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  Philologica 1 (1994)  
   
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A. A. DOBRICYN

“HE WHO FOUND A HORSESHOE”:
HELLENIC ANTIQUITY IN MANDEL’SHTAM’S POETRY
(Supplement to a Commentary)

 
 
 


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Summary

Time and the word are axial categories in Mandel’shtam’s poetic Weltanschauung. When trying to elucidate the essence of historical cataclysms, the poet turned to the cultural heritage of Antiquity. For a man, who had grasped the Antique tradition under the influence of Viacheslav Ivanov, it was natural to see in the transition of epochs the death of the old (“Christian-Hellenic”) aeon, and the dawn of a new one.

The poet compares poetry to a plough, “which turns up time so that its deep layers, its black-earth, come to the surface”. This attitude towards the poetic word is realized in etymological plays on words, because of which the “inner form” of the word (“the deep layers” of the language) is unearthed (“comes to the surface”). While etymology and paranomasia are called upon to uncover the “inner form” of the word-name, quotations from and allusions to texts which are more than two thousand years old, should revive the “inner form” of hackneyed tropes and restore their symbolic sense. Quotation expands the semantic extent of Mandel’shtam’s poems, because it links them to the semantics of the mother text and to those of the cultural layer, of which this text is a component.

This article consists, for the most part, of comments on the poem He Who Found a Horseshoe (1923). One of the sources of Mandel’shtam’s imagery is Heraclitus’ fragment B 52: “The age (eternity) <aion> is the kingship of a child, playing dice (knucklebones, draughts)”. Cf. in He Who Found a Horseshoe: Children play knucklebones with the vertebrae of dead animals. // The frail chronology of our era is coming to an end — and, in a more veiled form — in the poems: The Age (1922), “How the leavened dough rises...” (1922), The Slate Ode (1923), and in one of Huitains, “In needle-shaped pestilential drinking-cups...” (1933). It is also possible that the line And in Uglich children play knucklebones from “On a sledge piled with straw...” (1916) brings a cosmic Heraclitian freak of chance into correlation with one of the cardinal events of Russian history: the mysterious death of the tsarevich Dimitry.

The word which Heraclitus uses, aion, initially meant ‘vital force’ and ‘spinal cord’ — being the focus of vitality; later, in the Tragedians, it acquired the meaning ‘age, a fragment of human life’, and in the Philosophers, ‘eternity’ (as opposed to ‘time’). This throws a new light on Mandel’shtam’s metaphors: the blackbone of the age, the frail chronology of our era (i. e. “years-vertebrae”) and some others. The term aion (aeon) was widely used in the literature of late Antiquity, and by early Christian authors, mainly by the Gnostics. When the concept of the aeon was used as an idea of completion and cyclic recurrence, it was personified as a horse, running round a hippodrome. The proposition inevitably rises, that in He Who Found a Horseshoe there is a hidden reference to the ancient symbol of the age-horse. This age-horse follows its course through the poetic cosmos, which creates a complete illusion of the Antique universe: The crystal, in which wheels move, and horses shy, // The humid Neaera’s black-earth, every night ploughed up anew.

This is how Mandel’shtam envisages the present, and when he turns his eyes to the past, to the “childhood” of the passed epoch, it appears as “the Golden age” which exists “outside time”: The era rang like a golden globe, // Hollow, cast, supported by nobody. The chain of symbols: golden globethe monstrance, like a golden sunGod (metonymically) — the Word (Logos), links Hellenism with Christianity. Opposed to the Utopian Hellenic-Christian past is the tragic present: the belaboured fallen horse with a broken backbone. The irrevocable future, the age-child, who has been born, comes to replace it. Essentially, Mandel’shtam gives his own interpretation of the fragment B 52: the aeon-child (i. e. the new age) plays with the vertebrae of the dead aeon.

At one time Mandel’shtam “told Xardzhiev that he considered himself Russia’s last Christian-Hellenic poet. This word, last, is his only statement, in which the fear of the end of culture is perceptible” (Nadezhda Mandel’shtam). It was perhaps his only open statement, but there were many more hidden ones, and one of the most impressive is the poem, He Who Found a Horseshoe.

 


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