Osip Mandelstam’s second collection of verses, Tristia, was published in 1922 under unusual and intriguing circumstances. The manuscript was taken to Berlin, and the poems were arranged by a fellow poet, Mikhail Kuzmin, who also gave the work its title, after one of the best poems in the collection. Mandelstam borrowed that poem’s title from Ovid’s work by the same name. Mandelstam was not satisfied, however, with the way the publication was handled. When he published the second edition in 1923, he changed the title to Vtoraia kniga (second book) and rearranged the poems. Because the collection was republished as Tristia, and because Mandelstam later referred to it as such, Tristia is now accepted as its only legitimate title. Perhaps the reason Mandelstam accepted the title was that, like Ovid, he wrote most of the Tristia poems on the shores of the Black Sea, and he brought the manuscript from there. Moreover, Mandelstam’s life, in which he was frequently on the run, mostly as an internal exile, parallels that of Ovid. His lifelong fascination with classical antiquity also identifies him with Ovid.
The forty-five mostly untitled poems in Tristia were written between 1916 and 1920. The poems mark the highest achievements in the early stage of Mandelstam’s poetic career, and they represent some of the best poems he wrote. There is no unifying subject in the collection, but several distinct themes can be discerned. What strikes the reader the most are the preponderant references to classical antiquity. The most obvious theme, already familiar from Mandelstam’s first collection, Kamen (1913; Stone, 1981), is the poet’s homage to Rome and its civilization. The theme reflects his fascination with the Mediterranean culture and with the unity between cultures that it represents. In a poem of beautiful visual images, “Venetian Life,” he uses a Renaissance painting to sing an ode to Rome, the beautiful city on the Adriatic where “jewels are heavy” and where “there is no salvation from love.” A Georgian woman who has lost her cameo resembles a beautiful Roman woman (“I’ve lost a delicate cameo”). Persephone—the Greek goddess of the afterlife and the wife of Hades, but also used by Mandelstam as a Roman goddess—is mentioned in several poems (“I am cold,” “Swallow,” “As Psyche-Life goes down to the shades”). Mandelstam expresses his greatest veneration of Rome in the short poem “Nature’s the same as Rome”:
Nature’s the same as Rome, was reflected in it.We see images of its civic mightIn the clear air, as in the sky-blue circus,In the forum of fields, the colonnades of groves.
Mandelstam asserts that nature has found its most perfect embodiment in Rome, where nature and culture are one and where “stones exist in order to build.”
While the references in Stone are mostly to Rome, in Tristia, Mandelstam dwells on ancient Greece. References to the classical world appear in many of the poems—for example, Phedre (in “No matter how I concealed them”), “the sacred mace of Heracles” (in “The Menagerie”), and the immortal roses of Kypris (in “In Petersburg we’ll meet again”). In “The Greeks planned for war,” Mandelstam sees Europe as the new Hellas, and he beseeches it to save the Acropolis and Piraeus. The long poem “The thick golden stream of honey took so long” best expresses Mandelstam’s love for ancient Greece, where the proverbial golden honey flows in the streets, “the service of Bacchus is everywhere,” and “the peaceful days roll by.” The poet ends his apotheosis with a mournful cry:
Golden fleece, where are you, golden fleece?The sea’s heavy waves roared the whole way.Abandoning the ship, its sail worn out,Odysseus returned, full with space and time.
This poem, written during World War I and the Russian Revolution, expresses Mandelstam’s yearning for more peaceful times and sunny shores. Mandelstam identifies peace, happiness, and plenitude with ancient Greece.
The poem “Tortoise” is another apotheosis of the beauty of ancient Greece. Here “blind lyrists, like bees, give us Ionic honey,” “cicadas click...