Posts Tagged ‘italian poetry’

Giovanni Placido Agostino Pascoli (December 31, 1855 — April 6, 1912)



















X Agosto

San Lorenzo, io lo so perché tanto
di stelle per l’aria tranquilla
arde e cade, perché si gran pianto
nel concavo cielo sfavilla.






Ritornava una rondine al tetto :
l’uccisero: cadde tra i spini;
ella aveva nel becco un insetto:
la cena dei suoi rondinini.




Ora è là, come in croce, che tende
quel verme a quel cielo lontano;
e il suo nido è nell’ombra, che attende,
che pigola sempre più piano.


Anche un uomo tornava al suo nido:
l’uccisero: disse: Perdono ;
e restò negli aperti occhi un grido:
portava due bambole in dono.







Ora là, nella casa romita,
lo aspettano, aspettano in vano:
egli immobile, attonito, addita
le bambole al cielo lontano.









E tu, Cielo, dall’alto dei mondi
sereni, infinito, immortale,
oh! d’un pianto di stelle lo inondi
quest’atomo opaco del Male!






















August 10th

Saint Lawrence, I know why so many                          
shooting stars in the tranquil air
blaze and tumble: it is because of the great weeping
in the glittering vault of heaven.









A swallow was retuning to the roof:       
they killed her – she fell among thorns.
She held in her beak an insect,
the dinner for her little ones.






Now she is yonder – as on a cross –     
proffering the worms to the distant sky
and in the shadows of her waiting nest,
the chirping grows ever fainter.









Likewise a man, also returning to his nest,
they killed him – he said “I forgive.”
And in his open eyes there was stuck a cry:
he was carrying two dolls as a gift.








Now over there, in the lonely house
they await him, but await him in vain.
He immobile, in dazed surprise,
the dolls pointing to far-away heaven.









And you, heaven, from on high,                       
above the worlds, serene, infinite, immortal,
Oh, with a single lament of the stars,
you flood this opaque atom of evil.






Translation Dia Tsung

















The tenth of August is when Italians commemorate the martyrdom of Saint Lawrence. It is the night when meteor showers are expected to be most intense, and a magical night, when it is believed that such wishes as are ‘wished upon a star’ are likely to come true.

For twelve year-old Giovanni Pascoli, the tenth of August was a night on which his wishes were blighted. His father was killed while on his way home from a local fair, and the mare came home pulling the cart with the dead man in it. The murderers were never apprehended.

This poem was (and perhaps still is) standard fare for generations of  Italian school-kids, many of whom are likely to cry their little eyes out when they first read it. It also  serves as an excellent way in which to introduce these hapless mites at an early age, to the fact that life is uncertain, unpredictable and unfair.

The sense of tragedy and grief that pervades this poem was something Pascoli carried with him for the rest of his life. His father was killed in 1867, and several bereavements followed. His sister Margherita died in 1868, and soon thereafter, his mother and three brothers. One of these brothers was the oldest, who had been supporting the family, and after his death the family fell into severe financial difficulty.

I cannot help comparing Pascoli with another Italian ‘poet of pessimism’ Giacomo Leopardi. I admit this is unfair to Pascoli and no doubt unjust, but it is exceedingly tempting to compare the work of these two tormented men, erudite philologists who both loved nature, were preoccupied by loss, and who lived darkly unfulfilled lives.

Pascoli’s particular strain of melancholy clearly lacks the mordant acerbity of Leopardi’s. Pascoli, due to his academic credentials and success as a latinist, (he was a university professor, and won a significant sum in prize-money for his Latin publications) was professionally and financially successful during his lifetime,    whereas Leopardi barely managed to scrape by.

Leopardi, by far the greater intellect, was brilliantly despairing and clear-eyed about his deformity and doomed existence, but Pascoli, with his fervent idealisation of childhood and without Leopardi’s capacity for falling in love, seems to have sunk into a stupour of weak pessimism and resignation, from which no sparks seemed to fly. His alcoholism – and perhaps his success – seemed to have diverted him from taking the next step of staring unblinkingly into the abyss, something that Leopardi repeatedly and unflinchingly did throughout his literary life.

One wonders about the internal emotional traumas Pascoli sustained, that prevented him from finding any satisfaction – or consolation even – in his life. Though his appearance suggests a jolly, portly, country-gentleman, his writing is full of grief and loss and bereavement, and an unassuageable unhappiness with his life and what it had to offer. Pascoli dismissed religion as well as science, and deprecated politics. He fostered his affinity with the natural world, and dwelt lovingly on the beauty of nature, but this love was never sufficient to sustain him. To read his poetry is to feel muddled and sad and damply depressed. I prefer the salt and acid Leopardi seems to revel in pouring into the same sort of wound.

