The Ginestra, Or The Flower Of The Wilderness.

A poem by Giacomo Leopardi

Here, on the arid ridge
Of dead Vesuvius,
Exterminator terrible,
That by no other tree or flower is cheered,
Thou scatterest thy lonely leaves around,
O fragrant flower,
With desert wastes content. Thy graceful stems
I in the solitary paths have found,
The city that surround,
That once was mistress of the world;
And of her fallen power,
They seemed with silent eloquence to speak
Unto the thoughtful wanderer.
And now again I see thee on this soil,
Of wretched, world-abandoned spots the friend,
Of ruined fortunes the companion, still.
These fields with barren ashes strown,
And lava, hardened into stone,
Beneath the pilgrim's feet, that hollow sound,
Where by their nests the serpents coiled,
Lie basking in the sun,
And where the conies timidly
To their familiar burrows run,
Were cheerful villages and towns,
With waving fields of golden grain,
And musical with lowing herds;
Were gardens, and were palaces,
That to the leisure of the rich
A grateful shelter gave;
Were famous cities, which the mountain fierce,
Forth-darting torrents from his mouth of flame,
Destroyed, with their inhabitants.
Now all around, one ruin lies,
Where thou dost dwell, O gentle flower,
And, as in pity of another's woe,
A perfume sweet thou dost exhale,
To heaven an offering,
And consolation to the desert bring.
Here let him come, who hath been used
To chant the praises of our mortal state,
And see the care,
That loving Nature of her children takes!
Here may he justly estimate
The power of mortals, whom
The cruel nurse, when least they fear,
With motion light can in a moment crush
In part, and afterwards, when in the mood,
With motion not so light, can suddenly,
And utterly annihilate.
Here, on these blighted coasts,
May he distinctly trace
"The princely progress of the human race!"

Here look, and in a mirror see thyself,
O proud and foolish age!
That turn'st thy back upon the path,
That thought revived
So clearly indicates to all,
And this, thy movement retrograde,
Dost Progress call.
Thy foolish prattle all the minds,
Whose cruel fate thee for a father gave,
Besmear with flattery,
Although, among themselves, at times,
They laugh at thee.
But I will not to such low arts descend,
Though envy it would be for me,
The rest to imitate,
And, raving, wilfully,
To make my song more pleasing to thy ears:
But I will sooner far reveal,
As clearly as I can, the deep disdain
That I for thee within my bosom feel;
Although I know, oblivion
Awaits the man who holds his age in scorn:
But this misfortune, which I share with thee,
My laughter only moves.
Thou dream'st of liberty,
And yet thou wouldst anew that thought enslave,
By which alone we are redeemed, in part,
From barbarism; by which alone
True progress is obtained,
And states are guided to a nobler end.
And so the truth of our hard lot,
And of the humble place
Which Nature gave us, pleased thee not;
And like a coward, thou hast turned thy back
Upon the light, which made it evident;
Reviling him who does that light pursue,
And praising him alone
Who, in his folly, or from motives base,
Above the stars exalts the human race.

A man of poor estate, and weak of limb,
But of a generous, truthful soul,
Nor calls, nor deems himself
A Croesus, or a Hercules,
Nor makes himself ridiculous
Before the world with vain pretence
Of vigor or of opulence;
But his infirmities and needs
He lets appear, and without shame,
And speaking frankly, calls each thing
By its right name.
I deem not him magnanimous,
But simply, a great fool,
Who, born to perish, reared in suffering,
Proclaims his lot a happy one,
And with offensive pride
His pages fills, exalted destinies
And joys, unknown in heaven, much less
On earth, absurdly promising to those
Who by a wave of angry sea,
Or breath of tainted air,
Or shaking of the earth beneath,
Are ruined, crushed so utterly,
As scarce to be recalled by memory.
But truly noble, wise is he,
Who bids his brethren boldly look
Upon our common misery;
Who frankly tells the naked truth,
Acknowledging our frail and wretched state,
And all the ills decreed to us by Fate;
Who shows himself in suffering brave and strong,
Nor adds unto his miseries
Fraternal jealousies and strifes,
The hardest things to bear of all,
Reproaching man with his own grief,
But the true culprit
Who, in our birth, a mother is,
A fierce step-mother in her will.
Her he proclaims the enemy,
And thinking all the human race
Against her armed, as is the case,
E'en from the first, united and arrayed,
All men esteems confederates,
And with true love embraces all,
Prompt and efficient aid bestowing, and
Expecting it, in all the pains
And perils of the common war.
And to resent with arms all injuries,
Or snares and pit-falls for a neighbor lay,
Absurd he deems, as it would be, upon
The field, surrounded by the enemy,
The foe forgetting, bitter war
With one's own friends to wage,
And in the hottest of the fight,
With cruel and misguided sword,
One's fellow soldiers put to flight.
When truths like these are rendered clear,
As once they were, unto the multitude,
And when that fear, which from the first,
All mortals in a social band
Against inhuman Nature joined
Anew shall guided be, in part,
By knowledge true, then social intercourse,
And faith, and hope, and charity
Will a far different foundation have
From that which silly fables give,
By which supported, public truth and good
Must still proceed with an unstable foot,
As all things that in error have their root.
Oft, on these hills, so desolate,
Which by the hardened flood,
That seems in waves to rise,
Are clad in mourning, do I sit at night,
And o'er the dreary plain behold
The stars above in purest azure shine,
And in the ocean mirrored from afar,
And all the world in brilliant sparks arrayed,
Revolving through the vault serene.
And when my eyes I fasten on those lights,
Which seem to them a point,
And yet are so immense,
That earth and sea, with them compared,
Are but a point indeed;
To whom, not only man,
But this our globe, where man is nothing, is
Unknown; and when I farther gaze upon
Those clustered stars, at distance infinite,
That seem to us like mist, to whom
Not only man and earth, but all our stars
At once, so vast in numbers and in bulk,
The golden sun himself included, are
Unknown, or else appear, as they to earth,
A point of nebulous light, what, then,
Dost thou unto my thought appear,
O race of men?
Remembering thy wretched state below,
Of which the soil I tread, the token bears;
And, on the other hand,
That thou thyself hast deemed
The Lord and end of all the Universe;
How oft thou hast been pleased
The idle tale to tell,
That to this little grain of sand, obscure,
The name of earth that bears,
The Authors of that Universe
Have, at thy call, descended oft,
And pleasant converse with thy children had;
And how, these foolish dreams reviving, e'en
This age its insults heaps upon the wise,
Although it seems all others to excel
In learning, and in arts polite;
What can I think of thee
Thou wretched race of men?
What thoughts discordant then my heart assail,
In doubt, if scorn or pity should prevail!

