1902 Encyclopedia > Giacomo Leopardi

Giacomo Leopardi
Italian poet
(1798-1837)




GIACOMO LEOPARDI (1798-1837), the one Italian poet of the 19 th century who has taken an uncontested place among the classics of the language, was bom at Recanati in the March of Ancona, June 29, 1798. All the circumstances of his parentage and education conspired to foster his precocious and sensitive genius at the expense of his physical and mental health. His family was ancient and patrician, but so deeply embarrassed as to be only rescued from ruin by the energy of his mother, who had taken the control of business matters entirely into her own hands, and whose engrossing devotion to her undertaking seems to have almost dried up the springs of maternal tenderness. Count Monaldo Leopardi, the father, a mere nullity in his own household, secluded himself in his extensive library, to which his nervous, sickly, and deformed son had free access, and which absorbed him exclusively in the absence of any intelligent sympathy from his parents, any companionship except that of his brothers and sister, or any recreation in the dullest of Italian towns. The lad spent his days over grammars and dictionaries, learning Latin with little assistance, and Greek and the principal modern languages with none at all. Any ordinarily clever boy would have emerged from this discipline a mere pedant and bookworm. Leopardi came forth a Hellene, not merely a consummate Greek scholar, but penetrated with the classical conception of life, and a master of antique form and style. At sixteen he composed a Latin treatise on the Roman rhetoricians of the 2d century, a commentary on Porphyry's life of Plotinus, and a history of astronomy; at seventeen he wrote on the popular errors of the ancients, citing more than four hundred authors. A little later he imposed upon the first scholars of Italy by two odes in the manner of Auacreon. At eighteen he produced a poem of considerable length, the "Appressamento alia Morte," which, after being lost for many years, has recently been discovered and published by Signor Zanino Volta. It is a vision of the omnipotence of death, modelled upon Petrarch, but more truly inspired by Dante, and in its conception, machinery, and general tone offering a remarkable resemblance to Shelley's "Triumph of Life," written six years subsequently, and of which Leopardi probably never heard. This juvenile work was succeeded (1819) by two lyrical compositions which at once placed the author upon the height which he maintained ever afterwards. The ode to Italy, and that on the monument to Dante erected at Florence, gave voice to the dismay and affliction with which Italy, aroused by the French Revolution from the torpor of the 17th and 18th centuries, contemplated her forlorn and degraded condition, her political impotence, her degeneracy in arts and arms, and the frivolity or stagnation of her intellectual life. They were the outcry of a student who had found an ideal of national existence in his books, and to whose disappointment everything in his own circumstances lent additional poignancy. But there is nothing unmanly or morbid in the expression of these sentiments, and the odes are surprisingly exempt from the failings characteristic of young poets. They are remarkably chaste in diction, close and nervous in style, sparing in fancy, and almost destitute of simile and metaphor, antique in spirit, yet pervaded by modern ideas, combining Landor's dignity with a considerable infusion of the passion of Byron. These qualities continued to characterize Leopardi's poetical writings throughout his life. A third ode, on Cardinal Mai's discoveries of ancient MSS., lamented in the same spirit of indignant sorrow the decadence of Italian literature. The publication of these pieces widened the breach between Leopardi and his father, a well-meaning but apparently dull and apathetic man, who had lived into the 19th century without imbibing any of its spirit, and who provoked his son's contempt by a superstition unpardonable in a scholar of real learning. Very probably from a mistaken idea of duty to his son, very probably, too, from his own entire dependence in pecuniary matters upon his wife, he for a long time obstinately refused Leopardi funds, recreation, change of scene, everything that could have contributed to combat the growing pessimism which eventually became nothing less than monomaniacal, The affection of his brothers and sister afforded him some consolation, and he found intellectual sympathy in the eminent scholar and patriot Pietro Giordani, with whom he assiduously corresponded at this period, partly on the ways and means of escaping from " this hermitage, or rather seraglio, where the delights of civil society and the advantages of solitary life are alike wanting." This forms the keynote of numerous letters of complaint and lamentation, as touching but as effeminate in their pathos as those of the banished Ovid. It must be remembered in fairness that the weakness of Leopardi's eyesight frequently deprived him for months together of the resource of study. At length (1822) his father allowed him to repair to Rome, where, though cheered by the encouragement of Bunsen and Niebuhr, he found little satisfaction in the trifling pedantry that passed for philology and archaeology, while his sceptical opinions preveuted his taking orders, the indispensable condition of public employment in the papal states. Dispirited, and with exhausted means, he returned to Recanati, where he spent three miserable years, brightened only by the production of several more lyrical masterpieces, which appeared in 1824. The most remarkable is perhaps the Bruto Minore, the condensation of hia philosophy of despair. In 1825 he accepted an engagement to edit Cicero and Petrarch for the publisher Stella at Milan, and took up his residence at Bologna, where his life was for a time made almost cheerful by the friendship of the countess Malvezzi. In 1827 appeared the Operette Morali, consisting principally of dialogues and his imaginary biography of Filippo Ottonieri, which have given him a fame as a prose writer hardly inferior to hia celebrity as a poet. Modern literature has few productions so eminently classical in form and spirit, so symmetrical in construction and faultless in style. Lucian is evidently the model; but the wit and irony which were playthings to Lucian are terribly earnest with Leopardi. Leopardi's invention is fully equal to Lucian's, and his only drawback in comparison with his exemplar is that, while the latter's campaign against pretence and imposture commands hearty sympathy, Leopardi's philosophical creed is a repulsive hedonism in the disguise of austere stoicism. His Ice-lander rebuking Nature for his cruelty and iuhospitality, his Soul protesting against the original wrong of creation, his Familiar Spirit explaining the impossibility of making his master happy for a single instant—all, in fact, of the chief interlocutors in these dialogues profess the same unmitigated pessimism, claim emancipation from every illusion that renders life tolerable to the vulgar, and assert or imply a vast moral and intellectual superiority over unenlightened mankind. When, however, we come to inquire what it is the privation of which renders them miserable, we find it is nothing but pleasurable sensation, fame, fortune, or some other external thing which a lofty code of ethics would deny to be either iudefeasibly due to man or essential to his felicity. A page of Sartor liesartus scatters Leopardi's sophistry to the winds, and leaves nothing of his dialogues but the consummate literary skill that would render the least fragment precious. As works of art they are a possession for ever, as contributions to moral philosophy they are worthless, and apart from their literary qualities can only escape condemnation if regarded as lyrical expressions of emotion, the wail extorted from a diseased mind by a diseased body. " Filippo Ottonieri" is a portrait of an imaginary philosopher, imitated from the biography of a real sage in Lucian's Detnonax. Lucian has shown us the philosopher he wished to copy, Leopardi has truly depicted the philosopher he was. Nothing can be more striking or more tragical than the picture of the man superior to his fellows in every quality of head and heart, and yet condemned to sterility and impotence because he has, as he imagines, gone a step too far on the road to truth, and illusions exist for him no more. The little tract is full of remarks on life and character of surprising depth and justice, manifesting what powers of observation as well as reflexion were possessed by the sickly youth who had seen so little of the world.





