The 2005 Leopardi Lecture

  • Why Romanticism is still becoming what it is - Professor Paul Hamilton (QMUL)

(Niente preesiste alle cose. Né forme, o idée, né necessità né ragione di essere, e di essere così o così ec. ec. Tutto è posteriore all'esistenza. (3 Settembre 1821) [Zibaldone di pensieri 1616]


This lecture has its basis in Leopardi's 'Discorso di un Italiano intorno alla poesia romantica'. The connection with Byron here is the key. Leopardi is much closer to Byron than is Breme because Leopardi understands Byron's historicisation of classics of all kinds. Breme wants poetry to be one thing at a time so that he can stage its fashionable 'Romantic' revolution. Leopardi, by contrast, implicitly shares with Byron an ever-developing genre-based Romanticism, always in process and never prescribing, always the result of the circumstances whose historical character it then comes to understand, never wise before the event, and so always becoming what it is. Writing of this sort characterises, too, second-generation British romanticism as it differs from Wordsworth's and Coleridge's obsession with an innate faculty of imagination. But, much more than this, it is the shape in which Romanticism has been serviceable to post-Romantic thinkers from Marx to Benjamin who have prized its exemplary expression of historical process through its own self-transformation. For they also share Leopardi's pessimistic insight that we understand our own existence generically, through our confinement to an animal species-being whose finite conditions, historical shifts and changes we never transcend and so to which we are always (expectantly) subject.

Paul Hamilton's gives details on the lecture

(Copyright: used with special permission from Paul Hamilton)

His research is primarily on Enlightenment and Romantic thought and literature. He is particularly interested in the relations between literature, philosophy and political theory, and has also written on critical theory generally and the transitions between modernism and postmodernism. Professor Hamilton has published books on Coleridge, Wordsworth and Shelley, and is the author of Historicism (Routledge, second edition, 2003) and Metaromanticism: Aesthetics, Literature, Theory (Chicago University Press, 2003). He is currently finishing a book on Coleridge and German philosophy, and is working towards a comparative study of European romanticism.

Paul Hamilton: Why Romanticism Is Still Becoming What It Is

I’d like to begin anecdotally. Mike Caesar kindly invited me to talk about Leopardi and Shelley at the bicentennial conference organised here in 1998. I remember sitting listening to other lectures, definitely fascinated, but troubled by an underlying question. My question was: why is the conference devoted to ‘the question of the book in the age of Romanticism’? Why wasn’t it about Leopardi’s mind, the sources of his art, everything prior to and explicatory of the books that he produced? Of course I knew that a cursory review of Leopardi’s output immediately raised intriguing issues about the genres in which he wrote, his philology in the broadest sense, and the models for thinking and writing he was commending to his readers through his use of those genres in verse and prose. Subtending everything, too, was the challenge to the literary critic, historian and philosopher to place the form as well as the content of Zibaldone di pensieri in a meaningful relation with the rest of his output. Only Coleridge’s voluminous jottings provide an English comparison, and they have been used, like the Bible, to prove everything. Should the Zibaldone be treated as source-material from which Leopardi chose and selected, his published works showing the decisions he took? Or does Leopardi’s Zibaldone represent an ideal book written to himself, one so rich and tolerant in its compendiousness and in its power to entertain alternative lines of thought that it shows what the published works, slighter because tailored to a normal audience’s requirements and attention-span, could only aspire to?

As the conference continued, these formal questions appeared to me increasingly to drive the way we should look at Leopardi. I’d thought of Leopardi and his Romanticism as akin to Coleridge rather through his interest in mental faculties and the proper ordering and prioritising of different mental activities. Was it not the lack of closure in his experience of imagination and desire, after all, which let Leopardi intuit the nature of the infinite upon which he then wrote his great idyll, Linfinito, and which could then inspire the endlessness of the Zibaldone? Other Coleridgean questions then followed. What was the place of reason in relation to imagination? Do the emotions support intellectual activity? Is pessimism the true outcome of philosophising? Does Leopardi’s poetry of nature make him a materialist rather than an idealist? With the last question, though, the lights began to change. For that was a question you just could not sensibly ask the devout Coleridge. Peter Porter’s verse translations of Leopardi written for the same bicentennial conference in a deliberately Coleridgean manner were still more disquieting. Porter volunteered that any plausibility in his mapping of the Italian’s language on to the English Romantic was ‘chance’, a felicity subordinate to Porter’s own needs as a poet. The writing of poetry was what made his understanding of Leopardi work, not some system of thought that could be abstracted from the writing of it. How you write a book was primary, and psychological affinity, we might say, was secondary.

I read the other contributions to the bicentennial afterwards and saw, as expected, that it was entirely convincing, and brought as much as possible of Leopardi into play, to investigate things this way round. It was true that for Leopardi, ‘tutto è posteriore a l’esistenza’, and that therefore it made sense to apply his materialism to questions of literary theory too. It was more natural to think his thought was led by the way he wrote about it, by the materiality of his books, and not that he had a thought and then wondered about the best way to express it. I felt as if I was approaching Romanticism from a different place. Well, the quick answer to why I felt critically relocated suggests, I believe, differences between the Anglophone Romanticism I had been studying all my life and the continental Romanticism to which I was increasingly drawn.

The first generation of English Romantics repeatedly wrote about grasping a core experience, identified through introspection and sympathy, and only subsequently did they consider the task of finding a form of writing which would be adequate to this essential humanity and which would persuade others that they possessed the same human essence. They worried that the results might be confusing. Wordsworth was concerned that the reader of his Lyrical Ballads in 1798 would look around for poetry in its expected shapes and not find it. He reassured the reader in his ‘Preface’ that each poem in the collection did indeed have a ‘purpose’, that poems were exercises in sympathy, and that the poet expressed himself as other people did. That, however, was all that he expressed – human expression. In contrast to our ordinary communicative and utilitarian uses of language, the poet wrote constrained only to give ‘immediate pleasure to a human being’ irrespective of anything else. Wordsworth’s explanatory formula was tautologous: we live by pleasure, it is our ‘grand elemental principle’; equally, we have ‘no sympathy but what is propagated by pleasure’. In case we thought we had not been enjoying Wordsworth’s poetry, his obvious powers of sympathy – his fluency in our expressive powers - reassured us that we had; and, any pleasure we took from his poetry confirmed his psychological insight.

