Commentary Magazine

Mandelstam's Witness

In Memory of Yosef Haefrati, the Gifted Literary Scholar, Killed on the Golan Heights, April 17, 1974.

I am easy in my mind now,” Akhma-
tova said to me in the sixties. “We
have seen how durable poetry is.

Nadezhda Mandelstam, Hope Against Hope

The people need poetry that will be
                               their own secret
to keep them awake forever,
and bathe them in the bright-haired wave
of its breathing.

Osip Mandelstam, Voronezh Notebooks

There is something oddly legendary about the life and posthumous career of Osip Mandelstam, as though he had died not in a Soviet concentration camp in 1938, with a death certificate issued in due form by the totalitarian bureaucracy, but in some shadowy recess of medieval mystery. He is just now beginning to be recognized in the West as one of the major 20th-century poets; many of those who can read him in the original regard him as the greatest Russian poet since Pushkin; but he has achieved this prominence only through an uncanny resurrection after Stalin's attempt to bury his poetic legacy together with him. His poetry has survived largely through the efforts of his extraordinary wife, Nadezhda, much of it actually in an “oral tradition,” held fast, line by unpublishable line, in her tenacious memory and in that of a few loyal friends. There is a much more varied oral tradition about Mandelstam's life and death, a good deal of it contradictory, and one of Mme. Mandelstam's functions as a memoirist has been to sift these sundry accounts, trying to separate fact from fabrication.

Toward the end of the first of her two large volumes of memoirs, Hope Against Hope1—it is a book that will surely remain one of the great texts on the nature of totalitarianism—she attempts to penetrate the curtain that fell between her and her husband when he was taken off for the second and last time, on the night of May 1, 1938, by agents of the NKVD. Over the years she spent exiled in the remote Eastern regions of the USSR, and later when she was permitted to reside again in Moscow after 1964, various survivors of the Great Terror came to see her with what they presented as eyewitness testimonies of her husband's last days in the transports and the camps. These she checks against one another and against what she herself knew of her husband's condition and habits with the shrewd skepticism of an experienced criminal lawyer. Among the stories to which she seems to grant full credence is one told her by a certain physicist, who chooses to remain anonymous, and who claims to have been in the Vladivostok transit camp at the same time as Mandelstam. One night in the camp, the physicist—Mme. Mandelstam designates him “L.”—was invited by a non-political, that is, criminal, prisoner to climb up to a loft with him where, with a whole gang of criminals, L. might listen to some poetry. In the candlelit loft L. made out a barrel on top of which were laid out an open can of food and white bread, unimaginable delicacies in the prison world where no meal was more than a cup of watery soup. “Sitting with the criminals was a man with a gray stubble of beard, wearing a yellow leather coat. He was reciting verse which L. recognized. It was Mandelstam. The criminals offered him bread and the canned stuff, and he calmly helped himself and ate. . . . He was listened to in complete silence and sometimes asked to repeat a poem.”

Whether or not the incident actually occurred as reported, the very existence of the story and its acceptance by the poet's widow should suggest that poetry retains an intensity of meaning and value in Russian culture far surpassing any role it now plays in the West. (Could one imagine a story told about Yeats, Valéry, or Wallace Stevens fascinating a rough audience of criminal compatriots, enjoying their protection?) Even should it prove quite faithful to fact, the anecdote has the quality of legend in projecting into a vividly dramatized form a sensed inner truth of the poet's character and the aspirations of his work—like the old story about Judah Halevi, the great medieval Hebrew poet, who was imagined to have been trampled to death by an Arab horseman after finally arriving at the gates of Jerusalem and reciting his “Ode to Zion.” The stubble-bearded bard performing to convicts for sustenance in the candlelit loft is the same Mandelstam who from his youth cherished the idea that people would always be good to him because of his gift for poetry. He was not, however, by any means a naive man, and this seemingly childish belief was, as we shall see, rooted in a deeply meditated set of ideas on the nature of poetry and its ontological, spiritual, and political implications.


