Giacomo Leopardi (1798-1837)

Always dear to me was this lonely hill,
And this hedge, which from me so great a part
Of the farthest horizon excludes the gaze.
But as I sit and watch, I invent in my mind
endless spaces beyond, and superhuman
silences, and profoundest quiet;
wherefore my heart
almost loses itself in fear. And as I hear the wind
rustle through these plants, I compare
that infinite silence to this voice:
and I recall to mind eternity,
And the dead seasons, and the one present
And alive, and the sound of it. So in this
Immensity my thinking drowns:
And to shipwreck is sweet for me in this sea.


Giacomo Leopardi, one of the greatest Italian poets of all times, was born in Recanati, a town in the Marches not far from the Adriatic coast. At the age of twelve Giacomo was so erudite that his private ecclesiastical tutor had to admit that his own scholarship was inferior to his pupil's and that consequently there was nothing more he could teach him. Devoured by an insatiable craving for learning, Giacomo then resolved to continue his studies alone, and for the next seven years, completely unsupervised, spent most of the day and part of the night poring over the books of the family palace's twelve-thousand volume library. He mastered Hebrew, Latin, Greek, and modern languages; completed numerous translations from the classics; wrote several philological works, a history of astronomy, and a hymn to Neptune in Greek which he pretended to have discovered in an ancient manuscript.

By the time he was nineteen years old he had amassed an amazing store of knowledge, but he had also compromised his health: he began suffering from nervous disorders, his eyesight weakened, he became a hunchback. Sadly he realized that he had allowed his youth to pass, that henceforth his life could be only unhappy, and that above all, being so frail and unattractive, he would probably never be loved by a woman. He felt it would require great courage "to love a virteous man whose only beauty is his soul". These pessimistic thoughts and premonitions pervade all of Leopardi's major works.

In much of his poetry, Leopardi almost cruelly stresses his belief that joy is nothing but the momentary subsidence of pain and that only in death can man find lasting happiness. However from time to time, there appear balancing statements such as the wonderful last line of "L'infinito" -"E il naufragar m'e dolce in questo mare" (And to shipwreck is sweet for me in this sea) - that uncover a completely different aspect of Leopardi: not the optimist, to be sure, but the enraptured admirer of nature's beauty, and the believer in the power of imagination.

"L'infinito" represents one of the summits not only of Leopardi's poetry but of all poetry. Rarely has a poet been able to compress within one hundred words such depth of meaning with such simplicity of language and harmony of sounds. Leopardi called "L'infinito" an "idyll", a definition that perfectly fits the charm and suggestive power of this superb poem, which, to quote Renato Poggioli, "makes familiar and almost dear to the heart of man the alien metaphysical vision of a universe ruled by laws other than those of life and death."


Mike Towler, April 1998