Giacomo Leopardi

      

The Canti

                                                  

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Translated by A. S. Kline © 2003 All Rights Reserved

This work may be freely reproduced, stored, and transmitted, electronically or otherwise, for any non-commercial purpose.

 

Translator’s Note.

 

The poems of the Canti below are complete but not in their originally published order. I have taken the liberty of re-arranging them into four groups, Personal (Poems 1-11), Philosophical (12-24), ‘Romantic’ (25-34), and Political (35-41). These categories are not exact, as Leopardi frequently blends elements together in the one poem, but they may help the reader, as they helped me, to adjust to his variations in style. The original published position of each poem is given in Roman numerals in the brackets following the poem’s title.

 

 


Contents


1. To Silvia (XXI)6

2. The Infinite (XII)8

3. The Evening Of The Holiday (XIII)9

4. To the Moon (XIV)11

5. Saturday Night In The Village (XXV)12

6. To Himself (XXVIII)14

7. Night-Song Of A Wandering Shepherd of Asia (XXIII)15

8. First Love (X)19

9. The Solitary Bird (XI)23

10. Imitation (XXXV)25

11. Scherzo (XXXVI)26

12. Moon-Set (XXXII)27

13. Wild Broom (XXXIV)29

14. The Calm After The Storm (XXIV)38

15. Masterful Thought (XXVI)40

16. Love And Death (XXVII)45

17. Bas-Relief On An Ancient Tomb (XXX)49

18. On A Lovely Lady’s Image (XXX1)53

19. To Spring (or Of The Ancient Myths) (VII)55

20. Hymn To The Patriarchs (VIII)58

21. Sappho’s Last Song (IX)62

22. To Count Carlo Pepoli (XIX)64

23. Fragment (From Simonides I: XL)69

24. Fragment (From Simonides II:XLI)70

25. The Dream (XV)71

26. The Solitary Life (XVI)74

27. To His Lady (XVIII)77

28. Memories (XXII)79

29. The Re-awakening (Il Risorgimento: XX)84

30. Consalvo (XVII)89

31. Aspasia (XXIX)93

32. Fragment (Alcetas and Melissus: XXXVII)96

33. Fragment (Separation: XXXVIII)98

34. Fragment (Turned to Stone: XXXIX)99

35. To Italy (I)102

36. On the Proposed Dante Monument in Florence (II)106

37. To Angelo Mai (III)112

38. For The Marriage of His Sister Paolina (IV)117

39. To A Winner In The Games (V)120

40. Marcus Junius Brutus (VI)122

41. Palinode To Marchese Gino Capponi (XXXII)127

Index of First Lines. 135

 


 


1. To Silvia (XXI)


Silvia, do you remember

those moments, in your mortal life,

when beauty still shone

in your sidelong, laughing eyes,

and you, light and thoughtful,

leapt beyond girlhood’s limits?

 

The quiet rooms and the streets

around you, sounded

to your endless singing,

when you sat, happily content,

intent on that woman’s work,

the vague future, arriving alive in your mind.

It was the scented May, and that’s how

you spent your day.

 

 

I would leave my intoxicating studies,

and the turned-down pages,

where my young life,

the best of me, was left,

and from the balcony of my father’s house

strain to catch the sound of your voice,

and your hand, quick,

running over the loom.

I’d look at the serene sky,

the gold lit gardens and paths:

this side the mountains, that side the far-off sea.

And human tongue cannot say

what I felt then.


 

What sweet thoughts,

what hope, what hearts, O my Silvia!

How all human life and fate

appeared to us then!

When I recall that hope

such feelings pain me,

harsh, disconsolate,

I brood on my own destiny.

Oh Nature, Nature

why do you not give now

what you promised then? Why

do you so deceive your children?

 

Attacked, and conquered, by secret disease,

you died, my tenderest one, and did not see

your years flower, or feel your heart moved,

by sweet praise of your black hair

your shy, loving looks.

No friends talked with you,

on holidays, about love.

 

My sweet hopes died also

little by little: to me too

Fate has denied those years.

Oh, how you’ve passed me by,

dear friend of my new life,

my saddened hope!

Is this the world, the dreams,

the loves, events, delights,

we spoke about so much together?

Is this our human life?

At the advance of Truth

you fell, unhappy one,

and from the distance,

with your hand you pointed

towards death’s coldness and the silent grave.

 

 

 


2. The Infinite (XII)


It was always dear to me, this solitary hill,

and this hedgerow here, that closes off my view,

from so much of the ultimate horizon.

But sitting here, and watching here,

in thought, I create interminable spaces,

greater than human silences, and deepest

quiet, where the heart barely fails to terrify.

When I hear the wind, blowing among these leaves,

I go on to compare that infinite silence

with this voice, and I remember the eternal

and the dead seasons, and the living present,

and its sound, so that in this immensity

my thoughts are drowned, and shipwreck

seems sweet to me in this sea.

 

 

 


3. The Evening Of The Holiday (XIII)

 

The night is sweet and clear, without a breeze,

and the moon rests in the gardens,

calm on the roofs, and reveals, clear,

far off, every mountain. O my lady,

the paths are still, and the night lights

shine here and there from the balconies:

you sleep, and sleep gently welcomed you

to your quiet room: nothing

troubles you: you still don’t know, or guess

with how deep a wound you’ve hurt my heart.

You sleep: I gaze at the sky

that seems so kind to my eyes:

gaze on ancient all-powerful Nature,

who created me for pain. She said:

‘I refuse you hope, even hope, and may

your eyes not shine, except with tears.’

Today was holy: now rest

from pleasure, remember in dream, perhaps,

how many you liked today, how many

liked you: not I, it’s not I that hope

to fill your thoughts. Instead I ask

what life has left me, throw myself

to earth, cry out, and tremble: oh,

terrible days of green youth! Ah, on the road

nearby, I hear the solitary song

of the worker returning to his poor

lodging, late, after the revels:

and it grips my heart fiercely

to think the whole world passes,

and scarcely leaves a trace. See: the holiday’s

over: some nondescript day follows:

time carries off all mortal things.

Where now’s the sound of all those

ancient peoples? Where are the cries

of our famous ancestors, Rome’s

vast empire, its weapons, the clash

of arms, crossing land and sea?

All’s peace and silence: the world

rests entirely, and we speak of them no more.

Now I remember, in my young days,

when the longed-for holiday was awaited,

how, once it had passed, I lay, in sadness,

pressed tight to my sheets: and, deep in the night,

a song I heard in the streets,

died, little by little, far off,

crushing my heart, as now.

 

 

 


 

4. To the Moon (XIV)

 

O lovely moon, now I’m reminded

how almost a year since, full of anguish,

I climbed this hill to gaze at you again,

and you hung there, over that wood, as now,

clarifying all things. Filled with mistiness,

trembling, that’s how your face seemed to me,

with all those tears that welled in my eyes, so

troubled was my life, and is, and does not change,

O moon, my delight. And yet it does help me,

to record my sadness and tell it, year by year.

Oh how sweetly it hurts, when we are young,

when hope has such a long journey to run,

and memory is so short,

this remembrance of things past, even if it

is sad, and the pain lasts!

 

 


5. Saturday Night In The Village (XXV)

 

The girl comes from the fields,

at sunset,

carrying her sheaf of grass: in her fingers

a bunch of violets and roses:

she’s ready, as before,

to wreathe her hair and bodice,

for tomorrow’s holiday.

The old woman sits spinning,

facing the dying sunlight,

on the stairway, with her neighbours,

telling the tale of her own young days,

when she dressed for the festival,

and still slim and lovely,

danced all evening, with those young

boys, companions of her fairer season.

Already the whole sky darkens,

the air turns deep blue: already

shadows of hills and roofs return,

on the young moon’s pale rising.

Now the bells are witness

to the coming holiday:

you would say the heart

might take comfort from the sound.

A gang of little boys

shout in the tiny square,

leaping here and there,

making a happy din:

and the farmhand, whistling,

returns for his simple meal,

dreams of his day of rest.

 

When the other lights are quenched, all round,

and everything else is silent,

I hear the hammer ringing, I hear

the carpenter sawing: he’s still awake

in the lamplight, in his shut workshop,

hurrying and straining,

to finish his task before dawn.

 

This is the best of the seven days,

full of hope and joy:

tomorrow the hours will bring

anxiety and sadness, and make each

turn, in thought, to their accustomed toil.

 

Lively boy,

your life’s sweet flowering

is like this day of gladness,

a clear day, unclouded,

that heralds life’s festival.

Enjoy the sweet hour, my child,

this pleasant, delightful season.

I’ll say nothing, more: let it not grieve you

if your holiday, like mine, is slow to arrive.

 

 


6. To Himself (XXVIII)

 

Now you’ll rest forever

my weary heart. The last illusion has died

I thought eternal. Died. I feel, in truth,

not only hope, but desire

for dear illusion has vanished.

Rest forever. You’ve laboured

enough. Not a single thing is worth

your beating: the earth’s not worthy

of your sighs. Bitter and tedious,

life is, nothing more: and the world is mud.

Be silent now. Despair

for the last time. To our race Fate

gave only death. Now scorn Nature,

that brute force

that secretly governs the common hurt,

and the infinite emptiness of all.

 

 


7. Night-Song Of A Wandering Shepherd of Asia (XXIII)

 

Why are you there, Moon, in the sky? Tell me

why you are there, silent Moon.

You rise at night, and go

contemplating deserts: then you set.

Are you not sated yet

with riding eternal roads?

Are you not weary, still wishing

to gaze at these valleys?

It mirrors your life,

the life of a shepherd.

He rises at dawn:

he drives his flock over the fields, sees

the flocks, the streams, the grass:

tired at evening he rests:

expecting nothing more.

Tell me, O Moon, what life is

worth to a shepherd, or

your life to you? Tell me: where

does my brief wandering lead,

or your immortal course?

 

Like an old man, white-haired, infirm,

barefoot and half-naked,

with a heavy load on his shoulders,

running onwards, panting,

over mountains, through the valleys,

on sharp stones, in sand and thickets,

wind and storm, when the days burn

and when they freeze,

through torrents and marshes,

falling, rising, running faster,

faster, without rest or pause,

torn, bleeding: till he halts

where all his efforts,

all the roads, have led:

a dreadful, vast abyss

into which he falls, headlong, forgetting all.

Virgin Moon,

such is the life of man.

 

Man is born in labour:

and there’s a risk of death in being born.

The very first things he learns

are pain and anguish: from the first

his mother and father

console him for being born.

Then as he grows

they both support him, go on

trying, with words and actions,

to give him heart,

console him merely for being human:

there’s nothing kinder

a parent can do for a child.

Yet why bring one who needs

such comforting to life,

and then keep him alive?

If life is a misfortune,

why grant us such strength?

Such is the human condition,

inviolate Moon.

But you who are not mortal,

care little, maybe, for my words.

 

Yet you, lovely, eternal wanderer,

so pensive, perhaps you understand

this earthly life,

this suffering, the sighs that exist:

what this dying is, this last

fading of our features,

the vanishing from earth, the losing

all familiar, loving company.

And you must understand

the ‘why’ of things, and view the fruits

of morning, evening,

silence, endless passing time.

You know (you must) at what sweet love

of hers the springtime smiles,

the use of heat, and whom the winter

benefits with frost.

You know a thousand things, reveal

a thousand things still hidden from a simple shepherd.

Often as I gaze at you

hanging so silently, above the empty plain

that the sky confines with its far circuit:

or see you steadily

follow me and my flock:

or when I look at the stars blazing in the sky,

musing I say to myself:

‘What are these sparks,

this infinite air, this deep

infinite clarity? What does this

vast solitude mean? And what am I?’

So I question. About these

magnificent, immeasurable mansions,

and their innumerable family:

and the steady urge, the endless motion

of all celestial and earthly things,

circling without rest,

always returning to their starting place:

I can’t imagine

their use or fruit. But you, deathless maiden,

I’m sure, know everything.

This I know, and feel,

that others, perhaps, may gain

benefit and comfort from

the eternal spheres, from

my fragile being: but to me life is evil.

 

O flock at peace, O happy creatures,

I think you have no knowledge of your misery!

How I envy you!

Not only because

you’re almost free of worries:

quickly forgetting all hardship,

every hurt, each deep fear:

but because you never know tedium.

When you lie in the shade, on the grass,

you’re peaceful and content:

and you spend most of the year

untroubled, in that state.

If I sit on the grass, in the shade,

weariness clouds my mind,

and, as if a thorn pricked me,

sitting there I’m still further

from finding peace and rest.

Yet there’s nothing I need,

and I’ve known no reason for tears.

I can’t say what you enjoy

or why: but you’re fortunate.

O my flock: there’s little still

I enjoy, and that’s not all I regret.

If you could speak, I’d ask you:

‘Tell me, why are all creatures

at peace, idle, lying

in sweet ease: why, if I lie down

to rest, does boredom seize me?’

 

If I had wings, perhaps,

to fly above the clouds,

and count the stars, one by one,

or roam like thunder from crest to crest,

I’d be happier, my sweet flock,

I’d be happier, bright moon.

Or perhaps my thought

strays from truth, gazing at others’ fate:

perhaps whatever form, whatever state

it’s in, its cradle or its fold,

the day of birth is dark to one that’s born.

 

 


8. First Love (X)

 

My thoughts turn to the day when I felt love

war in me, for the first time, and I said:

‘Ah, if this is love, how it torments me!’

 

When, with eyes fixed wholly on the ground,

I marvelled at her, she who was first to open,

all innocent, the passage to my heart.

 

Ah, Love, how badly you’ve treated me!

Why does such sweet affection bring

so much desire, and so much grief?

 

And why did such delight enter my heart

not serenely, not entire and pure,

but filled with agony and trouble?

 

Tell me, gentle heart, what fear

what anguish entered with that thought,

compared with which all pleasures were annoyance?

 

Fulfilling thought that offered up yourself,

in the day and night, when all things seem

to be at peace in this hemisphere,

 

you troubled me, unquiet, happy,

wretched, lying beneath the covers,

throbbing strongly at every moment.

 

And whenever, sad, afflicted, weary,

I closed my eyes in sleep: sleep vanished

consumed by fever and delirium.

 

Oh how the sweet vision rose, living,

among the shadows, my closed eyes

gazing at it beneath my eyelids!


 

Oh, how that sweetest of motions spread

through my bones, oh, how a thousand

confused thoughts rolled through

 

my trembling soul! As a breeze, flows

through the heights of an ancient forest,

and creates a long, uncertain murmuring.

 

And oh, my heart, while I was silent, while

I failed to struggle, what did you say, as she departed,

she the source of pain and throbbing?

 

I’d no sooner felt the burning

of that blaze of love, than the little breeze

that fanned the flame, flew on its way.

 

I lay there sleepless in the dawn,

and heard those horses, that would leave me lost,

stamping their hooves outside my ancestral home.

 

And I, secret, timid, and unsure, turned

my eager hearing, eyes open in vain,

towards the balcony in the darkness,

 

to hear the last words, that might fall

from her lips: to hear that voice:

alas, since heaven took all else away.

 

The servants’ voices often struck

my doubting ear, and a chill took me,

and my heart beat more fiercely!

 

And when that dear voice finally sank

into my heart, mixed with the sounds

of carriage wheels and horses:

 

I was left deserted, huddled trembling

on my bed, and, eyes closed, pressed

my hand to my heart and sighed.


 

Later, stupefied, dragging my

shaking limbs round the silent room,

I said: ‘What else could ever move my heart?’

 

Then the bitterest memory

rooted in my mind, and closed my heart

to all other voices, every other form.

 

And a deep grief searched my breast,

as when the heavens rain widely,

washing the fields with melancholy.

 

Nor did I, a boy of eighteen summers

recognise you, Love, when you first tried

your power on one born to weep.

 

When I scorned every joy, and the stars’

smiles did not please, not dawn’s

calm silence, not green fields.

 

Even the love of glory was silent

in my heart that it used to warm,

where once love of beauty lived.

 

My eyes would not return to my studies,

and that which I thought had made

all other desires vain, seemed vain itself.

 

Ah how could I have altered so, in myself,

how had one love taken all others from me?

Ah, in truth, how changeable we are!

 

Only my heart pleased, and that

perpetual dialogue buried in my heart,

keeping a guard on grief.

 

And my eyes that searched the earth or myself,

and allowed no fugitive or wandering glance

to light on any face, vile or lovely:


 

fearing to disturb the bright, virgin

image that I held in my heart, as waves

in a lake may be stirred by the breeze.

