Leopardi's reception in England: 1837 to 1927.
William Wordsworth died in 1850 and, while he had a larger audience than Leopardi did in 1837, he, too, had suffered neglect, first from living in the shadow of Lord Byron, and then in the 1840s from living long after his poetic powers had ebbed away. Matthew Arnold, a disciple of Wordsworth and Goethe, and "the one major Victorian writer of whom it can be said without metaphor that he was nurtured in the Wordsworthian presence" (Gill 174), asks England and Europe to remember his mentor in his celebrated "Memorial Verses" read at Wordsworth's graveside: "Ah! since dark days still bring to light / Man's prudence and man's fiery might, / Time may restore us in his course / Goethe's sage mind and Byron's force; / But where will Europe's latter hour / Again find Wordsworth's healing power?" (1.5863). These lines and virtually the entire poem express the sentiments of much of Victorian society. Arnold's lines imply a keenly held aversion to any rigorously held pessimism, especially if held by a poet who allegedly embodies romanticism. The Victorian attitude toward an uplifting vision, represented by Arnold's "Memorial Verses," suggests their resistance toward Leopardi's poetry.
In "Memorial Verses," Arnold appeals to the predominant view of the Victorians, that of Wordsworth the sage and moral philosopher rather than Wordsworth the poet. Although his reputation was in some decline at the time of his death, Wordsworth both teaches and anticipates the moral outlook of Victorian society that is predicated upon a profound relationship between nature and man. Arnold emphasizes Wordsworth's moral and psychological outlook, as well as his bracing and invigorating optimism: "Others will teach us how to dare, / And against fear our breast to steel; / Others will strengthen us to bear- / But who, and who, will make us feel?" (l. 64-67). Arnold stresses Wordsworth's salutary influence, his capacity to heal a nation obsessed with commerce. Arnold meditates about the present world and Wordsworth's capacity to rejuvenate it.
Leopardi's reception in England was intermittent and inconclusive from 1837 to at least 1880. Victorian expectations, governed as they were by the dominance of Wordsworth and perhaps Tennyson, made Leopardi's reception difficult by even the most committed readers of poetry. The Victorian reader's expectations did not match what they observed in Leopardi's work:
Leopardi's loss of faith and the resulting expressions of despair and negativism were most difficult for his Victorian admirers to face. They frequently turned away from the darker utterances whether in prose or poetry, sometimes refusing to quote them to readers--in effect censoring the writer in the very act of introducing him. (Casale and Dooley 46-47)
Simply put, these readers and reviewers could not cope with Leopardi's philosophical pessimism. Since most of the English readers were reading translations of Leopardi, they experienced only the bare outline of the aesthetic reception of the Canti.
Leopardi's reception in England was undoubtedly clouded by two forces: the first was Wordsworth's considerable reputation as a moral philosopher for the English people, and the reception of both him and his poetry as a result of it; second, Wordsworth's status permitted a relationship between producer of the work and the work itself, on the one hand, and his audience or his consumers on the other. Because Leopardi's work ascribed to a different world view, the aesthetic reception of his poems, the decisive first step in any reception process, proved difficult, particularly in light of most of his audience in England reading translations once removed from the originals. The basis for historical mediation of the work existed in the context of Leopardi's patriotic poems that were seen to some degree as a response to Italian politics of the early nineteenth century. The informed Victorian tied Italian poetry with Italian patriotism and the Italian desire for freedom from political tyranny, no matter how subtle. At the end of the nineteenth century, an American commentator makes the following observations about the early nineteenth century in Italy: "[A] portion of Italian literature, which, apart from its own intrinsic merits, represents a people that labored patiently, fought desperately, and suffered much in the attainment of that personal liberty and national independence so dear to all true men" (Page 126). The Victorians who read Leopardi's work understood the political climate and his relationship to it. To this extent they were sympathetic, but because the initial aesthetic response faltered, the connection of Leopardi's poetry to Italian patriotism proved difficult, undermining the reception and understanding of historical mediation until the arrival of Matthew Arnold.
