Rearm the dead tongues…
Giacomo Leopardi may be the most erudite, philosophically astute, and linguistically refined poet you’ve never heard of. Part of the blame lies in Leopardi’s historically inclined vocabulary and style, which draw heavily on Greco-Roman authors ranging from Theocritus to Virgil as well as early Italian masters, especially the fourteenth-century Tuscan poet who was the preeminent model for Renaissance lyric, Francis Petrarch. But Leopardi was no antiquarian: His synthesis of past literary forms and experimental poetics makes his work a daunting mix of erudition and inventiveness. It would be an oversimplification to call Leopardi’s language Italian, because, like Italy itself, such a thing did not yet exist in his brief lifetime (1798–1837). Italian unification, and with it the standardization of the national tongue, didn’t occur until the 1860s. He would never see the official Italy whose cause absorbed a great deal of his career.
Leopardi’s nearly “inexhaustible energies,” as Jonathan Galassi describes them in the introduction to his new translation of the Canti, fueled such projects as a massive philosophical notebook called the Zibaldone, a series of operette morali (moral tales) on issues ranging from the necessity of illusion to the nature of literary fame, and seminal essays on Italian Romanticism and the character and customs of the Italians. But it was his poetry that earned Leopardi immortality in Italy—a Janus-faced poetry that presents the translator a grim set of challenges. There are two lyric Leopardis: the nationalist one—inspired by such authors as Vittorio Alfieri and Dante—who composed a series of monumental odes about his fragmented country early in his career; and the more introspective mature author, whose idylls and less declamatory poetic forms sealed his reputation as Petrarch’s modern heir.