The Laureate of Death
IN the year 1798, at Recanati, a little mountain town of Tuscany, was born, noble and miserable, the poet Giacomo Leopardi, who began even in childhood to suffer the malice of that strange conspiracy of ills which consumed him. His constitution was very fragile, and it early felt the effect of the passionate ardor with which the sickly boy dedicated his life to literature. From the first he seems to have had little or no direction in his studies, and hardly any instruction. He literally lived among his books, rarely leaving his own room except to pass into his father’s library ; his research and erudition were marvelous, and at the age of sixteen he presented his father a Latin translation and comment on Plotinus, of which Sainte-Beuve said that “one who had studied Plotinus his whole life could find something useful in this work of a boy.” At that age Leopardi already knew all Greek and Latin literature ; he knew French, Spanish, and English ; he knew Hebrew, and disputed in that tongue with the Rabbis of Ancona.
The poet’s father was Count Monaldo Leopardi, who had written little books of a religious and political character ; the religion very bigoted, the politics very reactionary. His library was the largest anywhere in that region, but he seems not to have learned wisdom in it, and, though otherwise a blameless man, he used his son, who grew to manhood differing from him in all his opinions, with a rigor that was scarcely less than cruel. He was bitterly opposed to what was called progress, to religious and civil liberty ; he was devoted to what was called order, which meant merely the existing order of things, the divinely appointed prince, the infallible priest. He had a mediæval taste, and he made his palace at Recanati as much like a feudal castle as he could, with all sorts of baronial bricabrac. An armed vassal at his gate was out of the question, but at the door of his own chamber stood an effigy in rusty armor, bearing a tarnished halberd. He abhorred the fashions of our century, and wore those of an earlier epoch ; his wife, who shared his prejudices and opinions, fantastically appareled herself to look like the portrait of some gentlewoman of as remote a date. Halls hung in damask, vast mirrors in carven frames, and stately furniture of antique form attested throughout the palace “ the splendor of a race which, if its fortunes had somewhat declined, still knew how to maintain its ancient decorum.”
In this home passed the youth and early manhood of a poet who no sooner began to think for himself than he began to think the things most discordant with his father’s principles and ideas. He believed in neither the religion nor the politics of his race ; he cherished with the desire of literary achievement that vague faith in humanity, in freedom, in the future, against which the Count Monaldo had so sternly set his face; he chafed under the restraints of his father’s authority, and longed for some escape into the world. The Italians sometimes write of Leopardi’s unhappiness, with passionate condemnation of his father; but neither was Count Monaldo’s part an enviable one, and it was certainly not at this period that he had all the wrong in his differences with his son.
Nevertheless, it is pathetic to read how the heartsick, frail, ambitious boy, when he found some article in a newspaper that greatly pleased him, would write to the author and ask his friendship. When these journalists, who were possibly not always the wisest publicists of their time, so far responded to the young scholar’s advances as to give him their personal acquaintance as well as their friendship, the old count received them with a courteous tolerance, which had no kindness in it for their progressive ideas. He lived in dread of his son’s becoming involved in some of the many plots then hatching against order and religion, and he repressed with all his strength Leopardi’s revolutionary tendencies, which must always have been mere matters of sentiment, and not deserving of great rigor.
