A man stands gazing at an ancient memorial in a forgotten cemetery. The memorial depicts a beautiful young woman – a woman who is possessed of the compelling and vanquishing kind of beauty which ravishes men’s hearts, as now it ravishes his own. This woman possesses the striking beauty, which on account of his physical deformity – he is only four and a half feet tall and a hunchback – this particular man could never hope to claim.
But as he gazes at the face of the woman on the monument, he begins to stumble and fall under its spell. He is gripped by his need to reconcile the ageless and unfading loveliness etched in stone with the living being it represented, but also, disturbingly, with the changes wrought by death. He sees the woman as she is now – a jumble of bones hidden under the dirt of the grave – but his mind leads him away from this intolerable image to contemplate another, far more ravishing – far more alluring….
The late afternoon light of the Campania, with its rich complement of shadows falls about him and surrounds him, and slowly, without his even noticing, the present gives way to a remote past. The light by which he now finds himself watching another scene unfolding, is the light of candles, soft and generous to the faces and arms of beautiful women.
He is seated in a corner away from the pools of light, but still surrounded by the murmuring waves of indistinct conversation and the rustling crepitations of silk gowns. He seems almost to melt into the shadows, this little man, in a well-worn blue coat, now refurbished to look somewhat less unfashionable than it recently did, holding the glass of wine which has warmed unnoticed in his hands.
When ‘she’ enters his line of sight, she is speaking to a man who has just approached her and kissed her hand. She is smiling, in a completely possessed awareness of her own presence, and the ruthless effect of her beauty on her guests, as they watch her shifting form move between the light and shadows. Her ungloved hands are pale and elegant, and touched with the occasional emphatic glint of gold on the ring finger. The guests at the soirée approach her one by one, as though summoned to a privileged audience, and each one first registers, then masks the reluctance of his displacement by the next. On this occasion, the woman’s uxorious husband has chosen this particular moment to give her a gift. He clasps a gold and garnet collar around her neck, and the stones catch the light and splash their deep effusive tint on her milky skin.
If the man watching silently in his corner were to speak, he might amuse and impress. He is after all, learned and clever. He is a classicist, a philologist, a writer and a poet whose work will be read and admired and analysed and exclaimed over in all the years following his death, more than the work of any other Italian. He is Giacomo Leopardi – but he does not break his silence to speak. This is a life in which he has no active part.
Such is the kind of experience I think of as The Poetic Trance. While one is under its influence time melts away, and the present surrenders itself unresistingly to a condition unconstrained by time – and also by space. There is no way to describe this experience, except to say that in it one finds oneself enveloped, and yet one knows it for its intimate interiority. It is an almost dream-like state in which a poem entirely confides itself in moods and sounds and images, untouched by words or reason. It just is in a way that a little resembles a waking dream, that compels the chattering mind to silence, and any effort to form words resembles the useless strivings of a sleeper to call out from the throes of a nightmare.
When I first read this poem, I felt as if the contents of another mind were being revealed to me, as that mind was itself being opened to yet another. Leopardi is in effect seeing triple here. He is addressing three entities – ostensibly the monument, but then the relics, and finally, and most convincingly, the beautiful woman as she had been in life. I could see Leopardi weaving his uneven way among the mazes of old monuments with the slow sense of captivation coming over him as his gaze wandered over them.
These crowded monuments ever aspire to grandeur even as they age and fall to ruin, and they stubbornly memorialise the forgotten dead and exalt their grieving relatives – now also dead – and these in turn possess their own memorials – continuing in a succession of opulently displayed marbles. Notwithstanding the original purpose of these structures, ostensibly to make an imposing public statement about grief and wealth, they manage also to express a more private anxiety having to do with the desire to be remembered. They are in a way a form of insurance against the real possibility – that people forget, and they, the eminent but voiceless dead, will in the end also be forgotten.
Amongst these powerful presences, and surrounded by the complexity of the artifacts symbolising their high aspirations in life and obloquies of their death, of their high pomp and decaying skeletons, of erected reflections of languid female forms and vanished lushness, commemorating dead women, and their male equivalents suggestive of power and influence, times and places such as these could easily compel the mind to oscillate uneasily between vivid and confusing impressions of life and death. The involuntary roilings of emotions which connect both love and death – an association already well- established in Leopardi’s mind – could have forced him, a man profoundly uncomfortable with female sensuality, to surrender his quotidian awareness under the duress of contradiction and yield to the imperatives of the poetic trance, and the enthrallment of its seizure.
