Leopardi’s Eternity: A Translation and Interpretation of The Infinite
Among the foremost minds that gave dignity to the Italian language, stands Count Giacomo Leopardi (1798-1837), whose poem “The Infinite” (L’infinito) invites awakening to the essence of human life.  Leopardi stands in the company of Dante Alighieri (13-14th c.) and Giambattista Vico (18th c.) as one of Europe’s most exalted philosophical philologists, at once repositories… The post Leopardi’s Eternity: A Translation and Interpretation of The Infinite appeared first on VoegelinView.

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Among the foremost minds that gave dignity to the Italian language, stands Count Giacomo Leopardi (1798-1837), whose poem “The Infinite” (L’infinito) invites awakening to the essence of human life.  Leopardi stands in the company of Dante Alighieri (13-14th c.) and Giambattista Vico (18th c.) as one of Europe’s most exalted philosophical philologists, at once repositories and vindicators of the oft trampled, even crucified grain of sanity that alone is truly precious about civilization.
In his L’infinito, Leopardi pays noble homage to Dante’s Comedy, evoking verses from the first Canto of Inferno, while testifying to the heart of his predecessor’s journey to eternal being as key to our common, though alas continually crippled humanity.
The Infinite is, at its core, an introduction to enlightened poetry, to the life of a poet guided by natural reason, even philosophy, so that we may discover or rather expose ourselves to the essence of our human condition, as to the ground upon which we commonly stand: the eternal shining throughout the hiatus between the finite and the infinite.
Until now, we have had no English translation of Leopardi’s L’infinito based on a sound understanding of the poem’s mind, or philosophical principle of order.  Readily available translations are typically misguided by Romantic prejudices that obscure the classical character of Leopardi’s verses.[1] But without further ado, let us confront the first English translation based on full recognition that Leopardi wrote consciously as legitimate heir of Dante and the whole classical Platonic tradition that the medieval “father of the Italian language” had translated for the benefit of all future generations, in the light of Christianity.
The Infinite – by Giacomo Leopardi
Always dear to me was this hermit hill,
And this hedge that from large part
Of the ultimate horizon excludes inspection.
But sitting and peering, unbound
Space beyond that part, and superhuman
Silences, and profoundest quietude
I in thought feign myself, there where nearly
The heart falls prey to fear. And as the wind I
Listen to, storming amidst these plants, I that
Infinite silence to this voice
Go comparing: and the eternal occurs to me,
Both dead seasons and she who is present
And alive, and the sound of her. Thus amidst this
Infinity drowns my thought:
And the shipwreck to me is sweet in this sea.[2]
The poem opens with “sempre,” the semper of classical Latin literature: “always”.  We are about to access that which is always, infinitely synchronic.  Yet, the poem’s very first verse presents a dire difficulty: the always is cast into a most personal, remote, even abandoned past.  The poet turns to that which is always as a lost, deserted hill that stands nonetheless near: it is “this” hill, rather than “that” one.  It is still here, yet it “was” cherished only once.  Was the hill cherished when it was not deserted, not yet a “hermit”?
Let us pause briefly to ask what significance Leopardi’s hill has in a poetic context.  Naturally and as only a heart of stone would not see upon studying the poem, the hill that Leopardi sings of is Parnassus, the homeland of poetry itself, a mount populated by timeless forms, beings that are always: sempre.  Yet, even as the hill is still here, it is now deserted, dead, as the poetry Dante decries in the first Canto of Purgatorio, where he calls it “dead”: morta.  And just as Dante crosses Purgatory to awaken us to its original life as Parnassus, so might Leopardi now wade the distance that separates the finite from the infinite in his timeless homonymous poem.[3] Nor is the reference to Dante fortuitous.  Canto 1.13 of Inferno introduces us to a hill (colle, as in Leopardi’s first verse) of ancient luminous poetic/speaking forms (1.38 and 60), while anticipating the rebirth that the verses of classical poetry are called to, as the “little flowers” (the fioretti of 2.127) that Sandro Botticelli, Dante’s devoted 15th c. student, would portray most candidly in the allegorical painting commonly known as Primavera.  Indeed, the Renaissance reference to poetic verses as flowers and to poetry itself as plant (pianta) hearkens back to classical Roman poetry, as Dante’s appeal to Statius, author of Silvae (the “wild places” or “wilderness” of poetry), stands to remind us.[4]
Surely the plant of philosophically-moved poetry is related to the Tree of Knowledge placed in the Garden of Eden.[5] In both cases, knowledge or “the fruit” is not to be taken away from the  tree: severing the fruit from its source amounts to killing the former.  Living knowledge springs from and is inseparable from the plant itself, which is not originally or properly a support for any “information gathering,” but a conduit for ascending from the fruit back to the plant’s root, namely the mind whence springs the tree in the first place.  The fruit is there as stepping-stone for a return, as a sign guiding us back to the roots, rather than as sheer material for us to do as we please.  In sum, the fruit is our challenge, prior to its appearing as temptation.
