I have read two translations of Giacomo Leopardi’s Canti. Besides the poems they are both packed with scraps of Leopardi’s prose. Leopardi essays and fragments and satirical dialogues (the Operette Morali or Moral Essays) have been translated and packaged in a number of books, and I recommend them to readers allergic to poetry. I certainly recommend spending some time with his published prose before jumping into the 2,600 page Zibaldone.
Jonathan Galassi’s translation puts the prose in the usual place, in the endnotes, matching excerpts from Leopardi with excerpts from Italian experts. The J. G. Nichols translation moves the prose right next to the poems. Each poem is followed by a paragraph or even an entire essay, making the book an unusual verse-prose hybrid.
The “Night Song of a Wandering Shepherd in Asia,” a poem about the indifference of the moon and all things to man’s happiness, is accompanied by the complete “Dialogue between Nature and an Icelander” from the Moral Essays. An angry Icelander has tracked the personification of Nature across the globe, finally cornering her in the “interior of Africa.” He makes his complaint:
I reach the conclusion that you are the declared enemy of mankind, and of other animals, and of all your works: you lie in wait for us, you threaten us, you assault us, you sting us, you strike us, you tear us in pieces, you are always either injuring or persecuting us. By custom and by edict you are butcher of your own family, your children, your own flesh and blood. (Nichols, p. 101)
Nature maintains her indifference – “even if I happened to exterminate your whole race, I would not be aware of it” – and goes even farther – “the world itself would be harmed if anything in it were free from suffering” (102). The Icelander rejects all of this as specious nonsense but is then, unfortunately, at that point either eaten by lions or buried in a sandstorm, mummified, and eventually placed in a European museum, something close to a happy ending.
The closest equivalent in English to these dialogues are the Imaginary Conversations of Walter Savage Landor, and who reads those now?
These two translators, and the critics Galassi quotes, treat Leopardi less as a poet than as a philosopher, so making the ideational content of the poems clear is more important than prettying up the poetry.
My philosophy makes Nature guilty of everything and, exculpating men completely, directs the hatred, or at least the complaint, to a higher cause, to the true origin of the ills of living creatures. (Zibaldone 4428, Nichols p. 149)
Whether this is actually a philosophy or a temperament, a stance – I take these as distinct categories, perhaps wrongly – the books of Leopardi’s I have read, and I mean here the apparatus, the background and notes and so on, always treat the ideas as the center of Leopardi’s art.
Not the individuals only, but the human race was and always will be inevitably unhappy. Not the human race only, but all animals. Not the animals only, but all other beings in their own way. Not just the individuals, but the species, the races, the kingdoms, the spheres, the systems, the universes. (Zibaldone 4175, Nichols p. 149)
No, the claim that plants and slime molds and asteroids are unhappy, this is not philosophy. This is literature, brilliant, high-level literature, which if why I find happiness returning to Leopardi, regardless of what I understand.