Giacomo Leopardi, who was to become one of the greatest poets of his or any time, was born in 1798 on his parents’ estate near the small Italian town of Recanati in the dusty hills above the Adriatic Sea. It cannot be said that he had the happiest of childhoods and as it began so would his life continue. His father, Count Monaldo Leopardi, had squandered the family fortune through “generosity, pride and folly” and was deprived by papal decree from handling money. His mother, rigidly pious and exaggeratedly penny-pinching, took over the management of the estate and completely dominated the household. She rejoiced when her children died in infancy – they would go straight to bliss in heaven and would not be a burden on the family budget. But Giacomo survived.
Leopardi lived his entire childhood and youth in his father’s vast library. He had no companions and no interests except books. By ten he had mastered Latin, Greek, German and French. English and Hebrew soon followed. At twelve, presuming himself material for the church, he began to wear a monk’s dress. By his early teens he was producing philological commentaries, sonnets, epigrams, tragedies and philosophical dissertations and had completed a History of Astronomy and a Life of Plotinus. He never stopped thinking. Adolescent self-consciousness was developed to the extreme point that he grew breathless thinking of the intricacies of breathing.
His situation was, of course, grotesque and in his late teens he discovered the outward sign of this grotesqueness. Under his monk’s habit he was hunchbacked, the result of a long neglected curvature of the spine. His life of study had become a curse and set him apart forever. Beset by asthma and chronic constipation, insulted and tormented by street urchins whenever he ventured out, despised by all who met him, already aware that no woman would ever find him attractive, Leopardi by the age of eighteen was more and more often afflicted by a wish to die. At twenty-one he abandoned his mother’s Christianity. Having once walked in superstitious dread of treading on the crosses formed by paving stones, he now discovered for himself a world, as he put it, of “solid nothingness,” a world which was absurd, a mechanistic universe going nowhere and having no purpose.
As Leopardi saw it, nature has endowed us with a reasoning faculty which inevitably gives us an awareness of the utter insignificance of our existence, yet at the same time, paradoxically, nature also gives us considerable resources for putting that reasoning faculty to sleep and, in particular, for inventing all kinds of grand patriotic, religious, romantic and social ideas to keep the brutal truth at bay.
Near the very end of the Zibaldone, a diary of his intellectual and emotional development which in the end numbered 3,000 pages, Leopardi wrote, “there are two truths which most men will never believe: one, that they know nothing, and the other, that they are nothing. And there is a third which proceeds from the second – that there is nothing to hope for after death.” This conviction, and with it a pride in rejecting “all the vain hopes with which men comfort children and themselves, all foolish consolations” remained with him to the end of his life in 1837 at the age of thirty-nine. Towards the end he wrote despairingly: “everything is folly but folly itself.” He died of cholera and it was only because a friend desperately intervened that his remains were not ignominiously dumped into a common grave as the standard medical regulations of the age stipulated.
One saving experience which consoles many, romantic love, was denied him in full measure. Throughout his life he fell desperately in love with women who invariably either ignored him or viewed him with scornful distaste. (“He stinks,” said one. “He dribbles,” said another). He never got further in love than ogling courting couples from his bedroom window or once briefly holding a woman’s hand or, in one particularly humiliating case, playing the go-between for another man.
Out of this wretched body, out of this tortured mind, out of this intolerably sad and lonely heart, out of this dark night of the soul, emerged some of the most sublime poetry ever written. This man, irredeemably broken on the rack of a terrible life, was granted, as one of his biographers has written, “a poet’s gift: a capacity for feeling so intense and an imagination so sensitive and lively that he could perceive, in the most common sights of daily life, the “heavenly originals” of which, according to Plato, “all earthly objects are but copies.”
Above all there are the thirty-six lyrical poems eventually collected together to form the Canti (Songs) compared with which, one eminent critic has written, English poetry, despite all its riches, has no rival. Here is possibly the most despairing poem he, or anyone, ever wrote ( translated from the Italian):
Now will you rest forever
My tired heart. Dead is the last deception,
That I thought eternal. Dead. Well I
Feel in us the sweet illusions,
Nothing but ash, desire
Rest forever. You have
Trembled enough. Nothing is worth
Thy breath, nor does the earth deserve
Thy sighs. Bitter and dull
Is life, there is nought else.
The world is clay.
Rest now. Despair
For the last time. To our kind, Fate
Gives but death. Now despise
Yourself, nature, the sinister
Power that secretly commands our
And the infinite vanity of
A century after Leopardi’s death the tomb where his last remains were finally laid to rest was declared a revered national monument. Is a life such as his redeemed by even the greatest work universally acclaimed at last?