 

And that regret, for not having fully

delighted in fleeting days,

that weighs on the spirit,

 

changing to poison past delight,

stung my heart wholly: while shame

with its harsh bite still had no power.

 

I swear to heaven, to you, great spirits,

that there was no low desire in my heart:

it burned with pure, unblemished fire.

 

That fire still lives, affection lives,

the lovely image breathes in my thought,

from which I draw no delight that is not

 

heavenly, and that, alone, satisfies me.

 

 

 


9. The Solitary Bird (XI)

 

Solitary bird, you sing

from the crest of the ancient tower

to the landscape, while day dies:

while music wanders the valley.

Spring brightens

the air around, exults in the fields,

so the heart is moved to see it.

Flocks are bleating, herds are lowing:

more birds happily make a thousand

circles in the clear sky, all around,

celebrating these happy times:

you gaze pensively, apart, at it all:

no companions, and no flight,

no pleasures call you, no play:

you sing, and so see out

the year, the sweet flowering of your life.

 

Ah, how like

your ways to mine! Pleasure and Joy

youth’s sweet companions,

and, Love, its dear friend,

sighing, bitter at passing days,

I no longer care for them, I don’t know why:

indeed I seem to fly far from them:

seem to wander, a stranger

in my native place,

in the springtime of my life.

This day, yielding to evening now,

is a holiday in our town.

You can hear a bell ring in the clear sky,

you can hear the cannon’s iron thunder,

echoing away, from farm to farm.

Dressed for the festival

young people here

leave the houses, fill the streets,

to see and be seen, with happy hearts.

I go out, alone,

into the distant country,

postpone all delight and joy

to some other day: and meanwhile

my gaze takes in the clear air,

brings me the sun that sinks and vanishes

among the distant mountains,

after the cloudless day, and seems to say,

that the beauty of youth diminishes.

 

You, lonely bird, reaching the evening

of this life the stars grant you,

truly, cannot regret

your existence: since your every

action is born of nature.

But I, if I can’t

evade through prayer,

the detested threshold of old age,

when these eyes will be dumb to others,

and the world empty, and the future

darker and more irksome than the present,

what will I think of such desires?

Of these years of mine? Of what happened?

Ah I’ll repent, and often,

un-consoled, I’ll gaze behind me.

 

 


10. Imitation (XXXV)

 

Poor frail leaf

far from your own branch,

where are you flying? – The wind

tore me from the beech that bore me.

Whirling, in flight, it takes me

from the forest to the plain,

from the valley to the mountain.

I myself journey

forever: ignoring all the rest.

I go where all things go,

where, of nature, goes

the flower of the rose,

and the flower of the laurel.

 

Note: The original French poem is by Antoine-Vincent Arnault (1766-1834)

 

 


11. Scherzo (XXXVI)

 

When as a boy I set myself

to learn from the Muses,

one of them grasped me by the hand

and all that day

led me around,

to contemplate her workshop.

Little by little she showed me

the instruments of her art,

and all their diverse uses

the effect of each of them

when they’re employed in prose

or they’re employed in verses.

I marvelled, and I said:

‘And Muse, your file?’ The Goddess

said: ‘Worn out: we do without it.’

‘Shouldn’t it be repaired,’ I added, ‘if it’s done for?’

She replied: ‘It should, but it’s something we’ve no time for.’

 

 

 


12. Moon-Set (XXXII)

 

As on a lonely night

the moon descends,

over the silvery waters and fields,

where the breeze sighs,

and distant shadows make

a thousand vague aspects,

and deceptive objects,

among the tranquil waves,

the branches, hedges, hills, and villages:

and, lost at the sky’s end,

behind Alps or Apennines, or 

in endless Tyrrhenian deeps,

sets, and dims the world,

so that shadows scatter, and a single

gloom darkens valley and mountain,

so night remains alone,

and the carter on the road salutes,

with mournful song, the last gleam

of vanishing light that led him on:

 

so youth melts away,

and leaves

our mortal state. The shadows

and the forms of delighted

illusion flee: and all the distant

hopes our mortal nature

trusts in, grow less.

Life remains, dark,

abandoned. The uncertain traveller

strains his eyes, blindly, in vain,

to find some goal or reason in the long

road ahead: and sees

how human habitation becomes

truly foreign to him, and he to it.

 

Our wretched life

would have seemed

too happy and joyful, up there, if youth,

whose every good brings a thousand ills,

had been allowed to last a lifetime.

The law that sentences

all creatures to death, would be too mild,

if half of life

had not first been made

harsher than the vilest death.

The eternals made a worthy discovery

of immortal intellect: old age,

worst of all evils, where desire

clings, but hope is quenched,

the founts of pleasure run dry, pain

often grows, and good will not return.

 

You, hills and shores,

the glory in the west, that silvered

the veil of night, has died,

yet you will not

be widowed long: from the east

you’ll see the sky

whiten anew, and dawn will rise:

then the sun will quickly follow

and, shine out

with powerful flames,

flooding you, and the eternal realms,

with torrents of light.

But mortal life, will not brighten

with new light, or new dawn,

once lovely youth is gone.

It will be lonely to the end: the gods

have set no limit to the gloom

that darkens old age, except the tomb.

 

 


13. Wild Broom (XXXIV)

(or The Flower of the Desert)


                              ‘And men loved darkness rather than the light’

                                                            John, III:19

 

Fragrant broom,

content with deserts:

here on the arid slope of Vesuvius,

that formidable mountain, the destroyer,

that no other tree or flower adorns,

you scatter your lonely

bushes all around. I’ve seen before

how you beautify empty places

with your stems, circling the City

once the mistress of the world,

and it seems that with their grave,

silent, aspect they bear witness,

reminding the passer-by

of that lost empire.

Now I see you again on this soil,

a lover of sad places abandoned by the world,

a faithful friend of hostile fortune.

These fields scattered

with barren ash, covered

with solid lava,

that resounds under the traveller’s feet:

where snakes twist, and couple

in the sun, and the rabbits return

to their familiar cavernous burrows:

were once happy, prosperous farms.

They were golden with corn, echoed

to lowing cattle:

there were gardens and palaces,

the welcome leisure retreats

for powerful, famous cities,

which the proud mountain crushed

with all their people, beneath the torrents

from its fiery mouth. Now all around

is one ruin,

where you root, gentle flower, and as though

commiserating with others’ loss, send

a perfume of sweetest fragrance to heaven,

that consoles the desert. Let those

who praise our existence visit

these slopes, to see how carefully

our race is nurtured

by loving Nature. And here

they can justly estimate

and measure the power of humankind,

that the harsh nurse, can with a slight movement,

obliterate one part of, in a moment, when we

least fear it, and with a little less gentle

a motion, suddenly,

annihilate altogether.

The ‘magnificent and progressive fate’

of the human race

is depicted in this place.

 

Proud, foolish century, look,

and see yourself reflected,

you who’ve abandoned

the path, marked by advancing thought

till now, and reversed your steps,

boasting of this regression

you call progress.

All the intellectuals, whose evil fate

gave them you for a father,

praise your babbling, though

they often make a mockery

of you, among themselves. But I’ll

not vanish into the grave in shame:

As far as I can, I’ll demonstrate,

the scorn for you, openly,

that’s in my heart,

though I know oblivion crushes

those hated by their own time.

I’ve already mocked enough

at that fate I’ll share with you.

You pursue Freedom, yet want thought

to be slave of a single age again:

by thought we’ve risen a little higher

than barbarism, by thought alone civilisation

grows, only thought guides public affairs

towards the good.

The truth of your harsh fate

and the lowly place Nature gave you

displease you so. Because of it

you turn your backs on the light

that illuminated you: and in flight,

you call him who pursues it vile,

and only him great of heart

who foolishly or cunningly mocks himself

or others, praising our human state above the stars.

 

A man generous and noble of soul,

of meagre powers and weak limbs,

doesn’t boast and call himself

strong and rich in possessions,

doesn’t make a foolish pretence

of splendid living or cutting a fine

figure among the crowd:

but allows himself to appear

as lacking wealth and power,

and says so, openly, and gives

a true value to his worth.

I don’t consider a man

a great-hearted creature, but stupid,

who, born to die, nurtured in pain,

says he is made for joy,

and fills pages with the stench

of pride, promising

an exalted destiny on earth,

and a new happiness, unknown to heaven

much less this world, to people

whom a surging wave, a breath

of malignant air, a subterranean tremor,

destroys so utterly that they

scarcely leave a memory behind.

He has a noble nature

who dares to raise his voice

against our common fate,

and with an honest tongue,

not compromising truth,

admits the evil fate allotted us,

our low and feeble state:

a nature that shows itself

strong and great in suffering,

that does not add to its miseries with fraternal

hatred and anger, things worse

than other evils, blaming mankind

for its sorrows, but places blame

on Her who is truly guilty, who is the mother

of men in bearing them, their stepmother in malice.

They call her enemy:

and consider

the human race

to be united, and ranked against her,

from of old, as is true,

judge all men allies, embrace

all with true love, offering sincere

prompt support, and expecting it

in the various dangers and anguish

of the mutual war on her. And think

it as foolish to take up arms against men

and set up nets and obstacles

against their neighbours as it would be in war,

surrounded by the opposing army, in the most

intense heat of battle,

to start fierce struggles with friends,

forgetting the enemy,

to incite desertion, and wave their swords

among their own forces.

If such thoughts were revealed

to the crowd, as they used to be,

along with the horror that first

brought men together in social contract

against impious Nature,

then by true wisdom

the honest, lawful intercourse

of citizens would be partly renewed,

and justice and piety, would own

to another root than foolish pride,

on which the morals of the crowd

are as well founded

as anything else that’s based on error.

 

Often I sit here, at night,

on these desolate slopes,

that a hardened lava-flow has clothed

with brown, and which seem to undulate still,

and over the gloomy waste,

I see the stars flame, high

in the purest blue,

mirrored far off by the sea:

the universe glittering with sparks

that wheel through the tranquil void.

And then I fix my eyes on those lights

that seem pin-pricks,

yet are so vast in form

that earth and sea are really a pin-prick

to them: to whom man,

and this globe where man is nothing,

are completely unknown: and gazing

at those still more infinitely remote,

knots, almost, of stars,

that seem like mist to us, to which

not only man and earth but all

our stars, infinite in number and mass,

with the golden sun,

are unknown, or seem like points

of misted light, as they appear

from earth: what do you seem like,

then, in my thoughts, O children

of mankind? And mindful of

your state here below, of which

the ground I stand on bears witness,

and that, on the other hand, you believe

that you’ve been appointed the master

and end of all things: and how often

you like to talk about the creators

of all things universal, who descended

to this obscure grain of sand called earth,

for you, and happily spoke to you, often:

and that, renewing these ridiculous dreams,

you still insult the wise, in an age

that appears to surpass the rest

in knowledge and social customs: what feeling is it,

then, wretched human race, what thought

of you finally pierces my heart?

I don’t know if laughter or pity prevails.

 

As a little apple that falls from a tree:

late autumn ripeness,

and nothing else, bringing it to earth:

crushes, wastes, and covers

in a moment, the sweet nests

of a tribe of ants, carved out

of soft soil, with vast labour,

and the works, the wealth,

that industrious race had vied

to achieve, with such effort,

and created in the summer: so the cities

of the farthest shores

that the sea bathed,

were shattered, confounded, covered

in a few moments, by a night of ruin,

by ashes, lava and stones,

hurled to the heights of heaven

from the womb of thunder,

falling again from above,

mingled in molten streams,

or by the vast overflow

of liquefied masses,

metals and burning sand,

descending the mountainside

racing over the grass: so that now

the goats graze above them,

and new cities rise beside them, whose base

is their buried, demolished walls

that the cruel mountain seems to crush underfoot.

Nature has no more love or care

for the seed of man

than for the ants: and if the destruction

of one is rarer than that of the other,

it’s for no other reason

than that mankind is less rich in offspring.

 

Fully eighteen hundred years

have passed, since those once-populated cities

vanished, crushed by fiery force,

yet the farmer intent

on his vines, this dead

and ashen soil barely nourishes,

still lifts his gaze

with suspicion,

to the fatal peak

that sits there brooding,

no gentler than ever, still threatening

to destroy him, his children, and his

meagre possessions. And often

the wretch, lying awake

on the roof of his house, where

the wandering breezes blow at night,

jumps up now and again, and checks

the course of the dreadful boiling,

that pours from that inexhaustible lap

onto its sandy slopes, and illuminates

the bay of Capri, the ports

of Naples and Mergellina.

And if he sees it nearing, or hears

the water bubbling, feverishly, deep

in the well, he wakes his children, quickly

wakes his wife, and fleeing, with whatever

of their possessions they can grasp,

watches from the distance, as his familiar

home, and the little field

his only defence against hunger,

fall prey to the burning tide,

crackling as it arrives, inexorably

spreading over all this, and hardening.

Lifeless Pompeii returns to the light of heaven

after ancient oblivion, like a buried

skeleton, that piety or the greed

for land gives back to the open air:

and, from its empty forum,

through the ranks of broken

columns, the traveller contemplates

the forked peak and the smoking summit,

that still threatens the scattered ruins.

And, like night’s secret horror,

through the empty theatres,

the twisted temples, the shattered

houses, where the bat hides its brood,

like a sinister brand

that circles darkly through silent palaces,

the glow of the deathly lava runs,

reddening the shadows

from far away, staining the region round.

So, indifferent to man, and the ages

he calls ancient, and the way descendants

follow on from their ancestors,

Nature, always green, proceeds instead

by so long a route

she seems to remain at rest. Meanwhile empires fall,

peoples and tongues pass: She does not see:

and man lays claim to eternity’s merit.

 

And you, slow-growing broom,

who adorn this bare landscape

with fragrant thickets,

you too will soon succumb

to the cruel power of subterranean fire,

that, revisiting places

it knows, will stretch its greedy margin

over your soft forest. And you’ll bend

your innocent head, without a struggle,

beneath that mortal burden:

yet a head that’s not been bent in vain

in cowardly supplication

before a future oppressor: nor lifted

in insane pride towards the stars,

or beyond the desert, where

your were born and lived,

not through intent, but chance:

and you’ll have been so much wiser

so much less unsound than man, since you

have never believed your frail species,

can be made immortal by yourself, or fate.

 

 


14. The Calm After The Storm (XXIV)


The storm has gone:

I hear the joyful birds, the hen,

returning to the path,

renews her cackling. See the clear sky

opening from the west, over the mountain:

the landscape clarifies,

the river gleams bright in the valley.

Now every heart is happy, on every side

there’s the noise of work

as they return to business.

The craftsman comes to the door,

his work in hand, singing,

to gaze at the humid sky:

a girl runs out to draw water

that’s charged with fresh rain:

and, from street to street,

the vegetable seller

raises his cry again

See the sun return, see how it’s smiling

from hills and farms. The servants

open balconies, terraces, lodges:

hear the harness clinking, far off

along the highway: as the traveller’s carriage

moves, once more, down the road.

 

Every heart is happy.

When was life as sweet,

as pleasant as it is now?

When did men turn

to their work, or bend to

their studies with such love? Or begin

some new venture? Or were so forgetful

of old wrongs? Joy is born of pain:

vain joy, the fruit

of fear past, in one shaken,

and fearful of death,

who abhorred life before:

fear that made men sweat and tremble

in enduring anguish,

shivering, silent, pale: seeing

lightning, cloud, and wind,

moving to attack them.

 

O kindly Nature,

these are your gifts,

these are the delights

you give to mortals. To be free

of pain is our delight.

You scatter ills with generous hands: grief

appears of itself, and pleasure, that’s so often

born of trouble, through the monstrous,

and the miraculous, is our only gain. The human

race, dear to the gods! Happy enough

to gain a breathing space

from sorrow: blessed

when death heals you of every grief.

 

 


15. Masterful Thought (XXVI)

 

Sweetest, powerful

lord of my deepest mind:

terrible, but dear

gift of the heavens: companion

of my darkest days,

Thought, that often stirs inside me.

 

Who does not talk of your secret

nature? Who does not know its power

among us? Yet often, since human

language gains its own impetus

from your action, it often seems strange

to those who listen to what you create.

 

How lonely my mind

has become, since you

took it as your home!

All my other thoughts vanish,

swift as flashes of lightning

all around: Like a tower

on an empty plain,

you stand alone, gigantic, among them.

 

What are earthly affairs,

what is all life to me,

compared with you!

What intolerable tedium,

our leisure, familiar trades,

the vain hopes of vain pleasure,

beside that joy,

the heavenly joy that comes from you!


