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Giacomo Leopardi (1798-1837)
Extract from :
William R. Alger
The Solitudes of Nature and Man
"PERHAPS no one of all the men of genius who have lived in recent times has had so lonely a soul and led so lonely a life as Leopardi, the Italian philologist, thinker, and poet, whose name is growing into fame, as his character and fate are becoming known and winning more of love and pity. His intellect, imagination, and heart alike were remarkable for their scope and fervor. He dared to think without checks, and to accept as truth whatever he saw as such. Consequently he rejected the common notions prevalent around him, and was pointed at as a sceptic.
He loved his country with a burning patriotism ; her bondage and torpor, and the supine degradation of her children, alternately aroused his indignation and oppressed him with the deepest sadness. His sense of his own powers was high, enkindling a grand ambition which his unfortunate circumstances combined to irritate, thwart and baffle :
“Mediocrity frightens me, my wish is to love, and become great by genius and study."
His intense susceptibility to beauty, his impassioned and exacting sympathy, created in him the deepest necessity for love ; but his deformity, poverty, and sickness, prevented the fulfilment of this master desire.
Opposed by a hostile fate within and without, disappointed at every turn, without health of body or peace of mind, accepting in its direst extent that philosophy of despair which denies God, Providence, and Immortality ; surrounded for the most part by tyrannical bigots and ignorant boors, possessed by an inexpressible melancholy, alleviated only by the activities of his own genius and the occasional attentions of one or two friends and correspondents, the unhappy Leopardi lived in the deepest and saddest of solitudes.
Knowing how great his intellectuality and his sensibility were, it makes one's heart ache to read his recorded wish that he might become a bird, in order, for a little season, to experience their happiness and peace. He has partially described the hopeless monotony of his life, in the dilapidated old town of Recanati, in his poem, “La Vita Solitaria”.
In the poem on the “Recollections of Youth”, he paints the dismal and trying lone liness of his maturity with painful power :
Condemned to waste and pass my prime
In this wild native village, amid a race
Unlearned and dull, to whom fair Wisdom's name,
And Knowledge, like the names of strangers sound,
An argument of laughter and of jest ;
They hated me and fied me. Not that they
Were envious ; of no greater destiny
They held me than themselves ; but that I bore
Esteem for my own being in my heart,
Though ne'er to man disclosed by any sign.
Herepassed my years, recluse and desolate,
Without or love or life. Bitter and harsh
Among the unkindly multitude I grew.
Here was I robbed of pity and of trust,
And, studying the poor herd, became of men
A scorer most disdainful. Ah, at times
My thoughts to you go back, O hopes, to you ,
Blessed imaginations of my youth !
When I regard my life, so mean, and poor
And mournful, and that death alone is all
To which so much of hope has brought my days,
I feel my heart stand still, and know not how
To be consoled for such a destiny.
The soul of Leopardi was too powerful - surpassingly affectionate and terribly disappointed as he was in life - to permit him usually to express his misanthropy, his grief and wretchedness, either in sentimental sighs or in wails of despair. His dark views and unhappy feelings vented them selves rather in forms of smiling irony, philosophic satire, and a quiet humor, wherein tender melancholy and bitter force of thought are equally mixed. His writings are marked by classic finish and repose.
The manly courage and fortitude that breathe in them are not less obvious than the plaintiveness - not lackadaisical, but heroic - which betrays how constant and deep his pain was. The cause of his spiritual isolation and misery was not merely his rare genius and earnestness, absorbing thought and study, not merely his profound unbelief, not merely his yearning and regurgitating affection, but also his chronic ill-health and nervous exhaustion.
Nearly all his life he was the victim of depressing physical disease. He says ,
“It appears to me that weariness is of the nature of air, which fills all the space intervening between material things, and all the voids contained in them. When anything is removed and the room is not filled by another thing, weariness takes its place immediately. Thus all the interstices of human life between the pleasures and misfortunes are filled up with weariness.”
From the bleaker climate and more in hospitable society of Recanati, Leopardi wandered to Florence, Bologna, Rome, and lastly to Naples. Here he died in the arms of his good and dear friend Ranieri.
He had written in his fine poem of “Love and Death", “the two sweet lords, friends to the human race, to whom fate gave being together ” - at the close of this poem he had said,
"Lovely Death ! bow to the power of unaccustomed prayers, and shut my sad eyes to the light. Calm, alone, I await the time when I shall sleep on thy virgin breast.”
Rarely has death been more welcome to a mortal, rarely has one lived capable of a keener or vaster happiness, had his fellow-creatures but come up to the standard his genius exacted, and answered his cravings.
In the suburbs of Naples, in the little church of San Vitale, stands the monument reared by the loving friend and biographer on whose bosom "he gave up his soul with an ineffable and angelic smile." The traveller who lingers to read the inscription, traced by the pen of Gioberti, draws a deep sigh, and hopes that the great hapless spirit whose clayey part sleeps there, is now, in a higher form, under fairer conditions, enjoying the harmony and love he so vainly longed for here."
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The Solitudes of Nature and Man, William
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