Giacomo Leopardi Essay - Leopardi, Giacomo (Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

Leopardi, Giacomo (Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

Introduction

Giacomo Leopardi 1798-1837

(Conte Giacomo Talegardo Francesco di Sales Saverio Pietro Leopardi) Italian poet, prose writer, translator, and editor.

The following entry presents criticism on Leopardi from 1963 through 2000. For additional information on Leopardi's life and career, see NCLC, Volume 22.

An important figure of Italian Romanticism, Leopardi is best remembered for his profoundly pessimistic outlook on the human condition and his exquisite lyricism. Not widely known in his own time, Leopardi has since been acclaimed as the greatest Italian poet of the nineteenth century.

Biographical Information

Leopardi was born June 29, 1798, in Recanati, an isolated rural village in Italy. He was the eldest of five surviving children of Count Monaldo Leopardi and the Marquess Adelaide Antici Leopardi. His father was interested in literature, philosophy, and politics, and he established an impressive personal library that covered a wide variety of subjects. Anxious for his talented son to succeed as a classical scholar, Leopardi's father provided the best possible private tutors for the boy, and by the age of sixteen, Leopardi had mastered Latin, Greek, and Hebrew, as well as English, French, and Spanish. Leopardi's mother, who controlled the family's finances due to her husband's inability to manage money, encouraged her children to lead the same austere, religious life she led. The boy spent hours reading, writing, and translating, which contributed to his poor health and exacerbated his numerous physical ailments, including poor vision and a deformity of the spine. The atmosphere created by his domineering mother and overprotective father was stifling and constricted, and Leopardi spent an isolated and boring childhood. Although he professed great love for the rest of Italy, he grew to despise Recanati, referring to it as a “horrible, detestable, execrated sepulcher, where the dead are happier than the living.”

In 1817 Leopardi began recording his thoughts in a notebook that would become one of his most celebrated works, and also began corresponding with several important European writers. After an unsuccessful attempt to leave the family home in 1819, Leopardi continued his studies but increasingly devoted time to his own writing. In 1822 he was finally able to leave Recanati and visit Rome, which proved a bitter disappointment to him. He was unable to find suitable employment in the clerical or academic fields, in part due to his physical limitations, but also because of his agnosticism and avowed patriotism, both unpopular positions at the time. After returning for a time to his family, he began traveling throughout Italy, settling first in Florence, where an unhappy love affair inspired some of his most mournful verse, and then in Naples, where he took up residence with his friend and companion Antonio Ranieri. Supporting himself through his writing was a constant struggle and at times he was forced to depend on the generosity of friends. In his last years he became increasingly despondent over his failed romance, deteriorating health, and the Italian government's suppression of his writings. He died in 1837 of pulmonary failure.

Major Works

Leopardi's early works consist of translations of the texts of Horace and Moschus, and sections of the Aeneid and the Odyssey. His first original works were Storia della astronomia (1813; History of Astronomy), which he wrote at the age of fifteen, and Saggio sopra gli errori popolari degli antichi (1815; Essay on the Popular Errors of the Ancients).

In 1816, according to some scholars, Leopardi experienced what he called his “literary conversion,” after which he concentrated on the production of creative pieces rather than critical writings. The poems “All'Italia” (“To Italy”) and “Sopra il monumento di Dante” (“On Dante's Monument”) were inspired by a visit from his friend and first literary mentor Pietro Giordani in 1818. Some time after 1819 he composed some of his most admired poetry, including “L'Infinito (“The Infinite”), “Alla luna” (“To the Moon”), and “Alla Primavera” (To the Spring”). His first collection of poetry, Canzoni, was published in 1824, and in 1831 a second collection, Canti, appeared.

One of Leopardi's most important works was his seven-volume notebook, Pensieri di varia filosofia e di bella letteratura, better known as Zibaldone, published in 1898-1900, but written between 1817 and sometime in the 1830s. Influenced by classical poetry as well as by Enlightenment rationalism and skepticism, the work represents Leopardi's philosophical speculations and reflects his profoundly pessimistic belief in the meaninglessness of life. In his later poems and in the Operette morali (1827), a series of dialogues outlining his philosophy, Leopardi tempered some of the nihilism expressed earlier in the Zibaldone. Leopardi's final poem, “La ginestra” (“The Broom”), dealt with the hostile relationship between nature and mankind, but offered a slight glimmer of hope—unlike most of his earlier pieces.