The sympathetic process Wordsworth described here was very like Hume’s ‘impartial spectator’, a fiction required to secure an objective and just view of the emotions of others. But for Wordsworth, who no doubt abhorred Hume, poetry was the necessary fiction. Hume’s explanation remains speculatively psychological, Wordsworth’s is based on the evidence of reading. In fact he went on to concede that it was from the existence of poetry that we could deduce what might be our most essential experiences. Otherwise we were too involved in having them to recognize them for what they were. The writing was prior to and became a mnemonic or touchstone for the sort of basic human experiences we could then say we had. But this argument is, as you see, quite difficult to extract from the ‘Preface’ although I am sure it is there. When he wrote the Preface to his Poems of 1815, he began with their classification into different genres – narrative, dramatic, lyrical, idyllic, didactic and satirical. The Preface’s distinctions between fancy and imagination were subsequent to understanding what Wordsworth called ‘the materials of Poetry’. It was as a result of the close reading of poetry that Wordsworth could make his discoveries about the psychology. Poetic sympathy made an object ‘react upon the mind that hath performed the process like a new object’. We grasp the object more completely subsequent to grasping its poetic representation. Coleridge, however, in his literary biography, two years later, chronicled ‘defects and excellences’ of Wordsworth’s poetry, culminating in the excellence of Wordsworth’s gift of imagination, something informing poetry rather than deduced from the reading of poetry. Psychology once more presumed over the writing of it. Coleridge’s criticism of Wordsworth helped disguise the priority of writing to experience implicit in what Wordsworth had to say about versification.

Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria, though, was notoriously broken-backed. The deduction of imagination promised in the first volume never materialised. Instead readers were offered a series of prevarications, and an extraordinary variety of literary manoeuvres, by which Coleridge tried to distract them from expecting him to fulfil his promise. So again the writing took over from the transcendental psychology, but by default, as it were. Coleridge’s grand philosophical attempt to describe the paramount experience of imagination failed. His Biographia Literaria became a byword for the poverty of high romantic theory in Britain. It was was published in 1817, but its philosophical models are Kant, professedly, and, surreptitiously, works written by Schelling from the late 90s to 1800. Coleridge may know of but does not present as his chosen method, the genre-based approach of the Jena romantics, although their ideas would have best excused the literary alternatives to deducing imagination in Biographia. Ironic performance would have to replace ironic theory completely to cover his inability to ‘explain his explanation’, as Byron put it. A ‘universal, progressive poetry’, a collaborative ‘Symphilosophie’, a writing aware of the philosophical significance of the fragment, a thinking that worked ironically, all these would have helped exonerate the failed psychology by providing a rationale for turning it on its head. Genre-based theory also rationalises much more plausibly the activity of the second generation of English romantics. And a mobility of genre, especially theorised by Shelley in his Defence of Poetry, gets at a basic historicism needed to explain the moves behind this post-Kantian Romanticism and, incidentally, needed to explain why Leopardi’s defence of the classics in his Discorso di un Italiano intorno alla poesia romantica is far from reactionary. Read in this context, far from being a neo-classical retrospective opposed to Romanticism, it becomes a genre-based Romanticism ahead of the psychological Romanticism that preceded it. I therefore happily risk the mistake condemned by Sebastiano Timpanaro, the one of casting Leopardi as il vero grande Romantico Italiano, but I do so because, as much as Timpanaro, I see Leopardi as re-visioning the Enlightenment in a post-Romantic form that leads to Marx.

Given the background in Anglophone Romantic theory just described, I then became understandably (I hope) fascinated by Leopardi’s early positioning in his 1818 Discorso di un Italiano intorno alla poesia romantica. He seems anti-romantic because he attacks the psychological emphasis of Lodovico Di Breme, who had championed Romanticism in his Osservazioni of January 1818 in Lo Spettatore Italiano on the translation by Pellegrino Rossi of Byron’s Turkish tale, The Giaour. But this attack might well put Leopardi in the camp of post-Kantians, someone already implicated in the new theory, which was genre based. Many of the bicentennial papers had little trouble in eliciting parallels in Leopardi with Friedrich Schlegel’s ideas about the philosophical significance of that hedgehog, the literary fragment. It is not clear that Mme de Stäel, Di Breme’s effectual intellectual patron, grasps entirely that post-Kantian reversal of Kantian practice which, instead of inventing terminologies to describe philosophical discoveries, allows language itself to yield up insights that philosophy should follow. Philosophical discourse then crosses traditional boundaries between it and other disciplines as required by its new expression. In one passage she seems to think the second phase could be an extension of the first, psychological phase. Late in De l’Allemagne, in a chapter entitled ‘Influence de la nouvelle philosophie allemande sur le développement de l’esprit’, she writes:

En Allemagne, un homme supérieur se borne rarement à une seule carrière… La nouvelle philosophie allemande est nécessairement plus favourable qu’ aucune autre à l’étendue de l’esprit; car, rapportant tout au foyer de l’âme, et considérant le monde lui même comme régi par des lois dont le type est en nous, elle ne saurait admettre le préjugé qui destine chaque homme, d’une manière exclusive à telle ou telle branche d’études.

(In Germany, superior men rarely confine themselves to only one career… The new German philosophy is necessarily more favourable than any other to the extension of the mind; for, referring everything to the native centre of the mind, and considering the world itself as governed by laws whose pattern is internal to us, it does not know how to permit that prejudice by which each man is fated in an exclusive way to this or that branch of study.)

