Giacomo Leopardi - Opera Omnia >>  Biographical sketch


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[ Text from the edition of the translation by Charles Edwardes ]

"Manure with Despair, but let it be genuine, and you will have a noble harvest." - RAHEL.

THE name of Giacomo Leopard! is not yet a household word in the mouths of Englishmen. Few of us have heard of him; still fewer have read any of his writings. If known at all, he is probably coupled, in a semi-contemptuous manner, with other foreign representatives of a phase of poetic thought, the influence of which has passed its zenith. As a contemporary of Byron, Leopardi is perhaps credited with a certain amount of psychological plagiarism, and possibly disregarded as a mere satellite of the greater planet. But if this be so, it is unjust. His fame is his own, and time makes his isolation and grand individuality more and more prominent. What Byron and Shelley, Millevoye, Baudelaire and Gautier, Heine and Platen, Pouchkine and Lermontoff, are to England, France, Germany, and Russia respectively, Leopardi is, in a measure, to Italy. But he is more than this. The jewel of his renown is triple faceted. Philology, poetry, and philosophy were each in turn cultivated by him, and he was of too brilliant an intellect not to excel in them all. As a philologist he astonished Niebuhr and delighted Creuzer; as a poet he has been compared with Dante; as a philosopher he takes high rank among the greatest and most original men of modern times. One of his biographers (Dovari: " Studio di G. Leopardi," Ancona, 1877) has termed him "the greatest philosopher, poet, and prosewriter of the nineteenth century." Though such eulogy may be, and doubtless is, excessive, the fact that it has been given testifies to the extraordinary nature of the man who is its subject.

In Germany and France, Leopardi is perhaps as well known and highly appreciated as in Italy. His poems have been translated into the languages of those countries; and in France, within the last year, two more or less complete versions of his prose writings have appeared. Biographies, reviews, and lighter notices of the celebrated Italian are of repeated and increasing occurrence on the Continent. England, however, knows little of him, and hitherto none of his writings have been made accessible to the English reading public. The following brief outline of his life may in part help to explain the peculiarly sombre philosophical views which he held, and of which his works are chiefly an elaboration.

Giacomo Leopardi was born at Recanati, a small town about fifteen miles from Ancona, on the 29th Jane 1798. He was of noble birth, equally on the side of his father and mother. Provided with a tutor at an early age, he soon left him far behind in knowledge; and when only eight years old, he discarded the Greek grammar he had hitherto used, and deliberately set himself the task of reading in chronological order the Greek authors of his father's library. It was due to his own industry, and his father's care, that later he acquired a perfect acquaintance with classical literature. In 1810 he received his first tonsure, in token of his dedication to the Church; but this early promise was not destined to be fulfilled. Before he was eighteen years of age Leopardi had attained recognised distinction for the amount and matter of his erudition. The mere catalogue of his writings -- chiefly philological -- by that time is of sufficient length to excite wonder, and their nature is still more surprising. Latin commentaries and classical annotations were apparently child's play to him. Writing in 1815 to the Roman scholar Cancellieri, who had noticed one of these classical productions, Leopardi says: "I see myself secured to posterity in your writings. . . . Commerce with the learned is not only useful, but necessary for me." He was only seventeen when he completed a task which represented the sum of all his early study. This was an "Essay on the Popular Errors of the Ancients," of considerable length (first published posthumously), in the course of which he cites more than four hundred authors, ancient and modern. A single extract will suffice to show that his youthful powers of expression were as precocious as his learning, though his judgment was doubtless at fault. He thus reviews the wisdom of the Greeks:

"The philosophy of the ancients was the science of differences; and their academies were the seats of confusion and disorder. Aristotle condemned what Plato had taught. Socrates mocked Antisthenes; and Zeno scandalised Epicurus. Pythagoreans, Platonians, Peripatetics, Stoics, Cynics, Epicureans, Sceptics, Cyrenaics, Megarics, Eclectics scuffled with and ridiculed one another; while the truly wise laughed at them all. The people, left to themselves during this hubbub, were not idle, but laboured silently to increase the vast mound of human errors."

He ends this Essay with a eulogy of the Christian religion: "To live in the true Church is the only way to combat superstition." Shortly afterwards, increasing knowledge, which Goethe has called "the antipodes of faith," enabled him to perceive that Roman Catholicism, the antidote which he then prescribed for superstition, was itself full charged with the poison he sought to destroy.

In 1817 Leopardi made acquaintance by letter with Pietro Giordani, one of the leading literary men of the day, and a man of varied experience and knowledge. In his first letter Leopardi opens his heart to his new friend:

"I have very greatly, perhaps immoderately, yearned for glory ... I burn with love for Italy, and thank Heaven that I am an Italian. If I live, I will live for literature; for aught else, I would not live if I could."
(21st March 1817.)

A month later, from the same source we are able to discern traces of that characteristic of Leopardi's temperament which by certain critics is thought to explain his philosophy. Writing to Giordani, he expatiates on the discomforts of Recanati and its climate; and proceeds: --

"Added to all this is the obstinate, black, and barbarous melancholy which devours and destroys me, which is nourished by study, and yet increases when I forego study. I have in past times had much experience of that sweet sadness which generates fine sentiments, and which, better than joy, may be said to resemble the twilight; but my condition now is like an eternal and horrible night. A poison saps my powers of body and mind."

In the same letter he gives his opinion on the relative nature of prose and poetry.

"Poetry requires infinite study and application, and its art is so profound, that the more you advance in proficiency, so much the further does perfection seem to recede. . . . To be a good prose writer first, and a poet later, seems I to me to be contrary to nature, which first creates the poet, and then by the cooling operation of age concedes the maturity and tranquillity necessary for prose."
(30th April 1817.)