Critical Reception

Leopardi's oeuvre has received considerable scholarly attention in Italy while garnering steady and diverse criticism from other Western critics as well. Many scholars have commented on the despair inherent in Leopardi's work. Sergio Pacifici compares Leopardi to Alessandro Manzoni, but where the latter's work is infused with Christian optimism, the former's verse is characterized by a “bleak pessimism.” Yet due to this, Pacifici believes that Leopardi's work is more likely to appeal to modern readers because he explores the fundamental questions of life with an unblinking eye. Kenelm Foster also compares Manzoni and Leopardi, but finds that despite their differences, both poets were concerned with the essential nature of truth. Alfredo Bonadeo has examined Leopardi's treatment of death in his prose works and contends that “contrary to what one may surmise from his somber vision of life, neither the fact nor the idea of death bears negatively upon his evaluation of human existence nor do they constitute a desirable escape from life.”

Numerous critics have noted the importance of illusion in Leopardi's thought and in his writing. Erasmo G. Gerato maintains that it is a crucial concept in understanding the poet because for Leopardi illusion was the one thing that could make life bearable, not just for him but for all of humanity. But as the poet was increasingly making use of illusion, he was at the same time, according to Gerato, viewing reason more and more negatively. G. Singh believes that illusions were an important part of Leopardi's early life, as they are with most people. However, Singh reports that “the crucial difference between him and any other person … was the extraordinarily swift and unimpeded transition from illusions, however agreeable and even necessary, to truth, however bitter. His journey from the one to the other could not have been briefer or more decisive.” Alan S. Rosenthal asserts that Leopardi's concept of nature also became increasingly negative over time: “In Leopardi's poetry, Nature is at first indifferent to mankind, then cruel, increasingly hostile, and finally viciously destructive.” Bonadeo traces a similar evolution in Leopardi's concept of nature, although he finds that the poet first held a positive conception of the link between man and nature.

In recent years the Zibaldone has received increasing attention from literary critics, including Martha King and Daniela Bini. “Leopardi's meditations on the creative process and his statements on style and the psychological effect of certain words are a rare testimony of a great poet,” according to King and Bini. Despite this renewed interest, however, Leopardi's poetry remains relatively unknown outside Italy; in the English-speaking world, the study of his work is largely restricted to academic circles where he is considered by many the greatest Italian poet of the nineteenth century. In his own country, according to Nicolas J. Perella “the critical literature on Leopardi has, in the last forty years, been massive, perhaps exceeding even what has been written on Dante.” Perella believes that Leopardi has been a significant influence on Western literature since his death but the acknowledgement of that impact has not been sufficient to secure his reputation, outside scholarly circles, as one of Italy's greatest poets and thinkers.

Principal Works

Storia della astronomia (essay) 1813

Saggio sopra gli errori popolari degli antichi (essay) 1815

Canzoni del conte Giacomo Leopardi (poetry) 1824; revised and enlarged as Versi del Conte Giacomo Leopardi 1826

Operette morali [Essays and Dialogues of Giacomo Leopardi; also published as Essays, Dialogues and Thoughts of Giacomo Leopardi] (essays, fictional dialogues, and prose poetry) 1827; enlarged edition, 1836

Canti (poetry) 1831; enlarged edition, 1835

Opere di Giacomo Leopardi. 6 vols. (poetry, essays, fictional dialogues, aphorisms, and letters) 1845-49

Pensieri di varia filosofia e di bella letteratura [Zibaldone]. 7 vols. (prose) 1898-1900

The poems of Leopardi (poetry) 1923

Epistolario di Giacomo Leopardi. 7 vols. (letters) 1934-41

Tutte le opere di Giacomo Leopardi. 5 vols. (poetry, prose, fictional dialogues, essays, aphorisms, prose poetry, and letters) 1937-49

Poems from Giacomo Leopardi (poetry) 1946

Giacomo Leopardi: Selected Prose and Poetry (poetry, prose, and fictional dialogues) 1966

A Leopardi Reader (poetry, prose, aphorisms, and letters) 1981

Criticism

Beatrice Corrigan (essay date 1963)

SOURCE: Corrigan, Beatrice. “The Poetry of Leopardi in Victorian England 1837-1878.” English Miscellany 14 (1963): 171-84.