The religious symbolism in this poem – and the sense of passive resignation to the gratuitous cruelties and vicissitudes of existence – belie the fact that Pascoli was an atheist.  His uneasy mind seems to have been held the captive of a profound and troubled melancholy throughout his life. He never married, perhaps due to a reluctance to disrupt the ‘family’ life he had contrived to foster with his two sisters Ida and Maria, who had at first been intended for convent life, though neither took religious vows.

It has been elsewhere suggested that Pascoli’s attachment to his sisters was not altogether filial, a suggestion that finds some support in Pascoli’s description of the year preceding his  favourite sister Ida’s marriage, as being the most terrible of his life. His almost hysterical outpourings at the prospect of their separation and the thought of forfeiting her affection, attest to an intense attachment and a profound sense of loss.

In 1895 he set up house with his sister Maria (Mariù), in Castelvecchio, in Tuscany, where he lived for the next 17 years, until his death of liver cancer in 1912.

Mariù survived him by some forty years, and the two share adjacent tombs in the Castelvecchio cemetery.










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Francesco Petrarca (July 20 1304 – July 19 1374)














Mille fïate, o dolce mia guerrera,                  
per aver co’ begli occhi vostri pace
v’aggio proferto il cor; mâ voi non piace
mirar sí basso colla mente altera.

Et se di lui fors’altra donna spera,5
vive in speranza debile et fallace:
mio, perché sdegno ciò ch’a voi dispiace,
esser non può già mai cosí com’era.

Or s’io lo scaccio, et e’ non trova in voi
ne l’exilio infelice alcun soccorso,10
né sa star sol, né gire ov’altri il chiama,

poria smarrire il suo natural corso:
che grave colpa fia d’ambeduo noi,
et tanto piú de voi, quanto piú v’ama.




A thousand times, O my warrior, my sweet,                   
That I might your beauteous eyes appease,
Gave I my heart cheap, although it failed to please
Nor turned you your lofty  mind on aught so low.
But if some other one should it await
She lives in falsity and weakened hope
For all that might displease you do I scorn
And never more could it be as it was.
Should I to disown my heart, and it not find
Help or refuge in you from sad exile,
Not know to stay alone, or turn to others’ calls,
Misplaced, and straying  from its wonted course.
For such a fault a price we both would pay,
And you the greater part, for more it loved.





Or che’l ciel e la terra e’l vento tace,                
e le fere e gli augelli il sonno affrena,
notte il carro stellato in giro mena
e nel suo letto il mar senz’onda giace;

vegghio, penso, ardo, piango; e chi mi sface
sempre m’è inanzi per mia dolce pena:
guerra è’l mio stato, d’ira et di duol piena;
et sol di lei pensando ò qualche pace.

Così sol d’una chiara fonte viva
move’l dolce e l’amaro ond’io mi pasco;
una man sola mi risana e punge.

Et perché’l mio martir non giunga a riva,
mille volte il dí moro e mille nasco;
tanto da la salute mia son lunge.



Now that the sky, the earth, and wind are quiet,     
And the wild beasts and birds are seized by sleep,
Night leads its starry chariot on its rounds,
And in its bed the waveless sea lies still.
I see, think, burn and cry, by her undone
Who always is before me, to my sweet pain.
I’m in a state of war, and anger, filled with woe,
And only thoughts of her bring any peace.
Thus from one sole clear font do live and move
The sweet and bitter, whereupon I feast.
The self-same hand both pierces and heals.
Such is my torment, the shore I cannot reach,
Die and am born a thousand times, each day –
From any chance reprieve, so far away.




Per mezz’i boschi inhospiti et selvaggi,             
onde vanno a gran rischio uomini et arme,
vo securo io, ché non pò spaventarme
altri che ‘l sol ch’à d’amor vivo i raggi;

5et vo cantando (o penser’ miei non saggi!)
lei che ‘l ciel non poria lontana farme,
ch’i’ l’ò negli occhi, et veder seco parme
donne et donzelle, et son abeti et faggi.

Parme d’udirla, udendo i rami et l’òre
10et le frondi, et gli augei lagnarsi, et l’acque
mormorando fuggir per l’erba verde.