The correspondence between Leopardi and Giordani lasted for five years, and it is from their published letters that we are able to form the best possible estimate of Leopardi's character and aspirations. His own letters serve as the index of his physical and mental state. In them we trace the gradual failure of his health, the growth of sombreness in his disposition, and the change which his religious convictions underwent. During his twentieth year he suffered severely in mind and body. Forced to lay aside his studies, he was constantly a prey to ennui, with all its attendant discomforts. He thus writes to Giordani of his condition, in August 1817:

"My ill-health makes me unhappy, because I am not a philosopher who is careless of life, and because I am compelled to stand aloof from my beloved studies. . . . Another thing that makes me unhappy, is thought. I believe you know, but I hope you have not experienced, how thought can crucify and martyrise any one who thinks somewhat differently from others. I have for a long time suffered such torments, simply because thought has always had me entirely in its power; and it will kill me unless I change my condition. Solitude is not made for those who burn and are consumed in themselves."
(1st August 1817.)

His mental activity was numbed by his physical incapacity; the two combined reduced him to a state of despair. There is a noble fortitude in the following words of another letter addressed to Giordani: --

"I have for a long time firmly believed that I must die within two or three years, because I have so ruined myself by seven years of immoderate and incessant study. ... I am conscious that my life cannot be other than unhappy, yet I am not frightened; and if I could in any way be useful, I would endeavour to bear my condition without losing heart. I have passed years so full of bitterness, that it seems impossible for worse to succeed them; nevertheless I will not despair even if my sufferings do increase ... I am born for endurance."
(2d March 1818.)

Leopardi was now of age, and at the time of life when man's aspirations are keenest. He had repeatedly tried to induce his father to let him go forth into the world, and take his place in the school of intellect; but all his endeavours were in vain. Though seconded by Giordani, who some months before had become personally acquainted with his young correspondent during a visit of a few days to Casa Leopardi, the Count was resolute in refusing to grant his son permission to leave Recanati. Giacomo, driven to desperation, conceived a plan by which he hoped to fulfil his desire in spite of the paternal prohibition. The following extract from the Count's diary furnishes the gist of the matter, and also gives us some small insight into his own character: --

"Giacomo, wishing to leave the country, and seeing that I was opposed to his doing so, thought to obtain my consent by a trick. He requested Count Broglio to procure a passport for Milan, so that I might be alarmed on hearing of it, and thus let him go. I knew about it, because Solari wrote unwittingly to Antici, wishing Giacomo a pleasant journey. I immediately asked Broglio to send me the passport, which he did with an accompanying letter. I showed all to my son, and deposited the passport in an open cupboard, telling him he could take it at his leisure. So all ended."

Thus the plot failed, and Giacomo was constrained to resign himself, as best he could, to a continuance of the "life worse than death" which he lived in Recanati. Two letters written in anticipation of the success of his scheme, one to his father, and the other to Carlo, his brother, are of most painful interest. They suggest unfilial conduct on his part, and unfatherly treatment of his son on the part of Count Monaldo.

"I am weary of prudence," he writes in the letter to Carlo, "which serves only as a clog to the enjoyment of youth. . . How thankful I should be if the step I am taking might act as a warning to our parents, as far as you and our brothers are concerned! I heartily trust you will be less unhappy than myself. I care little for the opinion of the world; nevertheless, exonerate me if you have any opportunity of doing so. ... What am I? a mere good-for-nothing creature. I realise this most intensely, and the knowledge of it has determined me to take this step, to escape the self-contemplation which so disgusts me. So long as I possessed self-esteem I was prudent; but now that I despise myself, I can only find relief by casting myself on fortune, and seeking dangers, worthless thing that I am. ... It were better (humanly speaking) for my parents and myself that I had never been born, or had died ere now. Farewell, dear brother."

The letter to his father is in a different key. It is stern and severe, and contains reproofs, direct and inferential, for his apparent indifference to his sons' future prospects. Giacomo upbraids him with 'intentional blindness to the necessities of his position as a youth of generally acknowledged ability, for whom Recanati could offer no scope, or chance of renown. He goes on to say:

"Now that the law has made me my own master, I have determined to delay no longer in taking my destiny on my own shoulders. I know that man's felicity consists in contentment, and that I shall therefore have more chance of happiness in begging my bread than through whatever bodily comforts I may enjoy here. . . . I know that I shall be deemed mad; and I also know that all great men have been so regarded. And because the career of almost every great genius has begun with despair, I am not disheartened at the same commencement in mine. I would rather be unhappy than insignificant, and suffer than endure tedium. . . . Fathers usually have a better opinion of their sons than other people; but you, on the contrary, judge no one so unfavourably, and therefore never imagined we might be born for greatness. ... It has pleased Heaven, as a punishment, to ordain that the only youths of this town with somewhat loftier aspirations than the Recanatese should belong to you, as a trial of patience, and that the only father who would regard such sons as a misfortune should be ours."

The relationship between Giacomo and his parents has been a vexed question with all his biographers, who, for the most part, are of the opinion that they had little sympathy with him in the mental sufferings he underwent. The Count has been called "despoto sistematico" in the administration of his household; and the most favourably disposed writers have agreed to regard him as somewhat of a Roman father. But there does not seem to be sufficient evidence to support the theory that he was intentionally harsh and repressive to the extent of cruelty in his treatment of his children. He was an Italian of the old school, and as such his conduct was probably different from that of more modern Italian fathers; but that was all.

