Giacomo Leopardi

FROM ‘MARA, MARIETTA’
Part Seven Chapter 2

Jagged stalks, dusted with snow, recede to a row of bare trees marking the horizon: On both sides of the highway, stubble fields stretch out.

̶  Do you know Leopardi, Sprague?
̶  Yes. Do you?
̶  No.
̶  He’s the brother I never had. I feel very close to him.
̶  Really? Tell me about him.

And thus I came to speak of my beloved Giacomo, of his early understanding that life is nothing but a process of losing: ‘The only people who truly live until their death are those who remain children all their lives.’ I spoke of his pitiless mother, haunted by a sense of sin, incapable of touching her children. I spoke of the boy bent over his books, freezing in his father’s library. Homer and Virgil, Dante and Tasso, Seneca and Cicero: These were Giacomo’s intimates. I spoke of his overwhelming longing for the tenderness of a woman, a tenderness he would never know. ‘Intelligent enough to appreciate his genius, vulnerable enough to be kind’: He never met such a woman. His scoliosis, the hump on his back, was but the visible sign, I asserted, that he’d been marked out for sorrow. And thus he was hurt into poetry. As you warmed to my portrait, I spoke of Leopardi’s ethics of lucidity, his refusal of abstraction, his recognition of the individual as an absolute. His poetry, I explained, in restoring presence to things, creates a silence in which memory can speak. Suffering, mourning and solitude—yes, but in a graceful moon on a quiet night there is the promise of a woman and a shared life: Leopardi is the poet of tenderness.

̶  The brother you never had, hey?

Your eyes shine and I see mine in them: I want to wrap my arms around you, I want to press your body to mine. Or just fall down at your feet.

John Singer Sargent, Head of an Italian Woman, 1878

CANTO XXVI – IL PENSIERO DOMINANTE (Lines 136 – 147)
The first of the three Leopardi canti Matteo set to music for Mara, in the original Italian, in the German Matteo uses, and in English

Il pensiero dominante

 

Da che ti vidi pria,
Di qual mia seria cura ultimo obbietto
Non fosti tu? quanto del giorno è scorso,
Ch’io di te non pensassi? ai sogni miei
La tua sovrana imago
Quante volte mancò? Bella qual sogno,
Angelica sembianza,
Nella terrena stanza,
Nell’alte vie dell’universo intero,
Che chiedo io mai, che spero
Altro che gli occhi tuoi veder più vago?
Altro più dolce aver che il tuo pensiero?

Der beherrschende Gedanke

 

Seit ich dich erblickte,
welche ernsthafte Sorge hatte nicht dich
zum Gegenstande? Welche Stunde verstrich,
dass ich nicht deiner gedachte? Wann erfüllt
dein beherrschendes Bild
nicht all meine Träume? Ja, schön bist du wie ein Traum,
engelhafte Gestalt.
Was im irdischen Raum,
was in des ganzen Weltalls erhabenen Bahnen
wünsche, was hoffe ich
jemals Schöneres zu schauen als deine Augen,
Süsseres zu haben als den Gedanken an dich?

From Giacomo Leopardi, Gesänge und Fragmente / Canti e Frammenti,
translated by Helmut Endrulat (Stuttgart: Philipp Reclam jun, 1990)

The Dominant Thought

 

Since I first saw you,
Of what deep care of mine have you not been
The ultimate object? What hour has ever passed
Without you on my mind? And in my dreams,
Has your sovereign image ever
Been absent? Vivid as a dream,
Angelic apparition,
In earthly room,
In heaven’s vast avenues,
What more lovely than looking into your eyes
Do I ask for or hope to find?
What experience sweeter than thinking of you?

Translated by R. J.

COMMENTARY ON ‘IL PENSIERO DOMINANTE’

By Pamela Williams

 

The remarkable thing about Leopardi’s conception of love when it is inspired by a real woman is that it has the power to survive the knowledge that it is an illusion. In ‘Il pensiero dominante’ (XXVI, 1831-35), a real woman, generally identified as Fanny Targioni Tozzetti, has inspired a dream – the word ‘love’ itself is not mentioned – that has completely taken hold of the poet’s mind and yet he knows it is a dream.

The poem is an emphatic statement of love’s power and exclusiveness: it alone can transform life into a paradise on earth; it is the only thing which gives meaning to life and makes life preferable to death; it is so powerful it can survive the knowledge that it is a dream.

