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This poem is taken from PN Review 29, Volume 9 Number 3, January - February 1983.

Ten Odes (translated by Patrick Creagh) Leopardi

Translator's note: Leopardi published these Ten Odes (Dieci Canzoni) in Bologna in 1824, and they contain the bulk, if not all the best, of what he achieved in verse before that date. They span the years 1818-1823, and though in this same period he had written such worthy favourites as 'L'Infinito', 'Alla Luna' and 'La sera del di di festa', he did not include them, realizing that they would have detracted from the unity of his book. Anthologies rarely include any of the Odes, partly on account of their length, but even more because editors tend to concentrate on the 'idyllic' Leopardi, at the expense of about 99% of what he wrote. The result has been, I think, that the poems offered in such anthologies, including many of Leopardi's masterpieces, are often read out of context, and appear much more abstract and romantic than they really are. And it follows from this that even the best-intentioned reader is sometimes baffled, and even inclined to wonder how on earth Leopardi acquired his reputation as one of the supreme poets of any age or place.

The year 1824 is important in Leopardi's 'poetic career', for it was then that he wrote the original three-quarters of his Operette morali, the prose-work which summed up all the speculations and experiences of his first twenty-five years, and prepared him for the series of truly great poems that began in the spring of 1828. These Odes are therefore the poems of his formative years, running parallel with the enormous intellectual labour so minutely recorded in some thousands of pages of his private journal, the Zibaldone, and the personal feelings he poured into his early letters. Taken together, these works provide the basis for any real understanding of Leopardi, and especially of his greatest poetry, which is often so simple and transparent as to resemble a window with no view beyond. These Odes provide us with a vast part of what we might call Leopardi's landscape.

The writer of these poems is a young man in total conflict with his time and place. He is austerely patriotic, contemptuous, rebellious, and out of step with everyone else because he hears a different drummer. He is proud of his originality, not only of thought but of poetic technique. He revives odd words, makes conscious and consistent use of archaisms and literary echoes, and often constructs sentences that sound more like Latin than Italian. His word-order is a translator's nightmare, but frequently creates unique and beautiful effects. At other times he falls into obscurity, and (especially in the earlier poems) he is not free of the sin of trying too hard.

But in spite of such faults, typical of immaturity, we already hear his own true voice emerging in these Odes. I hope that even in translation it may be possible to discern the development from the heroic rhetoric of 'To Italy', and the rather forced flatteries of the first half of the 'Monument to Dante', to the more convincing and personal note that is struck like a regular bell in 'Angelo Mai'. I think it is in the sixth Ode, 'The Younger Brutus', that Leopardi first achieves complete union between personal feeling and subject matter, and thereafter he never loses it, even in the 'Hymn to the Patriarchs'-scarcely a poem written in the white heat of passion-and still less in the 'Sappho', despite all the classical machinery. In the last of the Odes, 'To His Belovèd Woman', he succeeds in marrying the experience gained in writing these poems to that of the early Idylls ('L'Infinito' and the others), giving us a foretaste of that sublime simplicity he was to attain in 1828, after five years of biting his truant pen.

translated by Patrick Creagh

TO ITALY (1818)

Motherland, I can see the walls, the arches,
Columns and effigies, and the neighbourless
Towers our fathers raised,
But nothing of their glories,
Nothing of the laurels, or of the iron
Our ancient forbears wore. Defenceless now
You go with bare breast and with brow uncrowned.
Alas, how many wounds,
What blood, what bruises! Must I see you thus,
Most comely woman? And so I cry to heaven,
...


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