Raro un silentio, un solitario horrore
d’ombrosa selva mai tanto mi piacque:
se non che dal mio sol troppo si perde.




Amidst unwelcoming and savage woods I go           
Secure, where armed men venture at great risk
Naught can occasion me the slightest dread
Save the sun, drawing from love its vibrant rays.
And I go singing (O my so foolish thoughts)
She from whom heaven could not outdistance me
I have within my eyes. To me they seem
As Beech and Fir, the women and girls I see.
I seem to hear her, as I hear the breeze
In branch and leaf, and the lamenting birds,
The water murmurs, slips through verdant grass.
Rare that such silence, and such lonely dread
Of shaded woods  should ever so me please,
But of the sun for me too much is lost


Translations Dia Tsung




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Giacomo Taldegardo Francesco di Sales Saverio Pietro Leopardi
(June 29 1798 – June 14 1837)























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.



Garzoncello scherzoso,
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.






 Settembre 28,1829.













Saturday Evening in the Village.                       


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,
tomorrow’s holiday
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.

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Juana Inés de la Cruz (November 12 1651 – April 17 1695)














En que da moral censura a una rosa,
y en ella a sus semejantes.


Rosa divina que en gentil cultura
eres, con tu fragante sutileza,
magisterio purpúreo en la belleza,
enseñanza nevada a la hermosura;
amago de la humana arquitectura,
ejemplo de la vana gentileza,
en cuyo sér unió naturaleza
la cuna alegre y triste sepultura:

¡  cuán altiva en tu pompa, presumida,
soberbia, el riesgo de morir desdeñas,
y luego desmayada y encogida

de tu caduco sér das mustias señas,
con que con docta muerte y necia vida,
viviendo engañas y muriendo enseñas!

Juana Inés de la Cruz.





In which she gives a rose a  moral censure,
and through her, to those she resembles.


Divine rose, in your gracious and tender blossom,
You are with your most fragrant subtleties,
Bestower of  enroyalled instructions on beauty
Pure as the snow, you teach of loveliness.


Likeness of human form and structure,
Exemplar of  all the vain gentility
Wherein nature is to be found uniting
Both the happy cradle and the lamented grave.


What loftiness there is in your presumption!
And prideful scorn at the mere hint of death’s suggestion.
Yet no sooner than you shrink back in consternation


Of that incipient state, with fainting and withered innuendo,
Of your erudite death and fatuous life, than you signal
You lived deceiving, but in your death enlighten!








Translation Dia Tsung.

Torquato Tasso (March 11 1544 – April 25 1595)



















Quel labbro, che le rose han colorito,



Molle si sporge e tumidetto in fuore,
Spinto per arte, mi cred’io, d’Amore,
A fare a i baci insidioso invito.
Amanti, alcun non sia cotanto ardito

Ch’osi appressarsi, ove tra fiore e fiore
S’asconde un angue ad attoscarvi il core,
E ‘l fiero intento io veggio, e ve l’addito.
Io, ch’ altre volte fui nelle amorose

Insidie colto, or ben lo riconosco,
E le discopro, o giovinetti, a voi;
Quasi pomi di Tantalo, le rose

Fansi all’incontro, e s’allontanan poi;s'asconde un angue
Sol resta Amor che spira fiamma e tosco.






Torquato Tasso

















These lips the roses have coloured,


Thrust out in swollen pout
Artfully polished, I do believe, by Love himself
To make insidious invitation to a kiss.
Lovers who dare approach, don’t be so bold –

There betwixt flower and flower, I see
Conceals itself a serpent, to sting the heart
And its audacious cruel intent points me
Towards another time, now passed when I in love
Encountered that cultured trap, I so well recognise,
And so to you too young folk, I point it out
As being as it were the apples of Tantalus
Fanning the flame at first sight, but further on,
All that remains of love expires in a conflagration.

Translation Dia Tsung.

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Giacomo Leopardi (June 29 1798 – June 14 1837)
















Silvia, do you remember then
That time of your life
When beauty glistened
In your laughing and darting eyes,
And you, joyful and pensive, climbed over
The threshold of your youth?

Ringing through the quiet chamber
Resounding all the way around
Was your perpetual song.
Then when intent at your womanly task
You sat – content enough
With those hazy thoughts of things to come.
It was that scented May, when you
Thus passed the day.