During his brief life, Leopardi’s excursions into the perilous territory of love had only brought him emotional disaster and ruin. Whether they were untouched and innocent virgins such as ‘Silvia’ and ‘Nerina’ or the un-named apparition visiting his bedside in ‘Il Sogno’ or his married cousin Geltrude Lazzaro immortalised in ‘Il Primo Amore’ or his sordidly disappointing real-life infatuation with the married Fanny Targioni, women for Leopardi were not beings he was equipped or inclined to deal with realistically.
Mario Fubini, in his thorough and comprehensive commentary on Leopardi’s collection of poems, Canti, states, “La donna ideale”, del Leopardi “non ha preso forma di figura humana.”, rimane sogno, che si confonde col sogno di tutti gli individui: dall intimità iniziale il solleve a vagheggiare la sua immagine del passato e nel futuro parimenti favolosi, a trasformarla in un mito.”
“For Leopardi, ‘The ideal woman does not assume a human form.’ She remains a dream which is confused with the dreams of all men: From the very first intimacy he rises to cherish her past and future images alike, turning them into something fabulous and mythical.”
Leopardi’s recurring romances with human females were with women who were dead, about to die, or disappearing, ‘Sopra un Basso Rilieveo’, ‘Il Pensiero Dominante’, ‘Le Ricordanze’, ‘Il Sogno’, ‘Il Ultimo Canto…’ etc. So this particular monument in the life of a beautiful young woman at the apogee of her sensuality, would have made a potent impression on Leopardi. She seems indeterminate – was she a chaste and cherished wife, or an aristocratic courtesan for whom men had to battle each other and compete in the field of ambiguous courtship?
Leopardi does not tell us. He only lets us know that she was lovely, and infinitely desirable. Whether such a woman was married in real life or unattached, she would be far beyond Leopardi’s reach, and his ability either to command or to compete. But here, death conveniently levels the playing-field for him. He can now address a woman, even one exalted in the puissance of her earthly beauty, with impunity – even superiority – since she is now cast down by that great leveler death. Now she is deprived of her voice, her flesh, and her living body, while Leopardi is in full possession of his own complement of all three. Now – unlike when he first fell in love at 18 – he does not have to keep his ‘eyes downcast intently fixed upon the ground’ nor does he have to pronounce himself silent and unprotesting and inexpert (cf “Il primo amore”). He possesses the total assurance of someone who stands literally far above his subject. His exaltation is barely disguised. He is now amply compensated for the wretched physical defect which dominates his life and renders him, despite his brilliant intellect, inferior to his able-bodied inferiors. He can be justly proud in his shameful mortal standing, because the woman he is addressing is the mere “decaying pile of dust and bones this stone conceals”. Now the roles are reversed, and instead of being pitied and despised and put-down by supercilious women, he has the profoundly gratifying privilege of pitying and despising one of their class. In death, this bella donna has restored to him an assurance of his rightful superiority – or even humanity.
But what to say of that ‘one false note’? Could it be the intrusive appearance of reality at the end of his trance, when the ‘daydream’ ends and the dreary, ordinary, burden-ridden world intrudes to triumph over the wandering imagination? After the extended moments of transcending temporal and spatial reality, the world re-asserts itself. Perhaps Leopardi realises that here is a poem. Now he finds that he does not have any writing implements. He fumbles in his pockets for the stub of a pencil – he is unable to jot down his thoughts – perhaps he closes his eyes and goes over the lines in his mind, sub-vocalising as an aid to his memory. Thus he opens the doors to his hitherto excluded anxious, querulous, explanation-seeking mind which intrudes upon him with its verbal clamour. The trance has ended without his being aware of the sudden transition. He may suppose that he has had a simple daydream which interrupted his thoughts. He reverts to his habitual questions of ‘why and wherefore’. He allows his habit of mental busyness to fatally swamp his unfolding vision. His question – buried under a mountain of phrases – is an existential one, and it is unanswerable as he phrases it: ‘How can beauty – if it is found to be so splendid and elevating – be so easily extinguished?’ And, though not expressed in such overt terms, ‘How can someone like me be a hunchback?’
