And he loved light rather than darkness: Giacomo Leopardi’s Poetics and Pessimism in the Work of Matthew Arnold, George Eliot, and A. E. Housman
Sneyd, Rose Harriet
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This thesis examines a selection of the work of three Victorian writers: Matthew Arnold, George Eliot, and A. E. Housman, in light of their interest in the Romantic-era Italian poet-philosopher Giacomo Leopardi. While often described as Italy’s greatest poet apart from Dante, Leopardi has attracted only very slight attention from anglophone literary critics and scholars. The extensive bodies of literary criticism on Arnold, Eliot, and Housman, for instance, contain just a handful of essays that discuss their (explicitly acknowledged) interest in Leopardi. This thesis is an attempt to (begin to) rectify this neglect. It commences by examining Leopardi in his Romantic context and the way he was criticised by the Victorian periodical press, before turning to a brief examination of Leopardi’s generally unfamiliar poetics and philosophy. The remainder of the thesis is divided into four chapters, the first two treating Arnold’s response to Leopardi, the third Eliot’s, and the fourth Housman’s. These writers were selected not only for the conspicuous nature of their responses to Leopardi, but, of course, for the significance of these responses and how they furnish interesting new perspectives on the Victorian writers’ own work. But Arnold, Eliot, and Housman were also chosen as providing a representative cross-section of different Victorian responses to Leopardi. Arnold, who was seminal in introducing Leopardi to an anglophone Victorian readership, responded primarily to Leopardi’s poetics and his solidarist-pessimistic philosophy, especially in the conclusion to “Dover Beach.” In contrast to Arnold (and to Housman), Eliot responded most intensely to Leopardi’s early republican poetry and, in particular, to an important ode of his – “All’Italia” – that is repeatedly quoted in her final novel Daniel Deronda. And Housman, unsurprisingly, was fascinated by Leopardi’s pessimistic philosophy, which informs the structure of A Shropshire Lad. While prioritising close textual readings of all four writers, this thesis also examines what such readings reveal about Arnold’s, Eliot’s, and Housman’s philosophical approaches. Thus, this thesis examines the work of pessimistic philosophers, such as Arthur Schopenhauer and Leopardi himself, but also to the work of, for instance, the seventeenth century philosopher Giambattista Vico and the modern Cosmopolitan Kwame Anthony Appiah.