Reading by Maddalena Balsamo.
Il Sabato del villaggio
La donzelletta vien dalla campagna
in sul calar del sole,
col suo fascio dell’erba; e reca in mano
un mazzolin di rose e viole,
onde, siccome suole, ornare ella si appresta
dimani, al dí di festa, il petto e il crine.
Siede con le vicine
su la scala a filar la vecchierella,
incontro là dove si perde il giorno;
e novellando vien del suo buon tempo,
quando ai dí della festa ella si ornava,
ed ancor sana e snella
solea danzar la sera intra di quei
ch’ebbe compagni nell’età piú bella.
Già tutta l’aria imbruna,
torna azzurro il sereno, e tornan l’ombre
giú da’ colli e da’ tetti,
al biancheggiar della recente luna.
Or la squilla dà segno
della festa che viene;
ed a quel suon diresti
che il cor si riconforta.
I fanciulli gridando
su la piazzuola in frotta,
e qua e là saltando,
fanno un lieto romore;
e intanto riede alla sua parca mensa,
fischiando, il zappatore,
e seco pensa al dí del suo riposo.
Poi quando intorno è spenta ogni altra face,
e tutto l’altro tace,
odi il martel picchiare, odi la sega
del legnaiuol, che veglia
nella chiusa bottega alla lucerna,
e s’affretta, e s’adopra
di fornir l’opra anzi al chiarir dell’alba.
Questo di sette è il più gradito giorno,
pien di speme e di gioia:
diman tristezza e noia
recheran l’ore, ed al travaglio usato
ciascuno in suo pensier farà ritorno.
cotesta età fiorita
è come un giorno d’allegrezza pieno,
giorno chiaro, sereno,
che precorre alla festa di tua vita.
Godi, fanciullo mio; stato soave,
stagion lieta è cotesta.
Altro dirti non vo’; ma la tua festa
ch’anco tardi a venir non ti sia grave.
The young girl comes from the fields
about the set of sun,
bearing her swath of grass, and in her hand
a bunch of roses and violets,
as is her custom, for,
to make more beautiful her breast and hair.
And the old woman sits
upon the steps among her neighbours, spinning
turning herself to where the day goes down,
and telling tales how she,in better times,
decked herself out for the holiday,
and graceful still,and fresh,
would dance the evening through among the rest,
who were companions of her lovely prime.
Now the air and sky grow dark,
take on a deeper blue,and shadows fall
cast by the roofs and hills
beneath the whiteness of the rising moon.
And now the bell proclaims
The holy day’s approach,
and at the sound,it seems,
each heart is cheered once more.
The small boys shouting in troops
about the village square
go leaping hither and thither
and make a cheerful noise;
meanwhile the labourer goes whistling home,
back to his frugal meal,
and thinks about the coming day of rest.
When every other light around is out,
all other sound is mute,
hark to the hammer knocking,and the saw –
the carpenter is up,
working by lamplight in his shuttered shop,
and labours on, in haste
to get all finished before the morning comes.
This is the best-loved day of all the week,
most full of hope and joy;
the morrow will be back
sadness and tedium, and each within his thought
returns once more to find his usual labour.
You little playful boy,
even this your flowering time
is like a day filled up with grace and joy –
a clear, calm day that comes
as a precursor to life’s festival.
Be happy little lad;
a joyful time is this.
More I’d not tell you; but if your holiday
seems somewhat tardy yet, let not that grieve you.
September 28, 1829.
Translation John Heath Stubbs.
Perhaps a long evening spent standing on his balcony, watching the steady rhythms of village life unfold, gave rise to this dreamy inward looking poem, written by Giacomo Leopardi when he was thirty years old. As always, a deep sadness underlies his observations and musings. In the course of an evening the succession of images passing before him, of ordinary people going about their lives, inspires within him a feeling of participation. He seems to catch the sense of their thoughts and motivations, their hopes, their musings and anticipations, the memories of their pasts, and their dreams. The flowers the young girl is taking home will be placed in cool water to be kept fresh for the morning, when they will be braided into her hair and adorn her dress. The old woman, for whom youth is now only a memory, recalls the joys of her her girlhood, when she was nimble and rejoiced in the gaiety of dance. The labourer returning to his rustic home leaves behind him a week of hard work, and looks forward to the satisfaction of sitting down to a simple meal. All these tender speculations add an extension to the present moment, and at the same time permit an innocent intrusion into other lives – lives which are invested with clear and uncomplicated purpose. One feels Leopardi reaching out in an effort to connect himself with a sense of the authentically lived human life which he himself seems to lack.