I at my trifling studies
At times left off my sweaty papers
Where the commencement of my first youth
And youthful brilliance of my better days I spent
On the balconies of my paternal home
Lending my ears to the sound of your voice
And to your swift-moving hand
Across the wearying threads.
I gazed at the sky serene
The golden byways, and the courtyard-gardens
And there the far-off sea and here the hills.
No mortal tongue could speak
The feelings in my breast.

What lovely dreams,
What hopes, what hearts O my Silvia.
How they appeared to us
This human life – and fate!
When I recall to myself how grand those hopes
A tenderness takes me
Bitter and disconsolate
And turns me to deplore my baneful fate.
O Nature, O nature,
Why do you not then give
That which you promised then? Why to such a degree
Do you beguile your children?

You, before the grass withered in winter
Were locked in the malady which assailed and overcame you,
You perished, O tender one, and never glimpsed
The very flower of your years.
Nor was your heart to soften
At the praise now of your raven hair
And of your glance, demure, enamoured,
Nor with your girlfriends on a festive day
Were you to speak of love.

It perished too with me,
My sweet hopes of younger years
And too, the Fates negated
My time of youth. Alas, how –
How have you passed away
Dear companion of my early days.
My tear-soaked hopes
Here in this world – and there
The joys of love, of work, and of events
About which we talked so much together?
Is such the destiny of us human beings?
For when the truth appeared
You, poor abject one, succumbed: and with the hand
Of frosty death, to a naked tomb
From afar pointed the way.



Translation Dia Tsung.














Silvia, rimembri ancora
Quel tempo della tua vita mortale,
Quando beltà splendea
Negli occhi tuoi ridenti e fuggitivi,
E tu, lieta e pensosa, il limitare
Di gioventù salivi?

Sonavan le quiete
Stanze, e le vie dintorno,
Al tuo perpetuo canto,
Allor che all’opre femminili intenta
Sedevi, assai contenta
Di quel vago avvenir che in mente avevi.
Era il maggio odoroso: e tu solevi
Così menare il giorno.

Io, gli studi leggiadri
Talor lasciando e le sudate carte,
Ove il tempo mio primo
E di me si spendea la miglior parte,
D’ in su i veroni del paterno ostello
Porgea gli orecchi al suon della tua voce,
Ed alla man veloce
Che percorrea la faticosa tela.
Mirava il ciel sereno,
Le vie dorate e gli orti,
E quinci il mar da lungi, e quindi il monte.
Lingua mortal non dice
Quel ch’io sentiva in seno.

Che pensieri soavi,
Che speranze, che cori, o Silvia mia!
Quale allor ci apparia
La vita umana e il fato!
Quando sovviemmi di cotanta speme,
Un affetto mi preme
Acerbo e sconsolato,
E tornami a doler di mia sventura.
O natura, o natura,
Perché non rendi poi
Quel che prometti allor? perché di tanto
Inganni i figli tuoi?

Tu, pria che l’erbe inaridisse il verno,
Da chiuso morbo combattuta e vinta,
Perivi, o tenerella. E non vedevi
Il fior degli anni tuoi;
Non ti molceva il core
La dolce lode or delle negre chiome,
Or degli sguardi innamorati e schivi;
Né teco le compagne ai dì festivi
Ragionavan d’amore.

Anche peria fra poco
La speranze mia dolce: agli anni miei
Anche negaro i fati
La giovanezza. Ahi, come,
Come passata sei,
Cara compagna dell’età mia nova,
Mia lacrimata speme!
Questo è quel mondo? questi
I diletti, l’amor, l’opre, gli eventi,
Onde cotanto ragionammo insieme?
Questa la sorte dell’ umane genti?
All’apparir del vero
Tu, misera, cadesti; e con la mano
La fredda morte ed una tomba ignuda
Mostravi di lontano.














I have quailed mightily and hesitated long before daring to publish a post – let alone a translation –  of this poem, which is probably the most famous of all Italian poems, Giacomo Leopardi’s  “To Sylvia”. There is no translation in existence which can do it justice, nor will there ever be,  and for that reason I had not even thought to attempt one of my own. But then I looked at the version done by John Heath Stubbs, by far the ablest translator of Leopardi’s work, (since he alone above all the better known and lauded contemporary translators of Leopardi,  comes the closest in tone and sense and evocation to the thoughts and feelings the original evokes) and it occurred to me to have some different thoughts….

One of the greatest problems in translating Leopardi, is the choice one has to make, between creating something which is an English poem, or an Italian one. The temptation to make it ‘English’ is very great indeed, because the thoughts and sentiments lend themselves to such a rich expression, but Leopardi is not a rich or a  lush writer. He is thrifty and abstemious, and any translator who respects and admires the original must needs exercise  enormous restraint at every step, even at the expense of beauty, and this I have tried to do.

