A friend (and immensely gifted food blogger) in Houston, Chris, recently asked me about the origins of the inscription above. He took the photo in the Abruzzo countryside (his photostream here). The lines (in bold below) come from one of the great “songs” of 19th-century Italian poet Giacomo Leopardi, “Night-Song Of A Wandering Shepherd of Asia.” We don’t read a lot of Leopardi today but in 1888 the editors of the Encyclopaedia Britannica called this poem “one of the highest flights of modern lyric poetry.” Leopardi’s “style and melody,” they noted, “are unsurpassed.” In the poem, the “wandering shepherd” questions the moon about the “why” of life. (The stanza below is an excerpt and you can read the entire piece, in an excellent translation, here; read the poem in Italian here.)
The last years of my life have been the richest so far and I am blessed in the wealth of love I have found in Tracie P and my friends and family and the treasure of experiences we enjoy through enogastronomy and music these days. But the frailty of our human condition — whether the tragedy in Japan or a loved one facing a serious health crisis — often makes me rise early from our bed (as Tracie P slumbers, like today) and as I gaze over the internet through the computer screen (the moon to my shepherd?), I cannot help but ask “why?” Just like my nephew Oscar asks his grandmother Judy, why does the moon go away every night?
The opening lines of the poem echo Oscar’s quaestio:
Why are you there, Moon, in the sky? Tell me
why you are there, silent Moon.
You rise at night, and go
contemplating deserts: then you set.
Yet you, lovely, eternal wanderer,
so pensive, perhaps you understand
this earthly life,
this suffering, the sighs that exist:
what this dying is, this last
fading of our features,
the vanishing from earth, the losing
all familiar, loving company.
And you must understand
the ‘why’ of things, and view the fruits
of morning, evening,
silence, endless passing time.
You know (you must) at what sweet love
of hers the springtime smiles,
the use of heat, and whom the winter
benefits with frost.
You know a thousand things, reveal
a thousand things still hidden from a simple shepherd.
Often as I gaze at you
hanging so silently, above the empty plain
that the sky confines with its far circuit:
or see you steadily
follow me and my flock:
or when I look at the stars blazing in the sky,
musing I say to myself:
‘What are these sparks,
this infinite air, this deep
infinite clarity? What does this
vast solitude mean? And what am I?’
So I question. About these
magnificent, immeasurable mansions,
and their innumerable family:
and the steady urge, the endless motion
of all celestial and earthly things,
circling without rest,
always returning to their starting place:
I can’t imagine
their use or fruit. But you, deathless maiden,
I’m sure, know everything.