Parnassus is still “here,” intimates Leopardi, even though we have deserted it.  What has lead us astray?  Dante had been firm about this question.  A “she-wolf”—incarnation of tyrannical ideas—has driven us to betray our humanity.  The beast has altered our relationship with the plant: poetry, the “hedge” of the Garden of all good things.  The hedge that had occluded sight of all that is outside of the Garden, including evil things, is no longer serving its proper function and end.  We have moved “beyond,” old poetry, or at least we live as if poetry’s hedge, Leopardi’s siepe, were “there,” far away, lost in the past.  Even though it is still “this” hedge: questa siepe.  So the hedge is still here to guard us from the sight of that part of “the ultimate horizon” that is not naturally dear to man, namely decay, or the dark side of life: death as opaque answer, as loss, which is the “great part” (tanta parte) of life itself.  Yet, here is a twist, a turn, for as we sit (sedendo), the boundless space we envision is “beyond that part”: di là da quella.  In sitting, the poet gazes beyond a death that is on “that” side of “this” hedge.  Thus at least he, though not perhaps the reader, is still in the place of poetry, on the land that has long been abandoned by others, the poet’s people, who were once guided by poetry, who once saw poetry as familiar, as “here,” even if they did not quite understand it; as children who are natural poets, or poets by their own nature, unreflectively, pre-philosophically, we could fairly say.
Leopardi’s objection, his stating “but” (ma), establishes him as a solitary poet in a land long abandoned by men.  Yet, that very conjunction of exception points further to a reactionary effort: Leopardi is running against the tide, educating us to poetry.
Now, the first step to becoming a poet was spelled out in the very first verses of Dante’s Comedy where the poet reinvents himself in a wild place, a garden, no matter how deserted it may be, today.  The citadel of poetry may appear to us as a ghost and ghastly one, but it still serves as place for feigning oneself, for projecting oneself onto a path of vision, of discovery, a path on which fear is conquered because that which scares us is but a human creation: a figment of the imagination.  So it is in Inferno 1; so it is in Leopardi’s echoing of Dante’s five references to fear (paura) in that very first Canto.  When projecting itself into its world, the mind or thought (pensier) scares itself, or at least it barely falls short of scaring itself, provided it knows what it is doing.  As Leopardi does, as he invites us to awaken to the nature of our objects of fear: the beasts on the “deserted plane” (piaggia diserta) of Inferno 1.  Those beasts, not here, would otherwise prevent us from seeing our land as a hill, rather than as a mere flatland, or lake (pelago).  They would prevent us from ascending, as Dante warns us most pungently.[6]
Leopardi falls short of fearing what we have no good reason to fear.  For he is at once Dante’s avatar lost in a poetic dream and the Virgilian guide met therein.  We are the lost ones, now, as Leopardi takes up the Virgilian role, to guide us in all intimacy, or rather to guide the solitary wanderer who might just happen to discover “this” poem, as a message hidden in a bottle stranded on a deserted beach (Dante’s piaggia diserta, again).  A rare occasion, as is the discovery of “the infinite” in the most inconspicuous of finite things; such as a mere hedge.
