The Future of Illusions: Leopardi’s Canti

CANTI Giacomo Leopardi Translated by Jonathan Galassi
Canti, Giacomo Leopardi | Translated by Jonathan Galassi | Farrar Straus Giroux, 2010

Whether one prefers Longfellow’s version of the Inferno, or Ciaran Carson’s, one knows Dante’s name, as one knows the names Baudelaire and Goethe. Introducing his Leopardi: Selected Poems, Eamon Grennan is blunt: “mention the name Leopardi to ten educated people (poets included) in Ireland, England, America or elsewhere in the English-speaking world, and it is likely that nine of them will shrug, knowing little or nothing about him or his poetry.” Juxtapose our ignorance with Jonathan Galassi’s extravagant claim in his introduction to his complete version of the Canti, “Among the canti [sic] are the first truly modern lyrics, the wellspring of everything that follows in the European poetic tradition,” we respond with a question, Where have you been, Leopardi, all our reading lives?

Giacomo Leopardi was not a nobody. Schopenhauer admired him and lamented not meeting him. Nietzsche called him one of the four finest prose stylists of the 19th century. (For those wondering about Nietzsche’s taste, Emerson, Landor and Merimeé complete the quartet.) In his 1881 essay on Byron Matthew Arnold seems to prefer Leopardi. Selections from Leopardi’s Canti appeared in English in 1923, 1943, 1953, 1966, 1981, and 1997. Three “translations” appeared in Lowell’s volume Imitations. Pound offered one in his 1911 Canzoni. They dropped like pins. There is reason to believe that Galassi’s Leopardi will make a noise.

Galassi’s Leopardi has several advantages over recent selections, even Grennan’s notable 1997 selection. Though Grennan’s book garnered praise and won prizes, and some of his versions of Leopardi’s canonical poems are superior to Galassi’s – for instance his “To Himself” –, Grennan’s Leopardi sounds less like a progenitor than a follower, already the poet who has absorbed the lessons he allegedly taught to his successors. Dip into Galassi’s complete version; immediately one remarks how peculiarly un-Modern Leopardi sounds.

Leopardi was a distinguished classicist. A furious autodidact, he took over his own tuition at 12. Along with Greek and Latin he knew Spanish, French, German, English and, as another Leopardi scholar alleges, “enough Hebrew as a teenager to debate with learned Jews in Ancona.” Study Galassi’s detailed chronology. Leopardi was a prodigy of poetry and of learning. He wrote all the significant Canti in about ten years, churning out work in a variety of genres the while, and died, just 39, in Naples. His principal work, “the enormous notebook of ideas and impressions, the Zibaldone,” was written between 1817-1832, and runs over 4,500 pages. (Leopardi indexed the work himself.)

Reading Galassi’s Leopardi from cover-to-cover one agrees with Plumly’s delicate observation from Posthumous Keats: “[Keats] understood that there are no mistakes in art, only failures.” Even in those rare instances when circumstances have bequeathed us an oeuvre in pieces – a few complete examples, a garland of excerpts – poets who deserve the overused epithet great are not uniformly so. Not every poem padding later editions of Leaves of Grass succeeds. Among Emily Dickinson’s seventeen hundred odd poems a few hundred secure her reputation. What distinguishes the great for those who in a few generations undergo the rigorous editing of the anthologist, the Ph.D. candidate’s dissection, the unabashed fan’s blinding attention, is that even their failures are worth attending to. Leopardi’s are.

Why have the Canti never caught on in English? Several reasons. Their length: thirty-six poems run to three hundred and twelve pages. Galassi includes five “fragments” and four “other texts”, adding thereby another fifty to a book bulging with 135 pages of notes, bibliography, acknowledgements and index. (This is the scholarly model Galassi pioneered with his translation of three volumes of another poet essential to the Italian and Modernist canon, Eugenio Montale.) Subtract the welcome en face Italian and the reader still confronts 156 pages of primary matter. Almost defeating our common-sense definition of lyric poetry, just four of his poems are a single page in length. Some run 200 lines or more. Their tone: As Ottavio Mark Casale puts it in his valuable introduction to his 1981 selection from Leopardi’s works, “we often get the sense in Leopardi’s late works of being in the presence of an ancient tragic Greek or Hebrew come again to speak in modern yet timeless terms.” Their style: one hears the truism that poetry is untranslatable repeated about Leopardi. One hears of the “sublime poverty” of his style. The reader discovers that Leopardi is didactic; often the tone changes drastically from stanza to stanza. This tendency is magnified in translation. The polyphonic effect that form and rhyme serve to unify is diminished; the voices break and waver; and are broken by infelicities. And finally there is Leopardi’s apparent pessimism: Take Byron’s dystopian “Darkness,” subtract the fiends and demons, and one has an inkling of Leopardi’s magnificent lack of consolation. Where Byron sets the war of all against all in a volcano, Leopardi sits on the slopes of Vesuvius, the fresh air perfumed by sulfur, and sees the same unforgiving world.

