The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 916

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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As the title of Mandelstam’s “oratorio” and the imagery of massed graves suggest, the immediate historical reference is to World War I and the Russian Civil War.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 “far-off heartbeat of the air,” while the airplane becomes a “sickly swallow that has forgotten how to fly.” Indeed, the entire second poem, consisting of a single stanza and structured as one sentence, is based on the image of a gas attack, metaphorized as a threat from the stars. (In a revision that is typical of Mandelstam’s creative process, an explicit reference to the “gas of Verdun” did not make it into the final version.)

While the imagery of air and space dominates the first two poems, the third and fourth are bound by the imagery of light. This light is both the flash of heavy ordnance, the light of a new prophetic revelation, and, as energy moving at the speed of light (“a number suffused with bright pain and a mole of zeroes”), an allusion to an Einsteinian universe in which the sequence of events is relative to the position of the observer. Hence, the war that is remembered is inseparable from the war which will take place in the future. In the third poem, it is the future apocalyptic war which speaks through the medium of light: “I am not Leipzig nor Waterloo,/ I am not the Battle of Tribes. I am the new,/ from me it will be bright.”

The fourth poem brings the ray of light, carrying its awful message of millions of deaths, to the eye of a speaker moving his lips in the darkness. Since Mandelstam frequently uses the image of moving lips to signify the poet’s work, this speaker is now clearly identified as the poet.

The fifth poem begins with the suggestion of an infantry song. The cannon fodder of the centuries are particularized in Jaroslav Haek’s Schweik and Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quixote. There follows a vision of a postwar world populated by mutilated veterans and victims of battle: “And around the outskirts of the age/ the family of wooden crutches goes knocking. . . .” This grim picture, at once reminiscence and prophecy, is countered in the sixth poem by the image of the human skull. The literal sense of the first line is “Is it for this the skull should develop?” Here, as elsewhere in Mandelstam’s writings, the skull is less a memento mori than an object of reverence, an emblematic image representing a human-centered universe. Hence, the skull “shines like a sentient cupola/ foams with thought, dreams of itself.”

This humanist affirmation continues in the last two poems. Poem 7 continues the “skull” theme implicitly, by echoing the syntax and associations of poem 6. Using the first-person plural, the poet now identifies himself with all of humanity. The theme of “air” returns but with a different emphasis: It is now the life-breath, as well as freedom and a place in history, goals for which one actively struggles in what the poet calls “a glory beyond compare.” Having achieved this expression of solidarity and faith, the poet speaks in the last stanza as the biological Osip Mandelstam. Envisioning a roll call (perhaps at the Day of Judgment), he states his date of birth and concludes with another motif that runs through Mandelstam’s work, the fire of time: “And the centuries surround me with fire.” Here, the image suggests both a field of fire and an aureole of glory.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 654

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 together and one has an associative complex that conjures up the Russia of the Napoleonic Wars.

In context, Austerlitz appears immediately after a series of battles mentioned as inadequate prefigurations of the war yet to come. The paronomasia appears in the couplet “In the depths of a black marble oyster/ the light of Austerlitz died.” Hence, the oyster’s darkness is also the sky over the battlefield and—via the reference to black marble—the tomb of Napoleon, the victor at Austerlitz and the antithesis of the Unknown Soldier. Along another chain of connotations, the oyster shell in the third poem is contrasted with the human skull in the sixth. The cycle as a whole exfoliates by means of such complexes of associations.

The number and order of lines and stanzas, the relationship of poems within a sequence or a collection—all such considerations were of concern to Mandelstam, who was intensely aware of shape as a bearer of meaning. The ordering of the poems within the cycle can serve to illustrate how the parts of the work develop through a series of contrasts and returns. To give a few examples, the opening poem is echoed in the fifth poem, which opens the second half; both allude to World War I and picture the sufferings which are brought by war on a massive scale: the forest of crosses, the population of cripples. The poison gas (which is also poisonous speech) in the second poem is answered by the poet’s affirmation of the human struggle for air in the second-to-last. The third poem anticipates and contrasts with the sixth, with emblems of war giving way to the skull that figures Mandelstam’s belief in the sanctity of human life.

The first half of the cycle ends with a poem that represents the poet as speaking in the darkness; the second half ends with him surrounded by the fire of centuries. Overall, there is a development from a vision of humans as cosmic victims to an assertion of positive identity and a claim to a place in history. To put it in terms of echoes, the cycle begins as a requiem for past and future wars and ends as an exigi monumentum, a lyric in which the poet, acting as spokesman for all the unknown soldiers, puts forward a claim for the value and permanence of his achievement.