Want of means soon drove Leopardi back to Recanati, where, deaf, half-blind, sleepless, tortured by incessant pain, at war with himself and every one around him except his sister, he spent the two most unhappy years of his unhappy life. In May 1831 he escaped to Florence, where he formed the acquaintance of a young Swiss philologist, M. de Sinner. To him he confided his unpublished philological writings, with a view to their appearance in Germany. Sinner showed himself culpably remiss in the execution of his trust, and it is no adequate extenuation of his negligence that these treatises were of less value than Leopardi may have thought. Though continually reclaimed by the latter's friends after his death, they were never published by Sinner, but were purchased after his decease by the Italian Government, and, together with Leopardi's correspondence with the Swiss philologist, have been partially edited by M. Aulard. In 1831 appeared a new edition of Leopardi's poems, comprising several new pieces ! of the highest merit. These are in general less austerely ! classical than his earlier compositions, and evince a greater ! tendency to description, and a keener interest in the works and ways of ordinary mankind. "The Resurrection," composed on occasion of his unexpected recovery, is a model of concentrated energy of diction, and " The Song of the Wandering Shepherd in Asia " is one of the highest flights of modern lyric poetry. The range of the author's ideas is still restricted, but his style and melody are unsurpassable. Shortly after the publication of these pieces (October 1831) Leopardi was driven from Florence to Rome by an unhappy attachment, the history and object of which have remained unknown. His feelings are powerfully expressed in two poems, " To Himself" and " Aspasia," which seem, however, to breathe wounded pride at least as much as wounded love. In 1832 Leopardi returned to Florence, and there formed acquaintance with a young Neapolitan, Antonio Ranieri, himself an author of merit, and destined to enact towards him the part performed by Severn towards Keats, au enviable title to renown if Ranieri had not in his old age tarnished it by assuming the relation of Trelawny to the deceased Byron. Leopardi accompanied Ranieri and his sister to Naples, and under their care enjoyed four years of comparative tranquillity. He made the acquaintance of the German poet Platen, his sole modern rival in the classical perfection of form, and composed " La Ginestra," the most consummate of all his lyrical masterpieces, strongly resembling Shelley's " Mont Blanc," but more perfect in expression. He also wrote at Naples " The Sequel to the Battle of the Frogs and Mice," his most sustained effort, a satire in ottava rima on the abortive Neapolitan revolution of 1820, clever and humorous, but obscure from the local character of the allusions. The more painful and distasteful details of his Neapolitan residence may be found by those who care to seek for them in the deplorable publication of Ranieri's peevish old age (Sette Anni di Sodalizio). The decay of his constitution continued; he became dropsical; and a sudden crisis of his malady, unanticipated by himself alone, put an end to his life-long sufferings on June 15, 1837.