 

Just as a traveller is happy

to turn his eyes from bare rock

in the rugged Apennines,

towards some far green sunlit field,

so I turn willingly from harsh, dry

mundane conversations, as if

towards a happy garden, and your space

restores my senses again.

 

It seems well nigh incredible

I’ve endured this wretched life,

and this foolish world,

for so long without you:

almost impossible to comprehend

how others can sigh

with desire for anything

except what resembles you.

 

Fear of death has never entered

my heart, since I first learned

from experience what life was.

That final necessity

this strange world sometimes praises,

yet abhors and trembles at,

seems like a jest to me today:

and if danger threatens, I pause

and smile, to contemplate its menace.


 

I’ve always despised

cowards, and ungenerous

spirits. Now any shameful act

stings me at once:

examples of human baseness

stir my soul, at once, to scorn.

I feel myself greater

than this insolent age

that nourishes itself on empty hope,

in love with gossip, hostile to virtue:

foolish, it asks for sense,

without seeing how life

becomes more and more senseless.

I scorn human judgement: and tread down

that fickle crowd, hostile

to true thought, who despise your worth.

 

What allegiance does not yield

to that from which you rise?

Indeed what other allegiance

but this has power among mortals?

Avarice, pride, hatred, disdain,

love of honour, power,

what are they but whims

compared to this? Only one allegiance

is alive to us: eternal law

has only decreed one

over-ruling lord of the human heart.

 

Life has no worth or meaning

except in this, which is all to us:

which alone absolves fate

for placing mortals here

to suffer, with no other purpose:

in this one allegiance,

life is more noble than death,

if not to fools, to hearts that are not base,

 


 

Sweet thought, because of your joys,

to have endured our human troubles,

and suffered this mortal life

for many years, has not been in vain:

and expert though I am in pain,

I’d still be prepared

to take to the road for such a purpose:

since I’ve never journeyed,

weary, through the sands,

among the venomous snakes,

and reached you, without my pain

being eased by your great blessing.

 

What a world, what a new

immensity, what a paradise it is

to which your marvellous enchantment

seemed to lift me! Where I used

to wander in that strange light,

forgetting my earthly state,

and everything of our reality,

among the dreams, I think,

that immortals know. Alas, you are,

in the end, a dream, sweet thought,

one that adorns truth for the most part:

yet a dream, a clear illusion. But you,

among nature’s happy illusions,

are divine: because you are so strong,

and vital, that you can endure tenaciously

against truth, and even adapt to truth,

and not dissolve, till you meet with death.


 

O my thought, it’s true, that you,

the only vital part of my days,

delightful cause of infinite pain,

will sometime be quenched with me in death:

you whose signs I feel alive in my soul,

such that you’ll be my lord for ever.

Other noble illusions

often fail in the face

of truth. The more I turn

to gaze at her,

of whom I love to speak with you,

the greater grows the delight,

the greater the delirium, I breathe.

Angelic beauty!

Wherever I look, among the lovely faces,

they are only painted images

of your face. It seems to me, you

are the sole fount of every other

loveliness, of every true beauty.

 

When, since I first saw you,

were you not the ultimate goal

of my deepest cares? What part of the day

passed when I did not think of you?

How often did my dreams lack

your sovereign image? Lovely as a dream,

angelic form,

in earthly place,

in the high realms of the universe,

what do I ask for, or hope to see

that is more beautiful than your eyes,

or own that is sweeter than thought of you?

 

 


16. Love And Death (XXVII)


                                        ‘Those whom the gods love die young’

                                                                                Menander


Fate gave birth, at the same moment,

to the brothers, Love and Death.

The world owns to none

so fine, nor do the stars.

From the former, the Good is born,

and the greatest pleasure,

to be found in the ocean of being:

the latter annuls our greatest

pain, and all our greatest evil.

Often the boy, Love,

joys in keeping company,

with a beautiful girl,

sweet to see, not

as cowardly people paint her:

and flying together through human life

they are the wise heart’s greatest solace.

No heart was ever wiser

than when pierced by love, nor firmer

in scorning wretched life,

nor so ready to face danger

for any lord but this one:

Love, where you give your help,

courage is born, is roused:

then the human race is wise

in what it does, not as so often,

only wise in thought.


 

When a new loving

affection is born,

in the deepest heart,

we feel the languid desire to die,

simultaneously in our soul:

how, who knows? But such

is the power and true first effect of love.

Perhaps the desolation here

terrifies our sight: perhaps a mortal finds

this world uninhabitable,

without that new,

sole, infinite happiness

his thoughts create:

and by reason of that great storm

presaged in his heart, seeks quiet,

seeks to reach harbour,

driven by desire,

that roars and darkens all around.

 

Then, when formidable power

wraps everything about,

and invading passion flashes in the heart,

how often you, Death,

are invoked, with intense

desire, by the troubled lover!

How often at evening, how often

when the weary body is abandoned to dawn,

he might call himself blessed

never to rise again,

or see the bitter light!

And often at the sound of the funeral bell

the dirge that takes

the dead to their eternal rest,

he envies, from his heart’s depths,

with many ardent sighs,

he who joins the lost in their ancient home.

Even the untaught man,

the farmer, ignorant

of all virtue derived from wisdom,

even a shy and timid girl,

who once felt her hair stand on end

at the name of death, dares

to fix her gaze on the tomb,

on the winding sheet, with calm constancy,

dares to meditate on

poison or the knife,

and feel, deep in her mind,

the courtesy of death.

So love leads his disciples

to death. Yet often

the internal struggle is so great

a mortal cannot endure its strength,

and either the frail body yields

to those terrible forces, and in that way

Death prevails, aided by his brother’s power:

or Love drives them towards the depths,

so the unlearned farmer,

and the tender girl,

fell themselves with violent hand

while the world,

to which heaven grants

peace and old age, mocks them.

 

Sweet lords, friends

of the human race,

to whom nothing in this vast

universe compares, and whom no power

but fate can overcome,

may it grant one of you

to enter fervid, happy,

intelligent minds.

And you, lovely Death,

whom I’ve always called on, and honoured

since my early years, who alone

in the world take pity on human troubles,

if you have ever been honoured

by me, if I have tried to address

the crowd’s ingratitude

for your divine status,

don’t delay, favour this

unfamiliar prayer,

close these sad eyes of mine

to the light, now, O king of the ages.

Whenever the hour falls when you come

in answer to my prayer, you’ll find me

armed, head high,

and firm against fate:

not heaping praise on the flailing hand

stained with my innocent blood,

nor blessing you, from cowardice,

like the human race of old:

I’ll throw away every vain hope

that consoles the childish world,

every foolish comfort,

and I’ll not hope for any

other moment, but yours alone:

and only wait calmly

for that day when I lay my sleeping

head on your virgin breast.

 

 


17. Bas-Relief On An Ancient Tomb (XXX)

(Where The Dead Girl is Shown

Departing, and Taking Leave of her Family)


Lovely girl, where are you going?

Who calls you, far

from your loved ones?

Do you abandon your father’s house

so soon, wandering off, alone? Will you

return to this threshold? Will you ever make

those who mourn you today, happy again?

 

Your eyes are dry, and your attitude brave,

but you still seem unhappy. It would be hard

to tell from your serious aspect,

whether your road is pleasant

or sorrowful, joyful or sad

the place you travel to. Alas, I could never

decide myself, nor perhaps has

the world decided, whether

you should be called hated by heaven,

or beloved: wretched or fortunate.

 

Death calls: at the dawn of day,

comes the final moment. You’ll not return

to the nest you left. You’ve left

the sight of your sweet

parents forever. The place

you go to lies underground:

there’s your dwelling for all time.

Perhaps you’re blessed: but he who gazes,

thoughtfully, at your fate, must sigh.

 

I think that never to see

the light is best. But, being born,

to vanish at that time when beauty

first displays her limbs and face,

and the world begins

to bow down before her from afar:

when every hope is flowering,

long before truth has flashed its gloomy

rays against her joyful brow:

and like mist condensing

to a fleeing cloud-form on the horizon,

as if she had not been,

renounce the future

for the tomb’s dark silence,

this, though to our intellect

it seems best, strikes the heart

deeply, in profound pity.

 

Mother Nature, bewailed and feared,

by those of the animal kingdom,

you marvel, not worth our praise,

who bear and nourish to kill,

if it’s a mortal ill

to die before our time, why

bring it on innocent heads?

If it’s a good, why make this parting

more gloomy, inconsolable,

than every other ill,

for those who go, and those who live?


 

Wretched, wherever they gaze,

wretched, where they turn or run,

this sensitive species!

It pleased you that youthful

hopes of life

should be illusions: trouble-filled

the tide of their years: Death their only

shield against evil: the inevitable goal,

the immutable law

ruling human life. Ah, after

the sad journey why not at least

make the ending happy? Rather

than this certain future,

the living keep before their eyes,

the sole comfort

for our miseries,

clothed in black robes,

veiled with sad shade,

why make the harbour more fearful

a sight than ever the waves were?

 

Given the harsh fate of dying

to which you destine us,

we whom you abandon, in our innocence,

unknowingly, unwillingly, to life,

then he who dies is more enviable

than he who witnesses the death

of those he loves. Yet though it’s true,

as I fervently believe,

that life is pain,

and death a gift, who could wish,

as indeed he should

for the death of those he cares for,

himself to still remain

behind, diminished:

to see the beloved one

with whom he’s spent so many years

carried from the threshold,

a farewell with no hope of ever

meeting again

on this world’s roads:

then left alone, abandoned on earth,

to gaze around, and in familiar places

remember the lost companion?

O Nature, how, ah how, can your heart allow

such embraces to be loosened,

friend from friend,

brother from brother,

child from father,

lover from lover: one dying,

the other granted life? How can

you make such grief

our fate, that mortals

survive a mortal love? But Nature

bestows its care on other things,

than our good or ill.

 


18. On A Lovely Lady’s Image (XXX1)

(Carved on her Tomb)

 

You were such, who now are buried

dust and skeleton. Placed motionless,

helpless, above the earth and bone,

mute, gazing at the flight of ages,

stands the sole guardian

of grief and memory, the image

of lost beauty. That sweet glance

that made men tremble as it gazed

at them, motionless, as now: those lips,

from whose depths pleasure flowed,

as though from a full urn: that neck,

once circled by desire: that loving hand,

that often, lightly opened, felt

the hand it clasped grow cold:

and the breast, at which men

visibly paled, once lived:

now they are earth

and bone: and stone conceals

the sad and shameful sight.

 

So fate diminishes

that image, that seemed to us

a living vision of heaven. Eternal

mystery of our being. One moment, Beauty,

the fount of vast, exalted thoughts,

ineffable feelings, towers over us, and seems

like a tremulous radiance

immortal nature casts on this arena,

the sign and sure hope

of blessed realms and the golden world,

of a superhuman fate,

granted to our mortal state:

next moment, at a light touch,

what was but now

an angelic face becomes vile,

abominable, base, and the

marvellous ideal that took

its being from it, vanishes

at once from the mind.

 

Infinite desires

and noble visions

are created in the mind

by virtue of harmonious knowledge:

so that the human spirit wanders

secretly through a sea of delight,

as though swimming ardently

in play through the Ocean:

But if a discordant note

strikes the ear, that paradise

turns to nothingness in a moment.

 

How does human nature reach

so high, if it is merely

wretched, frail, dust and shadow?

Yet if it is somehow noble,

how can our finest thoughts and acts

be kindled and quenched

for such slight, ignoble reasons?

 

 


19. To Spring (or Of The Ancient Myths) (VII)

 

Because the sun renews

the injured heavens, and Zephyrus revives

the dull air, and the dark shadows of clouds

are driven off, scattered down the valleys;

birds trust their fragile forms

to the wind, and the light of day

brings new desire for love, fresh hope,

penetrating the woods and through

the melting frost, to waking creatures:

perhaps human spirits, drowned in grief

and weariness might remake

the age of beauty, which tragedy, and the black

torch of truth, consumed

before its time? Are Phoebus’s rays

truly quenched in darkness

forever? Fragrant Spring

can you rouse and inspire

this frozen heart that knows

old age’s bitterness in the flower of youth?

 

Are you alive, O sacred Nature,

are you alive? Alive, and your maternal voice

gathered to an unaccustomed hearing?

Your rivers were once home to the bright nymphs,

the liquid founts were placid haunts and mirrors.

And the rugged mountain ridges, the tangled

woods (today the remote haunt of the winds)

trembled to the arcane dance

of immortal footsteps: and the shepherd

leading his thirsty flock through the flickering

mid-day shadows of the flowering

river-banks, heard the shrill piping

of woodland Pan echoing

along the stream: saw the waves

tremble, amazed, and, saw, vaguely,

the quiver-bearing goddess

descending into the warm flood,

washing the grime and dust of the bloody chase

from her white flanks and virgin arms.

 

Once, the grass and flowers breathed,

and the woods. The gentle airs,

the clouds, and the lamp of the sun,

were aware of humanity, then, when

the traveller followed you with intent eyes,

Cyprian Planet, in the empty night,

you, naked above the hills and shores,

his companion on the road, the image

of mortal thought. When, fleeing

the impure towns

and deadly anger and shame,

men clasped the rugged tree-trunks,

deep in dense woods,

and thought that living flame surged

through the dry veins, leaves breathed:

that they clasped in their arms the hidden heartbeat

of sorrowful Daphne, or sad Phyllis, or heard

Clymene’s disconsolate daughters weeping

for Phaethon, drowned by the Sun in the Italian River.

 

Nor, harsh cliffs, were the mournful sounds

of human misery lost

as they struck you,

while timorous Echo haunted your spaces,

not the wind’s vain wandering,

but a nymph’s unhappy spirit, she,

whom the weight of love and harsh fate

robbed of her limbs. From caves,

and naked cliffs, and desolate haunts,

she taught a message, her understanding

of our high and broken lament,

to the arching sky. You too, nightingale,

the tale declares, were expert

in human fate, you who sing now

the coming of the re-born year,

and in the deep

quiet of the countryside, through the dark silent air,

mourn your ancient wrong, an ill vengeance,

anger and pity to make the sun grow pale.

 

But your race is unknown to us:

grief does not form those varying

notes of yours, and free of guilt,

and so less dear to us, they climb the dark valley.

Ah, since the halls of Olympus

are empty, and thunder strays blindly

among dark clouds and mountains,

filling guilty or innocent hearts

with the same cold terror: and their native land

is alien to her children, the sad spirits

she produces: lovely Nature

listen to the unhappy cares,

and unjust fate of mortals,

and rekindle the ancient flame

in me: if you still live,

if there’s truly one thing

at least in heaven, or on

the naked earth, or in the deep sea,

that may not pity but observes our pain.

 

Note: The nightingale refers to the myth of Procne, Philomela and Tereus.


20. Hymn To The Patriarchs (VIII)

(Or: The Beginnings Of The Human Race)

 

And you, sung by your grieving sons,

you, glorious fathers of the human race,

will be spoken of with praise: dearer

to the eternal mover of the stars, and so much

less to be wept for, than we whom a gentler

age produces. The irreparable afflictions

of wretched mortals, born to weep,

who find their last day and the darkened

tomb sweeter than ethereal light,

were not imposed by pity or the direct

rule of Heaven. And though ancient error

delivered the human race to the tyrannous

grip of disease and misfortune,

the cause of your ancient cry, the worse crimes

of your children, their unquiet minds,

and greater madness raised Olympus’s weapons

and the neglected hands of nurturing Nature

against us: so life’s flame was detested,

and our birth from the maternal womb

was hateful, and, in violence, despairing

Erebus emerged from the earth.

 

O ancient father and leader

of the human family you first saw

the sun, the glorious fires of the turning spheres,

and the fresh verdure of the fields, and watched

the breezes wandering through the young meadows:

when the cliffs and deserted valleys

echoed to the rushing mountain streams,

their roar unheard: when the fair

future sites of famous peoples,

their noisy cities, still unknown, were ruled

by peace: and silent and alone

the clear rays of Phoebus and the golden moon

climbed the uncultivated hills. Oh, empty

places of the earth, untouched by crime

and sad event! Oh unhappy father

what pain for your offspring,

and what a vast chain of bitter events

destiny prepares! See the greedy field

is stained with a brother’s blood, through a brothers’

murder, in an unprecedented act of anger,

and the bright air knows evil wings of death.

