Cesare Pavese Pavese, Cesare (Poetry Criticism) - Essay


(Poetry Criticism)

Cesare Pavese 1908–1950

Italian novelist, poet, short story writer, essayist, translator, and critic.

A transitional figure in twentieth-century Italian poetry, Pavese departed from the ornate style and linguistic complexity used by his contemporaries to veil hermetic ideas and subjects, forging instead a more straightforward, unadorned style distinguished by use of vernacular. Considered Pavese's greatest accomplishment as a poet, the collection Lavorare stanca (Hard Labor) best evinces his descriptive, naturalistic approach and his themes of solitude and alienation—which recur throughout his works—while his later verse is more conventional, lyrical, and figurative.

Biographical Information

Pavese was born in Santo Stefano Belbo, a rural town in the Piedmont region of northern Italy. The lifestyle and people of this fertile and hilly agricultural area later became strong influences on his poetry and fiction. His father died when Pavese was young; by most accounts his mother, a quiet and severe woman, provided little affection for her son. He attended high school in the cosmopolitan northern city Turin and, in 1927, enrolled at the University of Turin, where he devoted himself to the study of literature. After graduating, he published translations of works by such authors as Sinclair Lewis, Herman Melville, Sherwood Anderson, and John Dos Passos, introducing the Italian public to major contemporary western writers. In 1935, after marginal involvement in political causes, he was convicted of anti-Fascist sympathies and confined to house arrest for eight months in the remote town Brancaleone Calabro, on the southeastern peninsula of Italy. His imprisonment provided the basis for the novel Il carcere (The Political Prisoner) and for themes and images in some of his subsequent writings. Upon his release, Pavese was devastated to learn that he had been rejected by a woman with whom he had fallen in love prior to his incarceration. He continued his work translating and helped found the publishing house Einaudi, where he promoted and oversaw the publication of important European works in the social sciences. Pavese met and fell in love with an American actress in 1949 but the relationship failed. In 1950 he received the Strega Prize, Italy's most prestigious literary award, for La bella estate: Tre romanzi (The Beautiful Summer: Three novels). That same year, at the height of his literary reputation, he committed suicide.

Major Works

In Hard Labor Pavese offers reflections on post-World War II Italian society by means of narrative poems set in

the Piedmont, specifically the city of Turin and the surrounding countryside bordering on the mountains and the sea. In telling of the country people and urban working class of the Piedmont region, Pavese used the speech patterns and idiom of his subjects. He contrasts the solace of country life with the alienation of existence in the city, and also comments on rural culture, human relationships, the physical demands of rural life, the beauty of the land and nature, and perennial themes such as sex, death, and the human condition. The verse of Hard Labor employs vernacular language and long verse lines, but Pavese's later poems are more lyrical and generally composed of short verse lines. Characterized by a highly personal and subjective tone, these poems are allusive and demonstrate little concern for relating a story. The love poems of Verrà la morte e avrà i tuoi occhi treat his feelings for the American actress and his disillusionment at the end of their relationship. Commentators have repeatedly attributed much of the loneliness and misogynistic undertones expressed in Pavese's works to his unhappy relationships with his mother and other women.

Critical Reception

Hard Labor was poorly received when initially published in Italy. In contrast, Pavese's subsequent verse collections—published more than a decade later—received immediate praise, especially Verrà la morte e avrà i tuoi occhi. However, Hard Labor is now generally accepted as his most important collection, and English-language commentators on his poetry have concentrated almost exclusively on his first volume.

Principal Works

(Poetry Criticism)


Lavorare stanca [Hard Labor: Poems] 1936

Feria d'agosto (short stories and poems) 1946

La terra e la morte [Earth and Death] 1947

Verrà la morte e avrà i tuoi occhi 1951

Poesie edite e inedite [Published and Unpublished Poems] 1962

Ciau Masino (short stories and poems) 1968

A Mania for Solitude: Selected Poems, 1930-1950 1969

*Poesie del disamore e altre poesie disperse [Poems of Estranged Love, and Other Scattered Poetry] 1973

•Includes the previously published collections La terra e la morte and Verrà la morte e avrà i tuoi occhi.

