American Poetry in the Age of Whitman and Dickinson

Leopardi in America

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Scrolling through the title list of the American Verse Project, I came upon George Cabot Lodge’s Song of the Wave (1898). Intuition, or something, told me to look closer. When I did, I found the following dedication:


Which pleased me no end, as Leopardi is a poet I admire in the abstract but find almost impossible to read: I really liked the idea of getting to know him again through an American poet who took him to heart. Even a minor or bad poet might help! A few summers ago, I made a fairly intense effort to read all of the Canti. Unfortunately, the word “lugubrious” kept drifting into my head as I made my way, distracting me with its ungainly shadows. I mean, how concentrate on a poem like “All’italia” when lugubrious keeps floating over the page, blocking the sun? It’s a poem that needs all the light it can get! In the end, I gave up reading altogether for a desecrating mistranslation. And yes, I was on a plane when the idea first came to me:


Out of Leopardi’s cant an arched
Eyebrow penciled in simula-
Tion of our nature, passing over nature. And here comes a nose,
Making its way
From the first-class cabin.
Not that anybody’s watching! These are the days
When nudity streams freely
Over the air,
Like air over a wing,
Creating lift. For god’s sake,
Donna, chew your celery!
Even a child without manners
Could disdainfully employ better
Cutting tools than this
Serrated skyline. Crowding the aisle,
Coca-Cola and her kind
Spill in the distance
Into seats softened by a round-
Faced bottom’s frowning

So then it’s you, fossil
Of my patience, you alone
Are traveling,
Pressed into rock
Tossed into purple clouds and plunging
Ever upward, leaving
Ancillary longitudes behind. Pianos adequate to scorn
Dicey plotlines
Into perches of an antique dove. Religion, is it?
Incense of a brand name
Bending ever closer.
Valise without a proper latch
Caught in the act
Of looking where it shouldn’t.
Damned ceiling without a pilot light,
So low, pungent, diffident, every priest
Is but a chimney sweep, his god,
The font
Of our italicized pettiness.

Oh Italy, your sun
Hangs like a fig leaf
For the pride of carrion
Estranged from contradiction, pug-nosed. I too
Would make a poo, a fluctuating phantom
Smoking powder, luckier than a spade
Digging in the neighborhood of a lamp.
All skull, no brain,
He represents nothing-
Ness. But I’m American, so nix to comforting despair. If
A trembling lummox
Should pledge his dubious
Evening’s pleasure,
Puny inquietude would camp
Our father’s piety,
Consorting with the shape
Behind a fig leaf,
Is a moron to the manor born:
His life a tax, his destiny
Rending fat under Caesar.

And so we rose to cares that bend the Atlantic (ETA
Christ only knows), a squadron
Of second cousins
Called home by the honeyed glare of a screen
Of pixelating streets
Above which a purring dove ill-fated
Flew. Pock-marked, frank, and genuine,
The ocean’s panting face absorbs a lie
Old trade routes vex like dis-
Narrated memories
Spilling essential information about the sky.
Above, the corpse of an errant god,
Grecian in its formula, goes black. Its gray zone
Is a stain all or nothing
In its ferocious
Resistance to a scrub.
Like us, fatigued, and, in the end,
As dead as saints
Whose guarded saliva
Priests will dab at faces for a fee.

Touching Europe,
Advancing lack spares no expense:
A petting zoo for vacillation
To an upright position, bent on assigning blame
For a seatmate’s cramp. Well, that’s amore
For the connoisseurs, who may as well
Be nuzzling a bag of fruit. Their sweaty mouths
Kneel for an army of piglets
Then rise to trade pleasantries with a jovial mint. He
Who quells the acerbic taste of a laugh
When cares become so light, a figment hour
Of parvenus well rid of them goes dark,
Corrects the posture of a traveling aunt.
Very obscure
Tartan patterns test the waters
With a clash, never supposing
To be a foreign flag. They qualify
The aspirations
Littered as if by tinkle of player piano.

Senses ordered
Like a Pepsi’s bubbles,
And hungry,
For a sweet or salty treat. Oh tony
You alone
Could mortify our flesh
Zanily in quest
Of cost-effective
Brothers to a purse, a silk purse
Attentive as an ear, a supine vintage
Its memories of a grape.
Epochal dalliance
Immortally agnostic
Cadence of Viviens, if you could only
On the brat
With a baseball-
Bat mentality, it would be a favor to this awkward moment.

