Translating Leopardi

Points Illustrated

1. Introduction to Italian prosody.
2. Importance of form.

Leopardi, by common assent the greatest Italian poet since Dante, composed only forty-one works, {1} of which L'Infinito is one of the best known. {2} Its simple beauty has attracted many translators.

Italian Text


Sempre caro mi fu quest'ermo colle
E questa siepe che da tanta parte
De'll ultimo orizzonte il guarde 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'l suon di lei. Così tra questa
Immensità s'annega il pensier mio:
E'l naufragar m'è dolce in questo mare. {3}

The meaning is fairly straightforward. We can get a literal rendering easily enough with a dictionary:{4}

Always dear to me was this lonely hill,
And this hedge, which from so much part
Of the ultimate horizon the view excludes.
But sitting and gazing, boundless
Spaces beyond that, and more than human
Silences and profoundest quiet
I in thoughts pretend to myself, where almost
The heart is overwhelmed. And as the wind
I hear rustle through these plants, I such
Infinite silence to this voice
Go on comparing: and come to mind the eternal
And the dead seasons, and the present
And the living, and the sound of it. So through this
Immensity is drowned my thoughts:
And being shipwrecked is sweet to me in this sea.


The several versions on the Internet are adequate but not pleasing:
This lonely hill has always
Been dear to me, and this thicket
Which shuts out most of the final
Horizon from view. I sit here,
And gaze, and imagine
The interminable spaces
That stretch away, beyond my mind,
Their uncanny silences, Their profound calms;

It was always dear to me, this solitary hill,
and this hedgerow here, that closes off my view,
from so much of the ultimate horizon.
But sitting here, and watching here,
in thought, I create interminable spaces,
greater than human silences, and deepest
quiet, where the heart barely fails to terrify.

This solitary hill has always been dear to me
And this hedge, which prevents me from seeing most of
The endless horizon.
But when I sit and gaze, I imagine, in my thoughts
Endless spaces beyond the hedge,
An all encompassing silence and a deeply profound quiet,
To the point that my heart is almost overwhelmed. {7}
I've always loved this hermit's hill,
the hedgerow here that mostly hides the view
of where, far off, earth meets the sky.
But sitting, gazing, I can dream
unbounded spaces past that line
and suprahuman silences,
a final depth of quietness,
where for a little while the heart
is not afraid.

Where is what commentators have stressed with Leopardi: the beauty and simplicity of his language?

Among published sources we have Lorna de' Lucchi's faithful rendering {9} and Robert Lowell's complete rewriting — as a free-verse Pindaric ode rhymed aabbcbcddefegfghh: {10}

I always loved this solitary hill,
This hedge as well, which takes so large a share
Of the far-flung horizon from my view;
But seated here, in contemplation lost,
My thought discovers vaster space beyond,
Supernal silence and unfathomed peace;
Almost I am afraid; then, since I hear
The murmur of the wind among the leaves,
I match that infinite calm unto this sound
And with my mind embrace eternity,
The vivid, speaking present and dead past;
In such immensity my spirit drowns,
And sweet to me is shipwreck in this sea. {9}

That hill pushed off by itself was always dear
to me and the hedges near
it that cut away so much of the final horizon.
When I would sit here lost in deliberation,
I reasoned most on the interminable spaces
beyond all hills, on their antediluvian resignation
and silence that passes
beyond man's possibility.

Italian Verse

L'infinito is written in blank (hendecasyllabic) verse: balanced, understated, much use made of the interplay between enjambment (line run on) and diaeresis (adjacent vowels sounded). {11}. Like other Romance verse, Italian is based on the syllable count, with certain licenses applying.  The hendecasyllabic, for example, has a primary accent on the 10th syllable and a secondary stress either on the 4th or on the 6th, but the line need not necessarily have exactly the same number of syllables. The hendecasyllabic will be "piano" if it adheres to the 11 syllable model, "tronco" if it contains 10 syllables, "sdrucciolo" if it contains 12 syllables, and "bisdrucciolo" if it contains 13 syllables. For the purposes of counting, moreover, vowels can be elided or pronounced separately.

A possible scansion, with syllable numbers shown in brackets:

Sem pre ca ro | mi fu que st'er mo col le (11)
E que sta sie pe che | da tan ta par te (11)
De'll ul ti mo_o | riz zon te_il guar do_es clu de. (11)
Ma se den do_e | mi ran do_in ter mi na ti (11)
Spa zi di la | da quel  la_e so vru ma ni (11)
Si len zi_e pro |  fon dis |si ma qui e te, (11)
I_o nel pen si_er |  mi fin go,  ov e per po co (11)
Il cor non si spa u ra_E |  co me il ven to (11)
O do stor mir |  tra que ste pi_an te_i_o quel lo (11)
In fi ni to | si len zi_o_a que sta vo ce (11)
Vo com pa ran |  do_e mi sov vi_en l'e ter no, | (11)
E le mor te sta gi_o | ni,_e la pre sen te | (11)
E vi va_e'l su_on di le_i. | Co si tra que sta (11)
Im men si ta s'an ne | ga_il pen si_er mi_o: (10)
E'l nau fra gar |  m'e dol ce_in que sto ma re. (11)

We can quarrel about details, and the position of the caesurae |, but we should note how enjambment (interminati...
Spazi, sovrumani...Silenzi) speeds up the verse, and the diaeresis slows it down. Also the repetition of 'this', and the unforced assonance/alliteration:


If we want the authority of the original, we shall have to respect something of its form. But let's forget about blank verse for the moment and simply try to arrange these long, periodic sentences into more straightforward English, allowing approximately five stresses to the line:

Always dear to me was this solitary
Hill and this hedge, by which so much of the view
Of the ultimate horizon is excluded.
But sitting, and gazing beyond the boundless
Spaces and the more than human silences
And the profoundest quiet, in my thoughts
I lose myself until the heart is almost
Overwhelmed. And as the wind I hear
Rustle in the hedge I must go on comparing,
And there comes to mind the eternal
And the dead seasons, the present, and the living
About us, the sound they make. So
In such an immensity is my thought drowned
And being shipwrecked is sweetness in this sea.

