The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Osip Mandelstam’s “Tristia” is the title poem of a book published in 1922. Told in the first person, the poem reflects the mood of a person leaving his home, city, and possibly, country. The title is taken from Ovid’s book of the same name.

The poem opens with the poet’s statement that he has learned the “science of parting.” The parting is not a joyous one; it is accompanied by the weeping of women after a long night’s vigil, by the cock’s crow, and by red eyes gazing into the distance. The women’s lament mingles with the Muses’ song. All these details closely follow Ovid’s elegy, except for the cock crowing.

Resemblance to Ovid carries over into the second stanza. The parting is still accompanied by sorrow, uncertainty, and fear, and the departing person watches, like Ovid, the fire burning on the acropolis as he passes by. In the middle of the stanza, however, the poet shifts his perspective somewhat and speaks of the dawn of some new light. This cannot refer to the Ovid poem and is more in line with the cock crowing, which normally heralds a new day, a new beginning. This clearly clashes with the poet’s, and Ovid’s, mood of sadness at the beginning of the poem. The poet himself questions this change by employing as the antithesis of the image of an ox chewing lazily in his stall that of a cock flapping his wings loudly on the city wall.

In the third stanza, the departing one is preoccupied with fresh memories of home, the peaceful and happy activities such as spinning at the loom, for example, and he recalls a barefoot Delia—a girl from classical mythology but also from Alexander Pushkin—who flies toward him and descends upon him like swan’s down. This leads the poet to muse about the fleeting nature of joy and laughter. Life passes in anticipation and rediscovery: What has been before, will be repeated. The only real joy is to be found in the act of recognition.

The final stanza depicts a resigned poet, who leaves worry about the future to women. Men are born to fight battles, while women die telling fortunes. The poem ends on an upbeat note, in direct contrast to the melancholy and sorrow at the beginning.

Tristia Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Tristia” has four stanzas of eight lines each, rhyming conventionally, ababcdcd. The verses consist of eleven syllables, forming mostly anapests, each stanza closing with an iambic pentameter.

Mandelstam uses images as the predominant formal device. He is fond of juxtaposing them, or even using them antithetically. The ox chewing lazily in the stall reflect the endless waiting before departure. This is contrasted with the crowing of the cock in the morning, which is loud and ebullient. This antithesis is repeated for emphasis. The other antithesis is found at the very end of the poem, when man and woman are contrasted. Man’s role in life is depicted by a metonymy, “bronze,” a hard metal used for making arms. Woman is characterized by another metonymy, “wax,” indicating the softness of her nature. Wax is also used here as a metaphor for telling the future.

Another image is that of a fire that the departing person sees burning on the acropolis just as he is saying good-bye to his city. Fire being one of the basic elements, this image measures the magnitude of the loss and the injustice inflicted upon him.

The images of spinning (the shuttle and the spindle) underscore the domesticity and tranquillity of a homelife the persona is leaving behind, thus etching in relief once more the depth of his loss. This is reinforced by the image of Delia, a light-footed woman of Tibulus, whose ethereal figure is likened to swan’s down.

The most striking images are those of wax figures that are produced by melting candles in a shallow dish of water, resulting in all kinds of shapes which are then used by women for divination. This is found as much in classical literature as it is in Pushkin and other Russian writers.

Finally, a striking image of a distended skin of a squirrel is provided in the form of a simile. It is designed to show the heart of a departing man, stretched to the limits of endurance after being forced to leave his home and his loved ones.

Tristia Bibliography

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Brown, Clarence. Mandelstam. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1973. The best study of Mandelstam in English. Brown stresses the artistic merits of the poems. Chapter 12 analyzes several poems of Tristia, and chapter 13 deals with the classical elements of the collection. Extensive notes, excellent bibliography, and index.

Broyde, Steven. Osip Mandel’stam and His Age: A Commentary on the Themes of War and Revolution in the Poetry, 1913-1923. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1975. A book-length analysis of Mandelstam’s poems about the revolution. Includes several poems from Tristia.

Cavanagh, Clare. Osip Mandelstam and the Modernist Creation of Tradition. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1995. A thorough study of the modernist aspects of Mandelstam’s poetry based on classical traditions. Includes numerous references to Tristia in several chapters on specific topics. Copious notes and a detailed index.

Mandelstam, Nadezhda. Hope Against Hope: A Memoir. Translated by Max Hayward. New York: Atheneum, 1970. Hope Abandoned. Translated by Max Hayward. New York: Atheneum, 1974. A two-volume memoir by Mandelstam’s widow. Relates personal circumstances guiding his life and works. Indispensable for an understanding of the poet, the genesis of many of his poems, and the efforts at preserving them from destruction.

Nilsson, Nils Ake. “Mandelstam and the Revolution.” Scando-Slavica 19 (1973): 7-16. A succinct analysis of the poem “The Twilight of Freedom” in Tristia. Attempts to ascertain Mandelstam’s attitude toward the Russian revolution through the obscure imagery of the poem.