He seems not so much to have loved Italy as to have hated Recanati. It is a small village high up in the Apennines, between Loreto and Macerata, and is chiefly accessible in ox-carts. Small towns everywhere are dull, and perhaps are not more deadly so in Italy than they are elsewhere, but there they have a peculiarly obscure, narrow life indoors. Outdoors there is a little lounging about the caffé, a little stir on holidays among the lower classes and the neighboring peasants, a great deal of gossip at all times, and hardly anything more. The local nobleman, perhaps, cultivates literature, as Leopardi’s father did ; there is always some abbate mousing about in the local archives and writing pamphlets on disputed points of the local history; and there is the parish priest, to help form the polite society of the place. As if this social barrenness were not enough, Recanati was physically hurtful to Leopardi: the climate was very fickle ; the harsh, damp air was cruel to his nerves. He says it seems to him a den where no good or beautiful thing ever comes ; he bewails the common ignorance ; in Recanati there is no love for letters, for the humanizing arts ; nobody frequents his father’s great library, nobody buys books, nobody reads the newspapers. Yet this forlorn and detestable little town has one good thing: it has a preëminently good Italian accent, better even, he thinks, than the Roman; which would be a greater consolation to an Italian than we can well understand. Nevertheless it was not society, and it did not make his fellow-townsmen endurable to him; he recoiled from them more and more, and the solitude in which he lived among his books filled him with a black melancholy, which he describes as a poison, corroding the life of body and soul alike. To a friend who tries to reconcile him to Recanati he writes: “It is very well to tell me that Plutarch and Alfieri loved Cheronea and Asti: they loved them, but they left them ; and so shall I love my native place when I am away from it. Now I say I hate it because I am in it. To recall the spot where one’s childhood days were passed is dear and sweet ; it is a fine saying, ‘Here you were born, and here Providence wills you to stay.’ All very well. Say to the sick man striving to be well that he is flying in the face of Providence ; tell the poor man struggling to advance himself that he is defying heaven ; bid the Turk beware of baptism, for God has made him a Turk ! ” So Leopardi wrote when he was in comparative health and able to continue his studies. But there were long periods when his ailments denied him his sole consolation of study. Then he rose late, walked listlessly about without opening his lips or looking at a book the whole day. As soon as he might, he returned to his studies ; when he must, he abandoned them again. At such a time he once wrote to a friend who understood and loved him: “ I have not energy enough to conceive a single desire, not even for death ; not because I fear death, but because I cannot see any difference between that and my present life. For the first time ennui not merely oppresses and wearies me, but it also agonizes and lacerates me, like a cruel pain. I am overwhelmed with a sense of the vanity of all things and the condition of men. My passions are dead, my very despair seems nouentity. As to my studies, which you urge me to continue, for the last eight months I have not known what study means : the nerves of my eyes and of my whole head are so weakened and disordered that I cannot read or listen to reading, nor can I fix my mind upon any subject.”
At Recanati Leopardi suffered not merely solitude, but the contact of people whom he despised, and whose vulgarity was all the greater oppression when it showed itself in a sort of stupid compassionate tenderness for him. He had already suffered one of those disappointments which are the rule rather than the exception, and his first love had ended as first love always does, when it ends fortunately — in disappointment. He scarcely knew the object of his passion, a young girl of humble lot, whom he used to hear singing at her loom in the house opposite his father’s palace. Count Monaldo promptly interfered, and not long afterward the young girl died. Rut the sensitive boy, and his biographers after him, made the most of this sorrow; and doubtless it helped to render life under his father’s roof yet heavier and harder to bear. Such as it was, it seems to have been the only love that Leopardi ever really felt, and the young girl’s memory passed into the melancholy of his life and poetry.
But he did not summon courage to abandon Recanati before his twenty-fourth year, and then he did not go with his father’s entire good-will. The count wished him to become a priest, but Leopardi shrank from the idea with horror, and there remained between him and his father not only the difference of their religious and political opinions, but an unkindness which must be remembered against the judgment, if not the heart, of the latter. He gave his son so meagre an allowance that it scarcely kept him above want, and obliged him to labors and subjected him to cares which his frail health was not able to bear.
From Recanati, Leopardi first went to Rome ; but he carried Recanati everywhere with him, and he was as solitary and as wretched in the capital of the world as in the little village of the Apennines. He despised the Romans as they deserved, upon very short acquaintance, and he declared that his dullest fellow-villager had a greater share of good sense than the best of them. Their frivolity was incredible: the men moved him to rage and pity ; the women, high and low, to loathing. In one of his letters to his brother Carlo, he says of Rome, as he found it: “I have spoken to you only about the women, because I am at a loss what to say to you about literature. Horrors upon horrors ! The most sacred names profaned, the most absurd follies praised to the skies, the greatest spirits of the century trampled under foot, as inferior to the smallest literary man in Rome. Philosophy despised; genius, imagination, feeling, names — I do not say things, but even names — unknown and alien to these professional poets and poetesses ! Antiquarianism placed at the summit of human learning, and considered invariably and universally as the only true study of man ! ” This was Rome in 1822. “1 do not exaggerate,” he writes, “ because it is impossible, and I do not even say enough.” One of the things that moved him to the greatest disgust in the childish and insipid society of a city where he had fondly hoped to find a response to his high thoughts was the sensation caused throughout Rome by the dress and theatrical effectiveness with which a certain prelate said mass. All Rome talked of it, cardinals and noble ladies complimented the performer as if he were a ballet dancer, and the flattered prelate used to rehearse his part, and expatiate upon his methods of study for it to private audiences of admirers. In fact, society had then touched almost the lowest depth of degradation where society had always been corrupt and dissolute, and the reader of Massimo d’Azeglio’s memoirs may learn particulars (given with shame and regret, indeed, and yet with perfect Italian frankness) which it is not necessary to repeat here.
