The Raptures of a Tragic Visionary

The Wanderer’s View: The ‘scattered ruin’ of Pompeii with Mt. Vesuvius looming in the background in an 1870 oil painting by Robert Scott Duncanson

Sometime in the fall of 1821, the great Italian poet Giacomo Leopardi, then 23 years old, composed an ode for his beloved younger sister Paolina’s upcoming wedding. As a later critic observed, the poem is more a dirge than a hymn in honor of the bride. Paolina probably knew better than to expect mindless cheer from her melancholy brother. She was well aware that Giacomo wouldn’t be heading up the conga line at the wedding banquet.

Still, she must have been taken aback by the brutal tactlessness of such lines as these, in Jonathan Galassi’s new translation:

The children that you’ll have will

either be

cowards or unhappy. Let them

be unhappy.

You could easily conclude that the young Leopardi had precious little sense of occasion. But you might also conclude that this was a poet who cultivated a fierce regard for the truth, however harsh. On both counts you’d be right.

Leopardi, for most of his short life, felt himself to be not only trapped in a stifling household under the rule of his fanatically pious mother and feckless father but also isolated in the moldering backwater of Recanati, a provincial town where nothing of significance occurred. Worse, his beloved Italy lay in shambles, its ancient glories forgotten or despised. What future might any child of his sister look forward to in a broken country where, as he saw it, only “cowards” could find happiness?

Still worse, existence itself, for Leopardi, seemed poisoned at the source. Hope was an illusion, but a lack of hope was unbearable. Nature, for all its beauty, was brutal and despotic. “The day we’re born,” he later wrote, “is cause for mourning.”

For all his glowing promise, Leopardi seems to have cultivated such dark thoughts from his earliest years. He was an intellectual prodigy as a child. By age 10 he had mastered the standard academic curriculum. He went on to teach himself Hebrew and ancient Greek, becoming so proficient in Greek that he forged ancient poems and passed them off to unsuspecting scholars as authentic. Before Leopardi was out of his teens he had consumed much of his family’s library—his father’s sole distinction was as a book collector—and read through the Greek and Latin classics as well as the works of the Church Fathers. By age 15, he had written a history of astronomy. Two years later he completed “Popular Errors of the Ancients,” a work of enormous erudition.

Not surprisingly—given the intensity of his reading—Leopardi’s eyesight began to fail. He also developed curvature of the spine, a deformity that he found humiliating and that, together with his shyness, made it hard for him to approach women. But he kept falling in love at a distance, often with married women who remained unaware of his feelings. He became something of a virtuoso of the most excruciating and unrequited love. The memory of a voice or a glance fed his imagination for years.

Leopardi’s bleak outlook, which he elaborated at obsessive length in his vast “Notebook” (or “Zibaldone”), can become monotonous simply because he allowed himself so few illusions. It is hard to imagine him whispering sweet nothings into a beloved’s ear. On April 22, 1826, he wrote: “Everything is evil. All that is, is evil; the fact that each thing exists is an evil.” And he concluded: “Existence is an imperfection, an irregularity, a monstrosity.”

It’s not so much what he says that’s shocking. In such passages he is simply inverting the Roman Catholic teachings of such theologians as Thomas Aquinas, who held that existence is intrinsically good. Rather, it’s the icy neatness of the phrasing that disturbs. If existence is monstrous, shouldn’t we lament the fact? At times there is something glib in Leopardi’s nihilism.

Leopardi has long occupied a hallowed place in the history of European pessimism, often alongside Schopenhauer, a contemporary. But his dour credentials may not be quite as impeccable as they seem. Especially in his “Canti”—his masterpiece, consisting of 36 poems composed over 20 years—there are moments of what can only be called rapture. Take “Infinity,” his most famous short poem. In Mr. Galassi’s translation it reads, in full:

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. And when I hear

the wind stir in these branches,

I begin

comparing that endless stillness

with this noise:

and the eternal comes to mind,

and the dead seasons, and

the present

living one, and how it sounds.

So my mind sinks in this


and foundering is sweet in

such a sea.

