Giacomo Leopardi Leopardi, Giacomo (Poetry Criticism) - Essay


(Poetry Criticism)

Giacomo Leopardi 1798-1837

(Full name Giacomo Talegardo Francesco di Sales Saverio Pietro Leopardi, Conte) Italian poet, philosopher, and scholar.

Leopardi is generally considered the greatest Italian lyric poet of the nineteenth century and one of the finest writers of the period. An accomplished classical scholar who mastered Greek and Latin at a very young age, Leopardi occupies a unique place between Classicism and Romanticism in Italian literature. His poetry combines established lyric forms, such as the Petrarchan canzone, with notable developments in metrical flexibility and blank-verse composition, and is pervaded with his profoundly pessimistic vision. Coupled to this, Leopardi's verse expresses a characteristically Romantic longing for the infinite and concern with the lost human affinity to nature. Leopardi's principal poetic mood is melancholic, and themes of solitude, suffering, despair, and disappointed love predominate, as in his lyric masterpiece “A Sylvia” and the late, philosophical poem “La ginestra.” While typically studied as a poet rather than as a systematic thinker, Leopardi's prose writings—collected in his wide-ranging Zibaldone, (“notebook” or “miscellany”)—as well as in his letters, essays, and dialogues, are also viewed as significant both as explanatory adjuncts to his poetry and as eloquent articulations of his materialist, atheistic, skeptical, and decidedly modern thought.

Biographical Information

Leopardi was born in Recanati, Italy, the eldest son of Count Monaldo Leopardi. Guided by his father's desire that he become a classical scholar, the young Leopardi lived a sheltered life and was refused to make even modest excursions away from Recanati, though he later observed in his Zibaldone that his childhood was a joyous one. Leopardi's father provided him with the finest education he could make available; a battery of private tutors coupled with the boy's prodigious talents and disciplined self-study in his father's sizable library led to his mastery of classic Latin, Greek, Hebrew, and a number of modern European languages by the age of sixteen. He wrote commentaries on classical and early Christian texts, made skillful poetic translations, and produced numerous erudite essays while still in his teens and before reaching his twenties had become one of the outstanding European philologists of the day. The years of indefatigable learning exacted an irreversible toll on Leopardi's body, however, contributing to a pronounced curvature of his spine as well as a weakened heart and lungs that continued to deteriorate with age. His pivotal first experience of love occurred in late 1817 with the appearance of his cousin, Countess Gertrude Cassi, at Recanati. The married Cassi could not have returned the feelings of the shy, hunchbacked Leopardi, and the unrequited emotion became an important motif in his subsequent poetry as well as being duly noted in his Diario d'amore (“Diary of Love”). First in 1819 and thenceforth, Leopardi was subject to bouts of temporary blindness in one eye. This problem, together with his other maladies, contributed to the omnipresent sense of pessimism in Leopardi's mature works, although the poet generally offered other rationalizations for his outlook. Meanwhile, Leopardi's increasingly philosophical musings of the period began a process of transformation in the writer, bringing him closer to an interest in modern literature while leaving his appreciation for classical poetry and the Italian verse of Petrarch and Tasso intact. He left Recanati for the first time in November of 1822, accompanied by his uncle on a tour of Rome. Disillusioned by the shallowness of urban intellectual life he encountered there, Leopardi began to write his cynical Operette morali del conte Giacomo Leopardi (1827; Essays and Dialogues of Giacomo Leopardi) on his return to Recanati in the spring of 1823. Between the period of 1823 to 1825, Leopardi largely abandoned poetry in favor of prose as a vehicle for philosophical reflection. He undertook a translation of Cicero's writings in 1825 for a publisher in Milan, and later visited Bologna, where he made the acquaintance of Countess Teresa Carniana Malvezzi. The married Malvezzi became the object of Leopardi's passions, though she remained solely interested in cultivating him as a poet. From 1826 to late 1828, Leopardi lived in Florence and later Pisa, mingling with intellectuals, clergyman, and nationalists. In Pisa, he began to write verse with renewed vigor, continuing his creative burst in Recanati until the end of the decade. Leopardi then spent the early 1830s once again in Florence, and published the first edition of his poetry under the title of Canti there in 1831. The inspiration for his subsequent series of “Aspasia” poems appears to have been his affection for the wife of his Florentine doctor, Fanny Targioni Tozzetti, the last of his attractions to lovely, unobtainable women. In September of 1833, Leopardi, his health failing, departed for the warmer climate of Naples. During this time he wrote and published his Pensieri (1834-37) as well as several of his finest poems, including “Il tramonto della luna” (“The Setting of the Moon”) and “La ginestra” (“The Broom Flower”). Leopardi died in June of 1837.

