Italian poet and philosopher
born June 29, 1798, Recanati, Papal States
died June 14, 1837, Naples
Italian poet, scholar, and philosopher whose outstanding scholarly and
philosophical works and superb lyric poetry place him among the great
writers of the 19th century.
A precocious, congenitally deformed child of noble but apparently
insensitive parents, Giacomo quickly exhausted the resources of his
tutors. At the age of 16 he independently had mastered Greek, Latin, and
several modern languages, had translated many classical works, and had
written two tragedies, many Italian poems, and several scholarly
commentaries. Excessive study permanently damaged his health: after
bouts of poor vision, he eventually became blind in one eye and
developed a cerebrospinal condition that afflicted him all his life.
Forced to suspend his studies for long periods, wounded by his parents’
unconcern, and sustained only by happy relationships with his brother
and sister, he poured out his hopes and his bitterness in poems such as
Appressamento della morte (written 1816, published 1835; “Approach of
Death”), a visionary work in terza rima, imitative of Petrarch and Dante
but written with considerable poetic skill and inspired by a genuine
feeling of despair.
Two experiences in 1817 and 1818 robbed Leopardi of whatever optimism
he had left: his frustrated love for his married cousin, Gertrude Cassi
(subject of his journal Diario d’amore and the elegy “Il primo amore”),
and the death from consumption of Terese Fattorini, young daughter of
his father’s coachman, subject of one of his greatest lyrics, “A
Silvia.” The last lines of this poem express the anguish he felt all his
life: “O nature, nature, / Why dost thou not fulfill / Thy first fair
promise? / Why dost thou deceive / Thy children so?”
Leopardi’s inner suffering was lightened in 1818 by a visit from the
scholar and patriot Pietro Giordani, who urged him to escape from his
painful situation at home. At last he went to Rome for a few unhappy
months (1822–23), then returned home for another painful period,
brightened only by the 1824 publication of his verse collection Canzoni.
In 1825 he accepted an offer to edit Cicero’s works in Milan. For the
next few years he travelled between Bologna, Recanati, Pisa, and
Florence and published Versi (1826), an enlarged collection of poems;
and Operette morali (1827; “Minor Moral Works”), an influential
philosophical exposition, mainly in dialogue form, of his doctrine of
Lack of money forced him to live at Recanati (1828–30), but he
escaped again to Florence through the financial help of friends and
published a further collection of poems, I canti (1831). Frustrated love
for a Florentine beauty, Fanny Targioni-Tozzetti, inspired some of his
saddest lyrics. A young Neapolitan exile, Antonio Ranieri, became his
friend and only comfort.
Leopardi moved to Rome, then to Florence, and finally settled in
Naples in 1833, where, among other works, he wrote Ginestra (1836), a
long poem included in Ranieri’s posthumous collection of his works
(1845). The death that he had long regarded as the only liberation came
to him suddenly in a cholera epidemic in Naples.
Leopardi’s genius, his frustrated hopes, and his pain found their
best outlet in his poetry, which is admired for its brilliance,
intensity, and effortless musicality. His finest poems are probably the
lyrics called “Idillii” in early editions of his poetry, among which is
“A Silvia.” One English translation of his prose works is James
Thomson’s Essays, Dialogues, and Thoughts (1905). Among many
translations of Leopardi’s poetry are R.C. Trevelyan’s Translations From
Leopardi (1941) and J.-P. Barricelli’s Poems (1963).
This solitary hill has always been dear to me
And this hedge, which prevents me from seeing most of
The endless horizon.
But when I sit and gaze, I imagine, in my thoughts
Endless spaces beyond the hedge,
An all encompassing silence and a deeply profound quiet,
To the point that my heart is almost overwhelmed.
And when I hear the wind rustling through the trees
I compare its voice to the infinite silence.
And eternity occurs to me, and all the ages past,
And the present time, and its sound.
Amidst this immensity my thought drowns:
And to flounder in this sea is sweet to me.
Now will you rest forever,
My tired heart. Dead is the last
That I thought eternal. Dead. Well I
In us the sweet illusions,
Nothing but ash, desire burned out.
Rest forever. You have
Trembled enough. Nothing is worth
Thy beats, nor does the earth
Thy sighs. Bitter and dull
Is life, there is nought else. The
world is clay.
Rest now. Despair
For the last time. To our kind, Fate
Gives but death. Now despise
Yourself, nature, the sinister
Power that secretly commands our
And the infinite vanity of
To the Moon
Oh gracious moon, now as the year turns,
I remember how, heavy with sorrow,
I climbed this hill to gaze on you,
And then as now you hung above those trees
Illuminating all. But to my eyes
Your face seemed clouded, temulous
From the tears that rose beneath my lids,
So painful was my life: and is, my
Dearest moon; its tenor does not change.
And yet, memory and numbering the epochs
Of my grief is pleasing to me. How welcome
In that youthful time -when hope's span is long,
And memory short -is the remembrance even of
Past sad things whose pain endures.
Silvia, do you remember
the moments, in your mortal life,
when beauty still shone
in your sidelong, laughing eyes,
and you, light and thoughtful,
beyond girlhood’s limits?
The quiet rooms and the streets
around you, sounded
to your endless singing,
when you sat, happily content,
intent, on that woman’s work,
the vague future, arriving alive in your mind.
It was the scented May, and that’s how
you spent your day.
I would leave my intoxicating
and the turned-down pages,
where my young life,
the best of me, was left,
and from the balcony of my father’s house
strain to catch the sound of your voice,
and your hand, quick,
running over the loom.
I would look at the serene sky,
the gold lit gardens and paths,
that side the mountains, this side the far-off sea.
And human tongue cannot say
what I felt then.
What sweet thoughts,
what hopes, what hearts, O Silvia mia!
How it appeared to us then,
all human life and fate!
When I recall that hope
such feelings pain me,
I brood on my own destiny.
Oh Nature, Nature
why do you not give now
what you promised then? Why
do you so deceive your children?
Attacked, and conquered, by secret
you died, my tenderest one, and did not see
your years flower, or feel your heart moved,
by sweet praise of your black hair
your shy, loving looks.
No friends talked with you,
on holidays, about love.
My sweet hopes died also
little by little: to me too
Fate has denied those years. Oh,
how you have passed me by,
dear friend of my new life,
my saddened hope!
Is this the world, the dreams,
the loves, events, delights,
we spoke about so much together?
Is this our human life?
At the advance of Truth
you fell, unhappy one,
and from the distance,
with your hand, you pointed
towards death’s coldness and the silent grave.
It was always dear to me, this
and this hedgerow here, that closes out my view,
from so much of the ultimate horizon.
But sitting here, and watching here, in thought,
I create interminable spaces,
greater than human silences, and deepest
quiet, where the heart barely fails to terrify.
When I hear the wind, blowing among these leaves,
I go on to compare that infinite silence
with this voice, and I remember the eternal
and the dead seasons, and the living present,
and its sound, so that in this immensity
my thoughts are drowned, and shipwreck seems sweet
to me in this sea.