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."
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.
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.
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."