Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Insomnia. Homer. Taut Sails” is a poem about love. It takes an unconventional approach to the subject, to be sure, as Mandelstam’s poems often do.

It is not easy to determine that the poem deals with love, since the reader’s attention is captivated by the beauty of the metaphors and the images of Homer and the white ships/cranes. The reader is also puzzled by the seemingly incongruous association of insomnia and Homer (although the association between Homer and ships is quite apparent).

The first hint that love is the main theme occurs in the reference to the “divine foam,” which immediately conjures up the vision of Aphrodite, the goddess of love. The next hint is contained in the innocent and apparently pointless question about where the ships are sailing. Certainly, the royal sailors—that is, those who command the ships—know their destination. The poet does not wait to provide the answer, even though it is a cryptic one. By acknowledging the fact that the sailors are Achaeans sailing toward Troy, and by asking rhetorically what Troy would mean to them without Helen, Mandelstam supplies a one-word answer, love, as Nils Ake Nilsson points out in his book Osip Mandelstam: Five Poems (1974). After all, did not the Achaeans fight a battle at Troy primarily to liberate Helen? Was not Helen the symbol of love, worth going to war and fighting for?

After providing the simple, if cryptic, answer, the poet further...

(The entire section is 478 words.)