Osip Mandelstam was born in Warsaw to a Polish Jewish family; his father was a leather merchant, his mother a piano teacher. Soon after Osip’s birth, the family moved to Saint Petersburg. After attending the prestigious Tenishev School, Mandelstam studied for a year in Paris, at the Sorbonne, and then for a year in Germany, at the University of Heidelberg. In 1911, wanting to enter the University of Saint Petersburg – which had a quota on Jews – he converted to Christianity; like many others who converted during these years, he chose Methodism rather than Orthodoxy.
Under the leadership of Nikolay Gumilyov, Mandelstam and several other young poets formed a movement known first as the Poets’ Guild and then as the Acmeists. Mandelstam wrote a manifesto, ‘The Morning Of Acmeism’ (written in 1913 but published only in 1919). Like Ezra Pound and the Imagists, the Acmeists valued clarity, concision and craftsmanship.
In 1913 Mandelstam published his first collection, Stone. This includes several poems about architecture, which always remained one of his central themes. His poem about the cathedral of ‘Nôtre Dame’ ends with the declaration:
Fortress Nôtre Dame, the more attentively
I studied your vast ribs and frame,
the more I kept repeating: one day I too
will craft beauty from cruel weight.
In its acknowledgment of earthly gravity and its homage to the anonymous architects and masons of the past, ‘Nôtre Dame’ is typically Acmeist.
Throughout his life Mandelstam continued to write about the various arts, but he was also a great love poet. Several women – all of them important in their own right – were crucial to his life and work. An affair with Marina Tsvetaeva inspired many of his poems about Moscow. His close friendship with Anna Akhmatova helped him withstand the persecution he suffered during the 1930s. He had intense affairs with the singer Olga Vaksel in 1924-25 and with the poet Maria Petrovykh in 1933. Most important of all was Nadezhda Khazina, whom he married in 1922.
Osip and Nadezhda Mandelstam moved to Moscow soon after their marriage. Mandelstam’s second book, Tristia, published later in 1922, contains his most eloquent poetry; the tone is similar to that of Yeats’s ‘Sailing to Byzantium’ or some of Pound’s first Cantos. Several poems were inspired by the Crimea, where Mandelstam had stayed as a guest of Maximilian Voloshin. Once a Greek colony, the Crimea was for Mandelstam a link to the classical world he loved; above all, it granted him a sense of kinship with Ovid, who wrote his own Tristia while exiled to the western shores of the Black Sea.
The final section of Mandelstam’s 1928 volume Poems (the last collection he was able to publish in his life) is titled ‘Poems 1921-25’. These twenty poems differ from any of his previous work. Many are unrhymed, and they are composed in lines and stanzas of varying length. This formal disintegration reflects a sense of crisis that Mandelstam expresses most clearly in ‘The Age’:
Buds will swell just as in the past,
sprouts of green will spurt and rage,
but your backbone has been smashed,
O my grand and pitiful age.
And so, with a meaningless smile,
you glance back, cruel and weak,
like a beast once quick and agile,
at the prints of your own feet.
For several years from 1925 Mandelstam abandoned poetry – or was abandoned by poetry. Alienated from himself and the world around him, he supported himself by translating. He also wrote memoirs, literary criticism and experimental prose.
What helped Mandelstam to recover was a long stay in Armenia, from May to November 1930. As his widow wrote later, ‘The journey to Armenia restored the gift of poetry to M., and a new period of his life began.’ The uncertainty and weariness of ‘Poems 1921-25’ yields to an almost joyful acceptance of tragedy. Armenia is a country of stone, and one of the arts in which Armenians have excelled is architecture; Armenia’s importance to Mandelstam is not surprising. To Mandelstam, Armenia represented the Hellenistic and Christian world where he felt his roots lay; it was, after all, on Mount Ararat – which dominates the skyline of Yerevan – that Noah’s Ark is believed to have come to rest. Mandelstam’s months in Armenia allowed him to draw strength from a world that felt more solid, and more honest, than the Russia where he now felt an outcast.
In the autumn of 1933, Mandelstam composed an epigram about Stalin, which he read aloud at several small gatherings in Moscow. This ends:
Horseshoe-heavy, he hurls his decrees low and high:
in the groin, in the forehead, the eyebrow, the eye.
Executions are what he likes best.
Broad is the highlander’s chest.