This last is the block critics and readers can’t move from his tomb: Leopardi’s apparent nihilism. It prompted Arnold to qualify his endorsement, and contemporaries to deride him. Stinging words attributed to Manzoni or Tommaseo—the former then the most famous Italian writer of the period, the latter a scholar Leopardi demolished: “There is no God because I am a hunchback, I am hunchback because there is no God.” Indeed he was. Leopardi suffered severe scoliosis, debilitating eye problems, dropsy; he loved and his love was not returned; his mother was remote, tyrannical; his father profligate and conservative; he hated his small town; it has been alleged that he did not leave his family’s large house unaccompanied until his twentieth year. Was he doomed to write like this?

Everything is evil. I mean, everything that is, is wicked; every existing thing is evil; everything exists for a wicked end. Existence is wickedness and is ordained for wickedness. Evil is the end, the final purpose, of the universe. Order, the state, laws, the natural processes of the universe are all quite simply evil and are directed exclusively toward evil. The only good is nonbeing; the only really good thing is the thing that is not, things that are not things; all things are bad. All that exists, the totality of the many worlds that exist, the universe, are nothing but a minor blemish, a mote in metaphysics. Existence, in its general nature and essence, is an imperfection, an irregularity, a monstrosity. But this imperfection is a very small thing, truly just a blemish, because all existing worlds, however numerous or grand they may be, though not for certain infinite in number or size, are consequently infinitely small compared to what the universe could be, if it were infinite. And all that exists is infinitely small compared as it were to the true infinity of nonexistence, of nothingness.

A person promulgating such views today invites scrutiny. If not allowed to consult in person, psychiatrists and biographers would diagnose from a distance. Law enforcement might be notified. At minimum, medication would be recommended. Deeply unfashionable then, such views now arouse suspicion.

Many offer this excerpt without comment, as exhibit A in the case against Leopardi. I am grateful to W.S. Di Piero for filling in the picture. In his introduction to his 1981 translation of Leopardi’s book of social criticism Pensieri, he adds:

But we learn immediately thereafter that [Leopardi] poses all this as one more risky, unfashionable, unlikable possibility: ‘This system, though it offends our ideas, which hold that the end of all things can only be goodness, may perhaps be more tenable than Leibnitz’s [sic] formulation, or Pope’s, that “everything is good.” I’m not anxious, however, to extend my system so far as to say that the existing universe is the worst of all possible universes, thus replacing optimism with pessimism. Who can ever know the limits of possibility?’” [Italics added, to distinguish Leopardi’s words from Di Piero’s.]

Without its conclusion, this spectacular pessimistic outburst from the Zibaldone is misleading. Few include it because one feels certain, reading this oft-quoted excerpt, that we know who Leopardi is and what he means: he is angry; he is a proto-Camus, a nihilist. Add the concluding section and one realizes that Leopardi is conducting a thought experiment not unlike Einstein’s famous ‘passenger on the train’: An observer on the train leaving the station can’t be sure if the train or the station moves. Leopardi, observing the world, can’t be sure it is good so he essays the opposite, finally admitting neither essay is definitive: the essence of the possible is that it is limitless.


Leopardi could be the test case for the merits, and the limits, of biographical criticism. Knowing of Leopardi’s personal difficulties—physical, psychological, his contemporaries would add spiritual—one assumes his work reflects them. It seems impossible not to see Leopardi’s pessimism as the product of his personal suffering. Launched against his work during his lifetime, Leopardi took offense to this line of attack. He resisted it, but resistance was futile. His work is not better or worse for his view of the world, and to think so is to endorse an increasingly popular form of positivist criticism: to be great, poetry must espouse good news.

Against the misguided attacks of Nobel laureates Seamus Heaney and Czeslaw Milosz, Denis Donoghue’s defense of Philip Larkin’s “Aubade” in Adam’s Curse is instructive. I quote at length because Donoghue’s remarks are worth volumes of pseudo-psychologizing:

Heaney and Milosz are emotivists: . . . they assert their merely personal preferences while trying to present them as objective and impersonal. They have no criteria to which they may appeal. In default of such criteria, they resort to merely assertive gestures, employing words with which debate on the relevant issues is futile. “Life” as they use the word is a mere counter, designed to fend off every call for clarification. Supposedly we know what it means and concur in the implied claim that no specification of its kind is required. There is no sense of the difference between one life and another, or of the contradictions operative within any one life. Indeed, Larkin’s “Aubade” should be cited again to make the point that in an implied scene of life and death it avoids the slogans that Milosz and Heaney so easily resort to. “Aubade” imagines the middle passage, doing without slogans while doing the best it can.