Prim now above the smarmy precipice
Infused with a tint,
Our memorized controls
Make their descent
Into schemes, madness, traffic,
A vast tumbler
Of mosquitoes
Poured onto mama’s open balcony.
A bloody worm all swollen
In bacterial quest
Is entertaining loads of extra weight
Used by dull units of men in polo
Fastening their cars
To the curve of the earth. Oh chaos
Of moribund Greece
Lying on the ground
Beyond the gate, a veranda flames above
The vat of your displeasure, like a bin
Of garbage filled with every
Episode to come.

And that was the last I thought about Leopardi for a while. But here comes George Cabot Lodge to spark my interest again:

To Giacomo Leopardi

Despair is musical, the wings of pain
Are stirred in rhythm of large winds that bear
A mute divinity of human prayer
And human sorrow that the prayer is vain.
The tears of speech that wet thy lips profane
No Muse with discord, for the world’s control
Had never blurred the windows of thy soul
Nor bound the beating of thy heart with chain.
But we have piled the gates of sun with dust,
And in the jangling darkness of the earth,
With muffled hearts, exist because we must.
Our times are blasphemous: no tears, no shame,
But heaven insulted with an evil mirth
And greed exalted with a sacred name.

I especially like lines five through eight; they capture an authority I always expect to find in the Canti and don’t, certainly not in translation an exquisite sadness that gains mastery over language by assuming the form of exquisite speech:

The tears of speech that wet thy lips profane
No Muse with discord, for the world’s control
Had never blurred the windows of thy soul
Nor bound the beating of thy heart with chain.

It’s a quality of language evoked in much less flattering terms by William Dean Howells in his Modern Italian Poets. Acknowledging Leopardi’s reputation among his own people, in his own time, Howells writes:

He seems to have been the poet of a national mood; he was the final expression of that long, hopeless apathy in which Italy lay bound for thirty years after the fall of Napoleon. … To such an apathy the pensive monotone of this sick poet’s song might well seem the only truth; and one who beheld the universe with the invalid’s loath eyes … might have the authority of a prophet among those who could find no promise of better things in their earthly lot.

Modern Italian Poets appeared in 1887, eleven years before Lodge’s Song of the Wave, an indication that Lodge’s embrace of Leopardi was a personal response, not a matter of fashion or “national mood” (as would have been the case, say, if he had fixed on Dante), a personal response that is strongest in the double sonnet “Aux Modernes,” which takes its title from a sonnet by Leconte de Lisle, its epigraph from Leopardi’s “A se stesso” (“To Himself“). Suggesting a line of counter-modernism that runs from Leopardi through the Parnassians to Lodge and beyond. A beyond that also includes, perhaps, Geoffrey Hill, who was also drawn to “A se stesso.”

Here in any case is the Lodge poem, “To the Moderns.” The epigraph means “Despair / For the last Time”:

Aux Modernes

L’ultima volta.”

— Leopardi


Only an empty platitude for God,
Only for poetry a jangling nerve,
Only for life the baser lusts to serve,
Only a fashion where the function stood.
Only a shadow stealing span on span
Over the unmeasured whiteness of the soul;
Darkness around the God-established goal
That blazed before the innocence of man.
And when the flame of adolescence breaks
On some wild heart the world has overthrown,
He stares as one who waits alone and wakes,
Cheated of love and faith, his vision drawn
Haggard and hopeless from his death-bed down
The hard, gray, tacit distances of dawn.


When I have learned the accents of your speech,
The splendid grief of silence; when I know
Your acrid laughter and your tearless woe,
And learn the shame of life — what you can teach;
When dust returns to dust, and mutely each
Grows haggard thro’ the fard — then I shall say,
“Your foolish lips have lied from day to day,
And life has reached the goal that life must reach.”
And then a hush — and then a mighty thought
Shall move upon the fabric of your lives
As thro’ a tavern window looms the dawn;
And in your tarnished tinsel, in the scorn
Of guttered candles, all your lives have sought
And you shall fade and finish — Truth survives!


Written by Ben Friedlander

September 4, 2009 at 10:14 pm

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