In the October 25th issue of the New Yorker, Adam Kirsch–one of the smartest poetry critics working today–wrote about a new translation of the Canti of nineteenth-century Italian poet Giacomo Leopardi by FSG publisher Jonathan Galassi. Kirsch’s review highlighted the
unremitting quality of Leopardi’s pessimism, the crushing insistence, which distinguishes it from the seductive melancholy of other Romantic poets. . . . To find Leopardi’s equal in nihilism, one would have to turn to philosophers like Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, both of whom admired his work.
Having now spent some time with the volume, I have to agree: Leopardi’s fatalistic despair is impressively total, to the point of being overwhelming–yet the attention he continued to pay to the verse in which he described that futility is sufficient almost to belie the overt message.
Take, for example, this passage from Canto XXXI, “Broom, or the Flower of the Desert”:
Nature has no more esteem
or care for the seed of man
than for the ant. And if annihilation
is rarer for the one than for the other
it’s because of nothing more than that man has less fertile progeny.
About as bleak as it gets, no? It’s followed by this account of an eruption of Vesuvius:
And often the poor man sleepless on the roof
of his country hovel,
lying in the open air all night,
jumps up time and time again to watch
the progress of the fearful boiling,
spilling out of the inexhaustible womb
onto the sandy mountainside,
on which the shore of Capri gleams reflected,
and the port of Naples, and Mergellina.
And if he sees it coming close, or hears
his well water gurgle agitated,
he frantically collects his wife and children,
and, fleeing with as many of their things
as they can carry, watches from afar
their longtime nest and the small field
that was their one defense from hunger
fall prey to the burning flood,
which advances hissing and unstoppable,
to pour over them unendingly.
Yes, it all ends in failure, but the are and attention paid to describing it all as it happens–the “well water gurgle agitated”–the futile gestures as they’re made, is stunning, and it’s hard not to interpret it as an admirable howl against the void.
Thanks to Farrar, Straus and Giroux, I’ve got an extra copy of the Canti to give away. In honor of Leopardi’s pessimism, I’ll send it to the person who leaves the best story of a nightmare Thanksgiving in the comments. If you want to be considered, make sure to leave an e-mail address so I can contact you.