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Count Giacomo Leopardi

(29 June 1798 – 14 June 1837 / Rencanati)

Palinodia


TO THE MARQUIS GINO CAPPONI.


I was mistaken, my dear Gino. Long
And greatly have I erred. I fancied life
A vain and wretched thing, and this, our age,
Now passing, vainest, silliest of all.
Intolerable seemed, and _was_, such talk
Unto the happy race of mortals, if,
Indeed, man ought or could be mortal called.
'Twixt anger and surprise, the lofty creatures laughed
Forth from the fragrant Eden where they dwell;
Neglected, or unfortunate, they called me;
Of joy incapable, or ignorant,
To think my lot the common lot of all,
Mankind, the partner in my misery.
At length, amid the odor of cigars,
The crackling sound of dainty pastry, and
The orders loud for ices and for drinks,
'Midst clinking glasses, and 'midst brandished spoons,
The daily light of the gazettes flashed full
On my dim eyes. I saw and recognized
The public joy, and the felicity
Of human destiny. The lofty state
I saw, and value of all human things;
Our mortal pathway strewed with flowers; I saw
How naught displeasing here below endures.
Nor less I saw the studies and the works
Stupendous, wisdom, virtue, knowledge deep
Of this our age. From far Morocco to
Cathay, and from the Poles unto the Nile,
From Boston unto Goa, on the track
Of flying Fortune, emulously panting,
The empires, kingdoms, dukedoms of the earth
I saw, now clinging to her waving locks,
Now to the end of her encircling boa.
Beholding this, and o'er the ample sheets
Profoundly meditating, I became
Of my sad blunder, and myself, ashamed.

The age of gold the spindles of the Fates,
O Gino, are evolving. Every sheet,
In each variety of speech and type,
The splendid promise to the world proclaims,
From every quarter. Universal love,
And iron roads, and commerce manifold,
Steam, types, and cholera, remotest lands,
Most distant nations will together bind;
Nor need we wonder if the pine or oak
Yield milk and honey, or together dance
Unto the music of the waltz. So much
The force already hath increased, both of
Alembics, and retorts, and of machines,
That vie with heaven in working miracles,
And will increase, in times that are to come:
For, evermore, from better unto best,
Without a pause, as in the past, the race
Of Shem, and Ham, and Japhet will progress.

And yet, on acorns men will never feed,
Unless compelled by hunger; never will
Hard iron lay aside. Full oft, indeed,
They gold and silver will despise, bills of
Exchange preferring. Often, too, the race
Its generous hands with brothers' blood will stain,
With fields of carnage filling Europe, and
The other shore of the Atlantic sea,
The new world, that the old still nourishes,
As often as it sends its rival bands
Of armed adventurers, in eager quest
Of pepper, cinnamon, or other spice,
Or sugar-cane, aught that ministers
Unto the universal thirst for gold.
True worth and virtue, modesty and faith,
And love of justice, in whatever land,
From public business will be still estranged,
Or utterly humiliated and
O'erthrown; condemned by Nature still,
To sink unto the bottom. Insolence
And fraud, with mediocrity combined,
Will to the surface ever rise, and reign.
Authority and strength, howe'er diffused,
However concentrated, will be still
Abused, beneath whatever name concealed,
By him who wields them; this the law by Fate
And nature written first, in adamant:
Nor can a Volta with his lightnings, nor
A Davy cancel it, nor England with
Her vast machinery, nor this our age
With all its floods of Leading Articles.
The good man ever will be sad, the wretch
Will keep perpetual holiday; against
All lofty souls both worlds will still be armed
Conspirators; true honor be assailed
By calumny, and hate, and envy; still
The weak will be the victim of the strong;
The hungry man upon the rich will fawn,
Beneath whatever form of government,
Alike at the Equator and the Poles;
So will it be, while man on earth abides,
And while the sun still lights him on his way.

These signs and tokens of the ages past
Must of necessity their impress leave
Upon our brightly dawning age of gold:
Because society from Nature still
Receives a thousand principles and aims,
Diverse, discordant; which to reconcile,
No wit or power of man hath yet availed,
Since first our race, illustrious, was born;
Nor _will_ avail, or treaty or gazette,
In any age, however wise or strong.
But in things more important, how complete,
Ne'er seen, till now, will be our happiness!
More soft, from day to day, our garments will
Become, of woollen or of silk. Their rough
Attire the husbandman and smith will cast
Aside, will swathe in cotton their rough hides,
And with the skins of beavers warm their backs.
More serviceable, more attractive, too,
Will be our carpets and our counterpanes,
Our curtains, sofas, tables, and our chairs;
Our beds, and their attendant furniture,
Will a new grace unto our chambers lend;
And dainty forms of kettles and of pans,
On our dark kitchens will their lustre shed.
From Paris unto Calais, and from there
To London, and from there to Liverpool,
More rapid than imagination can
Conceive, will be the journey, nay the flight;
While underneath the ample bed of Thames,
A highway will be made, immortal work,
That _should_ have been completed, years ago.
Far better lighted, and perhaps as safe,
At night, as now they are, will be the lanes
And unfrequented streets of Capitals;
Perhaps, the main streets of the smaller towns.
Such privileges, such a happy lot,
Kind heaven reserves unto the coming race.

