Letter to Constance Dowling: April 17, 1950

“Dearest, I no longer have the heart to write poetry.

Poems came with you and they leave with you.

I wrote this a few afternoons ago, during the long hours spent waiting for you in the hotel, uncertain whether to call you or not. Forgive the sadness it contains, but in your company, I was sad too. You see, I started with a poem in English and finish with another. Found in them is the breadth of emotions I have felt in this month: the horror and the wonder. Dearest, don’t be mad at me if I am always talking about feelings that you cannot share. But at least you can understand them. I want you to know that I thank you with all my heart. The few days of wonder that I snatched from your life were almost too much for me―well, they are gone, and now the horror begins, the naked horror, and I am ready for this. The door of the prison has slammed shut again…You will have the time to receive La luna e il falò. Maybe it will already be waiting for you on North Vista Avenue when you arrive there. I’m so happy that your name is in it.

I remember writing the book―entirely―before meeting you, and yet in a certain sense I knew while writing the book that you were coming. It was not wonderful, face of spring, I loved everything about you, not just your beauty, which is fairly easy, but also your ugliness, your ugly moments, your tache noire, your closed face. And yet I’m sorry for you. Don’t forget this.”

Cesare Pavese

The cats will know

Cesare Pavese  

Ancora cadrà la pioggia
sui tuoi dolci selciati,
una pioggia leggera
come un alito o un passo.
Ancora la brezza e l’alba
fioriranno leggere
come sotto il tuo passo,
quando tu rientrerai.
Tra fiori e davanzali
i gatti lo sapranno.

Ci saranno altri giorni,
ci saranno altre voci.
Sorriderai da sola.
I gatti lo sapranno.
Udrai parole antiche,
parole stanche e vane
come i costumi smessi
delle feste di ieri.
Farai gesti anche tu.
Risponderai parole,
viso di primavera,
farai gesti anche tu.

I gatti lo sapranno,
viso di primavera;
e la pioggia leggera,
l’alba color giacinto,
che dilaniano il cuore
di chi più non ti spera,
sono il triste sorriso
che sorridi da sola.
Ci saranno altri giorni,
altre voci e risvegli.
Soffriremo nell’alba,
viso di primavera.
The cats will know  

Cesare Pavese  

And still rain will fall
on your sweet cobblestones,
a gentle shower
like a breath or a step.
And still the breeze and the dawn
will gently blossom
like beneath your step,
when you return home.
Between flowers and windowsills
the cats will know.

There will be other days,
there will be other voices.
You will smile alone.
The cats will know.
You will hear ancient words,
words tired and vain
like the discarded costumes
of yesterday’s festivities.
You too will gesture.
You will answer words,
face of spring,
you too will gesture.

The cats will know,
face of spring;
and the gentle rain,
the hyacinth-coloured dawn,
which rips open the heart
of those who hope for you no longer,
are the sad smile
you smile alone.
There will be other days,
other voices and awakenings.
We will suffer in the dawn,
face of spring.

Translation ©Matilda Colarossi 2021

Cesare Pavese wrote The cats will know, on April 10, 1950.  It is one of ten poems written for the American actress Connie Dowling, whom he loved but who did not return his love. It is part of the collection Verra la morte e avrà i tuoi occhi (Death will come and it will have your eyes). 

It is made up of stanzas of unequal verse; and it is written like a cantilena (a singsong) using heptameter and numerous repetitions. In the first stanza, the poet uses words of languid awaiting: soft, sweet, blossom, dawn. They are words of hope for her return to him, perhaps: the blossoms are new life, the dawn is a new beginning. And the cats, silent witnesses, will know. In the second stanza, days have passed, the situation has degenerated; the words that accompany this section are: tired and vain, ancient and discarded. Here, too, the cats are the only ones who observe. The last stanza is the closing of doors of sorts, on all hope of her returning to him, physically and spiritually, and the presage of a life, hers, alone, forever without him. And thus they will both “suffer in the dawn”.

The cats, between flowers and windowsills, participate silently in the comings and goings; they observe; they alone know what becomes of both the poet and his loved one. This repetition of the cats will know is a sort of refrain; it is positioned differently in the three stanzas: In the first it closes it. In the second, it divides the stanza between the woman’s time spent partying in other places with others, and his tired, vain words to her and their gestures. In the third, it introduces the stanza, a sorrow-filled time of loss and loneliness.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Painting: Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Sleeping cat

2 thoughts on “Cesare Pavese: The cats will know

  1. Hello again, Mati,
    I always enjoy receiving your translations and accompanying notes. Samewith this Cesare Pavese: “The Cats Will Know.” This time I can make some small comments. And I thank you for making it so easy to make comments, something I wanted to do before this post, that is, to thank you for the way you organize your site, and for providing a place to write something.
    First, this is a poem that is small and simple, making it more difficult to paraphrase than a longer poem that has more opportunities for interpretation. But there are certain ambiguities, and these add to the task.
    Clearly, Mati, the voice is one sad and painful voice without much hope. There is unrequited love in ‘discarded costumes,’ for the love was just a fling. The loneliness is projected onto the cats. We can guess whether cats feel sorrow and pain, but their loneliness and hope for their custodian is made clear.
    By the time of the final stanza, the life of the voice is merged with the life of the cats, and I believe it is they together in the end who are the “we” who will hear other voices as ‘you smile alone’ — it is the love object alone who makes the smile, for cats do not smile — and ‘We [I and the cats] will suffer in the dawn.’
    I think it must be this way, in order to complete the separation that is needed to justify ‘those who hope for you no longer’ earlier in the third stanza.
    By the sad voice in this poem, I am reminded once again of the poem in English entitled ‘Tithonus’ by Alfred, Lord Tennyson, said to be the saddest of all English poets. Tithonus loved the dawn Aurora as a youth, but given immortality to do so was not enough for him, for he aged, and ultimately suffered.
    I do like Pavese’s use of the hyacinth to color the dawn in this poem, possibly making it a deep amethyst, a poet’s cure for drunkeness. Or is the hyacinth a pure blinding white dawn of Alba? All the cats will know for certain, night is over, and it is time to slink back home and, jumping up to windowsills, come in.
    And now it is dawn here again in Virginia, USA.
    Thanks again, Mati.
    Joseph Alan Roberts

    Liked by 1 person

    • Dear Joseph,
      I had prepared such an exhaustive (at least I thought it was) reply, was convinced I had pressed ‘send’, didn’t, and now I don’t remember what I wanted to say. I’m so sorry.
      I have been researching another poem for the blog and am lost in the numerous analyses of various Italian critics…
      I would, though, like to thank you so much for your insight, and for taking the time to comment!


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