There were, however, many foreigners living at Rome in whose company Leopardi took great pleasure. They were chiefly Germans, and first among them was Niebuhr, who says of his first meeting with the poet: “ Conceive of my astonishment when I saw standing before me in the poor little chamber a mere youth, pale and shy, frail in person, and obviously in ill health, who was by far the first, in fact the only Greek philologist in Italy, the author of critical comments and observations which would have won honor for the first philologist in Germany, and yet only twenty-two years old! He had become thus profoundly learned without school, without instructor, without help, without encouragement, in his father’s house. I understand, too, that he is one of the first of the rising poets of Italy. What a nobly gifted people !”
Niebuhr offered to procure him a professorship of Greek philosophy in Berlin, but Leopardi would not consent to leave his own country ; and then Niebuhr unsuccessfully used his influence to get him some employment from the papal government, — compliments and good wishes it gave him, but no employment and no pay.
From Rome Leopardi went to Milan, where he earned something — very little — as editor of a comment upon Petrarch. A little later he went to Bologna, where a generous and sympathetic nobleman made him tutor in his family ; but Leopardi returned not long after to Recanati, where he probably found no greater content than he left there. Presently we find him at Pisa, and then at Florence, eking out the allowance from his father by such literary work as he could find to do. In the latter place it is somewhat dimly established that he again fell in love, though he despised the Florentine women almost as much as the Romans, for their extreme ignorance, folly, and pride. This love also was unhappy. There is no reason to believe that Leopardi, who inspired in men tender and ardent friendships, ever moved any woman to love. The Florentine ladies are darkly accused, by one of his biographers, of having laughed at the poor young pessimist, and it is very possible ; but that need not make us think the worse of him, or of them either, for that matter. He is supposed to have figured the lady of his latest love under the name of Aspasia, in one of his poems, as he did his first love under that of Sylvia, in the poem so called. Doubtless the experience further embittered a life already sufficiently miserable. He left Florence, but after a brief sojourn at Rome he returned thither, where his friend Antonio Ranieri watched with a heavy heart the gradual decay of his forces, and persuaded him finally to seek the milder air of Naples. Ranieri’s father was, like Leopardi’s, of reactionary opinions, and the Neapolitan, dreading the effect of their discord, did not take his friend to his own house, but hired a villa at Capodimonte, where he lived four years in fraternal intimacy with Leopardi, and where the poet died, in 1837.
Ranieri has in some sort made himself the champion of Leopardi’s fame. He has edited his poems, and has written a touching and beautiful sketch of his life. Their friendship, which was of the greatest tenderness, began when Leopardi sorely needed it; and Ranieri devoted himself to the hapless poet like a lover, as if to console him for the many years in which he had known neither reverence nor love. He indulged all the eccentricities of his guest, who for a sick man had certain strange habits, often not rising till evening, dining at midnight, and going to bed at dawn. Ranieri’s sister Paolina kept house for the friends, and shared all her brother’s compassion for Leopardi, whose family appears to have willingly left him to the care of these friends. How far the old unkindness between him and his father continued, it is hard to say. His last letter was written to his mother in May, 1837, some two weeks before his death; he thanks her for a present of ten dollars, — one may imagine from the gift and the gratitude that he was still held in a strict and parsimonious tutelage, — and begs her prayers and his father’s, for after he has seen them again, he shall not have long to live.
He did not see them again, but he continued to smile at the anxieties of his friends, who had too great reason to think that the end was much nearer than Leopardi himself supposed. On the night of the 14th of June, while they were waiting for the carriage which was to take them into the country where they intended to pass the time together and sup at daybreak, Leopardi felt so great a difficulty of breathing — he called it asthma, but it was dropsy of the heart — that he begged them to send for a doctor. The doctor on seeing the sick man took Ranieri apart, and bade him fetch a priest without delay, and while they waited the coming of the friar, Leopardi spoke now and then with them, but sank rapidly. Finally, says Ranieri, “ Leopardi opened his eyes, now larger even than their wont, and looked at me more fixedly than before. ‘ I can’t see you,’ he said, with a kind of sigh. And he ceased to breathe, and his pulse and heart beat no more ; and at the same moment the Friar Felice of the barefoot order of St. Augustine entered the chamber, while I, quite beside myself, called with a loud voice on him who had been my friend, my brother, my father, and who answered me nothing, and yet seemed to gaze upon me. . . . His death was inconceivable to me ; the others were dismayed and mute; there arose between the good friar and myself the most cruel and painful dispute, . . . I madly contending that my friend was still alive, and beseeching him with tears to accompany with the offices of religion the passing of that great soul. But he, touching again and again the pulse and the heart, continually answered that the spirit had taken flight. At last, a spontaneous and solemn silence fell upon all in the room; the friar knelt beside the dead, and we all followed his example. Then after long and profound meditation he prayed, and we prayed with him.”
