Giacomo Leopardi (1798-1837) is generally regarded as the greatest of nineteenth century Italian poets, and this sonnet, written probably in the autmn of 1819, is one of his most celebrated pieces. There are obvious comparisons to be made with our own romantic poet, John Keats. Although from very different social backgrounds, they had a great deal in common: both destined to die relatively young, and very conscious while they lived of impending death, both much attracted to the myths of classical antiquity, both distrustful of scientific reason, both empathetic towards human misery, both espousing what at first sight may seem to be a kind of romantic nihilism, but is really a cosmicism, a desire to become one with what Wordsworth calls the ‘Wisdom and Spirit of the universe’. It is easy to imagine Leopardi identifying strongly with Keats’s lines from ‘Hyperion’; ‘None can usurp this height…/But those to whom the miseries of the world/Are misery and will not let them rest’, and conversely it is easy to imagine Keats seeing in this poem echoes of his own sonnet beginning ‘When I have fears that I may cease to be’ and ending with the poet consoling himself with the thought of the same kind of cosmic union that Leopardi projects: ‘then on the shore/Of the wide world I stand alone, and think/Till love and fame to nothingness do sink’.
Various symbolic readings of the poem are available: for example, that the hill represents human though, and the hedge around it the limitations of that thought, which cannot be transcended by pure rationality, only by a sublimation of one’s own identity into the eternal. Well, maybe. Or it could just be about cherishing those moments of insight and connectedness that are occasionally gifted to us.
The translation that follows is my own.
Sempre caro mi fu quest’ermo colle,
e questa siepe, che da tanta parte
dell’ultimo orizzonte il guardo esclude.
Ma sedendo e mirando, interminati
spazi di là da quella, e sovrumani
silenzi, e profondissima quiete
io nel pensier mi fingo; ove per poco
il cor non si spaura. E come il vento
odo stormir tra queste piante, io quello
infinito silenzio a questa voce
vo comparando: e mi sovvien l’eterno,
e le morte stagioni, e la presente
e viva, e il suon di lei. Così tra questa
immensità s’annega il pensier mio:
e il naufragar m’è dolce in questo mare.
This lonely hill was always dear to me,
Likewise this hedge, that on so many sides
Shuts out the far horizon. But sat here,
Gazing, I can conjure up in thought
Infinite space, a more than human silence,
And deepest quietude, until my heart
Is all but daunted. Then I hear the wind
Stirring in the branches, and begin
To draw comparisons: that sound with this
Infinite stillness, and there comes to mind
Eternity, the seasons past, the voice
Of this still living present. So my thought
Founders, engulfed by that immensity,
Yet finds it sweet to drown in such a sea.