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COUNT GIACOMO LEOPARDI (1798-1837)

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Originally appearing in Volume V16, Page 458 of the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica.
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COUNT GIACOMO LEOPARDI (1798-1837), Italian poet, was born at Recanati in the March of Ancona, on the sgth of June 1798. All the circumstances of his parentage and education conspired to foster his precocious and sensitive genius at the expense of his physical and mental health. His family was ancient and patrician, but so deeply embarrassed as to be only rescued from ruin by the energy of his mother, who had taken the control of business matters entirely into her own hands, and whose engrossing devotion to her undertaking seems to have almost dried up the springs of maternal tenderness. Count Monaldo Leopardi, the father, a mere nullity in his own house-hold, secluded himself in his extensive library, to which his nervous, sickly and deformed son had free access, and which absorbed him exclusively in the absence of any intelligent sympathy from his parents, any companionship except that of his brothers and sister, or any recreation in the dullest of Italian towns. The lad spent his days over grammars and dictionaries, learning Latin with little assistance, and Greek and the principal modern languages with none at all. Any ordinarily clever boy would have emerged from this discipline a mere pedant and bookworm. Leopardi came forth a Hellene, not merely a con-summate Greek scholar, but penetrated with the classical conception of life, and a master of antique form and style. At sixteen he composed a Latin treatise on the Roman rhetoricians of the 2nd century, a commentary on Porphyry's life of Plotinus and a history of astronomy; at seventeen he wrote on the popular errors of the ancients, citing more than four hundred authors. A little later he imposed upon the first scholars of Italy by two odes in the manner of Anacreon. At eighteen he produced a poem of considerable length, the A ppressamento alla Morte, which, after being lost for many years, was discovered and published by Zanino Volta. It is a vision of the omnipotence of death, modelled upon Petrarch, but more truly inspired by Dante, and in its conception, machinery and general tone offering a remarkable resemblance to Shelley's Triumph of Life (1822), of which Leopardi probably never heard. This juvenile work was succeeded (1819) by two lyrical compositions which at once placed the author upon the height which he maintained ever afterwards. The ode to Italy, and that on the monument to Dante erected at Florence, gave voice to the dismay and affliction with which .Italy, aroused by the French Revolution from the torpor of the 17th and 18th centuries, contemplated her forlorn and degraded condition, her political impotence, her degeneracy in arts and arms and the frivolity or stagnation of her intellectual life. They were the outcry of a student who had found an ideal of national existence in his books, and to whose disappointment everything in his own circumstances lent additional poignancy. But there is nothing unmanly or morbid in the expression of these sentiments, and the odes are surprisingly exempt from the failings characteristic of young poets. They are remarkably chaste in diction, close and nervous in style, sparing in fancy and almost destitute of simile and metaphor, antique in spirit, yet pervaded by modern ideas, combining Landor's dignity with a considerable infusion of the passion of Byron. These qualities continued to characterize Leopardi's poetical writings throughout his life. A third ode, on Cardinal Mai's discoveries of ancient MSS., lamented in the same spirit of indignant sorrow the decadence of Italian literature. The publication of these pieces widened the breach between Leopardi and his father, a well-meaning but apparently dull and apathetic man, who had lived into the 19th century without imbibing any of its spirit, and who provoked his son's contempt by a superstition unpardonable in a scholar of real learning. Very probably from a mistaken idea of duty to his son, very probably, too, from his own entire dependence in pecuniary matters upon his wife, he for a long time obstinately refused Leopardi funds, recreation, change of scene, everything that could have contributed to combat the growing pessimism which eventually became nothing less than monomaniacal. The affection of his brothers and sister afforded him some consolation, and he found intellectual sympathy in the eminent scholar and patriot Pietro Giordani, with whom he assiduously corresponded- at this period, partly on the ways and means of escaping from " this hermitage, or rather seraglio, where the delights of civil society and the advantages of solitary life are alike wanting." This forms the keynote of numerous letters of complaint and lamentation, as touching' but as effeminate in their pathos as those of the banished Ovid. It must beremembered in fairness that the weakness of Leopardi's eyesight frequently deprived him for months together of the resource of study. At length (1822) his father allowed him to repair to Rome, where, though cheered by the encouragement of C. C. J. Bunsen and Niebuhr, he found little satisfaction in the trifling pedantry that passed for philology and archaeology, while his sceptical opinions prevented his taking orders, the indispensable condition of public employment in the Papal States. Dispirited and with exhausted means, he returned to Recanati, where he spent three miserable years, brightened only by the production of several lyrical masterpieces, which appeared in 1824. The most remarkable is perhaps the Bruto Minore, the condensation of his philosophy of despair. In 1825 he accepted an engagement to edit Cicero and Petrarch for the publisher Stella at Milan, and took up his residence at Bologna, where his life was for a time made almost cheerful by the friendship of the countess Malvezzi. In 1827 appeared the Operette Morali, consisting principally of dialogues and his imaginary biography of Filippo Ottonieri, which have given Leopardi a fame as a prose writer hardly inferior to his celebrity as a poet. Modern literature has few productions so eminently classical in form and spirit, so symmetrical in construction and faultless in style. Lucian is evidently the model; but the wit and irony which were play-things to Lucian are terribly earnest with Leopardi. Leopardi's invention is equal to Lucian's and his only drawback in comparison with his exemplar is that, while the latter's campaign against pretence and imposture commands hearty sympathy, Leopardi's philosophical creed is a repulsive hedonism in the disguise of austere stoicism. The chief interlocutors