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Anticipating his arrest by Joseph Stalin’s men in the early 1930’s, Osip Mandelstam purchased a small copy of Dante’s fourteenth century classic, La divina commedia (The Divine Comedy, 1802), which subsequently he always carried in his pocket. His fears were well-founded. He was arrested, held, released, and rearrested. Before the close of 1938, the Warsaw-born, Jewish poet-essayist had died mysteriously in a Soviet prison camp near Vladivostok. In the meantime, in 1933, in addition to his already large body of poems and essays, he completed “Conversation About Dante,” in translation a fifty-five-page essay, destined to be published first in English in 1965, two years before its publication was permitted in the Soviet Union.

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The close identification which Mandelstam sought to establish between himself and Dante reveals the strong autobiographical content of “Conversation About Dante.” Dante, like Mandelstam, strove for precision in contouring his perceptions and for clarity in their illumination. Similarly, Mandelstam described Dante as an “internal raznochinets”: essentially a poor man who was out of tune with his times, and who was filled with inner anxieties and really did not know how to behave. That is, Dante was untutored in the superficial social norms of his day and to that extent was a tormented outcast whose pain provided the psychological foundations, as well as the charm and the drama, of The Divine Comedy. Whether these descriptions were historically accurate was less important than the extent to which they fit Mandelstam’s own self-image.

Mandelstam himself was not entirely a creature of the extraspatial dimension that he assigned to poetry. He never abandoned the Russian literary movement founded a few years before World War I known as “Acmeism.” In its pristine form, Acmeism represented for Mandelstam a nostalgia for world culture as well as an affirmation of life on earth, an involvement in it, and concern about it. While it had roots in Symbolism, a movement whose devotees believed in the use of suggestive language, Acmeism represented a fresh, ongoing postwar reassessment of it that relied upon capturing human experience by its precision, balance, complexity, dynamism, and raw power as expressed through “the word.” According to Mandelstam—and other Acmeists—“the word” as the supreme aesthetic medium superseded the primacy of “music” for Symbolists. Accordingly, the eleven brief parts and addenda of “Conversation About Dante” were designed, in an Acmeist tradition, to preserve the rich poetic subsoil—the literary memory—of the past by drawing freely upon it, while promulgating its novel message about the real objective of poetry and the true means of interpreting it.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 56

Baines, Jennifer. Mandelstam: The Later Poetry, 1976.

Brown, Clarence. Mandelstam, 1973.

Broyde, Steven. Osip Mandelstam and His Age, 1975.

Freidin, Grigory. A Coat of Many Colors: Osip Mandelstam and His Mythologies of Self-Preservation, 1987.

Harris, Jane Gary. Osip Mandelstam, 1988.

Harris, Jane Gary, ed. Mandelstam: The Complete Prose and Letters, 1979.

Mandelstam, Nadezhda. Hope Against Hope: A Memoir, 1972.

Mandelstam, Nadezhda. Hope Abandoned, 1974.

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