The fearful exiled fratricide, fleeing

the solitary shadows and the secret anger

of the winds in the deepest woods,

raises the first city roofs, the haunts and kingdom

of all-consuming care: and for the first time

desperate contrition, breathless, ill,

brings blind mortals together and shuts them

in shared shelters: so wicked hands

rejected the curving plough, and it was shameful

to sweat in the fields: the idle occupied

the gates of the wicked: slothful bodies

tamed natural vigour, minds were languid

and indolent: and weakened humanity

accepted servitude, the ultimate harm.

 

And you, to whom a white dove first brought

the certain sign of promised hope,

from blind air and soaking hills:

for whom the drowned sun, rising

from ancient evening cloud,

painted a rainbow on the dark sky:

oh, you rescue the evil generation

from the hostile sky and the waves moaning

over clouded ridges. The people saved

repopulate the earth, renewing savage affections,

wicked works, and the pain that follows.

Impious hands mock the inaccessible kingdom

of the vengeful sea, and weeping and wickedness

are taught to alien shores and other stars.

 

Now I think of you, also, father of the elect,

strong, just: and of the generous children

born from your seed. I will speak of how you

were sitting, resting, screened by the midday shade,

of your tent, on the sweet plain of Mamre,

space and pasture for your flocks:

of how angels disguised as travellers

brought divine grace: and, O son

of wise Rebecca, how in the evening

by the rustic well in the sweet vale of Haran,

haunt of shepherds and of idle hours,

love for Laban’s lovely daughter pierced you:

unconquered Love, that condemned your proud

willing spirit to long exile, and long trouble,

and the odious burden of servitude.

 

There was indeed a time (The Muses’ song

and the cry of fame have not indeed fed the avid

crowd on error or empty shadows), a time

when this poor earth was friendly and pleasant

and dear to our race, and our fallen age

flowed with gold. True, streams of pure milk

did not flow down the face

of native cliffs, shepherds did not

drive tigers to the fold with their flocks,

or wolves to the springs

for their pleasure: but the human

race did live then in ignorance

of its fate, and trouble, free of misery:

a sweet primal veil of kind illusion was drawn

over the hidden laws of nature

and heaven: and content with hope

our peaceful ship reached harbour.

 

And a happy race still lives in the vast

forests of California, whose hearts

are not withered by pale care, whose limbs

harsh disease does not waste: the woods

feed them, the hollow cliffs shelter them,

the watered valley refreshes them, death’s

dark day looms over them unseen. Oh,

wise nature’s realms are defenceless

against our sinful daring! Their shores and caves

and peaceful woods lie open to our un-abating

fury: those violated races learn

misery’s invasion, unprecedented

greed: and happiness, fleeing, naked,

is pursued, into the western deeps.


21. Sappho’s Last Song (IX)

 

Calm night, modest rays of the descending

moon: and you, herald of the day,

that rise above the cliffs, among

the silent woods: you seemed dear

and pleasant to my eyes while I

was ignorant of fate and the Furies:

now no gentle prospect smiles on my despair.

For us an unaccustomed joy revives

only when the dust-filled flow of the south-wind

blows through the liquid air and over

the quivering fields, and when the chariot,

Jupiter’s heavy chariot, above our heads,

thunders, and splits the shadowy sky.

In cliffs or deepest valleys we take

joy in the storm, in the widespread flight

of the stricken flocks, or in the sound

and conquering fury of water,

on the shifting banks of the deep river.

 

Your mantle is lovely, O sacred sky, and you

are lovely dew-wet earth. Ah, not one part

of that infinite beauty was granted

to wretched Sappho by the gods,

or pitiless fate. O Nature, I am only a humble

and troubled guest in your proud kingdom,

a lover scorned, and I turn heart and eyes

in vain, in supplication, towards

your graceful form. No sunlit place,

nor the dawn light at heaven’s gate

smiles on me: the brightly coloured birds

sing, but not for me, the murmur of the beech

trees is not for me: and where the bright river

shows its pure flood, beneath the shade

of the weeping willows, it draws back

its lithe waters disdainfully

from my sliding foot, touching

the perfumed shores in its retreat.

 

What fault, what wicked excess

stained me at birth, that heaven turned

me towards ill and her face from fortune?

How did childhood, when life

is ignorant of wrong, sin, so that stripped

of youth, its flower, my iron-dark thread

was wound on the spindle

of indomitable Fate? Incautious words

spill from my lips: the events of destiny

move in hidden ways. All is hidden,

except our unhappiness. Neglected children

we are born to weep, and our purpose lies

in the lap of the gods. Oh the cares, the hopes

of our youth! But the Father gave dreams,

sweet dreams eternal dominion

over men: virtue in plain dress

does not shine among brave deeds

or learned lines of verse.

 

We die. The worthless veil fallen to earth,

the naked spirit will fly towards Dis,

erasing the cruel error of the blind

dispenser of Fate. And you, live as happily

as any mortal ever lived on earth, you,

through whom a long unrequited love

long loyalty, and the vain fury

of implacable desire gripped me. Jupiter

has not sprinkled me with happiness

from his bitter jar, and my illusions died

with my childhood dreams. All

the happiest days of our youth are gone.

Illness follows: old age: and the shadow

of icy death. See, Tartarus is left

of all the prizes hoped for,

the sweet illusions: and the dark goddess,

black night, and the silent shore

confine the proud intellect.

 

 

 


22. To Count Carlo Pepoli (XIX)

 

Dear Pepoli, how do you endure

this wearisome and troubling sleep

that we call life? By what hopes

is your heart sustained? In what thoughts,

in what happy or irksome works do you employ

that leisure your distant ancestors bequeathed you

this heavy and exhausting gift?  All life

is idle, in every human condition,

if all the effort, that is aimed

at nothing worthy, and has no power

to realise its intent, is rightly named

idleness. And if I should call the labouring

crowd, seen at tranquil dawn and evening,

breaking the soil, or tending crops and herds,

idle, I would be right, since their life

is to sustain life, and life has no value

to the human race of itself alone.

The experienced sailor spends days

and nights in idleness: the endless sweat

of the workshops is idle: the soldier

on watch is idle, and in the danger of war:

and the miserly merchant lives in idleness:

whatever the care, the sweat, the watches,

the dangers, no one gains lovely happiness

for himself or others, though it’s all

mortal nature desires and searches for.

Yet for all the desire that has lead mortals

to be blessed with useless sighing

since the day when the world was born

nature has made a sort of medicine,

amongst life’s unhappiness, the various

necessities, that have to be provided

by thought and effort, and the day is

full, even if it may not be joyful,

for the human family: so that desire

is troubled and confused, and has less scope

to disturb the heart. So the creatures,

in whose hearts the desire to be happy

lives, no less vainly than it does in ours,

intent on what is needed for their lives,

spend their time less sadly, and less burdened,

than us, not condemning the slow hours.

But we, who trust to others’ hands

to provide our living, are left with

a greater necessity that none

but ourselves can supply, and that

with pain and tedium: I mean the necessity

of getting through our lives: cruel, unconquerable

necessity, that no accumulated wealth,

no rich flocks, or fertile fields,

no great halls, or purple robes can free

the human race from. When one of us,

scornful of the empty years, and hating

the light above, and inclined

to anticipate slow fate, fails to turn

a suicidal hand against himself,

the harsh sting of insatiable desire

that longs uselessly for happiness

makes him search all Italy

for a thousand ineffectual cures

that cannot compensate for the one

that Nature intends for us.

 

One man is occupied night and day

cultivating his clothes and hairstyle,

his gestures and bearing, the vanity

of coaches and horses, crowded salons,

echoing squares and public gardens,

gambling, dining and envied dancing:

a smile never far from his lips: ah, but

deep in his heart, heavy, fixed, immovable,

like a column of steel, eternal tedium sits,

against which youth’s vigour

is powerless, unshaken by

sweet words from rosebud lips,

or a tender glance, trembling

from two dark eyes, the dear glance,

the mortal thing most worthy of heaven.

 

Some other, turning to flee our sad

human fate, crosses the globe, spending

his time changing countries and climes,

wandering seas and hills: and all

the confines of space, that the infinite fields

of nature entire open to men, he adds

to his wandering. Ah, black care

sits high on his prow, and in every clime,

under every sky, happiness is called to

in vain: sadness lives and rules.

 

There are those who choose to pass their time

in the cruel work of war, and idly stain

their hands with their brothers’ blood:

and those comforted by others’ pain,

thinking to make themselves less sad

by making others wretched, and using up

the time by doing harm. And those who

oppress virtue, wisdom and the arts:

and those who trample on their own

and other races, troubling the ancient peace

of foreign shores, with war, trade, fraud,

consuming the life their fate has granted.

 

A gentler desire, a sweeter concern

rules you in the flower of youth, the lovely

April of your years, to some the happiest

and best gift of heaven, but heavy, bitter,

hostile to one without a country. You are

moved and roused to study verse,

and rehearse the beauty that appears rare,

slight, fugitive in this world, in speech,

with what vague imagination and our

own true error, more benign than nature

or the gods, produce so richly for us.

That man is a thousand times fortunate

who does not lose the fallen power

of dear imaginings through the years:

whom fate allows to keep his youthful

heart forever: who in his vigour

and in his failing years, beautifies

nature with his thoughts,

as he once did in his green age,

making dead things and the desert bloom.

May heaven grant you such: may the flame

that warms your heart today keep you

a lover of poetry in old age. I already feel

the sweet deceptions of my early years

failing me, and their delightful images

fade from my eyes, those I so loved,

that recalling them, always, to my final hour,

will make me desire them, and weep.

When my heart is wholly frozen,

chilled, and the calm and solitary smile

of open fields, the dawn song of the birds,

in spring, and the silent moon over the hills

and ridges in a clear sky, cannot move

my soul: when every beauty

of art or nature seems lifeless

and still to me: when every noble feeling

every tender affection is alien, strange:

then stripped of my only solace

I will choose other studies, less sweet,

on which the thankless residue of a life

of iron can be based. I will search for

the bitter truths, the hidden destiny

of mortal, and eternal things: why

the human race was born, and burdened

with pain and misery: to what final goal

fate and nature drive us: who delights in

or benefits from our sorrows:

by what rules or laws this mysterious

universe moves: on which the wise

heap praise, and to which I pay homage.

 

I’ll spend my idle days in these

speculations: since truth, once known,

has its sad delights. And if in reasoning

on truth this way, my words prove

unpleasant to others, or misunderstood,

I’ll not grieve, since all my old desire

for glory will be quenched: no longer

that goddess vain, but blinder still

than chance, or fate, or love.

 

Note: Count Pepoli, of Bologna, was a man of letters and vice-president of the Accademia dei Felsinei. Leopardi recited this poem at one of the meetings of the Academy.

 

 


23. Fragment (From Simonides I: XL)

 

Every earthly event

is in Jupiter’s power, Jupiter’s, O my son,

According to his will

he ordains all things.

But our blind thought is anxious

and troubled by distant futures,

though human fate,

since heaven decrees what falls,

is to endure from day to day.

Lovely hope feeds all here

on sweet illusions,

so we weary ourselves in vain:

One lives for a brighter day,

another a better age,

and no one lives on earth

whose mind does not dream

that Pluto god of wealth, and all

the gods, will be generous and kind.

See how before hope is achieved

the one’s overcome by age,

the other drawn to dark Lethe by disease:

This one by cruel war, and that by the tide

of a rapacious sea: another consumed

by black care, or twisting the sad noose

round his neck, seeks peace below.

A fierce and motley tribe,

of a thousand ills,

torments and consumes wretched mortals.

But in my judgement

a wise man, free of common error,

should not accept such suffering,

nor devote so much love

to sadness and his own harm.

 

 


24. Fragment (From Simonides II:XLI)

 

Things human last so short a time:

he spoke true

the blind poet of Chios:

similar in nature are

the leaves, and humanity.

But there are few who take

these words to heart. All have

unquiet hope, the child

of youth, to live with them.

While the flower of our

green age shows bright,

the free, proud soul

vainly feeds a hundred sweet thoughts,

not knowing death or age: in health

and strength a man cares nothing for disease.

But he’s a fool who cannot see

how swiftly youth beats its wings,

how close the cradle

is to the pyre.

You, about to tread

the fatal path

to Pluto’s realms:

to present delight

commit brief life.

 

Note. The blind poet of Chios is Homer.


25. The Dream (XV)

 

It was dawn, the sun insinuated

the day’s first light through the balcony’s

closed shutters to my blind room.

In that moment, when sleep shadows

our eyelids more lightly, more gently,

the image of her who first taught me

to love, then left me to grieve,

stood there, next to me, gazing at my face.

She didn’t seem dead, only saddened,

an image of unhappiness. She stretched

her right hand to my cheek, and sighing said:

‘Do you still live, and retain any memory

of me?’ ‘Oh my dear,’ I replied, ‘Where

and how do you come to me, in beauty?

Ah, how I grieved for you, and grieve:

I thought you would never know: and

it made my grief for you more desolate.

But will you leave me again?

I greatly fear it. Now say what happened?

Are you as before? And what torments you

within?’ She said: ‘Forgetfulness stifles

your thoughts, sleep enshrouds them.

I am dead, a few moons ago

you saw me for the last time.’ Vast

sorrow oppressed my heart at that voice.

She said: ‘I vanished in the first flower of youth,

when life is sweetest, and before the heart

knows the vanity of human hope

as certain. Mortal sickness has not long

to wait for what will free it

from all trouble: but the young gain no

solace in death, and cruel is our fate

when hope is quenched beneath earth.

Knowledge of what nature hides is no help

to those innocent of life, and blind grief

easily conquers an immature wisdom.’

‘Oh dear unfortunate one, be silent,’ I said,

‘be silent, such words break my heart.

Oh my delight, you are dead then,

and I am living, and was it decreed

in heaven that your dear and tender body

should endure those last sweats,

while this wretched one of mine

should be untouched? Oh despite those

moments when I thought you no longer lived,

that I would never see you again in this world,

I still cannot believe. Ah, what is this thing

called death? If only I could know,

now, and so protect my defenceless

head from fate’s atrocious hatred.

I am young, but this youth of mine

consumes itself and is lost like old-age

I dread, though it’s still far from me.

The flower of my youth is little

different to age.’ She said: ‘We were

born to weep, we two, happiness never

smiled on our lives: heaven delighted

in our troubles.’ ‘Now if this eyelid is wet

with tears,’ I replied, ‘and our parting

makes your face pale, and your heart

heavy with anguish, tell me: did a spark

of love, or pity, ever turn your heart

towards this wretched lover,

while you lived? Then, I despaired,

but dragged myself, in hope, through days

and nights: now my mind wearies itself

with empty doubt. So if sorrow at my

darkened life, even once, oppressed you,

don’t hide it, I beg you, and the memory

will help me, now our future has been

taken from us.’ She said: ‘O unhappy one,

be comforted. I did not grudge you pity

while I was alive, nor now: I was

wretched too. Do not complain

of it, unlucky child.’ I cried out:

‘In the name of our misfortunes,

and the love that destroys me, of our

delighted youth, and the lost hopes

of our life, allow me, my dear one,

to touch your hand.’ And she, sadly,

gently, held it out to me. Now, as I

covered it with kisses, and held it

to my heaving breast, trembling with

sweet distress, my face and chest

sweating with fever, my voice caught

in my throat, my vision shook in the light.

Then, fixing her gaze on me, tenderly,

she said: ‘Oh my dear, have you forgotten

already, that I am stripped of beauty?

O, unhappy one, you tremble and burn

with love, in vain. Now is the last farewell.

Our wretched minds and bodies

are severed for eternity. You are not living

for me, nor will again: fate has already shattered

the loyalty you promised.’ Then I tried

to cry out in agony, and roused myself

from sleep, trembling, my eyes

filled with disconsolate tears. She still

stood before my gaze: and in the uncertain

rays of the sun, I believed I saw her yet.


26. The Solitary Life (XVI)

 

Now the hen exults with beating wings

in her closed run, and the countryman

goes by the balcony, and the rising sun

throws its tremulous rays

on the falling drops

of morning rain that wake me,

striking softly on my cabin roof.

I rise and bless the light cloud,

and the first murmur of the birds,

the fresh breeze, the smiling slopes:

because I’ve seen you and I know you

too well, sad city walls, where hate

follows sorrow as its companion, and I

will live in sorrow, and so die, and soon!

Though Nature still shows me some rare

pity here, how much kinder she was

to me once! And Nature, you divert

your gaze from the miserable: scorning

misfortune and trouble, you serve

your queen, happiness. There’s no friend

or refuge left, in sky or earth,

for the wretched, except the knife.

 

Sometimes, I sit in a lonely place,

on a slope at the margin of the lake,

that is wreathed with silent plants.