Attempting to account for Leopardi's slow reception in Victorian England, after pointing out that Leopardi had been translated into German as early as 1823, and that he had been the subject of a critical article in French in 1833, Beatrice Corrigan offers this observation:
But during his lifetime an unfortunate barrier had already risen between English and Italian men of letters. No longer did English poets seek out, as Byron had done in Milan in 1816, their Italian confreres, and the English periodicals were interested in Italian politics rather than in Italian literature. (171)
The English were interested in Italian politics, especially after the events of 1848. But often their interest purportedly benefited the fortunes of modern Italian letters, since curiosity arose about Italian writers, such as Alfieri, Foscolo, Manzoni, and Leopardi, who spoke eloquently on behalf of Italian nationalism. Whenever the literary critics raised the right questions about Leopardi's work, which was not often, they invariably gave the English readers the wrong answers. In Giacomo Leopardi, J. H. Whitfield uses the phrase "admiring disapproval" (5) to describe the reception of Leopardi's work, especially its philosophical implications. Victorian propriety enforced its prejudices whenever Leopardi was "written up," often anonymously.
Henry Crabb Robinson, the noted diarist famous for his literary friendships, met Leopardi in Florence in 1831. In his diary published in 1869, he describes Leopardi as "a sickly poet of high reputation" (II 740). Those in England who read this passage were invited to conclude that Leopardi's physical health accounted for his pessimism. While his physical deformities may have explained his pessimism, the typical reader did not excuse it.
The first critical appraisal of Leopardi's work in England occurred in 1837 in the Westminster Review. Written by Giuseppe Mazzini, who was living in exile due to his radical activities, the article began the downward spiral of Leopardi's reputation in England. Mazzini divides his contemporaries into two camps: those men of letters who were followers of Alessandro Manzoni, and those who followed Francesco Domenico Guerrazzi. Leopardi is considered to be among those few individuals who belong to neither group. Instead, Leopardi is guilty of hesitating "between imitation and innovation." Mazzini goes on to say:
Some, as Nicolini [...] clothe a classic outline with drapery of Romanticism. Others, as Leopardi of Recanati (who died at Naples on the 14th of June) endeavor to express the feelings and the thoughts of the present day in a form and style savouring of the classics. Neither the dramas of the first nor the Petrarchian songs of the second at all deserve, in our opinion, the high reputation they have acquired from sentiments of patriotism with which they abound. The former contain pieces of exquisite poetry, and the latter breathe a spirit of profound melancholy, a characteristic of the age, but they are nevertheless the efforts of a transitory period, which the future is destined to efface. (141)
Mazzini's article had the dubious distinction of being the only record of Leopardi's death published in England, and in regard to his remarks about the poetic value of the Canti, Mazzini was merely another compatriot doing in England what Leopardi had grown accustomed to in Italy which was to be trivialized and misunderstood. Leopardi's reception in England might have been quite different had Mazzini refrained from consigning the Canti to oblivion.
Ten years went by before Leopardi appeared before the English public again, and this time it was under rather peculiar circumstances. Identified as Mr. George Eliot by one of his biographers, George Henry Lewes, novelist, biographer, and critic, wrote an anonymous article about Leopardi, which appeared in Fraser's Magazine in 1848. Lewes' article rather misleadingly mentions that an Englishman brought Leopardi's name before the public's eye the year before in a novel. Oddly, Lewes is talking about his own novel, entitled Ranthorpe, which appeared in 1847:
One of the themes of Ranthorpe is [...] the formative influence of suffering on a poet, and though Leopardi is not mentioned in the text, quotations from his poems and prose are used as epigraphs for four chapters. (qtd. in Corrigan 174)
In his novel Lewes quotes passages from "Ultimo Canto di Saffo," "Il Primo Amore," and "Il Sogno," apparently to bolster the theme of such chapter headings as "Despair," "The Miseries of Genius," "The Dream," "Waking Dreams and Waking Sadness."
Lewes's novel, entitled Ranthorpe after the leading character, is about Percy Ranthorpe, an artist. In this novel, Lewes quotes Leopardi to provide epigraphs to four chapters, and it is clear that he has been profoundly influenced by Leopardi's verse, even taking his own advice in the last paragraph to his article quoted above. In Chapter 11, entitled "Despair," Ranthorpe verges on suicide, before he is saved by a "queer looking old man whom he had seen so often at the theatre" (165). When Ranthorpe attempts to explain himself, the old man's response seems to have Leopardi in mind. The old man, later introduced to us as Richard Thornton, says:
Failure, what is it? A proof of incapacity? No; not a bit! Only a proof that the audience and you are in different regions, and don't understand each other. Yours may be the region of darkness, certainly; but it may also be the region of such brilliant light that the boobies can no more see in it, than they can in darkness: too much light is intolerable to owls. Who knows whether your failure be not more glorious than success? (166-167)
It is as if Lewes insists that his readers seek a "clearer, fuller knowledge" of Leopardi's train of thought as it is conveyed in this novel.
