The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“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.

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...

(The entire section is 605 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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.