Leopardi’s “La Sera Del Di Festa” (“The Evening of the Holiday” (that translations not one to which I will refer, but it’s free online) or “The Evening after the Holy Day” in the John Heath-Stubbs translation) is among his most beautiful poems. Though Leopardi tempts critics to talk about philosophy, the pessimism is hardly what makes it worthwhile to return to the poetry. Instead, as with all good poetry, it is the language that draws us in. Reading Leopardi in translation, it is difficult, of course, to discern the precise power of the words—but that it is present even in translation is not testimony to their irrelevance, as if the thought beneath were the true object of interest. Instead, it suggests something about what is working in those words.
But I would like to begin with two moments in the poem that have proved difficult for translation. First, the lines:
Tu dormi: io questo ciel, che si benigno
Appare in vista, a salutar m’affaccio,
E l’antica natura onnipossente,
Che mi fece all’affano.
Second, the lines:
Ecco e fuggito
Il di festivo, ed al festivo il giorno
Volgar succeed, e se ne porta il tempo
Ogni umani accidente.
Here is Jonathan Galassi rendering of both:
Yes, you sleep, while I come to my window
to salute this sky that seems so kind,
and eternal, all-commanding nature
who created me for suffering.
the holiday is gone, the workday follows,
and time makes off with every human accident.
And here is John Heath-Stubbs:
You are asleep:
And I have come abroad to reverence
This sky whose aspect seems to be so gentle,
And ancient Nature powerful over all,
Who has fashioned me for trouble.
For look, the festival
Is over now, an ordinary day
Succeeds tomorrow; all things our race has known
Time likewise bears away.
In general, I prefer Stubbs’ translation, as poetry on its own terms, but here Galassi provides at least a better gloss on the individual words. I know no Italian, but working from scraps of Latin and French, I can see what goes where in the original; I can also see why two phrases in particular, “l’antica natura omnipossente,” and “ogni umani accidente,” are nettlesome for translators. In the former, the word “l’antica” has no easy equivalent; Leopardi wrote a note (which Galassi thankfully quotes) on the mystery and uncertainty of the word in Italian, and I don’t think “antique” or “ancient” in English is either, not least because of what “antiquity” means for English compared to what it means for Italian. In the case of “ogni umani accidente,” the word “umani” is doing something strange, where “human” feels flat; this might be a matter of history rather than language alone, and Wordsworth’s use of “human” in “Thanks to the human heart by which we live” is probably close; Leopardi makes me realize not to deny the shock of novelty implicit in Wordsworth’s line. You can see Heath-Stubbs trying to get at the word from a different angle with “race,” and his translation suggests also the trouble with the term “accidente.” He renders it “thing,” and here again Wordsworth seems the helpful touchstone, since he made “thing” a word of poetic mystery, but “accidente” has something else, theological and philosophical, but also distinct in connotation from “thing.” At the same time Galassi’s “time makes off with every human accident” recalls to me a mother telling a child that the rain will wash away the poo; more seriously, “every human accident” suggests every accident that a person has made, and the unfortunate implication of Galassi’s line is that time ameliorates. Leopardi must be saying though that the contingent, accidental features of human history are themselves liable to being lost in time’s passage. And then against “accidente” is the word that surprisingly, at first, neither Heath-Stubbs nor Galassi translate as “omnipotent”: “omnipossente.” Heath-Stubbs gives “powerful over all,” which is close and avoids the heavy Miltonic shift of diction; Galassi gives “eternal, all-commanding,” which does not entail that anyone follows the commands, and which insists on a temporal dimension (or lack of temporal dimension in the ambiguous “eternal”: for all time; out of time) that is intended to capture “l’antica,” but that instead does something else entirely and cuts in another direction. (Galassi’s translation, which I did not think good on a first reading, becomes worse with analysis; his introduction is preposterous; his notes are helpful but surprisingly narrow in the glosses they provide, since they don’t track allusions consistently).
What’s interesting, to me, is that these two beautiful moments of the poem dovetail with one another—or perhaps represent the two ends from which the rest of the poem is suspended—and the words that are most difficult for translators also seem most crucial to what the poem feels, and to its special heroism: the melancholy, even despair, at the passing of human things is mitigated by a numbed admiration for the power of a nature that is both ancient and the Natura of antiquity. Even though the poem bemoans the loss of antiquity, it retains and revives it in pessimistic guise.
