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Giacomo Leopardi and The Moon as a Mysterious Symbol of Life


Giacomo Leopardi is one of the most influential authors of the 19th Century and Western Literature. In the inaugural lecture Leggerezza (Lightness) of his book Lezioni Americane (1988), the celebrated Italian author Italo Calvino originally aimed to explore the recurrent motif of the moon in world literature across different epochs and cultures. However, he eventually decided to dedicate the entire discourse to Giacomo Leopardi. This choice was a testament to the unparalleled linguistic "miracle" Leopardi wrought, relieving language of its burdens and making it similar to the subtle radiance of the moon. Within his ceaseless reflections on life's unbearable weight, Leopardi crafted images of ineffable lightness—be it in the graceful flight of birds, the mellifluous strains of a woman's song wafting from an open window, the crystalline clarity of the atmosphere, or, above all, the moon itself (Maggiore, 2016).


Giacomo Leopardi's indelible influence as one of the most preeminent writers in literary history is attributed to the profound depth of his philosophical musings and the exquisite finery of his poetic language. His contemplations on the human condition, often tinged with melancholy and existential questions, are renowned for their intellectual rigor and emotional resonance. Furthermore, his unparalleled mastery of language allows him to infuse his work with an extraordinary blend of lyrical beauty and poignant reflection. These qualities collectively position Giacomo Leopardi as a towering figure in literature, making his writings a cornerstone of intellectual exploration and artistic expression.


Life

Giacomo Leopardi's life is a captivating journey marked by intellectual enthusiasm, the intricacies of family dynamics, and the persistent shadow of his fragile health. Born into a noble but financially precarious family in 1798, he was the eldest of nine siblings. His family's noble lineage was juxtaposed with their tenuous financial stability, primarily due to his father's genuine passion for collecting and staunch allegiance to royalist ideals.


Giacomo Leopardi portrait
Figure 1: The most famous painting of Giacomo Leopardi (Ferrazzi, 1820).

Leopardi's early years were extraordinary, showcasing a remarkable intellect and a relentless drive for self-study. By the tender age of 10, he was engrossed in Greek and Latin texts, delving into the complexities of Hebrew, and exploring the richness of modern languages, all within the walls of his family's expansive library. This thirst for knowledge led to an astonishing output of approximately 240 works in just seven years. His intellectual horizons extended far beyond classical authors, embracing Enlightenment philosophers like Locke, Voltaire, and Rousseau.


As he entered his late teens, Leopardi experienced a profound transformation, transitioning from abstract erudition to the captivating world of poetry and literature. This evolution was not merely a literary preference but was also deeply intertwined with his declining health and profound contemplation of life's essence. The literary masterpieces of Goethe and Byron served as a wellspring of inspiration, although he resisted full immersion in the romantic fervor of his contemporaries.


Leopardi's life was not merely a solitary endeavor; friendships with like-minded intellectuals and notable figures like Pietro Giordani enriched it (Damiani, 2002). These connections led to pivotal shifts in his political views, and his compositions, such as "All'Italia" and "A Dante," resonated with those who shared his ideals, particularly within the circles of the Carbonari.



Figure 2: A litography of Giacomo Leopardi on his death bed (Ranieri, 1845).

Leopardi's desire for change eventually led him to Rome, accompanied by his close friend Antonio Ranieri. Rome promised new horizons and cultural stimulation, but it did not meet his high expectations. His health continued to wane, prompting a return to the familiarity of Recanati. In this phase, he continued to craft insightful and satirical works that criticized the prevailing optimism of his era, advocating for compassion, human solidarity, and the recognition of life's inherent limitations.

Despite his immense impact on literature and philosophy, Leopardi's fragile health remained an enduring companion. His deteriorating condition ultimately led him to Naples, where he sought refuge in the warmer climate and the company of his friend Antonio Ranieri. He would spend his final days in Naples, where he passed away in 1837.


Leopardi's life was a ceaseless quest for intellectual enlightenment, marked by unwavering determination, the complexities of familial bonds, and an unrelenting pursuit of knowledge. His legacy is an enduring testament to the power of human intellect and its relentless exploration of the human condition.


