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Giving new voice to Leopardi's songs of love and longing

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By Michael Dirda
Thursday, December 16, 2010

CANTI

By Giacomo Leopardi

Translated from the Italian by Jonathan Galassi

Farrar Straus Giroux. 498 pp. $35

Giacomo Leopardi (1798-1837) is generally regarded as Italy's greatest 19th-century poet. His "Canti" - or songs - range from the patriotic history poem ("To Italy") and the meditative lyric ("Broom") to verse epistles ("Recantation") and despairing cris de coeur ("Infinity"). Like any good romantic, he regularly reflects on the yearning for love, the consolations of nature, the transitoriness of all things and the deep yet moonlit loneliness of life.

It's hardly surprising then that his poems bear such familiar-sounding titles as "The Solitary Thrush" and "To Spring." Sometimes Leopardi actually sounds a bit like Wordsworth, surveying a landscape, recalling the past - "This lonely hill was always dear to me" - and then sliding into an evocation of the sublime: "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." But for the Italian poet, there is no redemptive epiphany. For just as Baudelaire was racked by that combination of melancholy, disgruntlement and boredom that he called "Spleen," so Leopardi constantly suffers its Italian equivalent, "Noia," the void or emptiness within.

Here, for instance, is his short poem "A Se Stesso" - "To Himself" - in Jonathan Galassi's moving translation:

Now you'll rest forever,

worn-out heart. The ultimate illusion

that I thought was eternal died. It died.

I know not just the hope but the desire


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