Major Works

In 1817, Leopardi began accumulating pieces for his encyclopedic Zibaldone and continued making additions to the voluminous work until the 1830s. Its vast scope reveals the depth of his erudition, with apparent influences ranging from the classical poetry of Homer, Virgil, and Lucretius to the Enlightenment rationalism and skepticism of Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Voltaire, and Madame de Staël. Around the same time as he initiated construction of his notebook, Leopardi began to produce his first notable works of verse. His “Appressamento della morte” (“The Approach of Death”), written in 1817, and “Il primo amore” (1818; “First Love”) illustrate both his strong visionary impulse and the early influence of Petrarchan poetic forms. Many of his initial canzoni, composed in the period of 1818 to 1822, are also public or occasional poems, such as “All'Italia” (“To Italy”) and “Sopra il monumento di Dante” (“On the Monument of Dante”), both paeans to nationalistic grandeur. An overlapping poetic phase also marks the appearance of Leopardi's piccoli idilli (“minor idylls”), including the frequently anthologized “L'infinito” (“The Infinite”). Among them, “Alla luna” (“To the Moon”) features Leopardi's oft-revisited poetic motif of the moon as a catalyst for recollections of loneliness and sorrow. The pursuit of virtue is the subject of “Bruto minore” (“Brutus the Younger”), which treats the idealistic Roman's suicide as a turning point from ancient to cynically modern sensibilities. Suicide is also the topic of “Ultimo canto di Saffo” (“The Last Song of Sappho”), evoking the ancient poet's self-destruction for unrequited love. Ostensibly a celebration of Platonic beauty, “Alla sua donna” (“To His Lady”) is suffused with Leopardi's fundamental pessimism and anti-idealism. It was one of the only poems he wrote in the middle of the 1820s as his literary efforts were dominated by his composition of the prose dialogues and essays of Operette morali. 1828 saw a resurgence of Leopardi's poetry in the so-called grandi idilli (“major idylls”), among them “Il risorgimento” (“The Reawakening”), which comments on the rebirth of poetic inspiration while alluding to the growing Italian independence movement. “A Sylvia” (“To Sylvia”) focuses the poet's attentions on youthful longings and disappointed love. Earthly transience and melancholy reflection inform the lyric “Le ricordanze” (“Memories”), while “Il sabato del vilaggio” (“The Village Saturday”) demonstrates Leopardi's autobiographical impulse, drawing imagery from his childhood recollections. Another of the grandi idilli, “Canto notturno di un pastore errant dell'Asia” (“Nocturne of a Wandering Shepherd in Asia”) resonates with a more tragic and universal pitch, following its subject on a solitary trek beneath an unfeeling desert moon. Inspired by his real-life infatuation with Fanny Targioni Tozzetti, the poems of Leopardi's ciclo di Aspasia (“Aspasia cycle”) were written between 1831 and 1834. “A se stesso” offers a bleak vision as the poet reaches the nadir of despair, while in the final verse of the sequence, “Aspasia,” Leopardi reflects on his bittersweet suffering and philosophical liberation from unrequited love. Written in 1834, but published six years later, Leopardi's Paralipomeni della Batracomiomachia (translated as The War of the Mice and the Crabs, although the title literally means “Additions to the Batracomiomachia,” a pseudo-Homeric poem) is a verse satire aimed at contemporary Italian politics. Many of Leopardi's philosophical thoughts in prose, often culled from his Zibaldone, are available in the Pensieri (1834-37). Musing on subjects such as self-knowledge, disillusionment, and the animating power of imagination, the Pensieri, with their accompanying satirical jabs at human pretension and weakness, also bear thematic resemblance to the Paralipomeni. Leopardi's final, Neapolitan phase of poetic output extends from 1834 to his death in 1837. The culminating work of this period, “La ginestra,” makes symbolic reference to blooming desert plants on the slopes of Mt. Vesuvius, the volcano responsible for the destruction of Pompeii in 79 A. D. Thematically, “La ginestra” touches upon the problem of human solidarity and the fragile coexistence of mankind and nature.

