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  Philologica 2 (1995)  




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Osip Mandel’shtam’s The Slate Ode (1923) is a poem, the rough drafts of which are found in the Mandel’shtam manuscript collection at Princeton University Library. At one time they were read by Irina Semenko (published 1986). In the present publication, some of her transcriptions are corrected, and (what is most important) a reconstruction of the sequence of Mandel’shtam’s work on the structure of the poem as a whole is suggested.

This sequence is relevant to an understanding of the meaning of this extremely complicated poem. The fact of the matter is that, in the course of the development of the Ode, from one wording to another, its meaning changed almost to its opposite. At the beginning, the predominant concept, for Mandel’shtam, was “culture”, while towards the end it was “nature”. At the beginning, the predominant problem was the development of new poetry from old poetry, the preservation of cultural tradition; at the end it was the creation of new poetry independently of old poetry: directly from nature, from the elements. It is easy to see the connection of the above with the whole evolution of Mandel’shtam. “The early Mandel’shtam” is Acmeism, nostalgia for world culture, poems about cathedrals, Beethoven and Bach, the classicist poetics of literary allusions. “The later Mandel’shtam” is Conversation about Dante, the geological and biological imagery, the innovative poetics of unusual (almost surrealistic) word-combinations. The Slate Ode is 1923, it is the very turning-point from the earlier manner to the later, from the enthusiasm for culture to the enthusiasm for nature and the elements. The closest thematic context for this poem is Viacheslav Ivanov and Mixail Gershenzon’s Correspondence from Two Angles, the dispute about whether the new twentieth-century culture will grow from the old culture, or it will spring up spontaneously as if from bare ground. Mandel’shtam began his poem “at one” with Ivanov, and finished “at one” with Gershenzon.

It is known that the impulse for The Slate Ode was given by the poem which Derzhavin, dying, wrote on a slate board (The river of time in its swift current // Carries away all human deeds etc. ). It is most likely that Mandel’shtam knew about the fact that this ode was indeed written on a slate board from the commentary in Grot’s edition of Derzhavin’s Works. As the frontispiece of this edition the portrait of Derzhavin is found, painted by Tonci: the poet, dressed in a fur coat and with a fur cap on his head, is sitting at the foot of a steep rock. Hence the principal series of images in The Slate Ode: i) the all-destroying river of time; ii) creativity combating it; iii) the school slate on which this combat takes place; iv) from the rock in the picture: mountains personifying nature; v) pastoral everyday life personifying pre-culture; and finally, vi) from another river of time (in Derzhavin’s The Waterfall): the night as the time of insight. Then associations go beyond the limits of Derzhavin: from the flint rock and the creative night, Lermontov’s flint path arises, as well as the stars and the song, bringing about Tiutchev’s night with its chaos and prophetic dreams. The initial images of the poem are in many respects ambivalent: this dialectics allows the content to develop.

Firstly, the river of time itself turns out to be ambiguous: the water destroys and floods; this same water, according to traditional imagery, gives to drink and fertilizes (or, in the idiom of Mandel’shtam, teaches). Or in a more concrete way: water destroys culture, but it fertilizes nature: it wears away flint cliffs, but it deposits the dead rock into the seams of slate, of which the slate boards are made on which, in its turn, the slate-pencil combats time.

Secondly, the correlation between time and the creative counteraction against time is also ambiguous. The river of time destroys everything which is human, Derzhavin argues in his poem; but we learn about this fact from Derzhavin’s poem itself which is a product of human creativity: creativity gains a victory over time. Forever or not? This sequence of doubts can be continued ad infinitumThe Slate Ode is another link in this chain.

Thirdly, the counterpoint of day and night is also ambiguous. Night is the time of creativity; at night, the creative memory of the human past is activated, and this combats the river of time. On the other hand, however, night is the incarnation of primitive chaos, it is the bearer of the “proto-memory” of the universal past, for which the human past is but nothing. To preserve the memory of culture, it is not sufficient to turn to the nocturnal element: it is necessary to combine the power of night and the clarity of day. The poet seeks this unity.

The easiest way to trace the progress of the conceptual design of the poem is to compare the earliest of the extant versions (six stanzas) with the final version of 1923 (nine stanzas). In both, the focal image is the inscription made with the slate-pencil: the symbol of teachership and apprenticeship. But who is teaching and who is learning? Let us find the answer in the texts of both versions.

The earliest version. The first stanza: nature learns from nature; mountains learn from the running water. The second stanza: pre-culture learns from nature; the vineyard hamlets are still unconscious, the water wears them away and the time teaches them. The third stanza: the squeak of the slate-pencil — creative work begins; the voices of memory teach, and they break the night. This will return: “cultural” memory teaches, while “elemental” night learns. What are the results? They are regrettable (the fourth stanza): there is no salvation, the voice of memory grows stale, the river of time will wash everything away. The conclusion (stanzas five and six) is that there is the need of reconciliation, or compromise between day and night: I am the friend of night and the pioneer of day, and I catch the mighty joint between the visions of day and those of night. This concession to the elements is painful; after having said I catch the mighty joint between day and night, the poet concludes: what trouble it is to restore the connection with the alien concords of the past.

The final version. The first stanza: nature does not learn from the unsteady “slate” culture; what we deal with is not the apprenticeship of the worlds. The second stanza: nature is still learning from nature; moreover, it is only the elemental fear that leads the milky slate-pencil, while water, the teacher, flows somewhere backwards, to “pre-nature”. The third stanza: the pre-cultural world becomes even more primitive, and what is most important, it learns directly from nature; instead of saying that water wears them away, the poet says openly that water teaches them. The key stanza is the fourth: the night (named the she-kite) carries the burning chalk and feeds the slate-pencil. In the earlier version, the voices of culture broke the night with the slate-pencil. Here, just the opposite, the night itself turns out to be the bearer of the “slate knowledge”, while the day becomes hostile, it is ignominiously swept out; in the fifth stanza it is carried away by the hungry river of time, and this is good. The sixth stanza: the voices of memory, for all that, break the night; but to do so they snatch their slate-pencils from the beak of the kite (the night). And only after that, in the seventh stanza, the combat against the night finally ends; the outcome is not defeat, but victory: we shall lead the stale slate-pencil to where our voice will tell us to make firm and instantaneous inscription. It is only possible if one combats the night using its own means: I break the night and its burning chalk. The eighth stanza is the final definition: successful is he who apprentices himself to nature, blessed is he who tied up the lace to the foot of a mountain on firm ground. The ninth stanza: this is the way the “joint” of nature and culture is reached; flint and water are nature, the horseshoe and the ring are culture.

The first version was more pessimistic, the second more optimistic: when learning from nature, we can vanquish the abyss of oblivion and the maw of eternity. This is why, in the final version, besides the Derzhavinian, the Lermontovian subtext is also manifested; Lermontov’s “I walk out alone on the road...” is the poem about how to overcome death. Moreover, not only Lermontov, but the chief conqueror of death — Christ — also appears. The finale of the definitive version is permeated with allusions to the Gospels: i) who tied up the lace, and ii) to put my fingers <...> as into the wound, i. e. to find a physical proof that death is defied. This also refers to Derzhavin’s poems, his famous The Monument and the ode Christ, in which the overcoming of death was the predominant theme. Thus Mandel’shtam vanquishes Derzhavin, by using Derzhavin himself — as he does with nature, by means of nature itself.

The way to this “victory” was long and winding; in the text of the ode, the layers of different (sometimes even opposite) directions of work are deposited. This is why The Slate Ode is so complicated for us.


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