Other Major Works

Paesi tuoi [The Harvesters] (novel) 1941

La spiaggia [The Beach] (novel) 1942; published in journal Lettre D'oggi

Il compagno [The Comrade] (novel) 1947

Dialoghi con Leucò [Dialogues with Leucò] (fictional dialogues) 1947

Opere. 16 vols. [partially translated as Selected Works] (novels, poems, short stories, essays, diaries, and criticism) 1947-68

La bella estate: Tre romanzi [The Beautiful Summer: Three Novels] (novels) 1949

Il carcere [The Political Prisoner] (novel) 1949

La casa in collina [The House on the Hill] (novel) 1949

La luna e i falò [The Moon and the Bonfires] (novel) 1950

La letteratura americana e altri saggi [American Literature: Essays and Opinions] (essays) 1951

Il mestiere di vivere: Diario 1935—1950 [The Burning Brand: Diaries of 1935-1950] (journal) 1952

Notte di festa [Festival Night, and Other Stories] (short stories) 1953

Racconti [Told in Confidence, and Other Stories] (short stories) 1960

The Leather Jacket: Stories (short stories) 1980

Stories (short stories) 1987

†Comprises the novels La bella estate (The Beautiful Summer), II diavolo sulle colline (The Devil in the Hills), and Tra donne solo (Among Women Only).

‡Comprises the translations Festival Nights, and Other Stories (1964) and Summer Storm, and Other Stories (1966).

Davide Lajolo (essay date 1960)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Woman with the Hoarse Voice," in An Absurd Vice: A Biography of Cesare Pavese, edited and translated by Mario Pietralunga and Mark Pietralunga, New Directions, 1983, pp. 62-77.

[In the excerpt below, originally published in Italian in 1960, Lajolo discusses Pavese's portrayal of women in his writings.]

During his final university years, Pavese had an encounter that would affect his entire existence. He met the only woman he would ever really love. Until then his relations with women, although followed by acts of desperation and fainting fits, were manifestations of his exaggerated emotion, not of love. It was with this woman that Pavese experienced the fullness of his feelings. He was captivated by her from the day they met.

We shall give no other name to this woman than the one used by Pavese in the poems of Work Wearies: "the woman with the hoarse voice." The harmony of Pavese's life was broken by his involvement with her; it was a crucial turning point. In losing her, he would lose his hope, his tenderness toward women, his sense of masculinity, his hope for fatherhood and family. He would even see his childhood in a different light, and all his works would reflect this love, betrayal, and disenchantment.

The woman with the hoarse voice was not very beautiful, but she had a firm, cool, and strong-willed personality. She was as good as a man in sports, and her chosen field at the university, mathematics, was the opposite of Pavese's choice in the humanities.

It was not difficult to recognize when Pavese was in love. But this time he kept the name of his loved one secret and remained impenetrably silent at his friends' curiosity. He confided in Sturani only when he thought that she returned his love, but as soon as his friend advised him to be cautious, he brusquely refused to listen to him anymore.

For Pavese, this woman was different from the others. Her fascination came from her strength, masculine attitudes, hard features, and decisive, self-assured character. The timid Pavese felt he had a companion and a protector who encouraged and defended him. His weak character and the constant doubts that tormented him found a solution and strength in her. With her he felt that he could hope, that he could live and think without fears for the future.

Here we must refer back to the letter written to Professor Monti after the lyceum final exam in which Pavese tried to show, through the episode of the Horatian student, that he was a man as able and virile as others. Evidently the love he felt for the woman with the hoarse voice gave him the assurance that he could behave like the man described in that letter. Perhaps only at this time did he believe himself able to learn the "business of living" not only in books, work, and self-doubt.

Throughout the time he felt that he had this woman beside him, Pavese appeared more human, natural, and happy than in any other moment of his life. His timidity became tenderness; his discomfort in front of women turned into confidence. His tragedy would begin as soon as he realized that this woman would reject and leave him without pity.

