Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 496

The main theme in “10 January 1934” is the role and fate of a poet. By writing this requiem to Bely, Mandelstam writes not only an apotheosis of him but also a sad commentary on his difficult and even tragic fate in the society. By enumerating Bely’s great achievements, he makes the forlorn appearance of his funeral stand out all the more. In this eulogy of a man who was among the leading poets of the beginning of the twentieth century, only to be neglected and hounded out of existence after the Bolshevik Revolution, Mandelstam sums up the callousness of a system that frivolously throws away its best people. Thus, the fate of a talented, independently minded poet is decided by the indifference and callous practicality of the modern age. Indeed, the poem is, in effect, “the effigy of the dying age,” as Omry Ronen observes in An Approach to Mandelstam (1983). There are a number of poems in which Mandelstam addresses this theme: “The Age,” “Wolf,” and “Ariosto” come readily to mind. In all fairness, he was interested in this theme before he became the target of persecution, as attested in his book of prose, Shum vremeni (1925; The Noise of Time, 1965). He was also concerned with the impact of the modern age on the development of Judeo-Christian civilization, primarily on the spiritual plane and independent of political factors. In “10 January 1934,” however, his preoccupation with the age syndrome culminated after he became aware of the destructive impact that “the age of the wolfhound” had on Russian culture in general and on poets in particular. For Mandelstam, this interaction became, literally, a matter of life and death.

Coupled with the castigation of the modern age is the theme of Mandelstam’s own fate. He spent the last years of his life warning about the pernicious effects of tyranny and eventually became consumed by it, both figuratively and literally. It is not coincidental that he subtitled one poem from the Bely cycle “My Requiem,” which, as it turned out, was a clear premonition of his own death. Jennifer Baines writes in Mandelstam: The Later Poetry (1976) that Bely’s death made Mandelstam visualize “the possibility that he would be thrown unceremoniously into a hole in the ground, with none of the last respects or funeral rites accorded to Bely.” Unfortunately, this is exactly what happened to Mandelstam four years later in a concentration camp in Siberia; his grave has never been identified.

The entire poem is a minute record of Mandelstam’s impressions of and reactions to Bely’s funeral, as if he were looking at his own burial. This is clearly indicated in his matter-of-fact statement of resignation at the end of the poem, “till I’m picked.” Thus, by binding his fate to that of Bely, Mandelstam universalizes the sacrifice they made at the altar of struggle against tyranny and elevates the heroic role of the poet in his ruthless society to the level of a modern Greek tragedy.

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