Leopardi is a victim of this emotivist fallacy. Arnold, ultimately tilting back towards Byron after flirting with Leopardi—his assertive term is “character”—practices a version of it. As Gerald Dawe, reviewing Geoffrey Hill in “The Irish Times” writes, “poetry [is] moving ever closer to an instantaneous responsiveness and emotional availability, an interior decoration equal in value to other forms of expression and adornment.” The habit of identifying poet and speaker has become so ingrained that we forget that when reading a poem we are regarding an object, not judging the content of personal communication. Heaney plays fast and loose with this distinction in his critique of “Aubade.” Milosz takes it a step further, launching an ad hominem attack when he publishes “Against Philip Larkin.” Of course there is equal danger in severing the delicate but essential connection between creator and text, mourning the death of the author while admiring our mourning finery in the mirror.

If one is to crown Leopardi as the first modernist, as so many in all camps seem eager to, one has to set forth what one means by Modernism. We drag the past with a seine, catching this figure while leaving that one to wait for a more inclusive movement. It is safe to say Leopardi is a limb of the body of work it is impossible to imagine the body of Italian literature without. Petrarch, Dante, Leopardi and Montale are the poets who forged and purified the language of their tribe. Leopardi’s early poems were important to the Risorgimento, the Italian nationalist movement. Leopardi’s later poems, with their deeply personal voice, their “I,” are his alleged gift to modern poetry. In poems Galassi translates as “Infinity,” “To the Moon,” “To Himself” even “The Reawakening” we hear Leopardi’s “I” as if he were our contemporary. But we are mistaken; he is not. Persona is not personality.

Sadly, Leopardi’s ‘modernism’ may be no more than this: that he is one of the first we know enough about to subject him to the emotivist fallacy. Defenders of Leopardi indulge in it too, rationalizing or excusing his pessimism—Casale goes so far as to report on Leopardi’s “incredibly beautiful smile”, as if a tendency to frown might further damage his reputation. Leopardi doesn’t need apologists; he can survive spirited attacks. We don’t have to like his views, but to marginalize or dismiss him outright is to dismiss a great part of ourselves.

Like Nietzsche, Leopardi “turn[ed] his head away” from consoling ideas that might merit capitalization, God first and foremost. As the Pensieri are a study of the limitless mendacity of society, the Canti dwell on the corruption of meaning and value, and on their necessity even in corrupt and diminished form. The first poem in the collection concerns itself with “Italian” national identity. In Leopardi’s time there was no Italy, as we know it; lamenting “Italy” Leopardi laments Hellenistic Rome. Galassi translates line twenty-four of “To Italy” as “You were a lady, and now you are a slave.” It might be the most succinct statement of the book’s themes. A paraphrase of Leopardi’s statement might read, ‘you were a symbol, and now you are an object.’ A symbol is full of meaning; an object is a mere commodity. Even in Leopardi’s insipid melodrama “Consalvo” he develops the theme of decline from the symbolic to the materialistic: “And so excessive love / had made him into a slave and a child.” Even love, in excess, is dangerous and reductive.


Consider Galassi’s version of this long passage from “Broom, or the Flower of the Desert.” Speaking of the Italian original Arnold appears to be speaking of this passage, which he says is superior to anything in Byron. (Galassi’s en face Italian does not include the first line Arnold refers to—it does include the last— and this review is not the place to sort variations among editions.)

Often I sit at night on these deserted
slopes which the hardened flood
clothes in black that seems to undulate,
and over the sad plain
I see the stars
burning above the purest blue,
which the sea reflects in the far distance
and, twinkling everywhere, the world
glistens in the empty sky.
And once my eyes have focused on those lights,
which seem a tiny point to them,
though they’re enormous, so that next to these
the earth and sea
are in truth no greater than a speck
to which not only man
but this globe where man is nothing
is totally unknown; and when I see
these still more infinitely distant
nuclei, it seems, of stars
that look like haze to us, to which
not only man and earth but all our stars
together, infinite in size and number,
the golden sun among them,
are unfamiliar or else they appear
the way these look to earth: a point
of nebulous light—
how do I think of you then, sons of men?
And considering
the way you are down here,
to which the earth I walk upon bears witness,
and that even so you see yourself
as lord and end assigned to Everything,
and how you were often flattered to relate
that the authors of the universe
came down to this mere grain of sand called earth
for love of you, and often condescended
to speak with you and yours,
and how you keep retailing absurd notions
insulting to the wise, down to our day,
which seemingly surpasses every other
in knowledge and civility; what emotion, then
mortal unhappy race, what notion of you
finally assails my heart? It’s hard to say
whether it’s laughter or pity that prevails.

