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Hard Labor Summary

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

This collection of poems is important for two reasons. First, in its conversational rhythms, the book is an attempt by Pavese to construct a realistic, twentieth century Italian poetic language rich in narrative detail and colloquial spontaneity. His indebtedness to American literature, and to Whitman in particular, is evident both in the spirit and structure of the collection. In an early appreciative essay on Whitman, Pavese declared that the American poet was the first to “see things with a virgin eye.” Whitman was the poet who comprehended the world in his own being. For Pavese, the vignettes of Leaves of Grass are not separate entities, but part of the all-embracing understanding.

Such an interpretation can be applied to the structure of Lavorare stanca. Like Whitman, Pavese set about in this work to create a new poetry, strong and honest in its presentation of life. All the poems in the collection tell stories or develop as vignettes. Just as Leaves of Grass begins with “Song of Myself,” a long poem that establishes for the poet a personality who assumes all, so Pavese opens Hard Labor with his longest poem, “I mari del Sud” (“South Seas”), which introduces a narrator who begins his quest for identity. The narrator of “South Seas,” wrote Pavese in his journal, was his “spiritual personality.” In its rhythms, the poem is a kind of Italian equivalent of Whitman’s free verse, though Pavese’s poetic line is firmly rooted in traditional metrical cadences.

“South Seas” begins with the narrator recalling his silent walk in the hills with his cousin, who has just returned from a journey around the world. Among other things, the cousin tells the narrator of his seafaring life and of his adventure hunting whales. In contrast, the narrator ponders his own uneventful life, his childhood among the hills, and his loneliness.

In the contrast between the worldly cousin and the naïve narrator, the poem establishes a theme of frustration and uncertainty. The peasant narrator and the urbane cousin are obvious spiritual kin, each part of the personality of the poet. Neither part is fulfilled; each is at odds with the other.

This conflict of the private, peasant personality with the public, urban personality is a central theme in Pavese’s work and is the second foundation for the book’s importance. Other poems in the collection outline a similar tension and develop related polarities between youth and age, innocence and sophistication, reality and illusion, commitment and withdrawal—all...

(The entire section is 586 words.)