As a small apple, falling from a tree
In autumn, by the force
Of its own ripeness, to the ground,
The pleasant homes of a community
Of ants, in the soft clod
With careful labor built,
And all their works, and all the wealth,
Which the industrious citizens
Had in the summer providently stored,
Lays waste, destroys, and in an instant hides;
So, falling from on high,
To heaven forth-darted from
The mountain's groaning womb,
A dark destructive mass
Of ashes, pumice, and of stones,
With boiling streams of lava mixed,
Or, down the mountain's side
Descending, furious, o'er the grass,
A fearful flood
Of melted metals, mixed with burning sand,
Laid waste, destroyed, and in short time concealed
The cities on yon shore, washed by the sea,
Where now the goats
On this side browse, and cities new
Upon the other stand, whose foot-stools are
The buried ones, whose prostrate walls
The lofty mountain tramples under foot.
Nature no more esteems or cares for man,
Than for the ant; and if the race
Is not so oft destroyed,
The reason we may plainly see;
Because the ants more fruitful are than we.
Full eighteen hundred years have passed,
Since, by the force of fire laid waste,
These thriving cities disappeared;
And now, the husbandman,
His vineyards tending, that the arid clod,
With ashes clogged, with difficulty feeds,
Still raises a suspicious eye
Unto that fatal crest,
That, with a fierceness not to be controlled,
Still stands tremendous, threatens still
Destruction to himself, his children, and
Their little property.
And oft upon the roof
Of his small cottage, the poor man
All night lies sleepless, often springing up,
The course to watch of the dread stream of fire
That from the inexhausted womb doth pour
Along the sandy ridge,
Its lurid light reflected in the bay,
From Mergellina unto Capri's shore.
And if he sees it drawing near,
Or in his well
He hears the boiling water gurgle, wakes
His sons, in haste his wife awakes,
And, with such things as they can snatch,
Escaping, sees from far
His little nest, and the small field,
His sole resource against sharp hunger's pangs,
A prey unto the burning flood,
That crackling comes, and with its hardening crust,
Inexorable, covers all.
Unto the light of day returns,
After its long oblivion,
Pompeii, dead, an unearthed skeleton,
Which avarice or piety
Hath from its grave unto the air restored;
And from its forum desolate,
And through the formal rows
Of mutilated colonnades,
The stranger looks upon the distant, severed peaks,
And on the smoking crest,
That threatens still the ruins scattered round.
And in the horror of the secret night,
Along the empty theatres,
The broken temples, shattered houses, where
The bat her young conceals,
Like flitting torch, that smoking sheds
A gloom through the deserted halls
Of palaces, the baleful lava glides,
That through the shadows, distant, glares,
And tinges every object round.
Thus, paying unto man no heed,
Or to the ages that he calls antique,
Or to the generations as they pass,
Nature forever young remains,
Or at a pace so slow proceeds,
She stationary seems.
Empires, meanwhile, decline and fall,
And nations pass away, and languages:
She sees it not, or will not see;
And yet man boasts of immortality!

And thou, submissive flower,
That with thy fragrant foliage dost adorn
These desolated plains,
Thou, too, must fall before the cruel power
Of subterranean fire,
Which, to its well-known haunts returning, will
Its fatal border spread
O'er thy soft leaves and branches fine.
And thou wilt bow thy gentle head,
Without a struggle, yielding to thy fate:
But not with vain and abject cowardice,
Wilt thy destroyer supplicate;
Nor wilt, erect with senseless haughtiness,
Look up unto the stars,
Or o'er the wilderness,
Where, not from choice, but Fortune's will,
Thy birthplace thou, and home didst find;
But wiser, far, than man,
And far less weak;
For thou didst ne'er, from Fate, or power of thine,
Immortal life for thy frail children seek.

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