In 1819, when his whole being was in a turmoil of disquiet, Leopardi made his debut as a poet, with two Odes the one addressed to Italy, and the other on the monument to Dante, then recently erected in Florence. The following literal translation of the first stanza of the Ode to Italy gives but a faint echo of the original verse: --

"O my country, I see the walls and arches, the columns, the statues, and the deserted towers of our ancestors; but their glory I see not, nor do I see the laurel and the iron which girt our forefathers. To-day, unarmed, thou showest a naked brow and naked breast. Alas! how thou art wounded! How pale thou art, and bleeding! That I should see thee thus! queen of beauty! I call on heaven and earth, and ask who thus has humbled thee. And as a crowning ill, her arms are weighed with chains; her hair dishevelled and unveiled; and on the ground she sits disconsolate and neglected, her face hid in her knees, and weeping. Weep, Italia mine, for thou hast cause, since thou wert born to conquer 'neath Fortune's smiles and frowns.
O patria mia, vedo le mura e gli archi
E le colonne e i simulacri e l'erme
Torri degli avi nostri,
Ma la gloria non vedo,
Non vedo il lauro e il ferro ond' eran carchi
I nostri padri antichi. Or fatta inerme,
Nuda la fronte e nudo il petto mostri.
Oime quante ferite,
Che lividor, che sangue! oh qual ti veggio,
Formosissima donna! lo chiedo al cielo,
E al mondo: dite, dite:
Chi la ridusse a tale? E questo e peggio,
Che di catene ha carche ambe le braccia.
Si che sparte le chiome e senza velo
Siede in terra negletta e sconsolata,
Nascondendo la faccia
Tra le ginoccliia, e piange.
Piangi, che ben hai donde, Italia mia,
Le genti a vincer nata
Et nella fausta sorte e nella ria."

These odes, which represent the first fruits of his muse, ring with enthusiasm. They are the expression of a soul fired with its own flame, which serves to illumine and vivify a theme then only too real in his country's experience, the sufferings of Italy. Patriotism pervades his earliest verse; sadness and hopelessness that of later times. For these two odes Giordani bestowed unsparing eulogy on his young protege. Before their appearance he had begun to regard Leopardi as the rising genius of Italy, and had not hesitated to say to him, "Inveni hominem!" Now, however, his admiration was unbounded; he thus apostrophised him: "nobilissima, e altissima, e fortissima anima!" He referred to the reception of his poems at Piiicenza in these terms: "They speak of you as a god."

In 1822 Leopardi first left home. Repeatedly, year after year, he had besought his father to permit him to see something of the world. Ho longed to associate with the men who represented the intellect of his country. With his own fellowtownsmen he had little sympathy, and they on their part regarded him as a phenomenon, eccentric rather than remarkable. They gave him the titles of "little pedant," "philosopher," "hermit," & c., in half ironical appreciation of his learning. As he was naturally very sensitive, these petty vexations became intensified to him, and were doubtless one of the chief reasons of his unfailing dislike for his native place. In one of his essays, that of "Parini on Glory," we discover a reference to Leopardi's life at Recanati, which place is really identical with the Bosisio of the essay. Yet the prophet who is not a prophet in his own country when living, seldom fails of recognition after death. A statue is now raised to Leopardi in the place that refused to honour him in life. The appreciative recognition he failed to attract in Recanati, he hoped to obtain at Eome. But Count Monaldo, his father, long maintained his resistance to his son's wishes. Himself of a comparatively unaspiring mind, content with the fame he could acquire in his own province, he saw no necessity why his son should be more ambitious. Probably also his paternal love made him fearful of the dangers of the world, to which his son would be exposed. Of these hazards he knew nothing from experience; and they were doubtless magnified to him by his imagination. Yet, though naturally a man rather deficient in character than otherwise, Count Monaldo was, as we have seen, in his own household, a stern not to say unreasonable disciplinarian. Only after repeated solicitations from his son, and remonstrances from his friends, did he give Giacomo the desired permission, chiefly in the hope that at Eome he might be induced to enter the Church, towards which he had latterly manifested some signs of repugnance. The five months spent by Leopard! in Eome sufficed to disenchant him of his ideas of the world of life. A day or two after his arrival he writes to Carlo his brother:

"I do not derive the least pleasure from the great things I see, because I know that they are wonderful, without feeling that they are so. I assure you their multitude and grandeur wearied me the first day."
(25th November 1822.)

Again, to Paulina his sister: "The world is not beautiful; rather it is insupportable, unless seen from a distance." Ever prone to regard the real through the medium of the ideal, he was bitterly disappointed with his first experience of men. The scholar, whom he was prepared to revere, proved on acquaintance to be --

"a blockhead, a torrent of small talk, the most wearisome and afflicting man on earth. He talks about the merest trifles with the deepest interest, of the greatest things with an infinite imperturbability. He drowns you in compliments and exaggerated praises, and does both in so freezing a manner, and with such nonchalance, that to hear him one would think an extraordinary man the most ordinary thing in the world."
(25th November 1822.)

The stupidest Recanatese he termed wiser and more sensible than the wisest Roman. Again, to his father he complains of the superficiality of the so-called scholars of Rome.

"They all strive to reach immortality in a coach, as bad Christians would fain enter Paradise. According to them, the sum of human wisdom, indeed the only true science of man, is antiquity. Hitherto I have not encountered a lettered Roman who understands the term literature as meaning anything except archaeology. Philosophy, ethics, politics, eloquence, poetry, philology, are unknown things in Eome, and are regarded as childish playthings compared to the discovery of some bit of copper or stone of the time of Mark Antony or Agrippa. The best of it is that one cannot find a single Roman who really knows Latin or Greek; without a perfect acquaintance with which languages, it is clear that antiquity Cannot be Studied."
(9th December 1822.)

