Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

By placing his emphasis on history and art in “The Horseshoe Finder,” Mandelstam defines the poem’s two basic themes: the passing of an era, and the capacity of art to survive throughout the ages.

Mandelstam often warned against the demise of civilization, most notably in his prose work “Gumanizm i sovremennost” (“Humanism and the Present,” 1923). In many of his poems (“A Wandering Light at a Fearful Height,” “The Age,” and others), he raises the same issue, bemoaning the fact that the values of “the Golden Age” on which Western civilization is based are in danger of being replaced by a new, barbaric age. “The Horseshoe Finder” is the best example expressing those thoughts and sentiments.

The first two stanzas reveal Mandelstam’s basic concept of history. The pristine world of antiquity, with its uncomplicated ways and closeness to nature, is personified by stately pine trees and ships, as well as by daring seafarers who were at home on boundless seas. Ships were built not by the peaceful carpenter of Bethlehem—a clear reference to Christ—but by an unnamed carpenter who loved travel and was a friend of sailors. The latter figure has been variously identified by critics as Joseph, Poseidon, and Peter the Great. Whichever interpretation is correct, the shipbuilder is a man of action, daring, and adventure—a mover of history.

The poet shifts to a different view of history when he states that the...

(The entire section is 439 words.)