“The Slate Ode,” written in 1923, is one of Osip Mandelstam’s longer poems, consisting of nine stanzas of regular iambic tetrameter. That is the traditional Russian odic meter, although Mandelstam chooses an eight-line stanza over the more typical ten-line stanza. Calling his work an ode, Mandelstam is associating himself with the archaizing drive among Russian post-Symbolists, since the use of generic labels such as “ode” or “elegy” as a way of marking meaningful distinctions had been in decline since the 1830’s, along with the hierarchy of poetic forms which held for the eighteenth century.
The modernist revival of such forms as the ode is part of an attempt to model a continuous history in an age of war and revolution, an age in which, as Mandelstam once wrote, “the contemporary European has been evicted from his own biography.” “The Slate Ode” not only revives an archaic genre but also alludes to a specific predecessor poem, “Reka vremen” (“The River of Time”), composed on a slate tablet by the great eighteenth century poet Gavrila Derzhavin just before his death in 1816.
Mandelstam’s poem seems to take as its setting a starry night landscape, in which stone and water (the elements of “The Slate Ode” and “The River of Time”) predominate. For several reasons, however, this landscape will not stabilize. First, one of its elements, a flinty path, is said to come from an old song, and “song,” in Russian verse, is...
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