Osip Mandelstam was born in Warsaw in 1891, the son of a prosperous Jewish leather merchant. When he was still quite small, the family moved to Petersburg, a fact worth noting in its historical context, since Jews were not then permitted to reside in the city, which means that Emil Mandelstam had managed to obtain for himself the status of “privileged Jew.” In 1904 Osip was sent to the prestigious Tenishev Commercial School in Petersburg—a decade later one of its students would be Vladimir Nabokov—where he received a thorough classical education (classical antiquity was to pervade his verse) and, extracurricularly, a good dose of Social-Revolutionary Marxism (this he would outgrow). After graduating from the Tenishev School in 1907, Mandelstam traveled in Western Europe, spending some time in Paris and Heidelberg, studying Old French literature, and quite consciously preparing himself for the vocation of poetry he already felt he was destined to fulfill. In 1911 for a while he undertook studies in Romance and Germanic philology at Petersburg University, and in order to escape the university's anti-Jewish numerus clausus, he converted to Lutheranism. The conversion, according to his widow, was strictly pro forma, but the uncertain evolution of Mandelstam's relation to Christianity is a question to which I shall return.

In 1912, Mandelstam became associated with an important group of younger poets who called themselves Acmeists, and who were rebelling against the Symbolist school which had provided the leading emphasis in Russian poetry for more than a decade. The Acmeists, as Clarence Brown characterizes them in his admirable critical study of Mandelstam,2 were remarkably close in aims and sensibility to the Anglo-American Imagists of the same period—with even a common literary genealogy by way of Théophile Gautier and the French Parnassians. Against the Symbolists' mystical pursuit through poetic language of a hazy beckoning Beyond, the Acmeists cultivated qualities of clarity and hardness in their verse, sought to create out of the tactile and visual concreteness of things here and now a new chaste poetry of classical precision. Mandelstam's first volume of verse appeared in 1913 with the appropriately Acmeist title, Stone. Even in translation, one can see that Mandelstam, scarcely out of adolescence, was an astonishingly poised poet. Here, for example, is a poem in his early Acmeist manner, sharply visual, polished to a smooth hardness in its tactile and kinesthetic unity, and explicitly affirming the serene control of the artist. Mandelstam was eighteen when he wrote it.

On the pale blue enamel
conceivable in April
the birches raised their branches
and vespered imperceptibly.

The fragile netting froze
the pattern fine and small
like the design on porcelain
plates—precisely drawn
when the courteous artist limns it
on the firmament of glass,
conscious of his passing power,
unmindful of sad death.3

Stone would be followed by only two other volumes of verse in Mandelstam's lifetime, Tristia, published in 1922, and, in 1928, Poems, which incorporated both the previous volumes and added to them twenty new poems, written between 1921 and 1925. Mandelstam had rapidly moved beyond the Acmeist manner to a more difficult, personal, meditative, and complicated associational style. At the same time, by 1922, after directly witnessing the horrors of the Civil War and the first improvised stages of the Bolshevik terror, he had come to see the full dire implications of the Revolution for everything he truly valued. His sense of estrangement from the new totalitarian Russia led to a five-year period of silence as a poet in the later 20's. By 1929, when it was clear that Mandelstam would not and could not march to party directives in his poetry, he became persona non grata, and his verse was no longer publishable, not really because it was counterrevolutionary but because it insisted on a realm of imagination utterly beyond revolutionary jurisdiction. After achieving a sense of inner release in 1929 by lashing back in an essay, “Fourth Prose,” at the Soviet literary hacks who had subjected him to a campaign of vilification, Mandelstam began again to write poetry freely, dictating, as always, to his wife, who hid the precious notebooks from the secret police as the couple moved back and forth across Russia. He was arrested for the first time in Moscow in 1934, after an informer had conveyed to the Cheka the text of his withering poetic lampoon of Stalin. Though his interrogation in the Lubianka, the dreaded Moscow central prison, induced a psychotic episode after his release, he got off “easily” with a sentence of exile to the Urals, and the extraordinary flow of creative activity that had begun in 1980 continued more or less unbroken until his final arrest. The death certificate given to his brother in 1940 lists the date of death as December 27, 1938, the cause: “heart failure.”


A good part of the subsequent Mandelstam story has taken place on the other side of the world. In 1955, a carefully annotated two-volume edition of Mandelstam's collected works in Russian was published in New York by two distinguished émigré scholars, Gleb Struve and Boris Filippov; between 1964 and 1971 this was to be reissued in an expanded three-volume edition. Once the collected works appeared in New York, Nadezhda Mandelstam tells us, she felt she could breathe easy for the first time in seventeen years, knowing that the great trust that had been her principal reason for going on alone through such bleakness was now fulfilled: her husband's surviving poetry would be passed on to posterity. By the later 60's, as cultural policy in the USSR again became more repressive after the brief illusory interlude of the Thaw, a new underground literature, or samizdat, of forbidden works circulated in typescript, began to flourish, and Mandelstam was soon a cult figure in this world of clandestine Russian letters. His widow's first volume of memoirs was also intently read in samizdat, while its publication abroad in 1970, followed now by the appearance here of a second volume,4 makes the poet's exemplary stance against the despotism of the revolutionary regime a matter of unforgettable public record for Western readers. A qualified, ambiguous, “rehabilitation” of Mandelstam was granted after Khrushchev's anti-Stalin speech at the Twentieth Party Congress in 1956, but the publication of a volume of his selected poems, first announced in 1959, was somehow delayed until 1974.

