Osip Mandelstam 1891–1938
(Full name Osip Emilievich Mandelstam) Russian poet, novelist, essayist, critic, and translator.
Considered one of the most important and influential Russian poets of his time, Mandelstam is known for his association with the Acmeist school, a movement which rejected the mysticism and stylistic obscurity of Symbolism and attempted to restore clarity to poetic language. His most characteristic poems display the acmeist emphasis on a neoclassic formalism combined with contemplation of the nature of art itself. Mandelstam's work has undergone a steady revival since the death of Stalin in 1953 and, according to Joseph Brodsky, "what he did will last as long as the Russian language exists. It will certainly outlast the present and any subsequent regime in that country, because of both its lyricism and its profundity."
Born to middle-class Jewish parents in Warsaw, Mandelstam soon afterward moved with his family to St. Petersburg. Because his parents did little to make Mandelstam aware of the vibrance and relevance of Judaism, the influences of his home life and ethnicity were often overpowered by the appeal of Western European culture. He was especially attracted to the gothic spirit of the Middle Ages; to him, Notre Dame cathedral represented the ideal creative act which gives human life meaning. After graduating from the prestigious Tenishev Commercial School in St. Petersburg in 1907, he travelled extensively in Europe and the Mediterranean region, and he developed an admiration for the historic lands of Christianity. In 1911 he enrolled in Petersburg University, and in order to avoid anti-Semitic sentiment, he converted to Lutheranism. In his work Mandelstam derived much of his inspiration from sources foreign to his cultural background, including Dickens, Poe, the French Symbolists, the medieval Italian poetry of Petrarch, and the classical mythology of the Hellenic world. In 1912 he became associated with the Acmeists, especially Nikolay Gumilyov and Anna Akhmatova. His estrangement from the political scene in his homeland after the Russian Revolution led to a five year period of silence after the publication of his second book of poetry. In 1934 he was exiled for three years to the city of Voronezh for criticizing Stalin in a line of verse. Later, Mandelstam was arrested and sent to a camp for political prisoners, where he died under brutal conditions in 1938.
Mandelstam began his literary career with a series of poems published in the journal Apollon. His first collection of poetry, Kamen' (1913; Stone), exhibits the transition from an early Symbolist aesthetic to the new tenets of Acmeism. The poems of this and the second collection, Trista (1922; Tristia), are architectural in style and occasionally in subject: the poet aimed for carefully constructed elegance in these works, and some of the most famous lyrics celebrate the historical buildings of Paris, Moscow, and Constantinople. His third and last collection, Stikhotvoreniya (1928; Poems), incorporated both the previous volumes and added twenty new poems that reflect a more complex, intimate style.
Some commentators have derided Mandelstam's poetry as dispassionate and detached from the concerns outside art. Other critics have demonstrated, however, that Mandelstam was sensitive to and often reacted to the events of the rapidly changing world around him. The poem "Vek" ("The Age"), for example, expresses his hopes and apprehensions for the future of postrevolutionary Russia. Generally the poems in Stone and Tristia are judged superior to those Mandelstam produced in the 1930s; recent studies of his later poetry take issue with this view. Since his death Mandelstam has been recognized as one of the most important Russian writers of the twentieth century, most significantly in his homeland, where he was once reduced to the status of literary "non-person." A Russian encyclopedia succinctly summarizes Mandelstam's predicament during the Stalin era and the subsequent revival of the poet's reputation: "Illegally repressed during the period of the cult of the individual. Rehabilitated posthumously."
Kamen' [Stone] 1913
Trista [Tristia] 1922
Stikhotvoreniya [Poems] 1928
Sobranie sochinenni. 3 vols, (poetry, autobiographical essays, novella, and letters) 1967, 1971
Complete Poetry of Osip Emilevich Mandelstam (poetry) 1973
Osip Mandelstam: Selected Poems [translated by Clarence Brown and W. S. Merwin] 1973
Osip Mandelstam: Selected Poems [translated by David McDuff] 1973
Other Major Works
Shum vremeni [The Noise of Time] (autobiographical essays) 1925
Egipetskaya marka [The Egyptian Stamp] (novella) 1928 O poezii (criticism) 1928
The Prose of Osip Mandelstam: The Noise of Time, Theodosia, The Egyptian Stamp (autobiographical essays, novella) 1965
Osip Mandelstam: Selected Essays (essays) 1977
Mandelstam: The Complete Critical Prose and Letters (criticism and letters) 1979
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SOURCE: "On the Addressee," in Modern Russian Poets on Poetry, edited by Carl R. Proffer, translated by Jane Gary Harris, Ardis, 1976, pp. 52-9.
