On a Board of Raspberry and Pure Gold Analysis

Osip Mandelstam

The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“On a Board of Raspberry and Pure Gold,” written by Osip Mandelstam in 1937, is a poem of sixteen lines. The Russian original, written in rhymed trochaic lines of five to seven feet and organized in a single stanza, has been translated by Clarence Brown and W. S. Merwin as a lyric of four stanzas in free blank verse, which, however, preserves a trochaic tendency. The poem offers the reader a winter landscape and the poet’s reflections upon it. In fact, there is abundant testimony, from the poet’s widow, Nadezhda Mandelstam, and others, that the poem presents a view of the old city of Voronezh, seen from the vicinity of 40 Kaliaev Street, the home of Natasha Shtempel’, a young teacher who was virtually Mandelstam’s sole confidante during much of the Mandelstams’ exile to her town in 1934-1937. Situated on hills above a high riverbank, old Voronezh (much of which would be burned down under the Nazi occupation) was very picturesque; the neighborhood portrayed in the poem was one of single-story houses descending down the hillsides to the Don River—“half town half river-bank,” as the poem puts it.

The poem’s opening line (which is also used in lieu of a title, since Mandelstam did not provide one) presents an art medium, a board whose surface holds a painting with two dominant tones, raspberry and gold. Although the adjective translated as “pure gold” more often means “dark red,” a subsequent allusion to yellow supports the...

(The entire section is 483 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“On a Board of Raspberry and Pure Gold” is a highly metaphoric poem, using juxtaposition for the purpose of giving presence to what is not there in the physical scene. The first such metaphor is the scene as painting, the two-dimensional board onto whose surface the city is transposed. Next, there is a submerged but nevertheless demonstrable metaphor, picturing the cluster of houses as a horse-drawn caravan advancing to the river shore. In another animal metaphor, the children skating and sledding become a flock of cawing birds. Finally, there are the poem as drawing and the comparison to a maple branch.

On another plane of juxtaposition, Voronezh is being implicitly likened to the Low Countries (the setting of Bruegel’s landscape). Mandelstam makes this association, however, by a means that closely resembles what folklorists call negative comparison (when one is told, for example, that Vseslav the Magician, a personage in the Russian national epic, does not take on the form of a gray wolf, one immediately visualizes him as a shape-shifter who becomes a wolf at will). Thus, negative comparison is a technique of simultaneous denial and assertion. Once they are invoked, the Bruegelian overtones of the Voronezh scene or the (absent) children absorbed in their winter games become quite vivid.

In the Russian, the sense of the poem is reinforced by a range of versification techniques, several of which find counterparts in the...

(The entire section is 495 words.)