Osip Mandelstam Mandelstam, Osip - Essay


(Poetry Criticism)

Osip Mandelstam 1891–1938

(Full name Osip Emilievich Mandelstam) Russian poet, novelist, essayist, critic, and translator.

Considered one of the most important and influential Russian poets of his time, Mandelstam is known for his association with the Acmeist school, a movement which rejected the mysticism and stylistic obscurity of Symbolism and attempted to restore clarity to poetic language. His most characteristic poems display the acmeist emphasis on a neoclassic formalism combined with contemplation of the nature of art itself. Mandelstam's work has undergone a steady revival since the death of Stalin in 1953 and, according to Joseph Brodsky, "what he did will last as long as the Russian language exists. It will certainly outlast the present and any subsequent regime in that country, because of both its lyricism and its profundity."

Biographical Information

Born to middle-class Jewish parents in Warsaw, Mandelstam soon afterward moved with his family to St. Petersburg. Because his parents did little to make Mandelstam aware of the vibrance and relevance of Judaism, the influences of his home life and ethnicity were often overpowered by the appeal of Western European culture. He was especially attracted to the gothic spirit of the Middle Ages; to him, Notre Dame cathedral represented the ideal creative act which gives human life meaning. After graduating from the prestigious Tenishev Commercial School in St. Petersburg in 1907, he travelled extensively in Europe and the Mediterranean region, and he developed an admiration for the historic lands of Christianity. In 1911 he enrolled in Petersburg University, and in order to avoid anti-Semitic sentiment, he converted to Lutheranism. In his work Mandelstam derived much of his inspiration from sources foreign to his cultural background, including Dickens, Poe, the French Symbolists, the medieval Italian poetry of Petrarch, and the classical mythology of the Hellenic world. In 1912 he became associated with the Acmeists, especially Nikolay Gumilyov and Anna Akhmatova. His estrangement from the political scene in his homeland after the Russian Revolution led to a five year period of silence after the publication of his second book of poetry. In 1934 he was exiled for three years to the city of Voronezh for criticizing Stalin in a line of verse. Later, Mandelstam was arrested and sent to a camp for political prisoners, where he died under brutal conditions in 1938.

Major Works

Mandelstam began his literary career with a series of poems published in the journal Apollon. His first collection of poetry, Kamen' (1913; Stone), exhibits the transition from an early Symbolist aesthetic to the new tenets of Acmeism. The poems of this and the second collection, Trista (1922; Tristia), are architectural in style and occasionally in subject: the poet aimed for carefully constructed elegance in these works, and some of the most famous lyrics celebrate the historical buildings of Paris, Moscow, and Constantinople. His third and last collection, Stikhotvoreniya (1928; Poems), incorporated both the previous volumes and added twenty new poems that reflect a more complex, intimate style.

Critical Reception

Some commentators have derided Mandelstam's poetry as dispassionate and detached from the concerns outside art. Other critics have demonstrated, however, that Mandelstam was sensitive to and often reacted to the events of the rapidly changing world around him. The poem "Vek" ("The Age"), for example, expresses his hopes and apprehensions for the future of postrevolutionary Russia. Generally the poems in Stone and Tristia are judged superior to those Mandelstam produced in the 1930s; recent studies of his later poetry take issue with this view. Since his death Mandelstam has been recognized as one of the most important Russian writers of the twentieth century, most significantly in his homeland, where he was once reduced to the status of literary "non-person." A Russian encyclopedia succinctly summarizes Mandelstam's predicament during the Stalin era and the subsequent revival of the poet's reputation: "Illegally repressed during the period of the cult of the individual. Rehabilitated posthumously."

