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C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Critical and Biographical Introduction by Katharine Hillard (1839/40–1915)

By Giacomo Leopardi (1798–1837)

LIKE Byron, Leopardi came of an ancient and patrician but impoverished family. His mother, who seems to have been the real head of the house, had so absorbed herself in the task of repairing its fallen fortunes, that she had little time and less tenderness left to lavish upon her children. His father, Count Monaldo Leopardi, was a mere figure-head in his own household, and spent most of his time shut up in his library. He lived at Recanati, a little mountain village of Tuscany, high up in the Apennines, near Loreto; and there, in the stifling dullness of a small provincial town, Giacomo Leopardi was born, on the 29th of June, 1798. His father was as conservative as an ordinary mind bred up under the restraints of a little village in the Italy of that day naturally would be. He was bigoted, narrow-minded, bitterly opposed to progress, seeing nothing good outside of the precincts of the Church. He even preferred the costume of an earlier period, and dressed himself and his wife in mediæval attire. The young Leopardi, nervous, sickly, and deformed, was brought up in his father’s library, having no companions except his sister and his brothers. He spent his time among dictionaries and grammars; and with little or no assistance contrived to make himself master of Latin, Greek, Hebrew, French, Spanish, and English, by the time he was sixteen.

At that age he composed a Latin treatise on the Roman rhetoricians of the second century, a history of astronomy, and 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 seventeen he wrote on the popular errors of the ancients, and quoted more than four hundred authors. His next achievement was two odes in the manner of Anacreon, which imposed upon the first scholars in Italy. At eighteen he wrote a long poem called ‘The Approach of Death,’ which was lost for many years, but finally discovered and published. It is a vision of the omnipotence of death, that offers a remarkable resemblance in many ways to Shelley’s ‘Triumph of Life,’ written six years later. Then in 1819, when the young poet was but twenty years old, came the two poems which gave him his place among the Italian classics: the ‘Ode to Italy,’ and that to the Dante monument then being erected in Florence.

These poems were so full of the spirit of the hour, and gave such complete expression to the anguish of a country awakened from the sleep of centuries to find herself among the despised and rejected nations of the world,—her political prestige gone, her intellectual standing lost, even her poetry and her art sunk into the lowest depths of degradation,—that they fired the Italian people like a voice from their glorious past. Leopardi had emerged from the seclusion of his father’s library a perfect Greek in spirit and in style; and only Landor could compare with him for classic purity, precision, and force. The rich harmonies of the Italian language lent to his poetry a charm that no English translation can possibly give, and the unrhymed lines fall cold and dead upon the ear in our less musical tongue.

The revolutionary spirit of these odes and the bitter disappointment that they breathed made the bigoted and narrow-minded father furious, and he denied his son almost the necessaries of life. Because the poet refused to become a priest, he was loaded with labors that his frail health was not able to support; nor would the father allow him to leave Recanati, where ennui, to use Leopardi’s own words, not merely oppressed and wearied him, but agonized and lacerated like a cruel pain. He had suffered there a disappointment in love; having cherished a romantic passion for a young girl whom he scarcely knew, but whose voice he heard continually as she sang at her work in a house opposite his father’s palace. Probably had he known her better he might have loved her less; but the count promptly crushed the dawning passion, and shortly afterwards the young girl died. Her memory represented for the poet all that he ever knew of love.

At the age of twenty-four he broke away at last from his paternal prison-house and went to Rome; only to carry his melancholy with him, his morbid contempt for his fellows, his physical weakness and sufferings. Rome proved to him only a larger Recanati, where frivolity and dissipation reigned supreme. A few foreigners, principally Germans, and among them Niebuhr, alone redeemed the social degradation. Niebuhr, who considered Leopardi by far the first, if not the only, Greek philologist in Italy, would have procured him a professorship of Greek philosophy in Berlin; but Leopardi would not leave his own country. For some years he drifted about rather aimlessly, always the prey of ill health, from Rome to Milan, to Bologna, to Recanati again, to Pisa, and to Florence. Many men loved him; notably Antonio Ranieri, a young Neapolitan whose acquaintance Leopardi made in 1832, and at whose house at Capodimonte, carefully tended by Ranieri and his sister, the poet spent the last years of his unhappy life. Here he met the German Platen, and wrote one of his finest poems, ‘La Ginestra’ (The Broom-flower). It was at Naples also that Leopardi wrote a satire in ottava rima upon the abortive Neapolitan revolution of 1820; a poem clever in its way, but like much of the verse of Giusti, too full of local allusions to be comprehensible except by the Neapolitans of the early thirties. After four years of hopeless invalidism, Leopardi died very suddenly, on the eve of departure for the country, on June 15th, 1837. His remains were deposited at a little church on the road to Pozzuoli.

That genial critic, De Sanctis, tells us that “love, inexhaustible and almost ideal, was the supreme craving of Leopardi’s heart, and never left it through life”; and that “it may in truth be said that pain and love form the twofold poetry of his existence.” Except for the society of his commonplace brothers and sisters he was absolutely without companionship until he went to Rome. The pettiness of its social ambitions swept away his last illusion. To quote De Sanctis again: “The objects of our desire he called idols; our labors, idleness; and everything, vanity…. Inertia—rust, as it were—even more than pain consumed his life, alone in what he called ‘this formidable desert of the world.’” Like most pessimists, he demanded everything and gave nothing. He desired the love of mankind, but he hated and despised his fellows; and insisted upon what they owed him, forgetting his debt to them. Like another Prometheus, Leopardi lay bound to the rock of suffering, with a vulture gnawing at his heart; but the vulture was of his own nurture, and his tortures were self-imposed. It is to his praise however as a patriot, that his voice was one of the first to arouse Italy from her shameful sleep to the desire of better things. As a poet the beautiful purity of his style, and the exquisite melody of his unrhymed or irregularly rhymed verse, have never been surpassed.

Opinions differ as to the crowning expression of his genius; but the popular verdict seems to settle upon ‘Sylvia,’ and the noble poem ‘La Ginestra,’ or the Broom-flower. The lyric beauty of ‘Sylvia’ can never be rendered in English irregular verse: it belongs to the Italian language. The ‘Night-Song of a Wandering Shepherd of Asia’ is one of the most charming of his longer poems; though it may be considered doubtful whether any wandering shepherd ever felt that the crowning happiness of his flocks was their incapacity for feeling bored. Other fine poems of Leopardi are ‘Aspasia,’ ‘The Song-Sparrow,’ ‘Bento Minore,’ and ‘The Dominant Thought.’