In another place Ranieri says: “The malady of Leopardi was indefinable, for having its spring in the secretest fountains of life, it was like life itself, inexplicable. The bones softened and dissolved away, refusing their frail support to the flesh that covered them. The flesh itself grew thinner and more lifeless every day, for the organs of nutrition denied their office of assimilation. The lungs, cramped into a space too narrow, and not sound themselves, expanded with difficulty. With difficulty the heart freed itself from the lymph with which a slow absorption burdened it. The blood, which ill renewed itself in the hard and painful respiration, returned cold, pale, and sluggish to the enfeebled veins. And in fine, the whole mysterious circle of life, moving with such great effort, seemed from moment to moment about to pause forever. Perhaps the great cerebral sponge, beginning and end of that mysterious circle, had prepotently sucked up all the vital forces, and itself consumed in a brief time all that was meant to suffice the whole system for a long period. However it may be, the life of Leopardi was not a course, as in most men, but truly a precipitation towards death.”
Some years before he died, Leopardi had a presentiment of his death, and his end was perhaps hastened by the nervous shock of the terror produced by the cholera, which was then raging in Naples. At that time the body of a Neapolitan minister of state who had died of cholera was cast into the common burial pit at Naples, — such was the fear of contagion, and so rapidly were the dead hurried to the grave. A heavy bribe secured the remains of Leopardi from this fate, and his dust now reposes in a little church on the road to Pozzuoli.
“ In the years of boyhood,” says the Neapolitan critic, Francesco de Sanctis, “ Leopardi saw his youth vanish forever ; he lived obscure, and achieved posthumous envy and renown ; he was rich and noble, and he suffered from want and despite ; no woman’s love ever smiled upon him, the solitary lover of his own mind, to which he gave the names of Sylvia, Aspasia, and Nerina. Therefore, with a precocious and bitter penetration, he held what we call happiness for illusions and deceits of fancy ; the objects of our desire he called idols, our labors idleness, and everything vanity. Thus he saw nothing here below equal to his own intellect, or that was worthy the throb of his heart; and inertia, rust, as it were, even more than pain consumed his life, alone in what he called this formidable desert of the world. In such solitude life becomes a dialogue of man with his own soul, and the internal colloquies render more bitter and intense the affections which have returned to the heart for want of nourishment in the world. Mournful colloquies and yet pleasing, where man is the suicidal vulture perpetually preying upon himself, and caressing the wound that drags him to the grave. . . . The first cause of his sorrow is Recanati: the intellect, capable of the universe, feels itself oppressed in an obscure village, cruel to the body and deadly to the spirit. . . . He leaves Recanati; he arrives in Rome; we believe him content at last, and he too, believes it. Brief illusion ! Rome, Bologna, Milan, Florence, Naples, are all different places, where he forever meets the same man, himself. Read the first letter that he writes from Rome: ‘ In the great things I see I do not feel the least pleasure, for I know that they are marvelous, but I do not feel it, and I assure you that their multitude and grandeur wearied me after the first day.’ . . . To Leopardi it is rarely given to interest himself in any spectacle of nature, and he never does it without a sudden and agonized return to himself. . . . Malign and heartless men have pretended that Leopardi was a misanthrope, a fierce hater and enemy of the human race ! . . . Love, inexhaustible and almost ideal, was the supreme craving of that angelic heart, and never left it during life. ‘Love me, for God’s sake,’ he beseeches his brother Carlo; ; I have need of love, love, love, fire, enthusiasm, life.’ And in truth it may be said that pain and love form the twofold poetry of his life.”
Leopardi lived in Italy during the long contest between the classic and romantic schools, and it may be said that iu him many of the leading ideas of both parties were reconciled. His literary form was as severe and sculpturesque as that of Alfieri himself, whilst the most subjective and introspective of the romantic poets did not so much color the world with his own mental and spiritual hue as Leopardi. It is not plain whether he ever declared himself for one theory or the other. He was a contributor to the literary journal which the partisans of the romantic school founded at Florence ; but he was a man so weighed upon by his own sense of the futility and vanity of all things that he could have had little spirit for mere literary contentions. His admirers try hard to make out that he was positively and actively patriotic; and it is certain that in his earlier youth, he disagreed with his father’s conservative opinions, and despised the existing state of things ; but later in life he satirized the aspirations and purposes of progress, though without sympathizing with those of reaction.
