Tuesday, February 17, 2015

I’ll fight alone, I’ll fall alone - Giacomo Leopardi inspires Daniel Deronda

A poem of Giacomo Leopardi made a surprising appearance in Daniel Deronda (1876).  I mean I was surprised.  The beautiful Jewish singer Mirah is shown, to the extent a novel can show such a thing, as performing a single song, a setting of Leopardi’s 1818 “To Italy” (“All’Italia”), his first published poem.  He was twenty at the time and had mostly written and published, as teens do, works of Greek philology.

In chapter 39, Mirah runs through a fictional music setting – if that means anything – we can’t hear it regardless – of “some words” of Leopardi’s poem:

O patria mia, vedo le mura e gli archi
        E le colonne e i simulacri e l’erme
        Torri degli avi nostri
        Ma la gloria non vedo

Or in Jonathan Galassi’s translation (Canti, 2010, p., 3) – Eliot of course just has the untranslated Italian:

   O my country, I can see the walls
and arches and the columns and the statues
and lonely towers of our ancestors,
But I don’t see the glory;

The title of the poems tells us that Leopardi is writing about Rome and Italy, but Eliot appropriates the lines to invoke the Jews exile from their homeland.  The lyrics link to a later episode about a painting set in the ruins of Jerusalem.

Deronda later hears Mirah perform the song at a concert:

He knew well Leopardi's fine Ode to Italy (when Italy sat like a disconsolate mother in chains, hiding her face on her knees and weeping), and the few selected words were filled for him with the grandeur of the whole, which seemed to breathe an inspiration through the music…  Certain words not included in the song nevertheless rang within Deronda as harmonies from the invisible –

            ‘Non ti difende
  Nessun de’ tuoi?  L'armi, qua l'armi: io solo
  Combatterò, procomberò sol io’ –

they seemed the very voice of that heroic passion which is falsely said to devote itself in vain when it achieves the god-like end of manifesting unselfish love.   (Ch. 45, boldface mine)

I don’t know anything about Leopardi’s reception in English, but I found this scenes curious.  Deronda already knows the poems so well that hearing it evokes lines that are not in the song!

        None of your own defend you?
To arms!  Bring me my sword:
I’ll fight alone, I’ll fall alone.   (ll.36-38, Galassi again)

The removal of the Italian context is slyly done here, as Deronda unconsciously (at this point) shifts “you” from Italy to Mirah and her people.   To Deronda, the song creates “the vivid image of a man dying helplessly away from the possibility of battle.”  At the end of the novel, he will have launched himself into battle, no longer alone.

Leopardi makes a strange move in his ode (which is five pages long, thus the “few selected words” in the song) – he shifts the action and point of view to the Spartans at Thermopylae.  What first looks like a patriotic poem in the tradition of Alfieri (tyrants are overthrown) and Foscolo (tombs are embraced) becomes more strangely personal, with Leopardi imagining himself as a soldier in the service of antiquity.  Italian patriotism is, as with Foscolo, cultural and literary. 

If only I were down below with you,
and this sweet earth were wet with my blood, too.
But if my fate is unlike yours,
and will not let me shut my eyes
dying fallen on the field of Greece,
still may the modest glory of your bard,
if the gods allow it,
endure as long as yours
in times to come.  (ll. 132-140)

I’ll spend a couple more days seeing how the bard did.


  1. I wouldn't have pegged Eliot for a Leopardi fan--not that I'm very familiar with either, having endured Silas Marner in high school and since forgotten most of it notwithstanding--but I guess "harmonies from the invisible" is certainly a good way to express the evocation of "lines that are not in the song" all right!

  2. Very interesting commentary, especially your points on the shift in context. I read Danial Deronda in my teenage years, so my memories of it are rather fuzzy now. One to revisit perhaps.

  3. Eliot was extraordinarily well-read, and could read in multiple languages, although I don't know about her Italian, so I guess surprises like this are not surprising, although I was in fact surprised. Eliot and Leopardi have in common that they are both, judging by their childhoods, super-geniuses.

    Jacqui, Daniel Deronda is practically designed to be fuzzy because of its dueling styles. I will be lucky to remember the parts I wrote about, much less anything else in the novel.

  4. Italy and Italian nationalism keep coming up throughout Daniel Deronda-- at one point someone compares Zionism to Italian nationalism, saying that we all thought that was a crazy idea and now look! it's happening. Daniel writes to Hans a bit about Italian politics, and of course the climax takes place in Italy. And that's all in addition to the Leopardi song.

  5. Exactly. It is a fascinating pattern. That climax, the coincidental gathering of the characters in Genoa, makes artistic sense.

    It works as some kind of counterpoint to the Germanic theme.