Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

While his formal education was interrupted early, Mayakovsky read widely and eclectically. He was aware of the far-flung origins and echoes of the themes of stars, God, and the cosmos, from the Bible to the nineteenth century Russian classics. In Russian literature, “Listen!” most nearly echoes the lyric poetry of Mikhail Lermontov, a tragic rebel who despised “the establishment,” who was very partial to polysyllabic rhythms, and who was profoundly affected by the stars shining over the Caucasus, the region of Biblical grandeur and solemnity that was Mayakovsky’s birthplace. Lermontov’s works are filled with angels, demons, stars, clouds, and cosmic space, all conversing with one another. His cosmic imagery, inspiring a series of works by the painter Mikhail Vrubel, was very much in vogue in the years preceding the Russian Revolution of 1917. Mayakovsky had studied art while Lermontov, the self-taught amateur, could sketch. In a final, unfortunate parallel, Mayakovsky and Lermontov both wrote about the impulse to self-destruction.

Mayakovsky’s persona of the street urchin, usually expressed as an impudent orphan cynical beyond his years, is tempered in “Listen!” by an unexpectedly childlike, naïvely questioning, and vulnerable voice. The child is on familiar terms with the father-God whom he importunes with his huge request for stars; the child rushes to him, trusting and hopeful, so as not to be “late” (as if to dinner) and kisses...

(The entire section is 424 words.)