The poem which his chief claim to classification with the poets militant of his time rests upon is that addressed To Italy. Those who have read even only a little of Leopardi have read it; and I must ask their patience with a version which drops the irregular rhyme of the piece for the sake of keeping its peculiar rhythm and measure.
The columns and the statues, and the lonely
Towers of our ancestors,
But not their glory, not
The laurel and the steel that of old time
Our great forefathers bore. Disarmèd now,
Naked thou showest thy forehead and thy breast!
O me, how’ many wounds,
What bruises and what blood ! How do I see thee,
Thou loveliest Lady! Unto Heaven I cry,
And to the world : “ Say, say,
Who brought her unto this ?” To this and worse,
For both her arms are loaded down with chains,
So that unveiled and with disheveled hair,
She crouches all forgotten and forlorn,
Hiding her beautiful face
Between her knees, and weeps.
Weep, weep, for well thou may’st, my Italy !
Born, as thou wort, to conquest,
Alike in evil and in prosperous sort !
If thy sweet eyes were each a living stream
Thou couldst not weep enough
For all thy sorrow and for all thy shame.
For thou wast queen, and now thou art a slave.
Who speaks of thee or writes,
That thinking on thy glory in the past
But says, “ She was great once, but is no more.”
Wherefore, oh, wherefore ? Where is the ancient
The valor and the arms, and constancy ?
Who rent the sword from thee ?
Who hath betrayed thee ? What art, or what toil,
Or what o’erwhelming force, Hath stripped thy robe and golden wreath from thee ?
How didst thou fall, and when,
From such a height unto a depth so low ?
Doth no one fight for thee, no one defend thee,
None of thy own ? Anns, arms !
For I alone Will fight and fall for thee.
Grant me, O Heaven, my blood
Shall be as fire unto Italian hearts !
Where are thy sons ? I hear the sound of arms,
Of wheels, of voices, and of drums ;
In foreign fields afar
Thy children fight and fall.
Wait, Italy, wait ! I see, or seem to see,
A tumult as of infantry and horse,
And smoke and dust, and the swift flash of swords
Like lightning among clouds.
Wilt thou not hope ?
Wilt thou not lift and turn Thy trembling eyes upon the doubtful close ?
For what, in yonder fields,
Combats Italian youth ? O gods, ye gods,
For other lands Italian swords are drawn !
Oh, misery for him who dies in war,
Not for his native shores and his beloved,
His wife and children dear,
But by the foes of others For others’ cause, and cannot dying say,
“ Dear land of mine,
The life thou gavest me I give thee back.”
This suffers, of course, in translation, but I confess that in the original it wears something of the same perfunctory air. His patriotism was the feverflame of the sick man’s blood ; his real country was the land beyond the grave, and there is a far truer note in this address to Death.
I have invoked and honored,
Beautiful Death ! who only,
Of all our earthly sorrows knowest pity :
If ever celebrated
Thou wast by me ; if ever I attempted
To recompense the insult
That vulgar terror offers
Thy lofty state, delay no more, but listen
To prayers so rarely uttered :
Shut to the light forever,
Sovereign of time, these eyes of weary anguish ! ”
I suppose that Italian criticism of the present day would not give Leopardi nearly so high a place among the poets as his friend Ranieri claims for him and his contemporaries accorded. He seems to have been the poet of a national mood ; he was the final expression of that long, hopeless apathy in which Italy lay bound for thirty years after the fall of Napoleon and his governments, and the reëstablishment of all the little despots, native and foreign, throughout the peninsula. In this time there was unrest enough, and revolt enough of a desultory and unorganized sort, but every struggle, apparently every aspiration, for a free political and religious life ended in a more solid confirmation of the leaden misrule which weighed down the hearts of the people. To such an apathy the pensive monotone of this sick poet’s song might well seem the only truth ; and one who beheld the universe with the invalid’s loath eyes, and reasoned from his own irremediable ills to a malign mystery presiding over all human affairs, and ordering a sad destiny from which there could be no defense but death, might have the authority of a prophet among those who could find no promise of better things in their earthly lot.
