A Song Heard on the Road: Leopardi’s Nihilistic Genius

By Alan WilliamsonOctober 4, 2012

Canti: Poems/A Bilingual Edition by Giacomo Leopardi

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 but the desire
for loved illusions is done for us.

His health deteriorated. He spent his last years in Naples, under the care of his devoted friend Antonio Ranieri. On the waterfront promenade there, Origo tells us, passing strangers would come up and touch his hump. It was supposed to bring good luck.

Leopardi is, not surprisingly, one of the darkest of all great poets. Human life, to him, is a misfortune to be endured. Hope keeps us going, but our hopes are almost always unfulfilled, or, if fulfilled, immediately forgotten and replaced by others. In “Night Song of a Wandering Shepherd of Asia,” the poet puts forward as the norm the most wretched life such a shepherd would likely have witnessed:

   Little old white-haired man,
weak, half-naked, barefoot,
with an enormous burden on his back,
up mountain and down valley,
over sharp rocks, across deep sands and bracken,
through wind and storm,
in hot and freezing weather,
runs on, running till he’s out of breath[…]
battered, bloody; till at last he comes
to where his way
and all his effort led him:
terrible, immense abyss
into which he falls, forgetting everything.
This, O virgin moon,
is human life.

Consciousness adds to our suffering: unlike his flock, who “soon forget each need, each pain,” and “[a]re never bored,” the shepherd, as soon as he tries to rest, feels “an anxiousness invad[e] my mind / as if a thorn were pricking me,” even when “I want nothing, and thus far / I have no reason for complaint.”

While some critics have been tempted, in Leopardi’s own time and after, to ascribe his thought entirely to his sickness, he was taken very seriously by philosophers like Schopenhauer and Nietzsche. Galassi quotes Cyril Connolly as saying, “Pascal and Leopardi ‘are the Grand Inquisitors who break down our alibis of health and happiness. Are they pessimistic because they are ill? Or does their illness act as a shortcut to reality — which is intrinsically tragic?’”

Leopardi’s thought is not unlike the Buddha’s: life is suffering and we augment our pain by our restless mind, with its desires and forebodings. The experience that offers relief for Buddhists — the intuition of “emptiness” in which the individual ego vanishes into the totality — seems to have visited him occasionally, notably in his most famous single poem, “The Infinite.” Sitting on his “lonely hill,”

                                                            I can see
beyond, in my mind’s eye, unending spaces,
and superhuman silences, and depthless calm,
till what I feel
is almost fear.

And when he begins “comparing […] the dead seasons” with “the present / living one, and how it sounds,”

   my mind sinks in this immensity,
and foundering is sweet in such a sea.

Just as often, though, Leopardi’s remarkable ability to imagine temporal and spatial infinites brings not sweetness, but “laughter or pity” for his fellow humans, who “see [themselves] / as lord and End assigned to everything.” He was enraged by the forms of optimism prevalent in his time, whether the Catholic revival in Italy or the more widespread faith in progress through technology that irritated all the Romantics. That anger bursts out in his satirical “Recantation” and in many passages of his poetic testament, “Broom, or the Flower of the Desert.”

Leopardi’s poetry can be quite gorgeous, especially when he is describing his native landscape. “[T]he hen / shut in her pen exults and beats her wings” at the end of a rainstorm, when “the Sun shoots glistening rays / among the falling droplets gently / beating on my roof.” The “impenetrable forests” are a “distant nest for winds.” The “ancient rooms” of the Palazzo Leopardi “reflec[t] the snow’s brightness, with the wind / whistling in these wide windows.” “The quiet rooms / and streets outside / ech[o]” with the “endless song” of his beloved Sylvia, a working-class girl who died young.

Still, it seems a mistake to divide Leopardi’s work into “poetry” and didactic “non-poetry,” as the late nineteenth century critic Benedetto Croce did. To do so ignores how both proceed, as Galassi says, from the “same mind”; how deeply determined he was to tell the truth exactly as he saw it.

Leopardi was extremely self-conscious about poetic technique. The manuscripts of some of his early poems have marginal notes citing comparable effects in Virgil and Dante. He was an innovator in Italian verse forms, blending the Dantean hendecasyllabic (the Italian equivalent of our iambic pentameter) with a seven-syllable line in long, irregularly rhymed strophes. His music, as previously mentioned, is one of the hardest elements to get across in translation. The first line of the “Night Song,”

Che fai tu, luna, in ciel? dimmi, che fai,

despite its prosaic literal meaning (“What are you doing, moon, up in the sky”), has a power, in its paired long vowels, whose closest equivalent in English would be Sir Philip Sidney’s comparably monosyllabic “With how sad steps, O Moon, thou climbst the skies.”

