Introduction & Overview of The Cossacks

Linda Pastan
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The Cossacks Summary & Study Guide Description

The Cossacks Summary & Study Guide includes comprehensive information and analysis to help you understand the book. This study guide contains the following sections:

This detailed literature summary also contains Bibliography on The Cossacks by Linda Pastan.

Linda Pastan's poem “The Cossacks” appears in her 2002 collection titled The Last Uncle. Although Pastan is generally associated with poetry related to domesticity and personal experience, her later poetry often considers themes of aging, mortality, and the reality of death. “The Cossacks” contains these themes, but the poem is somewhat unusual in her canon of work because it is presented as a poem about her Jewish heritage. In the poem, she gives voice to what she describes as an aspect of Jewish thinking. She describes the tendency to focus on the negative or to assume that the worst is ahead, admitting a fear and deep pessimism in her own thinking. In contrast, her mother and F. (to whom the poem is dedicated) handle crises with serenity. Pastan touches on the theme of social masks to explain the difference between the two figures facing their own mortality; her mother pretended to be calm, but F. was genuinely calm. Ultimately, the speaker longs for the latter, but her own nature resists it.

Historically, the Cossacks to whom Pastan refers were groups of mercenaries who lived along the Russian border. Cossacks first appeared as a people in the fifteenth century, in the form of loosely organized, but related communities. By the sixteenth century, these groups had coalesced into two major groupings, one in the Ukraine and the other on the river Don bordering the Grand Duchy of Moscow. In the late nineteenth century, the Cossack men who served the czar had become active in suppressing rebellion and massacring Jews. Because of their violence and aggression toward Jews, Pastan uses them as figures of hostility and danger in “The Cossacks.” The poem opens with the statement that they are always coming, and it ends with the sound of horses approaching, which the reader can imagine are those of the Cossacks. It is an effective image that infuses the poem with a sense of impending danger. Pastan is known for her affinity for metaphor and imagery, and both of those devices are in full force in this poem. The danger associated with the Cossacks is brought to life with imagery, but the Cossacks are actually a metaphor for death.

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