Leopardi's sole but sufficient apology for the effeminacy of endless complaints, and an extremely low view of the conditions of human happiness, is to have been a poor invalid tortured by incessant pain, who in demanding pleasurable sensations for mankind was but craving what was indeed an absolute necessity for himself. With all his dramatic skill in dialogue, the cast of his mind was essentially subjective ; he was wholly incapable of placing himself at any other point of view than his own. His philosophical opinions accordingly possess merely a personal interest, and are valueless except as illustrations of human nature in abnormal circumstances. The patriotic spirit of his earliest poems, the brief gleam of happiness he enjoyed in female society at Bologna, reveal how different might have been his history and the spirit of his writings had his physical organization qualified him for either love or action. Bereft of every possibility of healthy energy, it is no wonder that he should have sunk into a despairing quietism, a solace probably to himself, and only hurtful to others if represented as a powerful intellect's deliberate and unbiassed solution of the problem of the universe. Leopardi's perfect literary expression owes nothing to the nature of the ideas it is employed in embellishing, and is, indeed, most conspicuous when he stands upon common ground with other poets. Thus the magnificent description of the setting of the moon in "II Tramonto della Luna" is finer than the reflexions it ushers in, and his crowning work, "La Ginestra," owes most of its impressiveness to the assemblage of noble and picturesque objects which the poet summons as witnesses to the frailty of man. In the presence of Vesuvius and Pompeii such meditations seem natural, and, after all, the association of the destinies of mankind with the revolutions of nature produces rather a sentiment of grave and chastened exaltation than the self-abasement enforced by the poet. This natural and moral sublimity raises it above Leopardi's other lyrics, which in point of poetical feeling and literary workmanship are for the most part nearly on a par. They are truly classic—not, as with Platen, by a laborious imitation of antique metres, but, as with Shelley and Landor and the English neo-classic poets, by a perfect appropriation of the classical spirit. As with the ancients, their range of sentiment is narrow but their form perfect; there is probably no other modern writer in whom it would be so impossible to alter a line without detriment. The same perfection characterizes Leopardi's prose writings, and his letters would be hardly less admirable but for the hollow professions and inflated compliments exacted by the conventional proprieties of Italian correspondence. The insincerity of his letters to his father is especially painful; and his professed yearning for death is strangely associated with a frantic dread of cholera. Censure, however, is silent in the contemplation of his moral and physical sufferings; and his intimates unanimously attest the attractiveness of his personal character save for some infirmities that should never have been dragged to light. As a precocious and at the same time enduring genius he can only be compared to Pascal, whom he greatly resembles in many respects.

The poems which constitute Leopardi's principal title to immortality are only forty-one in number, and some of these are merely fragmentary. They may for the most part be described as odes, meditative soliloquies, or impassioned addresses, generally couched in a lyrical form, although a few are in magnificent blank verse. Some idea of the style and spirit of the former might be obtained by imagining the thoughts of the last book of Spenser's Faerie Qwene in the metre of his Epithalamium. They were first edited complete by Ranieri at Florence in 1845, forming, along with the Operette Morali, the first volume of a proposed edition of Leopardi's works, which does not, however, include the "Sequel to the Battle of the Frogs and Mice," first printed at Paris in 1842, nor the recently discovered writings. Vols, ii.-iv. contain the philological essays and translations, with some letters, and vols. v. and vi. the remainder of the correspondence. The juvenile essays preserved in his father's library at Recanati were edited by Cugnoni in 1879, with the consent of the family. Leopardi's biography is mainly in his letters, which his recent historians (Brandes, Bouche-Leclercq, Rosa) have merely wrought up with the addition of criticisms, excellent in their way, more particularly Brandes's, but generally much overrating his significance in the history of human thought. Mr Gladstone's essay (Quart. Rev., 1850), since reprinted in vol. ii. of the author's Gleanings, is, on the other hand, too much pervaded by the theological spirit, but is in the main a pattern of generous and discriminating eulogy. Ranieri's infelicitous contribution to his friend's biography has been mentioned ; a recent publication by the
countess Teresa Leopardi, widow of Leopardi's brother Carlo, has done much to correct misconceptions respecting the circumstances and feelings of his family. There are excellent German translations of his poems by Heyse and Brandes ; it is very improbable that there will ever be an adequate one in English. A translation of his essays and dialogues by Mr C. Edwards has, however, just appeared (1882), and most of the dialogues have been rendered into our language with extraordinary felicity by Mr James Thomson, author of The City of Dreadful Night. It is much to be hoped that these versions may ere long be disinterred from the files of the National Reformer, and made generally accessible. (R. G.)






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