“Ariosto” is one of many poems by Osip Mandelstam published posthumously. Written on May 4-6, 1933, during a difficult time for the poet (he was arrested only one year later by the Soviet authorities for writing a poem criticizing Joseph Stalin’s cruelty), the poem expresses Mandelstam’s long-standing interest in, and infatuation with, the Italian culture. The poem was written while Mandelstam was in the Crimea, in the south of Russia, where he also wrote an essay about another Italian poet, “Conversation with Dante.” There are two variants of “Ariosto,” but the one discussed here is considered to be more authentic. According to Nadezhda Mandelstam, his widow, his poems were confiscated upon his arrest, and he wrote the second version during his house confinement in Voronezh in 1934; the original version was found later.
Mandelstam opens the poem with the name of Ludovico Ariosto (1474-1533), thus establishing at the outset the focal point of the poem. Mandelstam considers Ariosto to be one of Italy’s most delightful and wisest poets, but lately Ariosto “has a frog in his throat” and “amuses himself with the names of fish,” spilling “nonsense into the seas.” This mixture of profound respect and lighthearted familiarity is typical of Mandelstam’s treatment of great poets he admired. In his poetry, Ariosto is playing like a musician “with ten cymbals,” lost somewhat in “the maze of chivalric scandals”—a reference to the problems he faced as a diplomat at the Italian courts of his time.
In the third stanza, Mandelstam likens Ariosto to the greatest Russian poet, Alexander Pushkin, calling him “a Pushkin in the language of cicadas,” who combines “Mediterranean haughtiness” with the Russian’s melancholy. Ariosto plays wanton tricks with his hero Orlando in Orlando furioso (1516, 1521, 1532; English translation, 1591), undergoing his own metamorphosis in the process. His playfulness is further exemplified by his command to the sea, “roar but don’t think!” and to the maiden on the rock, “lie there without bedclothes!” which are taken directly from the tenth song of Orlando furioso and indirectly from Pushkin. Indeed, Mandelstam claims, humankind has not had enough of such powerful voices, who can tell wonderful stories again and again that make one’s blood run quicker and cause one’s ears to roar—an allusion to an artist’s power to inspire and make life more vibrant. Mandelstam calls Ariosto’s native city, Ferrara, a “lizard city with a crust for a heart, and no soul,” voicing his disdain for the intrigues, cloak-and-dagger atmosphere, and disregard for the well-being of the common person. He calls on Ferrara to produce more men like Ariosto and fewer men like the ruthless rulers and courtiers with whom Ariosto had to contend.
In the next stanza, Mandelstam turns to the present, saying that it is cold in Europe and dark in Italy. Both adjectives, cold and dark, are the opposites of what the south and Italy, indeed all Europe, should stand for. He bemoans the fact that raw power has taken over in the 1930’s. Despite all of this, Ariosto continues to improve on his act, looking blissfully on the “lamb on the hill” (peasant in the field), at a “monk on his donkey” (Ariosto himself had a desire at one time to become a monk), and at “Duke’s men-at-arms” carrying out the silly orders of their masters, drunk and bloated with drink and food, while the common people are living in blight (a baby “dozing under a net of flies”). Mandelstam continues to admire Ariosto in the eighth stanza. He loves “his desperate leisure,/ his babble, the salt and sugar of his words,/ the sounds happily conspiring...
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in twos and threes.” Ariosto’s works are beautiful as they are and should be accepted as such rather than be subjected to detailed analysis. By asking, “Why should I want to split the pearl?” Mandelstam leaves well enough alone, as if afraid to succumb to the lure of Italian loquaciousness and thereby betray his own language.
In the last stanza, Mandelstam wishes to unite Ariosto’s azure sea and the Black Sea “into one wide fraternal blue.” He assures Ariosto that this difficult age will eventually pass. The line “We too know it well” resembles a formulaic phrase from a Russian fairy tale as well as from Pushkin’s Ruslan i Lyudmila (1820; English translation, 1936). By using the pronoun “we,” Mandelstam acknowledges that the Russians have feasted on the poetry of their Italian colleagues, assuring the great Italian poet of their fraternal bond because they have drunk wine from the same source—the shores of the Mediterranean.
“Ariosto” consists of nine quatrains of twelve-syllabic lines regularly rhymed abba. It is replete with images and metaphors. Speaking of Ariosto’s poetry, the poet mentions the frog in Ariosto’s throat, his preoccupation with the names of the fish, and his raining of nonsense into the seas as a sign of diminution of his poetic power, despite calling him a “musician with ten cymbals.” While averring that his greatest love in Italian culture is Dante, while Ariosto and Torquato Tasso, for example, are not without reproach, Mandelstam cannot deny the mellifluousness of Ariosto’s language as being “the language of cicadas.” He points out again the musicality of Ariosto’s language, referring to it as “the salt and sugar of his words” and to its sounds as “happily conspiring in twos and threes,” clearly having in mind the highly rhythmical and uncomplicated interchange of vowels and consonants that lend the Italian language its sonorous quality.
Mandelstam reserves his harshest criticism for the circumstances of Ariosto’s surrounding, calling Ferrara a “lizard city” teeming with crawling, slimy creatures, its collective heart encrusted and cold, without a soul. With the image “swallowing a barber’s hand,” however, Mandelstam refers to Ferrara, Peter the Great (who was in the habit of shaving beards, pulling teeth, and chopping heads off of his recalcitrant subjects), and, in a roundabout way, Joseph Stalin. These references are contrasted by peaceful and charming figures, a lamb on the hill and a monk on a donkey, from Ariosto’s artistic milieu.
Other striking images are “the maze of chivalric scandals,” which underscores the underground atmosphere of the authorities in Ariosto’s surroundings; “the maiden on the rock,” which is borrowed from both Ariosto and Pushkin’s poem “Storm,” thus binding the two poets; the cold of Europe and darkness of Italy as befitting the climate in Europe of the 1930’s; and the soldiers of Ariosto’s rulers, “silly with wine and the plague and garlic,” as creatures unworthy of a high artist such as Ariosto.