There, as noon wheels in the sky, the sun

paints his tranquil image, the grass

and leaves are unbending in the breeze,

and no wave wrinkles, no cicada ticks,

no bird lifts a feather on the branch,

no butterfly flickers, no voice or movement

can be heard or seen, near or far.

The deepest quiet grips the banks:

then I sit so motionless I almost lose myself,

and forget the world: and it seems to me

my limbs are so still, no spirit or feeling

can ever stir them again, and their primal calm

is merged with the silence of the place.

 

Love, you have flown so far

from my heart, which once was warm,

red-hot rather. Ruin gripped it

with a chill hand, turned it to ice

in the flower of youth. I recall the time

when you pierced me. It was that sweet,

irrevocable time, when to youth’s eyes

the world’s unhappy landscape

smiles like a vision of paradise.

To a youth his heart leaps

with virgin hope and desire:

and he prepares for the task

of living, as a poor mortal

does for a joyful dance. But, Love,

I no sooner knew you, than Fate

shattered my life, and nothing seemed

right for these eyes but endless weeping.

Still, when I sometimes meet the face

of a lovely young girl in the open fields,

in the silence of dawn, or when the sun

shines on roofs and hills and meadows:

or when in the placid calm

of a summer night, my wandering steps

pass a rural village, I contemplate

the lonely earth, and hear the quick song

of a girl in her hidden room,

adding hours of night to her daytime labours:

this heart of mine, of stone, begins

to tremble: ah, but it soon returns

to iron sleep: so that all gentle feelings

are strangers to my breast.

 

O, dear Moon, under whose tranquil rays

the hares dance in the woods: so the hunter

curses at dawn when he finds

false, intricate trails, and error’s web

leads him away from their forms: welcome,

benign queen of night. Your rays

pour down among bushes and cliffs,

over lonely ruins, and onto the knife

of the pale thief whose ears catch

the sound of wheels and horses

far off, or a clatter of feet

on the silent road: then suddenly,

with the rattle of arms, and loud cries,

and a dreadful face, he turns the heart

of the traveller to ice, whom he shortly

leaves, naked, half-dead, among the rocks.

You pour your white light on the city limits,

on the vile voluptuary, who hugs the walls

of houses and keeps to the secret

shadows, and stops, and is afraid

of burning lamps and open

balconies. Pouring down on wicked minds,

your aspect will always seem benign to me,

among these landscapes where you reveal

to my sight nothing but delightful hills

and open plains. Yet, once, I, innocent

that I was, accused your lovely rays

in peopled places, that exposed me to human sight,

and exposed human faces to my gaze.

Now I’ll always praise you, when I watch you

sailing through the clouds, or, 

serene highness of the eternal realms,

as you look down on these pale human haunts.

You’ll often see me, silent and alone,

wandering the woods and the green banks,

or seated on the grass, content enough

if heart remains, and breath, for me to sigh.


27. To His Lady (XVIII)

 

Dearest beauty, who inspire

my love from afar, who hide your face,

except when deep in sleep

your image moves my heart,

or in fields where the light

of day and nature’s smile are brighter:

perhaps you blessed that innocent

age that is called Golden,

or fly as an airy spirit

among men? Or does greedy fate

hide you from us till some later time?

 

Now no hope is left me

of ever gazing at you:

unless it may be, when naked and alone,

my spirit travels those new paths

to a foreign place. Once, in the fresh

dawn of my dark uncertain day,

I thought you were a traveller

in this arid land. But nothing on this earth

resembles you: and if there were an equal

to your face, gestures, spirit, that beauty

though similar would still be less.

 

Among all this suffering

that fate creates for human beings,

if anyone on earth loved you

as my imagination forms you,

he’d be blessed in this life:

and I see clearly how your love

might make me seek out praise and virtue,

as in my first youth. Now heaven

grants no solace for our troubles:

and, with you, mortal life would be

like that which heaven reveals.


 

Through the valleys, where the song

of the weary farmer echoes,

and I sit and mourn

youthful error that deserts me:

and in the hills where I recall, weeping,

lost desires, and the lost hope

of my days: thinking of you

my feelings wake. And if I might

hold your noble image, in this dark age

and sinful atmosphere, and be content

with that vision rather than the truth.

 

If you are one of those

eternal Ideas, that the eternal mind

scorns to clothe in solid form,

to endure the pain of our deathly life

among fallen bodies,

or if you are received in another earth,

in the highest circling, among

the innumerable worlds, and a star

closer and brighter than the sun

illuminates you, who breathe a purer air:

accept your unknown lover, in this hymn

from this world of unhappy and brief days.

 

 


28. Memories (XXII)

 

Lovely stars of the Plough, I never dreamed

I would return to gaze at you, as before,

sparkling above my father’s gardens,

or meditate on you, from the window

of the same house I lived in as a child,

where I saw an end to all my happiness.

What imaginings, what fancies the sight

of you, the lights of your company,

used to create then in my thoughts!

Then I used to sit silent on green grass,

spending the greater part of the evening,

watching the sky, hearing the croaking

of frogs far off in the countryside!

And the fireflies flickering here and there

in hedges, flowers, the breeze sighing

from scented roadways, the cypress trees,

that woodland: under my father’s roof

conversation echoed, and the calm work

of the servants. What immense thoughts,

what sweet dreams breathed in me at the sight

of the distant ocean, those azure hills

that I can see from here, and that I hoped

to cross one day, imagining secret worlds

and arcane delights to support my existence!

Ignorant of my fate, how often

I wished to exchange this sad

naked life of mine, for death.

 

I never thought in my heart that in my green

youth I’d be condemned to waste away

in my barbarous native place, among a vile,

loutish race: where learning and wisdom

are foreign words, and a cause of mockery

and laughter: they hate and ignore me,

not just through envy, since they don’t think

me superior to them, but they consider

that I do think so, in my heart, even

though I give no sign of that to anyone.

Hidden, abandoned here, I spend my time,

without love, without life: becoming coarse,

perhaps, among this crowd of ill-wishers:

this place strips me of all pity and virtue,

and makes me scornful of all mankind,

oppressed by the herd: and meanwhile

the hours of my dear youth fly by: dearer

than fame and laurels, dearer than the pure

light of day, or breathing: I lose you,

without delight, uselessly, in this

inhuman place, among my troubles,

O sole flower of my arid life.

 

The wind comes bringing the sound

of the hour striking from the clock tower.

I remember how it used to comfort me

when I was a child, in my darkened room,

waiting every night, in inexorable terror,

for dawn’s sighing. Here there’s nothing I see

and feel that doesn’t stir visions inside me,

or fails to make some sweet memory rise.

In itself, sweet: but thoughts of the present

bring sorrow, vain desire for the past,

and its sadness, and the words: ‘I was’.

That lodge there, facing the last rays

of the sun, those painted walls, the cattle

they picture, and the daylight rising

on open country, offered my leisure

a thousand delights, while, wherever I was,

I had that powerful illusion, speaking with me,

at my side. In these old rooms, lit

by the snow outside, while the wind

whistled round the wide casements,

our games and our shouting echoed,

at that age when the shameful, bitter

mystery of things appears to us full

of sweetness: the child, like

a naïve lover, sees deceptive life,

whole and un-tasted, and worships

the heavenly beauty he imagines.

 

 

O hope, hope, pleasant illusion

of those first years! Often in speech

I return to you: whom I can’t forget

despite time’s changes, and the tide

of thoughts and feelings. I know

that glory and honour are phantoms:

joy and goodness mere desire: life,

worthless misery, bears no fruit. Yet,

however void my years, dark and arid

my mortal state, Fate, I know, robs me

of little. Ah, but whenever I think

of you again, O ancient hope of mine,

and of my first dear imaginings,

and then consider my vile, sad

life, and realise that death

is what remains of all that hope,

I feel my heart shrink, and feel

I’ll never be reconciled to my fate.

And when death, wished for so long,

arrives, and when my misfortunes

are at an end, when the earth

is a foreign vale to me, and the future

vanishes from sight, I’ll still

remember you: and that vision

will still make me sigh, embitter me

at having lived in vain, and temper

the fatal day’s delight with pain.

 

And already in the first tumult of youth,

of happiness, and anguish, and desire,

I often called on death, and sat

for a long time beside the water,

thinking of ending hope and grief

below the surface. Then when a secret

illness placed my life in danger,

I wept for my youth, and the flower

of my poor days, fading away

in time: and often, late at night,

sitting on my bed, sadly creating

poetry, in the dim lamplight,

mourned, with night and silence,

the fleeting soul, and, in my weakness,

even sang a funeral elegy to myself.

 

Who can remember you without sighs,

first threshold of youth, O lovely days,

impossible to describe, when young girls

first began to smile at a rapturous mortal:

everything is smiling as it gathers

around him: envy, not yet roused,

or still benign, is silent: and isn’t it

as if, (unaccustomed miracle!), the world

reaches out its hand to assist him, forgives

his errors, applauds his first appearance

in life, and bowing low shows it accepts

him as a man, and names him so?

Fleeting days! Vanishing like a gleam

of lightning. And what human being ever

remains ignorant of misfortune, once

that lovely season is done, when the best

of times, his youth, ah youth, has gone?

 

O Nerina! Do I not hear these places

speak of you? Could you truly have

slipped from my mind? Where have you

gone, my sweetest one, that all I find

of you are memories? I no longer see you

in your native land: that window’s deserted

from which you used to talk with me,

from which the starlight is sadly reflected.

Where are you, whose voice

I no longer hear as I once did,

when every remote sound your lips gave

made my face grow pale as it reached me?

Time passes. Your days are gone,

my sweet love. You have vanished.

To pass through this world is given to others,

and to make a home among these fragrant hills.

You vanished so swiftly: and your life was like

a dream. Here you danced: on your brow

joy shone out, and that confident illusion,

that light of youth, shone out, till fate

quenched them, and you lay there, dead.

Ah Nerina, the ancient love reigns

in my heart. Whenever I go to dinners,

or celebrations, I often say to myself:

‘Oh, Nerina, you never dress

for dinners, or celebrations now.’

If May returns, when lovers go with branches

full of flowers, and songs, to their girls,

I say: ‘My Nerina, spring never

returns for you, love never returns.

With every clear day, every flowered

field I see, and every joy I feel, I say:

‘Nerina no longer feels the joy: she sees

neither fields nor sky.’ Ah, you are gone,

my eternal sigh: you are gone, and bitter

memory is the companion to all my vague

imaginings, all my tender feelings,

the dear, sad tremors of my heart.

 

 


29. The Re-awakening (Il Risorgimento: XX)

 

I thought the sweet troubles

of my first youth were lost,

after my fresh springtime:

all the sweet troubles,

all the tender feelings,

of my deepest heart,

all that in this world

makes us glad to feel.

 

What grief and tears were

scattered, in that new life,

when the pain first ended

in my frozen heart!

Every tremor ended,

love faded in me,

and the sighs diminished

in my icy breast!

 

I wept for life, deadened

by me, and earth

made barren, locked

in eternal cold:

empty the day, silent

the night, lonelier, darker:

the moon quenched for me,

the stars quenched in the sky.

 

Yet the old affection

was the source of weeping:

my heart was still alive

deep in my chest.

Wearied imagination

searched for old visions:

and my sadness

still brought its pain.


 

Soon that last grief

was quenched in me,

and no strength was left me

to mourn any more.

I lay there: senseless, stunned,

not asking for solace:

as if dead, forsaken,

my heart abandoned.

 

How different I was

from him who once nourished

such ardour, lovely error,

deep in his soul!

The wakeful swallow

singing in the dawn light,

outside my window,

did not move my heart:

 

nor in pallid autumn,

in the lonely farmlands

the evening chimes,

or the fugitive sun.

I saw twilight shine

in vain on silent roads,

in vain the valley echoed

to the sad nightingale.

 

And you, tender eyes,

furtive, wandering glances,

you, immortal love

god of gentle lovers,

and you bright, naked

hand placed in my hand,

you too countered my

solid stupor in vain.


 

Robbed of every sweetness,

sad: but not troubled,

my state was peaceful,

my face was serene.

I might have wished for

the end of my existence:

but all desire was quenched,

in my exhausted breast.

 

Like the poor bare remains

of a diminished age,

so I lived through

the April of my years:

O my heart, I suffered

those ineffable days,

that heaven allows us,

so brief and so fleeting.

 

Who has roused me now

from my deep forgetful peace?

What new power is this,

that I feel inside?

Sweet tremors, visions,

throbbing, blessed error,

surely you are denied

to my heart forever?

 

Are you really that lone

light of my days?

The affection I lost

in earliest times?

In the sky, on green banks,

wherever vision gazes,

all breathes sadness to me,

all gives me delight.


 

The fields, woods and mountains

return to life as I have:

the fountain speaks to my heart

the ocean speaks to me.

Who brings back my tears

after such long neglect?

And how can the world

appear so changed to me?

 

Perhaps, O wretched heart,

hope turned to you with laughter?

Ah, I shall never see

the face of hope again.

Nature’s tremors were innate

in me, its sweet illusions.

My sufferings lulled

my inborn powers to sleep.

 

But fate and misfortune

did not annul or conquer:

nor unhappy truth

with its darkened face.

I know it does not match

my wandering fancy:

I know Nature is deaf to us,

and knows no charity.

 

She is not truly careful

of us, only our survival:

provided we endure grief

she cares for nothing else.

The wretched man discovers

no pity from mankind:

so that in his flight

every mortal scorns him.


 

And this sad age is free

of intellect or virtue:

and there’s no true concern

now for naked glory.

And you, trembling eyes,

you, celestial rays,

I know you shine in vain,

love cannot burn in you.

 

No secret, no intimate

affection can burn there:

that white breast hides not

a single glowing spark.

Rather it mocks at

other’s tender feelings:

disdain is the reward

for that celestial fire.

 

Yet still I feel the old

known illusions:

and my soul marvels

at its own tremors.

In you, my heart, this last

spirit, and ardour is born:

and all my solace

comes from you alone.

 

I know that fate and nature,

beauty and the world,

fail the noble spirit,

the gentle and the pure.

But if you’re alive, poor heart,

if you do not yield to fate,

then I’ll not call her pitiless,

she who gave me life.

 

 


30. Consalvo (XVII)

 

Consalvo lay close to the end of life

on earth: he who was once so scornful

of his fate: but now no more, since in the first

years of manhood, a wished-for oblivion

now hung above his head. On that fatal day,

he lay abandoned by his dearest friends,

as he had been abandoned for so long:

since no friend on earth is left, at last,

to those who scorn the earth itself.

Still, Elvira, famed for divine beauty,

was by his side, whom pity had brought

to console him in his lonely state, she

who was always and solely in his mind:

knowing her power, knowing a single look

of hers, delightful, a word, longed-for, sweet,

repeated a thousand on a thousand times,

in his constant thoughts, had always been

the food and sustenance of this unhappy lover:

though she had heard not one word of love

from him. Always overpowering fear

had been stronger than deep desire

in his soul, since as a boy he had

become a slave through excessive love.

 

But at last death broke the former bonds

of speech. Sensing the hour that sets

men free, by certain signs, and taking hold

of her hand, as she was about to leave him,

clasping that whitest of hands tightly,

he said: ‘You leave, Elvira, and the time now

forces you from me, farewell. I do not hope

to see you again. So, farewell now. I render

the greatest thanks to you that lips could give,

for your care. He who can will reward you,

if virtue is rewarded by heaven.’ She

had grown pale, and her breast heaved

on hearing what he said: since human hearts

are always oppressed with grief when anyone,

even a stranger, leaves this world and says

farewell forever. And she wished to contradict

the dying man, hiding the approach of death.

But he prevented her speaking, and spoke

again: ‘Death comes to me, as you know,

like one desired, prayed for many times,

and not feared: and this day of my death

seems joyful. It weighs on me, it’s true,

that I’m losing you forever. Ah, I part forever

from you. My heart breaks at those words.

Never to see those eyes again, or to hear

that voice! Tell me: Elvira, will you not

grant me a kiss before you abandon me

to eternity? One kiss alone for a whole

existence? A grace requested should not

be denied a dying man. Nor will I ever boast

about that gift, I, half-dead, whose lips

will be closed in a while, eternally,

by a strange hand.’ Having spoken,

he fixed his cold lips, with a sigh,

in supplication, on the hand he adored.

 

The loveliest of women remained motionless

and thoughtful in aspect, and fixed her gaze,

sparkling with a thousand graces, on that

of the unhappy man, where a last tear

glistened. Nor had she the heart to scorn

his request, and render the last goodbye

bitter with denial: rather she was overcome

by pity for that ardour, well known to her.