She gets to the post-Kantian destination, sort of, but by a kind of Schillerian generosity of spirit or mind. By contrast, Friedrich Schlegel finds inspiration for the interdisciplinary alliances of his new mythology in the example of the mixed language and fusion of genres powering the achievement of Dante, Shakespeare and Calderòn, reappearing in the work of Goethe and to be emulated by Schlegel’s exemplary Mischgedicht.

Now the philosophical authority constantly cited for this culture of cross-over was Spinoza. Gottbetrunken, as Jacobi called him, Spinoza saw ultimate value as characterised by its versatility of appearance and its power of self-differentiation. It was in everything, for those with the proper philosophical insight to detect it. Determinatio est negatio, meaning is differential, nothing is independent of anything else, multidisciplinarity looms. As Leopardi put it in the Zibaldone of October 1821, ‘the science of nature is nothing but the science of relations (scienza di rapporti). All our mental progress consists in the discovery of relations’. And according to Friedrich Schlegel, Spinoza could be made to put his own precept into practice, changing himself in the process from a strict logician into the philosopher poet the new Romantics were awaiting. He described Spinoza as the good old Saturn of the fable. The new gods pulled down the sublime one… He faded back into the solemn obscurity of the imagination… Let him put away the militant attire of systematic philosophy and share the dwelling in the temple of new poetry with Homer and Dante, joining the household gods and friends of every god-inspired poet. Indeed I can barely comprehend how one can be a poet without admiring Spinoza, loving him, and becoming entirely his.

The invocation of the Penates, the gods of hearth and home, discreetly acknowledges the tutelary influence of such powerful female minds upon the Jena circle, such as the redoubtable Caroline Böhmer-Schlegel-Schelling (the landmarks of Romanticism trail in her wake as later would the modernist inamorati of Lou Andreas Salomé – Nietzsche, Rilke, Freud). Women too could be the vehicle of this pantheism. Even Heine, a stern critic of the Jena Romantics (although mostly because of the reactionary Catholicism of their later years), used their language when he called Goethe ‘the Spinoza of poetry’. Goethe himself, in controversy with the committed Christian, Jacobi, exceeded even this definition in the theological latitude of his own self-understanding. In a letter to Jacobi of 1813 Goethe wrote that ‘Given the manifold directions of my nature, I cannot clothe myself adequately in one single way of thinking; as poet and artist, I’m a polytheist, a pantheist on the other hand as a scientific researcher, and as one as different as when I am the other. If I require a god for my person as an ethical being, that is also taken care of.’ Spinoza, though, is still the catch-all for this kind of hybridity. Spinoza’s pantheism, Heine concluded, ‘flourished practically in German art before coming to power as a philosophical theory’ (‘avant d’arriver chez nous à la puissance comme théorie philosophique’). Heine wrote his book on Germany as a counterblast to Mme de Stäel who, he claimed, had propagated so many errors about the intellectual revolution in Germany that was Romanticism. And an essential part of that revolution was the power of writing to embody ideas and recast them in new forms. ‘Spinoza’s theory abandoned its mathematical chrysalis and flitted about us in the shape of a song by Goethe’, he wrote (335, 102). The interdisciplinary uses or metamorphosis of Spinoza by German Romanticism was understood as an extension of Spinoza’s pantheistic doctrine. Spinoza’s philosophy was precisely about extending itself in this way.

Finally, it is worth noting that there is a Marxist destination for this self-transforming kind of Romanticism, whose mythology never stands still, but seems to have its restless rationale in the new intellectual communities it throws up at each stage of its progress. The tradition of Marxist criticism that Leopardi’s work generates is more predictable if one can show that the Romanticism to which he belongs realises itself or dissolves itself in the Paris MSS of 1844. There, Marx wants to account for what he calls the ‘universal’ character of our species being. Taking as his evidence our power to reproduce the world from different points of view, different moments of human solidarity, different genres, he generalises and makes Romantic versatility more materialist. Marx thinks we are capable of reproducing our environment ‘to the standards of every species and of applying to every object its inherent standard’. Our ‘natural history’ then results, Marx believes, from our reproduction of the world to its standards. So we are not dealing with an Hegelian reflection in things of our powers provisionally to conceive of them in this way. Rather, our depiction of the otherness of nature simultaneously renders back to us a consciousness of the we, the human we, who have thus to conform to natural circumstance. This double affair, of conforming to it by expressing ourselves in the power thus to reproduce it, can generate both pessimism and optimism. The conformity can be oppressive, even miserable; the expressive consciousness of conformity can be comradely and culturally refining, generically diversifying, even because of the distress caused by insight into il brutto poter of nature. We approach Leopardi’s famous paradox whereby only a mind of distinction can feel the full force of noia, or this deadening effect of our natural confinement. There is no logical explanation of the bind, and it is only what Marx would call the ‘laws of beauty’ and Leopardi’s poetic versatility that persuade us that we can grow more diverse through our power to render what stifles us.

We are left with a rich and troubling link between our ideas of genre and species. There is an entire set of interrelated terms here, shared by science and rhetoric, where the priority of one discipline over the other is hard to divine – in other words, the scientific use of ‘kind’, ‘genus’, ‘species’ and so on seems no more an application of rhetoric than the rhetorical usage does of science. But the distinction between rhetoric and science, most distinctly caught in the gap between ‘genre’ and ‘species’, is the one, I’m arguing, crossed by the inveterate impulse of Romanticism as understood by post-Kantian theory, to transform itself. Leopardi makes the deadly constraints of species productive of still more genres in which we can be expressively conscious of our parlous state. His communicative success enlarges our sense of the human collective. But lets look at his thought now in more detail.