Critical Reception

During his lifetime, Leopardi was considered an outstanding lyric poet, although his literary notoriety was largely confined to Italy. By the latter half of the nineteenth century, however, interest in his writings had spread northward to Germany, with critics observing that the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche found Leopardi's historical insights congenial to his own, and noting affinities between Leopardi's pessimistic worldview and those of the Germanic thinkers Arthur Schopenhauer and Eduard von Hartmann. Leopardi's reputation as a poet in the English-speaking world was established in 1850, when William Gladstone commented on the reflective quality of his verse, and extended by Matthew Arnold's 1882 comparison of Leopardi with the English Romantic poets Lord Byron and William Wordsworth. Still, Arnold expressed reservations about the limited scope of Leopardi's poetry, which numbers only about forty pieces of verse. Nevertheless, scholars continue to view such enduring and sublime lyrics as Leopardi's “A Sylvia,” “L'infinito,” and “La ginestra” as among the finest poetic expressions in Italian. In addition to producing explications of Leopardi's poetry, a number of modern critics have also focused on Leopardi's theory of inspiration, and on the development of his philosophical outlook, guided by his extensive commentary in the Zibaldone and other prose works.

Principal Works

(Poetry Criticism)

Canzoni del conte Giacomo Leopardi 1824

Versi del conte Giacomo Leopardi 1826

Canti del conte Giacomo Leopardi [Leopardi's “Canti” Translated into English Verse] 1831

Paralipomeni della Batracomiomachia [The War of the Mice and the Crabs] 1842

Opere di Giacomo Leopardi. 15 vols. (poetry, dialogues, essays, criticism, letters, and miscellaneous prose) 1845-1938

Poesie di Giacomo Leopardi 1849

Canti di Giacomo Leopardi. 2 vols. 1927

Tutti le opere di Giacomo Leopardi. 5 vols. (poetry, dialogues, essays, criticism, letters,...

(The entire section is 144 words.)

William Gladstone (essay date 1850)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Gladstone, William. Review of Poesie di Giacomo Leopardi. The Quarterly Review 86, no. 172 (1850): 295-336.

[In the following excerpted review, Gladstone observes that Leopardi was not a poet of the very highest status but finds much that is great and admirable in his collected works of poetry.]

When we regard Leopardi in his character of a poet—in which no Italian of the present generation, we conceive, except Manzoni even approaches him, and he in a different order, and perhaps but in a single piece—it is not difficult to perceive that he was endowed in a peculiar degree with most of the faculties which belong to the highest excellence. We shall...

(The entire section is 2169 words.)

Matthew Arnold (essay date 1882)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Arnold, Matthew. “Byron.” In English Literature and Irish Politics, edited by R. H. Super, pp. 217-37. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1973.

[In the following excerpt, originally published in 1882, Arnold compares Leopardi with the English poets Lord Byron and William Wordsworth.]

We will take three poets, among the most considerable of our century: Leopardi, Byron, Wordsworth. Giacomo Leopardi was ten years younger than Byron, and he died thirteen years after him; both of them, therefore, died young—Byron at the age of thirty-six, Leopardi at the age of thirty-nine. Both of them were of noble birth, both of them suffered from physical...

(The entire section is 774 words.)

Moritz Levi (essay date 1909)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Levi, Moritz. “Silence and Solitude in the Poems of Leopardi.” Modern Language Notes 24, no. 6 (June 1909): 172-76.

[In the following essay, Levi remarks on themes of solitude and silence as key elements in Leopardi's pessimistic poetic expression.]

It has often been said that the greatness of a man does not depend upon the pleasures he enjoys but upon the sufferings he undergoes. Among Italians who prove the truth of this saying none stand forth more clearly than Dante and Leopardi. Both drained the cup of bitterness to the dregs. Dante's lofty patriotism and uncompromising uprightness of character brought upon him endless woe during his days on earth, and...

(The entire section is 2617 words.)

G. Singh (essay date 1964)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Singh, G. “The Role of Melancholy and the Concept of Poetic Inspiration.” In Leopardi and the Theory of Poetry, pp. 64-86. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1964.

[In the following essay, Singh considers the philosophical significance of suffering and inspiration in Leopardi's theoretical writings on poetry.]

