The Italian poet Giacomo Leopardi, 1798-1837, was a contemporary of the great English Romantic poets such as Shelley, Keats and Byron who lived in Italy, though he never had the chance to meet them. He was born in Recanati, a small town of the Marche region, then part of the Papal States.
His father was a narrow-minded reactionary and his mother a severe educator. In his early years as a student he was tutored by local clerics who taught him Latin, French and Roman Catholic philosophy. At the age of fourteen he embarked on the study of Greek, English, German, Spanish, philology and the translation of the classics. The next seven years, a period of ‘mad and desperate study’ as he called it, were spent under his own direction in his father’s considerable library.
He acquired an enormous amount of knowledge, but at the same time he ruined his health; he suffered from severe backache and had serious problems with his sight.
In 1822 Leopardi went to Rome, then capital of the backward Papal States, where, apart from meeting some philologists, he met no other man of culture. After six months the poet left the ‘eternal city’, which he labelled ‘narrow and popish’. Leopardi bore within himself the so-called ‘nineteenth century disease’: the inability to ‘adjust oneself to real life’. This condition, according to him, is the main cause of ‘boredom’. In using this term Leopardi indicates estrangement from life and inner inertia.
He asserted that ‘boredom’ is the result of the conflict between Nature and Reason. Nature creates man in a state of happiness: this state kindles emotions and desires, causing the imagination to wander, which elements should contribute to a gratifying life worthy of being lived. Reason, on the other hand, destroys illusion, quenches enthusiasm and extinguishes hope. According to the poet this is the main reason for the unhappiness of mankind. Leopardi’s first poems, which he called ‘Idylls’, are imbued with this pessimistic vision of life.
At the time he was writing the first ‘Idylls’, collected as “The Canti”, he was also writing “Moral Tales”, a collection of essays in the form of brief fables, and “Thoughts”, 111 short paragraphs which express his moral and philosophical ideas. While working on these essays, Leopardi developed an even more radical pessimism based on the reasoning that if men are born for happiness and it is denied them, there is a tragic ‘dissonance’ between what they desire and what they can attain from life. Hence, the poet concluded that the cause of human unhappiness is essentially physio-biological. Human beings are destined to lead an unhappy life, to always seek the unreachable in an incomprehensible universe, and to be continually harassed by a Nature which is beautiful but hostile.
A mysterious will
moves All destined events.
All is unknown, except pain.
–The Last Song of Sappho
He then wrote ‘The Great Idylls’: ‘To Silvia’, ‘The Solitary Thrush’ and ‘Saturday in the Village’ are some poems of this period. At the same time Leopardi was writing “Zibaldone”, a vast notebook which recorded his thoughts and ideas on poetry, society, philological questions and psychological enquiries. This work extends over 4,500 pages and was published posthumously.
Two dominant themes of Leopardi’s poetry are his inner struggle between logic and emotion and his love-hate relationship with Nature.
Ah! Nature, Nature, why do you
Never keep the promises you made?
Why are your children so cruelly betrayed?
Another recurring element in Leopardi’s writings is the poignant regret for the passing of youth. He considered this period the happiest of our life, the season of dreams and hopes not yet shattered by the hard realities of adult life.
Meanwhile the time of my youth flies,
More precious than fame and laurels,
Dearer than glorious daylight or breath itself
The poet, who was an atheist and a firm believer in the philosophy of the Enlightenment, supported the theories of sensism that contrasted greatly with the ideas of Catholic writers of his day. His last works reveal a strain of ?Titanism? often present in his first poems:
Let the black wings
Of the greedy bird wheel over me;
Let the wild beast and storms
Disperse my unknown remains,
And the wind erase my memory and name.
–The Younger Brutus
Giacomo Leopardi lived a directionless adulthood, moving from town to town. Milan, Bologna, Florence and Naples were some places where he lived. Wherever he went he was always “followed” by censorship. Being an atheist poet living in Catholic states, (at that time Italy was not a nation, but a conglomeration of small independent states), his works were always scrutinized and often forbidden by local authorities.
Leopardi was the eldest son of an aristocratic family, but his father was unwilling to support a son who hadn?t followed his advice to make a career in the church. He suffered frequent financial crises and died in 1837, a few days short of his thirty-ninth birthday. His works have been, translated and admired by writers, scholars, and poets all over the world. One of his poems, ‘The Infinite’, has been translated into more than forty languages. There have also been many translations into the English language, and among the American poets and writers known to have been interested in Leopardi are H.W. Longfellow, J. M. Morrison, Herman Melville, Henry Tuckerman, W. D. Howells, Thomas Parsons, Ezra Pound and Robert Lowell. In the field of English literature, Leopari’s admirers include Matthew Arnold, George Eliot, A. C. Swinburne, Thomas Hardy, James Thomson (‘B.V:’), A.C. Trevelian (who urged to translate Leopardi?s works by Bertrand Russell). Among the English and American translators of the last decade we count the poets G.Singh, J.G.Nichols, Eamon Grennan and Joseph Tusiani.
From my book of translations, ‘Selected Works of Giacomo Leopardi’, I wish to mention a few lines from the poem ‘Of the Beginnings of the Human Race’, which concern the fate of the native Americans living in California in the first years of the 19th century. The poet foresaw that their ‘primitive and happy life’ was going to be swept away by the coming of ‘civilization’:
The shores, the shaded places,
And the silent woods invaded
By our unrelenting fury.
The outraged people trained
To alien pain and unknown desires;
And their fleeting naked happiness
Beyond the sunset bar pursued.
(Leopardi’s note:’Even today in California, among woods, hills and rivers, there are people who do not know the world ‘civilization’ and, as travelers say, they are very reluctant to assimilate that mean corruption we call culture.’)