Leopardi’s malady was such that when he did not positively suffer he had still the memory of pain, and he was oppressed with a dreary ennui, from which he could not escape. Death, oblivion, annihilation, are the thoughts upon which he broods, and which fill his verse. The passing color of other men’s minds is the prevailing cast of his, and he probably with far more sincerity than any other poet nursed his despair in such utterances as this: —
O weary heart! The last deceit is ended,
For I believed myself immortal. Cherished
Hopes, and beloved delusions, And longings to be deluded,
— all are perished! Rest thee forever! Oh, greatly,
Heart, hast thou palpitated. There is nothing
Worthy to move thee more, nor is earth worthy
Thy sighs. For life is only
Bitterness and vexation ; earth is only
A heap of dust. So rest thee !
Despair for the last time. To our race Fortune
Never gave any gift but death. Disdain, then,
Thyself and Nature and the Power
Occultly reigning to the common ruin :
Scorn, heart, the infinite emptiness of all things!
Nature was so cruel a stepmother to this man that he could see nothing but harm even in her apparent beneficence, and his verse repeats again and again his dark mistrust of the very loveliness which so keenly delights his sense. One of his early poems, called The Quiet after the Storm, strikes the key in which nearly all his songs are pitched. The observation of nature is very sweet and honest, and I cannot see that the philosophy in its perversion of the relations of physical and spiritual facts is less mature than that of his later work: it is a philosophy of which the first conception cannot well differ from the final expression.
The clouds above the mountain in the west!
The fields disclose themselves,
And in the valley bright the river runs.
All hearts are glad; on every side
Arise the happy sounds
Of toil begun anew.
The workman, singing, to the threshold comes,
With work in hand, to judge the sky,
Still humid; and the damsel next,
On his report, comes forth to brim her pail
With the fresh-fallen rain.
The noisy fruiterers
From lane to lane resume
Their customary cry.
The sun looks out again, and smiles upon
The houses and the hills. Windows and doors
Are opened wide; and on the far-off road
You hear the tinkling bells and rattling wheels
Of travelers that set out upon their journey.
So grateful and so sweet
When is our life as now?
Vain joy which is the fruit
Of bygone suffering overshadowèd
And wrung with cruel fears
Of death, whom life abhors ;
Wherein, in long suspense,
Silent and cold and pale,
Man sat, and shook and shuddered to behold
Lightnings and clouds and winds,
Furious in his offense !
Beneficent Nature, these,
These are thy bounteous gifts;
These, these are the delights
Thou offerest unto mortals! To escape
From pain is bliss to us ;
Anguish thou scatterest broadcast, and our woes
Spring up spontaneous, and that little joy
Born sometimes, for a miracle and show,
Of terror is our mightiest gain. O man,
Dear to the gods, count thyself fortunate
If now and then relief
Thou hast from pain, and blest
When death shall come to heal thee of all pain!
“ The bodily deformities which humiliated Leopardi, and the cruel infirmities that agonized him his whole life long, wrought in his heart an invincible disgust, which made him invoke death as the sole relief. His songs, while they express discontent, the discord of the world, the conviction of the nullity of human things, are exquisite in style; they breathe a perpetual melancholy, which is often sublime, and they relax and pain your soul like the music of a single chord, while their strange sweetness wins you to them again and again.” This is the language of an Italian critic who wrote after Leopardi’s death, when already it had begun to be doubted whether he was the greatest Italian poet since Dante. A still later critic finds Leopardi’s style " without relief, without lyric flight, without the great art of contrasts, without poetic leaven,” hard to read. “ Despoil those verses of their masterly polish,” he says, “ reduce those thoughts to prose, and you will see how little they are akin to poetry.”
I have a feeling that my versions apply some such test to Leopardi’s work, and that the reader sees it in them at much of the disadvantage which this critic desires for it. Yet, after doing my worst, I am not wholly able to agree with him. It seems to me that there is the indestructible charm in it which, wherever we find it, we must call poetry. It is true that “ its strange sweetness wins you again and again,” and that this “ lovely pipe of death ” thrills and solemnly delights as no other stop has done. Let us hear it again, as the poet sounds it, figuring himself a Syrian shepherd, guarding his flock by night, and weaving his song under the Eastern moon : —
That knowest not thy fate, however hard,
How utterly I envy thee!
Not merely that thou goest almost free
Of all this weary pain, —
That every misery and every toil
And every fear thou straightway dost forget, —
But most because thou knowest not ennui
When on the grass thou liest in the shade.
I see thee tranquil and content,
And great part of thy years
Untroubled by ennui thou passest thus.