And that heavenly face, and that mouth,

desired so deeply, for so many years

the goal of all his dreams and sighs,

gently approaching the suffering face,

discoloured by its mortal affliction,

pressed kiss after kiss, in utter kindness

and from deep pity, on the trembling lips

of that anxious, and enraptured lover.

 

What became of you then, Consalvo?

How did life, death and misfortune appear

as he was dying? With beloved Elvira’s

hand that he still held, pressed to a heart

beating with the last tremors of love and death,

he said: ‘Ah, Elvira, my Elvira! Then I am

still on earth: those lips were truly

your lips, and I grasp your hand!

It seems like a dying vision, a dream,

a thing incredible. Ah. Elvira, how much

I owe to death! My love has not been hidden

from you for all time, not from you nor

others: truly love cannot be concealed

on earth. My actions, my troubled look,

my eyes had made it clear to you: but my

words had not. The infinite love that governs

my heart would still have been silent,

forever, if dying had not made me bolder.

Now I shall die content with my destiny,

and no longer regret that I saw

the light of day. Life was not in vain,

since its was granted to my mouth

to kiss your mouth. Rather I think

my fate has been happy. This world

owns two lovely things: love and death.

Heaven brings me one in the flower

of youth: and in the other I consider

myself fortunate. Ah, if you had only,

just once, calmed and requited

my great love, then earth would have

changed to paradise forever

to my altered eyes. I would even

have suffered old age, abhorrent

old age, with a quiet heart, since the memory

of one moment would have sufficed

to endure it: and to say: “I have been happy,

with more than all others’ happiness.” Ah,

but heaven does not allow earthly nature

to be so blessed. No one is permitted

to love with such joy. And yet I would

have had the power to endure the whips

of the executioner, the wheel, the fires,

flying to them from your arms: and even

gone down to dreadful everlasting darkness.

 

Oh, Elvira, Elvira, oh, happy is he, oh

blessed above the immortals, to whom

your smile of love’s revealed! Next

is he who sheds his lifeblood for you!

It is allowed, allowed to mortals, not

just a dream as I long thought, allowed

for us to know happiness. I knew it

when I first gazed at you. It happened

through my dying. And even in such pain

I cannot find it in my heart

to condemn this fatal day.

 

Now you are blessed, my Elvira,

and your face adorns the earth. No one

will love you as I loved you. No such

love to equal it will be born. Ah, how often,

how often, wretched Consalvo, called out

to you, how long he grieved, and wept!

How pale I grew, at Elvira’s name,

frozen at the heart: how I used to tremble

at the harsh stone of your threshold,

at that angelic voice, at the aspect

of your brow, I, who do not fear death!

But breath and life grow less at the sound

of love. My time has passed, and it

will not be granted me to recall this day.

Elvira: farewell. Your image vanishes

from my heart at last, with my vital flame.

Farewell. If this love of mine was not

a burden to you, send a sigh towards

my tomb, tomorrow, when night falls.

 

He fell silent: and in a moment his spirit

ebbed with the sound: and his first day

of happiness fled from sight, before the dark.

 


 

31. Aspasia (XXIX)

 

Aspasia, your image sometimes enters

my thoughts. Either it gleams

fugitively, in strangers’ faces,

in busy places: or the glorious

vision appears on empty plains

under the clear sky, silent stars,

like a sweet harmony echoed

in my almost amazed soul.

Adored so much, you gods, and once

so much my delight and torment!  I never

scent the fragrance of a flowery bank,

or the perfume of blooms in a city street,

without seeing you as you were that day,

enclosed in your charming apartment,

that was full of fresh petals of spring,

dressed in the colours of dark violet,

your angelic form revealed to me,

curving from under gleaming

furs, and you surrounded

by secret voluptuousness: while you,

clever seductress, showered fervent

echoing kisses on the curved lips

of your children, often stretching out

your white neck, and clutching them,

they not knowing why, to your hidden,

desirable breast, with a gentle hand.

A new heaven and earth appeared,

to my mind, and an almost divine light.

So it was that your arm, with living force,

drove that arrow into my defended heart,

which, once fixed there, I carried, crying out,

till the sun returned twice in its circling.

 

Lady, your beauty seemed to me

like a divine light in my mind. Beauty

and music have a similar effect:

often both reveal the high mystery

of unknown Elysium. Then the wounded

man must live desiring that child

of his own mind, that image of love,

containing so much of the Olympians

in itself: in all its looks, and dress, and speech,

equal to that lady the rapturous lover desires,

and thinks in his confusion that he loves.

Now indeed he serves and loves the idea,

and not the lady whose body he embraces.

He is angered at last to realise his error,

his mistaken objective, and often, wrongly,

blames his lady: feminine understanding

seldom reaches to that exalted image:

woman cannot conceive or even begin

to understand what her own beauty

can inspire in a generous lover. She holds

no similar concept in her slender brow,

and, in the vital flashes of her glances,

man is deceived, wrong to hope,

wrong to demand deep feelings, strange

and more than human, in one who in all

her nature is less than man. Since, just

as her limbs are softer and more tender,

so her mind is less capable and weaker.

 

So, Aspasia, you were never able

to imagine what you inspired

for a time in my mind. You never knew

what immeasurable love, intense pain,

what unspeakable tremors and delirium

you stirred in me: and there will never be

a moment when you could understand.

In the same way, the musician cannot

conceive what he creates, with hand or voice,

in his listeners. That Aspasia, whom I loved,

is dead. Once the object of my whole life, she

is lost forever: except when she returns

from time to time, then vanishes,

a dear ghost. But you live on,

not merely beautiful, but lovelier

it seems to me than all others.

Only the fire born from you is quenched:

since I loved not you but that Goddess

who once had life, now burial, in my heart.

I adored her for so long: her heavenly beauty

pleased me so, that though I was clearly

aware from the first moment

of what you were, your arts and wiles,

when I saw her lovely eyes in yours,

I desired you while she lived,

not deceived, but driven, by my pleasure

in that sweet resemblance, to suffer

a long and bitter slavery for you.

 

Boast of it now, as you may. Say you were

the only one of all your sex to whom I submitted

to bow my noble head, to whom I willingly

gave my indomitable heart. Say you were

the first and I hope the last, it’s true, to see

my brow bend in supplication, fearful

before you, trembling (I burn to repeat it

with shame and scorn), beside myself,

hanging slavishly on all your wishes,

every word, each action, paling at your

superb disdain, my face glowing at some

sign of kindness, changing my colour

and looks at every glance. The spell broke,

and my chains were shattered too, and fell

to the ground: and I was happy. And though

I’m filled with tedium, I’m content,

after such long slavery, such madness,

to embrace freedom and sense. And though

a life devoid of affection, and noble illusion,

is like a midwinter night empty of stars,

it’s my solace and my revenge for a fate

that’s hard enough for me, that idle

and immobile on the grass I can gaze

at sea and land and sky, and I can smile.

 



32. Fragment (Alcetas and Melissus: XXXVII)

 

Alcetas:

 

Listen, Melissus: I’ll tell you a dream

I had tonight, that comes to mind on

seeing the moon again. I was standing

at the window that faces the meadow,

gazing at the sky: and suddenly, look,

the moon broke loose: and it seemed

the nearer it came in its fall

the bigger it grew: till it landed

with a bang in the midst of the meadow:

and it was the size of a bucket, and spewed

a shower of sparks, that hissed as loud

as a glowing coal when you plunge it

in water, and quench it. Just like that,

the moon, I say, in the midst of the meadow,

quenched itself, darkening, little by little,

and all the grass around was smoking.

Then gazing at the sky, I saw a sort of

gleam was left, a scar or a gaping hole,

it might have torn away from: so that

it made me shiver: and I’m still shaking.

 

Melissus:

 

You’re right to worry, it’s likely,

that the moon would fall in your field!

 

Alcetas:

 

Who knows? Don’t we often see a star fall

in summer?


 

Melissus:

 

There are so many stars up there

no harm if one or two of them fall,

there’s thousands left. But only one

moon in the sky, and no one’s ever

seen it fall, except in dreams.

 

 


33. Fragment (Separation: XXXVIII)

 

I who wander before this threshold

call in vain on rain and tempest

that they might keep her here with me.

 

Surely the wind roared in the forest,

among the clouds the thunder roaring,

‘ere dawn was in the heavens shining.

 

O dear clouds, O sky, O earth, O branches,

my lady now departs: have pity, if ever

was pity in this world for wretched lovers.

 

O storm, now stir yourself, O rain-clouds

now gather yourself to overwhelm me,

until the sun bears day to other lands.

 

Clear sky, the dying winds, on every hand

the leaves and grasses rest, the cruel sun

dazzles me with light, filled with tears.

 

 

 


34. Fragment (Turned to Stone: XXXIX)

 

The rays of light were dying in the west:

the cottage-smoke was motionless, still

the sound of village dogs, and people:

 

when she, intent on lovers’ meeting,

found herself deep in a landscape

happier, more charming than all others.

 

There the moon spread all its brightness,

through every level, and turned the trees

to silver, that wreathed the place around.

 

The branches were sighing in the wind,

and weeping ever, with the nightingale,

a stream within the wood made sweet lament.

 

The sea shone in the distance, and the land,

the forest, and the summits, one by one,

of all the mountain-tops were revealed.

 

The darkened valley lay in tranquil shadow,

and the moonlight’s dew-wet brightness

covered the little hills all around.

 

The lady took her lonely way in silence

and felt the breeze filled with fragrance,

passing across her face, so gently.

 

Vain to ask if she were happy:

she took pleasure in the vistas,

and the great good her heart promised.

 

O sweet serene moments, how you vanish!

What delights us here, except our hopes,

never lasts for us, or even lingers.


 

See the night troubled, and then darken

the face of heaven that was so lovely,

and all her pleasure turn to fear.

 

A storm cloud, the herald of the cyclone,

rose from behind the mountain, deepened,

so the moon and stars were hidden.

 

She saw it spread on every side

and, gradually, mount through the air,

to form a sort of mantle overhead.

 

The little light there was grew fainter:

and in the wood the wind was rising,

the wood that was her happy destination.

 

Every moment the wind grew stronger,

till all the birds, awake, in their fear,

fluttered about among the leaves.

 

And the gathering cloud descended

towards the shore, till one edge touched

the mountain, the other edge the sea.

 

Now all was sunk in darkness’s lap,

and the rain began its beating,

the sound increasing as the cloud neared.

 

The lightning flashed in a fearful manner

behind the clouds, making her eyes blink,

the earth was gloomy, and the air reddened.

 

Wretchedly, she felt her body tremble:

the thunder rumbled with the same echo

as torrents flowing downward from the heights.

 

She paused sometimes, and gazed in terror

at the darkened air, and hurried on,

her hair and robes streaming out behind her.

 

So she breasted the harsh tempest,

that sighed against her face and scattered

those icy drops of water through dark air.

 

Like a wild beast thunder assailed her,

roaring horribly without ceasing:

all the while the rain and wind grew stronger.

 

And it was terrible to see around her,

dust and leaves, stones and branches flying,

and sounds the heart fears to imagine.

 

She hid her eyes against the lightning flashes

that wearied and strained her sight, and clutching

her robes to her, sped faster through the storm.

 

But the lightning still blazed in her face

so brightly, that at last she stood motionless

in fear, and all her courage ebbed away.

 

Then she turned back. And at that moment

the lightning ceased, the night grew dark,

the thunder quietened, the wind was still.

 

All was silent: and she had turned to stone.

 

 

 


35. To Italy (I)

 

O my country, I see the walls, arches

columns, statues, lone

towers of our ancestors,

but I do not see the glory,

I do not see the iron and the laurel in which

our forefathers were clasped. Now, defenceless,

you show your naked breast and brow.

Ah, how wounded,

what blood and bruises! Oh how I see you

loveliest of ladies! I ask the sky

and the earth: tell me, tell me:

who reduced her to this? And worse,

imprisoned both her arms in chains:

so with loosened hair, without a veil,

she sits on the ground, neglected, disconsolate,

hiding her face

between her knees, and weeping.

Weep, my Italy, with good reason,

you, born to outdo nations,

in good fortune and in ill.

 

If your eyes were two living fountains

your weeping would be unequal

to your hurt and your disgrace:

once a lady, now you’re a poor servant.

Who can speak or write of you,

remembering your past glories,

and not say: ‘Once great, you are so no longer’?

Why? Why? Where is the ancient power,

where the weapons, courage, and endurance?

Who lowered your sword?

Who betrayed you? What art or effort

or superior force

stripped you of your cloak and laurel wreath?

How did you fall, and when,

from such heights to such depths?

Does no one fight for you? Not one

of your own defend you? To arms, arms: I alone

I’ll fight, I’ll fall, alone.

Heaven, grant that my blood

might set Italian hearts on fire.

 

Where are your sons? I hear the sound of weapons

and the wagons, and the voices, and the drums:

your sons are fighting

on a foreign field.

Listen, Italy: listen. I see, oh, around me,

the swell of troops and horsemen,

smoke, dust, the glitter of swords,

like lightning in the mist.

Surely you’re neither comforted nor willing for

your trembling sight to witness so dubious a fate?

Why should the youth of Italy

fight in such fields? O powers,

that Italians should fight for another country.

O wretch, lost in war,

not for his homeland and a loyal wife,

and beloved sons,

but at the hands of another’s enemies,

for another’s race: who cannot say in dying:

‘Dear land of my birth, see,

how I render the life you gave me.’

 

Oh blessed, and dear and fortunate

those ancient days when our people

rushed to die in ranks for their country:

And you, O narrow pass,

honoured and glorious for ever,

where Persia and fate were not strong enough

for a few brave and generous spirits!

I think your grass and stone and waves

and mountains, tell the passer-by

with indistinct voices

how the unconquered ranks of corpses

sacrificed for Greece

covered all that shore.

Then Xerxes, cruel and cowardly,

fled over the Hellespont

to be mocked to the last generation:

and Simonides climbed

the hill of Antela, where the sacred band

in dying made themselves deathless,

to gaze on the earth and sea and sky.

 

And both cheeks wet with tears,

with beating heart, and stumbling feet,

he took his lyre in his hand:

‘You, most blessed of all,

who each offered yourself to the enemy lance,

for love of her who gave you to the light,

you the Greeks revered, the world admired,

what was that love so great that led

young men to war and danger,

what love drew them to their bitter fate?

How, sons, could you find such joy,

in that last moment, when smiling

you rushed to the harsh, sad pass?

Each of you seemed like one who goes to dance

not die, or goes to a glorious feast:

but dark Tartarus awaited

you, and the dread waves:

no wife or child accompanied you

when you died, on that cruel shore,

without kisses, without grief.

 

But not without deep hurt to the Persians,

and eternal anguish.

Like a lion in a herd of bulls

that leaps on the back of one, and tears

its back with its teeth,

and bites its flanks or thighs,

so the anger and courage of Greek hearts

raged amongst the Persian ranks.

See the horses and riders levelled,

see where the shattered tents and wagons

block the flight of the defeated,

and the tyrant, pale, escaping,

runs with the leaders:

see how the Greek heroes drenched

and stained with barbarous blood,

bringing infinite grief to the Persians,

fall one against the other, gradually

defeated by their wounds. Oh live, live,

you blessed ones,

while the world can speak and write.

 

The stars stripped from the sky, falling to the sea,

will sooner be drowned, hissing, in the deep,

than our love for you

be past and done.

Your tomb’s an altar: where the mothers

come to show their little ones the glorious

traces of your blood. See how I bend,

O blessed ones, to the soil,

and kiss the turf and stones,

that will be praised, famous for ever,

from pole to pole.

Ah if only I were with you, below,

and the kind earth was moistened by my blood.

If fate’s opposed, and will not consent

that I fall in war, and close

my dying eyes, for Greece,

then, if the powers above so will,

may that lesser fame,

of your poet, the future may bring,

endure as long as yours shall endure.’

 

Note: Leopardi contemplates the Italian troops in Napoleon’s armies, and then recalls the ancient Greek heroes of Thermopylae and Salamis who repulsed the Persians.


36. On the Proposed Dante Monument in Florence (II)

 

Because our people

sheltering under the white wing of peace,

will never see the Italian spirit freed

from the bonds of ancient sleep

until this unhappy land returns

to the example set by her early days,

take care, O Italy,

to honour those past, since you

are widowed of such men today,

when there’s none worthy of honour.

Turn, and gaze, O my homeland,

at that vast crowd of immortals,

and weep, and be scornful of yourself,

since grief without scorn is foolish now.

