The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Insomnia. Homer. Taut Sails” is a short poem of only three stanzas, told in the first person. It is untitled, like many of Osip Mandelstam’s poems, although the very first word, “Insomnia,” fits the mood of the entire poem. It is one of his early poems and one of many poems in which he used classical motifs. The lines are six-foot iambic, rhymed regularly abba.

The poem opens with three noun sentences, setting the stage in a most concise manner. The persona is suffering from insomnia and is reading the list of the ships of Homer’s Iliad (c. 800 b.c.e.), most likely hoping that it will help him fall asleep. He has read half of it when, in his imagination, the sails of the ships on the list turn into white cranes, which are now flying high above Hellas. The connection between the first words of the poem becomes clear: Insomnia leads to Homer, and Homer leads to white sails and the ships.

In his imagination, the poet sees the ships as a flock of cranes and follows them as they fly off in wedge formation to distant lands. They are compared, parenthetically, to royalties whose heads are covered with the foam of gods. The poet then unexpectedly asks where they are flying, even though he gave a hint in stanza 1. He immediately gives another hint, after suddenly shifting the perspective, by asking the Achaeans another unexpected question: What would Troy be to them without Helen?

In the third stanza, the poet provides further elucidation about the mystery by shifting his focus again to the sea and Homer. He flatly states that both the sea and Homer are governed by love, but now he is faced with a dilemma: Should he listen to the sea or to Homer? The dilemma resolves itself when Homer falls silent and only the majestic roar of the sea is audible.

By now, sleep is taking over as the sea inundates the persona’s pillow: He has sunk into drowsiness after the dilemma has been resolved. The perspective shifts back to the persona and the bed, where it all began.