In ‘Il pensiero dominante’ the poet is certain that the illusion of love will remain with him for the rest of his life, because every time he compares the illusion with the reality, that is with the real woman who has fired his imaginative dream, she inspires an even greater vision of happiness in his mind.

From Pamela Williams, An Introduction to Leopardi’s Canti (Leicester: Troubadour Publishing, 2004)

Eugene von Blaas, Italian Woman

John Graham-Gilbert, Italian Woman

By Iris Origo

 

With every lost opportunity, every fancied snub, Leopardi’s first adolescent attitude to love hardened and became crystallized.

He wrote, he thirsted during the dusty emptiness of social intercourse, as a wayfarer on a stony mountain seeks a green meadow. Only in his obsession could he feel himself like the gods; only then could he experience the sense of supreme power, of superhuman exaltation, that comes even to unrequited lovers; only then, fully realize the triviality of all the rest of life. Its dangers—even death, the ‘supreme necessity’—lost their power to alarm; all human opinions, ambitions, pride, became of small account.

From Iris Origo, Leopardi: A Study in Solitude (NY: Books & Co./Helen Marx Books, 1999)

CANTO XXVII – AMORE E MORTE (Lines 27 – 44)
The second of the three Leopardi canti Matteo set to music for Mara, in the original Italian, in the German Matteo uses, and in English

Amore e morte

 

Quando novellamente
Nasce nel cor profondo
Un amoroso affetto,
Languido e stanco insiem con esso in petto
Un desiderio di morir si sente:
Come, non so: ma tale
D’amor vero e possente è il primo effetto.
Forse gli occhi spaura
Allor questo deserto: a sé la terra
Forse il mortale inabitabil fatta
Vede omai senza quella
Nova, sola, infinita
Felicità che il suo pensier figura:
Ma per cagion di lei grave procella
Presentendo in suo cor, brama quiete,
Brama raccorsi in porto
Dinanzi al fier disio,
Che già, rugghiando, intorno intorno oscura.

Liebe und Tod

 

Wenn in des Herzens Tiefe
erwachender Liebe Lust
neues Empfinden entfacht,
spurt man zugleich, erschöpft und matt, in der Brust
Sehnsucht nach dem Tode.
Ich weiss nicht, warum, doch das
ist wahrer und starker Liebe erste Wirkung.
Mag sein, dass das Auge dann scheu
die Einsamkeit fürchtet. Mag sein,
der Sterbliche erkennt, dass für ihn nun die Erde
unbewohnbar werde,
wenn, grenzenlos, einzig und neu,
das Glück ihm versagt bliebe, das sein Denken bestimmt.
Er spürt, wie im Herzen wild
Sturm heraufzieht, und wünscht sich sehnlich zu schlafen,
wünscht sich Zuflucht im Hafen
vor jenem Begehren, das schwillt
und tosend alles ringsum in Finsternis hüllt.

From Giacomo Leopardi, Gesänge und Fragmente / Canti e Frammenti,
translated by Helmut Endrulat (Stuttgart: Philipp Reclam jun, 1990)

Love and Death

 

When a loving feeling
is newborn deep within the heart,
a languid and exhausted
wish to die arrives
at the same time,
I don’t know why; but this
is the first effect of true and potent love.
Perhaps this desert terrifies the eyes then,
or the mortal
finds earth is unlivable
without this new, unique, unending
happiness his mind conceives.
But sensing an ungovernable storm
brewing in his heart because of it,
he yearns for calm,
he yearns to come to port
before his wild desire,
already roaring, turning the world dark.

From Giacomo Leopardi, Canti, translated and edited by Jonathan Galassi
(NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014)

COMMENTARY ON ‘AMORE E MORTE’

By Iris Origo

 

Love and Death appear as the twin protagonists of a Leopardian myth, in which Love stands for the creative principle of life, Death for the powers of destruction; but at the end of the poem the figure of Death—ardently invoked by the poet—has suffered a shadowy identification with the beloved woman herself; and thus, in seeking death, the lover also finds fulfillment.

From Iris Origo, Leopardi: A Study in Solitude (NY: Books & Co./Helen Marx Books, 1999)

 

By Pamela Williams

 

Amore e morte is an appropriate poem to follow Il pensiero dominante because Leopardi considers a desire for death the first effect of true and powerful love, and in love (according to his extraordinary conception of love), he himself desires only to die.