After that betrayal, Pavese would present every woman in his short stories and novels as only a creature of flesh, or as the embodiment of indifference and infidelity. The shadow that would weigh heavily upon women would always be that of pain and desperate contempt. Some of the most intense themes of Work Wearies derive from Pavese's relationship with the hoarse-voiced woman. Here is a poem that was part of the first edition of Work Wearies, but excluded from the second Einaudi edition. Under its dramatic title, it evokes images of Pavese in a boat on the Sangone River, with his woman.


This morning I am no longer alone. A new woman
lies here and burdens the prow
of my boat which moves slowly in the water now tranquil
after an icy and turbulent night.
I came from the Po that roared in the sun
with echoes of rapid waves and workers,
I made, teetering, the difficult turn
into the Sangone. "What a dream!" she observed
without moving her supine body, her eyes at the sky.
There is not a soul around and the banks are high
and narrower upstream, crowded by poplars.

How awkward the boat is in this tranquil water!
Standing at the stern to keep it in balance,
I see that the boat advances slowly: the prow is sinking
under the weight of a woman's body, wrapped in white.
She told me that she is lazy, and she has not yet stirred.
She remains reclining and gazes, alone, at the tops of the trees
as if she were in bed, and she burdens my boat.
Now that she has put a hand in the water and lets it skim,
she is also crowding my river. I cannot look at her—
on the prow where she stretches her body—as she turns her head
and curiously stares at me from below, moving her shoulders.
When I asked her to come in the center, leaving the prow,
she answered me with an impish smile: "You want me near you?"

Other times, drenched from a violent plunge among the trunks and the stones,
I continued to push toward the sun, until I was drunk,
and landing here in this spot, I hurled myself to the ground
blinded by the water and the rays, the pole thrown away,
to calm my fatigue at the breath
of the plants and in the embrace of the grass.

Now the shade is oppressive
on the sweat which burdens the blood, and on the tired limbs;
and the vault of the trees filters the light
of an alcove. I sit on the grass, not knowing what to say,
and I hug my knees. She has disappeared
into the forest of poplars, she is laughing and I must pursue her.
My skin is darkened by the sun and uncovered.
My companion, who is blonde, in placing her hands
into mine to land on the bank, has made me perceive,
with her delicate fingers, the perfume
of her hidden body. Other times the perfume
was the water dried on wood and the sweat in the sun.
My companion calls me with impatience. Dressed in white
she wanders among the tree trunks and I must pursue her.

The obsession with an adverse destiny, the fear of tiring her, the terror of losing her, heightened the poem and gave it more warmth. That woman brought back to him the enchantment of his childhood in the hills of the Langhe. Let us read "Encounter," a poem from Work Wearies, dated 1932:

These hard hills that have made my body
and stir it with so many memories, opened to me the wonder
of this woman, who does not know I live her and cannot understand her.
I met her one evening: a lighter speck
under the ambiguous stars, in the haze of summer.
Around there was the smell of these hills,
deeper than shadow, and suddenly rang out,
as if it had come out of these hills, a voice both clear
and harsh, a voice of lost times.

Sometimes I see her, and she comes before me
defined, immutable like a memory.
I have never been able to grasp her: her reality
eludes me every time and takes me far away.
I don't know if she is beautiful. Among women she is very young:
so young that I am caught, thinking of her, by a distant memory
of childhood spent in these hills.
She is like the morning. Her eyes suggest
all the distant skies of those faraway mornings.

And she has in her eyes a firm purpose: a light clearer
than the dawn has ever had on these hills.

I created her from the depths of all things
that are most dear to me, and I cannot understand her.

Pavese thus gathered his entire world in the hands of his woman: the hills, his childhood, the sky, and the mornings, limpid and remote, because "she is like the morning." Her harsh voice was the voice of the hills, of nature. With her, even the landscape acquired a human aspect.

