Cesare Pavese Poetry Analysis

(Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

Though influenced by American writers such as Walt Whitman, Cesare Pavese’s work is not particularly well known in the United States. Yet he has a worldwide reputation and is a very important figure in twentieth century modern Italian literature. Pavese’s work has influenced many modern poets, including Denise Levertov. Her volume Life in the Forest (1978) contains a section of poems inspired by Pavese’s work.

Hard Labor

Pavese once said of Hard Labor that it “might have saved a generation.” For a volume in which he wished to speak to and for a generation, it is striking to note that one of its major themes is silence—and another solitude. It is a silence at times wished for, and freeing: “Here, in the dark, alone,/ my body rests and feels it is the one master of itself” (in “Mania di solitudine,” “Passion for Solitude”); at other times it seems to crush the person who cannot escape it: “every day the silence of the lonely room/ closes on the rustle of movement, of every gesture, like air” (in “La voce,” “The Voice”). In his early poem “Antenati” (“Ancestors”), Pavese strongly suggests that the inability to speak is passed down through generations of rough men: “I found out I had lived, before I was born,/ in tough, sturdy, independent men, masters of themselves./ None of them knew what to say, so they just kept quiet.” The women in the family also endure a hard silence: “In our family women don’t matter./ What I mean is, our women stay home/ and make children like me, and keep their mouths shut.” They suffer their own hard labor.

In “Gente spaesata” (“Displaced People”), the natural landscape can induce a hypnotic silence between men: “We’ve seen too much of the sea./ Late afternoon—the colorless water stretches dully away, disappearing into air. My friend’s staring at the sea,/ and I’m staring at him, and neither says a word.” The antidote to the sea is the hills, which supplant the earlier barren landscape. In Pavese’s words, almost like a drinking song or boast, the hills become fleshy and fertile, ripe for dreams—dreams of women. In such a dream landscape, imagined conversation is possible: “We could stroll through the vineyards and, maybe,/ meet with a couple of girls, dark brown, ripened by the sun,/ we could strike up a conversation, we could sample their grapes.” A harsh landscape swirls with levels of talk: simple talk, drunken talk, imaginary talk—all transformed by the poet’s language.


(The entire section is 1042 words.)