Giacomo Leopardi Analysis

Other Literary Forms

(Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

Giacomo Leopardi was a child prodigy who began exercising both his talents and his erudition at the age of eleven. While as a poet he is best known for the Canti (literally, “songs”), and to some extent for the political satire The War of the Mice and the Crabs and other lyrical poems not included in the Canti, he did leave a great number of shorter poetic pieces or fragments, including translations, together with a similar number of brief prose pieces which in the aggregate round out an active literary personality. His philosophical “Imitazione,” on Antoine Vincent Arnaut’s “La Feuille,” is possibly of 1818, or of 1828, the year of his polemical poem on style, “Scherzo.” Four or five years before, he had translated freely a fragment of Simonides, and followed it with another translation of the same author. As early as 1809, inspired by Homer’s Iliad (c. 800 b.c.e.), Leopardi produced his first poem, “La morte di Ettore,” and in 1812 he wrote Pompeo in Egitto, a tragedy denouncing tyranny. A number of extant poetic fragments cannot be dated accurately. In 1819, Leopardi wrote the pastoral tragedy Telesilla. In addition, there were many prose works, such as the remarkably erudite Storia dell’astronomia (1813; History of Astronomy, 1882), ranging from the beginning of the science to the comet of 1811, and the long Saggio sopra gli errori popolari degli antichi...

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(Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

Giacomo Leopardi left an indelible mark on Italian poetry, in which category he is considered second only to Dante, and while Leopardi’s influence on European letters does not match that of a number of transalpine contemporaries (George Gordon, Lord Byron, Victor Hugo, and Ludwig Tieck, for example), he is surely a greater poet than most of them and closer to the modern psyche—indeed, one of the truly significant poets of the nineteenth century. Leopardi was not only a consummate philologist in the classical sense, with all the linguistic and historical erudition which that term implies, but also he was one of those rare poets who, like Dante and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, have been deemed worthy of consideration as a philosopher. Lyrical expression and philosophical reflection maintain a harmonious balance in his poetry at all times. Some critics see Leopardi chiefly as a scholar of broad humanistic and historical dimensions; others, as one of the sacred voices inspiring the movement for Italian unification; still others, as a pessimistic philosopher, a precursor of twentieth century Existentialism. Even in Essays and Dialogues, however, Leopardi was above all a poet—which is perhaps the most appropriately encompassing term available for him.

Patriotic Canzones

(Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

The first poems in the Canti, the patriotic canzones “To Italy” and “On the Monument to Dante,” do not fit the ideological profile of a man who stood, ultimately, like his contemporary Alessandro Manzoni, above the political fray. Indeed, in later years, liberals who expected more utterances in this vein from Leopardi were disappointed. His conversations with Pietro Giordani undoubtedly underlie the nationalistic, youthful fervor reflected in these early poems, though as the years went by, his philosophical nature could not yield to political pragmatism, and he adopted more and more a metaphysical view of life’s vicissitudes.

Of the two patriotic canzones, “To Italy” has enjoyed somewhat greater acclaim. It contains seven strophes of twenty lines each. The poet portrays a prostrate and reviled Italy, once so glorious yet today subject to foreign masters; her sons die fighting on alien ground, unlike the handful of noble Greeks, victors over the Persians at Thermopylae, who died for their own land. The poet Simonides could sing of that deed to posterity and thereby commingle his own fame with that of the Hellenic heroes. Tainted by occasional tones of “high-sounding oratory,” in the opinion of Gian Carlo D’Adamo, the poem betrays the idealistic background of Petrarch and Ugo Foscolo, yet more personally it also rings with sincere concern and reveals that at twenty years of age, Leopardi was already an accomplished poet.


(Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

Unlike the classical, Theocritan idylls which resembled verbal vignettes, Leopardi’s idylls bear an autobiographical imprint. He defined them as “experiments, situations, feelings, historical adventures of my soul.” Five poems in hendecasyllabic blank verse, the “small” idylls “The Infinite,” “Sunday Evening,” “To the Moon,” “Il sogno,” and “The Solitary Life,” constitute the first significant phase in Leopardi’s poetic development.

“The Infinite” is a mere fifteen-line idyll, yet it is a work of extraordinary depth. The poet is near Recanati, atop a hill that has always been dear to him. A hedge blocks his view of the horizon, but he imagines the silence of boundless space beyond it. The factor of time intrudes through the sound of the wind in the leaves, reminding him of eternity, of history, and of the present. “And so,” he concludes, “in this immensity my thought is drowned: and in this sea is foundering sweet to me.” The meditation strikes the reader because of the absence of concrete details; its indeterminateness is made vital by the evocative power of the words, the pauses, the enjambments, the oxymoronic arrangement of “foundering” and “sweet”—indeed, a whole rhythm of inner contemplation that halts on the threshold of fear before nothingness and reverts to losing itself completely in the immensity of being. A miniature drama played out in the mind, the poem has been considered Leopardi’s...

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Philosophical Canzones

(Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

The next group of poems in the Canti is distinguished by a loftier language, and by a shift in subject matter from private to public concerns. These philosophical canzones number seven in all: “To Angelo Mai,” “Nelle nozze della sorella Paolina,” “Hymn to the Patriarchs,” “A un vincitore nel pallone,” “The Younger Brutus,” “To Spring,” and “Sappho’s Last Song.” This group of the early 1820’s is usually expanded to include two poems composed slightly later, “To His Lady” and “To Count Carlo Pepoli,” which share similar motifs.

