Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 431

When it first appeared, Mandelstam’s “Slate Ode” was attacked for its obscurity; in subsequent years, however, it has been considered one of his masterpieces. It dates from a time of transition, a period of intense poetic creativity that would be succeeded by five years in which Mandelstam would write no verse. The poem is part of a prolonged attempt at stocktaking, in which the poet must decide what legacy he will bring from his prerevolutionary Russian-Jewish past into his postrevolutionary identity as a contributor to Soviet Russian literature. Hence his acceptance (in stanza 8) of the synthetic identity of the “double-dealer, with a double soul” and his refusal of the organic identity, suggested by such traditional trades as that of the “mason,” “roofer,” or “boatman” (the Russian more commonly means “shipbuilder”).

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Mandelstam’s list of trades is full of suggestiveness for the Russian reader; the young Peter the Great, for example, worked in a Dutch shipyard and became the “shipbuilder” of the Russian Navy. The term “mason,” however, is more likely to trigger associations for the English-speaking reader, who may be aware of the conspiracy theories, which antidemocractic and anti-Semitic forces have revived, linking the Masonic movement and the Jews. In Mandelstam’s Russian, the dual reference to the mason’s trade and to freemasonry is stronger. Hence, one implication of the poet’s self-definition is a rejection of anti-Semitic stereotypes.

Mandelstam’s prose and verse alike in the early and mid-1920’s are filled with eschatological forebodings. While Mandelstam never conclusively abandoned the faith in revolution acquired in his formative years, he was only too aware of the antihuman values which were taking shape in the Soviet Union. Generally contemptuous of the past, the emerging Soviet worldview seemed to threaten the highest values transmitted by Russian culture with annihilation. If he makes of his ode a dialogue with Derzhavin’s deathbed verses, it is because Mandelstam feels the attraction of Derzhavin’s final judgment on human effort.

For the rest of his career, Mandelstam’s verse will struggle against the threat of being separated from its own wellsprings. In “The Slate Ode,” as in much of Mandelstam’s verse from this period on, a frequently elliptical poetic language will encrypt the past to preserve it for the future. Humble, everyday objects will become the cryptograms for encoding the cultural text. Whereas the young Mandelstam had confidently measured his own ambitions against the glory of a Gothic cathedral (“Notre Dame,” 1912), in “The Slate Ode” he makes the fragile pencil, scratching away at its indelible record, the emblem of his poetic mission.

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