Osip Emilyevich Mandelstam

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Osip Emilyevich Mandelstam

The Russian poet Osip Emilyevich Mandelstam (1891-1938) began as a member of the Acmeist movement and then evolved a style notable for its clarity, diction, concern for form, and classical allusions. His poetry is highly erudite and complex.

Osip Mandelstam was born on Jan. 15, 1891, in Warsaw, the son of a Jewish leather merchant. The family soon moved to St. Petersburg (Leningrad). Mandelstam finished secondary school at the age of 16 and immediately went to Paris. In 1910 he studied at Heidelberg and visited Switzerland. The next year he entered St. Petersburg University to study Old French.

Mandelstam's university years were also the years of his debut as a poet. The classical grace and erudition of his poetry made him an immediate success. His first book of poetry, Stone (1913), was well received. During the years prior to World War I, Mandelstam worked in the Guild of Poets, the Acmeist workshop that stressed artistic craftsman-ship. In 1922 his second book of poems, Tristia, was published.

During the 1920s and early 1930s Mandelstam's attitude toward the Russian Revolution and the new Soviet regime was one of indifference. He had little faith in the Marxist view of history as progress. He deplored the popularization of culture at the expense of true cultural achievement. His poetry of these years is marked by a quiet diction, striving for balance and tension. Many of his poems celebrate architectural monuments that embody this balance and tension, such as Notre Dame in Paris and the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul. In his critical essays and artistic prose Mandelstam makes use of the classics of Western culture to show that the level of culture attained is not necessarily the result of societal or industrial achievements. He was saddened by the bleakness of Soviet life in comparison with the brilliance of his beloved city, St. Petersburg. He viewed the new mass audience of Soviet literature as detrimental to the creation of good literature and directed his own writings toward a future, enlightened audience.

In the 1930s Mandelstam's apolitical attitude and the outspoken quality of his writings brought him into direct conflict with Stalin. He was arrested in 1934 for writing an unflattering epigram on Stalin and exiled from the major Russian capitals for 3 years. Upon his return to Moscow from exile in 1937, Mandelstam found life extremely difficult. He was arrested again in May 1938, charged with counterrevolutionary activity, and sentenced to 5 years in a concentration camp in the Far East. This hardship soon drove him insane, and he died in the severe winter of 1938.

Further Reading

The best translations of Mandelstam's poetry are those in Olga Carlisle, ed., Poets on Street Corners: Portraits of Fifteen Russian Poets (1968). The preferred discussion of Mandelstam's life is in the moving account by his widow, Nadezhda Mandelstam, Hope against Hope: A Memoir (trans. 1970). Interesting views of his life and work are in Helen Muchnic, Russian Writers: Notes and Essays (1971). His life and creative method are explored in Clarence Brown's introduction to The Prose of Osip Mandelstam (trans. 1965). An informative book on Mandelstam and his place in modern poetry is Leonid I. Strakhovsky, Craftsmen of the Word: Three Poets of Modern Russia (1949).

Additional Sources

Mandelshtam, Nadezhda, Hope abandoned, New York: Atheneum, 1981, 1974.

Mandelshtam, Nadezhda, Hope against hope: a memoir, New York, N.Y.: Atheneum, 1987, 1970.

Mandelshtam, Osip, Journey to Armenia, San Francisco: G. F. Ritchie, 1979. □