Vast Library of the Leopardi Family
Figure 3: The library of the Leopardi family in Recanati. More than 12,000 books are housed here (Chemelli, 2022).
Works: Poetry and Prose

Leopardi's literary production is illuminated by a constellation of profound works that continue to captivate readers with their enduring significance. L'Infinito (The Infinite, 1819), stands as a poetic zenith, capturing the essence of human longing and the limitations of existence in a mere fourteen lines. This introspective masterpiece reflects his deep existential introspection, resonating with the timeless yearnings of the human soul. La Ginestra (The Broom), written in 1836, is a philosophical essay in poetic form where Leopardi critiques the hostile disposition of nature toward humanity, extolling the values of compassion and human solidarity (Ferroni, 2002).


The Operette Morali (Small Moral Works), composed in 1824 and published in 1827, is a collection of dialogues and essays that delve into the profound limitations of human reason in its struggle against the natural world. These satirical yet thought-provoking pieces challenge the prevailing optimism of Leopardi's time, offering a stark contrast and an exploration of life's complexities. Le Ricordanze (Remembrances), from 1829, is a deeply personal and reflective poem that encapsulates the beauty of youth, the transience of life, and the enduring power of memory. These works collectively illuminate Leopardi's remarkable ability to blend lyrical beauty with intellectual rigor, touching upon profound philosophical themes and resonating with readers across generations. Giacomo Leopardi's exploration of the human condition through these works has left an indelible mark on the literary world, rendering him a pivotal figure in the canon of world literature.


Themes: Nature

The depth of the themes explored by Leopardi reflects his innate ability to feel everything profoundly and comprehensively. It is no coincidence that when discussing Leopardi, the focus often shifts to the individual, analyzing him primarily as a human being before an artist (Bologna & Rocchi, 2010).

This analysis stems from the philosophical tradition championed by Croce (1866-1952) who extensively studied Leopardi's work. Within Leopardi's writings, he sought confirmation of his insights, particularly the undeniable connection between life and illness. Leopardi suffered from kyphosis and other chronic respiratory conditions. His inclination towards rebellion and escapism however underscored a sense of defiance against a fragile body.


Elio Germano in the movie Il Giovane Favoloso playing Leopardi
Figure 4: A scene from the movie “Il Giovane Favoloso”, about Leopardi’s life (2014).

The mistake made by Croce and other critics lies in their failure to grasp that this deterministic relationship between illness and literary production is not unidirectional. Leopardi was a person brimming with vitality and joy, as evident from his Zibaldone, a collection of suggestive comments on various topics ranging from philosophy to astronomy, and some of his personal writings.


One may ask what the main themes of his poetry are. Giacomo Leopardi's poetry is composed of a profound and enduring exploration of the human condition, richly woven with themes that continue to resonate across the ages. Nature, with its majestic and unyielding presence, serves as a sharp and ever-present backdrop to many of his works. Central to Leopardi's poetic work is the profound sense of human longing and the inherent fragility of existence. His verses often echo the insatiable desire to transcend the limitations of human experience and connect with the sublime beauty of the natural world (Damiani, 2002). Leopardi's reverence for nature is unmistakable, and he often exalts its grandeur and beauty. Yet, this celebration of nature is intricately intertwined with a bitter recognition of its indifference to human suffering. Within his poetry, nature becomes both a source of solace and an emblem of life's harsh realities. This dichotomy emphasizes themes of existential anguish and the relentless mutability of life, where the magnificence of the natural world stands in stark contrast to the finite and often sorrowful human experience.

The subsequent embracement of Leopardi with nihilistic tenets, foreshadowing philosophers such as Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, undeniably reaffirms his desire for reconciliation between the soul and the body in the existential void (Dondero, 2020).

The exploration of the human spirit that Leopardi endures is a relevant theme in his poetry. His verses delve into the human condition, portraying its struggle against adversity and its unyielding yearning for transcendence. Through eloquent and evocative language, Leopardi's poetry invites readers to ponder life's intricacies and the relentless pursuit of meaning in a world marked by both extraordinary beauty and profound suffering.


View on the Recanati landscape with trees and fields
Figure 5: The Hill of the "Infinito", in Recanati, where Leopardi has written the homonymous poem (Teseo, 2019).

As readers delve into Leopardi's verses, they encounter a vivid portrayal of the human-nature relationship. Nature is depicted as both a source of inspiration and a reflection of human experience. Leopardi's poetry captures the human capacity for introspection and contemplation, drawing attention to the symbiotic connection between the inner world of the human spirit and the external world of nature. This dynamic fusion of themes in Leopardi's poetry creates a rich tapestry of thought, emotion, and reflection, captivating and inspiring readers worldwide as they navigate the intricacies of existence.


