#202: LEOPARDI. Yeats translated these lines from Sophocles: “Never to have lived is best, ancient writers say; / Never to have drawn the breath of life, never to have looked into the eye of day; / The second best’s a gay goodnight and quickly turn away.” Most of us, I imagine, reading those lines, understand them, but then quickly turn away and go about making our lives as best we can out of our temporary joys and tragedies endured. Imagine living an entire life staring into that consuming fire, waking with it and saying goodnight to it, and you may understand the hard and voluptuous shock of encountering the poetry of Giacomo Leopardi, the nineteenth-century Italian poet. He was born in 1798 in Recanati, in the Papal States, as Napoleon was invading—“liberating”—Italy. He was a prodigious intelligence, having exhausted the means of the local teachers by the time he was fourteen, and spent the next seven years devouring his father’s huge library, which destroyed his health. He developed a severe hunchback; his appearance was at best account “unprepossessing.” He struggled to find emotional and financial independence from his family; romantic attachments were purely one-sided. He never enjoyed the community or solace of the ubiquitous Catholicism of his time and place; his poetic referents were classical. His epitaph, written by his staunch friend Ranieri, spoke of one “who finished his life at age 39 / in continual most miserable illness.”
The question of course must be, how do you make poetry of all this? Or rather, how do you keep your poetry from being itself a continuing misery? Leopardi’s dates put him in the thick of the Romantic period, which specialized in precisely this kind of challenge. He is in echo and in contrast to the English poetry of the time: the spacious landscapes of Wordsworth, the mournfulness of some of Byron, the Keats who “loaded every rift with ore.” His continuous message is on the text of the Sophocles quoted above: the black sadness of life, the futility and illusion of hope, death not as the end of joy but the end of all pain. You read the poems one or two at a time, three at the most. This is not work to go through at a jog-trot; the weight of thought and sorrow in them is too great. The pivotal piece in the Canti is the one written to Carlo Pepoli, which is one of poetry’s sustained feats of staring into the fire, in disdain of hope, of all distractions, of any deceiving jollity. It defies us to look away.
So, again, how does he accomplish the feat which has earned him his place as one of Italy’s greatest poets? Therein lies the mystery of poetry itself, in Leopardi’s vivid language, in the rhythm and musicality of the verse, in his commanding interest. We read Leopardi with the absorption and curiosity of a child reading his first book, fascinated with the choice of words—always the most exact, the most telling—the balance of the sentences and their perfect suiting to the message and thought. And in this perfection of technique Leopardi lures us into recognizing, comprehending what he has to say, and finding him without any form of sham or pose. It is a poetry of utter conviction.
This, doubtless, requires mastery on the part of the translator, and Leopardi has long lain out of the reach of English. Jonathan Galassi’s versions of the Canti, published by Yale in 2010, are, thank God, superlative, both as translation (to the degree that I can judge the Italian) and as English-language poetry. He has hit off a reserved and simple diction for Leopardi, an inventive and exact vocabulary, a Romanticism in twenty-first century guise and which, standing with the best efforts of a great age of translation, is a stern marvel itself.