Turn, and be ashamed, and rouse yourself,

and spur yourself on

by thinking of our ancestors, our children.

 

The eager visitor, foreign in looks

and understanding and speech, would

indeed search the soil

of Tuscany to find

where that poet lies through whose verse

Homer is not unique.

And he would learn, ah shame,

not only that his ashes and naked bone

are still exiled,

after their burial, in foreign earth,

but there is not a stone to him,

for whose virtues all the world honours you,

Florence, within your walls.

Oh you compassionate ones, through whom

such sad and base dishonour will be erased!

Noble, generous ones, you’ve undertaken a fine labour,

and your love will be repaid,

by those whom love of Italy inspires.

 

Love of Italy: oh dear friends,

may love of this wretched land spur you on,

she, towards whom loyalty now

is dead in every heart, so that the sky

grants us bitter days after fair ones.

Oh, my sons, may pity, grief and anger

at the pain that bathes

her cheeks and veil, give you courage

and crown your efforts.

What words or song are appropriate

for you, who give not only true care and thought,

but labour, and display the eternal merit

of artistry and the hand’s skill and virtue,

in this sweet enterprise?

What verses can I send you that might have

the power to kindle fresh light

in your heart and burning spirit?

 

The great subject will inspire you,

a blade to prick and pierce your breast.

Who could describe the tide and storm

of your fury or your deep emotions?

Who could paint your dazed expression,

the lightning of your eyes?

How could a mortal voice capture

the measure of divine things?

‘Be far away, profanity, far from me’. Oh

Italy, what tears have been denied a noble monument!

How can it die, how or when

can your glory be erased by time?

O, dear divine arts, ever-living:

you, by whom our wrongs are sweetened,

a solace to our unfortunate race,

intent on honouring Italian virtue

among the ruins of Italy.

 

See, I also want

to honour our grieving mother:

I bring what I can

joining my song to your work,

seated where your chisel gives life to marble.

O glorious father of Tuscan verse,

if news of things on earth,

of her you raised so high,

ever reaches your shores,

I know you feel no joy for yourself,

since bronze and marble are less enduring

than wax and sand, compared with the fame

you left among us: and if you’ve ever

been, or shall be, absent from our minds,

I hope our ills will grow, if they can grow,

and your people weep forever

at a wholly darkened world.

 

But you will be happy, not for yourself,

but for your poor country, if ever

the example of her ancestors

rouses her sick and slumbering sons

with such virtue that they raise their heads a moment.

Ah, what long torment you see

afflicting her, who was so troubled

at saying farewell to you

when you rose again to Paradise!

She must seem so abased to you today

who was a fortunate and royal lady then.

She’s so wretched now

that, stunned, you can’t believe it.

I’m silent about other enemies and sorrows,

but not the most recent and the cruellest,

through which your country has seen

the depths of night touch her threshold.

 

Blessed are you, fated

not to live through such horrors,

who have not seen Italian women

in the arms of barbarous soldiers:

not seen enemy weapons in foreign fury

sack, and lay waste, town and country:

not seen divine works of Italian skill

dragged to servitude beyond the Alps,

trains of wagons filling roads of grief:

the harsh gestures and the proud commands:

not heard the insults, and the evil voice

of freedom that delivers them,

among the noise of chains and whips.

Who did not grieve? What did not suffer?

What was left untouched by those felons?

What temple, or altar, or crime?

 

Why were such perverse times ours?

Why were we destined to be born, or

why were we not destined to die first,

bitter fate? We’ve been forced to see

our country made servant, made slave,

her virtue eroded

by the biting file, with no aid

and no comfort given us

to ease at all the pitiless ills

that tore her. Ah, dear one,

we have not given our blood,

our life for you: and I am not

dead of your cruel fate.

There is anger and pity in our hearts:

many of us have fought, died

but not for dying Italy,

no: for her oppressors.

 

Dante, if you do not feel scorn,

you must have altered from what you were

on earth. Ah, worthy

of a better death, Italians lay dying

on the foul Russian plains, and air, sky,

men and beasts made fierce war on them.

They fell, squadron after squadron,

half-clothed, bloodstained, exhausted,

the ice the only sheet for their bodies.

Then, drawing their last breath,

remembering their longed-for mother,

said: ‘Oh if we’d been conquered by steel,

and not by cloud and wind, but for you,

our homeland. See, we are far from you,

when time should be smiling sweetly on us,

ignored by everyone,

dying for those who are destroying you.

 

The northern wastes, the hissing woods,

were witness to their sorrows.

They reached such a pass

the abandoned corpses, unburied,

on the dread ocean of snow,

were torn apart by wild creatures,

and the names of the noble and the brave,

will always be lost among those

of the cowardly and base. Dear spirits,

rest in peace, though your misfortune

is eternal: and may it be your solace

that you will have no solace

in this or any future age.

Sleep in the clasp of your immense

affliction, o true sons of her

whose supreme hurt

only your hurt can equal.

 

Your country does not complain

of you, but those who sent you

to war against her,

so that she weeps most bitterly

and confounds her tears with yours.

Oh that pity for her who dims

all others’ glory,

might be born in the heart of one

who might raise her, dull and weary,

from so dark and deep

a chasm! O glorious spirit,

say: is love for your Italy dead?

say: is the fire that burned you quenched?

say: will the myrtle never be renewed

that eased our troubles for so long?

Will our wreaths be scattered on the earth?

Will no one ever rise

to equal you at all?

 

Are we lost forever? Is our

shame without limits?

While I have life in me I’ll cry:

‘Turn to your ancestors, you broken branches:

gaze at these ruins,

words and paintings, marbles, temples:

think what earth you tread: and if the light

of these examples does not stir you,

why linger? Rise and go.

This seedbed, this school of great spirits

is no place for such decayed morals:

if she’s filled with cowards,

she were better widowed and alone.’


37. To Angelo Mai (III)

(On His Discovering A Copy of Cicero’s De Re Publica)

 

Ardent Italian, do you never tire

of raising our ancestors

from the tomb? Of bringing them

to speak to this dead age overcast

with such clouds of boredom? Why do they come

to our ears so strongly now, so often,

those ancient voices of ours,

mute for so long? Why so many

resurrections? In a fecund lightning-flash

their pages come: for this age alone

the dusty cloisters

have kept safe the sacred, generous

words of our ancestors. What courage,

zealous Italian, does fate inspire in you?

Or perhaps fate fights with mortal courage in vain?

 

Surely it must be by the gods’ high counsel,

when our desperate neglect

is duller and deeper, each moment,

almost, that strikes us with our ancestors’

fresh calls. The heavens are still

faithful to Italy: some immortal

still cares for us:

and since now or never is the time

to trust ourselves to the disused

powers of our native Italy,

we hear how great the clamour is

from the tombs, and why the soil reveals

these forgotten heroes,

asking at this late hour if you

delight, our country, in cowardice.

 

O glorious one, do you still nourish

hopes of us? Are we not

wholly ruined? Perhaps the future’s

not unknown to you? I am distraught,

with no refuge from grief, what will be

is hidden from me, and what I see

is such that it makes hope seem

a folly and a dream. Noble spirits,

a foul, dishonourable crew succeed

to your place: in your blood,

every worth of work or word

is mocked: no longer shame or envy

of your lasting fame: neglect

surrounds your monuments: and we

have become a base example for future ages.

 

Noblest of minds, now no one else cares

about our high ancestry,

it falls to you, on whom fate breathes

kindly, to you, to offer up with both hands

those former times, when the ancients raised

their heads out of dark oblivion,

with the buried arts,

those godlike ancestors to whom nature

spoke without unveiling, in whom was enclosed

the generous calm of Rome and Athens.

Oh ages, oh ages lost

in eternal sleep, when Italy’s ruin

was incomplete, when we disdained

base idleness, and the wind in flight

drew sparks more intensely from this soil.

 

Your sacred ashes were still warm,

Dante, unconquered enemy

of fortune, to whose grief and scorn

Hell was friendlier than earth.

Hell: is that not a better place

than this? And the sweet strings

still trembled, Petrarch,

unhappy lover, from the touch

of your hand. Ah, Italian poetry

was born in sadness. Yet the ills

that grieve us are lighter and hurt less

than the boredom that drowns us. Oh you,

blessed ones, to whom life was tears! Irritation

binds our swaddling bands: for us, by the cradle

and above the tomb, sits motionless nullity.

 

While all your life, Colombus, ardent son

of Liguria, was with stars and sea,

beyond the Pillars of Hercules, and lands

where men thought they heard the waves

hiss as they quenched the sun, committed

to the infinite swell, you found the rays

of fallen Sol once more, and the daylight

born again there, as ours merged with the deep:

and, overcoming all Nature’s barriers,

an immense and unknown land was the glory

of your voyage, and your return

with all its risks. Ah, but the world does not

grow greater by being known, it grows less,

and the sounding air, the kindly earth, the sea

seem vaster to the child than the learned man.

 

Where have our happy dreams gone,

the unknown harbours

of unknown peoples, the diurnal

houses of the stars, the young Aurora’s

remote bed, and the hidden nocturnal

sleep of the greatest planet?

See they vanish in a moment,

the world’s captured on a flimsy chart:

see, all’s the same, and only nothingness

grows by discovery. O dear imaginings,

you’re denied us

when truth arrives: our minds separate

from you forever: the years part us

from your first stupendous powers:

and the solace for our pain disappears.

 

You, Ariosto, meanwhile, were born to sweet

dreams, and the primal sun, shone

on your face, carefree singer of love and arms,

who filled life with happy illusions,

in an age less sad than ours:

Italy’s new hope. O chambers, O towers,

O ladies, O cavaliers,

O gardens, O palaces, thinking of you,

my mind is lost in a thousand

empty pleasures. Vanities, lovely follies,

and strange thoughts,

filled human life: what remains, now the leaves

are stripped from things? Only the certainty

of seeing all is empty, except sadness.

 

O Tasso, Tasso, then heaven prepared

your excellent mind for us:

weeping and little else for you.

Oh sad Torquato! The sweet song

could not solace you, or melt the ice

your soul possessed, once warm

but chilled by hatred, fouled

by the envy of tyrant and citizen. Love,

Amor, abandoned you, that last deception

of our life. Nothingness seemed real,

a solid shade to you, and the world

an empty wasteland. Your eyes were not raised

to tardy honours: the last hour was mercy

not ruin for you. He who knows our ills

asks for death and not a laurel wreath.

 

If you wish for anguish, return,

return to us, rise

from the mute and melancholy tomb,

O sad example of misfortune. Our life

grows worse than that which seemed

so wicked and so dark to you. O dear one,

who will sympathise with you

when no one cares for any but himself?

Who, today, would not call your mortal anguish

foolish, now everything great and rare

is called madness:

when something worse than envy,

indifference, greets the highest? O who

when measure rather than poetry reigns,

would offer you the laurel wreath once more?

 

O unfortunate spirit, from your time

until now only one Italian

with a famous name has risen

above his shameful and cowardly age,

Alfieri, the fierce Piedmontese, to whom

heaven, not this waste and arid land

of mine, gave a heart of manly courage:

he alone, unarmed (ardent memory!) made war

on tyrants through the drama: the world

at least was given

that pitiful conflict, that vain field

for impotent anger. He was the first to enter

that arena, and no one followed, since now neglect

and brutish silence have wholly crushed us.

 

He passed his entire life, immaculate,

angry and disdainful,

and death saw him escape the worst.

Vittorio, this was not the place or time

for you. Other ages, other regions

are needed for noble minds. Now

we live content with inaction,

led by mediocrity: the wise have fallen

and the crowd have risen to form this single space

where the world is levelled. O famous explorer,

go on: wake the dead,

now that the living are asleep: arm the mute

tongues of former heroes: so that, at last,

this age of mud may either stir to life, and rise

to noble action, or sink in shame.

 

Note: Angelo Mai (1782-1854) was the custodian of the Vatican Library from 1819, and a discoverer and editor of ancient manuscripts. Vittorio Alfiere (1749-1803) was a poet and playwright.


38. For The Marriage of His Sister Paolina (IV)

 

Leaving, at last, the silences

of your native nest, and the blessed

shades, and the ancient illusion, heaven’s gift,

that, to your eyes, enhances these lonely shores,

fate draws you to the noise

and dust of life: my sister, you learn

the shameful state harsh skies prescribe for us,

you, who in a grave

and mournful time

will add unhappy children

to sad Italy. Provide strong examples

to your offspring. Cruel fate denies

helpful breezes

to human virtue,

nor can a pure soul live in a frail breast.

 

You will have wretched

or cowardly sons. Choose the wretched.

Corrupted custom sets a vast gulf

between fate and worth. Ah, the child

born today, in the twilight

of mankind, acquires its life and senses too late.

Birth is fate’s: yours the sovereign

care of the heart, that your sons

will not grow to be friends

of fortune, or playthings of base fear

and hope: then the future ages

will call you happy:

for (sinful custom

of false idle slaves)

dead, we praise the virtue we scorned alive.

 

Ladies, our country expects

much from you: and the sweet rays

of your eyes were not granted their power

to tame steel and fire, in scorn, or to harm

the human race. The wise and strong act

and think according to your judgement: and all

that the sun’s bright chariot circles bows to you.

I ask you the reason

for this age of ours. Is it your hands

that quenched the sacred fire

of our youth? Our nature thinned

and broken by you? The mind

sleeping, the will ignoble,

our native courage lacking

in muscle and sinew: is yours the blame?

 

Love, if we think truly, is the spur

to noble actions, and beauty the teacher

of deep affections. That spirit must be severed

from love whose heart’s core does not rejoice

when the winds war together, and Olympus

gathers the clouds, and the thunder of the storm

strikes the mountain. O brides,

O virgins, I think that he

who flinches from danger, unworthy

of our country, and sets his heart

his common affections on base things,

moves you to hatred and scorn:

if women’s hearts burn to love

men, and not mere children.

 

May you hate to be known

as mothers of a cowardly race. May your children

grow used to bearing the pain and grief

of virtue, and scorning and condemning

all that this shameful age prizes and adores,

live for their country, learning its noble deeds,

and what this land owes to their ancestors.

Just as the sons of Sparta

grew to honour Greece,

among the memories and fame

of ancient heroes:

till the young bride strapped

the sword to her dear one’s side,

only to loosen her dark hair

over his bloodless naked corpse,

returned to her on his intact shield.

 

Virginia, your soft cheek

touched by the all-powerful hand

of beauty, and your noble disdain,

troubled the foolish Lord of Rome.

You were pure, and were at that stage

where sweet dreams summon,

when your father’s harsh steel pierced

that white breast,

and willingly you descended

to Erebus. ‘O father,’ she said, ‘let time

loosen and unmake my limbs, prepare

a tomb for me, before an impious

tyrant’s bed possesses me.

And if Rome gains life and strength

from my blood, let me expire.’

 

O generous one, though the sun

shone with a greater splendour on you

than it does today, let your prize

and solace be that tomb your sweet native land

honours with tears. See how the Roman people,

alight with a new anger,

gather round your remains. See the dust

befoul the tyrant’s head:

and freedom flare

in forgetful hearts: and ardent Roman arms

advance over defeated lands

from the dark pole to the torrid zone.

So a woman’s fate

stirs eternal Rome

once more, from its deep slumber.

 

Note: Virginia was killed by her Roman father to save her from a forced marriage to Appius Claudius (who in 451BC helped give Rome its first legal code, but was later perceived as a would-be tyrant). The events caused an uprising when the Decemviri (the Commission of Ten Men) were overthrown.

 


39. To A Winner In The Games (V)

 

Blessed youth, know the face of glory

and the joyful voices,

and how a hard-won virtue surpasses

effeminate idleness. Listen: listen,

generous champion (your courage sets

the reward of your fame against the swift

flow of the years ) listen and lift your heart

towards noble desires. The arena,

and the stadium echo for you, and tremble

as popular applause calls you to glory.

Today, our beloved country

prepares to renew the ancient exemplars

in you, resplendent in your youthfulness.

 

It was not he who gazed stupidly

at the Olympian course, naked athletes,

and the gymnasium’s rigour,

without being stirred to emulation

by the lovely palm and the crown,

who stained his hand

with barbarians’ blood at Marathon.

Such as perhaps had washed the dusty flanks

and manes of his conquering team in the Alpheus,

and now led Greek standards and Greek spears

against the pale swarms of weary fleeing Persians:

till the wide banks and servile shores of Euphrates

echoed with mournful cries.

