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.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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 entire section is 462 words.)