Leopardi fails to see that the answer to his question is staring him in the face. He is unable to grasp how the pervading enlargement of his vision in the preceding moments has vouchsafed, that this beautiful woman of the monument has, without a doubt, transcended death. His vision has faded like the dream of an awakening dreamer. He has not realised – has failed to learn – that this suspension of ordinary consciousness, in which the dead can come to assume a living reality, is the sovereign endowment of the poetic trance. It is the moment when death has no meaning. He has not noted that he he has spent a brief eternity in being truly and deathlessly alive, and that he has reached beyond death. He does not make the connection between his state of receptivity, whether willed or involuntary, in the presence of overwhelming beauty, and transcendence. He does not realise that it is the intrusion or his highly-valued intellect that is ‘the one false note.
Had he been more willing to value and explore – and surrender to the realm of wordless experience , he might have made himself more susceptible to it, and it might have assuaged his despair. But tragically, the assiduously drilled parts of Leopardi’s brain, his discursive intellect, always interrupts his transport, and inserts itself with some clever philosophical riff or calculated bid for approval. ‘The steadfast token… by some pretext’ is transmuted into something ‘abject’, and thus the ‘seemingly angelic’ becomes ‘debased’ and along with it everything delightful vanishes. The one bad thing which erases all previous good things resurfaces in ‘Il primo amore’.
The beginning of this amazingly cinematographic poem (a break-down of the opening lines will reveal an unbroken series of scene-changes) is clearly inspired, even though its specific inspiration remains unclear. Is it the monument itself, the women it represents, or the pile of bones Leopardi envisions hidden underground? Is it the ghost he has conjured up, and with whom in order to observe her, he has travelled back in time? Is it this unattainable cynosure of beauty now herself vanquished and stripped of all her loveliness and pride? To whom does he direct his words? To the beautiful gaze or the empty eye-sockets? To the smiling mouth of the empty grimace of a slipped mandible? If she were still alive and in the full bloom of her mature allurements, he could never have presumed to approach her. His vastly superior intellect and his aristocratic antecedents, as in his crypto-courtship of Fanny Targioni, would have availed him nothing.
When it comes right down to it, the question of Leopardi’s awareness raises some very puzzling questions. It would seem that he attributed his failure to be accepted into the sphere of ‘salon life’ and literary circles to the deplorable inability of society to recognise his worth – or even perhaps to his own physical deformity. Leopardi seems never to have become aware of the unfortunate effect, even by the lax standards of the day, of his terrible personal hygiene habits. He seems not to have noticed the effect on other people who may have had to mingle with him of his unwashed shirts, his unpleasant body-odour, his dirty neck scarf which served triple duty as a napkin and handkerchief, and the single never-laundered coat he wore throughout his adult life. It seems that he was oblivious to the effect that these deplorable social lapses may have had on others.
We now live in an age where such personal details are openly discussed, and we take them into consideration, and allow them them to inform our insights into and conclusions about people’s lives. What, we wonder, could he have been thinking? Could this have been an unconscious means of giving tacit offense to prideful society? And could it be the same shadow of vengefulness that induces him to presume to peer and pry even with just his mind’s eye into the opaque secrecy of her sepulcher and insult the bones of a former beauty? Her grave is seen by him to be a means of preserving modesty, and by his insight and imagination he has violated its sanctity, in a mimesis of intimacy he could never approximate in life. If his adamant anti-clericalism had not already hardened into unbelief, he might have reflected upon some pious – and perhaps more dignified – aspect of the afterlife. But this is all that is, and all that survives a human life, however lovely and rare – a pitiful heap of bones. He can now address a beautiful woman as “vituperosa e trista” – which is perhaps how he has come to view himself.
