A concise and erudite presentation of and meditation on the complex and solitary figure of Leopardi, it is also an exploration of the major themes and forms of the poems in Canti—idylls, elegies, dramatic monologues, and history poems, among others—while at the same time it places Leopardi in the wider context of the nineteenth century as a classicist and philosopher and most certainly as a prolific writer.
We were drinking caffè ristretto at one of our favorite neighborhood bars in Napoli when I asked him. “Yes, of course, Leopardi. Everyone in Italy knows his work. Our most important poet of the nineteenth century. A Romantic— died young. It would be “L’Infinito,” for sure.” He kept stirring his coffee. “Then there’s ‘Alla Luna.’” I had asked my Neapolitan boyfriend if he knew the poetry of Giacomo Leopardi (1798-1837), regarded as one of the greatest Italian poets of all times and certainly of the nineteenth century. Although I knew the work of a few twentieth-century Italian poets and could throw in Petrarch and Dante for good measure, embarrassingly, all I knew of Leopardi was his name.
The barista, nodding at us, asked, “You mean Leopardi, the hunchback? He died here in Napoli, you know. Lots of great people have. Does the Americana know that if you touch the hump of the hunchback, it brings good luck?” No, the Americana didn’t know that either. She knew the coffee was incredible and that her knowledge of Italian literature and local lore was sorely lacking. “’Alla Luna,’ continued the barista, “That’s the one they made us learn at school—O graceful moon, I can remember, now, / the year has turned . . .” And then he stopped. “Don’t remember the rest,” he shrugged. “Been too long.”
Not wanting to be one-upped by the barkeep, my boyfriend started in, “At my school it was “L’Infinito.” He thought for a moment, then started in, “This lonely hill was always dear to me, . . .” Stopping for a few seconds, he added, “And foundering is sweet in such a sea. There’s more, but I don’t remember.”
And what a foundering, sweet, and surprising introduction to Leopardi: a few lines from two of the most famous idylls found in Canti, or songs, Leopardi’s collection of forty-one poems translated and annotated brilliantly and sensitively by Jonathan Galassi, president and publisher of Farrar, Straus & Giroux. This bilingual edition of Canti is a comprehensive compilation that includes additional poems and texts by Leopardi, a chronology of his life, a study of the structure of the Canti, a thorough and impressive bibliography, detailed notes to the entire book, and, very important for this particular reader, Galassi’s “Introduction: Poet of Problems.” A concise and erudite presentation of and meditation on the complex and solitary figure of Leopardi, it is also an exploration of the major themes and forms of the poems in Canti—idylls, elegies, dramatic monologues, and history poems, among others—while at the same time it places Leopardi in the wider context of the nineteenth century as a classicist and philosopher and most certainly as a prolific writer. In addition to poetry, he wrote and published satires, plays, dissertations, essays, manifold translations of classical authors and the Zibaldone, that in Galassi’s words, is “an enormous notebook of ideas and impressions . . . the seedbed of all of Leopardi’s work (XIII).”
In Canti, Leopardi explores traditional Romantic themes such as nature, in the poem “To Spring,” unrequited love in “Aspasia,” or infinity. The opening lines of “L’Infinito” show Leopardi’s examination of solitude and awe and also illustrate Galassi’s finely tuned ear as a translator, bringing the poem forward and into focus through his delicate and limpid translation:
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. . . .
From fear, we move to death, another idée fixe of the Romantics, and one that has a permanent place in the Canti. The mutability of life punctuates and haunts Leopardi’s poems, as in this excerpt from “The Dream”:
What is this thing called death? If only I
could know it now myself, and save
my unprotected head from savage fate.
It is in his questioning, his eternal return to death, that we discover one of the great modern lyric poets—a poet who moves beyond Romantic classification and strictures by way of his relentless, despairing tone and insistent exploration of death that serves both as an underpinning of and as a departure point in his work. It is a departure towards nothing—that is to say the great nothing: the abyss. For Leopardi, death is not necessarily a release or transformation; it is not liberating, exhilarating or even mysterious. It is simply the end. The end of the end, as in this subtly and lucidly translated excerpt of the last part of the last stanza of “The Solitary Thrush”:
But I, if I cannot avoid
crossing the hateful
threshold of old age,
when these eyes say nothing to another’s heart,
and the world is blank to them, and the day to come
duller and darker than the one at hand,
what will I think then of this wish of mine?
And of my life? And my own self?
Ah, I’ll repent, and often
look back, unconsoled.
Or further, in the opening lines of the well-known idyll “To Himself:”
Now you’ll rest forever,
worn-out heart. The ultimate illusion
that I thought was eternal died. It died.
Leopardi suffered from nervous disorders, poor eyesight and health, and developed a hunchback in his short lifetime. His family life was very difficult to say the least, as was his relationship to his mother. Women neither eased his pain nor offered much happy distraction, but rather added to his melancholy. His real refuge was his father’s library where he literally and figuratively spent his youth. As Galassi notes in the Chronology, “ begins the ‘seven years of insane and desperate study’ in his father’s library of sixteen thousand volumes.”
Beyond books, there was something else in which it appears that Leopardi could take solace: the moon. Galassi includes this idea in his introduction and it deserves mention here, as Galassi notes that the moon appears in fourteen of the forty-one poems in the Canti (XX-XXI). The third stanza of the seamlessly translated “Solitary Life” begins, Dear moon, underneath whose tranquil light / hares dance in the woods . . . / . . . . hail to you, / O benevolent queen of nights . . . .”
And at the same time, light infuses Leopardi’s work, even if this light is dark, as in the first stanza of “Hymn to the Patriarchs, or On the Origins of the Human Race”: to have the dark tomb and death seem so much gentler / than daylight. It is this light that seems more tangible than the people about whom he writes. Light—or the lack of it—is more corporeal than any of his beloved women, as in the opening lines of “Aspasia”:
Sometimes your image comes to mind again,
Aspasia. Either it shines fleetingly
in lived-in places, in other faces;
or in the empty fields, on a clear day,
under the silent stars . . .
And although it may sound facile, the light in Italy—in the southern regions and in particular the area of Napoli where Leopardi spent many years of his life—is both fierce and subtle, depending on the season and on one’s disposition. Galassi has captured this complex and ever-changing light and dark of Leopardi offering an eloquent, subtle, and intensely luminous translation.