Leopardi – To the Moon
Giacomo Leopardi (1798-1837) is considered a pessimist by most, if not all, his readers. Most of his poems are not only sad, they reek of depression. His readers remember him as someone who had poor eyesight, mostly due to his vigilant reading in a dark room with only one candle. Some claim he was poor, though that is most likely a misconception. And in addition to that, his reading was probably a cause for him developing a hunchback. He was ugly, though a lot of paintings show him as rather handsome (as does the image on this website). And he certainly was rejected by women more than once. And yet, I cannot agree with most scholars that he was a pessimist….
See for instance this poem, the one that so many see as pessimistic (A.S. Kline translation, pdf is for free circulation).
To the Moon
O lovely moon, now I’m reminded
how almost a year since, full of anguish,
I climbed this hill to gaze at you again,
and you hung there, over that wood, as now,
clarifying all things. Filled with mistiness,
trembling, that’s how your face seemed to me,
with all those tears that welled in my eyes, so
troubled was my life, and is, and does not change,
O moon, my delight. And yet it does help me,
to record my sadness and tell it, year by year.
Oh how sweetly it hurts, when we are young,
when hope has such a long journey to run,
and memory is so short,
this remembrance of things past, even if it
is sad, and the pain lasts!
Compare this to Dante’s Divine Comedy (Inferno, Canto V):
There is no greater sorrow
Than to be mindful of the happy time
Not only do we not find Dante depressing, we find him to speak to us in that particular way that we hide from others. Only the poets know something about us, something that is denied to and by others. It is not surprising that for the Ancient Greeks, the poets knew more than others – indeed, that their entire wealth in literature and philosophy is based on Homer. There has been a recent study on this, and it seems that Homer was referred to as often as all the other Greeks combined.
But I digress. Leopardi, I would claim, does nothing less than Dante. And although his Canti are not as filled with pages, and some of his poems are somewhat simplistic, he too speaks to us in that particular way. Far from being a pessimist, he understands sadness and how it feels to be truly alone. And he finds that loneliness, and shows you how to share that – if with nobody else, at least with yourself: your memories and the moon.
We should not forget that there is something tragic in beauty. Beauty by itself is never only beautiful – but I’ll leave this thought for another day. For someone who shares my view on Leopardi (though there are considerable differences), read this review of his Canti, albeit of a different translation.