The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Described as an “oratorio” by its author, “Verses on the Unknown Soldier” (also translated as “55 Lines about the Unknown Soldier”) is a cycle or sequence of eight poems, with the individual poems showing considerable variation in length and stanzaic structure. At 114 lines, the “oratorio” is one of the few longer works in Osip Mandelstam’s poetic oeuvre and is closely connected with a looser cycle of meditations on the age and on the poet’s place in it, which Mandelstam wrote in the 1920’s. The basic meter is an anapestic trimeter but with the many syncopations typical of Russian modernism.

The work can be described as written in the first person, with two qualifications: The second, fifth, and sixth poems in the sequence contain no first-person singular pronouns, and the “I” which appears in the remaining poems has more than one referent.

The first poem of the “Verses on the Unknown Soldier” opens by evoking elemental forces present on a battleground: the air, which the poet calls to witness; the stars, which render condemnatory judgment; and the rains, which remember the forest of crosses commemorating the fallen. In its second half, turning from memory to prophecy, the poem introduces the motif of the tomb of the unknown soldier and predicts a grim future in which humanity will go on “killing, freezing, and starving.” The lyric hero first appears in the final two stanzas, in a close identification with the pilot of a disabled and falling warplane. This doomed pilot, who also appears in other poems by Mandelstam in the 1930’s, re-experiences, in turn, the fate of a duelist in the nineteenth century poet Mikhail Lermontov’s story “Princess Mary,” who is shot off a cliff. Through this further regression, the pilot/lyric hero will render an account of what it is like to feel the pull of an “airy chasm.”

As the title of Mandelstam’s “oratorio” and the imagery of massed graves suggest, the immediate historical reference is to World War I and the Russian Civil War. Weapons of twentieth century industrialized war that bring death from the air are, however, presented in highly metaphorical language. Long range artillery, for example, is transformed into the...

(The entire section is 916 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

One leading feature of “Verses on the Unknown Soldier” which is much less evident in a translation is the extensive network of allusions to other texts, including the poet’s own writings. What does come through in English translations of the cycle are, first, the highly elliptical and compressed style, and second, the ordering of the poems so as to bind and transmit the lyric plot. Both these phenomena give the work sufficient unity so that the reader may, with equal justice, treat it either as a cycle of poems or as a single large poem.

Mandelstam’s ellipticism generates a tension-field for the distinctive interaction of metonymy and metaphor. The work is, for example, full of paronomasias—that is, plays on words with a common phonetic core that invite the reader to invent a common etymology: “Austerlitz-oyster,” for example, or “nameless manna,” or (to give a more literal translation than David McDuff’s) a “mole of nulls,” that is, a number with many zeroes, which presents the speed of light as if it were a chemical substance.

As this instance suggests, the sound-echoes that link such metonymic fragments give rise to metaphoric associations as well; in other words, one seeks resemblance between what is juxtaposed. Thus, “Austerlitz,” the name of a great battle in which the defeated Russian army sustained large losses, is a synecdoche that stands for the Napoleonic era, while the “oyster,” which Russian literature marks as a “European” food, is another synecdoche, which stands for the Westernizing current in Russian society. Put them...

(The entire section is 654 words.)