As I proceeded  phrase by phrase and word by word, I began to wonder particularly about the cosmic images Leopardi could not have known about or imagined, but which I suspect would have afforded him the greatest pleasure to contemplate – the black holes in galactic centres, swirling the stars around the space beyond their event horizons. Black holes with their infinite mass and invulnerability to time, the eternal dark divinities which create immeasurable amounts of heat and light from the swirling dust and clouds of stars entrapped around them,  and feed for eons on that which they excite – until they too fall into the endless quiescence which is the most potent simulacrum of living death the universe contains.

In a sense, I feel that Leopardi’s mind too was a kind of black hole, but one from which thoughts were emitted in a steady stream. His thoughts, poems, disputations, pedagogical work, translations and letters escaped the fearful gravity of his heavy heart, and found their expression in his writing.

For Leopardi truth is an apparition of death, but such an image need not daunt us, for the voracity of death, like the voracity of black holes, is at the heart of every conception of  life, and of mortality – and the awareness of our mortality serves us  as an aid to live with an awareness of the fleeting nature of time.





The villa in Torre del Greco where Leopardi spend his summers, and where he died.

“there are two truths which most men will never believe: one, that they know nothing, and the other, that they are nothing. And there is a third which proceeds from the second—that there is nothing to hope for after death…. all the vain hopes with which men comfort children and themselves, all foolish consolations,”

“Works of genius, have this intrinsic quality, that even when they capture exactly the nothingness of things, or vividly reveal and make us feel life’s inevitable unhappiness, or express the most acute hopelessness…they are always a source of consolation and renewed enthusiasm.”

Leopardi – from his notebook of 3000 odd pages, Zibaldone.

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Giacomo Leopardi (June 29th 1798 - June 14th 1837)
















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









































La sera del dì di festa


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.

But then he hears the voice of a workman singing a song as he returns, late at night, after a day of merriment, and perhaps the better for a few glasses of wine, back to his humble home.

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.











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To loll around at midday, pale and pensive
by a scorching garden wall and listen
in the thorn brake to the blackbird’s
noisy hustle and the snake’s rustle.





















To gaze upon the cracked ground,
watching the red ants entwining and lining
up amongst the vetch, and twisting back
and crowding the summits of their minute stacks.











To look through the leaves at the sea’s
scaly surface distantly  pulsing












while the cicada’s  shrill quavering cry spills
and rebounds off the stripped and naked hills






















Emerging then into the dazzling flash
to feel with dismal wonderment there
how all of life and its enduring care
is found within this trudging ambit of a wall
rimmed with the shards of broken bottle glass.












Translation Dia Tsung













Meriggiare pallido e assorto
presso un rovente muro d’orto,
ascoltare tra i pruni e gli sterpi
schiocchi di merli, frusci di serpi.












Nelle crepe del suolo o su la veccia
spiar le file di rosse formiche
ch’ora si rompono ed ora s’intrecciano
a sommo di minuscole biche.

Osservare tra frondi il palpitare
lontano di scaglie di mare
mentre si levano tremuli scricchi
di cicale dai calvi picchi.













E andando nel sole che abbaglia
sentire con triste meraviglia
com’è tutta la vita e il suo travaglio
in questo seguitare una muraglia
che ha in cima cocci aguzzi di bottiglia.





Eugenio Montale 10.12.1896 – 9.12.1981

There are certain works that are indelibly Italian  and can only and ever have been  written in Italian – Giacomo Leopardi’s  “To Silvia”, Tomasso Lampedusa’s Il Gattopardo  and Eugeniio Montale’s “Meriggiare Pallido e Assorto”.

“The story begins in an enclosed garden, an orchard to be precise. The wind enters bringing the sound of the sea, which arouses dead memories. Suddenly the garden is not a garden but a graveyard, a mortuary, and the solitary strip of coastline where it lies has become a crucible,  where history itself is forged…..”

These words with which Jonathan Galassi, introduces  his translation of Montale’s Collected Poems 1920 – 1954  may as well be spoken  about the opening pages of Tomasso Lampedusa’s perennial classic set in his native Sicily at the beginning of Italian reunification.

The indelible image of the walled garden with its denizens and their leaving of it in order to  enter the larger world is a motif  that seems to keep repeating itself in the human imagination, in  literature, art, and in poetry….

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