In the Zibaldone entries of October 1821, already referred to, Leopardi states that no one can claim to be a great, true and perfect philosopher who has not read or listened to the poets. Leopardi, though, has his own angle on this typically Romantic belief in poetry as the organ of philosophy. He argues that nature must be known poetically because it must be known generically, as made up of species. It is not to be grasped transcendentally, but through its mode of being ( il modo di essere). Later, in entries of September 1823, he outlines the corollary of this. Too many of his Italian contemporaries make the merit of poetry a matter of style, and think themselves perfect and classical (perfetti e classici) as a consequence of stylistic achievement. He defines style as the choice and arrangement of the poet’s material in line with the feelings and all the other parts of the poetry – in other words, as befits occasion, propriety, or, in brief, genre. But genre is nothing, Leopardi’s argument implies, if it is not answerable to a general philosophical effort to know or understand. This knowing, again, may not be Di Breme’s Cartesian mastery, but involves imagining, thinking, feeling, inventing, in sum, originality in writing itself (insomma l’originalità nello scrivere) . Philosophy without poetry misses the essentials of nature, and poetry unconnected with this philosophical purpose falls short of its classical perfection.

How does this align Leopardi with the generic rather than psychological Romanticism I have been describing? Let’s look again at the connection between genre and species-being as it is available to the post-Romantic thought of the young Marx. To describe human beings biologically as a species, appears, just before Darwinism, a reductive concentration on our animal characteristics to the neglect of anything higher. Similarly, where genre is exhaustively defined by rules, generic definitions of literature appear comparably mechanical. For Anglophone culture, the French are usually the culprits here, with the strict neoclassicism of their writers and the disgraceful materialism of their philosophes, who write books with titles like L’homme machine or L’homme plante. One way of understanding the Romanticism Marx inherited, though, is as a startling transformation of the terms of this debate. The primacy of genre, far from being restrictive, signals an opening up of the concept of literature to access a range of experience matching that expressed by the pre-neoclassical giants, founder writers of Italian and English literature and the siglo d’oro – Dante, Shakespeare, Calderòn. Comparably, the idea of species, or the containment of what is human within natural categories, in Marx’s Paris MSS does not reduce us to our lowest common denominator but overcomes our alienation from what is truly human .

Marx identifies our species with its power to reproduce the world. Pre-scientific claims that our being transcended species characteristics, and was, fundamentally, otherworldly, simply estranged us from our true nature. Marx also reverses Schiller’s idea that the aesthetic can represent our species because it can feign a resolution of the competing claims of our natural and spiritual lives within an aesthetic whole, and thus in fiction give us access to an idea of the fully human. For Leopardi it is precisely that there is no such resolution possible that generates a sense of solidarity and the possibility of a society more honest and authentic in its recognition of what holds it together than before. Marx’s early materialism is like Leopardi’s where it sees in the world not its sameness to but its difference from us, an allegory not a symbol. Understood as this allegory, nature figures our powers to take the measure of its difference from us in our reproductions of it. Marx goes on to argue that these powers will enable us to shape our future history. But at this moment, he makes intelligible how Leopardi might have looked at existence and seen both its coercive nature and an image of our negative freedom in which, freed from crude natural need, we can see the world in its ‘human sense’ (menschlichen Sinn). Again, it must be stressed, this human form is not the world manipulated to our satisfaction, but the world reflecting back to us our natural power to understand and so reproduce its otherness. We become an object of science at the same time as it does. By implication, also, the social reality that needs to be in place to facilitate such objective cognition would be better than the one at present. Science joins aesthetics in the promise of the full realisation of the human state by letting us see how it has always been approaching – how ‘the cultivation of the five senses is the work of all previous history’, an aesthetics in the fullest sense of the term.

Now this selective view of the early Marx, with its negative, utopian consolations is far too Francofortese for most of Leopardi’s late 20th-century Marxist sympathizers. But to have the early Marx as the destination for the Romanticism Leopardi inherited has two advantages. First of all it confirms the expansive philosophical role in which he thought contemporary poetry could recapture its classical authority. The human form by which we study nature, and which reveals our own nature as an object for study, helps explain the continuity Leopardi saw between his poetry and his prose disquisitions. I’ll come back to this at the end. Secondly, it does do justice to a characteristic effect that Leopardi’s writings have had on so many readers, a negative dialectic which we do, I suppose, most naturally associate with Adorno and the Frankfurt school, but which, under the immediate impact of Leopardi’s writing, certainly has its earlier proponents. Here is De Sanctis in 1858:

… Leopardi produces the opposite effect to that which he proposes. He does not believe in progress, and he makes you long for it; he does not believe in liberty, and he makes you love it. He calls love, glory and virtù illusions, and he ignites in your breast an unexhausted desire for them… he is sceptical, and makes you believe; and while he doesn’t believe possible a future less miserable for our native land (la patria comune), he awakens a lively love for it in your heart (petto) …

There is something about Leopardi’s negativity that is profoundly positive. De Sanctis calls it an effect and leaves it at that. The passage comes from his book comparing Leopardi with Schopenhauer. Schopenhauer’s attempt to rationalise pessimism with his ‘absurd negation’ of the will leads to ‘emasculated oriental immobility’, in contrast to Leopardi’s calls to action. Timpanaro thinks De Sanctis hardly understands Leopardi at all, and that his criticism is too enmeshed in proto-Risorgimento assumptions, but he concedes that the contrast with Schopenhauer is ‘profound’. But the Leopardian activism distinguishing him from Schopenhaurean quietism remains the unexplained precipitate of quite opposite propositions.

Having sketched my framework for placing Leopardi’s Romanticism, let me return now to the details of his dispute (or failed dispute, since the Discorso was not published until much later) with Lodovico Di Breme. Di Breme attacks a classicism steeped in received mythology. He imagines a Cartesian alternative, which would do away with antiquated classical conventions just as Descartes’ philosophy displaced scholasticism. He is inspired by his reading of de Stäel to devise a Cartesian modernity for poetry. De Stäel’s essay on translations, first published in Italy in 1816, urged the assimilation of new literary ideas through an openness to other literatures. The need to defend it is one occasion for Di Breme’s polemic. He had already written in support of de Stäel in Lo Spettatore Italiano in January 1818, but his next major opportunity for Romantic proselytising arrived with the publication of just such a translation as de Stäel’s essay had recommended - Pellegrino Rossi’s Italian rendering of Byron’s Turkish tale, The Giaour. Di Breme’s praise of Byron, and his sympathetic critique of the translation, recall other ideas promulgated by de Stäel, principally those of her friends the Schlegels on the subjects of Romantic irony, the fragment, and unendingness. It is not immediately obvious why Leopardi should have found Di Breme’s views so inimical unless Leopardi had still to catch up with them. Stendhal’s description of the undoubtedly charismatic young Di Breme makes him sound eerily like Leopardi – a slender, souffrant figure who seemed forever mounting the stairs of his father’s palace. Foscolo praised his patriotic effect on the young but thought him distracted by infatuations (passioncelle) ‘worse than provincial’. Byron and Hobhouse met him in Milan in 1816. They were, wrote Hobhouse in his diary, ‘pleased with all, but most with Monsignore Breme’.