Galassi generally — and quite sensibly — doesn’t try to reproduce such effects. But he has a remarkable ear for the dignified pacing of the original, so that I think anyone with even a little knowledge of Italian pronunciation could look over to the left-hand side of the page and catch something of Leopardi’s stately severity. I tend to agree with W. S. Merwin’s opinion that Galassi’s will be the “standard version for the language of our time.” As in his Montale translations, Galassi has a knack for finding the least deviation from the literal meaning that will please an Anglophone ear. Consider the following passage, from “Broom”:

   Often I sit at night on these deserted
slopes which the hardened flood
clothes in a black that seems to undulate,
and over the sad plain
I see the stars
burning up above in purest blue

It’s instructive, here, to compare Galassi’s chief competitor, Eamon Grennan:

Often I sit out at night
On these forlorn slopes
Which the undulant rough crust of lava
Turns dark brown, and I see
In the clear blue evening the stars
Blazing down on the melancholy scene

The differences are slight. But where Greennan condenses the description to create a resonant line (“Which the undulant rough crust of lava”), Galassi follows Leopardi’s way of adding on phrases and clauses as he thinks things through. “[P]urest blue” is exactly what Leopardi says; he leaves “evening” to be inferred, not stated. “Forlorn” and “melancholy” are too Victorian, to an English ear; and “scene” is a mistake, since landa does refer to a “plain,” or at least “barren land” or a “moor.”

And, of course, Galassi gives us all of Leopardi — that is, all of the Canti, the collection Leopardi (like Whitman) kept adding to and revising throughout his life. Most readers will probably prefer what Leopardi called his “idylls”: poems of nature and village life, like “The Infinite,” “To Sylvia,” “The Solitary Life,” “The Recollections,” “Saturday in the Village.” But to those who already know these poems, it is, at a minimum, interesting to know the tone and the literary strategies Leopardi deployed in the patriotic poems, the satires, the poems on classical mythology. Galassi also includes a section of “other texts,” of which one, “Chorus of the Dead,” surely ranks among Leopardi’s greatest.


Italians have always seemed to Northern Europeans (and to Americans) a warm, friendly, sensuous people, good at enjoying life; and this impression is not wrong. So it’s interesting, to say the least, that they are so devoted to such an unrelentingly pessimistic poet as Leopardi. Two of the greatest Italian Modernists, Montale and Pavese, are also dark, and Pavese in particular is clearly influenced by Leopardi. One common explanation for Italian melancholy is that Italy’s past is so much more impressive than its present, as, indeed, the opening lines of Leopardi’s Canti proclaim:

   O my country, I can see the walls
and arches and the columns and the statues
and lonely towers of our ancestors,
but I don’t see the glory

But another explanation might be that life in rural Italy could be very hard, well into the twentieth century. (One gets a sense of this reading Pavese, Silone, Carlo Levi.) Unlike Wordsworth, Leopardi didn’t romanticize the lives of the peasants and artisans he watched from his father’s balcony. Some of the most vivid vignettes in the poems have to do with such people: the carpenter who “works by lantern light / to have his job done before dawn”; the Neapolitan peasant, “sleepless on the roof / of his country hovel,” watching an eruption of Vesuvius, waiting for the “gurgle” in his well water that will tell him it is time to flee. Leopardi’s Sylvia, for all her “endless song”, works at a “heavy” (literally, a “fatiguing”) “loom,” and we can surmise that her early death was not statistically unlikely for someone of her class.

In Tuscany, where I spend part of every year, I have a portrait of Leopardi, a late nineteenth century engraving, above my desk. I don’t know why; it just took my fancy, when I saw it in an antique shop. He scares me a little. I can imagine consenting to his view of the world, as I cannot to Samuel Beckett’s. But the engraver has given his eyes a look of almost tender equanimity. Perhaps it is the look of any artist who has told the deepest truth he or she is capable of perceiving.


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LARB Contributor

Alan Batcher Williamson is a poet, short story writer, and a critic born in Chicago, Illinois. He earned a BA at Haverford College and a PhD at Harvard University, where he studied with Robert Lowell. He is the author of several books of poetry and criticism, including The Pattern More Complicated: New and Selected Poems (2004) and Almost a Girl: Male Writers and Female Identification (2001). His honors include fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. Williamson currently teaches at UC Davis.


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