Osip Mandelstam Essay - Critical Essays

Osip Mandelstam Poetry: World Poets Analysis

In Osip Mandelstam’s first published essay, “O sobesednike” (1913; “On the Addressee”), he describes the ideal reader as one who opens a bottle found among sand dunes and reads a message mysteriously addressed to the reader. Mandelstam’s poetry, like the message in the bottle, has had to wait to find its reader; it also demands that a reader be aggressive and resourceful. His poems are intensely dependent on one another and are frequently comprehensible only in terms of ciphered citations from the works of other poets. The reader who wishes to go beyond some critics’ belief that Mandelstam’s lexicon is arbitrary or irrational must read each poem in the context of the entire oeuvre and with an eye to subtexts from Russian and European literature.


Mandelstam’s attempt to incorporate the poetry of the past into his works suited both the spirit and stated tenets of Acmeism, a movement he later defined as a “homesickness for world culture.” Mandelstam always saw the Acmeist poets as the preservers of an increasingly endangered literary memory. “True” poetry could arise only from a celebration of its dependence on the old. Poetry plows up the fields of time, he wrote; his own poems bring forth rich layers of subsoil by their poetics of quotation. Apparently opaque lyric situations, when deciphered, yield transparent levels of meaning. Mandelstam especially loved the myths of Greece and Rome, though his quotations are most often from nineteenth and twentieth century Russian poets.

Using another metaphor, perhaps the most typical metaphor for the Acmeists, Mandelstam wrote in the early 1920’s that Russian poetry has no Acropolis. “Our culture has been lost until now and cannot find its walls.” Russia’s words would build its cultural edifices, he predicted, and it is in the use of the word that one must seek the distinctive feature of Mandelstam’s poetry.

“Happily Neighing, the Herds Graze”

An example of Mandelstam’s use of quotations will indicate how far interpretation of his poetry must stray from the apparent lyric situation. Referring to Mandelstam’s first collection of poems, Stone, Kiril Taranovsky has noted that a line in the poem “S veselym rzhaniem pasutsia tabuny” (“Happily Neighing, the Herds Graze”) quotes Alexander Pushkin’s famous statement, “My sadness is luminous.” Mandelstam’s line is “In old age my sadness is luminous.” Nineteen years later, Mandelstam wrote, in a poem memorializing Andrei Bely, “My sadness is lush.” The epithet here comes from the Slovo o polku Igoreve (c. 1187; The Tale of the Armament of Igor, 1915), but the syntax still recalls Pushkin. Interpreting the stylized line “My sadness is lush” thus requires knowing Pushkin and The Tale of the Armament of Igor, to say nothing of Mandelstam’s first quotation of Pushkin in “Happily Neighing, the Herds Graze” or the often ornate works of Andrei Bely.

In “Happily Neighing, the Herds Graze,” Pushkin’s presence is also felt in the poem’s seasonal setting, his beloved autumn. The month mentioned, August, suggests Augustus Caesar, and the ancient Roman context is as significant as the Pushkinian overtones. The poem thus has more to do with the ages of human culture than with grazing herds; the poem contrasts the “classical spring” of Pushkin’s golden age of Russian literature with the decline of Rome. The dominant color in the poem is gold, specifically the dry gold of harvest. Russia in 1915 resembled Rome during its decline, as the Romanov dynasty faced its end, so that three historical periods come to bear on an interpretation of this apparently pastoral poem. The rise and decline of civilizations do not upset this poet, for whom the cyclical nature of the seasons suggests that historical change is itself cyclical. As Mandelstam wrote in 1918, “Everything has been before, everything will repeat anew. What is sweet to us is the moment of recognition.” To achieve such moments, the reader must allow Mandelstam’s metaphors to acquire meaning in more than one context. The contexts will border on one another in surprising ways, but it is his peculiar gift to his readers that when they read his poems, they see past poets and past ages of man from new vantage points.


Mandelstam’s first volume of poetry, Stone, was published in 1913, with successive enlargements in 1916 and 1923. Stone contains short lyrics, many of only three or four quatrains. The title evokes the volume’s dominant architectural motifs. Aside from the well-known triptych of cathedral poems in Stone, there are also poems of intimate interiors, designs in household utensils, and seashells. The patterns of crafted objects or complex facades allow Mandelstam to write in Stone about the structures of language, about how poems may best be written. At times, his metapoetic statements emerge completely undisguised. A landscape is described by the technical language of poetics in “Est’ ivolgi v lesakh” (“There Are Orioles in the Woods”), in which the birds’ singing is measured by the length of vowel sounds, their lines ringing forth in tonic rhythms. The day “yawns like a caesura.”

Mandelstam pursues the probable relationship between the oriole and the poet in “Ia ne slyxal rasskazov Ossiana” (“I Have Not Heard the Tales of Ossian”). Here, a raven echoing a harp replaces the oriole; the poem’s persona intones, “And again the bard will compose another’s song/ And, as his own, he will pronounce it.” Mandelstam contrasts his own heritage with that of another land, as distinct as the singing of birds and men. Despite the differences between the battles of Russian soldiers and the feigned tales of Ossian, the poet’s entire received heritage is “blessed,” “the erring dreams of other singers” (“other” connotes “foreign” as well as “not oneself” in Russian). It is in making the dreams his own that the poet finds victory.

In “Est’ tselomudrennye chary” (“There Are Chaste Charms”), Mandelstam concludes with an equally victorious quatrain. The poem has evoked household gods in terms derived from classical Rome and from eighteenth century poetry. After three quatrains of listening to ancient gods and their lyres, the poet declares that the gods “are your equals.” With a careful hand, he adds, “one may rearrange them.”

Among the poems that both assert and demonstrate Mandelstam’s strength as an independent poet is “Notre Dame,” the shortest and most clearly Acmeist of his three 1912 cathedral poems. The Acmeists consistently praised the Gothic optimism of medieval architecture and art, and they shared that period’s devotion to art as high craft. In “Notre Dame,” Mandelstam praises the church’s “massive walls,” its “elemental labyrinth.” The cathedral becomes both that which the poet studies and that from which he is inspired to create something of his own. The outstretched body of Adam furnishes a metaphor for the opening description of the cathedral’s vaulted ceiling. Adam’s name, and his having been “joyful and first,” had once provided an alternative name for Acmeism, Adamism, which never took hold. The name “Adam,” nevertheless, invokes in “Notre Dame” the poetic principles of the movement, its clarity, its balance, its sense of the poem as something visibly constructed. “Notre Dame” is as close to a programmatic statement in verse as Mandelstam ever came; the poem does what a Gothic cathedral should do, “revealing its secret plan from the outside.”


Mandelstam’s second volume, Tristia, appeared in 1922. Compared to the architectural poems of Stone, many drawing on the Roman tradition in classical culture, Tristia depends more on the myths...

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