How fortunate are they, whom, as I write,
Naked and whimpering, in her arms receives
The midwife! They those longed-for days may hope
To see, when, after careful studies we
Shall know, and every nursling shall imbibe
That knowledge with the milk of the dear nurse,
How many hundred-weight of salt, and how
Much flesh, how many bushels, too, of flour,
His native town in every month consumes;
How many births and deaths in every year
The parish priest inscribes: when by the aid
Of mighty steam, that, every second, prints
Its millions, hill and dale, and ocean's vast
Expanse, e'en as we see a flock of cranes
Aërial, that suddenly the day obscure, will with Gazettes be overrun;
Gazettes, of the great Universe the life
And soul, sole fount of wisdom and of wit,
To this, and unto every coming age!

E'en as a child, who carefully constructs,
Of little sticks and leaves, an edifice,
In form of temple, palace, or of tower;
And, soon as he beholds the work complete,
The impulse feels, the structure to destroy,
Because the self-same sticks and leaves he needs,
To carry out some other enterprise;
So Nature every work of hers, however
It may delight us with its excellence,
No sooner sees unto perfection brought,
Than she proceeds to pull it all to pieces,
For other structures using still the parts.
And vainly seeks the human race, itself
Or others from the cruel sport to save,
The cause of which is hidden from its sight
Forever, though a thousand means it tries,
With skilful hand devising remedies:
For cruel Nature, child invincible,
Our efforts laughs to scorn, and still its own
Caprices carries out, without a pause,
Destroying and creating, for its sport.
And hence, a various, endless family
Of ills incurable and sufferings
Oppresses the frail mortal, doomed to death
Irreparably; hence a hostile force,
Destructive, smites him from within, without,
On every side, perpetual, e'en from
The day of birth, and wearies and exhausts,
Itself untiring, till he drops at last,
By the inhuman mother crushed, and killed.
Those crowning miseries, O gentle friend,
Of this our mortal life, old age and death,
E'en then commencing, when the infant lip
The tender breast doth press, that life instils,
This happy nineteenth century, I think,
Can no more help, than could the ninth, or tenth,
Nor will the coming ages, more than this.
Indeed, if we may be allowed to call
The truth by its right name, no other than
Supremely wretched must each mortal be,
In every age, and under every form
Of government, and walk and mode of life;
By nature hopelessly incurable,
Because a universal law hath so
Decreed, which heaven and earth alike obey.
And yet the lofty spirits of our age
A new discovery have made, almost
Divine; for, though they cannot make
A single person happy on the earth,
The man forgetting, they have gone in quest
Of universal happiness, and this,
Forsooth, have found so easily, that out
Of many wretched individuals,
They can a happy, joyful people make.
And at this miracle, not yet explained
By quarterly reviews, or pamphlets, or
Gazettes, the common herd in wonder smile.

O minds, O wisdom, insight marvellous
Of this our passing age! And what profound
Philosophy, what lessons deep, O Gino,
In matters more sublime and recondite,
This century of thine and mine will teach
To those that follow! With what constancy,
What yesterday it scorned, upon its knees
To-day it worships, and will overthrow
To-morrow, merely to pick up again
The fragments, to the idol thus restored,
To offer incense on the following day!
How estimable, how inspiring, too,
This unanimity of thought, not of
The age alone, but of each passing year!
How carefully should we, when we our thought
With this compare, however different
From that of next year it may be, at least
Appearance of diversity avoid!
What giant strides, compared with those of old,
Our century in wisdom's school has made!

One of thy friends, O worthy Gino, once,
A master poet, nay, of every Art,
And Science, every human faculty,
For past, and present, and for future times,
A learned expositor, remarked to me:
'Of thy own feelings, care to speak no more!
Of them, this manly age makes no account,
In economic problems quite absorbed,
And with an eye for politics alone,
Of what avail, thy own heart to explore?
Seek not within thyself material
For song; but sing the needs of this our age,
And consummation of its ripening hope!'
O memorable words! Whereat I laughed
Like chanticleer, the name of _hope_ to hear
Thus strike upon my ear profane, as if
A jest it were, or prattle of a child
Just weaned. But now a different course I take,
Convinced by many shining proofs, that he
Must not resist or contradict the age,
Who seeketh praise or pudding at its hands,
But faithfully and servilely obey;
And so will find a short and easy road
Unto the stars. And I who long to reach
The stars will not, howe'er, select the needs
Of this our age for burden of my song;
For these, increasing constantly, are still
By merchants and by work-shops amply met;
But I will sing of hope, of hope whereof
The gods now grant a pledge so palpable.
The first-fruits of our new felicity
Behold, in the enormous growth of hair,
Upon the lip, upon the cheek, of youth!

O hail, thou salutary sign, first beam
Of light of this our wondrous, rising age!
See, how before thee heaven and earth rejoice,
How sparkle all the damsels' eyes with joy,
How through all banquets and all festivals
The fame of the young bearded heroes flies!
Grow for your country's sake, ye manly youth!
Beneath the shadow of your fleecy locks,
Will Italy increase, and Europe from
The mouths of Tagus to the Hellespont,
And all the world will taste the sweets of peace.
And thou, O tender child, for whom these days
Of gold are yet in store, begin to greet
Thy bearded father with a smile, nor fear
The harmless blackness of his loving face.
Laugh, darling child; for thee are kept the fruits
Of so much dazzling eloquence. Thou shalt
Behold joy reign in cities and in towns,
Old age and youth alike contented dwell,
And undulating beards of two spans long!

Submitted: Saturday, April 10, 2010

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