Osip Mandelstam Analysis

Other literary forms

(World Poets and Poetry)

Osip Mandelstam (muhn-dyihl-SHTAHM) was writing essays on Russian and European literature as early as 1913. Many of the theoretical essays were collected, some in considerably revised or censored form, in O poezii (1928; About Poetry, 1977). These, as well as his otherwise uncollected essays and reviews, are available in their original and most complete versions in Sobranie sochinenii (1955, 1964-1971, 1981; Collected Works, 1967-1969). Mandelstam’s prose was not republished in the Soviet Union, with the exception of his single most important essay, “Razgovor o Dante” (“Conversation About Dante”), written in 1933 but not published until 1967, when an edition of twenty-five thousand copies sold out immediately and was not reprinted. Mandelstam’s prose has been seen both as a key to deciphering his poetry and as a complex body of nonpoetic discourse of great independent value. All his prose has been translated into English.


(World Poets and Poetry)

Osip Mandelstam’s poetry won immediate praise from fellow members of Russian literary circles, and he now holds an indisputable position as one of Russia’s greatest poets. Like many of his contemporaries, however, Mandelstam experienced anything but a “successful” literary career. His work appeared often in pre-Revolutionary journals, but Mandelstam was not among the writers whom the Bolsheviks promoted after 1917. By 1923, the official ostracism of independent poets such as Mandelstam was apparent, though many continued writing and publishing whenever possible. Mandelstam did not write poetry between 1925 and 1930, turning instead to prose forms that were as inventive and as idiosyncratic as his verse. Attempts to discredit him intensified after 1928. He was arrested twice in the 1930’s and is believed to have died while in transit to a Siberian labor camp.

Even during the “thaw” under Premier Nikita Khrushchev, Mandelstam’s works were kept out of print, and it was not until 1973 that his “rehabilitation” was made credible by the publication of his poetry in the prestigious Biblioteka poeta (poet’s library) series. That slim volume was reissued. During the Soviet era in Russia, scholarly writing about Mandelstam, although limited, appeared; his name was mentioned in many but by no means all studies of literature. Official publications, such as textbooks or encyclopedias, relegated him to minor status and often commented disparagingly on his “isolation” from his age. The deep respect commanded by his poetry in the Soviet Union was nevertheless measured by the evolution of scholarly interest in his work.

Mandelstam’s reputation outside Russia was initially slow in developing because of the extreme difficulty in obtaining reliable texts of his works and because of the scarcity of information about the poet. As texts and translations became available, Mandelstam’s reputation grew steadily. The single most important factor in making his work known in the West was the publication of two volumes of memoirs by his wife, Nadezhda Mandelstam. Vospominania (1970; Hope Against Hope: A Memoir, 1970) and Vtoraya kniga (1972; Hope Abandoned, 1974), issued in Russian by émigré publishers and translated into many Western languages, are the prime source of information concerning Mandelstam’s life. Works of art in their own right, they also provide invaluable insights into his poetry.

Discussion Topics

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

What were the literary principles of the Acmeists, whom Osip Mandelstam joined early in his career?

Which of Mandelstam’s initiatives seems the most courageous?

Examine the theme of war in Mandelstam’s poetry.

Discuss Mandelstam’s difficulties in being true both to Russia and his Jewish heritage.

Mandelstam believed that art could save humanity. To what extent might his poetry be called salvational?

Contrast the attitudes of the departing poet and the women left at home in Mandelstam’s “Tristia.”


(World Poets and Poetry)

Baines, Jennifer. Mandelstam: The Later Poetry. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1976. Scholarly treatment of Mandelstam’s poems written in Moscow and Voronezh in the 1930’s. The study of these poems has been somewhat neglected because of their enigmatic nature.

Brown, Clarence. Mandelstam. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1973. The best authority on Mandelstam in the English-speaking world presents his seminal work, covering all aspects of Mandelstam’s life and work. Brown’s analyses of Mandelstam’s poems are particularly valuable.

Broyde, Steven. Osip Mandelstam and His Age: A Commentary on the Themes of War and Revolution in the Poetry, 1913-1923. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1975. A detailed analysis of Mandelstam’s poems inspired by, and centered on, war and revolution. There are many citations of poems, in Russian and in English.

Cavanagh, Clare. Osip Mandelstam and the Modernist Creation of Tradition. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1995. Places Mandelstam within the modernist tradition of T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound of reflecting a “world culture” divorced from strict national or ethnic identity.

Glazov-Corrigan, Elena. Mandel’shtam’s Poetics: A Challenge to Postmodernism. Toronto, Ont.: University of...

(The entire section is 433 words.)