Today we are quite familiar with the distinctions that are made about our separate awareness, and with concepts such as ‘the subconscious’ and ‘the right-brain’ – concepts of which Leopardi would have been quite unaware. While it is quite apparent in his poetic imagery that he was aware of his non-verbal states, it does not appear that he was capable of tolerating for long their seditious uprisings. He breaks off to apostrophise, or to ask an unnecessary question. No sooner is he carried away into those regions of the psyche which are by their form and nature exclusive of the domain of speech, than he reverts to speculating about some concept more amenable to language, and submissive to his intellect. A vision that for some beautiful moments sufficiently enlarged his mind to admit an awareness of undifferentiated and non-linear time is suddenly contracted in “Così riduce il fato”….Now he is again on familiar ground. He did not trust, and could not recognise, these unsustainable to him states, and they are disallowed by the fixed enlightenment of his consciously chosen mind: He can experience them, but it would not seem that he has recognised them.
Nor does he acknowledge that the monument could not be said to have stood in vain, because it shielded from sight a spectacle Leopardi characterised as ‘vile’ – and still more, because it occasioned this poem.
Of course Leopardi could not have failed to notice that the ugly, as well as the beautiful come to the same end – so it would seem that this ‘sepulchral’ poem is not directly about death, but about death’s being one of the many means of destruction devised by nature. Does Leopardi, like Emily Brontë, perceive nature as being malignant? Perhaps so. In his most philosophical poem ‘La Ginestra’ he certainly is aware of Nature’s remote and impersonal power and beauty. When he speaks about the human condition, he eloquently echoes Tomasso Campanella in the bewilderment Campanella feels as he tries to reconcile the image of a good god with that god’s sly and cynically malevolent treatment of humans. Yet, Leopardi’s conclusions seem filled with resentment, and hand-wringing. His concern is not to evoke and invoke his muse, but rather to dwell on what his contact with her has revealed about himself. She is the accident and not the cause. She is the means by which he seeks to reconcile the irreconcilable aspects of the human condition – such as: How can we be both lofty in our aspirations, and yet so sullied and breakable in our mortality? How can we be simultaneously both joyful and miserable, how can love be both divine and dreadful?
In my imagination I see Leopardi hurriedly leaving the graveyard and taking a carriage back home to the lodgings he shares with his friend Ranieri and Ranieri’s sister Paolina in Torre del Greco. He knows he has the material for a really good poem, and he is anxious to commit it to writing and fix the images which are still swirling riotously around in his head. Somewhere along the ocean road he looks out of the carriage window and sees a young man run down the beach and plunge into the waves. Watching the swimmer boldly striking out further and further away from the shore, he has another thought – he has found the conceit upon which he can neatly wrap his rational conclusion, and give form and shape to a vision that though indelible and striking, is by its nature illusive and chaotic. This becomes obvious in the poem in the way that images begin gradually to disappear and be replaced by thoughts and pronouncements.
The mental glimpse Leopardi had of the contents of this beautiful woman’s grave seems to have suggested itself as a metaphor for hopes completely destroyed and turned to ruins, and the impermanence of life, and the malice of god that he refers to in the final third of the poem. The transmutation of moribund hope into hideous relics of undoing, unraveling and decay – and his horrified fascination with the contents of the grave evinced in this poem – mirror the horrified fascination that draws him again and again to sift through the hidden and unobvious aspects of the human condition. The inexorable advance of human life towards decay and death, the capricious nature of happiness, the swift passage of youth, the end of love – all these are things for which the grave is an overwhelmingly apt symbol.
Leopardi has been called pessimistic, but I think that rather than pessimism, the overwhelmingly predominant emotion which surfaces in many of his poems is existential anger at a capricious god, whose inimical actions and attitudes towards humankind Leopardi reviles even as he dismisses god as not existing. If there is no god where should we turn for consolation? If we turn to lofty thoughts and other abstractions, the moment we see the contents of the grave all these subterfuges fail. Nor does Leopardi have any human consolation. His stark childhood lacked a single maternal caress. He never had a sweetheart, nor any prospect of marriage whatsoever. Nor does the chilling thrilling power of the touch of a woman’s hand referred to in this poem hold any promise of warmth or tenderness – only some other extreme and indescribable emotion. The scale of this poem seems scarcely human – only sublime and terrible in turn. That there is no satisfying sense of real human contact should not be surprising, because even if Leopardi could conceive of it his mind would then recoil, since he has learned that sensually arousing beauty is something that has an end in the charnel house, and in the secret horrific deterioration within the grave and its concealment. The love of women ends with a hidden, private dissolution, concealed and protected by the false and undegradable proxy of the gravestone. The grave also is a mask.