I likewise in the shadow, on the grass,
Lie, and a dull disgust beclouds
My soul, and I am goaded with a spur,
So that, reposing, I am farthest still
From finding peace or place.
And yet I want for naught,
And have not had till now a cause for tears.
What is thy bliss, how much,
I cannot tell; but thou art fortunate.
Errs, running thus to other’s destiny:
May be, to everything,
Wherever born, in cradle or in fold,
That day is terrible when it was born.
It is the same note, the same voice ; the theme does not change, but perhaps it is deepened in this ode : —
ON THE LIKENESS OF A BEAUTIFUL WOMAN CARVEN UPON HER TOMB.
A skeleton and dust. O’er dust and bones
Immovably and vainly set, and mute,
Looking upon the flight of centuries,
Sole keeper of memory
And of regret is this fair counterfeit
Of loveliness now vanished. That sweet look,
Which made men tremble when it fell on them,
As now it falls on me ; that lip, which once,
Like some full vase of sweets,
Ran over with delight ; that fair neck, clasped
By longing, and that soft and amorous hand,
Which often did impart
An icy thrill unto the hand it touched ;
That breast, which visibly
Blanched with its beauty him who looked on it, —
All these things were, and now
Dust art thou, filth, a fell
And hideous sight hidden beneath a stone.
Upon the semblance that to us did seem
Heaven’s vividest image ! Eternal mystery
Of mortal being ! To-day the ineffable
Fountain of thoughts and feelings vast and high,
Beauty reigns sovereign, and seems
Like splendor throwm afar
From some immortal essence on these sands,
To give our mortal state
A sign and hope secure of destinies
Higher than human, and of fortunate realms,
And golden worlds unknown.
To-morrow, at a touch,
Loathsome to see, abominable, abject,
Becomes the thing that was
All but angelical before ;
And from men’s memories
All that its loveliness
Inspired forever faints and fades away.
And visions high and pure
Rise in the happy soul,
Lulled by the sound of cunning harmonies,
Whereon the spirit floats,
As at his pleasure floats
Some fearless swimmer over the deep sea ;
But if a discord strike
The wounded sense, to naught
All that fair paradise in an instant falls.
Be wholly frail and vile,
Be only dust and shadow, how canst thou
So deeply feel ? And if thou be
In part divine, how can thy will and thought
Be things? so poor and base
So easily be awakened and quenched ?
Let us touch for the last time this pensive chord, and listen to its response of hopeless love. This poem, in which he turns to address the spirit of the poor child whom he loved boyishly at Recanati, is pathetic with the fact that possibly she only ever reciprocated the tenderness with which his heart was filled.
In this that season of thy mortal being
When from thine eyes shone beauty,
In thy shy glances fugitive and smiling,
And joyously and pensively the borders
Of childhood thou didst traverse ?
And the ways near resounded
To thy perpetual singing,
When thou, intent upon some girlish labor,
Sat’st utterly contented,
With the fair future brightening in thy vision.
It was the fragrant month of May, and ever
Thus thou thy days beguiledst.
Leaving my manuscripts and toil-stained volumes,
Wherein I spent the better
Part of myself and of my young existence,
Leaned sometimes idly from my father’s windows,
And listened to the music of thy singing,
And to thy hand, that fleetly
Ran o’er the threads of webs that thou wast weaving.
Unto the golden lanes and orchards,
And unto the far sea and to the mountains:
No mortal tongue may utter
What in my heart I felt then.
What hopes, what hearts, we had in that far season !
How fair and good before us
Seemed human life and fortune !
When I remember hope so great, belovèd,
An utter desolation
And bitterness o’erwhelm me,
And I return to mourn my evil fortune.
O Nature, faithless Nature,
Wherefore dost thou not give us
That which thou promisest ? Wherefore deceivest,
With so great guile, thy children ?
Stricken by thy fell malady, and vanquished,
Didst perish, O my darling! and the blossom
Of thy years never sawest;
Thy heart was never melted
At the sweet praise, now of thy raven tresses,
Now of thy glances amorous and bashful;
Never with thee the holiday-free maidens
Reasoned of love and loving.
My own sweet hope ; and destiny denied me
Youth, even in my childhood.
Alas, alas, belovèd
Companion of my childhood !
Alas, my mournèd hope ! how art thou vanished
Out of my place forever !
This is that world? the pleasures,
The love, the labors, the events, we talked of,
These, when we prattled long ago together ?
Is this the fortune of our race, O Heaven ?
