Themes and Meanings

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”).

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...

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