Today we remember Giacomo Taldegardo Francesco di Sales Saverio Pietro Leopardi, born on this date in 1798, in Recanati, Italy. The great Italian poet after Dante, he was a heroic reader, a solitary, a cripple and hunchback (like Pope and Kierkegaard), and a voluptuary of pessimism. So expert a witness as Schopenhauer said Leopardi’s understanding of life’s futility and misery had “a diverting and stimulating effect” on him. Leopardi’s reputation in the English-speaking world seems minimal though I recall Iris Origo’s Leopardi: A Study in Solitude with fondness. In a 1958 letter to his friend Con Leventhal, Samuel Beckett says Leopardi “was a strong influence when I was young (his pessimism, not his patriotism).”
In Section CXL of The Triumph of Love, Geoffrey Hills writes:
“A se stesso: of Self, the lost cause to end all
lost causes; and which you are not (are you?)
so hopeless as to hope to defend. You’ve
what? Leopardi for the New Age? Mirageous
laterite highway – every few miles
a clump of vultures, the vile spread.
Fama/Fame [It. – ed.] [Hill’s insertion]: celebrity and hunger
gorging on road-kill. A se stesso.”
“A se stesso” – “To Himself” - is the title of a poem by Leopardi translated by Beckett, who mentions it several times in his only extended work of criticism, Proust. The epigraph to that volume is drawn from the same poem: “E fango è il mondo” – “The world is mud.”
Savor this line from Leopardi’s Pensieri, usually translated as Thoughts, and thus a close cognate (and spiritual cousin) of Pascal’s Pensées. This was translated by the American poet W.S. Di Piero:
“We can be sure that most of the people we appoint to educate our children have not been educated. Yet we assume that they can give something they have not themselves received, and that this is the only way one can get an education.”
Based on my recent four and a half months in public school classrooms, little has changed in two centuries.