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main index © Jeff Matthews entry Jan. 2004
Giacomo Leopardi (1798-1837)
As the narrow-gauge Circumvesuviana railway wends its way east along the coast from the city of Naples in the direction of the Sorrentine peninsula, it passes through a number of small stations on the slopes of Vesuvius. Two of the stations have to do with the life of this, Italy's greatest Romantic poet. One station is named, simply, "Leopardi" and the other "Ginestre" (the Italian name for the broom plant, the yellow-flowered shrub that grows abundantly on the slopes, and, as well, the title of a remarkable poem by Leopardi). If this so-called "poet of melancholy" ever found any relief at all in his terribly unhappy life, perhaps it was here, in and near Naples.
There are few child prodigies in literature. Presumably, meaningful reflections on the human condition come from having a few years under your belt—time to love, struggle, wander and let those experiences set for a while, a process less necessary to early greatness in music and mathematics. Thus, we are amazed at Metastasio, Rimbaud and Mary Shelley writing fine literature at the age even of 19 or 20.
Leopardi is in that unusual group. By the age of 16, he was a Latin and Greek scholar; and by 18 he had written lasting poetry. His natural precociousness was no doubt helped along by being a recluse for the first 20 years of his life, holing up in his father's vast library, teaching himself the classics as well as modern European languages. He suffered both from poor eye-sight (that got worse as he grew older) and by a deformity of the spine, a lifelong source of pain, physical as well as social.
Villa delle Ginestre
He spent time in his home town of Recanati in central Italy as well as in Rome and Florence. Then, in 1833, he moved to Naples to keep the company of Antonio and Paolina Ranieri, brother and sister, whom he had met in Rome. He then moved a number of times in Naples. The cholera epidemic of 1835 caused him to move farther out of the city, winding up at Villa Ferrigni, now called the Villa delle Ginestre (photo, left); it is near the small knoll upon which perches the monastery of Sant' Alfonso. Vesuvius looms directly above, and Leopardi's final home is, indeed, near both of the modern train stations mentioned above, named in his honor. It is here that he wrote that 1,800 years had passed "...since the peopled places disappeared, crushed by fiery might, and the peasant busy at his vine...still lifts his eyes suspiciously to the fatal peak..." (in the prose translation of George Kay from the Penguin Book of Italian Verse, published in 1958).
If by melancholy we mean something like wistfulness, a longing for a happier past or even an unachievable ideal state, then much of Leopard's poetry is not even that. It is simply bleak. He writes of his own loneliness and of nature as a "betrayer" and "a brutal force." He writes of the "infinite vanity of everything." So if his friendship with the Ranieris made him as happy as he could ever be, maybe all we are saying is that he liked the Neapolitan sherbet and sweets, or that he got a kick out of trying to guess lottery numbers, or went to San Carlo (to fill in his total lack of musical culture), or "worshipped from afar" Paolina Ranieri. (She apparently—as a term of endearment, one hopes—referred to him as "il mio gobbetto"—my little hunchback.) Not much, but at least it's something.
Leopardi died in 1837. At the time, it was rumored that he had in fact died from cholera, but that seems not to have been the case. His remains were entombed in the church of San Vitale in the Fuorigrotta section of Naples and then moved to a small space near the Mergellina entrance to the ancient Roman tunnel that connected Naples with the western part of the bay. A monument marks his tomb; it is near the purported last resting place of fellow poet, Virgil.
Because of the quality—or even lack—of translations, Leopardi is not as well known in the English-speaking world as he should be. Translators of poetry, of course, run the risk, as they say, of "losing poetry in the translation" and, at the other extreme, of "gaining poetry"—of writing a beautiful poem that is too original to really be called a translation. I know that Ezra Pound, Robert Lowell, and Robert Bly have translated some of Leopardi into English. My favorite English translation is of a poem written at the graveside of a woman. Her image has been cut into the tombstone. Leopardi says to the image:
Tal fosti: or qui sotterra
Polve e scheletro sei. Su l'ossa e il fango
Immobilmente collocato invano,
Muto, mirando dell' etadi il volo
Sta, di memoria solo
E di dolor custode, il simulacro
Della scorsa beltà.
Ezra Pound's translation of these first few lines is:
Such wast thou,
Who art now
But buried dust and rusted skeleton. Above the bones and mire,
Motionless, placed in vain,
Mute mirror of the flight of speeding years, Sole guard of grief
Sole guard of memory
Standeth this image of the beauty sped.
That strikes me as perfect.
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