Form and Content
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.
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...
(The entire section is 424 words.)