He was disheartened by the depraved condition of Roman literature. Everywhere he saw merit disregarded or trodden under foot. The city was full of professional poets and poetesses, and literary cliques formed for the purpose of the self-laudation of their members. Illustrious names of the past were insulted by the pseudo-great men of the day, whose fame was founded on writings of the most contemptible nature. These circumstances made Leopardi confess, in a letter to his brother, that had he not

"the harbour of posterity, and the conviction that in time all would take its proper place (illusory hope, but the only, and most necessary one for the true Scholar),"
(16th December 1822.)

he would abandon literature once for all. But it was only during moments of depression that such words as these escaped him. He loved study for its own sake; fame was, after all, but a secondary consideration. Nor were men of genuine worth entirely wanting in Rome. Niebuhr, then Prussian ambassador at the Papal Court, Reinhold, the Dutch ambassador, Mai, subsequently a cardinal, were noble exceptions to the general inferiority. By them Leopardi was highly esteemed. Niebuhr especially was profoundly struck with his genius. "I have at last seen a modern Italian worthy of the old Italians and the ancient Romans," was his remark to De Bunsen after his first interview with the young scholar. Both he and De Bunsen became firm friends with Leopardi. They endeavoured their utmost to procure for him some official appointment from Cardinal Consalvi, then Secretary of State, and his successor; but owing to the intrigues, prejudices, and disturbances of the Papal Court they were unable to effect anything on his behalf. It was an unfulfilled intention of De Bunsen's, later in life, to write a memoir of Leopardi, for whom he always felt the highest esteem and admiration.

Count Monaldo's wish that his son should become an ecclesiastic was never realised. Leopardi was of too honest a nature to profess what was not in accordance with his convictions. The secular employment that he sought, he could not obtain, so perforce he seems to have turned his mind towards literary work -- the drudgery of letters as distinct from the free, untrammelled pursuit of literature. He obtained the charge of cataloguing the Greek manuscripts of the Barberine Library, and his spirits rose in anticipation of some discovery he hoped to make which might render him famous. "In due time we will astonish the world," he writes to his father. He was indeed successful in finding a fragment of Libanius hitherto unpublished; but the glory seems to have been stolen from him, since the manuscript was ushered forth to the world by alien hands. Poor Leopardi! all his hopes seemed destined to be proved illusive. It was time for him to leave a place that could furnish him with no other pleasure than that of tears. "I visited Tasso's grave, and wept there. This is the first and only pleasure I have experienced in Borne" (Letter to Carlo, February 15, 1823). Already he had begun to steel himself to the shocks of fortune; suffering and misfortune he could bear; mental agony and despair were too strong for him. In a long letter to his sister Paulina, he tries to impart to her a little of the philosophy of Stoicism which he had taken to himself. She was distressed about the rupture of a matrimonial arrangement contracted by the Count between her and a certain Roman gentleman of position and fortune. Leopardi thus consoles her:

"Hope is a very wild passion, because it necessarily carries with it very great fear. . . . I assure you, 'Paolina mia,' that unless we can acquire a little indifference towards ourselves, life is scarcely possible, much less can it be happy. You must resign yourself to fortune, and not hope too deeply. . . . I recommend this philosophy to you, because I think you resemble me in mind and disposition."
(19th April 1823.)

Four years later Leopardi confesses the insufficiency of his own remedies. Writing to Dr. Puccinotti in 1827, he says:

"I am weary of life, and weary of the philosophy of indifference which is the only cure for misfortune and ennui, but which at length becomes an ennui itself. I look and hope for nothing but death."
(16th August 1827.)

In May 1823, he left Rome, and returned to Recanati.

The succeeding ten years of Leopardi's life were, during his intervals of health, devoted to poetry and literature. He had passed the Eubicon of his hopes; henceforth he studied to expound to the world the uselessness of its own anticipations, and its essential unhappiness. His bodily infirmities increased with years. His frame, naturally weak, suffered from the effects of early over-application; his eyes and nerves were a constant trouble to him. To obtain what relief was possible from change of air, and to remove himself from Recanati, which he detested increasingly, Leopardi went to Bologna, Florence, Milan, and Pisa, wintering now at one place, now at another. From family reasons, his father was unable to supply him with sufficient money to secure his independence. Consequently he was obliged to turn to literature for a livelihood. The publisher Stella, of Milan, willingly engaged his services, and for several years Leopardi was in receipt of a small but regular payment for his literary labours. He compiled Chrestomathies of Italian prose and poetry, and made numerous fragmentary translations from the classics. A commentary on Petrarch, to which he devoted much time and care, is, in the words of Sainte-Beuve, "the best possible guide through such a charming labyrinth." As he said of himself, "mediocrity is not for me," so in all that he undertook the mark of his genius appeared. At Florence Leopardi was honoured by the representatives of Italian literature and culture, who there formed a brilliant coterie. Colletta was desirous of his co-operation in the "History of Naples," with which he was occupying the last years of his life. The "Antologia" and "Nuove Ricoglitore" reviews were open to contributions from his pen. Giordani, Niccolini, Capponi, and Gioberti, amongst others, welcomed him with open arms. To these his Tuscan friends he dedicated his "Canti" in 1830, with the following touching letter: --

"MY DEAR FRIENDS, -- Accept the dedication of this book. Herein I have striven, as is often done in poetry, to hallow my sufferings. This is my farewell (I cannot but weep in saying it) to literature and studies. Once I hoped these dear resources would have been the support of my old age: pleasures of childhood and youth might vanish, I thought, and their loss would be supportable if I were thus cherished and strengthened. But ere I was twenty years of age, my physical infirmities deprived me of half my powers; my life was taken, yet death was not bestowed on me. Eight years later I became totally incapacitated; this, it seems, will be my future state. Even to read these letters you know that I make use of other eyes than mine. Dear friends, my sufferings are incapable of increase; already my misfortune is too great for tears. I have lost everything, and am but a trunk that feels and suffers." . . .

