IN THE ITALIAN POETIC CANON, Giacomo Leopardi ranks second only to Dante. But he is so notoriously difficult to translate that, as Italo Calvino once complained, “beyond the borders of Italy, Leopardi simply doesn’t exist.” Leopardi wrote a severe, classical style, prone to abstraction, so that an enormous amount of his poetic success depends on the music of the lines in the original. Yet, like many of his Romantic contemporaries — Byron, de Vigny — he also went in for flamboyant, heart-on-sleeve tirades against the universe. Once, long ago, I was tempted to translate “The Evening of the Holiday,” but was stopped cold in my tracks by the lines l’antica natura onniposente / Che mi fece all-affanno (literally, “ancient nature the omnipotent / that made me for pain.”) How to make this palatable to a modern American reader? (Actually, I’m now quite pleased with the effect of Jonathan Galassi’s very slight alterations: “eternal, all-commanding nature / who created me for suffering.” “All-commanding” is a mildly surprising piece of diction, as “omnipotent” would not be, and it fits a driving metric. “Suffering” is more universal, and so less self-pitying than “pain.”)
But I remember, too, what caught me about this poem: the moment later on when, hearing “the lonely song of the workman, coming late / from his evening out to his poor home,” and remembering his childhood, the poet realizes how far his sadness has to do with impermanence and human aloneness, and long predates the unrequited love that is the poem’s immediate occasion:
In my young years, in the time of life
when we wait impatiently for Sunday,
afterward I’d lie awake unhappy,
and late at night a song heard on the road
dying note by note as it passed by
would pierce my heart
the same way even then.
Not that Leopardi didn’t have good reason to resent “nature.” He was a hunchback. His deformity put pressure on his heart, and he probably knew that he would not live past early middle age. All the women he fell in love with seem to have found him insuperably unattractive. He grew up in the early years of the nineteenth century, as Galassi tells us in his introduction, “in the small, backward town of Recanati in the papal Marche, in a household of […] reactionary Catholic nobles.” Virtually a prisoner there, he managed, using his father’s library, to make himself one of the best philological scholars of his time. He also wrote patriotic poems about Italian nationalism. These brought him his first fame, but offended his father, who had no desire to see Italy unified, and was quite happy to have his province continue to be ruled by the Pope.
The tragedy of Leopardi’s life, as his biographer Iris Origo says, is that he thought that if only he could escape from his father’s house, everything would be all right. But when he did get away to Florence and Pisa, he encountered the petty back-biting of the literary world, and his romantic misadventures began. At the end of one of them, he wrote the famous poem “To Himself,” which begins:
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 b...