In his article in Fraser's Magazine entitled "Life and Works of Leopardi," Lewes, writing anonymously, begins with a biographical sketch of Leopardi, followed by the usual judgment of "admiring disapproval":
As the "poet of despair," we know of no equal to Leopardi ... His own experience of life had been restrained within a small sphere of misfortunes: it was intense but not extensive; consequently his lyre had but few strings ... his poems ... give no image of the universal life ... His grief is so real and so profound, that it is inexhaustible in expression; to say nothing of the beauty in which he embalms it. (664)
Lewes adds that "L'Infinito" is about Leopardi's "yearning for a release from life." Such a comment suggests that Lewes had little understanding of Leopardi's philosophy and a negligible ability to judge his art. Nevertheless, Lewes was the first to translate Leopardi into English, choosing "Amore e Morte," "which was to prove a favorite with English translators," and he ends his article which includes his translation by asking that the reader "admire the writer while condemning his opinions" (Corrigan 176). Throughout their careers, George Eliot "and George Henry Lewes were deep in Wordsworth, 'with fresh admiration for his beauties and tolerance for his faults', and a month later (by February 1858) they had finished The Excursion, 'which repaid us for going to the end by an occasional fine passage even to the last'" (Gill 145-146).
Lewes's article in Fraser's describes Leopardi's abiding sympathies with Greece and Rome. Leopardi admires the ancient world when poetry was naive rather than sentimental, when the ancient poet believed in the illusions that nature presented, while the modern sentimental poet is removed from nature's capacity to generate illusion. Lewes ends his essay with a summary of Victorian beliefs and the risks associated with them:
Our task is done. We have introduced the name of a great writer and most unhappy man, and, in a general way, indicated the nature of his genius and the cast of his thoughts. It remains for those who can appreciate and enjoy the one, without being ungenerous toward the other,--who can admire the writer while condemning his opinions, and who, in the calm serenity of their own minds, can still recognize a corner of doubt, and believe that, so long as doubt and sorrow shall be the lot of mankind, the poet whose lyre vibrates powerfully with their accents will deserve a place amongst the musical teachers,--it remains for them to seek in Leopardi's works a clearer, fuller knowledge, of the man. (669)
Lewes understands that his contemporaries are inclined to enjoy Leopardi's genius but not "the cast of his thoughts." Lewes asserts that Leopardi is unquestionably a great poet, but his vision of the world, so filled with "doubt and sorrow," will be difficult for Lewes's English contemporaries to accept.
After George Henry Lewes' efforts to promote Leopardi, W. E. Gladstone published an article in the Quarterly Review in March 1850. Gladstone's article persuasively conveys that its author did considerable research on Leopardi, largely to ascertain his reception within the Italian culture. Gladstone's thoroughness has prompted commentary from subsequent critics. D. E. Rhodes, for instance, declares that "Gladstone is less interested in the biography of Leopardi than in an attempt to appreciate his poetry and explain his atheism" (59). Rhodes also identifies another key observation by Gladstone, who "calls [Leopardi] eminently a subjective poet, whose power consists more in the reflective than in the strictly creative" (59).
Gladstone begins his essay by citing a Victorian belief about the nature of creativity and genius:
Genius, unless guided by a malignant spirit, has an indefensible claim to our sympathy in its reverses, and in its achievements to our fervid admiration: nor is there any more touching, any more instructive lesson, than such as are afforded by its failures to attempt to realize, out of its own resources and without the aid of Divine revelation, either intellectual contentment or a happy life. (295)
In his sympathetic portrait of Leopardi and his work, Gladstone points to the political, social, and religious misfortunes of his cultural inheritance, as well as his "own personal difficulties and calamities" (295). As a result, his poetry and his letters declare a solemn and mournful pessimism that is uncompromising but at the same time difficult for the English reader to accept.