Principal Works

(Poetry Criticism)


Kamen' [Stone] 1913

Trista [Tristia] 1922

Stikhotvoreniya [Poems] 1928

Sobranie sochinenni. 3 vols, (poetry, autobiographical essays, novella, and letters) 1967, 1971

Complete Poetry of Osip Emilevich Mandelstam (poetry) 1973

Osip Mandelstam: Selected Poems [translated by Clarence Brown and W. S. Merwin] 1973

Osip Mandelstam: Selected Poems [translated by David McDuff] 1973

Other Major Works

Shum vremeni [The Noise of Time] (autobiographical essays) 1925

Egipetskaya marka [The Egyptian Stamp] (novella) 1928 O poezii (criticism) 1928

The Prose of Osip Mandelstam: The Noise of Time, Theodosia, The Egyptian Stamp (autobiographical essays, novella) 1965

Osip Mandelstam: Selected Essays (essays) 1977

Mandelstam: The Complete Critical Prose and Letters (criticism and letters) 1979

Osip Mandelstam (essay date 1913)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "On the Addressee," in Modern Russian Poets on Poetry, edited by Carl R. Proffer, translated by Jane Gary Harris, Ardis, 1976, pp. 52-9.

[In the following essay, which was first published in a Russian periodical in 1913, Mandelstam describes the relationship between poet and reader.]

I would like to know what it is about a madman which creates that most terrifying impression of madness. It must be his dilated pupils, because they are blank and stare at you so absently, focusing on nothing in particular. It must be his mad speech, because in speaking to you the madman never takes you into account, nor even recognizes your existence as if wishing to ignore your presence, to show absolutely no interest in you. What we fear most in a madman is that absolute and terrifying indifference which he displays toward us. Nothing strikes terror in a man more than another man who shows no concern for him whatsoever. Cultural pretense, the politeness by which we constantly affirm our interest in one another, thus contains a profound meaning for us all.

Normally, when a man has something to say, he goes to people, he seeks out an audience. A poet does just the opposite: he runs "to the shores of desert waves, to broad and resonant oaks." His abnormality is obvious … Suspicion of madness descends upon the poet. And people are right when they call a man mad whose speech is addressed to inanimate objects, to nature, but never to his living brethren. And they would be within their rights to stand back terrified of the poet, as of a madman, if, indeed, his words were actually addressed to no one. However, such is not the case.

The view of the poet as "God's bird" is very dangerous and fundamentally false. There is no reason to believe that Pushkin had the poet in mind when he composed his song about the bird. But even insofar as Pushkin's bird is concerned, the matter is not all that simple. Before he commences singing, the bird "hearkens the voice of God." Obviously, the one who orders the bird to sing, listens to its song. The bird "flaps its wings and sings," because a "natural harmony" unites the bird with God, an honor even the greatest poetic genius does not dare to dream of … Then to whom does the poet speak? This is a question which still plagues us, which is still extremely pertinent, because the Symbolists always avoided it, and never formulated it succinctly. By ignoring the concomitant juridical, so to speak, relationship which attends the act of speaking (for example: I am speaking: this means people are listening to me and listening to me for a reason, not out of politeness, but because they are committed to hear me out), Symbolism turned its attention exclusively to acoustics. It relinquished sound to the architecture of the spirit, but with its characteristic egoism, followed its meanderings under the arches of an alien psyche. Symbolism calculated the increase in fidelity produced by fine acoustics, and called it magic. In this respect, Symbolism brings to mind the French medieval proverb about "Prêtre Martin," who simultaneously performed and attended mass. The Symbolist poet is not only a musician, he is Stradivarius himself, the great violin-maker, fastidiously calculating the proportions of the "sound-box," the psyche of the audience. Depending on these proportions, a stroke of the bow may produce a sound truly splendid in its richness or an impoverished and unsure sound. But, my friends, a musical piece has its own independent existence regardless of the performer, the concert hall, or the violin. Why then should the poet be so prudent and solicitous? And more significant, where is that supplier of poet's needs, the supplier of living violins—the audience whose psyche is equivalent to the "shell" of Stradivarius' products? We do not know, nor will we ever know, where this audience is … François Villon wrote for the Parisian mob of the mid-fifteenth century, but the charm of his poetry lives on today …

Every man has his friends. Why shouldn't the poet turn to his friends, turn to those who are naturally close to him? At the critical moment, the seafarer tosses into the ocean waves a bottle containing a message: his name and the details of his fate. Wandering along the dunes many years later, I happen upon it in the sand. I read the message, recognize the date of the event, the last will and testament of someone who has passed on. I have the right to do so. I haven't opened someone else's mail. The message in the bottle was addressed to its finder. I found it. Hence, I have become its secret addressee.

