The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 512

“The Horseshoe Finder” is an ode patterned, to a degree, after Pindar, as attested by its subtitle, “A Pindaric Fragment.” Its ninety-seven lines compose nine stanzas of various length. It is the longest poem written by Osip Mandelstam; it is also one of the very few poems he wrote in unrhymed free verse.

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The poem opens with a choruslike description of a pine forest. The observers look at the forest primarily from a utilitarian point of view, wondering how many ships could be built from these tall trees and how the trees would fare in storms. The seafarer, “in his thirst for space” and eagerness to go to sea, is also trying to figure out how a ship can be built, comparing the raggedness of the sea to the firmness of the earth.

In stanza 2, the point of view is again that of the “we” of the chorus. They empathize with the planks and boards of the ship built long ago, not by the peaceful carpenter of Bethlehem but by another one, the father of wanderings and friend of seafarers. They envisage, now in retrospect, that the boards were once tall trees standing on a mountain ridge. Having completed the introduction, the poet is ready to “tell his story,” but he is uncertain at which point to begin. The perspective shifts to a more modern time, in which everything “cracks and rocks” and the ships are replaced by two-wheeled carts breaking themselves to pieces at a racetrack.

In the next stanza, the poet hails the maker of a song, not the anonymous one but the one who put his name to it, thus assuring its long life and gaining for himself a headband reserved for heroes of antiquity. The fifth stanza presents the poet’s musing about the transformation of the air into water, of water into crystal, and finally of crystal into earth, tracing the normal process throughout history. Suddenly, after he has been concerned with the course of history and the passage of time, in the sixth stanza the poet makes a statement that divides the poem in half: “The fragile chronology of time comes to an end.” Expressing his gratitude for all that has transpired in the past, the poet, switching to the first person, complains that he is confused, that he has lost count, and that an erstwhile glorious era now rings hollow. Even though the sound is still ringing, the stallion lies in the dust, unable to run anymore.

In the last two stanzas, the poet seems to be resigned to his fate. He has nothing more to say, even though his lips still keep the shape of the last word; yet not everything is hopeless. Someone finds a horseshoe of the stallion long gone, polishes it, and puts it over his threshold. Thus, even though time and the era have cut the poet like a coin, so that “there’s not even enough of me left for me,” the final prognosis is that there will still be horseshoes and coins to be found by later generations.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 457

“The Horseshoe Finder” is an ode to the nameless horseshoe finder—and to Mandelstam’s poetry. It was written at a time when Mandelstam thought that his poetry had become a fossil itself.

Connections with Pindar are obvious. Among the Pindaric features is, for example, a tendency to leap from one subject to another without transition. The myths are presented only in their essentials, while the rest is left for the reader to supply. The subject of a horse is also very Pindaric, as is the elegiac mood. Mandelstam’s own poetic power, though, makes the poem distinctly his own.

As in most of his poems, Mandelstam relies here on images and metaphors as his strongest poetic devices. The image of stately pine trees, “free to the very top from their shaggy burden,” adds beauty to their usefulness as material for ships. The poet returns to this image to point out once again that they are living beings as they moan under the saltless downpour, clamoring for a pinch of salt—that is, flavor. When describing the transformation of the elements, the poet says that “the air is kneaded until thick as earth.” Perhaps the most beautiful image is that of a dying horse; the sharp arch of the neck still preserves the memory of a race, but the legs are now gone.

The most important metaphor is that of a ship, which has been used often in literature, both classical and modern, to represent poetry, among other things. When coupled with another metaphor, the racing two-wheeled carriage, which stands for modernization, the antithesis is complete. Furthermore, the change from boundless seas to a limited racetrack signals a loss of great proportions. Two other metaphors, the horseshoe and the coins, also play important roles in the poem. The horseshoe stands for two things: the glory that has been lost, and the value that has been recovered. While all glory must eventually pass, the value resulting from it can be preserved forever, provided it has been passed on to new generations. The horseshoe represents the preservation of great achievements in general, and of Mandelstam’s poetry in particular. The fact that the horseshoe has been found and restored to its original beauty speaks for the validity of the poet’s expectations.

The coin metaphor is somewhat less important and more negative; the poet seems to reverse himself and begins to doubt the permanence of things. Just as the coins can lose their value or be cut and disfigured, so the poet feels that “the era, trying to gnaw them in two, left the marks of its teeth on them.” Through this metaphor, Mandelstam voices his pessimism about the future, in contrast to the optimism expressed by the horseshoe.

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Themes