I Have Forgotten the Word I Wanted to Say

by Osip Mandelstam
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Themes and Meanings

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“I Have Forgotten the Word I Wanted to Say” is a poem about creation, about the act and paramount importance of creating. “The Word made flesh” is the biblical metonymy for God’s most unique creation, His son, Jesus. Also in the Bible, “the Word” was the first, and thus arguably the greatest, thing created by God. In the Russian Symbolist world view, to which Mandelstam ascribed in many respects, the poet is like a god. Although, like any human, the poet is forced to exist in the domain of everyday life, during the act of poetic creation, he or she is lifted above the crowd (as though by the chariot of Plato’s Phaedrus) to the lofty heights usually accessible only to deities. Losing the ability to create, then, condemns the poet to an earthbound existence with the gray masses, symbolized by the shadows of Hades. There is something godlike in creating with words. There were special reasons, however, that creation was important to Mandelstam—not only because he aspired to attain some exalted status as a god-man.

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Expression in the Soviet Union after the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 was becoming less and less free. Schools of writing were initiated to teach the proper social class, the so-called proletariat, which was often constituted more of agrarian types, the proper production of a new type of literature that was really mythologized propaganda. People were writing panegyrics to Lenin, to socialism, to factories, hydro-electric stations, tractors, combines, collectivization, and the most pedestrian of topics imaginable, which the authorities claimed fulfilled the real mission of literature: to inculcate “correct” culture into the masses. Some poets joined the bandwagon and began writing propagandistic verse, most notably Vladimir Mayakovsky (“Eat your pineapple and chew your veal/ Your end is coming soon, you bourgeois!”). Poets such as Mandelstam were under pressure to conform to this unaesthetic, institutionalized norm. Thus, the symbols of the world of the dead—the shadows or shades of Hades, the river Styx—really symbolize the fate of all expression, the death of the ability to create. Mandelstam’s earliest fears were, unfortunately, well-founded. Twelve years after the writing of this poem, he would be arrested for the first time, and four years after that he would die in a transit camp in Siberia.

Creativity is the very essence of life, but it is a latent human talent; creation is its active principle and supplies the necessary vessel for the embodiment of that creativity. The word left unembodied is not a part of a creation; if forgotten, perhaps the word does not exist at all. If kept from writing, perhaps the poet is not alive at all. Mandelstam conveys this damnation poetically: “I have forgotten what I wanted to say/ And a thought without flesh flies back to its palace of shadows.”

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