Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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The basic theme of the poem is encapsulated in Mandelstam’s repeated declaration, through the invocation of Ariosto, of his physical and spiritual longing for Italy and Europe. He visited Italy only twice in his life, but he always manifested a kinship with this country and its culture. However, it is not so much the love for Italy’s beauty and pleasant climate, although that too is often acknowledged, as it is the love for its spirit as a focal point of an entire culture to which Mandelstam subscribes. The fact that Italy lies in the south of Europe enhances Mandelstam’s admiration for it, for he always had a soft spot in his heart for southern regions, be it in Russia or in Europe. Mandelstam goes a step further and declares his love for the entire Mediterranean, calling it a “holy land” and thinking of it as the cradle of Western civilization.

That Mandelstam thought highly of this civilization at its peak can best be seen when he contrasts it with the “cold” and “darkness” of the present, in both Italy and the poet’s own land. Yet, noblesse of the spirit and art will survive and triumph over the brute force of evil and darkness, as he assures Ariosto at the end of the poem. At the same time, Mandelstam declares a fraternity of poets (“we’ve drunk mead on its [Mediterranean] shores”) by uniting Ariosto’s “azure and our Black Sea together” as a manifestation of a universal brotherhood of spirit and art.

Another theme, appearing in many of Mandelstam’s poems in the last decade of his life, is the spirit of the time and a poet’s role and fate within it. He finds a parallel between Ariosto’s Ferrara and his own Russia in that they are both in the throes of tyranny. In his troubles with the Soviet regime, Mandelstam finds kinship with Ariosto and his time. Even when he is critical of Ariosto’s disregard for the plight of his fellow citizens and his avoidance of the wrath of the powers-that-be, Mandelstam only wishes he himself could do the same. By blaming the dictatorial conditions in Ferrara for the diminution of Ariosto’s art, Mandelstam alludes to similar phenomena in his own land. Ariosto was frequently at loggerheads with the authorities but managed to survive and even to flourish—something Mandelstam wished to do but of which he was incapable. By extolling the achievements of Ariosto under such circumstances, he is expressing his faith in the survival of poets and the arts.