The first casualty is the number of the lines: fifteen in the original, fourteen in ours (and thirteen in Lorna de' Lucchi's above). Of course we could write more convoluted lines, but that will hardly help.

Our next concern is the form, the blank verse that is so easy to write correctly, and so phenomenally difficult to write well. Since the exercise will probably compact the lines further, it may help to first open the sentences into the more orotund English common in the 18th and 19th centuries (L'infinito was written in 1819).

Always dear to me was this most solitary
Of hills, with a hedge that obscured the view
Outward to the ultimate horizon.
Here I would sit and gaze into the boundless
Spaces, sensing the more than human silences,
The profoundest quiet, in my thoughts creating
It until the heart was almost overcome.
I would hear the wind rustling in the hedge
And would go on comparing that to a further voice,
When there would come to mind the eternal and
The dead seasons, the present about us, and
The living, and the sound they make. In
That immensity were my thoughts drowned,
And sweetness to be lost in such a sea.

Beyond this point there is nothing more to be done but write the verse. So:

Always dear to me was this most solitary
Of hills, this hedge, that of the ultimate
Horizon obscured the view. I sit and gaze
Into untrammeled spaces, sensing there
The profoundest quiet, the falling of a more
Than human silence created by my thoughts.
It almost overwhelms me. Yet with the wind
Rustling in the hedge I must measure it,
That voice to an eternal silence. And then
Would come to mind the eternal and the dead
Seasons, the present and the living among
Us and the noise they make. And into that
Immensity my thoughts would drown, with yet
A sweetness to be lost into that sea.

Rather heavy. Let's try again, building to a slow climax:

Ever dear to me was this small hill,
The hedgerow round it that obstructs the view
Of boundless distances where the earth and sky
Merge as one. My sitting there, my gazing out
On spaces limitless, unending silence, on
The depths of quietness my thoughts can sense
Undo the heart almost. I hear the wind
Ruffle the hedgerow and I must go on
Balancing an infinite silence with this voice.
So come to mind the eternal and the dead
Seasons, the present and the living, the sound
Of them: immensities in which my thoughts drown,
Though sweet to me the foundering in such sea.

Checking the Sense

Now we pause and look at the original. Clearly we have strayed rather from the sense, {11} {13} and lost an extra line in the process. But with the rhythms suggested we can now make good the failings. There are no rhymes to find, and we simply have to make an acceptable (English) blank verse by adding a little assonance and alliteration:

Ever dear to me was this lone hill
and hedge around that so obstructs the view
of endless distances, where earth and sky
must merge as one. In sitting here and gazing
out beyond those boundless intervals
of space, on more than human silences,
through depths of quiet that I pretend to know,
the heart is almost overwhelmed. But with
the wind that's murmuring among the leaves
I must go on comparing an infinite
silence to this voice. So come to mind
the eternal and the dead seasons, the present
and the living, the sounds of them.
In such immensities my meditating drowns,
though sweet to me the foundering in such sea.

Concluding Thoughts

Translation often proceeds this way, on a zigzag course between improving the verse and getting back to the meaning.
A literal rendering for the last line would be 'And sweet to me is shipwreck in this sea', but the line has none of the surf-pounding energy needed to round off the poem attractively. We have replaced ultimo orizzonte — for which there is no pleasing English equivalent — by an extended phrase that again underlines what is only suggested by the phrase: as the heavens and the earth merge in the horizon, so does the mind of the poet with with the ultimate reality. An academic rendering would be more circumspect:

Ever dear to me this unfrequented
hill and hedge that so obstructs the view
of the ultimate horizon. Sitting, gazing
out beyond those boundless intervals
of space, on more than human silences,
through depths of quiet my thought pretends to know,
the heart is almost overwhelmed. I hear
the wind that's murmuring among the leaves
but must go on comparing an infinite
silence and this voice. So come to mind
the eternal and the dead seasons, the present
and the living, and the sounds of them.
In such immensities my thought is drowned,
though sweet to me the foundering in such sea.

Notes and References

1. Giacomo, Count Leopardi. 1911. 1911encyclopedia.org. NNA (website not now available)

2. Giuseppe Bonghi, Inroduzione XII - L'Infinito DI Giacomo Leopardi NNA.

3. L'infinito. Count Giacomo Leopardi.Old Poetry. NNA.

4. Your Dictionary.

5. L'infinito, G. Leopardi, Trans. Kenneth Rexroth. Bopsecrets.org NNA.

6. L'infinito, G. Leopardi, Trans. A.S. Kline 2003. Poetry in Translation.

7. L'infinito, G. Leopardi, Trans. Kenneth David West. 2003. Oldpoetry.com. NNA.

8. L'infinito, G. Leopardi, Trans. Carl Seph. 1999.Oldpoetry.com. NNA.

9. L'infinito, G. Leopardi, Trans. Lorna de' Lucchi 1922. from Anthology of Italian Poems. Quoted by George W. Howgate, George Santayana (Univ. Pennsylvania Press, 1938), 346-7.

10. L'infinito, G. Leopardi, Trans. Robert Lowell. Imitations (Faber and Faber. 1984)

11. Stanley Burnshaw (Ed.) The Poem Itself. (Penguin Books. 1960), 276-7.

12. Italian Verse Forms in Italian