Far from your own little bough,
Poor little frail little leaf,
Where are you going? -- The wind
Has plucked me from the beech where I was born.
It rises once more, and bears me
In the air from the wood to the fields,
And from the valley up into the hills.
I am a wanderer
For ever: that is all that I can say.
I go where everything goes,
I go where by nature's law
Wanders the leaf of the rose,
Wanders the leaf of the bay.
Giacomo Leopardi (translated by J. G. Nichols), in Giacomo Leopardi, The Canti, With a Selection of His Prose (Carcanet 1994). The poem is titled "Imitation" because it is a translation by Leopardi from a poem in French ("La Feuille": "The Leaf") by Antoine-Vincent Arnault (1766-1834).
I consider Leopardi to be the King of Pessimism. To wit:
"What is life? The journey of a crippled and sick man walking with a heavy load on his back up steep mountains and through wild, rugged, arduous places, in snow, ice, rain, wind, burning sun, for many days without ever resting night and day to end at a precipice or ditch, in which inevitably he falls."
Giacomo Leopardi, Zibaldone (edited by Michael Caesar and Franco D'Intino), 4162-4163 (January 17, 1826) (Farrar, Straus and Giroux 2013), page 1809.
Yes, I know: Whew! And, mind you, this is the proverbial tip of the iceberg. Leopardi, like Schopenhauer (who, not surprisingly, greatly admired him), ultimately came to the conclusion that, given our fate, we would be better off if we had never been born. Again: Whew!
In light of all this, the life of the ever-wandering leaf in "Imitation" seems like a carefree stroll in the park, doesn't it?
David Bates, "A Beech Wood, Malvern, Worcestershire" (1889)
Leopardi's poem brought to mind one of my favorite poems by Derek Mahon (or by anybody, for that matter), which has appeared here before (in autumn).
The prisoners of infinite choice
Have built their house
In a field below the wood
And are at peace.
It is autumn, and dead leaves
On their way to the river
Scratch like birds at the windows
Or tick on the road.
Somewhere there is an afterlife
Of dead leaves,
A stadium filled with an infinite
Rustling and sighing.
Somewhere in the heaven
Of lost futures
The lives we might have led
Have found their own fulfilment.
Derek Mahon, Poems 1962-1978 (Oxford University Press 1979).
As I have suggested in the past, one thing leads to another when it comes to poetry. Perhaps it was Leopardi's line "I go where everything goes" that led me on to "Leaves," with its "dead leaves/On their way to the river." In any case, I was now sunk deep in autumn, while outside all was green and blue and bright.
John Gardiner Crawford
"Little Burn, Bonskeid" (1980)
Six poems later in Leopardi's The Canti, I found this autumnal reverie:
Fragment: From the Greek of Simonides
All human things last only a short time;
The old blind man of Chios
Spoke but the simple truth:
As are the lives of leaves,
So are the lives of men.
But few there are who take
Those words to heart; while everyone receives
Unruly hope, the child
Of youth, to live with him.
As long as our first age
Is fresh and blooming still,
The vacant headstrong soul
Will nourish many pleasant dreams, all vain,
Careless of death and age; the healthy man
Has no regard for illness or disease.
But he must be a fool
Who cannot see how rapidly youth flies,
How close the cradle lies
To the funereal fire.
So you who are about
To step into the land
Where Pluto holds his court,
Enjoy, since life is short,
The pleasures hard at hand.
Giacomo Leopardi (translated by J. G. Nichols), in Giacomo Leopardi, The Canti, With a Selection of His Prose.
Coincidentally, I posted a different translation of Simonides's poem last October. As I noted at the time, the "man of Chios" (line 2) refers to Homer, who was traditionally thought to have been born on Chios, an island in the Aegean Sea in the region known as Ionia. The lines "As are the lives of leaves/So are the lives of men" echo a passage in Book VI of The Iliad. The passage was rendered by Alexander Pope as follows:
Like leaves on trees the race of man is found,
Now green in youth, now with'ring on the ground:
Another race the foll'wing spring supplies,
They fall successive, and successive rise;
So generations in their course decay,
So flourish these, when those are passed away.
Here is a modern translation by Robert Fagles:
Like the generations of leaves, the lives of mortal men.
Now the wind scatters the old leaves across the earth,
now the living timber bursts with the new buds
and spring comes round again. And so with men:
as one generation comes to life, another dies away.
Alec Dixon, "Autumn, High Beach, Essex" (1988)
As long-time (and much-appreciated!) readers may have noticed, I am wont to present a coda to the topic at hand by presenting a brief Chinese or Japanese poem that seems to get to the heart of the matter. Thus, the following haiku brings our autumnal idyll to a close.
People are few;
A leaf falls here,
Issa (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 4: Autumn-Winter (Hokuseido Press 1952), page 364.
What Issa has to say does not supplant what Leopardi or Mahon or Simonides or Homer have to say. But he provides a lovely distillation that puts everything into perspective.
Come to think of it, here is a final thought by Leopardi:
"His amusement was to count the stars as he walked."
Giacomo Leopardi, Zibaldone, 280 (October 16, 1820), page 185.
John Inchbold, "A Study, in March" (1855)