In so far as modern poetry is concerned, Leopardi, like so many poets before and after him, considered melancholy as something more congenial to poetic sentiment than cheerfulness. And it is not only more congenial to poetic sentiment, but also more conducive to the discovery of truth, and hence more useful to philosophers, than cheerfulness. At...

(The entire section is 7834 words.)

Ernesto G. Caserta (essay date 1973)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Caserta, Ernesto G. “Leopardi's Paralipomeni.Italian Quarterly 17, no. 66 (Fall-Winter 1973): 3-23.

[In the following essay, Caserta analyzes Leopardi's political satire Paralipomeni, seeing it as critique of the Italian Risorgimento and a polemical description of “the miserable destiny of the whole of mankind blindly in search of an illusory progress.”]

The Paralipomeni della Batracomiomachia is Giacomo Leopardi's longest poem. Composed after the Canti and the Operette morali, between 1830 and 1837, and for the most part during his residence in Naples, the work was first published in Paris in 1842, but until recent...

(The entire section is 6163 words.)

Lowry Nelson, Jr. (essay date 1976)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Nelson, Lowry, Jr. “Leopardi First and Last.” In Italian Literature: Roots and Branches, edited by Giose Rimanelli and Kenneth John Atchity, pp. 333-62. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1976.

[In the following essay, Lowry examines Leopardi's poetic development within the historical context of Italian versification, paying special attention to the works “All'Italia” and “La ginestra.”]

Since the great efflorescence of Italian literature in the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance, when the incumbency of tradition from classical antiquity and Provencal was established, Italian poets have felt the pressure of the past at increasingly complex...

(The entire section is 9746 words.)

Albert Cook (essay date 1980)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Cook, Albert. “Leopardi: The Mastery of Diffusing Sorrow.” Canadian Journal of Italian Studies 4, Nos. 1-2 (1980): 68-82.

[In the following essay, Cook details the mood, style, and thematic range of Leopardi's poetry.]


In the isolation of his father's library Leopardi set himself to the mastery of classical antiquity; other equally cloistered but less inspired minds, after the Industrial Revolution were similarly shown toward what will be called a miximizing retrieval of data backed by a faith in the set significance of one hallowed past. Behind and around this faith, something, that would negate it by engulfing it, was gathering...

(The entire section is 4160 words.)

Madison U. Sowell (essay date 1984)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Sowell, Madison U. “A Comparative Interpretation of Leopardi's ‘La vita solitaria’.” Rocky Mountain Review of Language and Literature 38, Nos. 1-2 (1984): 44-54.

[In the following essay, Sowell explicates the poem “La vita solitaria,” concentrating on Leopardi's use of literary allusion, and on the poem's theme of personal isolation contrasted with artistic communion.]

                                                                                O'er my thoughts
There hung a darkness, call it solitude
Or black desertion. No familiar shapes
Remained, no pleasant images of trees,
Of sea or sky, no colours of green fields.


(The entire section is 4203 words.)

Luisetta Elia Chomel (essay date 1986)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Chomel, Luisetta Elia. “Extratemporality in Leopardi's Major Idylls: ‘La rimembranza’ and ‘Le temps retrouvé’.” Italica 63, no. 2 (Summer 1986): 161-70.

[In the following essay, Chomel discusses Leopardi's philosophical reflections on time as depicted in his poetry of 1828 to 1829.]

Man's desire for an infinite, eternal happiness, in contrast with the finite temporal limits of existence, is the fundamental theme of Leopardi's lyrics. As Bruno Biral has noted, long before he started his philosophical reflections, Leopardi felt the horror of the inexorable passing of time in its existential impact.1 From this perspective, I Canti,...

(The entire section is 4379 words.)

Arturo Vivante (essay date 1988)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Vivante, Arturo. “Introduction.” In Giacomo Leopardi Poems, pp. i-vii. Wellfleet, Mass.: Delphinium Press, 1988.

[In the following excerpted introduction to his translation of Leopardi's poetry, Vivante summarizes the poet's life and method of composition.]

There are books to have near, and Leopardi's Canti is assuredly one of them. XIXth-century Italian poetry would be immeasurably poorer without him. Besides the Canti, on which his fame mainly rests and which consists of thirty-six poems (in all about 200 pages,) his works include the Operette Morali, mostly in dialogue form; the Zibaldone, a voluminous diary-like collection or...

