Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Aren't you bored? - Leopardi's "Night Song of a Wandering Shepherd in Asia"

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.


  1. Pretty bleak for someone who managed to write so much! I've yet to get to Leopardi, but he seems someone one can't avoid if one is looking into Italian literature.

  2. Leopardi is genuinely miserable. I may only be able to give a hint at what a titan he is, in part because I do not share his temperament, so I can only read him with more distance than usual.

  3. There are many great lines on that poem, 'pur tu, solinga, eterna peregrina' or 'E tu certo comprendi/ il perché delle cose, e vedi il frutto/ del mattin, della sera,/ del tacito, infinito andar del tempo'. But, eventually, the poem doesn't end in an epiphany, or even a strong note: it kinda peters out. Compare it, for example, with one of Goethe's many poems to the Moon, Fullest wider Busch und Tal:

    Again you fill bush and valley
    With your misty, silent light,
    And at last, also, you bring
    Peace to me;

    Calmly casting your bright gaze
    Over the fields surrounding me,
    Like a friend's gentle look
    Over my fate...

    Blessed are those who withdraw
    From the world without hate,
    Holding a Friend in their hearts,
    And thus enjoy

    Something that is, unknown to man
    Or unseen by us,
    Through the labyrinth of the heart,
    Wandering in the dark.

  4. Leopardi hardly allows himself anything like an epiphany. Maybe I'll just move to the next poem in the sequence, the post-storm poem. That ends more strongly. This one does end weakly, with a generic statement of Leopardism,

    That Goethe poem is wonderful. It really is a song. Christopher Middleton made a good version of it.