In “To Angelo Mai,” written in twelve fifteen-line strophes, Leopardi takes his Italian contemporaries to task because of their neglect of their illustrious past. To his “dead century” he opposes the philological discoveries of the erudite philologist and head librarian of the Ambrosiana and Vatican library, Angelo Mai, who had resurrected many significant texts. Philology is transfigured here to serve as a metaphor for civic regeneration. Though the poet feels decimated by sorrow and by lack of faith in the future, he evokes those “heroes” who lived and wrote before nature lifted the veil of comforting illusions from reality, before too much knowledge of the truth diminished man’s imagination, before the sole certainty of existence—sorrow—had been fully disclosed, and before common opinion’s notion of the sciences had pushed poetry into the background. Dante,...

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“Great” Idylls of 1828-1830

(Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

As distinguished from the “small” idylls of 1819 to 1821—a term which many critics hesitate to accept (there is certainly nothing “small” about “The Infinite”)—the “great” idylls of 1828 to 1830, perhaps better identified simply as further canti, treat Leopardi’s familiar themes with more complex meditation and richer inspiration. They number seven: “The Revival,” “To Sylvia,” “The Solitary Thrush,” “Memories,” “The Calm After the Storm,” “Saturday Evening in the Village,” and “Night Song of a Nomadic Shepherd in Asia.” Most of them are canzones in free form; they marked Leopardi’s return to writing poetry after a lapse of several years.

“To Sylvia” underscores the theme of lost youth and the insensitive deception of nature. In its sixty-three lines in six uneven, free-form stanzas, the poem recalls the daughter of a coachman in Recanati, whose “happy and elusive” eyes and “constant song” he remembers. His life then was bright with hopes in a lovely landscape of gardens outlined in the distance by mountains and sea, but all of those hopes died, as Sylvia died, the victim of nature’s cruelty, of a “strange disease” that preempted even her first acquaintance with words of love and praise for her beauty: “And with your hand you pointed from afar at chilling death and at a naked tomb.” The poet, living on, can only lament the shattered illusions of youth, yet he does so without bitterness, with exquisite melancholy and refined sorrow that find relief in the re-creating power of the word.

“The Solitary Thrush,” its three stanzas comprising fifty-nine lines, is a melancholy elegy evoking a festive spring day in the village, stressing, along with the theme of lost youth, the notion of isolation. The reasoning poet compares himself to the instinct-guided thrush that sings alone all day long while the other birds frolic in the sky. As the poet walks away from the celebrants in the village, the thrush leaves behind the joys of love and youth. It is an ending, in a way, and the sunset symbolizes it; while the bird will not mourn its losses, the poet will “many times look back at them, but quite disconsolate.” Leopardi always revered solitude as a balm for the spirit and the imagination, but at the same time he recognized that it precludes communion with other people, and he saw in his penchant for solitude a dangerous inability to cope with life.

Written in seven free-style stanzas comprising 173 hendecasyllables, “Memories” recalls a train of images that had left their imprint on Leopardi’s mind during his earlier years in Recanati. Returning to Recanati, the poet remembers how the “bright stars of the Bear” used to kindle dreams at night, and how by daytime the mountains suggested happiness beyond them. At that time, he did not know the malevolent crassness of his townsmen, nor did he expect a life without love. The...

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The Aspasia Cycle

(Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

The Aspasia cycle comprises “The Ascendant Thought,” “Love and Death,” “Consalvo,” “To Himself,” and “Aspasia,” the last being a fictional name given by Leopardi to a woman he loved—unhappily: Pericles’ beautiful and cultured courtesan represents the poet’s Fanny Targioni-Tozzetti. All of the poems in the cycle are in blank verse, and with the exception of “Consalvo” and “Aspasia,” which are in hendecasyllables, the style is free.

“The Ascendant Thought,” in fourteen stanzas comprising 147 lines, refers to the effects of love, to the way in which the poet’s mind is dominated by the thought of love “like a tower gigantic and alone in a solitary field.” To him it seems...

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The Sepulchral Canzones

(Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

The sepulchral canzones are only two in number: “On the Ancient Sepulchral Bas-Relief” and “On the Portrait of a Beautiful Lady.” Both are written in free style, in lines of uneven length.

In the 109 lines of “On the Ancient Sepulchral Bas-Relief,” the poet hesitates to call the dead young lady fortunate or unfortunate; perhaps she is happy, but her destiny inspires pity, since she passed away in the flower of her beauty. How could nature bring this upon an innocent person? Yet if death, a “most beautiful young maiden,” is good, why lament it? Nature engenders illusions and struggles, so why should death appear frightening? If nature were not indifferent to man, she would not “tear a friend from...

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(Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

Carsaniga, Giovanni. Giacomo Leopardi: The Unheeded Voice. Edinburgh, Scotland: Edinburgh University Press, 1977. A critical introduction to Leopardi’s works with bibliographic references and index.

Leopardi, Giacomo. The Letters of Giacomo Leopardi, 1817-1837. Selected and translated by Prue Shaw. Leeds, England: Northern Universities Press, 1998. Leopardi’s correspondence offers invaluable insight into his life and writing habits as well as his relationships with family and acquaintances.

Nisbet, Delia Fabbroni-Giannotti. Heinrich Heine and Giacomo Leopardi: The Rhetoric of Midrash. New York: P. Lang, 2000. Provides a critical analysis of similarities between the rhetorical...

(The entire section is 275 words.)