Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“On a Board of Raspberry and Pure Gold” is both the opening poem in the “Third Voronezh Notebook” and the last in the long series of meditations on the Voronezh landscape that are scattered through the first two “Voronezh Notebooks.” Mandelstam considered the notebooks as the three divisions of a single book—“Natasha’s Book,” as the Mandelstams called it, since the poems were arranged in sequence and written out in the notebooks for Natasha Shtempel’, into whose safekeeping they were put. In this lyric diary, one of the unifying themes is the poet’s changing relationship to his place of exile.

Selected Poems contains a good sampling of these lyrics. Some poems treat only the despair of exile; in “Let Me Go, Release Me, Voronezh,” for example, the poet creates his own etymology for the place-name, breaking it down into voron, “raven,” the bird of evil omen, and nozh, “knife.” More often, however, he finds positive inspiration in the fecund black earth of the region, the broad plains and wide vistas emblematic of the potential spiritual freedom Mandelstam found so lacking in Moscow.

The poetry of exile is an important mode in Russia, whose poet-exiles see their archetype in the Latin poet Ovid, banished to what is now southern Russia. One of the commonplaces of this tradition has the poet looking back from the barbarian fringes upon the metropolitan culture. In several poems written...

(The entire section is 437 words.)