Osip Mandelstam Biography


Osip Emilievich Mandelstam was born in Warsaw, Poland, on January 15, 1891. His family moved almost immediately to St. Petersburg, where Mandelstam later received his education at the Tenischev School (as did Vladimir Nabokov only a few years later). Mandelstam’s mother was a pianist; his father worked in a leather-tanning factory. Little is known about Mandelstam’s childhood or young adulthood; he recorded cultural rather than personal impressions in his autobiographical sketch, Shum vremeni (1925; The Noise of Time, 1965).

Mandelstam took several trips abroad, including one to Heidelberg, where he studied Old French and the philosophy of Immanuel Kant at the University of Heidelberg from 1909 to 1910. He returned to St. Petersburg University’s faculty of history and philology but seems never to have passed his examinations. Mandelstam had a highly intuitive approach to learning that foreshadowed the associative leaps that make his poetry so difficult to read. His schoolmate Viktor Zhirmunsky, later a prominent Formalist critic, said of Mandelstam that he had only to touch and smell the cover of a book to know its contents with a startling degree of accuracy.

Mandelstam had been writing in earnest at least as early as 1908, and he began publishing poems and essays in St. Petersburg on his return from Heidelberg. By 1913, his literary stance was defined by his alliance with the Acmeists, a group dedicated to replacing the murky longing of Russian Symbolism with a classical sense of clarity and with a dedication to the things of this world rather than to the concepts they might symbolize. Among the acquaintances made in the Acmeist Guild of Poets, Mandelstam formed a lifelong friendship with the poet Anna Akhmatova.

The ideological positions taken by poets were soon overwhelmed by the political upheavals of the decade. Mandelstam did not serve in World War I. He greeted the Revolution with an enthusiasm typical of most intellectuals; he grew increasingly disappointed as the nature of Bolshevik power became apparent. Mandelstam worked in several cultural departments of the young Soviet government, moving between Moscow and St. Petersburg (renamed Leningrad) in connection with these and other jobs. In May, 1919, he met and later married Nadezhda Yakovlevna Khazina. The civil war parted the...

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Osip Emilievich Mandelstam (muhn-dyihl-SHTAHM) was born on January 15, 1891, in Warsaw, Poland (then part of the Russian empire), to a Jewish family from the province of Kurland. His father, Emil Veniaminovich Mandelstam, had been intended to be a rabbi but became a leather merchant instead. He was a highly literate merchant, reading German poets and William Shakespeare in German. His mother, Flora Osipovna Verblovskaya, was a native of Vilno (now Vilnius, Lithuania). The family was not very religious and this attitude was transferred to the young Mandelstam. The family moved to St. Petersburg when Mandelstam was very young; he would consider it his native city. He ran away to Berlin at the age of fourteen, where he studied Friedrich Schiller and the eighteenth century philosophers. After moving on to Paris, he became acquainted with the literature of the French Symbolists. His early sojourn abroad led to his vacillation between the Jewish atmosphere at home—“the Judaic chaos,” as he called it—and the West European culture embodied by Charles Baudelaire and Paul Verlaine, by Catholic universalism, and by “the aristocracy of the spirit” of the Middle Ages. In addition, he fell under the influence of kindred Russian thinkers, such as Pyotr Chaadayev.

Mandelstam began to write poetry in 1908, and he published his first poems in 1910. He was immediately acclaimed for his unquestionable talent and the innovative spirit of his poetry. He soon joined a literary group called the Acmeists and quickly became one of their leaders. As a member of that group, he published his first book of poems, Kamen (1913; Stone, 1981). When the Russian Revolution of 1917 broke...

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“I have studied the science of saying good-bye/ in bareheaded laments at night,” Osip Mandelstam states in one of his poems. These lines serve as a summation of his fate as a poet. The harsh realities in the last decades of his life resulted in frequent partings and unfulfilled plans and promises. That he was able to accomplish what he did is a testimonial to his enormous creative power. He left behind a body of sensitive, beautifully crafted poetry and perceptive, highly cerebral prose works, all of which are now greatly admired in his homeland and abroad.