Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 479
The prologue suggests the theme of the poem—love. Mayakovsky insisted on writing on what was an unpopular theme in Russia in 1923. He describes the theme as a universal one; it will “erupt in a fury—having dared to repress it.” He never uses the word “love,” however, to identify the theme; it remains an ellipsis that the reader has to fill in.
Section 1 is titled “The Ballad of Reading Gaol.” The speaker of the poem is imprisoned in his apartment in Moscow as Oscar Wilde was in Reading Gaol. The first reference is not to imprisonment but to saving the man on the bridge over the Neva. The man is about to commit suicide. The poem then shifts to the speaker’s unsuccessful attempt to contact Lili Brik on the telephone. This unrequited love turns him into an animal, a polar bear who is howling. In his cold room, he becomes even more isolated; he is “Clambering on the ice-floe,/ a white polar-bear,/ on my ice-flow pillow I float by.” He returns to the man on the Neva. The man is clearly the poet himself, who is crying for help. The next section is called “Xmas Eve,” and it portrays the speaker wandering around Moscow and being insulted by passersby. A “Savior” appears in the form of a member of the Young Communist League, but he too is caught up with “the gypsy love song” and contemplates suicide, so he is of no help to the beleaguered poet.
The poem then shifts to the poet’s family; they welcome him, but they think his demand to rescue the man over the Neva is madness. Family can offer no help.
The last section of the poem, “A Petition Addressed To. . .,” redefines the Christian gospel. “Faith” deals with the afterlife; the speaker first thinks it an easy task to go from death “into the life ideal.” It is not God who will accomplish this, however, but a scientist who may or may not resurrect the speaker. The section ends in a plea for, rather than the achievement of, resurrection. “Hope” sounds close to despair: “My earthly life I never lived out to the end./ On earth,/ my love I never could fulfill.” The speaker is willing to accept a love that may not be fulfilled: “Let it be. . ./ you live and pain becomes dear.” “Love,” the last section, ends the poem on a more positive note. His love will be resurrected, and if only for his faithful love, he also will be resurrected and joined with his beloved. This love, however, expands into the world and will “flood the universe.” There will be no “victims” and “our father,/ at least, will be the world,/ the earth,/ at the very least—our mother.” Love for one person becomes a larger revolutionary social principle that makes the whole world a sustaining family.