Di Breme was a central figure in the Kulturkampf of the time. He writes in Milan, capital of the Kingdom of Italy; he had stayed with de Stäel at Coppet in 1816; he had been an elevated figure in public life, a Councillor of State in 1807, and, despite the passioncelle, was offered the See of Cremona in 1813, which he turned down because of French hegemony over the Papal states. So he was Foscolo’s patriot, but well-connected ecclesiastically in a way that Leopardi might have suspected. When Leopardi sent his Discorso defending classicism against Di Breme to Lo Spettatore Italiano, his inexperience and provinciality must have been doubly emphasised by his choice of target. Furthermore, many have argued that in any case Leopardi changed his views after reading de Stäel properly and once he appreciated the power of the philosophy behind the Romanticism Di Breme was recommending. The other critical view, though, to which I am contributing, tries to explain how the precocious young Leopardi in his Discorso might already seem historically in front of Di Breme and de Stäel in his understanding of poetic possibility.

Di Breme’s attack on classicism sometimes sounds like Wordsworth. He attacks mythology and personification; he supposes an unmediated ‘real’ given through ‘nature’; he thinks poetic diction homogenizes and idealises. By contrast, he wants to establish an aesthetic realm of ideas practically analogous (idee poeticamente analoghe) to those of metaphysics, natural history and mathematical science. For Wordsworth, just such a rapport helped characterise the distinctive cross-cultural effect of the poet who writes in order to carry ‘sensation into the midst of the objects of the Science itself’. On those occasions the poet wrote under one constraint only, that of being human, of being ‘a man’. And the laws governing Di Breme’s poetic analogy were felt only by sensitive souls (gli animi generosi e delicati) comparably paradigmatic of the human estate.

Yet there are anomalies that complicate this straightforward comparison between Di Breme’s and Wordsworth’s Romanticism. Di Breme tries to link German Romanticism – he praised the scienza nuova of A. W. Schlegel’s masterly work on Euripides – with the stance of the Edinburgh Review. But the Edinburgh had just slated Wordsworth’s long poem The Excursion of 1814. And passages in The Excursion were to be understood by the second generation of English Romantics as showing how to revive the excitement of ancient mythology for a modern audience, a poetic historicism ignored in Francis Jeffrey’s famously damning review and most signally taken up by Keats. Di Breme regards the Edinburgh as having its rationale in analytic philosophy in no need of classical comparison. This view sits uneasily with the Schlegel brothers’ all-embracing view of a ‘universal, progressive poetry’ more suited to support Leopardi’s arguments for a continuity between classicism and modernity. The Edinburgh certainly acknowledged the fashion for the Romantic fragment as a form of literary expression. Byron’s concentration on passionate expression in his Turkish tales is praised by the Edinburgh which of course was less keen on the ‘nympholepsy’ (stronger than passioncelle) fuelling Bryon’s invocation of a classical sensibility late in Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage.(159-162) Byron’s dispute with Bowles over Pope, and his famous remarks about how the little ‘Queen Anne’s man’ had been right all along, and that he, Byron, and his contemporaries were all ‘on the wrong track’, similarly evince the wish to find a form of carrying classical tradition with him into modernity that sounds much more like Leopardi. In other words, Byron’s free and easy use of mythology, itself the product of warmth of sensibility, probably invites Leopardi’s later historicist praise of him as ‘one of the few poets worthy of the century’ more than it qualifies him as one of Di Breme’s Cartesian revolutionaries. In the Italian context, after all, Di Breme needed allies. Mythological poetry, far from dead, would enjoy its most famous endorsement in Italy in Monti’s Sermone sulla mitologia as late as 1825. In the Discorso, Leopardi thought Monti an exquisite translator, not a poet. (280)

Leopardi wonders why the excellent psychology (psicologia) on which Di Breme’s Romantics pride themselves hasn’t taught them moderation (la moderazione) (287). Di Breme had criticised the narrow psychology of Enlightenment philosophers such as Locke, Condillac and Tracy, for leaving outside their science incontestable psychological facts (faits de l’âme). Leopardi’s objection has to be understood in a sense that joins it to his insistence that we necessarily observe the proportions of nature in writing. He always widens the concept of our nature to include the habits of abstraction or scepticism with which human beings persuade themselves that they have no need for a concept of nature. The postmodern thinking we are most used to in recent criticism usually goes in the opposite direction. Its anti-essentialism, from Barthes to Stanley Cavell, implies that what is human is precisely the refusal to accept any defining criteria of the human: perversely but constitutionally we typically resist any final legislation, scientific or ethical, concerning our nature. Leopardi, like Marx, saw things the other way round, and already in his early Discorso Leopardi notes that even extreme Romantic reflexivity becomes a habit, a typical practice, naturalised. Distancing oneself from existing literary convention and tradition, represented for Leopardi by the ancients, does not launch you into a creative outer space, unconstrained, scatenato, but establishes a new form of writing which will be surpassed in its turn. Even la poesia romantica, he tells us, [sarà] rovinata dall’uso (even Romantic poetry will lose its novelty!).