The Pessimism and The Moon

The image of the moon in Leopardi, as it appears after persistent investigations, continues to have conspicuous shadows, to the point that it is varied, prepared from afar, and of a composite material.

The moon can operate as a backdrop, a benevolent shield, upon which humans cast their deceptions, their delusions, providing solace and comfort. In essence, it serves as a lamp to illuminate the necessity for deceit, an inherent need in humans to envision serene projections that obscure the anguish stemming from the "solar" truth while simultaneously dispelling the darkness of nothingness (Petrocchi, 1987).

Here lies Leopardi's celestial body. The lunar "pages" penned by the poet from Recanati are adequate for this task. Giacomo Leopardi's relationship with the moon in his poetry can be seen as a reflection of his evolving stages of pessimism and his deepening exploration of the human condition. In his early works, such as "Alla Luna" (To the Moon), written in 1819, Leopardi regarded the moon as a symbol of unreachable beauty. The moon represented the unattainable ideals and disillusionment of youth. As he transitioned to the Romantic phase of his life, his perspective on the moon grew to be more complex. While he admired the moon's beauty, he also contemplated the vastness of the universe and the insignificance of human existence. The moon now embodied both beauty and the melancholic recognition of life's limitations (Rota, 1994).


Watercolor poet Leopardi gazing
Figure 6: Leopardi in an illustration (Battistel, 2022).

As his pessimism delved deeper into philosophical realms, the moon became a symbol of reflection and contemplation on the limitations of human existence and the quest for the infinite. In works like Canto Notturno di un Pastore Errante dell'Asia (Nightly Song of a Wandering Shepherd in Asia), composed in 1829, Leopardi's contemplation of the moon took on a profound philosophical tone. The moon represented the infinite, and his poetry delved into existential musings about the human condition, suffering, and the pursuit of the unattainable (Petrocchi, 1987).


In the later stages of his life, particularly during his time in Recanati, Leopardi's pessimism matured and reached its zenith. His work during this period, including poems like La Ginestra (The Broom), reflects a refined and unflinching examination of the human condition. He combined a deep sense of existential anguish with an acute appreciation of life's fleeting beauty and the inevitable suffering that accompanies it. This phase represents Leopardi's most profound and enduring contribution to philosophical pessimism.

Leopardi's changing perspectives on the moon mirrored his evolving attitudes toward life and existence. The moon's symbolism in his poetry aligned with his philosophical development and his increasing depth of thought. It was a testament to his poetic and philosophical heroism that he could use the same celestial object to convey different facets of his complex relationship with the world and human existence. The moon, with its ever-present but distant presence, became a mirror through which Leopardi contemplated the complexities of the human experience and the challenges of existence, making him one of the most influential writers in the history of literature (Ferroni, 2012).


A Brief Analysis of the Canto Notturno di un Pastore Errante dell’Asia

The Nightly Song of a Wandering Shepherd in Asia is perhaps one of Leopardi's most significant works for understanding his relationship with the world that surrounds him. Written in 1829 and part of the Canti collection, it is a lyrical masterpiece that encapsulates the poet's contemplations on life, the human condition, and the contrast between the illusory and harsh realities of existence.


Moon as a Woman with a shepherd looking in a starry night
Figure 7: A fan art of a shepherd gazing at the moon portrayed as a woman (Lej-Ah, 2014).

The poem is structured as a dialogue between the shepherd and the moon. The shepherd's solitude and wandering in the Asian landscape under the moon's light symbolize the human quest for meaning and happiness in a world marked by suffering and disillusionment. The moon, as a timeless and serene celestial body, represents the unattainable ideal and serves as a source of solace for the shepherd (Rota, 1994). Leopardi uses vivid imagery and metaphors to convey the themes of human transience, the elusiveness of happiness, and the desire to escape the limitations of the human condition. The shepherd's lament and the moon's unchanging beauty create a poignant contrast, highlighting the inescapable reality of human suffering (Maggiore, 2016).

