Conversation About Dante Critical Essays

Osip Mandelstam


(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

“Conversation About Dante” is a dense, complex, metaphoric essay that works on many levels of understanding—a brilliant vehicle for Mandelstam’s perceptions about art, poetry, Russian and European culture and history, philology, psychology, semantics, man, and himself and Dante.

Given the extant literature that was already focused on Dante and upon The Divine Comedy, any historical narrative about the poet or any line by line exegesis of his greatest work, as Mandelstam realized, would have been redundant—not, to be sure, in Russia but certainly in the wider world of letters and posterity to which he hoped to appeal. Consequently, the essay is indeed about Dante as his literary genius was anatomized through revelatory passages in The Divine Comedy. Mandelstam essentially treats the work as a massive and spectacular vein of gold, from which his spadework flecks superb samples indicative of the whole geological structure surrounding it.

“Conversation About Dante,” while suffused with what he may have regarded as objectivity, is still as reverential as any miner’s discussion of having struck the mother lode. Mandelstam, in fact, proclaimed that for him Dante was the supreme, indeed, the “ideal” poet. The Italian was a writer and social outcast whose life was rooted in cultural history. Yet he was not merely the critical intellectual implied by too literal a translation of the term raznochinets from the Russian—a variation of which Mandelstam had even applied to himself as a young poet. Far more than that, Dante, in his estimate, was a “reader and interpreter of poetry” through whom poetry could at last be perceived as something more than so many tropes, or figurative expressions. It could be grasped in its intellectual, symbolic, and emotional dimensions as “performance.” Thus, Mandelstam chose Dante as the theme of his conversation not because he wanted to use him to stimulate an interest in classical studies or to place him in some pantheon for comparison with other great writers. Rather, he chose him simply because he was, in his estimate, the “unrivaled master of transmutable and convertible poetic material.”

Mandelstam’s “Conversation About Dante” was not intended to be readily understood outside accomplished literary circles. It challenges the reader, as do all Mandelstam’s writings, with dozens of historical allusions, with animadversions to his beloved Greek and Roman myths, and with both direct and oblique references to major literary figures of the past—most notably nineteenth and early twentieth century Russian poets. Like an archaeological dig, the essay has many levels that still reinforce one’s basic understanding of the culture, and thus the message, being examined.

Essentially an analysis of the nature of poetry, “Conversation About Dante” explains its hybrid character by constantly referring to Dante as the grand strategist of poetic transmutation and hybridization. It removes Dante, in that sense, from what Mandelstam depicted as the common European perception of poetry. The hybridization with which Mandelstam begins his explanation resulted from a...

(The entire section is 1299 words.)