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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 478

“Tristia,” the title poem of a book published in 1922, reflects the mood of a person leaving his home, city, and possibly, country. The four-stanza poem opens with Mandelstam’s statement that he has learned the “science of parting.” The parting is accompanied by the weeping of women after a long night’s vigil, by the rooster’s crow, and by red eyes gazing into the distance. The women’s lament mingles with the Muses’ song. Many of these details closely follow Ovid’s elegy of the same title.

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In stanza 2, the parting is still accompanied by sorrow, uncertainty, and fear. The departing poet watches, like Ovid, the fire burning in the acropolis as he passes by. In the middle of the stanza, however, the poet shifts his vision somewhat and speaks of the dawn of some new light, in accordance with the rooster’s crowing, which normally heralds a new day. This clashes with the poet’s, and Ovid’s, mood of sadness at the beginning of the poem. The poet himself questions this change, using the image of an ox chewing lazily in his stall and of a rooster flapping his wings loudly on the city wall—the former expressing indifference or stoicism, and the latter the dawn of a new, vigorous day.

In stanza 3, the departing one is preoccupied with fresh memories of home, of peaceful and happy activities such as spinning at the loom, for example. He recalls a barefoot Delia—from classical mythology and from Alexander Pushkin—who flies toward him and descends upon him like swans’ down. This leads the poet to muse about the fleeting nature of joy and laughter. Life passes in anticipation and rediscovery. What has been before, will be repeated. The only real joy is to be found in the act of recognition.

The final stanza tells of a resigned poet, who leaves worry about the future to women. Men are born to fight battles, while women die telling fortunes. The poem ends on a upbeat note, in contrast to the melancholy and sorrow at the outset.

“Tristia” gives expression to Mandelstam’s melancholy mixed with stoicism, to his hope mixed with despair, and to his tacit understanding of what life is about. It is one of his most representative poems. At the time he wrote this poem, Mandelstam was subjected to numerous dangers and had several close calls. The possibility of involuntary parting from his family must have occurred to him often. His excellent knowledge of classical literature enabled him to give perfect artistic expression to such thoughts and sentiments. The formal aspects of the poem, typical of Mandelstam, are striking images and metaphors, a mixture of lyrical and reflective passages, sporadic departures from the main train of thought, frequent interjections from the poet, and a unique rhythm. These features make “Tristia” a perfect example of his craft.

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Themes