At the truth’s joyless dawning,
Thou fullest, sad one, with thy pale hand pointing
Unto cokl death, and an unknown and naked
Sepulchre in the distance.
These pieces fairly indicate the range of Leopardi, and I confess that they and the rest that I have read leave me somewhat puzzled in the presence of his reputation. This, to be sure, is largely based upon his prose writings—his dialogues, full of irony and sarcasm — and his unquestionable scholarship. But the poetry is the heart of his fame, and is it enough to justify it? I suppose that such poetry owes very much of its peculiar influence to that awful love we all have of hovering about the idea of Death, — of playing with the great catastrophe of our several tragedies and farces, and of marveling what it can be. There are moods which the languid despair of Leopardi’s poetry can always evoke, and in which it seems that the most life can do is to leave us, and let us lie down and cease. But I fancy we all agree that these are not very wise or healthful moods, and that their indulgence does not fit us particularly well for the duties of life, though I never heard that they interfered with its pleasures ; on the contrary, they add a sort of zest to enjoyment. Of course the whole transaction is illogical. But if a poet will end every pensive strain with an appeal or an apostrophe to Death; not the real Death, that comes with a sharp, quick agony, or “ after long lying in bed,” after many days or many years of squalid misery and slowly dying hopes and medicines that cease even to relieve at last; not this Death, that comes in all the horror of undertaking, but a picturesque and impressive abstraction, whose business it is to relieve its in the most effective way of all our troubles, and at the same time to avenge us somehow upon the indefinitely ungrateful and unworthy world we abandon, — if a poet will do this, we are very apt to like him. There is little doubt that Leopardi was sincere, and there is little reason why he should not have been so, for life could give him nothing but pain.
De Sanctis, whom I have quoted already, and who speaks, I believe, with rather more authority than any other modern Italian critic, and certainly with great clearness and acuteness, does not commit himself to specific praise of Leopardi’s work. But he seems to regard him as an important expression, if not force or influence, and he has some words about him, at the close of his History of Italian Literature, which have interested me, not only for the estimate of Leopardi which they embody, but for the singularly distinct statement which they make of the modern literary attitude. I should not, myself, have felt that Leopardi represented this, but I am willing that the reader should feel it, if he can. De Sanctis has been speaking of the romantic period in Italy, when he says, —
“ Giacomo Leopardi marks the close of this period. Metaphysics at war with theology had ended in this attempt at reconciliation. The multiplicity of systems had discredited science itself. Metaphysics was regarded as a revival of theology. The Idea seemed a substitute for Providence. Those philosophies of history, of religion, of humanity, had the air of poetical inventions. . . . That reconciliation between the old and new, tolerated as a temporary political necessity, seemed at bottom a profanation of science, a moral weakness. . . . Faith in revelation had been wanting; faith in philosophy itself was now wanting. Mystery reappeared. The philosopher knew as much as the peasant. Of this mystery, Giacomo Leopardi was the echo in the solitude of his thought and his pain. His skepticism announced the dissolution of this theologico-metaphysical world, and inaugurated the reign of the arid True, of the Real. His songs are the most profound and occult voices of that laborious transition called the nineteenth century. That which has importance is not the brilliant exterior of that century of progress, and it is not without irony that he speaks of the progressive destinies of mankind. That which has importance is the exploration of one’s own breast, the inner world, virtue, liberty, love, all the ideals of religion, of science, and of poetry, — shadows and illusions in the presence of reason, yet which warm the heart, and will not die. Mystery destroys the intellectual world ; it leaves the moral world intact. This tenacious life of the inner world, despite the fall of all theological and metaphysical worlds, is the originality of Leopardi, and gives his skepticism a religious stamp. . . . Every one feels in it a new creation. The instrument of this renovation is criticism. . . . The sense of the real continues to develop itself; the positive sciences come to the top, and cast out all the ideal and systematic constructions. New dogmas lose credit. Criticism remains intact. The patient labor of analysis begins again. . . . Socialism reappears in the political order, positivism in the intellectual order. The word is no longer liberty, but justice. . . . Literature also undergoes transformation. It rejects classes, distinctions, privileges. The ugly stands beside the beautiful ; or rather, there is no longer ugly or beautiful, neither ideal nor real, neither infinite nor finite. . . . There is but one thing only, the Living.”
I began by calling Leopardi the Laureate of Death ; I end by letting another proclaim him the Laureate of Life. Perhaps there is no difference, though I am not yet realist enough to affirm this.
W. D. Howells.