[In the following essay, which was first published in a Russian periodical in 1913, Mandelstam describes the relationship between poet and reader.]
I would like to know what it is about a madman which creates that most terrifying impression of madness. It must be his dilated pupils, because they are blank and stare at you so absently, focusing on nothing in particular. It must be his mad speech, because in speaking to you the madman never takes you into account, nor even recognizes your existence as if wishing to ignore your presence, to show absolutely no interest in you. What we fear most in a madman is that absolute and terrifying indifference which he displays toward us. Nothing strikes terror in a man more than another man who shows no concern for him whatsoever. Cultural pretense, the politeness by which we constantly affirm our interest in one another, thus contains a profound meaning for us all.
Normally, when a man has something to say, he goes to people, he seeks out an audience. A poet does just the opposite: he runs "to the shores of desert waves, to broad and resonant oaks." His abnormality is obvious … Suspicion of madness descends upon the poet. And people are right when they call a man mad whose speech is addressed to...
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SOURCE: "The Morning of Acmeism," in The Russian Review, Vol. XXIV, No. 1, January, 1965, pp. 47-51.
[In the following essay, which was first published in a Russian periodical in 1919, Mandelstam describes his poetic philosophy and defines the Acmeist movement in Russian literature.]
In view of the enormous emotional excitement connected with works of art it is desirable that talk about art be distinguished by the greatest restraint. For the great majority of people, a work of art is seductive only to the extent that it reveals the artist's world view. For the artist himself, however, a world view is a weapon and a means, like a hammer in the hands of a stonemason, and the only reality is the work of art itself.
The artist's greatest pride is to exist. He desires no other paradise than existence, and when people talk to him about reality he only smiles ironically, for he knows the endlessly more convincing reality of art. The spectacle of a mathematician who, without reflecting on what he is about, produces the square of a ten-figure number, fills us with a sort of astonishment. But we too often fail to see that a poet raises a phenomenon to its tenth power, and the modest exterior of a work of art often deceives us with regard to the monstrously condensed reality of which it disposes. This reality in poetry is—the word as such. Just now, for instance, while I am expressing my thought...
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SOURCE: "The Poets of Yesterday," in The Poets of Russia: 1890-1930, Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1960, pp. 276-316.
[Poggioli was an Italian-born American critic and translator. Much of his critical writing treats Russian literature, including The Poets of Russia: 1890-1930 (1960), which is considered one of the most important examinations of that era. In the following excerpt from that study, he identifies and explores central themes in Mandelstam 's poetry.]
Osip Mandel'shtam was born in the Jewish quarter of Warsaw, in 1892, and spent his mature years in the two capitals. He died still relatively young, in faraway banishment; we do not know exactly when and where. It is rumored that in 1932 he was denounced for having imprudently recited a lampoon against Stalin in the house of a friend; that he was jailed and punished for this; that several years later he was released and then rearrested; and that in 1938 (other authorities give far different dates) he died in Vladivostok, in, or on his way to, a forced labor camp. The memory of his personality is vividly engraved in Viktor Shklovskij's Sentimental Journey, in the brilliant pages re-evoking the living conditions of a few young Russian writers during the early revolutionary years in Petrograd. Indifferent to both hunger and cold, oblivious of his bleak surroundings, Mandel'shtam is portrayed there while working at his...
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SOURCE: "On Reading Mandelstam," in Major Soviet Writers: Essays in Criticism, edited by Edward J. Brown, Oxford University Press, 1973, pp. 146-63.
[In the following essay, which was first published as an introduction to Mandelstam's collected works, Brown examines linguistic and thematic aspects of Mandelstam's poetry, and offers a close reading of "Soliminka, The Straw".]