Despite Leopardi's sentiments that have "become trite and almost vulgar through use," Gladstone asserts that his poetry displays considerable eloquence, thought, and passion, along with a "profound harmony," "majesty of expression," and masculine energy" (311). Gladstone's description is sincere enough on its own grounds; however, it is also meant to offset Leopardi's profound and relentless introspection that typically does not permit, for instance, "majesty of expression." Gladstone gives high marks to the poet and the poetic, but has little regard for the significance or thematics of Leopardi's work. Gladstone indicates quite clearly his awareness of Leopardi's pessimism and sense of nullity.
After Gladstone's article, two images of Leopardi surface: "Leopardi the doomed, suffering Romantic artist (following Lewes); and Leopardi the apostate genius (following Gladstone)." Gradually, a new perspective emerges: "that of Leopardi as a spokesman for pessimism, a growing phenomenon in the latter decades of the century." (Casale and Dooley 54)
The first writer to recognize Leopardi's stature with loud applause was Louisa Anna Merivale, the daughter of a distinguished Italian scholar. In 1865 she published an anthology of modern Italian poetry, including nine of her own translations of Leopardi's poems (Corrigan 180). Merivale's critique, which had appeared two years before in Fraser's Magazine, was the single outstanding critical appreciation of Leopardi's work to be found in the period. She says that to find an equal to Leopardi as a poet "we shall have at least three centuries to travel backwards" (Merivale 615). She compares Leopardi to Foscolo in terms of their mutual commitment to the Greek world and its poetic spirit. According to Merivale, Leopardi is "deeply penetrated with the querulous, ironical, melancholy views of life, characteristic of modern skepticism" (615) in a manner similar to Goethe's Faust. Merivale further states that since Leopardi's "patriotic feeling could not be otherwise than earnest and intense, it assumed the aspect rather of despondency and scorn than of hope and confraternal sympathy." Leopardi's poetic vision starkly contrasts the present with a glorious past: "Beheld in the light of his glowing imagination, his country's degradation seemed ghastly in its abjectness, while the glories which had irradiated its earlier career beamed its unrivalled lustre from the mountain summits of the past." (Merivale 616)
Margaret Oliphant wrote two articles on Leopardi, the first in Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine in 1865, and the second in Cornhill Magazine in 1876. Oliphant is a minor but gifted writer of the period, and her commentary on Leopardi is sometimes perspicacious. She identifies Leopardi as a poetic sensibility distinctly of the nineteenth century, particularly with regard to the emotions he expresses. Yet, in her later article, Oliphant makes clear that Leopardi was contemptuous of the popular version of the 19th century. She also discusses Leopardi's contempt for the entire notion of progress that was touted by the Italian press and the perfection that lay just beyond the horizon and awaited the human race.
In a wonderfully apt phrase, Oliphant says that Leopardi's "surfering intensifies his individuality" (1865: 461). In virtually all of his poetry and in his Pensieri, Oliphant's description rings true. The reader can envision the narrator by way of his stark suffering that forces severity and starkness. Leopardi's poetry is sublime and expansive, yet his pain and suffering precipitate a reductive vision and even constriction. Furthermore, "Nature is cruel to him, and yet he clings to her; love is forbidden to him, and yet an infinite love of love possesses his spirit; his mind burns with activity and vital force, and yet to him all spheres to activity are closed" (461). It is interesting to observe Oliphant's rather unforgiving sense of Leopardi's life. After reading a brief biography by a friend of Leopardi's, she describes the story of his life as "a life without any events" (461). The only usefulness to his life, she contends, is to provide "exposition and elucidation of his own utterances" (461). Since Leopardi struggled with pain and bodily surfering, he was condemned to renounce "everything that is in the world called happiness" (461). Usually the critic asserts that life informs the art, but perhaps in this case the reverse occurs: the poetry informs the life of Leopardi.