(The entire section is 2447 words.)

Margaret Brose (essay date 1990)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Brose, Margaret. “Moontime and Memory: Leopardi's ‘Alla luna’.” Stanford Italian Review 9, Nos. 1-2 (1990): 155-79.

[In the following essay, Brose offers a detailed stylistic analysis of “Alla luna,” viewing it as a work concerned principally with the act of remembering, and comparing the poem with others in Leopardi's oeuvre.]

Giacomo Leopardi's “Alla luna,” written most probably in July of 1819, is the second composition of the group of poems known as the primi or piccoli idilli: a group of five poems written between 1819 and 1821, which are united by their shared setting of the Recanati landscape, and suffused with a nostalgia...

(The entire section is 9793 words.)

Nicolas James Perella (essay date 1990)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Perella, Nicolas James. “Leopardi and the Primacy of Desire.” In Giacomo Leopardi, edited by Giovanni Cecchetti, pp. 57-86. Los Angeles: Forum Italicum, 1990.

[In the following essay, Perella deems Romantic desire and the philosophical longing for the infinite as central to Leopardi's poetry.]

Un vértigo espantoso se apoderó de mi, y comencé a ver claro. El cementerio està dentro de Madrid. Madrid es el cementerio. Pero vasto cementerio, donde cada casa es el nicho de una familia; cade calle, el sepulcro de un acontecimiento; cada corazón, la urna cineraria de una esperanza o de un deseo.


(The entire section is 11868 words.)

John Alcorn and Dario Del Puppo (essay date 1995)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Alcorn, John and Dario Del Puppo. “Leopardi's Historical Poetics in the Canzone ‘Ad Angelo Mai’.” Italica 72, no. 1 (Spring 1995): 21-39.

[In the following essay, Alcorn and Del Puppo study Leopardi's representation of the historical imagination in the poem “Ad Angelo Mai,” citing affinities with Friedrich Nietzsche's view of history and noting the poet's observation that “history at once affirms reason and reveals reason's limits.”]

The canzone, “Ad Angelo Mai quand'ebbe trovato i libri di Cicerone della Repubblica” (1820),1 raises interesting questions about poetry as a medium for representing history. Though...

(The entire section is 7547 words.)

Pamela Williams (essay date 1998)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Williams, Pamela. “Leopardi's Philosophy of Consolation in ‘La ginestra’.” The Modern Language Review 93, no. 4 (October 1998): 985-96.

[In the following essay, Williams discusses Leopardi's perception of the legitimate sources of human merit and solidarity in a world devoid of true purpose and meaning, as illustrated in his poem “La ginestra.”]

The ‘philosophy of consolation’ of my title refers specifically to the famous third stanza of ‘La ginestra,’ a poem written in 1836, one year before the poet's death, at Torre del Greco, a small town on the lower slopes of Vesuvius. In the past fifty years this so-called ‘solidarity stanza’ has...

(The entire section is 8154 words.)

David Castronuovo (essay date 1999)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Castronuovo, David. “The Apostrophic Prayer: A Guiding Figure in Leopardi's Earliest Poetry.” Romance Languages Annual 10, no. 1 (1999): 216-24.

[In the following essay, Castronuovo explains Leopardi's use of rhetorical apostrophe in his classically-inspired poems and translations, as well as in his early verses on Christian themes.]

Which now of islands, what hill finds most favour with thee? What haven? What city? Which of the nymphs dost thou love above the rest, and what heroines hast thou taken for thy companions? Say, goddess, thou to me, and I will sing thy saying to others.


(The entire section is 6903 words.)

Further Reading

(Poetry Criticism)


Alcorn, John. “Giacomo Leopardi's Art and Science of Emotion in Memory and Anticipation.” Modern Language Notes 111, no. 1 (1996): 89-122.

Views emotional recollection as central to Leopardi's Canti and Zibaldone, and includes a reading of “La ricordanze” as the finest example of Leopardi's reflective poetics.

——— and Dario Del Puppo. “Giacomo Leopardi's ‘La ginestra’ as Social Art.” The Modern Language Review 89, no. 4 (October 1994): 865-88.

Presents a formal, thematic, cultural, and philosophical analysis of Leopardi's late poem on the subject of human solidarity,...

(The entire section is 532 words.)