Giacomo Leopardi is among literature’s greatest pessimists. I will enjoy his pessimism in the form of the “Night Song of a Wandering Shepherd in Asia” (1831), a lament in 143 lines, the most song-like of the Canti.
What are you doing, moon, up in the sky;
what are you doing, tell me, silent moon?
You rise at night and go,
observing the deserts. Then you set. (ll. 1-4)
An Asian shepherd, maybe Kirghiz suggests a note, complains to the moon about his lot and the lot of mankind. Maybe the moon will sympathize with him. No one else does.
Aren’t you tired
of plying the eternal byways?
Aren’t you bored? (ll. 5-7)
A reader might think – I sure did – that these lines are a little bit on the plain side. I have read two versions, the recent Jonathan Galassi and the older J. G. Nichols (The Canti, Carcanet, 1994), and even my ignorant comparison to the Italian shows that the translators exaggerate Leopardi’s plainness. Still, “Night Song” is kind of plain.
If life is misery,
why do we endure it?
This, unblemished moon,
is mortal nature.
But you’re not mortal,
and what I say may matter little to you. (ll. 55-60)
Se la vita è ventura,
Perchè da noi si dura?
Intatta luna, tale
È lo stato mortale.
Ma tu mortal non sei,
E forse del mio dir poco ti cale.
Someone who knows Italian can correct me, but this does not seem too elaborate, although the music of some of the lines, the last for example, is undeniable. The rhyme scheme is arbitrary, with Leopardi rhyming where and if he likes. The one exception is that at the end of each stanza, as in the lines above, there is a significant rhyme using -ale. These lines even have a bonus: “such,” “mortal,” “you don’t care” (calére, to care for: “This verb is rarely used.”) “Life for me is wrong (male)” (l. 104) or
Tell me why it is
all animals are happy
resting, at ease, while I, if I lie down,
am plagued with tedium? (ll. 129-32, animale / assale – Galassi scrambled this one)
The shepherd is envious of his sheep (he is addressing his sheep now, not the moon).
I sit on the grass, too in the shade,
but an anxiousness invades my mind
as if a thorn were pricking me,
so that sitting there I’m even further
from finding peace or resting place. (ll. 117-21)
Here we have a great Leopardian theme, shared with Pascal and the author of Ecclesiastes, the central problem of boredom, which Leopardi sees as both a curse and “the chief sign of the grandeur and nobility of human nature” (Pensieri LXVIII, tr. W. S. Di Piero). The shepherd works through a series of ills – pain, death, meaninglessness, not just of his own life, but of everything (“any purpose, any usefulness / I cannot see,” ll. 97-8). He cannot decide how he would be happier, as the moon or as a sheep. Anything but what he is. “[T]he day we’re born is cause for mourning” (l. 143).
Poor, miserable shepherd; poor Giacomo Leopardi.