The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“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;...

(The entire section is 764 words.)