Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 492
The basic theme of “We Shall Meet Again in Petersburg” is the mortal clash between two worlds: the world of beauty and artistic freedom and the world of everyday reality and coercion. The poet’s firm declaration at the outset that “we shall meet again” implies certain disruption. Mandelstam summons his fellow poets, presumably Nikolay Gumilyov and Anna Akhmatova, with whom he had formed, at the beginning of the twentieth century, the powerful poetic movement known as Acmeism. Being apolitical and nonutilitarian in their poetic creed and devoting all their attention to the purely artistic aspects of poetry, they were branded by the revolutionaries as being antisocial and inimical to the revolution. (Gumilyov was executed during the revolution and Mandelstam himself was executed twenty years later.) The revolutionary chaos disrupted these poets in their favorite activity and, in effect, rendered them useless. Despite all this, Mandelstam promises his fellow poets that they shall meet again and speak “the blessed and meaningless word”—a reference to the unfounded pillorying of their poetry on the part of the Bolsheviks, who advocated engaged, useful, tendentious, and politically oriented poetry.
Mandelstam characterizes the reunion in the poem as a solemn burial of their favorite “sun” (Pushkin), who he considered to be their teacher and poetic God, since Pushkin was also wronged by the society (he was killed in a senseless duel that should have been prevented) and was buried in Saint Petersburg on a winter day similar to the one depicted in the poem. However, the invocation of Pushkin’s name is not limited to him individually; it applies to the entire Russian cultural heritage, which, to be sure, is often personified best through Pushkin. By identifying himself and his fellow Acmeists with the great Russian poet, Mandelstam does not so much intend a comparison with Pushkin as he does an avowal of their alliance with true artistic creators and against the destroyers of art such as the Bolsheviks. Mandelstam uses the theater performance not only to glorify the intrinsic value of the arts but also to contrast them with the destructive force of those who are either indifferent or inimical to them or want to use them for their own purposes.
The strongest statement in the poem is contained in Mandelstam’s determination to meet again with his fellow poets despite all the dangers and obstacles. Considering how difficult it was for the Acmeists (as well as for other poets not sympathizing with the Bolsheviks) to exist in the midst of revolutionary turmoil, let alone write poetry according to their own creed, Mandelstam’s defiance and his nostalgic belief in something that seems to have vanished forever are courageous indeed. By defying the revolutionaries and the prevailing spirit of the time and by declaring that the poets shall meet again, he is saying prophetically that artistic beauty will triumph over the forces of the “velvet night,” thus ending the poem on a highly optimistic note.