In her later article dated 1876, Oliphant states that by now, Leopardi speaks about his "melancholy indignation" and the "thrill of resentment" (1876: 357) from a distance of forty years ago, and now only the literature he has created can tell us about them. But Oliphant also compares Leopardi to the best of the English romantics:
At the very moment when the last great wave of poetical influence was at its high title in England [...], and the world fully roused to know that such high fortune as befalls few generations had fallen to the lot of the newborn nineteenth century: this man, a genius as fine as any of them--as melodious as Shelley, as serious as Wordsworth, as fiery as Byron--had begun to pour forth his strains into that deadened, half-stupefied ear of Italy, which has heard the highest music in its time, but for years had heard nothing but effeminate ditties of decay. (341-42)
Oliphant writes a few years prior to Matthew Arnold's famous introductions on Wordsworth and Byron, where Leopardi is also discussed. Since Gladstone's review, Leopardi's credibility as a poet has increased significantly in England. At least where Oliphant is concerned, it seems acceptable for his work to eclipse the Victorian horizon of expectation. Leopardi's reception appears integrated and acceptable. For instance, it seems much more acceptable that Leopardi's verse can deviate from an established standard. Furthermore, Oliphant seems much more comfortable than did earlier reviewers evaluating the quality of his work in the broadest sense without resorting to methods of rendering aspects of his work marginal or conditional.
James Thomson, the author of "The City of the Dreadful Night," has been called the English Leopardi. Thomson's reputation as the English Leopardi begins with the unrelenting pessimism of much of his poetry. A quote from Dante and two longer quotes from Leopardi preface, "The City of the Dreadful Night" and his later poetry, in particular, are clearly influenced by Leopardi's work:
Thomson's "The City of the Dreadful Night" is indeed, as one critic has noted, the most pessimistic poem in any language, a modern Dantesque journey through a world of night, without hope or love or faith, a nineteenth century hell on earth ... If not himself a true pessimist, Leopardi certainly inspired the greatest pessimist poet of England. (Paolucci x)
Yet, Anne Ridler, who edited Thomson's poems, states that "Leopardi cannot have influenced Thomson's early poetry, since he did not begin to learn Italian until 1866, but the pessimism of his later poems is undoubtedly coloured by Leopardi's expression of his own, an idea which Thomson often repeats in prose and in verse, but most strikingly in the 'City'" (xxxiii). Scholars have also rather emphatically denied any direct influence by Leopardi on Thomson. Lyman Cotten suggests that the two poets of different nationalities share a rather extravagant pessimism. Thomson merely admired an Italian poet who had a similar attitude toward existence:
Thomson may be called the English Leopardi if the phrase means simply that he wrote the most despairing poem in English and confessed his admiration for another pessimistic poet in its dedication; [...] Thomson needed no poet or philosopher--not Lucretius or Ecclesiastes or Schopenhauer or Leopardi--to teach him a dark view of life. He did not go to Leopardi to borrow ideas in the creation of a philosophic attitude or to learn a language in which to express it. (Cotten 689)
Other critics, such as William David Schaefer, have supported this view: "Leopardi did little more than confirma latent pessimism which was present even during Thomson's most joyous declarations" (68) earlier in his career. Although both poets can be regarded as pessimistic, Thomson's mordant wit seems quite different from Leopardi's poetic sensibility in his brief poem entitled "In a Christian Churchyard":
This field of stones, he said, May well call forth a sigh; Beneath them lie the dead, On them the living lie. (176)
In his introduction to The Poems of Wordsworth, published in 1879, Matthew Arnold asserts his doctrine of poetry as a "criticism of life" on Wordsworth's behalf. Wordsworth is a great poet, Arnold decided, because he "feels the joy offered to us in nature, the joy offered to us in the simple primary affections and duties," and "he shows us this joy, and renders it so as to make us share it" (91). In 1881, Arnold edited The Poetry of Byron, including another preface that continued his discussion of Wordsworth, aside from being mainly devoted to Byron. It was Arnold's intention in those two prefaces to establish Wordsworth and then Byron as the supreme 19th century English poets. In his preface to The Poetry of Byron, Arnold compares Leopardi in passing with Byron, but in some detail with Wordsworth, whose "healing power is magnified by the intensity of Arnold's conviction that the age needs it" (Gill 180).
It is important to observe the context of this comparison by Arnold. Wordsworth is still viewed, nearly thirty years after his death, as essentially a moral philosopher. Arnold cites the example of Leslie Stephen who believes Wordsworth's "poetry is precious because his philosophy is sound" (1966: 88). In a more recent vein, Paul de Man says:
When Leslie Stephen, in 1876, made the claim that Wordsworth was to be considered a philosopher, he meant [...] moral philosophy, the fact that Wordsworth's poetry was not just "a thing of beauty," an object of aesthetic pleasure, but that it also had the power to console, to edify, and to protect from anxieties that threaten life and reason. (85)
Thirty years after Wordsworth dies, he is still the moral philosopher, the healer, and the sage who protects from the threatening aspects of existence. These observations indicate what Leopardi's work confronts around 1880 in England. What critics saw first in Leopardi were poems of beauty, "an object of aesthetic pleasure," but they also experienced a complete absence of anything in Leopardi that would "console" or "edify," and "protect."