Leopardi, though, also takes up a stronger line of attack on Di Breme’s romanticism, one that amounts to a reductio ad absurdum and also places Leopardi’s own thought recognizably within mainline Romantic period critiques of Romanticism, like Hegel’s. Leopardi is defending personification. Wordsworth had attacked this trope in his ‘Prefaces’ to Lyrical Ballads, but Leopardi does not have in mind a neoclassical convention of poetic diction that had become hackneyed and ineffective. Personification, for him, is that animated language by which we register our pleasure (diletto) in the life of something else. Inevitably, thinks Leopardi, we depict this sense of a common vitality through words that can put us in relationship with it. And when the poet writes in this way, what the reader sees and takes pleasure in, is a personifying of nature, which is true to nature to the extent that it is true to the affinity we can feel for it in virtue of its vitality. At the same time, the poetical investiture of nature with a personality also gives us an image of ourselves: a historical picture or a raising of our consciousness of what goes to make up a person for this writer and his or her intended reader. To imagine a responsive nature is to impose upon it revealingly our idea of what a personality is. The basic unit of society suddenly occupies the foreground of the poetic description of nature.

I think this is basic to Leopardi’s rhetoric early and later in his career. It can be a discreet business, one in which to take the artistic measure of an object’s existence is to find reflected back to us just our ability to do that. We are reacquainted with our current criteria for thinking we might have achieved such a feat and our standards of simulation are offered up both for examination and as practices and sympathies themselves provoking fellow-feeling. (As we have seen, this is very close to Marx’s description of the human form historically accumulating through the cultivation of our senses.) Leopardi believes our ability to personify merges with our ability to simulate. And our ability to simulate delivers the current conception of the human being to whom such a picture is calculated to appeal. Here, his example is a simple one, Byron’s image of a rose early on in (Rossi’s translation of) The Giaour. The rose becomes a woman through a process of composition that Leopardi sketches in straightforward metonymic terms. ‘Who imagines the rose sighing, doesn’t he or she also imagine a mouth? And if a mouth, then also a face? And if a face, also a person?’ (342) The complexity of the thought behind this, a seriousness that lets us see the thought stretching forward to his later representations of a much less benign, commonplace and amenable nature, is revealed in what he says of Di Breme’s supposed attempts to eschew personification. Again, we realise that personification has become something larger than the particular trope of prosopopoeia and now stands for the substance of art itself. For Leopardi argues that if the personifying activity is left out and poets in their quest for truth manage to give us the immediate truth, then they have talked themselves out of a job. First of all, the truth they claim to seek will remain undiscovered ‘because the truth cannot be an imitation of itself’ (349). Of course when we say what something is we separate our order of knowing from its order of being. But if this difference did not take place, then consciousness would not be of anything, and all the desires that poetry too expresses for overcoming that separation would vanish. Hegel provides the famous contemporary rationale for this premise. Secondly, personifications may seem artificial, but to start weeping over the misfortunes of a flower, an apple, a mountain or a lake without transmuting their living affinity or common biological processes into responsive characters would appear even more artificial. Romantics, Leopardi knows, may risk that, as in Wordsworth’s ‘To me the meanest flower that blows can hide /Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears’ or Byron’s ‘To me high mountains are a feeling’, but in each case conventional standards of feeling are being artfully estranged in the interests of revising or expanding a received notion of personality. The flower and the mountains abruptly take us back to the dilemma of a narrator seeking in them the responsive personality he can’t find elsewhere. Finally, Leopardi laughs at a poetry without personification as having onomatopoeia for its ideal – il grugnito del porco…il calpestio de’ cavalli col trap trap trap e il suono de’ campanelli col tin tin tin’ (350, 354). These are the opposite of the culturally thick description that Leopardi believes we want from art, like comparing a puppet to a sculpture by Canova or a portrait by Raphael. We might here adapt Clifford Geertz’s remark that such richness of interpretation has as its purpose to make ‘occurrences scientifically eloquent’, to suggest that what Leopardi is talking about in defending personification is something essential not ornamental. Personification is a symbolic mode necessary to our developing self-knowledge, not a frivolous projection of an assured identity beyond its proper bounds.

This knowledge of Leopardi gets behind the ‘sentimentality’ of the Romantics. It sees that their consciousness of the extent to which our world comes to us in mediated, artificial form is still moderated by the kind of natural beings we happen to be. This is a core classical aesthetic precept, but Leopardi exploits its potential for historical mobility in order to outflank the Romantics who think they have shaken off the classical world once and for all. We cannot dismiss nature as myth or artifice or as a psychologically coloured invention, because all our attempts to relativise it still fall into a natural category and can never escape from testifying to the kind of natural beings that we are. Equally, we must not, with Di Breme, imagine a kind of Cartesian objectivity free of this mythologizing. But we cannot, as Leopardi claims Di Breme’s psicologia does, dismiss the myths either (303-5). We haven’t imagined or invented the world; it’s just that we are the sort of beings who might think we have. To recognise that fact is to insist that everywhere, even in the most highly self-conscious Romantic poetry, is expressed a sense of proportion: an awareness that however exalted might be an individual poetic fantasy it will still be generically human, just as its expression, once it has become familiar, will observe the conventions of a genre. Genres are there to be defamiliarized, ironised, broken away from; but these ruptures are nothing but the setting up of new generic conventions. In Kant’s terms, through the Genius art gives the rule to nature, which then generalises the achievement of the Genius in critical terms we can all employ. The Genius’s individual insight was into an undiscovered aspect of the species. The psychological moment, the moment of transcendence, is measured and authenticated by its subsequent absorption in natural process. That’s why it was the real thing.

