The Evening After the Holy Day.
The night is soft and clear, and no wind blows;
The quiet moon stands over roofs and orchards
Revealing from afar each peaceful hill.
Beloved, now every alleyway is silent;
At intervals along the balconies
The night-long lantern gleams; you are asleep,
And gentle slumber now gathers about
Your quiet chamber, and no single care
Gnaws at your heart; you do not know at all,
Nor think that you have opened in my breast
A very grievous wound. You are asleep:
And I have come abroad now to salute
This sky whose aspect seems to be so gentle,
And ancient Nature powerful over all,
Who has fashioned me for trouble. “I deny
All hope to you,” she has said, “Yes, even hope;
Your eyes shall not be bright for any cause,
Except for weeping.” This was a festal day:
And you are resting after its delights;
And maybe in your dreams you still remember
How many eyes took pleasure in your beauty,
How many, too, pleased you: I find no place–
Not that I hoped it now–among your thoughts.
Meantime, I ask how many years of life
Remain to me, and therefore here I cast
Myself upon the ground, and cry, and rage.
Oh, terrible days, even off our green youth!
Alas, I hear not far along the road,
The lonely singing of a workman, coming
Back to his poor home so late at night,
After the sports; and fiercely my heart aches,
Thinking how all this world passes away
And leaves no trace. For look, the festival
Is over now, and ordinary day
Succeeds tomorrow; all things our race has known
Time likewise bears away. Where now is the voice
Of the ancient peoples, the clamor of our ancestors
Who were renowned, and that great Empire of Rome,
The arms, and the clash they made by land and sea?
All is silence and peace; the world is still;
There are no tidings now remained of them.
Once in my boyhood, when so eagerly
We would look forward to the holiday,
Finding it over, I lay upon my bed,
Wakeful and very unhappy; late at night
A singing heard along the alleyways,
Little by little dying into the distance,
Even as this does now, gripped at my heart.
Translation by John Heath Stubbs
Dolce e chiara è la notte e senza vento,
E queta sovra i tetti e in mezzo agli orti
Posa la luna, e di lontan rivela
Serena ogni montagna. O donna mia,
Già tace ogni sentiero, e pei balconi
Rara traluce la notturna lampa:
Tu dormi, che t’accolse agevol sonno
Nelle tue chete stanze; e non ti morde
Cura nessuna; e già non sai nè pensi
Quanta piaga m’apristi in mezzo al petto.
Tu dormi: io questo ciel, che sì benigno
Appare in vista, a salutar m’affaccio,
E l’antica natura onnipossente,
Che mi fece all’affanno. A te la speme
Nego, mi disse, anche la speme; e d’altro
Non brillin gli occhi tuoi se non di pianto.
Questo dì fu solenne: or da’ trastulli
Prendi riposo; e forse ti rimembra
In sogno a quanti oggi piacesti, e quanti
Piacquero a te: non io, non già, ch’io speri,
Al pensier ti ricorro. Intanto io chieggo
Quanto a viver mi resti, e qui per terra
Mi getto, e grido, e fremo. Oh giorni orrendi
In così verde etate! Ahi, per la via
Odo non lunge il solitario canto
Dell’artigian, che riede a tarda notte,
Dopo i sollazzi, al suo povero ostello;
E fieramente mi si stringe il core,
A pensar come tutto al mondo passa,
E quasi orma non lascia. Ecco è fuggito
Il dì festivo, ed al festivo il giorno
Volgar succede, e se ne porta il tempo
Ogni umano accidente. Or dov’è il suono
Di que’ popoli antichi? or dov’è il grido
De’ nostri avi famosi, e il grande impero
Di quella Roma, e l’armi, e il fragorio
Che n’andò per la terra e l’oceano?
Tutto è pace e silenzio, e tutto posa
Il mondo, e più di lor non si ragiona.
Nella mia prima età, quando s’aspetta
Bramosamente il dì festivo, or poscia
Ch’egli era spento, io doloroso, in veglia,
Premea le piume; ed alla tarda notte
Un canto che s’udia per li sentieri
Lontanando morire a poco a poco,
Già similmente mi stringeva il core.
Gazing at the moon is always a hazardous business, because moonlight has the power to sweep the mind away. We are all creatures of the moon, for without her, life here on earth would be wildly impossible.
But it is only in recent times that scientists have revealed to us that the moon is a regulator – not only of tides and lunar cycles, but of the vast meteorological irregularities, inimical and potentially fatal to life on earth, that would occur without the irresistible pull of its steady predictable gravitational magic.
For poets, the moon is the Muse herself – and her power over the human mind is uncanny and unsettling.