In his imaginative and interesting article "On Freedom in Poetry" [published in Vozdušnye Puti, 1961] Vladimir Markov wittily constructs the following scale of values for contemporary Russian poetry. At the bottom is Esenin "for wide, general consumption"; in the middle are Gumilyev and, since recent times, Pasternak; and at the top, where he is available only to those who aspire to membership in a poetic elite, is Osip Mandelstam. Whether this "unshakeable scale of values"… is likely to prove permanent in all its parts need not concern us now. But few would dispute that Mandelstam's position at the summit is an accurate image of the esteem in which he is held at this moment, and not only in the West. One could go further. Are there not signs here and there—see the reference to an "elite" above—that there is in statu nascendi a true cult of Mandelstam?
It is perhaps a natural and even an unavoidable development, and certainly it springs from impulses that are sympathetic and right. He has been...
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SOURCE: "The Poetics of Osip Mandelstam," in Twentieth-Century Russian Literary Criticism, edited by Victor Erlich, Yale University Press, 1975, pp. 284-312.
[In the following essay, which was first published in a Russian periodical in 1972, Ginzburg distinguishes three stages in the development of Mandelstam's poetry and determines the influence of Hellenistic and Symbolist imagery on his work.]
Mandelstam began as an heir to the Russian symbolists. Yet he did so at the moment when the disintegration of the symbolist movement was obvious to everyone, when Blok, its erstwhile standard-bearer, was seeking different answers to the disquieting questions of the era. The poems in Mandelstam's first collection Stone (1913) are free from symbolism's "other-worldliness," from its positive ideology and philosophy.
In 1912 Mandelstam joined the acmeists. These widely differing disciples of the symbolists were united by a common aspiration—the desire to return to an earthly source of poetic values, to a portrayal of the tridimensional world. The principal acmeist poets differed in their interpretation of this tridimensionality. Gumilëv's neoromanticism and exoticism are a far cry from the concrete, everyday world of Akhmatova's early verse. As for Mandelstam, he was attracted to various facets of "tridimensionality," including the literal sense of the word—architectural...
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SOURCE: An introduction to Complete Poetry of Osip Emilevich Mandelstam, translated by Burton Raffel and Alia Burago, State University of New York Press, 1973, pp. 1-28.
[Monas is an American educator and critic with a special interest in Russian literature. In the following essay, he explores the defining characteristics of Mandelstam's work.]
"Just as a person does not choose his parents," Mandelstam wrote in 1921, "a people does not choose its poets." Russia would certainly have avoided him if it could. Even today, long after his posthumous rehabilitation, most of his poems are unpublished in the USSR. A collected volume announced in 1959 has still not appeared.
Abroad he has fared better. There is now the full, if not complete, three-volume Russian collection of his works, edited by Gleb Struve and Boris Filipoff [entitled Sobranie sochinenii]. There have been numerous translations, including a small volume in German by a poet close to his sensibility, Paul Celan. There is a growing realization that not only was he an important poet of the twentieth century, but perhaps as much as Rilke or Pound or Yeats or Eliot, the poet. Yet it is astonishing how reluctantly he has been accepted even by Russians abroad.
He was not, after all, shot by the Bolsheviks in the last days of the Civil War, like his friend Gumilev. He was even rumored to have had some...
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SOURCE: "Mandelstam's Witness," in Commentary, Vol. 57, No. 6, June, 1974, pp. 69-79.
[Alter is an American educator and critic. In the following essay, he discusses the influence of Mandelstam's Jewish origins on his poetry.]
"I am easy in my mind now," Akhamatova said to me in the sixties. "We have seen how durable poetry is."
—Nadezhda Mandelstam, Hope Against Hope
There is something oddly legendary about the posthumous career of Osip Mandelstam, as though he had died not in a Soviet concentration camp in 1938, with a death certificate issued in due form by the totalitarian bureaucracy, but in some shadowy recess of medieval mystery. He is just now beginning to be recognized in the West as one of the major 20th-century poets; many of those who can read him in the original regard him as the greatest Russian poet since Pushkin; but he has achieved this prominence only through an uncanny resurrection after Stalin's attempt to bury his poetic legacy together with him. His poetry has survived largely through the efforts of his extraordinary wife, Nadezhda, much of it actually in an "oral tradition," held fast, line by unpublishable line, in her tenacious memory and in that of a few loyal friends. There is a much more varied oral tradition about Mandelstam's life and death, a good deal of it contradictory, and one of...
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SOURCE: "The Child of Civilization," in Less Than One: Selected Essays, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1986, pp. 123-44.