Nature and human nature, expressed in this way, can only be understood historically. They need history in which to distance themselves from their past so as to renew their identity. A stock view of romanticism thinks that Romanticism always sees this creative scepticism as a form of organic growth. Romantics can then be distinguished from those post-Nietzschean philosophers who put aside teleology or purpose-driven, end-directed behaviour in order to say that we can arbitrarily differ from what we were, opting out of any grand narrative that presents human development as a meaningful story. Some overarching pattern always remains, though, Nietzsche’s will to power or Derrida’s structure of writing or grammatology, in which to catch what falls out of the old narratives, renewing, if not its trajectory, then our powers of describing its dilemma. And it is just this recuperative process, I think, that Leopardi calls ‘nature’. If we think of his philosophy in this way, we can see connections between the Rousseauistic sounding respect for the primitive and the childlike in the Discorso and the later belief, worked out at length in La Ginestra, that even the most miserable natural indigence and barrenness can still flower, can still renew a sense of social solidarity. However much we seem to have lost our sense of playing a part in a meaningful story, our response can still manufacture that social catena, another grouping, another way of being human, another future for the species.

Marxist readings of Leopardi’s pessimism, though, argue that he is a poet of critical force, not of mere salvage. Once more, this recalls Rousseau. The state of nature is our authentic state, not a nostalgic utopia, and its authenticity means that a community constituted out of our response to nature will too be the right one. Sometimes, though, as in A se stesso, the only organizing force left seems to be the poem itself. But the movement from extreme personal despair and isolation to the notion of the species and a sense of belonging to a common fate is accomplished in the poem with a symptomatic rapidity. Solidarity, gener nostro, again is what seems to trigger the grasp of infinite nature, so that, in the very act of despairing of nature’s foul power over us, precisely what we are is voiced. The poem finds its genre as the subject of the poem finds his kind, his species, backing up his accusations of nature; and the compression of the genre, the poetic seizure of the lyric, suggests that the reliance on communality for your personal identity is almost the matter of a momentary reflex. Leopardi, if you like, can only put the personal boot into nature from the viewpoint of his own natural kind. I think it is this open-endedness to his pessimism that unifies the Marxist interpretations of Timpanaro and others. The unity of the species is evoked most powerfully through the unprovoked and unnecessary agonies of one of its members. Leopardi somehow makes his personal complaint into ours and so furnishes us with a critical force forever dissatisfied with the dispensations currently served up to it as natural.

Characteristic of some of Leopardi’s most spectacular poetry are the transitions from the intensely suffering personal lyric voice to another who could never have possessed that voice. The more unpromising the transition, the more compelling their poetically achieved interaction, and the more visible the logic by which, I’ve argued, Leopardi turns personal imprisonment into a significant companionship. One searches for the coercion that surely must be there in A Silvia, in the way that one suspects the enjoining of Dorothy as a participant in Wordsworth’s great poem, ‘Tintern Abbey’. But Leopardi weaves his ineluctable argument so that with the arrival of truth - All’apparir del vero - the two disparates, the reclusive watching poet and the unselfconscious young girl, are shown so bound together in a harsh fate that he can truly say we thought together –ragionammo insieme – they articulated it together. The fact of this startling affinity then achieves a further articulacy, clinched by the dead girl’s power to instruct him in their common humanity – Mostravi di lontano. Or, when in Le ricordanze, Leopardi’s symbiotic relationship with what oppressed him and what he hated, provincial Recanati, becomes a sympathy doubly powerful for antipathies overcome. Or he internalises the whole process, as in L’infinito, where sweetly to shipwreck in infinity is one of those dramatically personalised views of the absorption of the individual in a wider purpose, rehearsing perhaps a national purpose generated by the implied contrast of provincial Recanati with a still incoherent modern Italy. In the species’ sense of unease and out-of-tuneness comes a still sharper sense of the species and of the kinships that belong to it, provided you accept that these kinships involve a loss of the conventional idea of the self, and that this stands for a criticism of living so radical as to seem metaphysical rather than social. But, when you read the prose, goes Leopardi’s modern philosophical argument, the poetry can be seen to be social, or part of a needful remaking of the social.

Joseph de Maistre famously remarked in response to French revolutionary rhetoric that in ‘my lifetime I have seen Frenchmen, Italians, Russians, etc.; thanks to Montesquieu I even know that one can be Persian. But as for man, I declare that I have never in my life met him; if he exists, he is unknown to me’, Leopardi’s invocations of solidarity resulting from the personal interrogation of our natural condition never stay abstract in the way that Maistre thinks disabling. The transition at the end of the Discorso to a call to young Italy to rally behind his arguments and restore or, better, make resurgent former glories in a modern form, also makes visible the political colouring his treatise has possessed all along. Maistre is religious and monarchist in his reaction to the French Revolution because he is a nationalist. Leopardi is republican and secular for the same reasons. Both thinkers have a common ancestry in Machiavelli when they see the power of illusions to sustain a community, and at the end of the Discorso Leopardi strategically wrote of the blasphemy committed against an Italy despoiled of crown and sceptre. He also re-orientated the chauvinistic rhetoric featuring among many of the Italian replies to Mme de Stael’s call for a more internationalist Italian culture by rooting his newly imagined community of resurgent Italy in its language. Our social possibility is reflected back to us in those responsive descriptions of our natural lot that carry most force, an infectious, engaging power that is pre-eminently the poet’s. In a disunited Italy, where communal potential is everything, Leopardi can therefore see his contemporary political dilemma to be ‘unfortunately the corruption of language which is always accompanied by the corruption of taste’ (374). Like Maistre, he feels the political force he sympathizes with to be endemic in the language to which he belongs. And that language is slighted if we are cut off from the historical transformations of community recorded in Italian literature.

Leopardi argues that the Romanticism of Di Breme dismisses as mythological or full of old-fashioned personifications the very instrument by which we remake ourselves in response to circumstances. Di Breme can do so because he does not understand what personifications and mythologies really signify; he cannot distinguish what is actually close from what is distant and far apart. Leopardi’s grasp, by contrast, of the mobility of significance in the achievements of Dante, Petrarch, Ariosto, Alfieri, Michelangelo, Raphael and Canova is just like his understanding that the destination of his own peculiar excellence of a poet in response to desperate personal circumstances is the general one of the Italian language available as a political weapon for his fellow-citizens: ‘Io non vi parlo da maestro ma da compagno… non v’esorto da capitano, ma v’invito da soldato’ (380). (I don’t speak to you as a master but as a comrade… I don’t exhort you in the role of captain but invite you as would a fellow soldier.) And, to try to clinch this argument, or provide its corollary, we can say the following: Leopardi remains representative of an internationale (just as Maistre wants France to be, part of ‘the great European family’ ) by virtue of his typicality – his poetic proof that our general condition can only be represented in a particular form, that the natural determination we all share is experienced individually, that our species will always be described in a particular genre.

