The Poem

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 482

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“I Have Forgotten the Word I Wanted to Say” is a poem of six stanzas, each composed of four lines. Its rhythm is created by the placement of a regular number of accented syllables before and after the caesura, the pause in the middle of the line. This style of tonic verse is called dolniki in Russian and was the verse form preferred by some innovative Russian poets of the early twentieth century.

The poem, as is frequently the case in Russian lyric poetry, depends very much on its form to convey the poetic content. By writing in dolniki instead of a stricter accentual-syllabic meter, Osip Mandelstam enjoyed greater flexibility in the number of unaccented syllables he could use in a line. As a result, the lines vary in length from nine to thirteen syllables while echoing consistently in four beats. This irregularity in the line length allows the poem to assume a more individual nature where shorter lines add tension and longer lines develop the thought. The caesura, while helping to organize the sound pattern by dividing the lines into two sound groups with two accents each, also inserts a pause into the often rather long line. Since the poem is philosophical and laden with profuse symbolism, the caesura gives the reader/listener some extra time to visualize or reflect on the poem’s meaning.

The persona begins relating his experience using a phrase very much like one used by everyone at some time: “I have forgotten the word I wanted to say.” In this first line (which serves as the title), in Russian, the “word” is emphasized. This emphasis at the very beginning hints that it is not only that the persona has forgotten what to say, but also that there is a special importance to the word, that the word is invested with a special value. Resounding throughout the remainder of the poem is the frustration and anguish this experience causes the persona.

For the poet, the loss of a word is catastrophic, since the dominant force in his life is communicated in words. Thus, in the second stanza, as “the word swoons,” life itself seems to cease: “No birds are heard. No blossom on the immortelle.” Similar images of the void and bleakness echo this one—for example, “An empty boat floats on an arid estuary.”

Nor can the persona find that word for all his searching. It takes on varying attitudes, becoming a “tent or shrine,” acting like the mourning Antigone, or falling “like a dead swallow.” He bemoans his predicament and wishes for a return to a former state of being, in which he was able to command his words and never let down the creative expectations of the muses. Having forgotten what he wanted to say, he has become lifeless. He associates only with death, and can only articulate a sense of muteness and loss.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 478

Mandelstam wrote during a period very heavily influenced by Russian Symbolism, a type of writing in which profuse images that take on the aspect of symbols are greatly instrumental in conveying the artistic designs of the poet. Some of Mandelstam’s images may appear strange, and their sheer density with respect to the content of the poem makes for difficult reading. To the reader uninitiated in classical poetry, the repeated evocation of swallows and shadows may seem quite foreign, but other images may be more akin to the reader’s experience, such as singing absentmindedly, which conveys the mental destitution the poet feels at his powerlessness.

The entire poem revolves around an extended metaphor laden with symbolic imagery. “The word” represents expression, which, particularly to a poet but also to every mortal, is life itself. When the persona says he has “forgotten the word,” he is saying figuratively that he has lost his ability to create or express and, thus, the power to live in a human sense.

The word in this metaphorical sense is symbolized by the swallow. Thus, either the word (in stanza 5) or the swallow (in stanza 1) must “fly back” to the “palace of shadows”; the symbol for “the word” becomes interchangeable with what it symbolizes.

Flying would seem to be a mixed metaphor used with “the word,” but since “the word” has been clearly identified with the swallow, the figure transfers successfully without any confusion. Moreover, many romantic notions of creativity involve the metaphor of flying to achieve inspiration. Among these, Plato’s chariot of winged steeds (in Phaedrus, fourth century b.c.e.) is very important to Mandelstam. On this chariot, the artist can be drawn above the mundane, everyday world into the heavens, where the ideal from which to model one’s artistic vision can be found. The swallow naturally embodies an experience outside everyday human life, the ability to fly, and thus symbolically represents the poet’s power of inspiration, which must also draw on experience outside daily human existence. The blind swallow, however, has no power; indeed, her wings are clipped. Similarly, Mandelstam’s persona is powerless, and his position is much like death.

The “shadows” and the “transparent ones” represent the insubstantial remains of the dead in Hades, the place where Mandelstam’s word is detained. The “palace of shadows” is thus the edifice of the realm of the dead. “Stygian affection” (stanza 3) and “Stygian clamour” (stanza 6)—from the river Styx, in Hades—repeat the motif of the realm of the dead.

The profusion of symbols throughout the poem does not obscure its pure, lyric beauty. “Oh to bring back the shyness of clairvoyant fingers,/ Recognition’s rounded happiness!” Somehow, the numbness that has overtaken the persona cannot obliterate the former state of grace in which even his fingers could see and memory connected properly with its original sensation.