The Poem

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 605

“The Slate Ode,” written in 1923, is one of Osip Mandelstam’s longer poems, consisting of nine stanzas of regular iambic tetrameter. That is the traditional Russian odic meter, although Mandelstam chooses an eight-line stanza over the more typical ten-line stanza. Calling his work an ode, Mandelstam is associating himself with the archaizing drive among Russian post-Symbolists, since the use of generic labels such as “ode” or “elegy” as a way of marking meaningful distinctions had been in decline since the 1830’s, along with the hierarchy of poetic forms which held for the eighteenth century.

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The modernist revival of such forms as the ode is part of an attempt to model a continuous history in an age of war and revolution, an age in which, as Mandelstam once wrote, “the contemporary European has been evicted from his own biography.” “The Slate Ode” not only revives an archaic genre but also alludes to a specific predecessor poem, “Reka vremen” (“The River of Time”), composed on a slate tablet by the great eighteenth century poet Gavrila Derzhavin just before his death in 1816.

Mandelstam’s poem seems to take as its setting a starry night landscape, in which stone and water (the elements of “The Slate Ode” and “The River of Time”) predominate. For several reasons, however, this landscape will not stabilize. First, one of its elements, a flinty path, is said to come from an old song, and “song,” in Russian verse, is a synonym for “poem.” Second, there are no identifiable references to location; instead, the linguistic quality of the setting is emphasized in this poem which speaks of “the speech of slate and air.” Third, the components that might suggest a specific setting will not stay in their expected places: If the poem locates a slate-pencil drawing on the “layered rock of the clouds,” the landscape motifs must be primarily figurative. In other words, the details are not occasioned by a particular place but point instead to the movement of the poet’s consciousness.

The poet appears in the second stanza, contained within a “we” that is characterized by a sheepish somnolence. By contrast, nature, represented by geological motifs, is an active writer, whose rough draft, written with water on the earth’s surface, is ripening. In the third stanza, this draft is figured as a precipitous, deeply etched, stony landscape, rendered metaphorically as a vision of steeply vertical cities.

The fourth and fifth stanzas emphasize time rather than space. It is night, the time of poetic creativity, and the transient impressions of the day are fading. The fifth stanza—the “hinge” of the poem—announces a condition of ripeness, which in the following two stanzas will be transfered from nature to the materials in the poetic imagination; that is, the fruit ripened to bursting is the poem ready to take shape. Only now, having achieved access to his creative resources, does the poet speak as an “I,” the first-person singular appearing in stanza 6. In stanza 7, the voice of memory and of the poetic tradition brings understanding and directs the poet’s hand in a transcription that is at once instantaneous and firm. (For Mandelstam, the poetic legacy is carried by the voice, because he believed that a poet’s verses preserved his actual voice.)

As is typical for Mandelstam, the triumph of the creative process triggers reflections on the poet’s self-definition, which is the theme of the eighth stanza. In the final stanza, which closely echoes the first, the poet claims his place within Russian poetry, declaring his intention to effect a junction between his own verse and the verse of his great predecessors.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 336

One of the characteristic features of Mandelstam’s writings is his refusal to accept the modern opposition between nature and culture. Instead, he sees them as continuous with each other; as he put it in the opening line of “Priroda—tot zhe Rim,” a 1914 lyric (the first clause is also the title), “Nature is the same as Rome, and was reflected in it.” All of “The Slate Ode” is built on a master metaphor that equates nature and culture, or the physical processes of nature and the work of the poet. All that is already contained in the poem’s key word, “slate.”

Besides being a synecdoche for Derzhavin’s last poem, the motif of slate triggers the whole string of geological images on the one hand and the image of the writer’s slate pencil, the emblem of his poetic activity, on the other. In an illustrative example of the fusion of culture and nature, the scratching of the poet’s pencil becomes the “slate screech,” and the pencil points mutate into the beaks of fledgling birds.

More generally, geological history, pictured as writing, is imbued with conscious intention, while poetry becomes a form of natural history, of attending to nature’s writing. On an even more abstract plane, mind and earth become each other’s analogues. For example, water flowing back to its underground sources is a metaphor for poetic resources which are not yet ready to emerge from the unconscious. By the same token, a vertiginous landscape prefigures the soaring of the poet’s imagination.

Finally, the equation of geology with poetry in the poem’s ruling metaphor is implicated in Mandelstam’s revision of Derzhavin. “The River of Time” is a deeply pessimistic meditation, which asserts that historical memory and poetry alike are doomed to oblivion. By contrast, “The Slate Ode” implies that although the cultural record must contain its terrors and violent shifts, poetry, like the geological record, can preserve everything. For Mandelstam, the water does not destroy but rather writes.

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