Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 424

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.

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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 his “veiny” hand (an obligatory gesture of child to parent in prerevolutionary Russia). The possibility of a cosmic parent is left open in this poem, and all mockery is hushed. It may represent a turning point in Mayakovsky’s relationship to God that hangs between the trust of a self-effacing child (a nameless “somebody” who finds comfort in faith) and the disillusionment of the youth who mocks the face of God to the skies, who wishes to set his own name everywhere and yet who proclaims that this very self-assertion, which in effect replaces the need for God, is a “tragedy.”

The stars of the cosmos continued to be a key image for Mayakovsky throughout his life. The long poem Oblako v shtanakh (1915; The Cloud In Trousers, 1960) ends with the beautiful metaphor, “The universe is asleep/ its huge ear,/ star-infested,/ rests on a paw.” His last lyric poem, “Past One O’Clock,” from which he quoted in his suicide note, ends with the immortal lines: “Night has laid a heavy tax of stars upon the sky./ In hours like these you get up and you speak/ To the ages, to history, and to the universe.”

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