The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Osip Mandelstam’s “Tristia” is the title poem of a book published in 1922. Told in the first person, the poem reflects the mood of a person leaving his home, city, and possibly, country. The title is taken from Ovid’s book of the same name.

The poem opens with the poet’s statement that he has learned the “science of parting.” The parting is not a joyous one; it is accompanied by the weeping of women after a long night’s vigil, by the cock’s crow, and by red eyes gazing into the distance. The women’s lament mingles with the Muses’ song. All these details closely follow Ovid’s elegy, except for the cock crowing.

Resemblance to Ovid carries over into the second stanza. The parting is still accompanied by sorrow, uncertainty, and fear, and the departing person watches, like Ovid, the fire burning on the acropolis as he passes by. In the middle of the stanza, however, the poet shifts his perspective somewhat and speaks of the dawn of some new light. This cannot refer to the Ovid poem and is more in line with the cock crowing, which normally heralds a new day, a new beginning. This clearly clashes with the poet’s, and Ovid’s, mood of sadness at the beginning of the poem. The poet himself questions this change by employing as the antithesis of the image of an ox chewing lazily in his stall that of a cock flapping his wings loudly on the city wall.

In the third stanza, the departing one is preoccupied with fresh memories of home, the peaceful and happy activities such as spinning at the loom, for example, and he recalls a barefoot Delia—a girl from classical mythology but also from Alexander Pushkin—who flies toward him and descends upon him like swan’s 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 depicts 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 an upbeat note, in direct contrast to the melancholy and sorrow at the beginning.