Galassi’s archaism “to speak to you and yours” allows one to entertain the possibility that Leopardi condescends to his audience. Unless we identify searching pity with the Hebrews, one can’t agree with Casale that Leopardi’s tone is ancient. Galassi’s translation may be complicit in ‘modernizing’ Leopardi, but this is inevitable; Leopardi would be the first to acknowledge, and the first to lament, this inevitability. (It is also desirable—we need Leopardi, in whatever form we can get him.) In “Broom” and elsewhere in the Canti, Leopardi adopts the perspective of a telescope, looking deeper into space, and finding there fewer and fewer reasons even to hope much less believe in God or human eminence.

Leopardi sounds the first note that even the animals know by 1923, when Rilke restates it in the first “Duino Elegy”: “and already the knowing animals are aware / that we are not really at home in / our interpreted world.” Rilke’s “interpreted world” is akin to Leopardi’s world of infinite possibility. The ‘interpretations’ Rilke speaks of are the ‘limits’ Leopardi knows are false, and in the next breath admits they are essential. We are not at home in the actual world, nor in the world of interpretations. There is no tradition to receive. A more extreme statement of the same predicament: “Nothing is granted to me,” Kafka writes to Milena, “everything has to be earned, not only the present and the future, but the past too.”

Take “Night Song of a Wandering Shepherd in Asia,” a poem many consider Leopardi’s finest. A shepherd addresses the moon as it rises, comparing his own wanderings to the moon’s wanderings in the sky, and a beautiful parallel of structure and experience develops: “Aren’t you tired / of plying the eternal byways?” The shepherd asks the moon, and the moon’s silence allows the shepherd freedom to ask and answer, talking to himself as only the mad, or madly lonely, do. It is hard not to see the poem in light of Psalm 23, “the Lord is thy shepherd,” or this passage from the Gospel of Matthew: “when [Christ] saw the multitudes, he was moved with compassion on them, because they were scattered abroad, as sheep having no shepherd.” The shepherd speculates that the moon has knowledge, as the Lord allegedly has, but the moon remains silent, and the shepherd merely hopes, he is certain that he does not know, that life has a purpose.

I ask myself:
Why all these lights?
What does the endless air do, and that deep
eternal blue? What is the meaning of
this huge solitude? And what am I?
I ask myself: about this boundless,
wondrous space
and its numberless inhabitants,
and all these works and all this movement
of all heavenly and earthly things,
revolving without rest,
only to return to where they started;
any purpose, any usefulness
I cannot see. But you, immortal maiden,
surely understand it all.
This I know and feel:
that from the eternal motions,
from my fragile being,
others may derive
some good or gladness; life for me is wrong.

The last clause sounds a false note. In attempting to preserve Leopardi’s tone Galassi injures sense. (If someone says, “life for me is wrong” we move to correct, gently.) We might accept “life for me is pain” or “life is suffering,” even “life is bad,” though the former would introduce a misleading off rhyme with “maiden.” Elsewhere, in a bid to preserve rhythm Galassi introduces otiose words. But to second guess this translation is to disarticulate the bones of an intact skeleton.

The “Night song” is the renovation and resurrection of a symbol. The moon is the shepherd’s interlocutor and companion. As if under the pressure of the shepherd’s attention one wants to ask, is it the moon or the shepherd that changes? We know the moon is a sphere, and know it only appears flat — but does the shepherd, who has only ever ‘seen’ it? We know the moon is a sphere even as we only see one side, but we read Leopardi as the shepherd views the moon, as a disc. When we conflate him and his work, and him and his personae, we deprive him of substance; we flatten him. When we fail to take him at his word, and recognize that his vocation is not only as a thinker or as a poet, or when we conflate these two not inimitable activities, we deprive him of his gift. We judge his thoughts while he wonders what others imagine. Are the moon’s seas reservoirs of the analogical imagination, or arid craters? does not even deserve to be described as a rhetorical question, and yet our prejudicial emotivism answers it. The typical reading has the shepherd express unqualified despair, but in the last stanza every clause begins with “maybe”. He has nothing to declare. The poem is speculative, not conclusive.

Like the unidentified speaker in “Broom,” the shepherd formulates and expresses every idea; the poem’s title identifies the poem as the shepherd’s own words. The moon serves in the poem a similar purpose to the blooming weed in “Broom:” the insentient becomes the prompt for an inquiry into the limits of sentience and sapience. To the shepherd the moon offers permanence, to the poem’s speaker broom offers fragrant impermanence: neither, in and of themselves, offers consolation. The speaker in “Broom” and the shepherd in “Night Song” console themselves with their inconsolable reflections. As readers we partake of their consolation even if the vision that prompts it is absolutely bereft, and devoid of comfort. Whatever one calls these objects— illusions, interpretations, supreme fictions—Leopardi is among the first and most eloquent advocates of fictions: not necessarily supreme, merely necessary.

Michael Autrey (© 2012)