Osip Mandelstam World Literature Analysis - Essay

Osip Mandelstam World Literature Analysis

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

When Mandelstam first appeared as a poet, he was a shy young man in awe of the great achievements of the Russian poets who had gone before him. There were the poets of the nineteenth century and those of the brief but glorious reign of the Symbolists in the last decade of the nineteenth century and the first decade of the twentieth. He did not succumb to the lure of Symbolism, however; instead he chose to join the Acmeists, a small but talented group of poets attracted to the notions of clarity of expression (as a reaction to the Hermeticism of the Symbolists) and of high craftsmanship. He quickly became one of the leaders of that group. At the same time, Mandelstam crafted his own ideas regarding poetry in his prose works and criticism. Deeply rooted in the Russian poetic tradition and magnificently versed in classical literature (hence his love for a mythical Mediterranean culture), he nevertheless developed his own poetic idiom and become one of the leading poets of all Russian literature.

Mandelstam was proud of his Jewish background, but it was not easy for Jews to establish their cultural identity in Russia. When he discovered the world of antiquity during his sojourns in Germany and France, he adopted it as part of his cultural inheritance, at the same time trying to reconcile it with the Jewish and Russian traditions of his youth. It is no surprise that his poems are suffused with Greek and Roman poetry, history, and mythology and with Christian culture. Later, when his concern with the perennial themes of beauty, death, love, and nature were obliged to give way to the political demands of the Soviet period, Mandelstam was forced to camouflage these abiding themes.

Mandelstam’s early poetry is characterized by brevity of form, clarity of image and rhythm, and a certain coldness and solemnity in the treatment of themes. Although he maintained these characteristics throughout his career, as he matured his poetic acumen grew in the thematic sphere and his technical abilities expanded. References to both antiquity and the present—Homer, Ovid, the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, Notre Dame, the churches of Moscow, the building of St. Petersburg, the music of Johann Sebastian Bach, and the works of Jean Racine and Charles Dickens, to give only a few examples—attest to his intellectual development. He used these examples not only to show cosmopolitan spirit but also to identify them with his innermost concerns and dilemmas, especially in the Soviet period.

The change of political system in Russia after the revolution was to have profound consequences not only in Mandelstam’s poetry but also in his life. It is futile to conjecture what his further development would have been like had it not been for the revolution and his untimely death. The constant struggle for survival, as dramatically described in his wife’s memoirs, and the constant atmosphere of fear and uncertainty led to a mood of sadness and forlorness in him. They also led to the poet’s increasing withdrawal from the outside world into an inner realm to which he clung despite all the dangers and hopelessness. In one untitled poem he complains of the “wolf-century” that has set upon the people and is threatening their existence. He also defiantly says that he is not a “wolf in his blood” and that he cannot do as a wolf does. At the same time he wistfully—and with uncanny premonition—wishes to be transported to Siberia where it is peaceful and beautiful and where the silver foxes roam. The poem in a clear indication that he had become disgusted with his age and had lost his sense of purpose although not his inner self. Mandelstam’s disillusionment with his age is especially evident in the poems he wrote while in exile in Voronezh.

Despite persecution and at times a denial of his existence on the part of the authorities, Mandelstam’s works have survived. A long-delayed edition of his poems was published in Leningrad in 1973, long before the fall of the regime that hounded him to death. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, he is regularly published in Russia and discussed as an important writer. His metaphor of a horseshoe in “Nashedshii podkovu” (“The Horseshoe Finder”) that was found after many years, polished with wool until it shone, and placed lovingly over a door, has found in the resurgence of Mandelstam’s works a prophetic confirmation.

“The Age”

First published: “Vek,” 1922 (collected in Complete Poetry of Osip Emilievich Mandelstam, 1973)

Type of work: Poem

The poem carries on an argument with its time, expressing pessimism at the beginning of a new age.

There are four stanzas of eight-syllable lines in “The Age.” In line 1, the poet addresses his age directly and immediately equates it with a beast (“My age, my beast”); this central metaphor sets the tone for the entire poem. He is puzzled about his age and wonders who can fathom its true nature. He sees that the present world is being built of blood; it is gushing from the throat of the earthly things, so that only a parasite is trembling, in expectation of good things. The mood of the first stanza is bleak.

That mood continues in stanza 2. The poet maintains that every creature must carry its backbone and that every wave plays with this invisible spine. He calls the present age an infant and equates it with the tender cartilage of a baby. Life is being...

(The entire section is 2230 words.)