But perhaps there is another reason that Leopardi loses the vivid intensity with which he has so effortlessly transported himself through time. Now he is back in the unbearable present, and filled with despondency. One moment he was in the presence of love – of lofty aspirations and heavenly visions of inexpressible beauty, and now he finds himself plucked out of that ocean of vibrating intensity.
What was it that dislodged him so jarringly from that benevolent state? Wasn’t he ‘a strong swimmer’? Indeed he was. His sense of delight and of wonder, and his susceptibility to beauty was enormous: in this sense he was a super-athlete: The only other answer I can come up with is that he could not be satisfied – he couldn’t get enough – and the moment that single note of dissatisfaction was struck, all the doubts and fears and dark thoughts and unappeased hungers that appear in the final segment of his poem came flooding over him, fatally destroying his beautiful vision.
Leopardi fervently desired to have his own fair share of the world’s happiness in his own lifetime. He entertained no hopes of heaven, and desired no celestial reward. He was able to experience, however vicariously, the shimmering joys of romantic love, but he knew all the while that for him it was utterly unattainable. This must have made the end of his dream so much more devastating.
It is the fragility of our internal states, their susceptibility to external shatterings, that sometimes undoes the best of us. Our habits of thought can ambush us when we are least ready for the encounter. Leopardi’s immense literary and intellectual skills stepped in to take over his mind at the very moment that he was left in a state of depletion. His immense talents as a thinker and a writer were exactly the things that interfered with his ability to keep himself reminded and anchored to the scene of his wonder and bliss. Most of the saints did not possess a fraction of Leopardi’s imagination or his gifts, but what some of them did have was the ability to keep themselves reminded, whether by physical pain, or hunger or cold or sleep-deprivation, of their places in their chosen worlds.
In the bitter ending of his poem Leopardi may be implying that the contemplation of natural beauty and the entertainment of lofty ideas permits us to to deny a grimmer and more concealed reality, but once the spell which we cast upon ourselves by our chosen diversions is broken, the stark and un-impugnable truth intrudes and ruthlessly shatters all our cherished illusions. Then there is no refuge left, and no further means of avoiding the adamant conclusion.
When the intellect has been permitted to become too sharp a tool, it tends to damage everything with which it comes into contact. It rips the protective fabric covering truths which are kept hidden because of their dangerous propensity to undermine the spirit, without offering the slightest mitigation: it hugely enlarges the sphere of the irreconcilable, and smashes to bits all the safe and comforting certainties that make life tenable. The gaze of the intellect rips up the grave stone and pierces directly through the covering of the grave and contemplates the coffin and its sad, pathetic remains. What possible comfort can there be after that? The irresistible urge – the desire and propensity to uncover harmful truths – damages the ability to live in peace, to exist on a firm foundation. The remainder of the journey of life then becomes an impossible voyage, and one is stopped in one’s tracks, surrounded by emptiness a thousand lonely miles away from any safe or hospitable destination until death itself stops the waiting.
There is a slightly ghoulish footnote to this ‘sepulchral’ poem of Leopardi. In 1900 his bones were exhumed from their 75 year old sojourn in the damp crypt at San Vitale. It was then found that that the remains of the decayed coffin lid had intermingled with the contents of the coffin. Iris Origo remarks in her biography of Leopardi A Study in Solitude that “It was impossible to find the skull. Of the mortal remains of Leopardi nothing distinguishable was left.”
This raises some questions. Did Leopardi’s skull suffer a fate similar to that of Francesco Petrarcha’s, which was removed from his crypt by a drunken friar? Or, did Ranieri and his sister Paolina remove it when they first reopend the coffin in 1844, seven years after Leopardi’s death? If by ‘skull’ is meant the head and attached mandible, that would be very strange indeed. Despite his voracious appetite for sugar, there is no mention of Leopardi having lost his teeth, and teeth, despite the trouble they may cause by decaying during their owner’s lifetime, do not decay post-mortem. Nor does Leopardi’s death-mask display the hollowed cheek and slackened jaw of a toothless mouth….
