Carrying Away His Last Sheep


An illustration of Leopardi by Tullio Pericoli.

It’s Leopardi’s birthday tomorrow. Happy 219, Giacomo. In remembrance of the occasion, I think we’d all better have a look at the following short poem by James Wright. I’ve never seen it in any anthology. It’s from Shall We Gather at the River (1968). 

In Memory of Leopardi

I have gone past all those times when the poets
Were beautiful as only
The rich can be. The cold bangles
Of the moon grazed one of my shoulders,
And so to this day,
And beyond, I carry
The sliver of a white city, the barb of a jewel
in my left clavicle that hunches.
Tonight I sling
A scrambling sack of oblivions and lame prayers
On my right good arm. The Ohio River
Has flown by me twice, the dark jubilating
Isaiah of mill and smoke marrow. Blind son
Of a meadow of huge horses, lover of drowned islands
Above Steubenville, blind father
Of my halt gray wing:
Now I limp on, knowingth
The moon strides behind me, swinging
The scimitar of the divinity that struck down
The hunchback in agony
When he saw her, naked, carrying away his last sheep
Through the Asian rocks.

For readers who don’t know much about Leopardi but are interested now that they’ve read Wright’s poem, I should point out that Leopardi did indeed suffer from some sort of severe spinal curvature disease. Also he was an atheist. Also his “tonal register” tended to be a little bit gloomy.

Let me point out a few other things. The poem does that trick they loved in the sixties. It begins by establishing the voice of the poem as Leopardi’s, but then it materializes later on that the voice is that of James Wright, having identified with Leopardi to a superheated degree. Wright judged himself as having a wounded unlovely soul, the moon (poetry) has left a splinter in him, too, hence the identification. Good. But now we come to that last sentence, the grammar of which is devilishly ambiguous:

Now I limp on, knowing
The moon strides behind me, swinging
The scimitar …

—Wait, who’s swinging that scimitar? “Me” or the moon?—

The scimitar of the divinity that struck down
The hunchback in agony …

Which hunchback? Leopardi? Wright? Some other one?—

When he saw her, naked, carrying away his last sheep
Through the Asian rocks.

Okay, I see two ways to understand the pronouns there. Way no. 1 is the way I understood it all my life. Way no. 2 is the way all or most of my poetry students understood it.

Way no. 1 That scimitar belongs to a male divinity, who struck down a female hunchback when he saw that female hunchback stealing his sheep. She was naked at the time. This is not nice, but there is a kind of rough justice to it. Stealing is wrong.

Way no. 2 That scimitar belongs to a female divinity who struck down a male hunchback who saw that female divinity naked (cf Actaeon). And not just naked but stealing his sheep. We’ll call this the “no justice whatsoever” interpretation.

Needless to say, participants on both sides of that controversy had to squeeze their brains to bits to even comprehend what the other side was saying. I’m frankly amazed I was able to reconstruct way no. 2 from memory, there. It’s just so counterintuitive to me.

James Wright, it must be said, was quite comfortable with ambiguity. Look again at “Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota,” and its notorious last line: “I have wasted my life.” You can say that line in any tone of voice ranging from jolly self-mockery to existential despair and it works just fine.

Incidentally, “In Memory of Leopardi” loses only a smidge of its doubleness if you (like one of my students) take the trouble to hunt up Leopardi’s own “Canto notturno di un pastore errante dell’Asia” (“Night Song of a Wandering Shepherd of Asia”). In those 143 lines there is no sheep stealing nor killing of any kind of hunchback, but there is a goddess: the moon. So who am I kidding. Clearly it has to be Leopardi/hunchback/shepherd who is slain. The reason way no. 1 seems so right to me is I’m clinging to justice. Why would a goddess steal a hunchback’s sheep? and naked? But Leopardi answers that question himself. It’s because qualche bene o contento avrà fors’altro; a me la vita è male (“perhaps it yields some kind of good or contentment to somebody else—but, for me, life is bad”).

I was clinging to justice and mistaken in doing so. Happy 219, Giacomo Leopardi.

Anthony Madrid lives in Victoria, Texas. His second book of poems is Try Never (Canarium Books, 2017). He is a correspondent for the Daily.

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