Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 442

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“Tristia” is a poem of parting. This is evident from the very first line, when the poet says that he has perfected the science of parting. The fact that there are so many echoes of Ovid and his poetry in Mandelstam’s poem tends to underscore this predominant theme, because Ovid is perhaps the most famous case of a poet banned from his city and forced into exile.

Two questions immediately arise: Why was Mandelstam inspired to write a poem about parting, and how much of the poem reflects his own thoughts and sentiments? The most obvious answer lies in his long interest in antiquity and his fascination with classical writers. Two prominent scholars who have written about Mandelstam, Victor Terras and Clarence Brown, advocate this explanation, especially Terras in his article “Classical Motives in the Poetry of Osip Mandelstam” (1966). Brown, on the other hand, agrees with Terras in his book Mandelstam (1973), but he adds that Mandelstam was influenced equally, perhaps even more, by Russian poets, especially by Pushkin and Anna Akhmatova, and that “Tristia” is as much Pushkinian as it is Ovidian.

What these critics seem not to stress enough is the fact that the poem is also Mandelstam’s own—much more so than appears at first glance. Not only are the formal aspects—striking images and metaphors, a mixture of lyrical and reflective passages, sporadic departures from the main train of thought, frequent interventions on the part of the poet, the unique rhythm—typical of him, but the mood he imparts to the poem is unmistakably his own. There is in “Tristia” melancholy mixed with stoicism, even defiance, hope always threatened with latent despair, and a tacit understanding of what life is really about; taken together, these belong to no one but Mandelstam.

He has been accused sometimes of living in the past or in the future, certainly in a sphere of his own. Yet he frequently gave expression to his own reactions, in a veiled fashion, to the happenings around him. In “Tristia” he most likely gave vent to his feelings of uncertainty and anxiety amid war and revolution. At the time of the writing of the poem (1918), Mandelstam was subjected to many dangers and had several close calls. It is quite possible that he thought often of involuntary parting, even exile, and that he used his excellent knowledge of classical literature in general, and of Ovid in particular, as an inspiration in expressing his own thoughts and feelings about separation from his dear ones. For that reason, “Tristia” may refer to the atmosphere of 1918 in Mandelstam’s Russia just as it may to some other, undetermined time.