Leopardi.” ↩
In his Discorso sopra lo stato presente dei costumi degl’italiani, written in 1824, Leopardi presents national and collective movements as the consequence of individual existential needs. The Italians, he claimed, were especially vulnerable to the collapse of moral and religious values brought about by the age of reason: having no solid social fabric to guarantee, if only by inertia, a certain level of civility, they were desperately in need of some grand collective illusion that might give them a sense of communal purpose. Fascism would have come as no surprise to him. ↩
Nel fior degli anni estinta ↩
Origo’s recently republished work on Byron, The Last Attachment (Helen Marx Books, 2000), shows the same skill for reconstructing a story from original documents, in this case Byron’s letters to Teresa Guiccioli, letters which Origo had the good fortune to uncover. ↩
The Italian text is included only in the Internet version of this article. ↩
Iris Origo, War in Val d’Orcia: An Italian War Diary, 1943-1944, with an introduction by Dennis Mack Smith (Godine, 1984). ↩