But nothing about Leopardi is as simple as it seems. The roses and violets the young girl takes home are the stuff of his imagination. Roses may bloom in September – but I can firmly attest to the fact that violets are flowers of spring, for I see them blooming now in my late March garden. Even if he could hear the receding whistle of the labourer, the old lady at her spinning wheel cannot be within earshot – a courtyard and a village square separates her from Leopardi.
I cannot escape the feeling that this poem of Leopardi’s echos the images of at least two others. The workman returning home late after a days work or at the end of the work week has a special significance for Leopardi. He is the relic of a childhood memory: it is the song of a workman Leopardi hears as a boy as he lies sleepless in his bed; and a workman appears again in “The Evening of the Holiday” (La sera del dì di festa), whistling on his way home from a hard day’s work. Spinning and weaving – those quintessentially feminine tasks, heavy with the fateful significance of which Leopardi must have been aware, and his covert observations of “Silvia” have her toiling over her loom, even as the old lady in this poem reminisces over her spinning. All this suggests to me a persistence of memory and imagery which insists on surfacing through the depths of his imagination when he is in in a relaxed and receptive state –which is to say, when a poem begins to take shape in his mind.
Poems for Leopardi are litanies of loss. Youth and beauty with their terrible burden of ephemeralness, and incipient pain are full of sweetness and longing. One can never, it seems, be experienced without the other. And yet one feels Leopardi’s passionate longing to try to hold on to them – and to cry out in pain as they slip through his grasp. He feels as if his own youth has passed him by, even though (even at a time when life-spans were not as long as they are now) thirty could not be said to be any great age. What Leopardi cannot bring himself to say is that it is not his youth per se which has deserted him, but his soundness of body, for in early adolescence the signs of the disability which was to disfigure and distort his body had made their baneful appearance.
Leopardi went to his grave believing he became a hunchback as a result of his strenuous studies, but we now know it was not studying which left him frail, bent-over and stunted at a height of about four feet six inches (1.41 metres) tall, but tuberculosis of the bones. He had hoped his brilliant mind would compensate for these disfigurements, and that once the world recognised the extent of his intellect he would win both fame and fortune, but sadly this was not to be. Instead he found that he was barely noticed except by a few, and instead of becoming a man of independent means, he was to remain for the rest of his live humiliatingly dependent on his father for his finances.
The finality of these several disappointments would have been crushing for a much more stalwart soul (and body) but to Leopardi they were almost unbearable. Life seems to have become for him something he could experience only vicariously, hence the longing with which he reaches out to it through the authenticity of other people’s experience, knowing all the while it could never be claimed by him directly. This is the well-spring of Leopardi’s awesome power as a writer, a thinker and a poet, and at the same time the source of his tragic weakness – that he could feel so well what he could never possess.
Leopardi spent his early years longing to escape the odious provinciality and restrictiveness of his home town Recanati, situated as it was in the papal Marches, and under the intractable influence of the church. When he finally escaped to Rome, and later to Bologna, he found them not to his liking either: it was to the scenes of his childhood that his poetic mind repeatedly returned. His mind oscillated between love and hate, deploring and romanticising in turn the very place he found both unbearable and inescapable.
The ending of this poem in a sense encapsulates this contradiction. His poem “Le ricordanze” (“Memories”) is in equal parts tender and scathing in its recollections. The playful boy to whom he addresses his final remark, in “Il Sabato del villaggio” must have reminded him of the boys who pelted rocks at him and knocked off his hat, screaming ” hunchback” at him all the while. Now as he remembers how he watched the boys at play on a late Saturday evening, he cannot restrain himself from uttering a veiled malediction. He cannot say it outright, but he knows, as they do not, that their joys will soon pass, as did his own.