The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 483

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“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 translator’s choice. This allusion comes as part of a catalog of the motifs of the painting, which occupies the next seven lines. Two somewhat more concrete images, “red coals” and“yellow resin” (in a more literal translation, “yellow mastic”), reinforce the initial color impressions. The yellow shade probably refers to the yellow paint so traditional for Russian exterior walls, while the “red coals” might refer either to outdoor fires, to the glow of sunlight on red tin roofs, or to the light issuing from the windows of the houses.

The next four lines are a warning to the reader, which simultaneously raises and rejects a comparison between this provincial Russian landscape and a Flemish genre scene in the manner of Pieter Bruegel’s skaters. In the final four lines, the reader is further told to “cut off” the poet’s “drawing,” as he now calls his picture in verse. The English preserves the ambiguous meaning of the requested action: The Russian verb has the primary meaning of “to separate,” but also has the idiomatic sense of “to cut off someone’s speech rudely.” This ambiguity is echoed in a closing simile, likening the poet’s picture to a maple bough consigned to the fire. Thus, the poet’s direct address to the reader may express his own will, or it may imply his gloomy prediction of how a hostile reader will react to the poem.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 495

“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 Brown-Merwin translation. The original consists of two sentences of eight lines apiece. The translators preserve the first, but break up the second into three shorter sentences, each set off as a stanza, apparently to set off the logical movement and to let the variety of sentence structures substitute for the variety of rhythmic structures within a strict, binary meter in the Russian.

In the first sentence, Mandelstam uses rhythmic effects, in conjunction with rhyme and sound play, to suggest the action implied by the idea rendered as “sleigh-tracked” in the English. The entire eight lines are bound by an identical feminine rhyme, with the final unstressed vowel preceded by two n’s in a row. In five of the first eight lines, the final stressed syllable is preceded by a three-syllable, unstressed interval. This lets the verse line mimic the effect of a steep, slow climb up the hill, a moment’s pause at the top—which Mandelstam would emphasize by pronouncing each n in the rhyme separately—and the rapid onset of the descent, signaled by the single, unstressed syllable at the end of the line.

The English, while it does preserve several n sounds, gets a similar effect by purely syntactic means. The first seven lines, all of which belong to the grammatical subject, never allow intonational or cognitive closure. We travel uphill until we finally arrive at the rapid cadence of the predicate (“was carried away”) in the eighth line—a predicate that also suggests the appropriate semantic overtones of the children’s sleds rushing down the hill.