Arnold's comparison of Leopardi and Wordsworth yields an opinion of the Italian poet roughly similar to those already mentioned, although Arnold clearly pursues the high road and gives Leopardi every consideration. He agrees that Leopardi is a great poet, saying that he is "far more of the artist" than Wordsworth. After conceding to Leopardi his strengths, Arnold asserts Wordsworth's superiority over Leopardi by adopting at least a similar perspective to Leslie Stephen:
Wordsworth, though [...] less lucid, though far less a master of style, [...] gains so much by his criticism of life being, in certain matters of profound importance, healthful and true, whereas Leopardi's pessimism is not, that the value of Wordsworth's poetry, on the whole, stands higher for us than that of Leopardi's, as it stands higher for us, I think, than that of any modern poet except Goethe's. ("Byron": 113-114)
Arnold admits that Leopardi has a greater knowledge of classical literature, a wider knowledge of languages, and that he is freer from "reigning conventions." He also believes that Leopardi is superior in style and "is far more the artist" (112), never sinking in his poetry to the level of dullness that Wordsworth does far too often. But Leopardi's vision is forever fixed upon the "essenza insanabile," upon the "acerbo, indegno mistero delle cose" (113). Yet, some critics have claimed that Arnold possesses more than a cursory resemblance to Leopardi.
His peculiar power of language, with its union of stateliness and simplicity, of austerity and sweetness, recalls Arnold before any other English writer; but, unlike Arnold, he is so evenly supreme that nearly every one of his poems has been singled out by native critics, as the best, or among the best, of his collection. (Johnson 23-24)
The claim that Arnold makes for Wordsworth W. Knox Johnson makes for Arnold himself. Many of Arnold's poems bear some resemblance in their elegiac tone to Leopardi's work.
In both poets [Leopardi and Arnold] one repeatedly encounters the sense of something irretrieveably lost, of a vanished time [...] when men held ideas, or at least illusions, which ordered experience, [...] and gave meaning to human action. This elegiac note, [...] derived greatly from their saturation with the Hellenic spirit. The classical temperament [...] is one source of the sense of anguish, rootlessness, loneliness, and dignity which their poems possess. Arnold, not Thomson, is the English Victorian poet most comparable to Leopardi. (Casale and Dooley 64)
As a major writer of the period, Arnold places Leopardi on England's poetic stage by favorably comparing him to Wordsworth and Byron. "This comparative judgment of Leopardi and Wordsworth is perfectly consistent with Arnold's announced principals" (Gottfried 104). It is interesting to observe that Arnold has difficulties of his own regarding a kind of split literary personality. As a critic who reads Wordsworth, Byron, and Leopardi, Arnold distinguishes among their poetry and their philosophies. Yet, when others distinguish Arnold's poetry and philosophy, they experience a similar fate in Arnold's work as Arnold does with Leopardi's work.
Arnold's criticism of Leopardi held sway for forty years until Geoffrey Bickersteth, the pioneering Leopardi scholar in the English speaking world, challenged the validity of Arnold's comparison. Giving the annual Italian lecture at the British Academy in 1927, entitled "Leopardi and Wordsworth," Bickersteth begins his lecture with Arnold, citing the passage from Arnold quoted above from his introduction to Byron. Before discussing Arnold's criticism of Leopardi, Bickersteth makes one distinction at the outset. He clearly establishes that Arnold, in finding fault with Leopardi's "criticism of life" for its pessimism, is not referring to Leopardi's philosophy as Schopenhauer did. Instead, Bickersteth says that Arnold is dismissing Leopardi's philosophy, just as he dismissed Wordsworth's in his preface to the 1879 volume. Arnold is really objecting to the prevailing mood of depression found in Leopardi's verse. Consequently, as a "criticism of life," Leopardi offers us something inferior to Wordsworth simply because "despair itself" is "made beautiful and therefore desirable." Arnold, it seems, penalized Leopardi for being too good a poet. Is it possible the reader might be tantalized by Leopardi's beautifully rendered despair? Bickersteth comments:
Is it not clear [...] that the mood they (Canti) express and which, in proportion as we submit to its spell, becomes our own, would, if made habitual, emasculate our wills and rob us of all "courage to undergo the conflicts of life"? Such at least is this great Wordsworthian's opinion [...] (5)
This is what Arnold finds questionable; Leopardi generates fascination for his mood of despair. To bolster his argument, Bickersteth suggests that while Arnold the literary critic condemns Leopardi's pessimism, Arnold the poet of "The Scholar Gypsy, .... Empedocles," and "Obermann Once More," possesses "a prescriptive right to be considered a connoisseur in the poetry of pessimism" (5).