[Brodsky was a Russian poet and critic who emigrated from the Soviet Union in 1972 and became an American citizen in 1977. His work has been well-received by English and American critics, many of whom once called him the greatest living poet. In the following essay, originally published as the introduction to Fifty Poems by Osip Mandelstam, he explores the uniquely Russian characteristics of Mandelstam's work.]
For some odd reason, the expression "death of a poet" always sounds somewhat more concrete than "life of a poet." Perhaps this is because both "life" and "poet," as words, are almost synonymous in their positive vagueness. Whereas "death"—even as a word—is about as definite as a poet's own production, i.e., a poem, the main feature of which is its last line. Whatever a work of art consists of, it runs to the finale which makes for its form and denies resurrection. After the last line of a poem nothing follows except literary criticism. So when we read a poet, we participate in his or his works' death. In the case of Mandelstam, we participate in both.
A work of art is always meant to outlast its maker. Paraphrasing the philosopher, one could say that writing poetry, too, is an exercise in dying. But apart from pure linguistic necessity, what makes one...
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SOURCE: "Teleological Warmth," in Poetry Review, Vol. LXX, Nos. 1-2, September, 1980, pp. 48-53.
[In the following essay, McDuff considers the role of religion in Mandelstam's poetry, contending that "the essential point to grasp about Mandelstam is that he was a profoundly Christian poet."]
The upsurge of interest which of recent years has manifested itself in the West towards the poetry and the personality of Osip Mandelstam is without doubt to be welcomed. Through the translations of his work and of the two large volumes of memoirs by his widow, Nadezhda Yakovlevna, Western readers have had the chance to glimpse something of the central significance of this poet to an understanding of the dire historical and cultural situation in which we find ourselves. That it has been no more than a glimpse is due to various factors, not the least of which is the traditional tendency of the English—and the Americans—to regard the Soviet Union as a far-flung, mysterious region where human beings, although superficially akin to themselves, act according to certain special and historically determined laws which are considered to be all right for 'them', but inapplicable to 'us'. The old cliché of 'oriental inscrutability' has rendered most of Russian literature and thought opaque to Western readers, even though the works themselves are available in translation. Yet, as the poet Joseph Brodsky has pointed out [in...
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SOURCE: "Voronezh Notebooks," in Osip Mandelstam, Twayne Publishers, 1988, pp. 121-45.
[Harris is an American educator and critic with a special interest in Russian literature. In the following excerpt from her critical study of Mandelstam, she analyzes thematic and stylistic aspects of the Voronezh Notebooks.]
I am in the heart of the age—the way is unclear
And time distances the goal …
(no. 332, 14 December 1936)
People need light and blue air,
They need bread and the snows of Elbrus….
People need poetry secretly their own
To keep them awake forever …
To bathe them in its breath.
(no. 355, 19 January 1937)
Mandelstam's arrest and interrogation, his mental anguish and suicide attempt, his exile and the intervention on his behalf of such major figures as Bukharin and Pasternak, followed by the subsequent "miracle"—Stalin's commutation of his sentence to "isolate but preserve," three years of exile in the southern Russian city of Voronezh rather than execution—left their mark on the poet's consciousness and profoundly affected his poetic voice. The shocking events of his private life, however, seem to have strengthened rather than diminished his self-image by reaffirming his faith in the vital role of the...
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Brown, Clarence. Mandelstam. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1973, 320 p.
Definitive biography in English.
Baines, Jennifer. Mandelstam: The Later Poetry. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1976, 253 p.
Attacks the view that Mandelstam's later poems are weaker than his early works.
Birkerts, Sven. "Osip Mandelstam." In An Artificial Wilderness: Essays on 20th-century Literature, pp. 101-20. New York: William Morrow and Company, 1987.
Provides an overview of Mandelstam's literary career.
Brodsky, Joseph. "Beyond Consolation." The New York Review of Books XXI, No. 1 (7 February 1974): 13-16.
Analysis of recent English language translations of Mandelstam's poetry.
Brown, Clarence. "Into the Heart of Darkness: Mandelstam's Ode to Stalin." Slavic Review XXVI, No. 4 (December 1967): 584-604.
Presents an extended discussion of Mandelstam's most controversial poem.
Broyde, Steven. Osip Mandel'stam and His Age: A Commentary on the Themes of War and Revolution in the Poetry,...
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