My gift is poor, my voice is not loud,
But I am alive. And on this earth
My presence is a friend to someone:
My distant heir shall find it
In my verse; how do I know? my soul
And his soul shall find a common ground,
As I have found a friend in my generation,
I will find a reader in posterity.

Reading this poem of Baratynsky, I experience the same feeling I would if such a bottle came into my possession. The ocean, in all the enormity of its element, came to its aid, helped it to fulfill its destiny. And that feeling of providence overwhelms the finder. Two equally lucid facts emerge from the tossing of the seafarer's bottle to the waves and from the dispatching of Baratynsky's poem. The message, just like the poem, was addressed to no one in particular. And yet both have addresses: the message is addressed to the person who happened across the bottle in the sand; the poem is addressed to "the reader in posterity." I would like to know who, among the readers of Baratynsky's poem, did not feel that joyous and awesome excitement experienced when someone is unexpectedly hailed by name.

Balmont asserted:

I know no wisdom suitable for others,
Moments only do I enclose in my verse.
In each fleeting moment I see worlds
Brimming with inconstant, iridescent games.
Don't curse, wisemen, what am I to you?
I'm but a cloud brimming o'er with flame,
I'm but a cloud, and I shall float on
And hail all dreamers. But you I shall not hail.

What a contrast between the unpleasant, ingratiating tone of these lines and the profound and modest dignity of Baratysnky's verse!...

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Osip Mandelstam (essay date 1919)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Morning of Acmeism," in The Russian Review, Vol. XXIV, No. 1, January, 1965, pp. 47-51.

[In the following essay, which was first published in a Russian periodical in 1919, Mandelstam describes his poetic philosophy and defines the Acmeist movement in Russian literature.]

In view of the enormous emotional excitement connected with works of art it is desirable that talk about art be distinguished by the greatest restraint. For the great majority of people, a work of art is seductive only to the extent that it reveals the artist's world view. For the artist himself, however, a world view is a weapon and a means, like a hammer in the hands of a stonemason, and...

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Renato Poggioli (essay date 1960)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Poets of Yesterday," in The Poets of Russia: 1890-1930, Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1960, pp. 276-316.

[Poggioli was an Italian-born American critic and translator. Much of his critical writing treats Russian literature, including The Poets of Russia: 1890-1930 (1960), which is considered one of the most important examinations of that era. In the following excerpt from that study, he identifies and explores central themes in Mandelstam 's poetry.]

Osip Mandel'shtam was born in the Jewish quarter of Warsaw, in 1892, and spent his mature years in the two capitals. He died still relatively young, in faraway banishment; we do not know...

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Clarence Brown (essay date 1967)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "On Reading Mandelstam," in Major Soviet Writers: Essays in Criticism, edited by Edward J. Brown, Oxford University Press, 1973, pp. 146-63.

[In the following essay, which was first published as an introduction to Mandelstam's collected works, Brown examines linguistic and thematic aspects of Mandelstam's poetry, and offers a close reading of "Soliminka, The Straw".]

In his imaginative and interesting article "On Freedom in Poetry" [published in Vozdušnye Puti, 1961] Vladimir Markov wittily constructs the following scale of values for contemporary Russian poetry. At the bottom is Esenin "for wide, general consumption"; in the middle are Gumilyev and,...

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Lidija Ginzburg (essay date 1972)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Poetics of Osip Mandelstam," in Twentieth-Century Russian Literary Criticism, edited by Victor Erlich, Yale University Press, 1975, pp. 284-312.

