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Translator's Note: To His Lady

by Jonathan Galassi

Leopardi's canzone "To His Lady" was written in 1823, as the twenty-five-year-old poet was about to embark on the philosophical essays and dialogues of the Operette morali. As he later wrote:

The lady, who is the beloved of the author, is one of those images, one of those celestial and ineffable phantoms of beauty and virtue, which often come to our imagination during sleep or sleeplessness, when we are little more than children, and then on rare occasions in sleep, or in a sort of alienation of the mind, when we are young. Finally, she is the woman who can't be found. The author doesn't know whether his lady (and in calling her this, he shows he loves only her) has been born until now, or ever will be born: he knows that now she does not live on earth, and that we are not her contemporaries; he looks for her among the ideas of Plato, he looks for her in the moon, in the planets of the solar system, in the constellations. If this canzone wants to be called amorous, it is nevertheless true that love such as this can neither arouse nor suffer jealousy, because apart from the author no tender lover wants to make love with a telescope.

In this unusually abstract poem, Leopardi seeks to distill his notion of woman and beauty, much as he will analyze the idea of love in a later canzone, "Il pensiero dominante" (The dominant idea). As he would write in Aspasia (1834):

the wounded mortal dreams
the daughter of his mind, the amorous idea,
this high thing he keeps largely to himself,
in face, in habits, and expression fully
like the one whom the confused, enraptured
lover likes to dream about and love.
Yet it's not she whom he reveres and loves
even while he holds her, but this other.
Finally, seeing the error of his misplaced
feelings, he becomes enraged, and often
wrongly blames the woman.

The absent beloved is a defining feature of the Italian lyric tradition from Dante's Beatrice to Petrarch's Laura all the way to Montale's Clizia. In Leopardi, we can see, her absence is existential—and essential. Here he imagines and describes the idea that is embodied in the representative characters—Silvia and Nerina and Elvira and Aspasia—who populate his work. The great challenge for the translator is to try to make his abstract music musical somehow without the benefit of rhyme.


This poem originally appeared in the April 2008 issue of Poetry magazine

April 2008

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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