The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 555 words.)