[In the following essay, Corrigan discusses Leopardi's reputation in England in the mid-nineteenth century.]

«The first time an Englishman ever mentioned the name of Leopardi in print was, we believe, in a recent novel», wrote George Henry Lewes in an anonymous contribution to Fraser's Magazine in 18481. «Yet Germany has long known and cherished Leopardi. Even France, generally so backward in acknowledging a foreigner, has, on several occasions, paid tribute to his genius».

Some of Leopardi's poems had...

(The entire section is 4578 words.)

Kenelm Foster (essay date 1967)

SOURCE: Foster, Kenelm. “The Idea of Truth in Manzoni and Leopardi.” Proceedings of the British Academy 53 (1967): 243-57.

[In the following essay, Foster compares the philosophies of Manzoni and Leopardi, who, despite their extreme differences, were both concerned with the nature of truth.]

There is a danger in being honoured beyond one's expectations; one may try a little too hard to rise to the occasion, and I fear I have run the risk of doing that in choosing to address so distinguished an audience on so difficult, though fascinating, a topic. Two men of genius and their idea of truth would always be a large subject for one lecture, and the matter is certainly...

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Nicolas James Perella (essay date 1970)

SOURCE: Perella, Nicolas James. “The Sun and Midday in Leopardi.” In Night and the Sublime in Giacomo Leopardi, pp. 139-51. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1970.

[In the following excerpt, Perella examines Leopardi's many references in his lyric poetry to light, which he equated with happiness.]

1

Taking both day and night settings, the number of references to light in Leopardi's not very large output of lyric poetry is strikingly high. We have seen that brightness and clarity have for him a significant affective value of a positive kind (chapter I). In this connection, an entry made in the Zibaldone on August 19, 1823,...

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Alfredo Bonadeo (essay date 1974)

SOURCE: Bonadeo, Alfredo. “Death in Leopardi's Prose.” Italian Quarterly 70 (1974): 3-19.

[In the following essay, Bonadeo discusses Leopardi's concept of death in the Zibaldone, maintaining that the poet was more concerned with life and its purpose than with death.]

“What meaning and significance can be attached to the fact that man must die?”1 What meaning and significance, consequently, can be attached to life in view of its extinction? These are the questions that may help to understand Leopardi's concept of death embodied in the prose of the Zibaldone. If one bears in mind the pessimism and the unhappiness that pervaded the life...

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Erasmo G. Gerato (essay date May 1976)

SOURCE: Gerato, Erasmo G. “Reality of Illusion and Illusion of Reality in Leopardi's Zibaldone.South Atlantic Bulletin 41, no. 2 (May 1976): 117-25.

[In the following essay, Gerato traces Leopardi's increasingly negative assessment of reason, which the poet came to identify as the source of humanity's unhappiness.]

Illusion is perhaps the most essential element in the pensiero of Leopardi, becoming in the end the sole concept capable of rendering life bearable not only for the poet himself but for all of humanity as well.

This study aims at tracing the theme of illusion in the development of Leopardi's thought, especially in...

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Alan S. Rosenthal (essay date fall 1976)

SOURCE: Rosenthal, Alan S. “Baudelaire and Leopardi: An Affinity in Anguish.” Essays in Literature 3, no. 2 (fall 1976): 251-67.

[In the following essay, Rosenthal discusses similarities in themes, imagery, and even phrasing in the work of Leopardi and Baudelaire.]

Considering the differences in their respective backgrounds, the likelihood of parallels between Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867) and Giacomo Leopardi (1798-1837) would, at first glance, appear remote. Yet, in spite of the obvious contrasts, there does indeed exist between the two poets a remarkable and largely unheralded literary affinity.1 Surprisingly, these seemingly dissimilar individuals...

