Of the great European Romantic poets, Giacomo Leopardi was one of the least appreciated by his contemporaries. This set of essays and dialogues, which Leopardi conceived as a single coherent work, met with particular disapproval. Although the style was immediately praised for its suppleness and elegance, the content was deemed unacceptably pessimistic. Leopardi had difficulty publishing the work, the first reviews were unfavorable, and in 1850, the Roman Curia placed it on the Index. The lack of critical appreciation of these essays continued throughout the nineteenth century in, for example, Francesco De Sanctis’ and Benedetto Croce’s negative judgments. There are still critics who find that these moral essays are pervaded by a detached and impassive attitude toward the spectacle of human anguish.
As is generally known, Leopardi grew up in the culturally backward atmosphere of Recanati in the Marches, the son of a provincial count (Monaldo Leopardi, 1776-1847) who had reactionary political ideas and literary ambitions. As a boy, Leopardi was seized with a voracious desire for knowledge. He passed his time in his father’s library, which was excellent for a provincial city, studying so intensely that he permanently weakened his health, including his eyesight. In this “desperate study,” as he would later call it, he acquired an immense knowledge of both ancient and modern philosophy and literature. He knew Latin and Greek well and taught himself Hebrew. His love of classical authors and his conviction that they, and not the moderns, understood human life are evident in all of his writing.
Leopardi’s poetry and prose, including the Operette Morali, reflect an unusual combination of “classical” and “Romantic” tendencies, perhaps possible only in Italy. Leopardi entered the debate between classicism and Romanticism in Italy (1816-1818) with two discourses, which remained unpublished, the “Letter to the Compilers of the Biblioteca italiana” and the “Discourse of an Italian on Romantic Poetry.” In these discourses, Leopardi defends ancient poetry as the expression of a society closer to nature, uncorrupted and unspoiled, while Romantic poetry expresses a corrupt and weary society. The word “Nature” has Rousseauesque connotations in this early period of Leopardi’s thought; the poetry of the ancients has regenerative power for man, because it brings him closer to that state of innocence represented by Nature. This theme runs through Leopardi’s early poetry (1818-1821), which immediately precedes the Operette Morali, for example, in the canzoni “To Italy,” “To Angelo Mai,” “Brutus the Lesser,” “To Spring, or On the Ancient Myths.” In this period, Leopardi tends to attribute man’s “unhappiness,” his perpetually unsatisfied longings, to political causes, especially tyrants and oppressors, or to more arcane powers personified as “fate,” or “the gods.” The lost rapport of man with a benevolent Nature is the principal theme of the idylls of this period, such as “The Evening of the Festal Day,” “To the Moon,” and in the beautiful and best known of Leopardi’s poems, “The Infinite.”
Between the early and the later poems, Leopardi’s idea of Nature evolved from an ideal of innocence and purity possessed by man in ancient times and later lost (and mourned) to a cosmically indifferent force which, by its beautiful appearance, fosters illusions in man in his youth only to disillusion him bitterly later. The central characters of the early poetry tend to be heroic and exceptional figures (Angelo Mai, Brutus, Sappho), while those of the later poems (after 1828) are simple human beings in humble surroundings, as in “To Sylvia,” “Night Song of the Wandering Shepherd of Asia,” “Saturday in the Village,” “The Quiet After the Tempest,” and “The Broom Plant.” Ordinary human beings’ incomprehension of their destiny and...
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