Bickersteth's lecture undermines the basis for Arnold's comparison of Leopardi and Wordsworth. It also provides a strong and substantial basis for the comparison of these two poets. Bickersteth summarizes his basis for comparison in this manner. First, as political poets, Wordsworth is England's greatest after Shakespeare and Milton, while Leopardi is Italy's best after Dante and Petrarch. Second, Leopardi and Wordsworth are both great poetical theorists. And last, both poets are the greatest nature poets of their respective countries. In short, Bickersteth's argument is more than just conjecture. Leopardi's fame in Italy rests on the same grounds as Wordsworth's in England. The reception of both poets provides the basis for concluding that the two poets and their work are similar in terms of aesthetic judgment of the works themselves and in terms of the determinations of literary history.
Although Bickersteth compares Wordsworth and Leopardi in his presentation, he really purports to enhance the reception of the complete works of Giacomo Leopardi in the English speaking world by presenting his real merit in terms similar to the manner in which the Italian culture understood him. Of course, Bickersteth's situation is far more expansive than Arnold's and certainly even more so than those who critiqued Leopardi's work prior to Arnold. Furthermore, Bickersteth possesses a greater historical perspective, by now ninety years since Leopardi's death. Furthermore, in comparison with Arnold, he enhances his capacity to evaluate Leopardi's work from both Italian and English perspective. By the 1920s, literary critics, including those of British Romanticism, could separate moral philosophy from poetry and the poetic found in Wordsworth. Since readers of Leopardi developed an awareness of the inherently poetic qualities of Leopardi's poetry, Bickersteth effortlessly describes the proximity of spirit between Leopardi and Wordsworth:
It is true that Leopardi is always telling us that he has outlived his own power of poetic imagination (as Wordsworth [...] was in fact destined to outlive his), but since this information is invariably conveyed to us in the shape of immortal verse, he can hardly expect us to believe it. The truth is, that what he is really regretting as irrevocably past is the unreflecting happiness of boyhood. (27)
Wordsworth says the same thing in his "Intimations" ode, and in other poems. Leopardi is to the Italian world what Wordsworth is to the English-speaking world.
By the time Geoffrey Bickersteth delivers his lecture in 1927, the circumstances of Leopardi's reception in England have changed considerably. Even putting aside Bickersteth's own translation of the Canti along with its critical apparatus, other factors play a role in Leopardi's reception. Victorian England no longer exists. Works such as The Wasteland and The Sun Also Rises were published, rendering Leopardi's pessimism as merely part of the prevailing climate, and even in the minds of some appearing quaint due to its idealism. By now, having realized Leopardi's dreams for it, Italy is a country, which fought with the Allied Powers during World War I. In the language of reception theory, Bickersteth provides Leopardi with a new horizon of expectation, one that is more in tune with the prevailing pessimism of the times, but one that gives him and subsequent critics the opportunity to show how Leopardi's poetry violates the horizon of expectation. First, Leopardi's poetic vision is recognizable but unique. Second, Wordsworth and Shelley are viewed as poets rather than moralists as is Leopardi. In Art and Illusion, E. H. Gombrich states the dynamic: "A style, like a culture or climate of opinion, sets up a horizon of expectation, a mental set, which registers deviations and modifications with exaggerated sensitivity" (60). By the 1920s, "the climate of opinion" created the circumstances for a much more conducive reception of Leopardi's work. Those reading Leopardi's poetry during the 1920s and 1930s are willing to consider, in their overall evaluation, how his work influenced and is influenced by the historical conditions of their time. These readers contemplated the elements of reception in Leopardi's poetry already given to them by the times.
Coastal Carolina University
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|Title Annotation:||Giacomo Leopardi|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2009|
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