Mandelstam, Osip (1891–1938)

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MANDELSTAM, OSIP (1891–1938)


Russian poet.

Osip Emilevich Mandelstam, widely considered to be one of the greatest Russian poets of the twentieth century, was inspired in his art by diverse Western, Russian, and ancient Greek and Roman influences from the spheres of poetry, fiction, painting, music, architecture, philosophy, and mythology. The result is a body of work that is saturated with references both direct and abstruse, intertextual and intratextual; his writing is powerfully moving in its music and imagery and brilliant in its scope and searing originality, yet not readily accessible to the casual reader. Two of Mandelstam's favorite themes are his "yearning for world culture" and the preservative mission of art in the face of state-sponsored terror.

Mandelstam was born in Warsaw into an assimilated Jewish family; his father was a leather merchant, his mother an accomplished pianist. When Osip was still very young the family moved to St. Petersburg; he would think of the city (later renamed Petrograd, then Leningrad) as his home-town all his life, despite the fact that he was often obliged to live far away from it. Between the years 1899 and 1907 Mandelstam studied in the elite, progressive Tenishev Commercial School. After graduation he lived for a time in Paris and Heidelberg before enrolling in the department of history and philology at the University of St. Petersburg in the fall of 1911. He preferred writing poems to pursuing his studies, however, and he never graduated.

Mandelstam's first poems were written while he was still a student at the Tenishev School; his first publication came in the journal Apollon (Apollo) in August 1910. He soon joined a group called Tsekh Poetov (Guild of Poets), which had formed in order to counteract the prevailing aesthetic of symbolism, with its obscure orientation toward mysticism and the transcendental. Tsekh Poetov led to the emergence of a new literary movement, acmeism, which emphasized craft, architecture, precision, and the details of physical existence. Mandelstam was one of the leaders of acmeism, and his theoretical essay "Utro akmeizma" (written 1913, published 1919; The morning of acmeism) was a manifesto for the movement.

Mandelstam's first volume of poetry, Kamen (Stone), appeared in 1913; it was republished subsequently in increasingly enlarged editions in 1916, 1923, and 1928 and brought him immediate fame as one of Russia's finest young poets. Mandelstam was exempted from military service during World War I due to poor health but worked for a Petrograd war relief organization; he also spent time in the Crimea during the war years. In 1916 he had a brief romance with the young poet Marina Tsvetaeva; both poets produced several fine poems commemorating their time together. In 1917 Mandelstam cautiously welcomed the February Revolution, but his response to the Bolshevik takeover in October was much more negative, though still complex and ambiguous. During the difficult civil war years (1918–1920) Mandelstam was itinerant, spending time in Petrograd, Moscow, Kiev, Georgia, and the Crimea. He met his future wife, Nadezhda Yakovlevna Khazina, in Kiev but was later arrested by both the Soviets and the Whites and was not reunited with her for two years. The couple married in 1922 and moved to Moscow, where they became acquainted with the communist functionary Nikolai Bukharin, who became Mandelstam's political benefactor for the next decade. The Mandelstams moved back to Leningrad in 1924, but Nadezhda often spent long periods in the south of Russia recuperating from tuberculosis.

The word I meant to say has somehow slipped my mind.
A sightless swallow rejoins the shadows of the deep
On amputated wings, to frolic with its own invisible kind.
A nighttime song is sung in blissful sleep.
The birds are silent. The immortelles don't blossom.
Translucent are the manes of the nocturnal herd.
An empty bark floats on the dried-out riverbed like flotsam.
Among the droning crickets swoons the forgotten word.…
(translation by Alyssa Dinega Gillespie)

Mandelstam's second poetry collection, Tristia, was published in 1922. During the 1920s he began writing more and more prose, ranging from his childhood memoir Shum vremeni (1923–1925; The noise of time) to the fictional work Egipetskaya marka (1927; The Egyptian stamp) to the bitter invective "Chetvertaya proza" (1929–1930; Fourth Prose). These works followed his penetrating philosophical and aesthetic essays of the 1910s, such as "O sobesednike" (1913; On the interlocutor), "Zametki o Shene" (1914; Notes on Chénier), and "Pushkin i Skriabin" (1915; Pushkin and Scriabin). During the late 1920s Mandelstam unwillingly earned his living as a translator, and, claiming that the grind of translation sapped his creative energy, he gradually stopped writing poetry.

