Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 478

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“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 complicates his own answer by stating in the first half of the next line, very forthrightly, that “both sea and Homer” are moved by love, a statement requiring further elucidation. The aphorism used to complete the verse, “all is moved by love,” may be seen as a lame truism or as a safety valve. The fact that he shifted his attention in the closing lines away from the issue altogether may indicate that Mandelstam thought that he had made the point clear, but additional explanation is necessary.

Aside from the euphonic similarity, perhaps relatedness, in Russian of the two words, sea and Homer (more and Gomer), there are other possible explanations. Victor Terras, in his article “Classical Motives in the Poetry of Osip Mandelstam” (1966), finds examples in classical literature that express the belief that the entire universe (including sea) is governed by love. Nilsson quotes additional examples from other literatures, including the work of Dante. Certainly, the primary moving force of poetry is love. Homer, the epitome of a poet, composed some of the best passages of his works, especially those concerning Helen, on love. The logic of the juxtaposition of sea and Homer becomes clear now. By deciding in the final lines of his poem to “listen” to the sea rather than to Homer, Mandelstam opts for the stronger of the two, having used Homer metaphorically to proclaim the divine force of love.