Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 439

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By placing his emphasis on history and art in “The Horseshoe Finder,” Mandelstam defines the poem’s two basic themes: the passing of an era, and the capacity of art to survive throughout the ages.

Mandelstam often warned against the demise of civilization, most notably in his prose work “Gumanizm i sovremennost” (“Humanism and the Present,” 1923). In many of his poems (“A Wandering Light at a Fearful Height,” “The Age,” and others), he raises the same issue, bemoaning the fact that the values of “the Golden Age” on which Western civilization is based are in danger of being replaced by a new, barbaric age. “The Horseshoe Finder” is the best example expressing those thoughts and sentiments.

The first two stanzas reveal Mandelstam’s basic concept of history. The pristine world of antiquity, with its uncomplicated ways and closeness to nature, is personified by stately pine trees and ships, as well as by daring seafarers who were at home on boundless seas. Ships were built not by the peaceful carpenter of Bethlehem—a clear reference to Christ—but by an unnamed carpenter who loved travel and was a friend of sailors. The latter figure has been variously identified by critics as Joseph, Poseidon, and Peter the Great. Whichever interpretation is correct, the shipbuilder is a man of action, daring, and adventure—a mover of history.

The poet shifts to a different view of history when he states that the reckoning of the years of our age is coming to an end, presumably referring to the drastic changes in modern times in general and to the revolution in his own country in particular. The era now rings hollow, supported by no one, revealing indecision and hypocrisy. The deterioration of values is further underlined by a change from seafaring ships to race carts.

This pessimistic view of history is alleviated by the possibility that true values will survive, after all, as depicted by the metaphor of a horseshoe, which gives Mandelstam a chance to express his view of art. By finding a horseshoe, a future finder will be able not only to gain a correct picture of the past but also to realize the indestructibility of true art.

Toward the end of the poem, Mandelstam modifies the metaphor from a horseshoe to coins, undoubtedly to give vent to his despair about his personal situation in the 1920’s and about his doubts of the survival of his own poetry. This momentary faintness of heart notwithstanding, Mandelstam’s faith in the ultimate survival of art has been justified (by this poem, among others) and confirmed by the esteem he now enjoys more than ever.