In 1928 Mandelstam's revision of an existing translation of Charles de Coster's novel La Légende de Thyl Ulenspiegel et de Lamme Goedzak (1867; The Glorious Adventures of Thyl Ulenspiegel) was erroneously published without credit being given to the original translators, who immediately charged Mandelstam with plagiarism. A political scandal ensued, and although Bukharin attempted to save the poet by sending him off on an extended sojourn to Armenia, the damage was irreversible. When Mandelstam returned to Russia he found he was unable to obtain a residence permit in Leningrad. He moved to Moscow but was arrested on 13 May 1934 and banished to Cherdyn, a small town in the Ural Mountains. The trigger for his arrest was his composition of a satirical epigram about Stalin. In Cherdyn he suffered an attack of apparent madness and attempted to commit suicide by jumping out of a hospital window. Thanks to Bukharin, his sentence was commuted to three years' exile in Voronezh, a small town in southern Russia.

Mandelstam's last years in Moscow and Voronezh were among his most creatively productive. He produced a cycle of poems on Armenia at the conclusion of his voyage there, along with the prose work Puteshestvie v Armeniyu (1931; Journey to Armenia). His great treatise on the nature of poetic art, Razgovor o Dante (1933; Conversation about Dante), followed soon after, in addition to the mature poetry of his two so-called Moskovskie tetradi (1930–1934; Moscow Notebooks) and three Voronezhskie tetradi (1935–1937; Voronezh Notebooks). These notebooks were heroically preserved by his wife Nadezhda and other close friends, and the works they contained were not published until decades after the poet's death. Nadezhda Mandelstam's two-volume memoir (published in English as Hope against Hope, 1970, and Hope Abandoned, 1974) chronicles the poet's final, desperate years in poignant detail. In May 1937 when Mandelstam's sentence was over, he was homeless, afflicted by extreme anxiety, ill, and unemployable. Despite his feeble attempt to restore his political fortune through composition of a tasteless "Ode to Stalin," he was denounced by the head of the Leningrad Writers' Union, rearrested on 1 May 1938, and sentenced to five years of hard labor in the Siberian gulag. He apparently died at a transit camp near Vladivostok on 27 December 1938. His wife Nadezhda survived him in exile for many years and was eventually rehabilitated, along with her husband; she died of old age in 1980. The first substantial edition of Mandelstam's work did not appear in the Soviet Union until 1973.

See alsoAkhmatova, Anna; Bukharin, Nikolai; Dissidence; Gulag; Soviet Union; Tsvetaeva, Marina .


Primary Sources

Mandelstam, Osip. Critical Prose and Letters. Edited by Jane Gary Harris, translated by Harris and Constance Link. Ann Arbor, Mich., 1990. Contains Mandelstam's essays, reviews, and correspondence in addition to Fourth Prose, Journey to Armenia, and Conversation about Dante.

——. The Moscow and Voronezh Notebooks: Poems 1930–37. Translated by Richard and Elizabeth McKane. Tarset, U.K., 2003. Free-verse translations of the remarkable poetry from Mandelstam's last years, unpublished for several decades after his death.

——. The Noise of Time: Selected Prose. Translated by Clarence Brown. Evanston, Ill., 2002. Contains The Noise of Time, The Egyptian Stamp, Fourth Prose, Theodosia, and Journey to Armenia.

——. The Selected Poems of Osip Mandelstam. Translated by Clarence Brown and W. S. Merwin. New York, 2004. Readable free-verse translations of a broad selection of Mandelstam's poems (also includes Conversation about Dante).

Secondary Sources

Brown, Clarence. Mandelstam. Cambridge, U.K., 1973. A pioneering study on Mandelstam's life and work, containing excellent readings of his early poems.

Cavanagh, Clare. Osip Mandelstam and the Modernist Creation of Tradition. Princeton, N.J., 1995. Places Mandelstam's thought and writing in the context of the modernist movement, particularly the writings of T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound.

Freidin, Gregory. A Coat of Many Colors: Osip Mandelstam and His Mythologies of Self-Presentation. Berkeley, Calif., 1987. An analysis of the various mythologies that Mandelstam develops in order to present himself as a poet endowed with charisma and symbolic authority.

Harris, Jane Gary. Osip Mandelstam. Boston, 1988. An informative basic survey of Mandelstam's biography and major writings in both poetry and prose.

Mandelstam, Nadezhda. Hope against Hope. Translated by Max Hayward. New York, 1999. The first volume of the compelling two-volume memoir by Mandelstam's wife, this chronicle of the Mandelstams' last four years together in the deathly environment of Stalinist Russia is a tribute to the saving powers of art.

Alyssa Dinega Gillespie

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Mandelstam, Osip (1891–1938)

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