in his dialogues all profess the same unmitigated pessimism, claim emancipation from every illusion that renders life tolerable to the vulgar, and assert or imply a vast moral and intellectual superiority over unenlightened mankind. When, however, we come to inquire what renders them miserable, we find it is nothing but the privation of pleasurable sensation, fame, fortune or some other external thing which a lofty code of ethics would deny to be either indefeasibly due to man or essential to his felicity. A page of Sartor Resartus scatters Leopardi's sophistry to the winds, and leaves nothing of his dialogues but the con-summate literary skill that would render the least fragment precious. As works of art they are a possession for ever, as contributions to moral philosophy they are worthless, and apart from their literary qualities can only escape condemnation if regarded as lyrical expressions of emotion, the wail extorted from a diseased mind by a diseased body. Filippo Ottonieri is a portrait of an imaginary philosopher, imitated from the biography of a real sage in Lucian's Demonax. Lucian has shown us the philosopher he wished to copy, Leopardi has truly depicted the philosopher he was. Nothing can be more striking or more tragical than the picture of the man superior to his fellows in every quality of head and heart, and yet condemned to sterility and impotence because he has, as he imagines, gone a step too far on the road to truth, and illusions exist for him no more. The little tract is full of remarks on life and character of surprising depth and justice, manifesting what powers of observation as well as reflection were possessed by the sickly youth who had seen so little of the world. Want of means soon drove Leopardi back to Recanati, where, deaf, half-blind, sleepless, tortured by incessant pain, at war with himself and every one around him except his sister, he spent the two most unhappy years of his unhappy life. In May 1831 he escaped to Florence, where he formed the acquaintance of a young Swiss philologist, M. de Sinner. To him he confided his unpublished philological writings, with a view to their appearance in Germany. A selection appeared under the title Excerpta ex schedis criticis J. Leopardi (Bonn, 1834). The remaining MSS. were purchased after Sinner's death by the Italian government, and, together with Leopardi's correspondence with the Swiss philologist, were partially edited by Aulard. In 1831 appeared a new edition of Leopardi's poems, comprising several new pieces of the highest merit. These are in general less austerely classical than his earlier compositions, and evince a greater tendency to description, and a keener interest in the works and ways of ordinary mankind. The Resurrection, composed on occasion of his unexpected recovery, is a model of concentrated energy of diction, and The Song of the Wandering Shepherd in Asia is one of the highest flights of modern lyric poetry. The range of the author's ideas is still restricted, but his style and melody are unsurpassable. Shortly after the publication of these pieces (October 1831) Leopardi was driven from Florence to Rome by an unhappy attachment. His feelings are powerfully expressed in two poems, To Himself and Aspasia, which seem to breathe wounded pride at least as much as wounded love. In 1832 Leopardi returned to Florence, and there formed acquaintance with a young Neapolitan, Antonio Ranieri, himself an author of merit, and destined to enact towards him the part performed by Severn towards Keats, an enviable title to renown if Ranieri had not in his old age tarnished it by assuming the relation of Trelawny to the dead Byron. Leopardi accompanied Ranieri and his sister to Naples, and under their care enjoyed four years of comparative tranquillity. He made the acquaintance of the German poet Platen, his sole modern rival in the classical perfection of form, and composed La Ginestra, the most consummate of all his lyrical masterpieces, strongly resembling Shelley's Mont Blanc, but more perfect in expression. He also wrote at Naples The Sequel to the Battle of the Frogs and Mice, a satire in ottava rima on the abortive Neapolitan revolution of 1820, clever and humorous, but obscure from the local character of the allusions. The more painful details of his Neapolitan residence may be found by those who care to seek for them in the deplorable publication of Ranieri's peevish old age (Sette anni di sodalizio). The decay of Leopardi's constitution continued; he became dropsical; and a sudden crisis of his malady, unanticipated by himself alone, put an end to his life-long sufferings on the 15th of June 1837. The poems which constitute Leopardi's principal title to immortality are only forty-one in number, and some of these are merely fragmentary. They may for the most part be described as odes, meditative soliloquies, or impassioned addresses, generally couched in a lyrical form, although a few are in magnificent blank verse. Some idea of the style and spirit of the former might be obtained by imagining the thoughts of the last book of Spenser's Faerie Queene in the metre of his Epithalamium. They were first edited complete by Ranieri at Florence in 1845, forming, along with the Operette Morali, the first volume of an edition of Leopardi's works, which does not, however, include The Sequel to the Battle of the Frogs and Mice, first printed at Paris in 1842, nor the afterwards discovered writings. Vols. ii.-iv. contain the philological essays and translations, with some letters, and vols. v. and vi. the remainder of the correspondence. Later editions are those of G. Chiarini and G. Mestica. The juvenile essays preserved in his father's library at Recanati were edited by Cugnoni (Opere inedite) in 1879, with the 'consent of the family. See Cappelleti, Bibliografia Leopardiana (Parma, 1882). Leopardi's biography is mainly in his letters (Epistolario, 1st ed., 1849, 5th ed., 1892), to which his later biographers (Brandes, Bouche-Leclercq, Rosa) have merely added criticisms, excellent in their way, more particularly Brandes's, but generally over-rating Leopardi's significance in the history of human thought. W. E. Gladstone's essay (Quart. Rev., 1850), reprinted in vol. ii. of the author's Gleanings, is too much pervaded by the theological spirit, but is in the main a pattern of generous and discriminating eulogy. There are excellent German translations of the poems by Heyse and Brandes. An English translation of the essays and dialogues by C. Edwards appeared in 1882, and most of the dialogues were translated with extraordinary felicity by James Thomson, author of The City of Dreadful Night, and originally published in the National Reformer. (R. G.)
End of Article: COUNT GIACOMO LEOPARDI (1798-1837)
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