Vol 1 No 5
Osip Emilievich Mandelshtam (1891- )
Mandelshtam is almost unknown in the Western world. In Russia his works are banned. He is very much ‘a poet’s poet’. Only three of his poems have been translated into English previously, but as far back as 1925, when reviewing Mandelshtam’s Shum Vremini (The Noise of Time), Prince Mirsky, the foremost authority on modern Russian literature, wrote: ‘Mandelshtam’s place as one of the most outstanding poets of our time is firmly established. The high art of the word linked as it is with an instinctive restraint of speech, gives his poems a unique and exclusive charm.’ It is also interesting to note that in his Early Soviet Writers (New York, 1957) Vyacheslav Zavalishin says: ‘The work of Pasternak is directly descended from Mandelshtam’s.’ However this may be, Pasternak and Mandelshtam were almost exact contempories. Both were in revolt against the semi-religious vagueness of the Decadents and Symbolists, both sooner or later were deeply affected by the various Russian forms of Futurism. If Pasternak (to adapt a phrase of Renato Poggioli’s) ‘infuses words with passion, rathern than passion with words’, Mandelshtam at his greatest achieves a splendid rhetoric comparable to that of Corneile, Racine, Baudelaire or Rimbaud, which in its post-symbolist Parnassianism is at once more universal, more literary and more marble-hewn than the rugged, personal explosions of Pasternak.
Mandelshtam was born in Warsaw of a Jewish family in 1891. His father was a small businessman, naturally intelligent yet deprived of any pure linguistic tradition (a mixture of Russian, Polish, German and Yiddish did duty for a language). In contrast, his mother came of a family of Russian Jewish intelligentsia and included as a near relation the distinguished literary historian Vengerov. She was well-educated and spoke and wrote perfect literary Russian. Mandelshtam spent his boyhood and youth in St Petersburg, where it is interesting to note that he attended the same rather progressive school as Vladimir Sirin (Nabokov). After short periods at the universities of Paris and Heidelberg he returned to Petersburg in 1910.
In his ‘Petersburg Winters’ Giorgiy Ivanov writes: ‘In the early autumn of 1910 at the Warsaw railway station in St Petersburg a young man alighted from a third-class carriage of a train coming from Germany. No one met him: he had no luggage, having lost his only suitcase at the frontier. This traveller was dressed oddly, wearing an Alpine hat, a wide shabby cloak on his sloping shoulders and bright russet shoes in need of polish and well-worn at the heels. Over his left arm a checkered steamer-rug was draped and in his right he held a sandwich. Thus, sandwich in hand, he made his way to the exit. In the suitcase lost at Eidtkunen there was, besides a toothbrush and a volume of Bergson, a much-used notebook the pages of which were covered with verses. But the loss (except of the toothbrush) was not important because Mandelshtam knew his verses and Bergson by heart.’
He was in fact already a strikingly original poet. The magazine Apollon accepted six of his poems that autumn.
He now attended Petersburg University and frequented the literary and bohemian circles of the day — a particularly fertile period of Russian poetry. Before long he became a member of the Guild of Poets, and the associate, or disciple, of Gumilev and Akhmatova, both of whom had been students of the remarkable poet Annensky. They all, together with Mihail Kuzmin, Sergey Gorodetsky and others, shared in the reaction against the otherworldliness and vagueness of symbolism (as exampled by the earlier poetry of Blok and Bely) and their new Parnassian movement earned itself the title of Akmeism.
Mandelshtam’s sense of timelessness (his late poem ‘Never have I been anyone’s contemporary’, written in answer to post-revolutionary directives clearly exhibits this), his sense of the past, his strict forms and regular rhymes, his classicism and constant evocation of Greek, Roman and Palestinian examples, as well as, occasionally, an almost childish whimsy, are typical of his verse up to and during the First World War. The magnificent sonority of lines like
Triumphantly December strews his breath
As though the ponderous Neva were inside the room.
or the Ancient Greek quality of
Everything has been of old and will be again —
For us only the moment of recognition is sweet.
characterize the poetical quality of his work of this period. But over and above his rhetoric and Parnassian form, he achieved a series of striking images. In comparing tennis players to light-armed Attic soldiers he is using something more than a Futuristic trick. His poetic eye sees the handsome young people on the tennis lawn in the same light as he might see a combat in Homer or in Thucydides.
A stanza of Gumilev is worth quoting not only because it sums up something of the Akmeists’ devotion to their craft and to language, but also because it looks forward to the cataclysm that was to engulf them all:
Fearful sun, menacing sun,
Like the mad face
Of God going through space,
Burn the present, o sun,
That the future may last,
But protect the past.