In the poem, with the vision of happiness love inspires, the courage to kill oneself is reborn. The poet is convinced that people who experience true and powerful love understand the sweetness of death; even the man who did not know the truth before and therefore did not despise life, even the shy young girl who was afraid to die. At the end of stanza 2 the poet taunts the world who laughs at those who kill themselves for love’s sake. In the context of Amore e morte, ‘peace’ and ‘old age’ are actually the worst things that can be wished on anyone because they are the opposite of ‘love’ and ‘death’ respectively.

The poet perceives death as a bellissima fanciulla (beautiful young girl) both at the beginning and at the end of the poem because, since he desires it so much, it is lovely to look upon. He is not out of love at the end of the poem; his weary desire to fall asleep in the bosom of death is the direct consequence of the vision of happiness love inspires.

From Pamela Williams, An Introduction to Leopardi’s Canti (Leicester: Troubadour Publishing, 2004)

Gustave Moreau, Young Man and Death, 1865

CANTO XXVIII – A SE STESSO (Lines 27 – 44)
The last of the three Leopardi canti Matteo set to music for Mara, in the original Italian, in the German Matteo uses, and in English

A se stesso

 

Or poserai per sempre,
Stanco mio cor. Perì l’inganno estremo,
Ch’eterno io mi credei. Perì. Ben sento,
In noi di cari inganni,
Non che la speme, il desiderio è spento.
Posa per sempre. Assai
Palpitasti. Non val cosa nessuna
I moti tuoi, né di sospiri è degna
La terra. Amaro e noia
La vita, altro mai nulla; e fango è il mondo.
T’acqueta omai. Dispera
L’ultima volta. Al gener nostro il fato
Non donò che il morire. Omai disprezza
Te, la natura, il brutto
Poter che, ascoso, a comun danno impera,
E l’infinita vanità del tutto.

An sich selbst

 

Nun hast du Ruhe für immer,
mein müdes Herz. Der letzte Wahn zerstob.
Was mir als ewig erschien, es zerstob. Ich fühle,
nach süssem Selbstbetrug
ist nicht nur die Hoffnung, ist auch die Sehnsucht erloschen.
Ruh aus für immer! Genug
hast du gezuckt und gepocht. Kein Ding ist es wert,
sich zu erregen, und keinen Seufzer verdient
die Erde. Bitter und lästig,
anders nicht ist das Leben und schmutzig die Welt.
Gib dich zufrieden! Lass fahren
dein letztes Hoffen! Unserm Geschlecht vermachte
das Schicksal nur das Sterben. Nun verachte
dich selbst, die Natur und die schnöde
Gewalt, die insgeheim herrscht zu aller Verderben,
und diese ganze unendlich nichtige Öde.

From Giacomo Leopardi, Gesänge und Fragmente / Canti e Frammenti,
translated by Helmut Endrulat (Stuttgart: Philipp Reclam jun, 1990)

To Himself

 

Now you will rest, tired heart, forever. Finished
Is your last fantasy, which I felt sure
Would endure forever. It’s finished. I know in my bones
That hope and even desire are cold
For any further fond illusions.
Stay easy forever. You’ve been
Throbbing long enough. Nothing is worth
This beating and beating; the earth
Doesn’t deserve a sigh. Life is nothing
But blankness of spirit, a bitter taste, and the world
Mud. Now rest in peace. Despair
For the last time. Fate gave our kind
No gift but death. Cast a cold eye now
On yourself, on nature, on that hideous hidden force
That drives all things to their destruction,
And the infinite all is vanity of it all.

From Leopardi: Selected Poems, translated by Eamon Grennan
(Princeton University Press, 1997)

COMMENTARY ON ‘A SE STESSO’

By Iris Origo

 

‘A se stesso’ refers to the final break with Fanny Targioni Tozzetti—loneliness, humiliation, sense of betrayal, self-mistrust—the profound weariness that engulfed him.

From Iris Origo, Leopardi: A Study in Solitude (NY: Books & Co./Helen Marx Books, 1999)

 

By Pamela Williams

 

The pain that he had feared had come—and when it passed away, it took with it what was most vital in him.

After the destruction of this last ‘illusion’, Leopardi lived on for four more years, but he wrote no more love-poems, and he brought to an end the great day-book in which, for seven years, he had jotted down all his thoughts.

Some vital spring was broken—‘not hope alone, but all desire had fled’.

Once again Leopardi lays before us ‘the hidden and mysterious cruelty of human destiny’, but this time he employs no argument, points no moral: we hear something simpler and more moving: a human cry of pain.

From Pamela Williams, An Introduction to Leopardi’s Canti (Leicester: Troubadour Publishing, 2004)

James Renwick Brevoort, The Ruins of Tuscany, 1878