 

Is it vanity that rouses and frees

the rekindled spark

of natural virtue? And revives the sunken

fervour of vital spirits, dulled

in the sick breast? Since Phoebus

first turned his sad wheels, has human effort

ever been other than a game? And is truth

less a vanity than the lie? Nature gave

happy illusions, felicitous shadows,

to console us: and when foolish custom

could no longer shake off certain error

the nation changed its study

of the glorious to dark, bare, inaction.

 

Perhaps a time will come when indifferent

herds will browse

the ruins of Italy, and the Seven Hills

will feel the plough: and perhaps

in only a few years, sly foxes

will inhabit Latin cities, and the dark woods’

murmuring surround the high walls:

if fate cannot rid perverted minds

of this sad forgetfulness

for the things of their country,

and if heaven remembering past greatness,

is not kind, in averting

the final ruin of an abject race.

 

O worthy son, grieve that you survive

of our unhappy country.

When she bore the palm, which she has lost

through our fatal error, you would have

brought her fame. That age is gone:

today no one looks for honour from her womb:

but lift your spirit to heaven for yourself alone:

what value does our life have? Only to be despised:

blessed only when no danger threatens,

and we forget ourselves, when we do not measure

the hurt of slow destructive hours, or listen to their flow:

blessed only when we draw back

from Lethe’s channel, to seek more grace.


40. Marcus Junius Brutus (VI)

 

When the pride of Rome lay

wholly ruined in the Thracian dust,

so that fate prepared

the tramp of barbarous cavalry,

for green Italy and the Tiber’s banks,

and called a host of Goths, from naked woods

the freezing Bear oppressed,

to pierce Rome’s noble walls:

Brutus, panting, wet with fraternal blood,

in the dark night in a lonely place,

ready now to die, cursed

hell and the inexorable gods,

stirring the drowsy air in vain

with his angry call.

 

‘Dumb courage, the empty mists,

the unquiet fields of shadows,

are your haunts, and repentance

follows you. The unhappy crowd

are a mockery and derision to you,

gods of marble (if there are gods,

by Phlegethon or among the clouds),

a race you look to for temples, and insult

mortally with your fraudulent rule.

Does earthly piety serve only

to stir divine hatred? Do you sit there,

Jupiter, aiding the impious? And when

the storm flies through the air, and you

hurl your swift lightning, is it against

the pious you brandish the sacred fire?

 

Unconquerable fate, and iron

necessity, crush the weak

slave of death: and the wretch whose power

fails, opposing them, takes solace

in the inevitability of ruin. Are ills

less cruel that have no redress? Does one

devoid of hope feel no pain?

O ignoble fate, the noble man, unused

to yielding, wages

eternal mortal war on you: and when

the tyranny of your right hand overcomes him

with its weight, he will shrug it off indomitably,

ceremoniously, piercing his side

with the bitter steel,

and smiling mockingly at the dark shadows.

 

Those who enter Tartarus by violence

displease the gods. Such courage

is absent from mild eternal hearts.

Perhaps the gods created our troubles,

our bitter fortune, and unhappy affections,

as an amusing spectacle for their idleness?

Nature, once queen and goddess

ordained not misery and guilt for us

but a free and pure life

in the forest. Now impious customs

have beaten her sacred kingdom to the earth,

and encumbered our lives with alien laws,

does kindly Nature rise up,

when the strong reject

their unhappy times,

and accuse the arrow that is not hers?

 

The wild creatures, happy, ignorant of guilt,

and their own misfortune,

are led by old age serenely

to their unrecognised end. But if pain

led them to strike their brows

against harsh trees, or hurl their bodies

headlong to the wind, from stony mountains,

O shadowy intelligence,

no arcane law would oppose

their wretched wish. Only you, of all

the many species heaven creates,

Sons of Prometheus, regret life:

only to you, O wretched men,

if slow fate delays,

does Jupiter deny the shores of death.

 

And you rise, bright moon, from a sea

that flows with our blood,

and explore this unquiet night,

and this land fatal to Italy’s bravest.

The victor tramples on kindred hearts,

the hills tremble, ancient Rome

sinks from highest glory to disaster:

can you be so calm? You saw

Lavinia’s people born, and the years

of joy, and unfading laurels:

and you will shed your immutable rays

on the silent peaks, when,

to servile Italy’s shame,

this solitary place echoes again,

to barbarous footsteps.

 

See how the birds, the wild creatures,

hearts filled with their habitual lives,

among the naked rocks, the green branches,

ignore the great disaster, the altered

fate of the world: and when the roofs

of the industrious farmers first redden,

the birds will rouse the valleys

with their morning songs,

and the wild beasts will chase

the weaker host of lesser creatures.

Oh fate! Oh vain humanity! We are

an abject part of things: and our ills

have not troubled the bloodstained turf,

the caves filled with groans,

human cares have not obscured the stars.

 

I do not call on the deaf kings

of Cocytus or Olympus,

or shameful earth, or moribund night:

nor you, future age of knowledge,

furthest bound of dark death. Can tears

assuage a scornful end, or words or gifts

from the base crowd adorn it? Time

alters for the worse: it would be wrong

to entrust the honour of noble minds,

the last revenge for misery,

to decayed generations. Let the dark bird

hover over me with its cruel wings:

wild beasts crush my nameless remains,

storms disperse them,

winds scatter my fame, and all memory of me.



Note: Marcus Junius Brutus, was one of the conspirators who assassinated Julius Caesar. He committed suicide after the defeat at Philippi in 42BC. Leopardi treats his death as marking the death of the Roman Republic and its values. Lavinia was the wife of Aeneas, the mythical Trojan father of the Roman people.

 

 

 


41. Palinode To Marchese Gino Capponi (XXXII)

 

                                                  ‘Constant sighing doesn’t help’

Petrarch

 

My honest Gino, I was wrong: wrong for years

and wildly wrong. I thought life wretched

and empty, and the age that now unfolds

the most stupid of all. The language I used

seemed, and was, intolerant of this blessed

mortal race, if men ought to call themselves

mortal, or dare do so. Noble people laughed

at me in wonder and scorn from that fragrant

Eden they inhabit, and I ought to call myself

lonely, unfortunate, incapable of pleasure,

and ignorant of it, to believe my own fate

universal, and the human species a partner

in my ills. At last there shone, vivid,

to my eyes, through the cigar smoke

of honour, murmurs of crackling pastries,

military cries, commanders

of ices and drinks, among the clash

of cups, and brandished

spoons, the flash of the daily

papers. I realised then, I saw

public happiness, and the sweetness

of mortal destiny. I saw the excellence

and the value of earthly things,

a human path all flowers, and saw

how nothing here can last or displease.

Nor did I fail to see the studies, the mighty

works, the sense, virtues, and noble wisdom

of my century. And indeed I saw kingdoms,

duchies and empires, from Morocco to Cathay,

from the Pole to the Nile, and Boston to Goa,

rushing in fierce competition on the track

of soul’s Happiness: seizing her by her

streaming hair, or at least by the tail

of her boa. Seeing all this and reflecting

deeply on the huge spread-out pages,

I was ashamed of my grave, long-standing

error, and indeed ashamed of myself.

 

Oh, Gino, the thread of the Fates is spinning

a golden age today. Every newspaper

born of so many languages and columns,

promises it to the world from every shore,

simultaneously. Universal love, railways,

the multiplicity of commerce, steam,

the printing press, and cholera unite,

the widely scattered peoples and climates:

it’s no real wonder if oaks and pines

exude milk and honey, or dance

to the sound of a waltz. So has the

power of alembics and retorts increased,

of machines that challenge the heavens,

and so it will increase in the ages

that follow: the seed of Shem, Ham,

and Japheth flies, and will fly,

to greater and greater things forever.

 

True, the earth won’t live on acorns,

unless hunger forces it to: nor end

the use of iron. But often it will

scorn silver and gold, content

with paper money. Nor will

the generous race hold back its hand

from blood, the blood of its own: Europe

indeed, and the far side of the Atlantic

the fresh nurse of true community,

will be full of strife, whenever this crowd

of brothers take the field against each other,

for pepper, or cinnamon, or some

other fatal spice, or for sugar canes,

or anything else they can turn to gold.

Courage and virtue, faith and modesty,

love of justice, will always,

in whatever political system, be wholly

and utterly alien, wholly unhappy,

oppressed, defeated: since nature

has always placed them down below,

in every age. Bold impudence,

deceit, and mediocrity will always rule,

fated to rise to the surface. Authority and power,

concentrated or devolved, however you wish,

will be abused by those who have it,

in whatever name. Nature and fate

engraved this primal law in adamant:

and Volta and Davy can’t cancel it

with electricity, nor England with all

her machines, nor this new century

with all its river of political tracts.

The good will always grieve, the bad

rejoice in mockery: the world will always

take up arms against noble spirits,

forever. Slander, envy and hate will pursue

true honour: the weak will feed the strong,

the indigent beggar must cultivate and serve

the rich, whatever the form

of communal order, however near

or far the equator or pole, eternally,

unless the day arrives when our race

no longer knows its home or daylight.

 

These slight remains and traces

of past ages must still impress

themselves on this age of gold:

since the human race has a thousand

conflicting, discordant parts and principles,

in its nature: and human intellect and power

has never served to make peace

our of hatred, from the day our glorious

race was born, and never will,

however wise or potent our century’s

newspapers or treaties. Yet human happiness

will be found in weightier things, wholesome,

not seen before. Our clothes

of wool or silk will become softer

day by day. Farmers and craftsmen

hastening to throw off rough garments,

will hide their coarse skin in cotton,

and clothe their backs in beaver-furs.

Carpets, blankets, chairs, settees,

stools and dining tables, beds and other

kinds of furnishings will be more usable,

or at least easier on the eye, adorning

apartments with this month’s beauty:

the wondrous kitchen will be ablaze

with new forms of pots and pans.

Journeys or rather flights will be

swifter than anyone dare imagine,

Paris to Calais, and London: London

to Liverpool: and under the Thames’

broad flood the tunnel will be open,

bold, immortal work that should have

been opened years ago. The less

frequented streets will be lit better

than now, yet just as safe, in sovereign

cities, and perhaps, in lesser towns,

the major roads, sometimes.

Such the delights and blessed destiny

that heaven ordains for future peoples.

 

How fortunate those the midwife

holds mewling in her arms,

as I write, whom the vision awaits

of the days, sighed-for, when lengthy

study will reveal, and every infant

will absorb with its milk, what weight

of salt, of meat, how many tons of flour,

its native town consumes: how many

births and deaths, the old priest notes

every year: when hill and plain, I think,

and even the vast tracts of ocean,

will be covered by magazines,

the work of steam-driven presses

printing thousands of copies a second,

as if by a flight of cranes that suddenly

steals daylight from the broad landscape:

magazines, journals, the life and spirit

of the universe, sole fount of wisdom

for this age and all those to come!

 

As a child, with great care,

raises a structure, out of twigs

and bits of paper, shaped

like a church, tower, or palace,

and, when it’s done, levels it,

because the paper and twigs

are needed for another effort,

so, no sooner does nature find

that any work of hers, however

artistically noble to contemplate,

is perfect, she starts to undo it,

allotting the parts to something else.

And so to preserve themselves from

this foolish game, whose meaning

is eternally hidden, human beings

employ their talents a thousand ways

with skilful hands: since for all their efforts

cruel Nature, like a persistent child,

indulges her caprice, amuses herself,

without cease, creating and destroying.

So an infinite, varied family

of incurable ills and troubles

oppresses the frail mortal, irremediably

fated to die: so a hostile, destructive force

strikes him from within and from

all sides, intense and relentless,

from his day of birth: indefatigably

tires him, wearies him, till he lies

crushed and spent beside his cruel mother.

These final miseries of our mortal state,

O gentle spirit, old age and death,

whose origin is when the infant’s mouth

sucks at the tender breast that gives it life,

are things the happy nineteenth century

can no more end than the ninth or tenth

could, I think, and no more than future

ages will have the power to do.

So, if we’re entitled sometimes to call

the truth by its proper name, all who are

born will never be anything but wretched,

not only in civic realms and ways,

but in every other aspect of life,

incurably, and by a universal law,

that embraces earth and heaven.

But the greatest minds of my century

have discovered a new, almost divine

programme: lacking the power

to make a single person happy,

they’ve ignored the one, to search for

the happiness of many: finding it easily

among the sad and wretched, they make

one happy smiling people: and the mob

will marvel at this miracle, not yet announced

in newspapers, pamphlets or magazines.

 

Oh minds, oh judgement, oh superhuman acumen

of the age that unfolds! Oh, Gino,

what solid philosophy, what wisdom,

in the most sublime and most abstruse

subjects, my century and yours will teach

the future ages! With what constancy

it admires today what it mocked the day

before, and will destroy tomorrow,

gathering the fragments together,

to set them among incense the day after!

How we should treasure, what faith it inspires,

the harmony of feeling of this century,

rather this year, that unfolds! When we

compare our feelings with this year’s feelings,

which are bound to be different to next year’s

feelings, with what care we should avoid

the slightest sign of divergence! And how far

our wisdom has travelled in philosophy

when we contrast modern times with ancient!

 

Dear Gino, a friend of yours, a true

master of poetry, learned in all the arts,

and sciences and human disciplines,

and critic of those minds that have been

and are and will be, said to me: ‘Forget

your own feelings. This virile age

no longer cares for them, it’s dedicated

to the harsh study of economics, its gaze

is fixed on public things. What’s the point

of exploring your own soul? Don’t search

inside yourself for poetic subjects. Sing

the needs of this century, mature hope,

memorable sentences!’ That raised a solemn

smile, when the word ‘hope’ was mentioned,

a ridiculous word to my profane ear,

like the babbling of an infant’s tongue

not long after it’s been weaned. Now

I’ve reversed my course, taken a track

opposite to that before, seeing clearly

at last from unmistakable signs that I

shouldn’t contradict, oppose my own century,

if I want praise and fame, but conform to it,

with faithful flattery: ‘so by a short

and easy path we travel to the stars’.

Though desirous of the stars, I doubt

I’ll ever have the matter to make

a song about our century’s needs,

since the ever-increasing markets

and production provide so generously

for them: but I’ll certainly sing of hope,

of which the gods now grant us

a visible sign: now young men’s lips

and cheeks display, as a token of fresh

felicity, liberal lengths of hair.

 

O hail, O signs of salvation, O first

lights of the glorious age that rises.

See how heaven and earth laugh

before you, and the girls’ glances

sparkle, and, through feasts and gatherings,

your fame, you bearded heroes, already flies.

Flourish, for our country’s sake, flourish

O modern race of true men. Italy will

flourish: all of Europe, from the mouth

of Tagus to Hellespont, will flourish in your

woolly shade, and earth rest, secure.

And you, begin by greeting your bristly

fathers with laughter, O infant race,

destined for golden days: and do not fear

the innocuous gloom on those dear faces.

Laugh, O tender race: the fruit of so much

talk has been preserved for you: to see

joy rule, to see cities and towns, and age

and youth, all happy in equal contentment,

with flowing beards, beards two foot long.

 

Note: Gino Capponi (1792-1876) a Catholic, liberal, and Florentine man of letters.

 

 

 


Index of First Lines

 

 

Silvia, do you remember6

It was always dear to me, this solitary hill,8

The night is sweet and clear, without a breeze,9

O lovely moon, now I’m reminded. 11

The girl comes from the fields,12

Now you’ll rest forever14

Why are you there, Moon, in the sky? Tell me. 15

My thoughts turn to the day when I felt love. 19

Solitary bird, you sing. 23

Poor frail leaf25

When as a boy I set myself26

As on a lonely night27

Fragrant broom,29

The storm has gone:38

Sweetest, powerful40

Fate gave birth, at the same moment,45

Lovely girl, where are you going?. 49

You were such, who now are buried. 53

Because the sun renews. 55

And you, sung by your grieving sons,58

Calm night, modest rays of the descending. 62

Dear Pepoli, how do you endure. 64

Every earthly event69

Things human last so short a time:70

It was dawn, the sun insinuated. 71

Now the hen exults with beating wings. 74

Dearest beauty, who inspire. 77

Lovely stars of the Plough, I never dreamed. 79

I thought the sweet troubles. 84

Consalvo lay close to the end of life. 89

Aspasia, your image sometimes enters. 93

Listen, Melissus: I’ll tell you a dream.. 96

I who wander before this threshold. 98

The rays of light were dying in the west:99

O my country, I see the walls, arches. 102

Because our people. 106

Ardent Italian, do you never tire. 112

Leaving, at last, the silences. 117

Blessed youth, know the face of glory. 120

When the pride of Rome lay. 122

My honest Gino, I was wrong: wrong for years. 127