[In the following essay, which was first published in a Russian periodical in 1972, Ginzburg distinguishes three stages in the development of Mandelstam's poetry and determines the influence of Hellenistic and Symbolist imagery on his work.]

Mandelstam began as an heir to the Russian symbolists. Yet he did so at the moment when the disintegration of the symbolist movement was obvious to everyone, when Blok, its erstwhile standard-bearer, was seeking different answers to the disquieting questions of the era. The...

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Sidney Monas (essay date 1973)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: An introduction to Complete Poetry of Osip Emilevich Mandelstam, translated by Burton Raffel and Alia Burago, State University of New York Press, 1973, pp. 1-28.

[Monas is an American educator and critic with a special interest in Russian literature. In the following essay, he explores the defining characteristics of Mandelstam's work.]

"Just as a person does not choose his parents," Mandelstam wrote in 1921, "a people does not choose its poets." Russia would certainly have avoided him if it could. Even today, long after his posthumous rehabilitation, most of his poems are unpublished in the USSR. A collected volume announced in 1959 has still not appeared....

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Robert Alter (essay date 1974)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Mandelstam's Witness," in Commentary, Vol. 57, No. 6, June, 1974, pp. 69-79.

[Alter is an American educator and critic. In the following essay, he discusses the influence of Mandelstam's Jewish origins on his poetry.]

"I am easy in my mind now," Akhamatova said to me in the sixties. "We have seen how durable poetry is."

—Nadezhda Mandelstam, Hope Against Hope

There is something oddly legendary about the posthumous career of Osip Mandelstam, as though he had died not in a Soviet concentration camp in 1938, with a death certificate issued in due form by the totalitarian...

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Joseph Brodsky (essay date 1977)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Child of Civilization," in Less Than One: Selected Essays, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1986, pp. 123-44.

[Brodsky was a Russian poet and critic who emigrated from the Soviet Union in 1972 and became an American citizen in 1977. His work has been well-received by English and American critics, many of whom once called him the greatest living poet. In the following essay, originally published as the introduction to Fifty Poems by Osip Mandelstam, he explores the uniquely Russian characteristics of Mandelstam's work.]

For some odd reason, the expression "death of a poet" always sounds somewhat more concrete than "life of a poet." Perhaps this is because...

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David McDuff (essay date 1980)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Teleological Warmth," in Poetry Review, Vol. LXX, Nos. 1-2, September, 1980, pp. 48-53.

[In the following essay, McDuff considers the role of religion in Mandelstam's poetry, contending that "the essential point to grasp about Mandelstam is that he was a profoundly Christian poet."]

The upsurge of interest which of recent years has manifested itself in the West towards the poetry and the personality of Osip Mandelstam is without doubt to be welcomed. Through the translations of his work and of the two large volumes of memoirs by his widow, Nadezhda Yakovlevna, Western readers have had the chance to glimpse something of the central significance of this poet to...

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Jane Gary Harris (essay date 1988)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Voronezh Notebooks," in Osip Mandelstam, Twayne Publishers, 1988, pp. 121-45.

[Harris is an American educator and critic with a special interest in Russian literature. In the following excerpt from her critical study of Mandelstam, she analyzes thematic and stylistic aspects of the Voronezh Notebooks.]

I am in the heart of the age—the way is unclear
And time distances the goal …
(no. 332, 14 December 1936)

People need light and blue air,
They need bread and the snows of Elbrus….
People need poetry secretly their own
To keep...

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Further Reading

(Poetry Criticism)


Brown, Clarence. Mandelstam. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1973, 320 p.

Definitive biography in English.


Baines, Jennifer. Mandelstam: The Later Poetry. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1976, 253 p.

Attacks the view that Mandelstam's later poems are weaker than his early works.

Birkerts, Sven. "Osip Mandelstam." In An Artificial Wilderness: Essays on 20th-century Literature, pp. 101-20. New York: William Morrow and Company, 1987.


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