Anna Akhmatova was to write:
While in the West the sun is shining still
And in its rays gleam many a roof and dome,
Here Death chalks crosses on our doors at will
And calls the ravens and the ravens come.
Akhmatova was nearer to life than Mandelshtam. She writes of her personal experiences directly. Mandelshtam’s poetry is a reflection of life, seen in a reflection of the past, seen in art itself. Akhmatova was quicker than Mandelshtam to describe the terrible events of 1917-23. After that she was, on the whole, silent, until finally damned in 1946 by Zhdanov: ‘Her verses shot through with the spirit of pessimism and depression expressing the tastes of the old salon poetry jelled in postures of bourgeois aristocratic aestheticism and decadence — “Art for Art’s sake” — are a detriment in the matter of bringing up our young people and cannot be tolerated in Soviet Literature.’ (Resolution of the All-Union Communist Party, August 14, 1946, Zavalischin’s translation.) It was not until after the revolution that Mandelshtam’s poetry began to reflect the very great and grave events of the time. Until 1918 his poetry was largely literature in theme and lyrical in style, though sometimes containing an irony not dissimilar to that of Corbière, Laforgue or Apollinaire. When he wrote of ‘I’ it was rarely personal. After the revolution all this changed. His became a massive, heroic, personal protest — as shown by the last four poems, written between 1918 and 1938, in the present selection. Nothing of Mandelshtam was published in the Soviet Union after 1932, when, supposedly for reciting a lampoon on Stalin, he was deported. The exact circumstances of his death are not known, but he certainly lived till as late as December 1938, and may well have spent the early part of the war in a forced labour camp until his eventual death either by starvation or at the hands of the Germans. The last poem was never published in Russia and was brought out via Palestine (where it first appeared in Hebrew translation) by a refugee, but there seems no reasonable doubt of its authenticity. It is the only poem we have of the period of Mandelshtam’s exile and deportation.
Very many of Mandelshtam’s poems are untitled, and for convenience I have headed each of my translations with the numbers of the poems in Sobraniye Sochineniya (Collected Writings) ed. by G. P. Struve (New York, 1952). The earliest poems, of which numbers 8 and 9 are good examples, are the lyrical utterances of an acutely sensitive and shy youth, recapturing moments of childhood and adolescence. The wider humanism, the sense of history in No 66, shows how Mandelshtam’s poetry began to gain depth and to become harder as he matured. Number 89 is a charming poem recalling a conversation in St Petersburg with a Georgian princess whom he had much admired, and who had lost a Roman cameo by the river Neva. In it he refers to his subsequent love, an Italian girl called Tina.
Number 105 — ‘The Twilight of Freedom’ — shows his first considered reaction to the October Revolution. A miniature Pindaric Ode, it is weighed down with the sense of a vast historic calamity, the end of the old order, a theme repeated in more lyrical mood in the last stanza of number 127. It was not until 1933, when the Union of Soviet Writers was formed, that Russian literature came virtually to a full stop. The twenties resulted in some of the finest poetry of Mayakovsky, Esenin, Kluyev and Pasternak, as well as of Mandelshtam, in the face of opposition and castigation from official and semi-official circles. Number 160 — ‘Leningrad’ — expresses his feeling of hardly being permitted to live, let alone write in the new Russia. The final poem is the persecuted writer’s last gasp, a terrible utterance from the cruel waste of Siberian exile, fearlessly and unequivocally reaffirming the artist’s independent spirit.
I am given a body — what should I do with it —
Such as it is and only mine?
For the calm joy of breath and life
Whom, tell me whom, am I to thank?
I am the gardener and the flower:
In the world’s darkness I am not alone.
My breath, my body’s warmth
Already show on time’s eternal glass.
A pattern is impressed upon it
That lately has become obscure.
May the dullness of the moment pass away
And not black out that lovely form.
An inexpressible sadness
Opened two huge eyes;
The flower-vase woke up
Sprinkling its crystal light.
The whole room was drunk
With weariness — sweet medicine!
So diminutive a kingdom
To swallow up so much sleep.
A little red wine,
A little sunlit may,
And — breaking the thin biscuit —
The whiteness of very thin fingers.
Let the names of flowery cities
Caress the ear with fleeting glory —
It is not Rome the city that’s immortal,
But man’s presence in the universe.
Kings try to get man in their power,
Priests find excuses for their wars,
And yet without him hearths and altars
Like wretched rubble are beneath contempt.
‘I have lost a delicate cameo
By the Neva’s bank, I don’t know where.
