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

Night-Song of a Wandering Asian Shepherd

By Giacomo Leopardi (1798–1837)

Translation of Katharine Hillard

WHAT dost thou, moon in heaven; tell me, what dost thou,

O silent moon?

Rising with evening, and slowly pacing

The skies, contemplating the desert; then setting.

Oh, art thou not yet weary

Of still retracing the everlasting pathways?

Art thou not yet rebellious? dost still delight

In gazing at these valleys?

Like thy life

The shepherd’s life, methinks.

With earliest dawn he rises,

Drives his flock far afield, and watches

The flock, the brooks, the pastures;

Then wearied out, lies down to rest at evening.

Nor to aught else aspires.

Tell me, O moon, what value

Such a life to the shepherd,

Such a life, moon, to thee? tell me where leadeth

This brief existence of mine,

And thy eternal journeys?

An old man hoary and delicate,

Half clad, and going barefoot,

Bearing a heavy burden upon his shoulders,—

Over mountains and over valleys,

Over sharp rocks, deep sands, and thorny places,

In wind, in tempest, or when the lightning

Flashes, or the hailstones strike him,—

Still hurries on, hurries on panting,

Traverses torrents and marshes,

Falls and rises again, and faster and faster hastens;

Without or rest or refreshment,

Torn and bleeding he goes: and at last arriveth

There where the pathway

And his struggles alike have ending;

Where yawns the abyss, bottomless, terrible,—

There he flings himself down, and findeth oblivion.

Such, O virgin moon,

Such is mortal existence.


Often, thus gazing upon thee,

Standing so silent above these, the desert regions,

Whereto with distant arch the heavens confine thee,

Or as my flock I follow,

Step by step, as we travel slowly together,

And when I gaze at the stars, that above me are burning,—

I say to myself, as I’m thinking,

Why all these starry fires?

What means this infinite air, and what the

Depths of the heavens? What is the meaning

Of all this solitude boundless? And I, what am I?

Thus I discourse with myself, and of all my surroundings,

Sky and earth, endless and splendid,

With all their offspring unnumbered;

Of all their relations and movements,

Of all things celestial, terrestrial,

Sweeping on still, without resting,

Ever returning to fill their places appointed.

Of all things, no purpose,

No real fruit can I see.

But thou at least, maiden immortal, thou

Knowest all things.

This thing I know, and I feel it:

That out of this endless motion,

Out of this frail human nature,

Some slight good and contentment

Others may get, perchance; to me our life is but evil.

O flock of mine, at rest here! O happy creatures,

That know not your fate, I believe you unconscious of sorrow!

What envy to you I bear!

Not only that even of suff’ring

Almost unheeding ye go,—

That hunger or terror

Seizing upon you, is ever as swiftly forgotten,—

But still more because tedium never o’ertakes you.

And when ye rest in the shade on sweet grasses,

Content and quiet bide with you.


Had I wings like a bird, peradventure,

To bear me on high through the heavens,

And one by one to number the planets,

Or, like the thunder, leap from one peak to another,

Happier I’d be, sweet my flock,

Happier I’d be, fairest moon.

Perchance, though, my wandering fancy

Strays from the truth, in dreaming of fortunes not mine.

Perchance in every fate, in every form,

Whether within the cradle or the fold,

To all the fatal day is that of birth.