It is scarcely wonderful that, under such circumstances, his philosophy should fail him. A code of ethics, however admirable intrinsically, has but cold consolation to offer to one whose life is prolonged pain. Leoparcli at one time allowed the idea of suicide to rest, and almost take root, in his mind. He describes the incident: "A great desire comes into my mind to terminate once for all these wretched years of mine, and to make myself more completely motionless." But he was of a nature noble and strong enough to resist such temptation.

He left Recanati for the last time in 1830. The next two years were passed in Florence, Rome, and Pisa. Whilst in Rome, Leopardi received substantial proof of his fame in being elected an Academician of the Crusca. At length the doctors recommended him to try Naples, from the mild air and general salubrity of which place they anticipated much improvement in his condition. Thither he went in company with a young friend, Antonio Ranieri, whose acquaintance he had made in Florence. In the house of Ranieri he stayed from 1833 until his death in 1837, tended by him and his sister Paulina (his second Paulina, as he used to call, her) with a devotedness and affection as rare as it was noble. Posterity will couple together the names of Ranieri and Leopardi as naturally as we associate together those of Severn and Keats. All that could be done for the unfortunate poet, Ranieri did. His condition was a singular one. Before he left Florence for Naples, the doctor said of him that his frame did not possess sufficient vitality to generate a mortal illness; yet he was seldom, if ever, free from suffering. He died on the i4th June 1837, as he and his friend were on the point of setting out from Naples to a little villa that Ranieri possessed on one of the slopes of Vesuvius. On the night of the 15th he was buried, in the church of St. Vitale, near the reputed grave of Virgil. His tomb is marked by a stone erected at the expense of Ranieri, bearing the signs of the cross, and the owl of Minerva, together with an inscription from the pen of Giordani. The few following lines from his own verse would form a suitable epitaph for one whose life was spent in bodily and mental disquietude: --

"O weary heart, for ever shalt thou rest
Henceforth. Perished is the great delusion
That I thought would ne'er have left me. Perished!
Nought now is left of all those dear deceits;
Desire is dead, and not a hope remains.
Rest then for ever. Thou hast throbbed enough;
Nothing here is worth such palpitations.
Our life is valueless, for it consists
Of nought but ennui, bitterness, and pain.
This world of clay deserveth not a sigh.
Now calm thyself; conceive thy last despair,
And wait for death, the only gift of Fate."
(Poem "A Se Stesso.")

These words might have been an echo of Çàkyamuni's utterance beneath the sacred fig-tree of Bôdhimanda, when, according to the legend, he was in process of transformation from man to Buddha: the resemblance is at any rate a remarkable one.

In 1846, the Jesuits made an impudent attempt to convince the public that Leopardi died repenting of his philosophical views, and that he had previously expressed a desire to enter the Society of Jesus. A long letter from a certain Francesco Scarpa to his Superior, giving a number of pretended details of Leopardi's history, conversion, and death, appeared in a Neapolitan publication, entitled "Science and Faith." Ranieri came forward to show the entire falsity of these statements; and to give a more authoritative denial to them, he engaged the willing help of Vicenzo Gioberti. The latter in his "Modern Jesuit" contested their truth in every respect. He said: "The story put forward in this letter is a tissue of lies and deliberate inventions; it is sheer romance from beginning to end." It is thought by some people that Leopardi's father was concerned in this Jesuit manifesto. But, although the Count was doubtless shocked beyond measure that his son did not hold the same beliefs as himself, it is scarcely credible that he should concoct a series of such absurdities as were contained in Scarpa's letter.

Leopardi anticipated that posterity, and even his contemporaries, would endeavour to explain the pessimism of his philosophy by his personal misfortunes and sufferings. Accordingly, in a letter to the philologist Sinner, he entered a protest against such a supposition:

"However great my sufferings may have been, I do not seek to diminish them by comforting myself with vain hopes, and thoughts of a future and unknown happiness. This same courage of my convictions has led me to a philosophy of despair, which I do not hesitate to accept. It is the cowardice of men, who would fain regard existence as something very valuable, that instigates them to consider my philosophical opinions as the result of my sufferings, and that makes them persist in charging to my material circumstances that which is due to nothing but my understanding. Before I die, I wish to make protest against this imputation of weakness and trifling; and I would beg of my readers to burn my writings rather than attribute them to my sufferings."
(24th May 1832.)

Ranieri thus describes Leopardi's personal appearance:

"He was of middle height, inclined to stoop, and fragile; his complexion was pale; his head was large, and his brow expansive; his eyes were blue and languid; his nose was well formed (slightly aquiline), and his other features were very delicately chiselled; his voice was soft and rather weak; and he had an ineffable and almost celestial smile."

His friend here scarcely even suggests what others have perhaps unduly emphasised, that is, Leopardi's deformity. He was slightly humpbacked; doubtless the consequence of those studies which simultaneously ruined him and made him famous.

It were an omission not to refer to the influence which love exerted over Leopardi's life. So strong was this, in the opinion of one of his critics, that lie even ascribes his philosophy to an "infelicissimo amore." Another writer says of him that "his ideal was a woman." Ranieri asserts that he died unmarried, after haviDg twice felt the passion of love as violently as it was ever realised by any man. His poems also testify how omnipotent at one time was this bitter-sweet sensation.