Ultimately, Canto notturno is a profound exploration of the human longing for transcendence, the yearning for a higher meaning, and the awareness of the futility of these desires. Leopardi's work is a testament to the enduring relevance of his thoughts and his ability to convey complex philosophical ideas through lyrical and accessible poetry.

In these verses, hendecasyllabic and septenary lines alternate without restraint, harmonizing with melodious cadences. The rhymes are unconstrained, adapting to the demands of inspiration. The sole consistent feature is the last line of each stanza, which perpetually returns with a rhyme ending in "-ale." Leopardi employed this to infuse a sense of fatigue, desolation, and sorrow (Binni, 2008).

van gogh starry night with blue waves and stars
Figure 8: "Starry Night" (Van Gogh, 1889).

Notably, Leopardi introduces a distinct character to serve as the narrator of the poem. While this approach may not be evident in his earlier works (for example, To the Moon), it becomes more prominent in his philosophical songs such as To Brutus and The Last Song of Sappho. In this poem Leopardi's literary persona transcends ancient character inspirations, now embodying a nomadic shepherd from Asia. This shepherd, uncultured, primitive, and detached from Leopardi's cultural context, serves as a universal vessel for the poet's perspective. Leopardi asserts that the suffering inherent in existence is not unique to modern humanity but rather shared by all living beings.

In this sense, the poem marks Leopardi's definitive embrace of the "cosmic" dimension of his pessimism. Whereas in previous years, he entertained the idea that humans were intended for happiness, he has now attained full awareness that unhappiness is an all-encompassing and innate aspect of all living beings. Nature, once perceived as a benevolent mother, is now regarded as a harsh and unsympathetic mother, dooming all living creatures to lives fraught with pain and suffering (Dondero, 2020).


The entire composition exudes a melodic, lyrical quality. Some critics, like Dondero in his essay (2020), likened it to an "ancient and primal lullaby." This rhythm is achieved through the constant use of "-ale" rhymes (as previously mentioned) and by employing straightforward syntax, featuring concise and impactful sentences. Frequent lexical repetitions further contribute to the overall cadence. The first line, for instance, commences and concludes with "che fai," (What are you doing), and the word "luna" (moon) appears three times in the first stanza.


Leopardi invites readers to contemplate the inherent suffering of life, the limitations of human existence, and the undeniable weight of our existence on Earth. In doing so, he contributes to the ongoing discourse on human suffering and the human condition. The poet's exploration of these themes transcends temporal and cultural boundaries, continuing to captivate and resonate with readers today, as it did almost two centuries ago. Leopardi's Canto Notturno serves as a poetic testament to the universality of human suffering and the enduring relevance of profound philosophical reflection in our lives.


Bibliographical References

Binni, W. (2014), Leopardi. Scritti 1969-1997. Il Ponte Editore.


Bologna, C. & Rocchi P., (2010). Rosa fresca aulentissima. L’Ottocento. Loescher.

Croce, B. (1934), La Poesia. Adelphi.

Damiani, R. (2002). All'apparir del vero. Vita di Giacomo Leopardi. Mondadori «Oscar Saggi».

Dondero, M. (2020). Leopardi Personaggio, Il poeta nei «Canti» e nella letteratura italiana contemporanea. Carocci editore.

Ferroni, G. (2012). Storia della Letteratura Italiana: L’Ottocento. Loescher.

Leopardi, in Enciclopedia Treccani 1993, (https://www.treccani.it/enciclopedia/giacomo-leopardi_(Enciclopedia-Italiana)/).

Maggiore, R. (2016). Calvino, Leopardi e la Luna, «Tra levitazione desiderata e privazione sofferta», in Studi Novecenteschi, 43(92), 371–398. https://www.jstor.org/stable/26551486.

Petrocchi, G. (1987). Il Tramonto della Luna in Italianistica: Rivista Di Letteratura Italiana, 16(3), 347–354. http://www.jstor.org/stable/23928524.

Rota, P. (1994). Luci Nuove sulla Luna Leopardiana, in Italianistica: Rivista Di Letteratura Italiana, 23(2/3), 521–527. http://www.jstor.org/stable/23933732.

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Gość
12 lis 2023
Giacomo Leopardi, a 19th-century Italian poet, is known for his works, which often turn to natural symbolism and metaphors to convey complex and profound ideas about human existence. I wrote scientific papers on philosophy residency personal statement editor here they help me perfectly with my assignments, I recommend it to everyone!
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