The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 512

Cesare Pavese’s “Instinct” portrays the power of instinct and its complexities, especially as seen by the poem’s central character, an old, nameless man. Written in five loose, unrhyming stanzas of free verse, the poem follows the consciousness of the old man as he negotiates between the role of instinct in his past and in the present moment of the poem while he watches two mating dogs “satisfy their instinct.”

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The poem begins with a clarity that is typical of Pavese: It is almost as if he is providing a stage direction for a play when he announces the gender, age, and mental state of his central character, as well as the location and time of day for the action taking place. The three-line first sentence (and stanza) of the poem provides the answers to the journalistic equivalent of the who-what-when-where-why questions.

The second stanza provides the background to the action. The action of the dogs mating is not as important as the reaction of the viewer, the consciousness that is revealed. Readers enter the old man’s mind and discover his relationship with instinct: In the past, when he still had teeth and no flies settled on his gums, he was able to “satisfy his instinct” at night with his wife. Then, the English translation suggests, instinct was “fine,” but the Italian is even more robust: Instinct “era bello,” was beautiful.

The third stanza provides a meditation by the old man on dogs. What is interesting here is the gender identification given by the man; this is not about dogs in general, but about male dogs in particular. When he announces that what is good about dogs is their “great freedom,” the reader needs to insert the words “male dogs” in place of “dogs.” The Italian language makes this distinction clearer with its word endings based on gender. The male dog, unlike the man and his wife, does not wait until night to mount the female, the bitch; the old man admires the male dog’s enthusiasm, its freedom from clocks and customs.

The old man conjures up one particular memory of unbridled instinct in the next stanza: Here he identifies with the male dog’s freedom from ritual and recalls his own youthful exuberance when, in full daylight, he “did it in a wheatfield, just like a dog” with a woman whose name he cannot recall. The stanza ends with the meditation’s final words: If he were young again, he’d like to do it in a wheat field forever.

The entire reverie ends when the man is interrupted by others watching the scene; he is no longer alone with his memories and yearnings. Now the social world enters. A priest turns away from the “action,” a woman watches, and a boy ruins the moment by throwing stones at the coupling dogs. The old man “is indignant,” not because of his concern for the dogs, but because his own link to the world of instinct and sexuality—his only link now that he is old—has been severed.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 462

Typically, poets who write without rhyme or meter in irregular stanzas attract readers with their verbal inventiveness—either metaphorical leaps or musical cadences. Pavese is an exception to this principle. The music of the poem is flat, colloquial, without flourish. In addition, the poem is not in the least metaphorical; in fact, only two similes occur: The old man “did it in a wheatfield, just like a dog,” and doing it in the wheat field was like doing it “in bed.” Pavese’s draw is his point of view. By the 1930’s he had as a central character in a poem an old man whose mind is less than stereotypically poetic, and he offers the reader a voyage into the mind of a man in tune with the most basic elements of life, the animalistic underbelly of civilized decorum. Not many other poets of the time wrote about old men with flies on their gums watching dogs coupling. Pavese attracts because of his honesty, his directness, his ability to create poetry out of the essential—but often neglected—aspects of life.

Also, Pavese uses a cinematic device in his poems to create and enhance this realistic surface. It is almost as if a camera shot is used for each stanza: The reader moves from the old man in the doorway watching the dogs in the piazza, to the memories of the man making love with his wife in their bed at night, to the man in the wheat field having sex “like a dog,” to the man again watching the dogs in the piazza getting separated by the stone-throwing boy. If some poems lose readers because of the convolutions in plot or direction, the avant-garde slipperiness of the poem’s meaning, this is not one of them. Pavese’s writing is winning because of, to use his own words, the “solid honesty of the objective style” of his poems.

One place where Pavese may lose some of his audience is with his word choice. His character of the old man conflates la cagna—a female dog—with women, calling them both le cagne. Perhaps in Italian this conflation does not call attention to itself, but in the English translation Pavese sounds a little rough when his old man thinks that his woman was “like all bitches,” or when he cannot remember “who the bitch was” with whom he had sex in the wheat field. The purpose of this conflation is clear: The old man yearns for the simplicity and naturalness of the animal kingdom and remembers with fondness the moments he shared in that holy unity with the natural world. However, this substitution of the word “bitch” for “woman” may exceed some readers’ threshold of acceptability for a poem’s literary devices.

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