The speaker, a poet feigns himself as an “I”.  Dante had done this; Petrarch, as well, and Boccaccio.  Not as Rousseau will, literally, sentimentally, but ironically, even “rationally” (daring to play with the multifaceted sense of this much abused term), knowing that only muses or muse-like beings speak out, as Vico had shown upon composing a didactical autobiography strictly in the third person.[7]
Now, “amidst these plants” Leopardi hearkens to (odo, he says) the wrestling, even storming of wind.  Were he to merely hear as we are used to, he would easily fall prey to fear.  But in a poetic context (Leopardi’s odo is unambiguously poetic) the very vortex of Democritean atoms in the void is contained, domesticated, on “this side,” sheltered from the evil lurking outside of poetry.  And as our guide, but the reader too through him, listens to the noise of the vortex within the limits of the Garden, no matter how deserted, he goes on comparing “that infinite silence to this voice”: the infinite silence outside of the Garden, to even the most confused voice of poetry, or the voice of poetry in a most confused state.  The distance between death as negation of poetry and the voice of poetry, the voice that speaks on “this” shore of life, is somehow measurable.  Not to be sure aside from poetry itself, for poetry itself is the measure, the living meter.  The odos, as the Greeks would say.  And in “comparing,” in placing on an equal footing, in relating to each other death and life, infinite silence and a properly human voice, the poet or the student of poetry comes to a realization, or he faces a revelation: “the eternal occurs” to him.  The “superhuman silences and the profoundest quietude” of death, that “boundless space” evoked in earlier verses, stands face to face with the poet’s own voice, on a scene where nothing less than eternal being enters, occurring to invite the thought of eternal care: divine providence.  A staple theme of Dante’s own Canto.
But how does “the eternal” enter into the home of poetry without destroying it?  Through poetic comparison, or reason.  Poetry’s reasoning relating what is still (indeed, what “sits,” with Leopardi) to the act of vision that speaks, as of the visibile parlare Dante appeals to in Purgatorio,  sets the stage for recognition of divine support.  The dead seasons and the present living one coincide, united in a single sound, poetry’s own sound: il suon di lei.  “Her sound” is alive and always has been (sempre…fu).  The future is of no concern to Leopardi, faithful heir of classical antiquity.  No modern anxiety accompanies his verse; not even the one poorly masked by Romantic resignation.  Thus can it be (così) that in the very midst of “this Infinity”—that of “these plants” amidst which noise is humanized—“my thought drowns,” without fear.
When properly understood, the death that “occurs to” man is no mere negation of our voice, of our finitude, but a sea in which negation itself, no matter how shattering—hence Leopardi’s “shipwreck” (naufragar)—is sweet.  In “this sea” whose waters, unlike those of deluded men, are sweet, rather than salty, we can drink always (sempre), as we used to, as men once did—and in eternity.
NOTES:
[1]No adequate interpretation of Leopardi’s L’Infinito has been hitherto produced, to my knowledge, mostly due to the undue weight of Romanticism on our reading habits.  Typically seen as precursor of views all too compatible with the secular mentality of our Age, Leopardi has been systematically denied the capacity to rise beyond our own dominant expectations.  For a proper introduction to Leopardi’s mind, the reader is advised to study the poet’s summa philosophiae, the Zibaldone.
[2] The translation offered here is original to the present work of interpretation.  A proper recital of the poem, both in the original Italian and in English, is accessible at <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gZdIPTtROiE>.  For a supplement to the present interpretation, see  <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eRB9GiU3zoU>.
[3] Dante’s own wading, his crossing, is introduced in Inferno 1.22-27.
[4] See also Petrarch’s Canzoniere (14th c.) and Politian’s Sylvae (15th c.).  On Dante’s Statius, see my “Dante’s Statius and Christianity: A Reading of Purgatory XXI and XXII in Their Poetic Context,” in Interpreation: A Journal of Political Philosophy, 39.1 (Winter 2012): 55-82.
[5] See my “Autobiography as History of Ideas: An Intimate Reading of Vico’s Vita,” in Historia Philosophica: An International Journal, Vol. 11 (2013): 59-94.
[6] In Inferno 1, Dante’s poetic avatar is warned by his ancient guide (Virgil) that it behooves the scared student to take “another way” (altro vïaggio).  This other way will entail a descent into the underworld, treading in the footsteps of the greatest mythical heroes of antiquity, from Orpheus to Odysseus, from Hercules to Aeneas.  The hill and challenge before us is then not merely physical, insofar as it extends between life and death, between the earthly and the heavenly.  But to understand this, one needs to give up life, of the realm of the dying.  One must learn to drown into poetry, accepting even a shipwreck as “sweet”.
[7] Vico’s reminder is that the poet speaks always through or in others in whom he transposes himself, the thought that animates him.  See “Autobiography as History of Ideas: An Intimate Reading of Vico’s Vita,” in Historia Philosophica: An International Journal, Vol. 11 (2013): 59-94.

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