Six months after this, Mandelstam was arrested. Instead of being shot, he was exiled to the Northern Urals; the probable reason for this relative leniency is that Stalin, concerned about his own place in the history of Russian literature, was taking a personal interest in Mandelstam’s case. After Mandelstam attempted suicide, his sentence was commuted to banishment from Russia’s largest cities. Mandelstam and his wife settled in Voronezh. There, knowing it was unlikely he had long to live, Mandelstam wrote the poems that make up the three Voronezh Notebooks. Dense with word play yet intensely lyrical, these are hard to translate. A leitmotif of the second notebook is the syllable ‘os’. This means either ‘axis’ or ‘of wasps’ – and it is the first syllable of both Mandelstam’s and Stalin’s first names. In the hope of saving his own life, Mandelstam was then composing an Ode to Stalin; he evidently imagined an axis connecting himself – the great poet – and Stalin – the great leader.
In May 1938 Mandelstam was arrested a second time, then sentenced to five years in the Gulag. He died in a transit camp near Vladivostok on 27 December 1938. His widow preserved most of his unpublished work and also wrote two memoirs, published in English as Hope against Hope and Hope Abandoned.
To read only children’s tales
and look through a child’s eye;
to rise from grief and wave
big things goodbye.
Life has tired me to death;
life has no more to offer.
But I love my poor earth
since I know no other.
I swung in a far-away garden
on a plain plank swing;
I remember tall dark firs
in a feverish blur.
She has yet to be born:
she is music and word,
and she eternally bonds
all life in this world.
The sea breathes gently;
the day glitters wildly.
A bowl of dazed azure
sways pale foam-lilac.
May I too reach back
to that ancient silence,
like a note of crystal
pure from its source.
Stay, Aphrodite, as foam.
Return, word, to music.
Heart, be shy of heart,
fused with life’s root.
(1910), tr. Robert Chandler and Boris Dralyuk
A dusty poplar in the Northern capital,
a transparent clock-face lost in the leaves;
and, shining through this green – a brother
to both sky and water – a frigate, an acropolis.
Aerial craft, touch-me-not mast, straight edge
repeating to Peter’s heirs this golden rule:
beauty is not a demi-god’s caprice
but a plain carpenter’s rule, his raptor’s eye.
Four elements rule over us benignly;
free man is able to create a fifth.
Doesn’t this ark, this chastely crafted ark
deny the sovereignty of space?
Angry and whimsical, the jelly fish cling on;
anchors lie rusting like discarded ploughs –
the bonds of three dimensions burst
and the world’s seas open before us.
When you lie there, Salome, in your vast
room, when you can’t sleep, when you lie and wait
for the tall ceiling to descend, to brush
your delicate eyelids with its grave weight;
When you can’t sleep, things seem to gain in weight
or else are lost – the silence is so full;
white pillows glimmer palely in the glass;
the bed is mirrored in a round pool;
And pale blue ice is streaming through the air.
Salome, broken straw, you sipped at death,
drank all of death, and only grew more sweet.
December now streams out her solemn breath.
Twelve moons are singing of the hour of death,
the room is gone, the Neva takes its place,
Ligeia, winter herself, flows through my blood,
and I have learned to hear you, words of grace.
Lenore, Solominka, Ligeia, Seraphita.
The heavy Neva fills the spacious room.
Salome, my beloved straw, Solominka,
poisoned by pity, slowly sips her doom.
And pale blue blood runs streaming from the stone.
From all I see only a river will remain.
Twelve moons are singing of the hour of death.
And Salome will never dance this dance again.
Help me, Lord, to survive this night.
I fear for life, your slave.
I fear life in Petersburg might
be the sleep of the grave.
After midnight, clean out of your hands,
the heart seizes a sliver of silence.
It lives on the quiet, it’s longing to play;
like it or not, there’s nothing quite like it.
Like it or not, it can never be grasped;
so why shiver, like a child off the street,
if after midnight the heart holds a feast,
silently savouring a silvery mouse?
Armed with wasp-vision, with the vision of wasps
that suck, suck, suck the earth’s axis,
I’m filled by the whole deep vein of my life
and hold it here in my heart
and in vain.
And I don’t draw, don’t sing,
don’t draw a black-voiced bow over strings:
I only drink, drink, drink in life and I love
to envy wasp-
waisted wasps their mighty cunning.
O if I too
could be impelled past sleep past death,
stung by the summer’s cheer and chir,
by this new air
to hear earth’s axis, axis, axis.
(8 February, 1937)
I’ll say this in a whisper, in draft,
because it’s early yet:
we have to pay
with experience and sweat
to learn the sky’s free play.
And under purgatory’s temporal sky
we easily forget:
the dome of heaven
is a home
to praise forever, wherever.
(9 March 1937), tr. Robert Chandler