Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“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 entire section is 442 words.)