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Alfredo Bonadeo (essay date 1977)

SOURCE: Bonadeo, Alfredo. “Leopardi's Concept of Nature.” In The Two Hesperias: Literary Studies in Honor of Joseph G. Fucilla, edited by Americo Bugliani, pp. 69-87. Madrid: José Porrúa Turanzas, 1977.

[In the following essay, Bonadeo explores the two phases of Leopardi's views on nature; the poet originally considered nature a benign force, but later began to see nature as hostile toward humanity.]

The concept of nature in Leopardi's work has been, and still is controversial. Nature, and fate in Leopardi's poetical works were interpreted by De Sanctis as «due persone poetiche sotto le quali si nasconde una concezione del mondo essenzialmente...

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Margaret Brose (essay date 1983)

SOURCE: Brose, Margaret. “Leopardi's ‘L'Infinito’ and the Language of the Romantic Sublime.” Poetics Today 4, no. 1 (1983): 47-71.

[In the following essay, Brose examines the relationship of Leopardi's lyrics to the aesthetics of European romanticism in general and of the romantic sublime in particular.]

“L'INFINITO”

Sempre caro mi fu quest'ermo colle,
E questa siepe, che da tanta parte
Dell'ultimo orizzonte il guardo esclude.
Ma sedendo e mirando, interminati
Spazi di là da quella, e sovrumani
Silenzi, e profondissima quiete
Io nel pensier mi fingo; ove per poco
Il cor non si spaura. E come il vento
Odo stormir tra queste...

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Daniela Bini (essay date 1983)

SOURCE: Bini, Daniela. “Introduction: A Synthesis for Leopardi.” In A Fragrance from the Desert: Poetry and Philosophy in Giacomo Leopardi, pp. 1-21. Saratoga, Calif.: ANMA Libri, 1983.

[In the following excerpt, Bini discusses Leopardi's writings as a synthesis between poetry and philosophy, maintaining that earlier critics have mistakenly considered the two aspects of his work incompatible.]

The imagination takes its flight only after the void, the inauthenticity of the existential project has been revealed; literature begins where the existential demystification ends.

(Paul de Man, Blindness &...

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Michael Caesar (essay date winter 1991)

SOURCE: Caesar, Michael. “Leopardi and the Knowledge of the Body.” Romance Studies 19 (winter 1991): 21-36.

[In the following essay, Caesar rejects earlier critical views that equated Leopardi's own physical limitations with his pessimism and agnosticism, focusing instead on the body as “disputed territory in Leopardi's work.”]

Natura umana, or come,
Se frale in tutto e vile,
Se polve ed ombra sei, tant'alto senti?
Se in parte anco gentile,
Come i più degni tuoi moti e pensieri
Son così di leggeri
Da sì basse cagioni e desti e spenti?

Englished by Ezra Pound with due pathos—O mortal nature, / If thou art / Frail and so vile in all, / How...

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Massimo Mandolini Pesaresi (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: Pesaresi, Massimo Mandolini. “Leopardi's Platonic Temper.” In Giacomo Leopardi: Estetica e Poesia, edited by Emilio Speciale, pp. 57-75. Ravenna, Italy: Longo Editore, 1992.

[In the following essay, Pesaresi discusses the critical debate on whether or not Leopardi was a Platonic thinker, noting that the relationship between ethics and aesthetics in the poet's work was complicated and ambiguous.]

The dispute on Leopardi's Platonism, being partly a terminological one, risks to be marred with nominalistic elusiveness. Before deciding to which extent Leopardi was a “Platonic” thinker, one should have a fairly precise and consistent definition of Platonism:...

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Martha King and Daniela Bini (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: King, Martha, and Daniela Bini. Introduction to Zibaldone: A Selection, translated by Martha King and Daniela Bini, pp. xiii-xxii. New York: Peter Lang, 1992.

[In the following essay, King and Bini provide an overview of the composition of Leopardi's multivolume record of his thoughts on poetry and philosophy.]