It is characteristic of Leopardi that he glimpses “the infinite” best from an impeded point of view, a hilltop on which a hedge obstructs the horizon. As Mr. Galassi observes in a note, most of Leopardi’s poems take place by moonlight. Here, for once, it is broad day. Two centuries earlier, Pascal, with whom Leopardi is sometimes compared, wrote that “the eternal silence of these infinite spaces terrifies me.” The same spaces drown Leopardi in a sweetness of immensity. We are reminded that hardly a generation before, though a world away, William Blake had urged us “to see a world in a grain of sand,” not so different perhaps from finding the silence of infinity beyond the thin voice of a hillside wind.

As it happens, this poem, in Mr. Galassi’s new edition of the complete “Canti,” displays his strengths as a translator along with a few of his weaknesses. His translations are always clear and direct, stripped of rhetorical flourishes as well as of verbal padding, and they are scrupulously accurate. With the help of his detailed notes—he seems to have read everything about Leopardi in several languages—Mr. Galassi’s versions offer the reader without Italian the surest possible grasp of Leopardi’s poems.

Since Mr. Galassi says nothing in his otherwise informative introduction about his approach to translation, it is not always clear how he expects his versions to be read. I take them as faithful renditions of the originals that hope to stand on their own in English—in other words, the usual impossible undertaking.

My reservations about Mr. Galassi’s translations have to do with a certain flatness of tone. Of course, Leopardi rejects the extravagant bombast of so much overwrought Italian verse; that is part of his great distinction. His vocabulary is simple; he avoids conceits and elaborate metaphors; he is delicate and rigorous in his placement of words. But he does have his sly devices. And these Mr. Galassi tends to ignore.

In “The Infinite,” for instance, Leopardi achieves maximum effect by inversions of normal word order, and the result is electrifying. Consider lines four through seven. Taken word by word, while keeping Mr. Galassi’s individual word choices, it would appear this way:

But sitting and gazing, unending

Spaces beyond what’s here, and


Silences, and depthless calm,

I fashion in my mind . . .

It reads strangely in English. But it reads strangely in Italian too. It is meant to read strangely. This is, after all, a sudden but gathering glimpse of the infinite from a desolate hillside, not a Sunday picnic. Mr. Galassi’s syntax is smoother and more conventional but, for that very reason, it fails to give us the shiver we feel in Leopardi’s verse.

Even in the darkest of Leopardi’s “Canti” there is a sense of some rhythmic crosscurrent at work, as though the harsh message were being uplifted by the stately surges of the lines. It is not that Leopardi is using the considerable beauty of the Italian language to soften his stern views. Just the opposite. Mr. Galassi catches some of this double music at moments, as in this passage from “Broom or The Flower of the Desert,” where Leopardi evokes Pompeii:

Extinct Pompeii

returns to the celestial light

from her immemorial oblivion

like a buried skeleton

that greed or piety has raised

out of the earth

into the air, and from the

empty forum

the wanderer, gazing

down the rows of broken


contemplates the distant

double peak

and its smoking crest,

still menacing the scattered ruin.

In this passage, as in his version of the entire poem, Mr. Galassi gives us a sense of what Leopardi was aiming at. Pompeii is indeed extinct; there are only “broken colonnades.” And yet the dead city arises again in the lines with a passionate exuberance. If Leopardi praises the broom-plant on its arid slopes, that is because the humble weed possesses a cosmic modesty that we humans lack. It had no sense that its “fragile generations were immortal.”

This subtle perspective, it seems to me, is yet another way in which Leopardi steps away from pessimism, with its facile formulations. His is a tragic vision. The late D.S. Carne-Ross, a classicist steeped in the ancient world, believed that Leopardi embodied the Greek spirit to the full. His “Canti” bow to the inevitable even as they sing out against it. He despises nothing except the hubris by which we exalt ourselves “by senseless pride up to the stars.” His poems stand as a melodious corrective to such impulses of self-aggrandizement.

But he wasn’t a preachy poet, a moralist in meter. He was closer to the bone than that. He could have said, with Rimbaud, “I am of the race that sings under torture.”

Mr. Ormsby is a writer in London.


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