The Poem

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 555

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The poem “10 January 1934” is about the distinguished Russian poet, novelist, and thinker Andrey Bely, one of the leading Symbolists in the first two decades of the twentieth century. Although Osip Mandelstam subscribed to a different poetic creed, he respected Bely’s poetry highly, and the two became close friends for a brief time in 1933. When Bely died soon thereafter, Mandelstam wrote a cycle of seven poems in honor of his friend and fellow poet; “10 January 1934” is the central poem of the cycle. Like so many of Mandelstam’s poems, it was published posthumously.

The poem consists of nine stanzas. The title itself precisely locates the poem in time—the day of Bely’s death. Mandelstam’s subjective persona reveals immediately how he felt about the loss of his friend, being “haunted by a few chance phrases” of the departed poet. He speaks of “the rich oil of my sadness,” borrowing the metonymy from the old Russian epic Slovo o polku ígoreve (c. 1187; The Lay of Igor’s Campaign, 1919), thus retracing the roots of Bely’s heritage back several hundred years. A striking metaphor follows: “the dragonflies of death.” They are black, and, even though their eyes are blue, the blueness is black at the same time. Through a series of rhetorical questions, Mandelstam comments on the essence of Bely’s poetry. Mandelstam asks where a leading poet (“the first-born”) belongs now that he is gone, wondering at the evaluation criteria and hinting at Bely’s place among the foremost of Russian writers. Where, now, is the “tiny hawk” of soaring flights of Bely’s spirit? Mandelstam then emphasizes Bely’s erudition and his deep study of Russian verse, the firmness of his beliefs, and the straightforwardness of his words “honestly weaving back and forth”—an undisguised barb at the rigidity of thinking of the Soviet officials who caused Bely much suffering in the last two decades of his life. His path was paved by centuries-old wisdom of his predecessors (“solutions of three-layered salts”), by idealistic German philosophers who had a significant influence on his thinking, by Russian “mystical” thinkers, and, finally, by the Russian thinker-poet Vladimir Solovyov, who honed his thought and chiseled his verse.

In the fifth stanza, Mandelstam suddenly shifts his attention, as if rudely awakening from his reverie. The funeral music “leapt from ambush” like a “tigerhiding in the instruments”; its impact was not so much to be heard and to soften things but to jar everyone and direct attention to the deceased. (In the Russian burial custom, the casket is left open until it is lowered into the grave.) As if removing the mask from the dead, the music brings back to life the muscles, “the drumming/ forehead,” the “fingers holding no pen,” “the puffed lips,” “the hardened caress,” and “the crystallized calm and goodness.” While the other funeral participants seem to react normally under the circumstances (there is even an engraver in the crowd to make a death mask), Mandelstam is grieving, “hanging on my own eyelashes.” He turns, increasingly, to his own feelings, “swelling, ripening, reading all the parts of the play/ till I’m picked.” With the final words of the poem, Mandelstam identifies fully with his departed fellow poet, expecting to follow him along the same sorrowful path because “The plot is the one thing we know.”

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 319

The poem “10 January 1934” consists of nine quatrains rhymed abab in Mandelstam’s customary interchange of eleven-syllable (a) and ten-syllable (b) lines. The poem teems with images and metaphors, as do most of Mandelstam’s poems. The most expressive metaphor is the aforementioned dragonfly, a colorful, translucent insect that is a frequent symbol in Bely’s poetry. In “10 January 1934,” it is a dragonfly of death, befitting the occasion. Here, it represents the effervescence of Bely’s talent; the irony of it is that it is very much alive even as the poet lies dead (his poetry survives him). Another metaphor is a “tiny hawk that melts deep in the eyes,” a reference to Bely’s powerful gaze. Nadezhda Mandelstam, Osip’s widow, also speaks, in Hope Against Hope (1970), of the luminescence and electric charge of his eyes, of the electrifying effect he had on those he came in contact with, and of his ability to inspire new and exciting ideas in them. The swiftness of Bely’s mind is depicted by the metaphor of a skater leaping into a blue flame, indicating his fearless forays into dangerous territory. His thoughts and words were sharp like “blades in the frosty air” and sonorous like “the clink of glasses in a glacier,” crackling with lucidity and precision and “weaving back and forth” with astonishing dexterity and speed. The mourners gather at Bely’s funeral, shoulder pressing shoulder, the fur on their coats breathing. Their health (“red ore boiling”), blood, and sweat are used as a contrast to the immobility and finality of death.

Finally, the predicaments of both Bely and Mandelstam are presented as a play with an all-too-familiar plot. Mandelstam sees the fate of Bely, as well as his own, reflected in an imaginary play, a tragedy, no doubt, as reflected in his comment about himself hanging “on my eyelashes”—a symbol, borrowed from Italian poet Dante Alighieri, of unspeakable suffering.