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As the title of Mandelstam’s “oratorio” and the imagery of massed graves suggest, the immediate historical reference is to World War I and the Russian Civil War.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.)