A fundamental truth for Machiavelli was that a citizen army would prevail over mercenaries because of the republican virtue of political participation that the citizen army continued by other means. It is the same notion of authentic society that Leopardi continues by other means in his poetic invocation of solidarity. He is never nostalgic. He does not want to cling to the classics as a lost ideal and, as he characterised Monti, to cling to them as a child to its mother – come un fanciullo alla mamma (280). It is the parlousness of the modern condition that distances us from classical culture. If we know we get the classics wrong, then we get them right, or rather, we define our alienation from them. Precisely this distance, this warping, is what lets us feel in a modern philosophical sense, rather than believe we know through traditional Cartesian modes of scientific mastery, the true nature of our condition. Illness in 1819, temporary blindness, forced this realization on Leopardi. As his imagination grew under the stimulus of this terrible insight, he turned to prose. Prose succeeded to poetry in the way the moderns did to the classics. In order, above all, not to succumb to the nostalgic myth of a normally proportioned life as a classical balance no longer attainable in the modern world, Leopardi the poet becomes, as we have seen, a modern philosopher. He feels like a neglected classic, a classic cut off from the contemporary world of culture.

The truth of modernity is thus expressible in terms of this sundering, which of course isn’t a sundering, as the only access we have to the classics is through this strangeness essential to the defining of our modernity now. His illness and isolation ally him with this classical strangeness. The solidarity his poetry can sympathetically construct shows his new, truly modern resistance to present establishments. The Leopardi described in the Zibaldone entry I am here interpreting, written about two years after the Discorso, is, critically, still becoming what he is. And that is his historicizing of his classical heritage. His alienation is characteristically used to generate astute critical force, evidenced throughout his prose commentary on his life and times. That is what he uses his classical appreciation to do in the controversy with Di Breme. Perversely his estrangement is at work to create a new solidarity, neither conventional, nor identical with his own pathology, but essentially critical and so always ahead. That is why he can sound Manichean, Gnostic, or just irredeemably pessimistic. The frail solidarities he resurrects from his own sensibility ally the personal and the public in ways only possible because of his extraordinary power to make his discontent work on our behalf.


  • Sebastiano Timpanaro, Antileopardini e neomoderati nella sinistra italiana (Pisa: ETS Editrici, 1982), pp. 152-153.
  • References throughout to the edition edited by Rosita Copioli (Milano: Biblioteca Universale Rizzole, seconda edizione, marzo 2001). This is based on the authoritative text by O Besomi and others, and contains Di Breme's Osservazioni , Leopardi's Abbozzi for his reply, a good introduction, extraordinarily copious notes and relevant extracts from De Staël and others.
  • Zibaldone , 1836. Leopardi has just been referring to 17 th -century philosophy, although not directly to Spinoza.
  • Dialogue on Poetry and Literary Aphorisms , translated, introduced and annotated by Ernst Behler and Roman Struc (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1966), p.84.
  • Werke und Briefe , XIX. 689.
  • Historische-Kritische Gesamtausgabe der Werke , Band 8/1, herasugegeben von Manfred Windfuhr: De l'Allemagne , 334 ; Zur Geschichte der Religion und Philosophie in Deutschland , 101
  • Zibaldone , 3388-3389.
  • Friedrich Schiller, On the Aesthetic Education of Man in a Series of Letters , English and German facing, ed. Elizabeth Wilkinson and L. A. Willoughby (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1967), Letter twenty three.
  • Francesco De Sanctis, Schopenhauer e Leopardi e altri saggi Leopardiani (Pavia: Ibis, 1998), p.69: ‘Perchè Leopardi produce l'effetto contrario a quello che si propone. Non crede al progresso, e te lo fa desiderare; non crede alla libertà, e te la fa amare. Chiama illusioni l'amore, la gloria, la virtù, e te ne accenda in petto un desiderio inesausto… E scettico, e ti fa credente; e mentre non crede possibile un avvenire men tristo per la patria comune, ti desta in seno un vivo amore per quella…'
  • Antileopardini , p.153.
  • Lodovico di Breme Polemiche , introduzione e note di Carlo Calcaterra (Torino: Unione Tipographico-Editrice Torinese, 1923), epigraph, and p. xliii, n. 3
  • (assembled by Peter Cochran).
  • Les Carnets de Voyages de Madame de Stäel: Contributions à la Genèse de ses Oeuvres , ed. Simone Balayé (Genève: Droz, 1971), pp. 410-411 n. 9.
  • A. W. Schlegel, Comparation entre le Phèdre de Racine et celle d'Euripides ( Paris , 1807); Copioli, Discorso , pp. 432-435 (p.157 in the original pagination of Lo Spettatore Italiano which she also gives and which I have subsequently included in my text).
  • Giacomo Leopardi, La vita e le lettere , Scelta, introduzione, biografica e note di Nico Naldini, Prefazione di Fernando Bandini ( Garzanti, 1998) 5 June, 1826 to Francesco Puccinotti, p. 345.
  • Renata Cotrone quotes Di Breme's remark from his Grande Commentaire in her Romanticismo italiano: prospettive critiche a percorsi intelletuali di Breme Visconti Scalvini (Manduria, Bari, Roma: Piero Lacaita Editore, 1996), p. 149.
  • Clifford Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures (MFEMFE: Fontana, 1993). P. 28.
  • Joseph de Maistre, Considerations on France , translated and edited by Richard A. Lebrun, Introduction by Isaiah Berlin (Cambridge: CUP, 1994), p. 53.
  • Considerations , p. 44.
  • Zibaldone , 143-144.