"I recall to mind the day when love first assaulted me; when I said, Alas! if this be love, how it pains me!"
(The First Love.)


"It was morning, the time when a light and sweeter sleep presses our rested lids. The sun's first grey light began to gleam across the balcony, through the closed windows into my still darkened chamber. Then it was that I saw close by, regarding me with fixed eyes, the phantom form of her who first taught me to love, and left me Weeping."
(The Dream.)

His poem to Aspasia is a frank confession of love, and the humiliation he suffered in its rejection. It is a noble, yet a terrible poem. Opening with a description of the scene that met his eye as he entered the room where his charmer sat, "robed in the hue of the melancholy violet, and surrounded by a wondrous luxury," pressing "tender and burning kisses on the round lips" of her children, and displaying "her snowy neck," he saw as it were "a new heaven, and a new earth, and the lustre of a celestial light."

"Like a divine ray, O woman, thy beauty dazzled my thought. Beauty is like such music as seems to open out to us an unknown Elysium. He who loves is filled with the ecstasy of the phantom love conceived by his imagination. In the woman of his love he seeks to discover the beauties of his inspired vision; in his words and actions he tries to recognise the personality of his dreams. Thus when he strains her to his bosom, it is not the woman, but the phantom of his dream that he embraces."

Then comes the awakening. He vituperates the reality for not attaining to the standard of his ideal.

"Rarely the woman's nature is comparable with that of the dream image. No thought like ours can dwell beneath those narrow brows. Yain is the hope that man forges in the fire of those sparkling eyes. He errs in seeking profound and lofty thoughts in one who is by nature inferior to man in all things. As her members are frailer and softer, so is her mind more feeble and confined."

He betrays his position, and gives the key to his unjust censure of woman's powers.

Now, boast thyself, for thou canst do so. Tell how thou art the only one of thy sex to whom I have bent my proud head, and offered my invincible heart. Tell how thou hast seen me with beseeching brows, timid and trembling before thee (I burn with indignation and shame in the avowal), watching thy every sign and gesture, beside myself in adoration of thee, and changing expression and colour at the slightest of thy looks. The charm is broken; iny yoke is on the ground, sundered at a single blow."

"Who were the real objects of Leopardi's affection, is noi> at all clear. Certain village girls of Recanati, immortalised in his verse as Nerina and Silvia, were the inspirers of his first love; but his brother Carlo bears witness to the superficial nature of his affection in their cases. They merely served as the awakeners of the sensation; his own mind and imagination magnified it into a passion. True it is that his nature was one that yearned and craved for love in no ordinary degree. When at Koine, isolated from his family, he wrote to Carlo: "Love me, for God's sake. I need love, love, love, fire, enthusiasm, life." He addressed similar demands to Giordani and others with whom he was on the most intimate terms. Indeed we are tempted to conjectures as to what might have been the fruit of Leopardi's life had he found a helpmate and a consoler in his troubles.

A brief consideration of the general nature of Leopardi's poetry and prose may not be out of place in this short summary.

His poems are masterpieces of conception and execution. Their matter may be open to criticism; but their manner is beyond praise. His odes are of the nobler kind. Full of fire and vigour, they reach the sublime where he stimulates his fellowcountrymen to action, and urges them to aspire to a freedom, happily now obtained. His elegies breathe out an inspired sorrow. They are the product of a mind filled with the sense of the misery that abounds on earth, and unable, though desirous, to discern a single ray of light in the gloom of existence. His lyrical pieces are the most beautiful and emotional of his poems. The following, entitled "The Setting of the Moon," though pervaded with the spirit of sadness that is so predominant a characteristic of Leopardi's verse, contains some charming imagery: --

"As in the lonely night, over the silvered fields and the waters where the zephyrs play, where the far-off shades take a thousand vague appearances and deceitful forms, amid the tranquil waves, the foliage and the hedges, the hill-slopes and the villages, the moon arrived at heaven's boundary descends behind the Alps and Apennines into the infinite bosom of the Tyrrhenian Sea; whilst the world grows pale, and the shadows disappear, and a mantle of darkness shrouds the valley and the hills; night alone remains, and the carter singing on his way salutes with a sad melody the last reflection of that fleeing light which hitherto had led his steps: So vanishes our youth, and leaves us solitary with life. So flee away the shadows which veiled illusive joys; and so die too the distant hopes on which our mortal nature rested. Life is left desolate and dark, and the traveller, trying to pierce the gloom, looks here and there, but seeks in vain to know the way, or what the journey yet before him; he sees that all on earth is strange, and he a stranger dwelling there. . . . You little hills and strands, when falls the light which silvers in the west the veil of night, shall not for long be orphaned. On the other side of heaven the first grey light of dawn shall soon be followed by the sun, whose fiery rays shall flood you and the ethereal fields with a luminous stream. But mortal life, when cherished youth has gone, has no new dawn, nor ever gains new light; widowed to the end it stays, and on life's other shore, made dark by night, the gods have set the tomb's dark seal."

