Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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.


(The entire section is 430 words.)