Leopardi could not have foreseen the several disinterments that would follow his own death. His post-mortem rest was plagued with frequent interruptions. He was first buried in Pozzuoli, then in the church’s sacristy, then in its portico, and finally in 1939 in Mergellina.
The final tragedy, that nothing remained of his remains, can now be explained by the fact that his deformity was not caused – as he had believed – by his years of unremitting study, but had instead its far less romantic origin in a disease which could not have been diagnosed in his lifetime – tuberculosis of the bones. Now reposing on a prominence thought to be Virgil’s grave, Leopardi’s coffin may contain nothing recognisable of his form, but only the molecules of ancient rotting wood, and perhaps the buttons of the only coat he owned – the blue coat with the big lapels in which he is always pictured – the one he had refurbished during his visit to Rome.
But fortunately for us, nearly everything else of him lives on.
On the Likeness of a Beautiful Woman.
Thus you were once, who now lie buried:
Dust and skeleton become. Now earth and clay upon your bones are heaped.
Motionless, positioned here in vain,
mute, gazing at the fleeting ages,
endures alone a solitary memory;
a grieving likeness, the sentinel
of beauty now stripped away. Those honeyed looks –
as even now your gaze suggests
which set at once to trembling
the one they did transfix; Those lips
replete and filled with pleasure to brimming,
the steep waves spilling as from an urn which overflows.
The throat, in former times encircled by desire,
that most beloved hand, which cooled to clasp
the icy-cold and trembling hand it thrilled;
the breast to glance at which it seemed
the gazer with a visible pallor tinged….
That was a time that was. Now you are clay
and bones; a sight
reviled and piteous a stone conceals.
Thus does Fate reduce
what once appeared amongst us to be most vibrant and living….
A celestial image, and the eternal mystery
of our very beings. Today the unstoppable font
of immense exalted thoughts and senses,
and puissant beauty which towers over us,
seeming to thrill with splendour.
The steadfast token and the hope secure
of the immortal nature of our estate
and surpassing fate,
of fortunes that would reign, and gilded worlds
bestowed upon our mortal nature,
tomorrow, by some slight, contrived pretext
makes defiling to the sight,
transforms what hitherto
had almost an angel seemed,
and from our minds together
that which so moving was:
The admirable conceits which delighted, suddenly vanish.
The infinite desires and lofty visions
created by pervading thoughts
and erudite concepts of intrinsic virtue,
seem as the swells of a delicious arcane sea
amidst which the human spirit drifts and wanders,
almost as an intrepid swimmer
disports himself among the billows.
But should one false note
assail the ear, it vitiates all –
turns paradise to naught within an instant.
How could this be so of human nature?
If it is found in all things to be weak and vile
and merely dust and shadows,
whence such lofty feelings?
But if it is born of something noble and gracious
as our most worthy thoughts and motives,
how could they, by such slight and insubstantial causes,
be by such means as this enkindled and snuffed out?
Translation Dia Tsung.
There remains only one small matter to dispose of here: a comment made by Jonathan Galassi in his translation of Leopardi’s Canti. Galassi avers that this poem was composed by Leopardi in Rome sometime between 1831 and 1835, and that it could have been based on a monument now in Ashby Castle Church, Northamptonshire. This monument, to Marchioness Margaret Compton, was executed in the neo-classical style much beloved by Victorians, and sculpted in his Rome studio, by Pietro Tenerani sometime around 1830, where Galassi, who takes his cue from Ugo Dotti, thinks Leopardi viewed it.
As an interesting aside, Margaret Clepane Compton was the author of a (posthumously published by her husband in 1833) poem ‘Irene: A Poem in Six Cantos’, the first canto alone consisting of a tedious and extremely long-winded sixty eight verses of nine lines each in iambic pentameter, such that one could reasonably suppose that the Marchioness died either of ennui or exhaustion in penning this elaborate and fancifully extravagant novel in verse form.
