March 3, 2010

Night Song of a Wandering Shepherd in Asia (Canto notturno di un pastore errante dell'Asia)


Yet another poetic, philosophical and aesthetic interlude between one political post and another—a sort of “ecology of political blogging” is needed, in my opinion!

In a previous post on the great 19th century Italian poet Giacomo Leopardi I drew attention to what seems to be a fascinating intellectual paradox, but it isn’t: I mean, the “phenomenon” may well be fascinating, but on closer inspection it’s not a paradox… I’m talking about the religious reading of Leopardi himself, despite his inclination toward pessimism—Leopardi’s deeply pessimistic Weltanschauung, in both a “historical” and a “cosmic” sense, is based on an empirical and mechanistic world view (inspired, among others, by John Locke), denying purpose in the universe, and seeking to explain all phenomena solely by efficient causality.

Now it’s time for me to introduce a poem which is a sort of manifesto of both Leopardi’s pessimism and his “religiousness,” the Canto Notturno di un pastore errante dell’Asia, (“Night Song of a Wandering Shepherd in Asia”). It’s by far my favorite Leopardi poem, a powerful meditation on the meaning of life, and, in my opinion, one of the most profound things ever written.

However, before reading, please bear in mind the following scheme: we human beings seek an infinite fulfilment, an infinite coherence, an infinite wisdom and comprehension, an infinite love, an infinite perfection. But we do not have the capacity to achieve any of these things, and the mystery of life, the mystery of happiness, seems always one step beyond us. Yet, does this necessarily mean that, at the end of the road, there’s only darkness and despair? Perhaps so.

Embedded in that “perhaps” is the possibility of hope. By our own power we are hopeless, but, as St Augustine wrote in his Confessions, “Thou hast made us for Thyself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee” (Nos fecisti ad te et inquietum est cor nostrum donec requiescat in te). Leopardi’s “restless heart,” far more than his pessimistic Weltanschauung, is what this wonderful poem seems to be all about.


Night Song Of A Wandering Shepherd In Asia
(Italian)

What doest thou in heaven, O moon?
Say, silent moon, what doest thou?
Thou risest in the evening; thoughtfully
Thou wanderest o'er the plain,
Then sinkest to thy rest again.
And art thou never satisfied
With going o'er and o'er the selfsame ways?
Art never wearied? Dost thou still
Upon these valleys love to gaze?
How much thy life is like
The shepherd's life, forlorn!
He rises in the early dawn,
He moves his flock along the plain;
The selfsame flocks, and streams, and herbs
He sees again;
Then drops to rest, the day's work o'er;
And hopes for nothing more.
Tell me, O moon, what signifies his life
To him, thy life to thee? Say, whither tend
My weary, short-lived pilgrimage,
Thy course, that knows no end?

And old man, gray, infirm,
Half-clad, and barefoot, he,
Beneath his burden bending wearily,
O'er mountain and o'er vale,
Sharp rocks, and briars, and burning sand,
In wind, and storm, alike in sultry heat
And in the winter's cold,
His constant course doth hold;
On, on, he, panting, goes,
Nor pause, nor rest he knows;
Through rushing torrents, over watery wastes;
He falls, gets up again,
And ever more and more he hastes,
Torn, bleeding, and arrives at last
Where ends the path,
Where all his troubles end;
A vast abyss and horrible,
Where plunging headlong, he forgets them all.
Such scene of suffering, and of strife,
O moon, is this our mortal life.
In travail man is born;
His birth too oft the cause of death,
And with his earliest breath
He pain and torment feels: e'en from the first,
His parents fondly strive
To comfort him in his distress;
And if he lives and grows,
They struggle hard, as best they may,
With pleasant words and deeds to cheer him up,
And seek with kindly care,
To strengthen him his cruel lot to bear.
This is the best that they can do
For the poor child, however fond and true.
But wherefore give him life?
Why bring him up at all,
If this be all?
If life is nought but pain and care,
Why, why should we the burden bear?
O spotless moon, such is
Our mortal life, indeed;
But thou immortal art,
Nor wilt, perhaps, unto my words give heed.

Yet thou, eternal, lonely wanderer,
Who, thoughtful, lookest on this earthly scene,
Must surely understand
What all our sighs and sufferings mean;
What means this death,
This color from our cheeks that fades,
This passing from the earth, and losing sight
Of every dear, familiar scene.
Well must thou comprehend
The reason of these things; must see
The good the morning and the evening bring:
Thou knowest, thou, what love it is
That brings sweet smiles unto the face of spring;
The meaning of the Summer's glow,
And of the Winter's frost and snow,
And of the silent, endless flight of Time.
A thousand things to thee their secrets yield,
That from the simple shepherd are concealed.
Oft as I gaze at thee,
In silence resting o'er the desert plain,
Which in the distance borders on the sky,
Or following me, as I, by slow degrees,
My flocks before me drive;
And when I gaze upon the stars at night,
In thought I ask myself,
"Why all these torches bright?
What mean these depths of air,
This vast, this silent sky,
This nightly solitude? And what am I?"
Thus to myself I talk; and of this grand,
Magnificent expanse,
And its untold inhabitants,
And all this mighty motion, and this stir
Of things above, and things below,
No rest that ever know,
But as they still revolve, must still return
Unto the place from which they came,--
Of this, alas, I find nor end nor aim!
But thou, immortal, surely knowest all.
This I well know, and feel;
From these eternal rounds,
And from my being frail,
Others, perchance, may pleasure, profit gain;
To me life is but pain.

My flock, now resting there, how happy thou,
That knowest not, I think, thy misery!
O how I envy thee!
Not only that from suffering
Thou seemingly art free;
That every trouble, every loss,
Each sudden fear, thou canst so soon forget;
But more because thou sufferest
No weariness of mind.
When in the shade, upon the grass reclined,
Thou seemest happy and content,
And great part of the year by thee
In sweet release from care is spent.
But when I sit upon the grass
And in the friendly shade, upon my mind
A weight I feel, a sense of weariness,
That, as I sit, doth still increase
And rob me of all rest and peace.
And yet I wish for nought,
And have, till now, no reason to complain.
What joy, how much I cannot say;
But thou some pleasure dost obtain.
My joys are few enough;
But not for that do I lament.
Ah, couldst thou speak, I would inquire:
Tell me, dear flock, the reason why
Each weary breast can rest at ease,
While all things round him seem to please;
And yet, if  I lie down to rest,
I am by anxious thoughts oppressed?

Perhaps, if I had wings
Above the clouds to fly,
And could the stars all number, one by one,
Or like the lightning leap from rock to rock,
I might be happier, my dear flock,
I might be happier, gentle moon!
Perhaps my thought still wanders from the truth,
When I at others' fortunes look:
Perhaps in every state beneath the sun,
Or high, or low, in cradle or in stall,
The day of birth is fatal to us all.


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First written for The Metaphysical Peregrine



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