Pavese remained attached to the woman with the hoarse voice even when he became afraid of losing her. She returned in his dreams, memories, and hallucinations. We see her again in "A Memory":


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Giose Rimanelli (essay date 1964)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Conception of Time and Language in the Poetry of Cesare Pavese," in Italian Quarterly, Vol. 8, No. 29, Spring, 1964, pp. 14-34.

On October 28, 1935 Pavese made the following entry in his diary: "Poetry begins when a simpleton says of the sea: 'It looks like oil!'" [The Burning Brand, translated by A. E. Murch, 1961]. Immediately, however, he added that this discovery actually is not the most precise description of a flat calm. It is merely the pleasure of having perceived the similarity, the titilation provided by the establishment of a mysterious relation between the thing perceived and the idea of the thing, between the man who sees the object and his unconscious need to...

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David William Foster (essay date 1965)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Poetic Vision of 'Le colline': An Introduction to Pavese's Lavorare stanca," in Italica, Vol. XLII, No. 1, March, 1965, pp. 380-90.

[In the following excerpt, Foster examines Pavese's use of "the hills " as both a poetic setting and as a basis for reality in Lavorare stanca.]

Cesare Pavese in Lavorare stanca (1936; 1931-35) chooses to limit his poetic perspective in an attempt to capture the many facets of a restricted reality. His native countryside, the hills around Turin, serve as the thematic orientation for his poems. In this his first book of poetry as in his work as a whole, Pavese turns a coldly critical eye upon his material,...

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Giose Rimanelli (essay date 1969)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Myth and De-Mythification of Pavese's Art," in Italian Quarterly, Vol. 13, No. 49, Summer, 1969, pp. 3-39.

[In the following excerpt, Rimanelli compares Pavese to his Italian contemporaries and discusses the use of myth in Lavorare stanca.]

In A proposito di certe poesie non ancora scritte Pavese says that "only critical awareness brings a poetic cycle to an end" [Poesie, 1962]. In this sense that which had been the poetry of modernism, that is to say the poetry of the '20's, already in 1936 represented a period that had come to a close. A closed period which—at best—allowed only variations on its main themes.

The greatest...

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Ira Sadoff (essay date 1977)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Hard Labor, in The Antioch Review, Vol. 35, Nos. 2-3, Spring-Summer, 1977, pp. 239-41.

[In the following excerpt, Sadoff lauds William Arrowsmith 's English translation of Hard Labor and explores various aspects of Pavese's poetry.]

The great Italian poet, Cesare Pavese, has finally found an able translator in poet William Arrowsmith. The translations in Hard Labor are direct and emulate Pavese's flatness of style and diction. Arrowsmith's critical introduction is simultaneously scholarly and informal, providing as substantial a critical overview of Pavese the man and poet as we are likely to get for some time to come. Based on...

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Doug Thompson (essay date 1982)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Lavorare stanca and the Evolution of Pavese's Verse in the Nineteen-Thirties," in Cesare Pavese: A Study of the Major Novels and Poems, Cambridge University Press, 1982, pp. 13-39.

[In the following excerpt, Thompson surveys Pavese's early poetry, finding the works a means by which Pavese examined difficult periods in his life.]

Only in 1962, with the publication by Einaudi of Poesie edite e inedite (Published and Unpublished Poems), did it become possible to trace the development of Pavese's poetry during the nineteen-thirties. Up to then there had been two editions of the verse he had written in the thirties—the Solaria edition of...

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Further Reading

(Poetry Criticism)


Lajolo, Davide. An Absurd Vice: A Biography of Cesare Pavese. Edited and translated by Mario Pietralunga and Mark Pietralunga. New York: New Directions, 1983, 255 p.

Portrays "not only Pavese the writer but also the man who lived with extraordinary intensity many of the existential problems and vicissitudes his generation of intellectuals encountered." In the chapter entitled "The Lyceum Poems and the 'Absurd Vice'," Lajolo cites writings and correspondences by Pavese indicating his thoughts during his earliest efforts at composing poetry.


Cipolla, Gaetao. Review of...

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