In his interpretation of nature lie is literal, but withal truly poetic: he worships her in the concrete, but vituperates her in the abstract, as representative to him of omnipresent Deity, creative, but also destructive. The two or three poems that may be termed satirical, are at the same time half elegiac. In them he ridicules and censures the folly of his contemporaries, and mourns over the mystery of things. To these, however, there is one exception, the longest of all his poems. This is known as the "Continuation of the Battle of the Frogs and Mice." It consists of eight cantos, comprising about three thousand lines, and was first published posthumously. The abruptness of its ending gives the idea, erroneous or not, of incompleteness. Leopardi had, several years before, translated and versified Homer's "Batrachomyomachia," and this satire takes up the story where Homer ends. It is exclusively a ridicule of the times, with especial reference to his own country and her national enemy, Austria. In style and treatment it has been compared with Byron's "Don Juan," from which, however, it totally differs in its intrinsic character. It abounds in beauties of description, sentiment, and expression, and well deserves to be considered his chef d'œuvre. Leopardi thus describes his method of poetic composition: --

"I compose only when under an inspiration, yielding to which, in two minutes, I have designed and organised the poem. This done, I wait for a recurrence of such inspiration, which seldom happens until several weeks have elapsed. Then I set to work at composition, but so slowly that I cannot complete a poem, however short, in less than two or three weeks. Such is my method; without inspiration it were easier to draw water from a stone than a single verse from my brain."

Leopardi's reputation was firmly established by the appearance of his "Operette morali," as his prose writings were termed. Monti classed them as the best Italian prose compositions of the century. Gioberti compared them to the writing of Machiavelli. Giordani, with his usual tendency to extravagance, gives his friend the following pompous panegyric: -- "His style possesses the conciseness of Speroni, the grandiloquence of Tasso, the smoothness of Paruta, the purity of Gelli, the wit of Firenzuola, the solidity and magnificence of Pallavicino, the imagination of Plato, and the elegance of Cicero." Leopardi has been aptly termed an aristocrat in his writing. Too much of a reasoner to be very popular with the masses, who do not care for the exertion of sustained thought, his logic is strikingly clear to the intelligent. His periods are occasionally as long as those of Machiavelli or Guicciardini, but their continuity and signification are never obscure. Ranieri bears witness to the fact that his prose was the fruit of very great labour.

The subject and tendency of Leopardi's writings will be evident to the reader of the following dialogues. Framed on the model of Lucian, they will compare favourably with the writings of the Greek satirist in subtlety and wit, in spite of their sombre tone. They cannot be said to possess much originality, save in treatment. The subjects discussed, and even the arguments introduced, are mostly old. Every acute moraliser since the world began has, in more or less degree commensurate with his ability, debated within himself the problems here considered. Facts, beliefs, opinions, theories, may be marshalled to produce an infinite number of diverse harmonies; but no one such combination formed by the mind of man may be put forward as the true and ultimate explanation of the mystery of life. Leibnitz, with his harmony of universal good, is as fallible as Leopardi or Schopenhauer with their harmonies of evil. In either case the real is sacrificed to the ideal, whether of good or evil. Either from temperament or circumstances, these philosophers were predisposed to give judgment on life, favourably or adversely, without duly considering the attributes of existence. As M. Dapples, in his French version of Leopardi, has remarked, he early withdrew from actual life, i.e., life with all those manifold sensations which he himself defines to be the only constituents of pleasure in existence. His body proved little else than the sensation of suffering. All his vitality was concentrated in his mind; so that he was scarcely a competent and impartial judge of the ordinary pleasures and ills of life. He could not be otherwise than prejudiced by his own experiences, or rather lack of experiences. Yet, though Leopardi was physically incapable of many of life's pleasures, he none the less passionately yearned for them. Strength and desire struggled within him, and the former only too frequently proved weaker than the latter. Thus he was innately adapted for pessimism.

We consider Leopardi to have been a man of the grandest intellectual powers, capable originally of almost anything to which the human mind could attain; but that his reason, later in life, became somewhat perverted by his sufferings. Were human life as absolutely miserable a thing as he represents it to be, it would be insupportable. That he should so regard it does not seem remarkable when we consider his circumstances; he was poor, seldom free from pain, and unsupported by a creed. For the sufferings of his life, he could see no shadow of atonement or compensation: a future state was incomprehensible to him. He bestows much gratuitous pity on the human race, which we, though reveriiig his genius, may return to him as more deserving of it than ourselves. His heart was naturally full of the most lively affection; but he could never sufficiently satisfy the yearnings of his nature. Like Ottonieri, whose portrait is his own to a great extent, his instincts were noble; like him also he died without effecting much in proportion to his powers.

The conclusions of Leopardi's philosophy may be thus summed up. The universe is an enigma, totally insoluble. The sufferings of mankind exceed all good that men experience, estimating the latter in compensation for the former. Progress, or, as we call it, civilisation, instead of lightening man's sufferings, increases them; since it enlarges his capacity for suffering, without proportionately augmenting his means of enjoyment.

How far are these conclusions refutable? It may be regarded as indubitable that the first two cannot be refuted without the aid of revelation. Science is incompetent to explain the "why" and the "wherefore" of the universe; it is yet groping to discover the "how." Still less can any satisfactory explanation be given of the purpose for which suffering exists, unless we rely on revelation. Religion, which modern philosophers somewhat contemptuously designate as "popular metaphysics," can alone afford an explanation of these problems. Çàkyamuni, nearly 2500 years ago, asked, "What is the cause of all the miseries and sufferings with which man is afflicted?" He himself gave what he considered to be the correct answer: "Existence;" and then he traced existence to the passions and desires innate in man. These last were to be conquered in the condition of insensibility to all material things called "Nirvana." Truly his remedy was a radical one, and had he succeeded in procuring universal acceptance for his doctrines, the human race would have become extinct a few generations later than his own time. But "Nirvana" is unnatural if it be nothing else; unnatural in itself and in the steps that lead up to it. And although it is due to Schopenhauer, and his more or less heterodox disciples, that this Buddhistic dogma is regarded theoretically by some people with a certain amount of favour, we think the instincts of life are strong enough within them all to resist any decided inclinatiòn on their part to carry it into effect.

