Italians consider Giacomo Leopardi one of the great poets of the nineteenth century, although his work is relatively unknown in the English-speaking world. His life was short and bitter, and he was crippled by disease, usually in need of money, and cut off from the world around him. Most of the poetry for which he is praised is his lyric poetry, which is marked by the beauty, concreteness, and exactness of its language. Leopardi’s language is, in itself, an assertion and creation of human value, yet in all of his work, both prose and poetry, he expresses a realistic, pessimistic view of human existence. Leopardi believed that human belief in happiness is an illusion: Happiness is not now, but always to come. This illusion of happiness and good applies not only to individual lives but also to human institutions.
Leopardi, a great scholar, wrote not only lyric poetry but also remarkable philosophic essays and political satires, one of which is the narrative poem The War of the Mice and the Crabs. This work came late in Leopardi’s career, and originally even some of his closest supporters disapproved of it; one of them called it “a terrible book.” It was so widely criticized because it is a scathing satire not only of the European intellectual and political world of the early nineteenth century but also of the rhetoric, pretensions, and posturings of those Italian patriots who wanted an independent, unified Italy. Italy at that time was a collection of small, often mutually antagonistic, states; most of the north, including Milan and Venice, was directly or indirectly controlled by the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which many Italians considered alien and uncivilized.
Leopardi was an Italian patriot, and two of his earliest poems were patriotic. He believed that Italy had been a leader in civilizing the world and perhaps could be again. He hated the emptiness of bluster, however, and thought that certain kinds of patriotism were simply refusals to face reality. He also believed that most political and social theories were intellectual daydreams.
The War of the Mice and the Crabs builds on the ancient Greek poem The Batrachomyomachia, once attributed to the poet Homer. The poem—the title literally means “the war of the frogs and the mice”—is a mock epic in the form of a beast fable, using animals in order to satirize the heroic values of the Homeric poems Iliad (c. 750 b.c.e.; English translation, 1611) and Odyssey (c. 725 b.c.e.; English translation, 1614). Leopardi’s Italian title can be translated as “the additions to” (or “the things left out of”) “the war of the frogs and the mice.” He modernizes the satire in order to speak of Italy, its warring factions, and the overriding power of the intruding Austro-Hungarian Empire. At the same time, he comments on the political, historical, and universal theorizing that asserts order. The political world that Leopardi’s poem depicts is essentially chaotic; the only thing that matters in the end is brute force. The natural world is also chaotic, purposeless, leading only to motionless death.
Leopardi’s satire is found not solely in subject matter but also in form. For example, The War of the Mice and the Crabs is in cantos (longer divisions) and octaves (eight-line stanzas)—divisions and stanzas used by the Renaissance Italian writers of romantic epics, such as Ludovico Ariosto’s Orlando furioso (1516, 1521, 1532; English translation, 1591). A number of later mock-epic poems deliberately used the same form in order to satirize the elevated tone of the standard romantic epic. Leopardi chose the form in order to emphasize the satirical note.
In the Greek poem, the mice attack the frogs to get revenge for the accidental drowning of their prince; they are winning the war when the gods decide that they do not want the frogs to be destroyed and so send an army of crabs...
(The entire section is 1639 words.)