Giacomo Leopardi, the author of this collection of thoughts, this hodge-podge or medley, as the Italian word Zibaldone signifies, was beginning to win renown as a precocious young philologist when the three poets whose names are identical with English romantic poetry took up residence in Italy. In fact, Byron, Shelley, and Keats came to Italy...

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G. Singh (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: Singh, G. “Giacomo Leopardi: Journey from Illusions to Truth.” In The Motif of the Journey in Nineteenth-Century Italian Literature, edited by Bruno Magliocchetti and Anthony Verna, pp. 53-69. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1994.

[In the following essay, Singh traces Leopardi's brief journey from a period of youthful and comforting illusions to maturity and the necessity of abandoning those illusions in favor of a pursuit of truth.]

Illusions—or what he considered to be such—were to play as important a part in Giacomo Leopardi's childhood and early life as in that of any other person. The crucial difference between him and any other person,...

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Claudia Stancati (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: Stancati, Claudia. “The French Sources of Leopardi's Linguistics.” In Historical Roots of Linguistic Theories, edited by Lia Formigari and Daniele Gambarara, pp. 129-39. Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 1995.

[In the following essay, Stancati examines the relationship of Leopardi's linguistic theory to his study of various thinkers of the French Enlightenment.]

Giacomo Leopardi's “rationally founded and demonstrated scepticism” (ZIB [Zibaldone]: 1653) draws its nourishment from still-vital elements of Enlightenment thought. This can be seen, for example, if we explore Leopardi's connection with Holbach (cf. Stancati 1979). But it is true in a...

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David Castronuovo (essay date December 1998)

SOURCE: Castronuovo, David. “Metamorphosis of the Occasion in ‘Nelle Nozze Della Sorella Paolina.’” Rivista di Studi Italiani 16, no. 1 (December 1998): 160-84.

[In the following essay, Castronuovo explains Leopardi's poem “Nelle Nozze Della Sorella Paolina,” which purports to be a brother's remarks on his sister's marriage, but which is actually a pessimistic assessment of his sister's transition from childhood to adulthood.]

All literary works are occasioned in some sense; occasional verse differs in having not a private but a public or social occasion.

(Miner et al., 851)

...

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Anne Urbancic (essay date December 1998)

SOURCE: Urbancic, Anne. “Reflecting on a Moment of Calm: Leopardi's ‘La Quiete Dopo La Tempesta.’”1Rivista di Studi Italiani 16, no. 1 (December 1998): 519-36.

[In the following essay, Urbancic discusses an especially tumultuous time in Leopardi's life that was followed by a period of calm during which he composed the lyric poems of the “grandi idilli.”]

On September 5, 1829, an angry and resentful Leopardi begins to write a letter to Carlo Bunsen in Rome,2 a task which he surmises will take three or four days because of his debilitated physical state. The main purpose of the letter, to congratulate Bunsen on the inception of the...

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Georges Barthouil (essay date March 1999)

SOURCE: Barthouil, Georges. “Asia in the Work of Leopardi.” Journal of European Studies 29, no. 1 (March 1999): 55-60.

[In the following essay, Barthouil examines the Zibaldone's many references to distant lands, particularly in Asia, despite the fact that Leopardi never traveled outside Italy.]

Leopardi was not a great traveller. In fact he imagined his foreign travels, and it was only his hatred for Recanati that led him to stay elsewhere in Italy. For him, Recanati was a prison from which he wanted to escape. However, escaping from a prison is not the same as giving in to the temptation of travel. He did not feel particularly drawn to it; neither did he...

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Nicolas J. Perella (essay date autumn 2000)

SOURCE: Perella, Nicolas J. “Translating Leopardi?” Italica 77, no. 3 (autumn 2000): 357-85.

[In the following essay, Perella ponders Leopardi's relative obscurity outside his native Italy despite the poet's influence on Anglo-American literary culture.]

E chiaro nella valle il fiume appare

—“La quiete dopo la tempesta”

“Giacomo Leopardi is a great name in Italy among philosophers and poets, but is quite unknown in this country.” So wrote Octavius Brook Frothingham in 1887 at the outset of his prefatory remarks to the first English translation of a truly representative number...

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