As for the third conclusion, it must be admitted that man's susceptibilities of suffering are enlarged with increasing culture. Leopardi has shown us that the more vividly we realise the evils that surround and affect us, so much the more keenly do they arouse in us sensations of pain. Knowledge of them makes us suffer from them. The bliss of ignorance is rudely dispelled by the cold hand of science. But must this necessarily continue? May not the same progress which exposes the wound find the salve to heal it? We trust and think so, in spite of all assertions to the contrary. There is nothing in the near future of humanity that need alarm us: men will not work less because they think more; nor is there any sufficient reason to show that increasing knowledge must represent increasing sorrow. As Johnson has said: "The cure for the greatest part of human miseries is not radical but palliative." For the material means of palliation we look to science. We hope and think that there is good to be gained from these writings of Leopardi, in spite of the tone of despair that rings throughout them. His theory of the "infelicità" of things, cheerless though it be, often suggests ideas, sublime in themselves and noble in their effect; and the very essence of his philosophy resolves itself into a recommendation to act, rather than by contemplation to lose the power of action; for, as he says, "A life must be active and vigorous, else it is not true life, and death is preferable to it."




A brief reference to the most recent publications on Leopardi may be interesting as tending to throw light on his domestic relationships, and as giving us an idea of his own habits in private life. Antonio Ranieri (now in his seventy-sixth year) in a book published at Naples in 1880 gives many interesting details of the poet's life. He first met him at Florence, and was touched with compassion for his unfortunate state. Ill and helpless, he was incapable of doing anything but weep in despair at the thought of being obliged to return to his native place. "Recanati and death are to me one and the same thing," he exclaimed through his tears. Ranieri in a generous moment replied: "Leopardi, you shall not return to Recanati. The little that I possess is enough for two. As a benefit to me, not to yourself, we will henceforth live together." This was the beginning of what Ranieri calls his "vita nuova." He conducted Leopardi from Florence to Rome; thence back to Florence; and finally from Florence to Naples. The doctors everywhere shrugged their shoulders at his case, and suggested, as delicately as possible, the mortal nature of his maladies. At Naples Ranieri and his sister Paulina did all they could for Leopardi, and from 1833 to his death in 1837 supplied all his wants. He could seldom see to read or write. "We used to read to him constantly and regularly, and were fortunately conversant with the languages he knew," says Ranieri. Occasionally he was able to go to the theatre, and enjoyed it greatly. In his habits lie seems to have tried his friend's temper and patience considerably. He was wont to turn night into day, and day into night. Ranieri and his sister often did the same in order to read, work, and talk with him. He breakfasted between three and five o'clock in the afternoon, and dined about midnight. Like Schopenhauer, he delighted in after-dinner conversation, which he termed "one of the greatest pleasures of life." He was very obstinate in personal matters, disobeying the doctors in his diet and everything else. His fondness for his old clothes was remarkable; he loved them for their associations. Ranieri mentions "a certain very ancient overcoat which for seven years" had tormented him, arid which he used to entreat Leopardi to lay aside, but which he clung to with an incredible affection, preferring it to a new one that he allowed the moths to destroy. The mere names of wind, cold, and snow were enough to pale him. He could not bear fire, and formerly used to pass the winters three parts submerged in a sack of feathers, reading and writing thus the greater part of the day. He was very terrified when the cholera appeared at Naples, to avoid which he and Ranieri went to a country house of the latter's on one of the slopes of Vesuvius. Here Leopardi wrote his poem "La Ginestra," inspired by the desolate scenes at the foot of the mountain. He died suddenly at Naples, as he and Ranieri's household were about to set off again for the country. The Neapolitan Journal "Il Progresso," in an article on his death, remarked of him that "such brilliancy is not allowed to illumine the earth for long."

"Notes Biographiques sur Leopardi et sa Famille" (Paris, 1881). This is a book of considerable value. Written by the widow of Count Carlo Leopardi, Giacomo's younger brother, and his "other self," it is most valuable as delineating the characters of Leopardi's father and mother. A softer light is shed on the character of Leopardi's mother. "We learn that she was not passionless, hard, and unsympathetic, as we had previously supposed her to be. On the contrary, she was a good woman, of deep affection, who made it the aim of her married life to work for the welfare of the family of which she became a member. Weighted with debt almost to the point of exhaustion, the estates of Casa Leopardi needed a skilful and vigorous administrator, if they were to continue in the hands of their old owners. Count Monaldo Leopardi was not such an administrator. He was a man devoted "tout entier à science," and occupying himself more with bibliology and archæology than with the finances of his estate. The Jews of Perousa, Milan, and the March towns would, sooner or later, have tightened their hold on the Leopardi patrimony to such a degree that the ancient family could only have continued to exist as proprietors on sufferance. But, in the words of the authoress of this book, Providence watched over the house "en lui envoyant dans la jeune marquise Adelaide Antici l'ange qui devait la sauver." The young bride accepted her position with an entire knowledge of the responsibilities that would accompany it. She took the reins of the neglected administration, and set herself the task of restoring the fortunes of Casa Leopardi. By her exertions the Pope was made acquainted with their difficulties, and by his intervention an arrangement was made between the creditors and the Leopardi family, whereby the former were restrained from demanding the amount of their debt for forty years, receiving thereon in the mean time interest at 8 per cent, per annum. This was the life-work of Countess Leopardi. During forty years she administered the finances of Casa Leopardi, and by the end of that time succeeded in freeing the family from the burden with which it had been long encumbered. She died in 1857, ten years after her husband, and twenty years later than her eldest son, Giacomo.

December, 1881.

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