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

By Michael Dirda
Thursday, December 16, 2010; C05


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

for loved illusions is done for us.

Be still forever.

You have beaten enough.

Nothing deserves your throbbing, nor is earth

worth sighing over. Life is only

bitterness and boredom, and the world is filth.

Now be calm. Despair for the last time.

Death is the one thing

fate gave our kind.

Disdain yourself now, nature, the brute

hidden power that rules to common harm

and the boundless vanity of all.

Leopardi grew up in the small town of Recanati, where his charming but stern father was the local grandee, a man who dressed in dandyish black every day and rued the day he had married his cold and religiose wife. According to Leopardi, his unnaturally pious mother viewed any death as a happy occasion since another soul had flown to heaven.

Sickly all his life, Leopardi ruined his health by spending virtually his entire adolescence squirreled away in his father's library. Learning entranced him, so much so that as an adolescent he was able to annotate the work of ancient rhetoricians and translate into Latin Porphyry's "Commentary on the Life of Plotinus." But by the time he was 18, he had acquired a permanently hunched back, impaired vision and hypersensitivity to cold: Even in the hottest weather, he would work with a heavy lap robe on his knees.

While he yearned for love, the women Leopardi adored were all out of reach: neighboring servant girls who died young, elegant matrons who ignored him or merely toyed with his affections. Thus he speaks of "the woman who cannot be found," a creature as elusive as the blue flower of the German romantics. Although soon half in love with easeful death, Leopardi nonetheless lived on until his late 30s, until - literally unable to breathe - he died in Naples, beloved of a small circle of literati and cared for by a long-suffering friend.

Leopardi was not just a poet, he was also a prose writer of distinction, regarded by Nietzsche as one of the four best of the 19th century. He composed fables ("Dialogue Between a Sprite and a Gnome"), short satires, maxims and philosophical essays, much of the material drawn from the several thousand pages of the journal he called his "Zibaldone" (hodgepodge). Here is one entry (taken from the highly recommended "Giacomo Leopardi: Selected Prose and Poetry," translated by Iris Origo and John Heath-Stubbs):

"What is life? The journey of a sick cripple who, with a heavy burden on his back, climbs over steep mountains and through desolate, exhausting, and arduous lands, in the snow, the frost, the rain, the wind, under the blazing sun, for many days, without ever resting by day or night, in order to reach a certain precipice or ditch, into which inevitably he must fall."

In his endnotes to the "Canti," Galassi points out that the first complete English translation of the "Zibaldone" will be published by Farrar Straus Giroux in 2012. In a world of evanescent fiction and fluff, that's the kind of publishing a great house undertakes. So too is Galassi's own rich edition of the "Canti," prefaced by a long introduction, Italian originals and his English translations on facing pages, an annotated timeline of Leopardi's life and a hundred pages of often-detailed textual commentary. The last is particularly valuable for its citations from Italian scholarship. For instance, Ugo Dotti summarizes Leopardi's poetic thought as "the inevitable unhappiness of modern man thrown into a world turned upside down yet aware of an irremediably lost 'happiness.' "

If you know even a smattering of the language, it is always a pleasure to glance at Leopardi's Italian. "The Evening of the Holiday" opens: "Dolce e chiara la notte e senza vento," which Galassi translates quite simply and beautifully as "The night is soft and bright and without wind." This is, I suspect, a faint echo, almost a variation of, Petrarch's famous line, "Chiare fresche e dolci acque" ("Clear, fresh and sweet waters"). In his introduction, Galassi underscores that Leopardi confronted and eventually transcended the overwhelming influence of Petrarch.

What finally makes Leopardi so appealing a poet is his combination of a classical intelligence coupled with a hypersensitivity to his own inner self and a sometimes enraptured, sometimes acerbic style. In "Recantation," for instance, he imagines a Utopian future, one in which "human happiness will be perfected," where "silk and wool clothing/will be softer daily," and a tunnel will run under the Thames, and the smallest city be well lit at night. It will be a "manly age,/concerned with the hard facts of economics, immersed in politics," with no interest in mere affections. "What good does exploring/your heart do you?" Instead, a friend advises Leopardi to "sing our century's needs and its ripe hope." The poet answers that he doesn't think that he "can make what this age needs." "But hope, I'll surely sing of." And so he does.

Over the past half-century American readers have embraced the translated poetry of Rilke, Cavafy, Neruda and Akhmatova. Thanks to Jonathan Galassi's edition of the "Canti," it's Leopardi's turn now.

Dirda reviews books every Thursday for The Post.

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