The tension between the phrases indicates also a tension in the style of the poem, in the language, that comes across even in translation: there is in “l’antica Natura omnipossente” something absolute, and absolutely unknowable; and in “ogni umani accidente” there is acknowledgement of the discrete and the particular.
In the poem, both are brought together not only in the poem’s thought, but in its form: above all in the small word that acknowledges both something greater than any part, something capable of absorbing and dominating all, and also something that dissolves the world into parts, and that registers and moves towards all of the parts of the world that are accidental and rich, and that die “bit by bit,” or “little by little,” or, in the original, “a poco a poco,” like the song that smites the poet’s heart in the final lines. That word Is the diminutive, “e” (“and”), and the work it does is significant enough to carry over even into English, where translators cannot but retain it.
It appears in both of the passages I’ve quoted, and in each the work it does is exemplary, since it unites something contingent and concrete with something abstract and absolute: “I salute this sky” (io questo ciel…a salutar m’affacio”) and “l’antica Natura omnipossente”: “ from the festival the common day succeeds, and time snatches up every human accident.” In both it is the same movement, the same joining of particular and general, accidental and absolute, suggesting a relationship that is not elaborated, but also not insisting on any relationship, setting them aside one another on the same plane of experience.
“And” effects much in the poem, from its opening sweep:
Dolce e chiara è la notte e senza vento,
E queta sovra i tetti e in mezzo agli orti
Posa la luna, e di lontan rivela
Serena ogni montagna. O donna mia,
Già tace ogni sentiero, e pei balconi
Rara traluce la notturna lampa:
Tu dormi, che t’accolse agevol sonno
Nelle tue chete stanze; e non ti morde
Cura nessuna; e già non sai nè pensi
Quanta piaga m’apristi in mezzo al petto.
The night is soft and clear, and no wind blows;
The quiet moon stands over roofs and orchards
Revealing from afar each peaceful hill.
Sweetheart, now every field-path is silent;
At intervals along the balconies
The night-long lantern gleams: you are asleep,
And gentle slumber now gathers about
Your quiet chamber, and no single care
Gnaws at your heart; you do not know at all,
Nor think that you have opened in my breast
A very grievous wound.]
Note how different the accumulative effect of Shakespeare’s anaphora in Sonnet 66:
Tir’d with all these, for restful death I cry,
As, to behold desert a beggar born,
And needy nothing trimm’d in jollity,
And purest faith unhappily forsworn,
And gilded honour shamefully misplac’d,
And maiden virtue rudely strumpeted,
And right perfection wrongfully disgrac’d,
And strength by limping sway disabled,
And art made tongue-tied by authority,
And folly, doctor-like, controlling skill,
And simple truth miscall’d simplicity,
And captive good attending captain ill.
Tir’d with all these, from these would I be gone,
Save that, to die, I leave my love alone.
Shakespeare’s “and” both registers the increasing weight of the word, pressing upon the poet, and also the poet’s determined opposition to all that is amiss; Leopardi’s “e” achieves instead a measure of weightlessness, as if registering the incipient dissolution of each discrete entity, and also suggesting, against and within the inertia of despair, a freedom and lightness in the poet’s mind, the capacity to string together now this, and now that. There is no violent yoking here, but instead the “e” is a passivity that is truly a patience and enduring without rush towards any end. The poem comes into itself “a poco a poco,” the single instant contains more than we would think, with each “e” a tributary for Leopardi to pursue, each tributary yielding others in turn, so soon the poem becomes its own occasion, its passage an exemplar of time passing, but also, since it is fixed into place in the shape of the verse.
That the poem does have a shape, even if it would seem to branch out gradually, is suggested by the “ubi sunt” passage that serves as something of a climax, the perspective on the present, the insistent present of the senses catching at a song, turning abruptly to the past and public glory:
Or dov’è il suono
Di que’ popoli antichi? or dov’è il grido
De’ nostri avi famosi, e il grande impero
Di quella Roma, e l’armi, e il fragorio
Che n’andò per la terra e l’oceano?
Tutto è pace e silenzio, e tutto posa
Il mondo, e più di lor non si ragiona.
Where now is the voice
Of the ancient peoples, the clamour of our ancestors
Who were renowned, and that great Empire of Rome,
The arms, and the clash they made by land and sea?
