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This article is taken from PN Review 40, Volume 11 Number 2, November - December 1984.

Leopardi John Pilling

'Other poets may be able to compose at will,' wrote Leopardi incredulously in a letter to his cousin; 'I am absolutely unable to do so'. So it would seem, indeed, for the Canti by which posterity remembers him amount to less than forty poems occupying little more than a hundred pages. But it was not only, or not merely, a defective will that conditioned Leopardi's impulses, since at no time in his abbreviated life were his personal circumstances of the kind that make for smooth and untroubled composition. In childhood he was the victim of a stern and repressive mother and an insensitive father; in adolescence he engaged in 'seven years of mad and desperate study' which left him hunchbacked and ill; in adulthood he suffered recurrent moods of gloom which, either as the consequence of poor health or as the cause of it, could from time to time reduce him to a condition of impotent inertia. He had been born in a cultural backwater in a country whose literary traditions had largely atrophied, and he was never to enjoy a fame commensurate with his abilities until he was beyond the reach of such consolations. Little wonder, then, though we may find it a less compelling distinction than that developed in Schiller's treatise on the 'naive' and 'sentimental', that Leopardi was moved to ask himself whether there might not be some point in distinguishing between writers who were powerful and those who were simply prolific.

Unlike Goethe, ...


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