The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Insomnia. Homer. Taut Sails” is a short poem of only three stanzas, told in the first person. It is untitled, like many of Osip Mandelstam’s poems, although the very first word, “Insomnia,” fits the mood of the entire poem. It is one of his early poems and one of many poems in which he used classical motifs. The lines are six-foot iambic, rhymed regularly abba.

The poem opens with three noun sentences, setting the stage in a most concise manner. The persona is suffering from insomnia and is reading the list of the ships of Homer’s Iliad (c. 800 b.c.e.), most likely hoping that it will help him fall asleep. He has read half of it when, in his imagination, the sails of the ships on the list turn into white cranes, which are now flying high above Hellas. The connection between the first words of the poem becomes clear: Insomnia leads to Homer, and Homer leads to white sails and the ships.

In his imagination, the poet sees the ships as a flock of cranes and follows them as they fly off in wedge formation to distant lands. They are compared, parenthetically, to royalties whose heads are covered with the foam of gods. The poet then unexpectedly asks where they are flying, even though he gave a hint in stanza 1. He immediately gives another hint, after suddenly shifting the perspective, by asking the Achaeans another unexpected question: What would Troy be to them without Helen?

In the third stanza, the poet provides further elucidation about the mystery by shifting his focus again to the sea and Homer. He flatly states that both the sea and Homer are governed by love, but now he is faced with a dilemma: Should he listen to the sea or to Homer? The dilemma resolves itself when Homer falls silent and only the majestic roar of the sea is audible.

By now, sleep is taking over as the sea inundates the persona’s pillow: He has sunk into drowsiness after the dilemma has been resolved. The perspective shifts back to the persona and the bed, where it all began.

Insomnia. Homer. Taut Sails Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

In this poem, as in most of Mandelstam’s poems, metaphors and images reign supreme, beginning with the opening metaphor of Homer. Homer serves not only as the provider of reading material (the catalog of ships), but also, in a much more important role, as a guide toward the revelation that the persona (poet) is seeking. This metaphor also opens the door for other metaphors, all of which are closely connected with Homer.

The sea is the second important metaphor. At first, it is a beautiful, calm sea on which the ships/white cranes sail majestically. Toward the end, it turns into “the dark sea” that roars and crashes heavily, the dominant sound before the persona sleeps. The sea metaphor also contains a clue to the central message of the poem.

The third important metaphor is that of the cranes, which clearly stand for the ships. They are seen as beautiful white creatures sailing gracefully through space. They are not used here merely for description, however—nor is their geographical destination particularly important, or else the poet would have told the reader about it immediately. By sailing to Troy, as the poet hints by mentioning the Achaeans, the cranes direct the reader’s attention toward the focal point of the poem.

Helen is used as the fourth metaphor, in which the three previous metaphors converge. Although she is mentioned only once, she provides the all-important clue to the rationale of the poem.


(The entire section is 480 words.)