All is silence and peace; the world is still;
There are no tidings now remain of them]
“And” here gathers up the past, holds it together, insists despite time upon all that time has taken away; the word enacts impassioned remembrance and regret. Then its role shifts immediately in the silence that comes after; that “tutto,” the “all” that is silence and peace is not the “all” of the present world, but of the past, faded from the present; we are invited to think that Leopardi is, at this moment, surrounded by silence, but the final lines of the poem imply that the song of the workman has continued to sound in his ears:
Nella mia prima età, quando s’aspetta
Bramosamente il dì festivo, or poscia
Ch’egli era spento, io doloroso, in veglia,
Premea le piume; ed alla tarda notte
Un canto che s’udia per li sentieri
Lontanando morire a poco a poco,
Già similmente mi stringeva il core.
Once in my boyhood, when so eagerly
We would look forward to the holiday,
Finding it over, I lay upon my bed,
Wakeful and very unhappy; late that night
A singing heard along the field-paths
Little by little dying into the distance,
Even as this does now, pierced through my heart]
The silence that replies to his question about the lost glories of Rome is the silence of history, the stillness of the present. We need to hear it that way to recognize how different the “and” in the line “All is silence and peace, and the world reposes” (Tutto è pace e silenzio, e tutto posa) when compared to the “and” in the first line of the poem: the night is soft and clear, and no wind blows”). These lines would seem to be saying the same thing, but the and in the first line of the poem is a subsequent observation, another element of the scene; the “and” in the response to the question is bitter and disappointed, a development of what “silence and peace” involve. Most important though is that Leopardi mirrors the two lines: we are to see not just that the “and” has been transformed but that the poem is no longer intensely personal, no longer a would-be, nearly-was love-lyric to the mysterious “you” of the opening: it is now also historical, about the passing of history. At the same time, I think we can hear in the “and” of the response to the question something like relief; the fact that he does elaborate, that he insists on saying the same thing one way and then another and then another way still resembles someone in a state of relieved disbelief, and not just of stubborn disillusionment. Both are present, as they were not at the start of the poem.
That, of course, is not the end of the poem, though; it does not come full-circle quite so neatly. Instead, it completes another circle, the song of the workman carrying its sound; perhaps it was simply forgotten or ignored, blotted out by the “ubi sunt”; at any rate, it is heard again—though the full apprehension of even that is deferred, and the poem would seem instead to change direction dramatically, away from history to personal recollection. The singing has not stopped, but it does not reassert itself on his attention. Instead, the poem is carried to a memory by the accident of hearing a song, and the consequence of the memory is to recall a similar moment, almost identical to this, in which the same enduring truth, about the fading of things, was known. It is similar to Proust. It also turns on an “and” (“ed” because of the vowel following):
Premea le piume; ed alla tarda note. Here the word does not join what is dissimilar, but testifies to a necessary connection, as if this always happens after a festival; and in that inevitability of the accidental (as if the workman had to pass along singing his song, both then and now), the word once again binds accident and absolute, binding also past and present and so, as in Proust, standing outside of time by standing in two times at once. It escapes the dissolution of the transience that is life from moment to moment by drawing a unity between instants. Most of all, though, (and these are not mutually exclusive options) whereas the ”and” that governed the poem’s opening suggested a happenstance weaving together of sights, sounds, and thoughts, this “and” suggests that the poem was occasioned instead by the fact that something very like to this happened before. This “and” is diagnostic: “I remember being a boy lying in bed, and I heard a singing that pierced my heart by its gradual fading, and that is why I wrote this poem: that accidental occurrence then made these thoughts inevitable now.”
I said that translation preserves the “and”–yet in many of the passages I’ve quoted, especially by Heath-Stubbs, the word itself has been omitted. True; but the effect, and implicit meaning, is not effaced entirely, and a semi-colon, for instance, though not an equivalent for “and,” can achieve, in translation a similar effect of binding together what is simultaneously recognized as distinct. “Little by little” the song dies out at the poem’s end, but “little by little,” by gradual accumulation, one thing and then another, and then another, the poem has come into itself, and this compounding of elements, found in some way in any poem or text, is nonetheless special in Leopardi where the emergence of a whole from parts is neither organic nor architectural, but something else, less a weaving than a gathering, or gleaning, the parts remaining themselves, their separate and individual integrity preserved, even as they become something whole.