Themes and Meanings

The “Verses on the Unknown Soldier” are the matrix about which grew the “Third Voronezh Notebook,” the last part of Mandelstam’s final collection of verses, first published nearly three decades after his death. The collection concludes Mandelstam’s poetic witness to Russia’s historical experience, as viewed from the perspective of a victim of Joseph Stalin’s “Great Transformation.” The Voronezh poems were written during Mandelstam’s exile to that provincial city in 1934-1937 and were followed some months later by the poet’s re-arrest and his death, apparently in a transit camp near Vladivostok.

In this context, the ellipticism of the poems, well exemplified by the “oratorio,” is not merely a mark of Mandelstam’s modernism. It is also a form of what is known in Russian literature as Aesopian language, the use of allusive language to transmit to the reader what must not be stated openly. Thus, in his horror of mass slaughter on the one hand and his subjective attraction to death’s “airy chasm” on the other, the poet is not only meditating on modern war past and future, but he is also using war as a metaphor for the experience of the Soviet peoples in the era of the purges and the gulag. The final three poems are exemplary in their solidarity with all the victims and in their refusal to capitulate to a contempt for the human individual, which masked itself as historical necessity.

Yet even these large civic meanings do not exhaust Mandelstam’s “Unknown Soldier” cycle, for history has given the poems an additional register of significance. Noting the allusions to Einsteinian physics and the way in which the poet pictures a blinding light from the sky as the carrier of the threatened annihilation of humanity, Russian readers have seen the cycle as not only a meditation on their experience in the poet’s lifetime but also as an uncanny prophecy of the terrors of the nuclear age. Reading the lines in poem 3 in which the death-bearing light announces a new illumination to the world, the English-speaking reader may think of both biblical apocalypse and of that other prophetic allusion, from the Bhagavad Gt, which came to the mind of American physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer as he witnessed the first nuclear blast: “I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”