Our forebears supposed that the full moon, and its light, could turn a man into a wolf, or summon the vampires out from their shadowy crypts in order to feed on the blood of the unwary or unfortunate – and we in turn believe the emergency room medics and the ambulance drivers and the night patrols of police departments when they tell us that the full moon brings with it a predictable increase in human lunacy. My grandmother (who was born a hundred and twenty one years ago this November 6th) would discourage my gazing at the moon through the skylight over her bed, because she felt that such an activity could make me a lunatic, and I sometimes think that she might have been on to something….
This belief is echoed in an unforgettable story by Luigi Pirandello called ‘Moon Sickness’, and forms a segment in a cycle of his Sicilian stories in the film Kaos so named in homage to Sicily’s Greek origins – since Kaos is Greek for ‘chaos’.
In ‘La sera del dì di festa’ we find once again that the Muse has caused Leopardi to succumb to her entrancement, as he gazes out, perhaps on a fine Summer night, at the still and almost unearthly sense that moonlight inspires when it has shed its equivocal luminosity over the world of rooftops and orchards.
This is Recanati in 1819. Leopardi is 21 years old, and the feast day of some saint is over – and along with it all the festivities of the day. In the still windless night, Leopardi decides to take a walk, and as he looks up at the balconies and windows he passes, in his mind’s eye penetrates the shutters and curtains to see into the room, where he imagines his beloved lying asleep.
As he gazes at her sleeping form – his mind replays the events of the day – and he ponders, no doubt with some considerable anxiety, how many admirers might have gazed with pleasure at this lovely woman – and much more disturbingly – on how many of them she herself might have been pleased to gaze.
He knows, with a bitter conviction, that her gaze would never have been pleased to fall on him. And here she is, sleeping sweetly and innocently with not the trace of a disturbing thought or dream to ruffle her slumber, while he, sleepless and troubled, confronts the lonely secrets of the night.
But then Leopardi’s thoughts begin to turn away from his beloved and instead to focus on his own unhappy fate, as a lover whose feelings are not only unrequited, but are unknown and perhaps not even guessed at by the girl who has so completely captured his heart. He thinks of his own mortality (death was never far off from Leopardi’s thoughts, and indeed he would not live to be 40) and in the grip of a terrible anguish he bemoans his lot of hopelessness and tears. The clear peacefulness of the night is shattered, the rapturous beauty of his sleeping love is forgotten, and an inner torment replaces both.
Then suddenly, in an extravagantly melodramatic gesture he flings himself on the ground (no easy task for the little hunchback that he is) and surrenders to crying and rage.
By the time this intrusion has occurred, Leopardi’s trance has long since faded. The first serious disruption occurred when his transcending gaze veered abruptly away from its deeply engaged immersion at the sight of his beautiful sleeping Muse, to contemplating instead his own foredoomed wretchedness.
As the voice draws nearer he finds he must hastily scramble up from the dirt, lest he humiliate himself by being spotted lying prone, and weeping and thrashing about, on a country road, by one of the local peasants. Now the last filmy threads connecting Leopardi to his magical poetic inspiration are irrevocably snapped.
As he hurriedly stands up and brushes the leaves and twigs and cold dribbles of humus from his old coat, Leopardi’s mind probably begins to preoccupy itself with thoughts of his own social standing and the dignity required of him as the son of a count.
From there it is is no more than a single mincing step to begin cobbling together some respectably lofty concepts about Rome’s former greatness, and how it has faded and passed away even as the peasant’s brief day of leisure.
The fleeting and ephemeral nature of time is always a safe bet for the kinds of pronouncements that are most likely to be taken seriously at face-value. Observations such as this can after all be so easily be spun into seeming both sentimental and profound, even though they are quite empty of any real insight, and are in fact merely rhetorical.
This inability to trust in the validity and sufficiency of the personal, and instead choose to buttress it with themes that aspire to abstract formulations, is something that surfaces repeatedly in Leopardi’s poems. When he chooses – or succumbs – to an impulse (it is difficult to determine which) and permits the intrusion of rhetoric and reason into a sphere where intuition has been holding beautiful sway, he himself introduces the wolf-note into tuning,
But the spell of the moon lingers in Leopardi’s mind – and perhaps the song that he hears fading away into the night is one that he knew himself and heard sung in his childhood. Maybe the words of that song were genuinely poetic – as folk songs frequently tend to be – and so there is found an unexpected little redemption.
So Leopardi gently eases himself away from the unmanageable emotional vicissitudes of adult passion to the dreamy diffusions of childhood – when while lying in his upstairs bedroom, wakeful and enveloped in childish sorrow, he heard the fading notes of a song sung by someone walking along the alley expire into the silence of the night – and so recognizes the same feeling of utter and immeasurable sadness shooting out its unswerving tentacle of pain from past to present, to clutch convulsively at his heart.