Thursday, February 19, 2015

therefore there never is any moment of true pleasure - Leopardi relieves boredom

In the two poems following “Night Song of a Wandering Asian Shepherd,” Giacomo Leopardi describes the remedy for boredom.  A violent storm has passed by, and the village returns to life.

    Every heart is happy.
When is life as sweet,
as much enjoyed as now?  (ll.  25-27)

The argument darkens, though:

Pleasure, child of suffering,
empty joy, effect
of dread that’s past
which made the man who hated life
tremble with fear of death,
which turned the people
cold and mute and pale
and made them sweat and shiver in long torment
seeing lightning, clouds, and wind
arrayed against us.  (ll.  32-41)

In other words, we only enjoy life in the lee of the threat of suffering and death. “Surcease form suffering is happiness for us” (ll. 45-6).

The next poem, “Saturday in the Village,” reverses the conceit, identifying the hours before the holiday as happier than Sunday itself.  So we are happiest when relieved of suffering or in anticipation of pleasure.  The pleasure itself will likely disappoint.  Everything else is “sadness and boredom (tristezza e noia)” (l. 41).

Obviously there is a lot of psychological insight here, even for a reader of a quite different temperament – me, I mean.  Thank goodness we have so much trouble sitting alone in a room.  Our restlessness helps create the contrasts that bring pleasure, regardless of the actual results.  The contrast is what matters.

… pleasure is always either past or present… therefore there never is any moment of true pleasure, although it may seem that there is.  (Zibaldone 3550)

That last bit was J. G. Nichols.  Otherwise I am using Galassi.

One of Leopardi’s favorite concepts is vagueness or indefiniteness, vago, which has been an obstacle for me and will be for anyone whose aesthetic calls for precision.  The two poems I have mentioned here have stuck with me a little more not because of their philosophizing but because of their concreteness. 

    The young girl comes in from the country
as the sun is setting, carrying
her sheaf of grass, and in her hand
she holds a bunch of violets and roses
that, as always, she intends to use
to decorate her breast and hair
tomorrow, on the holiday.  (“Saturday in the Village,” ll. 1-7)

Even in English – the Italian verse is much prettier – Leopardi quickly evokes the scene, even though no individual detail is out of the ordinary.  An old woman tells stories, the sun sets, the church bell rings, children run around, and a carpenter works late.  Not much more than that.

I am tempted to write a bit about the longer poem “Broom, or the Flower of the Wilderness” because it is the thickest in physical observation, as Leopardi wanders Pompeii and its surroundings, looking at the flowers and thinking of – well, what else does anyone think of there – the destruction of all things in an apocalyptic disaster.

Nature has no more esteem
or care for the seed of man
than for the ant.  (ll. 231-3)

but if I spend too much time rooting around for the little nuggets that I usually look for, I miss the kind of poet Leopardi is.  So I will set that idea aside and write one more post where I try to look at him the way so many other writers look at him, as a philosophical poet, a poet of ideas.


  1. I see what you mean with the comparison to "Ecclesiastes." I am maybe over-fond of this stuff about ephemeral happiness, but I think I'll have a closer look at your Mr Leopardi now. I've been looking for another poet after all that Browning, if you know what I mean.

  2. That would be a happy outcome. Please, read some Leopardi.