Galassi’s comment is based on yet another comment by Ugo Dotti ‘italianista, docente di letteratura all’Universita di Perugia’, who in turn bases his conclusion about the two ‘canti sepolcrali’ (consisting of this poem and the other ‘Sopra un basso rilievo antico sepolcrale’), on a couple of lines found in a letter of Leopardi to Carlotta Lensoni. The letter was dated the twenty-eighth October 1831, and in it Leopardi says he saw “the bas-relief for the burial of a young woman, full of sadness and sublime constancy”.
Though I hasten to add that I cannot remotely approach the scholastic stature required in order to confidently disagree with two such eminences as Dotti and Galassi, it would seem to me to be quite unlikely that the Marchioness, who died in the year 1830, could have been expected to turn into ‘bones and dust’ granted even the distressing conditions of the Roman climate, in a mere five year period, let alone in (remember this was before the end of October of 1831) less than a year and ten months – and that is only if she had died in January of 1830. Besides, if one reposes any confidence at all in the verisimilitude of Leopardi’s poetry, Tenerani could not have secreted the certainly grisly – hardly dusty – remains, not to be bones for a long while yet, of the marchioness, beneath a sculpture in his studio, which is where Leopardi firmly places them.
I have always taken a very dim view of the concept of poetic license (here implied by Galassi and Dotti to have been employed by Leopardi) which seems to me to be a covert way of denigrating poetry and designating it to the category of humbug and confabulation. Poetry and Myth, which the ignorant dismiss as fanciful and ‘made-up’, are the very antithesis of untruth. It is to be greatly regretted that lies and counterfeit have been allowed by lax usage and low standards to infiltrate a sacred realm and debase it.
Of course the argument could be made that Leopardi saw the monument in 1831 and wrote his poem in 1835 imagining he stood before it at that time, but even then, the monument could not have been said (unless a year could be taken to mean an age) to have been ‘gazing at the fleeting ages’. Leopardi places the heart of this poem in a temporal context which cannot easily be brushed aside by making facile suppositions serve to bridge a biographical gap.
Leopardi makes it absolutely clear in his poem that a great deal of time had elapsed between the demise of his subject and his happening upon her monument.
Perhaps Leopardi’s inspiration came as he stood before an ancient Roman funerary monument somewhere in the outskirts of the city of Rome, but the images that came to me as I immersed myself in this poem were of a different sort.
Tal fosti: or qui sotterra
Polve e scheletro sei. Su l’ossa e il fango
Immobilmente collocato invano,
Muto, mirando dell’etadi il volo,
Sta, di memoria solo
E di dolor custode, il simulacro
Della scorsa beltà. Quel dolce sguardo,
Che tremar fe’, se, come or sembra, immoto
In altrui s’affisò; quel labbro, ond’alto
Par, come d’urna piena,
Traboccare il piacer; quel collo, cinto
Già di desio; quell’amorosa mano,
Che spesso, ove fu porta,
Sentì gelida far la man che strinse;
E il seno, onde la gente
Visibilmente di pallor si tinse,
Furo alcun tempo: or fango
Ed ossa sei: la vista
Vituperosa e trista un sasso asconde.
Così riduce il fato
Qual sembianza fra noi parve più viva
Immagine del ciel. Misterio eterno
Dell’esser nostro. Oggi d’eccelsi, immensi
Pensieri e sensi inenarrabil fonte,
Beltà grandeggia, e pare,
Quale splendor vibrato
Da natura immortal su queste arene,
Di sovrumani fati,
Di fortunati regni e d’aurei mondi
Segno e sicura spene
Dare al mortale stato:
Diman, per lieve forza,
Sozzo a vedere, abominoso, abbietto
Divien quel che fu dianzi
Quasi angelico aspetto,
E dalle menti insieme
Quel che da lui moveva
Ammirabil concetto, si dilegua.
E visioni altere
Crea nel vago pensiere,
Per natural virtù, dotto concento;
Onde per mar delizioso, arcano
Erra lo spirto umano,
Quasi come a diporto
Ardito notator per l’Oceano:
Ma se un discorde accento
Fere l’orecchio, in nulla
Torna quel paradiso in un momento.
Natura umana, or come,
Se frale in tutto e vile,
Se polve ed ombra sei, tant’alto senti?
Se in parte anco gentile,
Come i più degni tuoi moti e pensieri
Son così di leggeri
Da sì basse cagioni e desti e spenti?