Always to me beloved was this lonely hillside And the hedgerow creeping over and always hiding The distances, the horizon’s furthest reaches. But as I sit and gaze, there is an endless Space still beyond, there is a more than mortal Silence spread out to the last depth of peace, Which in my thought I shape until my heart Scarcely can hide a fear. And as the wind Comes through the copses sighing to my ears, The infinite silence and the passing voice I must compare: remembering the seasons, Quiet in dead eternity, and the present, Living and sounding still. And into this Immensity my thought sinks ever drowning, And it is sweet to shipwreck in such a sea.For a poem to celebrate its anniversary independent of its poet is rather rare, but Giacomo Leopardi’s (1798–1837) “The Infinite” (“L’infinito”) is just such a well-beloved poem, as we saw a few years ago with the public commemorations of its 200th anniversary. The 15 lines are so branded upon the hearts and minds of Italians that it would be a difficult feat to find an Italian who escaped their years of school without having studied it.
Unfortunately, the discussion of poetry in other language involves the necessary sin of translating the untranslatable. The more beloved the poem is, the more egregious is the offense. Though the beauty of the sound is inevitably lost in every translation, I’ve chosen Henry Reed’s rendering of the poem as one of those which remains closer to the style.
What makes the poem so difficult to translate is not only the smooth, rich flow of the Italian and the unadaptable form, but also the vocabulary itself, which has a beauty in being rather old-fashioned. The four sentences that comprise the poem flow along as an unbroken whole, and the mixture of old and modern vocabulary lends a simplicity to the tone rather than making it sound pompous.
Reflection on a nature scene would not, in itself, seem a new subject. Instead, part of the unique quality of the poem comes from the fact that a hedgerow obstructs the poet’s view and interrupts his musings on the landscape before him.
Hill and Hedgerow
Always to me beloved was this lonely hillside And the hedgerow creeping over and always hiding The distances, the horizon’s furthest reaches. But as I sit and gaze, there is an endless Space still beyond, there is a more than mortal Silence spread out to the last depth of peace, Which in my thought I shape until my heart Scarcely can hide a fear.It is in these first lines that the translation loses so much of the beauty of ancient words. The Italian vocabulary Leopardi uses is a combination of the everyday and the antiquated: the Italian word for “lonely” hearkens back to the past as it is seldom used and belongs to traditional literary language, and “beloved,” with its common, everyday use, makes the scene seem at once elevated and ordinary. The use of the remote past tense with the first verb rather than the near past also creates a sense of eternity: the hill and hedgerow have always been, and the poet has time and time again returned to admire them.
Two principal forces act within the poem: the hedgerow and the mind of the poet. As the poet’s sight runs up against the hedgerow and can’t transcend it, his mind begins to move within the perimeter of it, and in so doing he discovers a limitlessness. The hedgerow represents the natural limits of time, space, and mortality that impede the human desire for the infinite; these limits stand in contrast to the boundless action of thought and emotion within the human person.
Silence and Sound, Finite and Infinite
And as the wind Comes through the copses sighing to my ears, The infinite silence and the passing voice I must compare: remembering the seasons, Quiet in dead eternity, and the present, Living and sounding still. And into this Immensity my thought sinks ever drowning, And it is sweet to shipwreck in such a sea.There is a pause created in the middle of the poem by the end of the second sentence, an urge to partake in the same superhuman silence which the speaker almost fears. The wind animating the foliage of the hedgerow interrupts the silence, and the speaker begins to compare the wind’s voice with infinite stillness.
The consideration of the infinite now turns from that of the infinity within the speaker to the infinite expanse of time, namely eternity. The Italian uses the demonstrative pronouns “this” and “that” instead of the article “the” to emphasize the distance from the speaker, placing that “infinite silence” far from this “passing voice.” This language distances the speaker from eternity and brings him back to the reality about him, that is, the voice of the wind that symbolizes earthly life and the human condition.
We witness the adjoining, the creation, of concepts as the poet begins to reflect on the eternal, bringing past seasons to life again in memory, beholding the present season, and bringing his thought back to the sound of the wind. As this last thought is added, the sound of the word “sound” brings the tone back to the everyday, the blunt reality of the hedgerow before him and the ordinary encompassing the extraordinary infinity which he had been contemplating.
Sweetness of ThoughtFour movements comprise the poem: the recognition of the place around him which serves as the launching point for the interior journey, the recognition of three-dimensional infinity, the recognition of time-based infinity, and finally the sweetness of drowning in a sea of thought.
In this final sentence, the poem closes with the sense of an exquisite melancholy, the awareness that there is a passing away as one steps on the threshold of eternity. The sweetness, however, comes from the wonder and awe of beholding the infinite, just as the end of the poem plummets back into awareness of physical and natural limitations.
Even as the speaker flounders in the face of the immense cosmos, he is no longer on the brink of fear: He reconciles finite and infinite so that both work in tandem. As a result, the speaker arrives at a sweet tranquility, even while confronted with immeasurable immensities and constricting confinements.