I’m grieving for my lovely Roman girl’ —
Almost in tears you came and said to me.
But why, beautiful Georgian,
Disturb the dust of godlike tombs?
Another downy snowflake now
Has melted on your lashes’ fan.
And then you bowed your gentle head:
Alas, the Roman girl, the cameo, has gone.
I grieve for Tinotina —
A Roman girl beside the Neva’s shore.
THE TWILIGHT OF FREEDOM
Let us proclaim, brothers, the twilight of freedom,
The great twilight year.
Into the seething waters of night
An enormous forest of snares has been lowered.
You are rising on years of suffocation
O sun, judge, people.
Let us proclaim the fateful burden
Which the people’s leader, steeped in tears, is carrying.
Let us proclaim authority’s twilight burden,
Its unendurable oppression.
Whoever has heart in him still, must hear, o time
How your boat is sinking to the bottom.
We in our warring legions
Have fettered the swallows — and look!
The sun is no longer in sight: the whole element
Twitters and shifts, is alive;
Through the close meshes of dense twilight
The sun is hidden and the earth drifts.
Let us try it then, this clumsy, tremendous
Grinding turn of the rudder.
The country drifts: take heart, o men!
As though we carved the ocean with a plough
We shall remember even in the frosts of Lethe
The earth was worth ten heavens to us.
Moscow, May 1918.
CONCERT ON THE STATION (Pavlovsk)
You cannot breathe, the ground with maggots seethes,
And not a single star can speak;
But — God can see — there’s music up above us:
The station trembles with Aonian song,
And ripped in shreds with locomotive whistles
The screeching air resolves again.
The enormous park — the station’s glassy orb —
The iron world is once again enchanted.
For the noisy banquet in Elysian fog
Triumphantly a train is whisked away.
A peacock’s scream — a fortepiano roar —
I’m late — I’m terrified — it’s all a dream.
I go into the glass forest of the station,
The screeching squadrons in commotion and in tears.
The wild beginning of the choir of night —
A scent of roses in decaying earth!
Under a glassy sky the native shadows
Pass the long night among the wandering crowds.
It seems to me that filled with song and music
That wretchedly the whole iron world is trembling.
I lean back sadly in the glassy hall.
Where are you going then? At the dear shadow’s funeral feast
For the last time now music is sounding for us.
[The above poem was suggested by the famous musical concerts on the Pavlovsk station, which incidentally are mentioned in Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot. In lines 6 and 14, the original Russian word which I have translated by screech also means to ‘fiddle’ or ‘play on the violin’ and a valuable double entendre is lost in my English version. — P.R.]
I have come back to my city, familiar to the point of tears,
To the blood in my veins, to my childhood’s swollen tonsils.
You have come back here — so swallow up quickly
The cod-liver-oil of the Leningrad river-lamps:
Quickly make up your mind to the short December day
When the air is a mess of egg-yolk and evil tar.
Petersburg! I do not wish to die yet:
All my telephone numbers are with you.
Petersburg! I still have addresses
By which I shall find the voices of the dead.
I live on a back-staircase. — Wrenched out with the flesh
The noise of a bell strikes in my temple,
And all night long I wait for welcome guests
Stirring at the fetters of door-chains.
For the rattling valour of future centuries,
For the highborn tribe of people,
I am deprived of the cups on the pyres of my fathers,
Of their pleasures, of their marks of esteem.
Like a wolfhound the century leaps on my shoulders,
But my skin is not the skin of a wolf.
Stuff me rather like a cap into the sleeve
Of a yellow sheepskin coat from Siberian steppes —
So that I see neither cowards, nor shallow dirt,
Nor the bloody bones on the wheel,
So that the blue foxes in their primitive beauty
All night long may shine at me.
Carry me off into the night where the Yenisei flows,
Where a pine tree reaches up to a star,
For my skin is not the skin of a wolf
And my mouth is not twisted with falsehood.
- 10th Muse
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- Brando's hat
- Brittle Star
- Cannon's Mouth, The
- Coffee House, The
- Dream Catcher
- Floating Bear, The
- French Literary Review, The
- Frogmore Papers, The
- Global Tapestry
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- Homeless Diamonds
- Interpreter's House, The
- Journal, The
- Lamport Court
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- Modern Poetry in Translation
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- Neon Highway
- New Welsh Review
- North, The
- Obsessed with pipework
- Oxford Poetry
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- Paper, The
- Pen Pusher Magazine
- Poetry Cornwall
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- Poetry London (1951)
- Poetry Nation
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- Poetry Salzburg Review
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- Second Aeon
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- Smiths Knoll
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- Tabla Book of New Verse, The
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