The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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.”

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...

(The entire section is 512 words.)