The Poem

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 472

Osip Mandelstam wrote “We Shall Meet Again in Petersburg” in 1920 and published it in his collection Tristia in 1922. In the title, the persona addresses unnamed friends, vowing to meet them again in Petersburg, a former capital of Russia. (Originally Saint Petersburg, the city was renamed Petrograd during World War I, Leningrad after Lenin’s death, and Saint Petersburg again in the 1990’s; popularly, it has always been known as Petersburg.) Mandelstam spent the best years of his youth in Petersburg, publishing his first poems there and making several close friends among the poets, primarily the Acmeists; it is these poets Mandelstam addresses as “we.” During the Bolshevik revolution, Mandelstam was forced to lead a turbulent life, often changing his abode but returning to Petersburg whenever he could. After the revolution had uprooted thousands of people, the poet was confident that he and his fellow Acmeists would renew their friendship in Petersburg. “We Shall Meet Again in Petersburg” is his nostalgic anticipation of that meeting.

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The poet envisions his joy at seeing his fellow poets again, but the meeting acquires the sense of a mission. It is as though they had buried their sun there and they will now do what they had always wanted: utter for the first time their “blessed and meaningless word” so that the “black velvet of the Soviet night” and the resulting emptiness will not stop the women from singing or the everlasting flowers from blooming. They will not be deterred by the oppressive mood of the capital, “arched like a wild cat,” by the ubiquitous police patrols, or by an angry car echoing frighteningly through the desolate night. The poet does not need a pass, and he is not afraid of the sentries. Instead, he will courageously pray in the Soviet night for the sake of that “blessed and meaningless word.”

The poet further imagines how the ugliness of the present is overcome by a theater performance during which beautiful female voices and Aphrodite’s roses inspire the art lovers, so that they warm themselves by a bonfire (the flames of the revolution) instead of being consumed by it. In such bliss, ages will pass and “the beloved hands of blessed women will gather the light ashes” of the sun they had buried in Petersburg. Amid the sweet-sounding choirs of Orpheus, the radiant dark eyes of the singers, and programs fluttering down from the gallery like doves, the poet once again expresses his defiance in defense of more exalted things in life. He ends his poem by warning the powers of darkness that they will not succeed with their sinister designs. They may extinguish the candles, but they cannot stop “the blessed women” from singing. The unshakable truth is that those dark forces are incapable of seeing “the night sun” and are therefore destined for ultimate defeat.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 499

“We Shall Meet Again in Petersburg” is written in one of Mandelstam’s favorite forms, the eight-line stanza (vosmistishye). The poem has four stanzas of varying meters rhymed ababcdcd. Images and metaphors are the main vehicles of Mandelstam’s poetic craft, as seen in his other poems as well. From among his most striking images, a buried sun in line 2 and the night sun in the last line both refer to the great Russian poet Alexander Pushkin. The repeated image of “blessed women” engaged in artistic performances with their kindred eyes and rounded shoulders adds an almost religious quality to the poem. Immortal flowers and Aphrodite’s roses represent love and beauty expressed through arts. The poet uses all these images to emphasize the beautiful, harmonious, and healing power of the arts.

These positive images are contrasted to the negative ones culled from everyday reality. An arched cat expresses anger and the unfriendliness of life in Petersburg during the revolution. A ubiquitous patrol stands on the bridge as if inhibiting the passage from one part of the town to another, thus underscoring the loss of freedom. An angry car speeds through the gloomy night and cries like a cuckoo in eerie silence, a sign either of terror or of mourning. The “black velvet of the Soviet night” not only expresses the dark, oppressive atmosphere of Petersburg in 1920 but also symbolizes the life-threatening effects of the revolution, recalling an executioner’s block draped in velvet. The bonfire itself represents the flames of the revolution; the opponents of the Bolsheviks use it, ironically, to warm themselves despite their opposition, as if to say that the arts conquer all evil. Finally, the image of the candles that the dark forces may extinguish symbolizes life and the enlightenment of the arts threatened by “the black velvet of the world’s emptiness.”

These powerful images are reinforced by equally striking metaphors. The metaphor of the buried sun representing Pushkin has already been mentioned. Toward the end of the poem, the “blessed women” are gathering the ashes in an almost religious ritual, as befits the burial of the great poet. Women are playing the role of beauty enhancers and peacemakers. Mandelstam extends that metaphor by imagining a theater performance in the twilight of civilization brought on by the revolution. The theater itself, as Steven Broyde remarks in his Osip Mandel’stam and His Age (1975), separates with its curtain the world of art and beauty from the real world that has turned ugly. The theater motif is frequent in Mandelstam’s poetry, but he uses it in “We Shall Meet Again in Petersburg” to counteract the destructive force of the revolution. Additional metaphors are to be found in the use of Aphrodite as a goddess of love and beauty, who stands for the beauty of the arts pining against the world of drab reality and cruelty. Orpheus is also used as a metaphor for an archetypal poet, specifically for Russian poets endangered and threatened with oblivion.

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Themes