Giacomo Leopardi, Italy’s most distinguished contribution to European Romanticism, was one of the great lyricists of the nineteenth century. Virtually a contemporary of Keats, he demonstrates many similarities to that brilliant, short-lived Englishman. More useful, however, is the comparison with Wordsworth. Like him, Leopardi uses rural scenes and idioms and writes much verse superficially in the same mode. A typical poem of both will begin with a scene rich in natural, simple details, from which the poet weaves both message and mood out of his impression of nature. Nothing could be farther from the divine power in nature that Wordsworth depicts, however, than the bleakly pessimistic mood which is the characteristic impression of a Leopardi lyric. Undoubtedly as a result of his tortured and pathetic childhood, joined to his darker cast of mind, Leopardi’s work is almost anti-Wordsworthian in tone and depicts a welcome although a morbid contrast to other nineteenth century, Romanticists who conventionally, almost mechanically, found in birds and flowers solace from social disappointments. The season of rebirth in Leopardi’s “To Spring” is a thing of irony more than of joy, for the seasons to him merely remind one of the irrevocable coming of eternal winter. Though “fragrant spring breathes upon the frozen heart” now, soon the ice of death and disintegration will descend upon man, creating a stillness that no spring will ever touch. This same lyric contrasts the lost world of classical Greece, in which the world seemed to live in dynamic rapport with the divine in myth and legend, with the world of today, where “blind thunder” wanders over the valley and the rain falls on good and evil alike. The poet concludes by asking the spirit of nature to affirm that there is a divinity even though the deity be but a “pitiless” spectator of meaningless comings and goings.
Undoubtedly Leopardi’s remarkable but pathetic upbringing had much to do with the bitterness and sadness of his verse. The lonely, brilliant child of ambitious but stodgy parents, his intellect was recognized at an early age, but was then pressured by his family at a terrible rate. At fifteen he could both read and write Greek, but at eighteen he was broken in body and spirit, with eyes permanently damaged, spine prematurely crooked by extraordinary intellectual endeavor, and mind keenly suffering as well. Renouncing classical scholarship through necessity as well as conviction, Leopardi turned to creative literature almost as therapy. As D. H. Lawrence would affirm later about himself, he seemed to shed his illnesses of body and spirit in books.
Too much Leopardi at one sitting is as overwhelming to the reader as Leopardi’s life must have been to the poet, but taken in selections his creations have a spirit that helps fill out the literature of European Romanticism with a sad beauty too rarely found in others of the period. In “Memories” the poet sits before the open window and looks at the stars, but such an experience intensifies bitterness more than it dissipates it. Memories flood of his lost boyhood when he had his health and hope, when the stars beckoned instead of glittering coldly and mindlessly. “My heart never told me,” he thinks, how “my green age” would be wasted here in “the barbarous town, with a cheap boorish people.” The bell that once gave meaning to the day now mocks it; now only death awaits to alleviate the barren dullness of days without hope or love. Then the poet speaks of the loss in death of Nerina, who is another image of the bright past now gone. Here, and again in “To Sylvia,” Leopardi creates something akin to Wordsworth’s “Lucy” poems, but with the ubiquitous Leopardi...
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