It is a miracle of fortunate coincidence that so extraordinary a poet should have had as a wife so extraordinary a witness. Hope Against Hope focuses on the four years from the moment when the knock on the door in the night introduced the Mandelstams directly into the realities of the univers concentrationnaire. Hope Abandoned works backward to the early years of the couple's relationship, beginning in 1919, and forward to Nadezhda Mandelstam's exile in Central Asia and her efforts after 1956 to effect a full rehabilitation of her husband. The later volume could have benefited from some extensive pruning: part of the argument is repetitious of Hope Against Hope or internally repetitious; the abundant disquisitions on poetry and criticism rarely justify their length; and there is perhaps a greater element of paying off old scores against Russian literary figures than one would like. Nevertheless, Hope Abandoned gives us a great deal of fascinating biographical material and contextual information on the poems, and it contains many passages remarkable for their insight into how people behave in the most harrowing historical circumstances.

What makes Mme. Mandelstam so valuable a memoirist is above all the unsentimental clarity with which she views experiences that might invite pathos, self-pity, or a swollen rhetoric of outrage. It is this that enables her in Hope Against Hope to reveal in such convincing concreteness the tenor of life under a maniacally arbitrary regime of terror; in this one respect, Stalinism was worse than Hitlerism, for even loyal party membership and pure Christian ancestry provided no guarantee against the anonymous denunciation and its terrible consequences (the secret police had its quotas to fill, just like the factories, and the human material was finally a matter of indifference). This same steely clarity of vision is present in Mme. Mandelstam's second volume, perhaps most strikingly in her indignant response to a remark by Anna Akhmatova—an intimate friend of both the Mandelstams and herself one of the major Russian poets of the last two generations—that people abroad envied the Soviet victims their suffering. To Mme. Mandelstam's tough-minded way of thinking, such a remark could only be sheer posturing. “There was nothing to envy. There was absolutely nothing at all uplifting about our suffering. It is pointless to look for some redeeming feature; there was nothing to it except animal fear and pain.” And with this she goes on for three memorable pages to describe the actual experience of animal fear under a reign of terror, how time itself clots into endless heavy moments in the consciousness of the potential victim waiting day and night for the hidden agents to come.

There is one aspect of Nadezhda Mandelstam as witness that poses special problems in getting a proper bearing on the contradictory figure of her husband, and that is the evident seriousness of her Christian belief, made particularly explicit in the second of her two volumes. Like him, she was born a Jew; during the intensity of their years together, they seem to have shared some sort of private exploration of Christian faith; but I think there are grounds for inferring that she has gone quite beyond where he was in this respect during the years of his mature achievement. Their relationship, as she makes clear in Hope Abandoned, had been an unusual mixture of exuberance and deep intimacy marked with certain lines of stress. Mandelstam in many ways was quite tyrannical toward his wife, insisted on refashioning her in his own image. She was generally submissive, thinking of herself as a foolish slip of a girl who needed instruction, but there were also hot sparks of rebelliousness in her which occasionally flared up, and I am led to suspect in her present Christian posture something of the loyal disciple who goes beyond the master, or diverges from him, in seeming to follow his path. This does not, let me emphasize, lead the memoirist to any explicit misrepresentation of Mandelstam's allegiances, for she is completely candid even about those of his Jewish loyalties which she cannot quite fathom, but it strikes me that the general tenor of the two volumes may be a little misleading in regard to the role of Christianity in the poet's work.

Mme. Mandelstam's sharp lucidity in discussing the events of the past half-century is so immediately impressive that one has to read through most of her thousand pages to realize that her ultimate view of reality is rather eerily otherworldly. Toward the end, she begins to talk of a reunion in the hereafter with the soul of the departed Osip, and of the supreme joy of dying with the name of Christ on one's lips. I have no way of ascertaining whether Mandelstam himself ever expressed interest in these consoling beliefs, but in the moments of his utmost seriousness—which is to say, when he was making poetry—the vision of human existence he articulated was very different from this, even in those poems where he made use of Christian symbols. He is much closer to Wallace Stevens's sense of man living “unsponsored, free” in “an old chaos of the sun” than to any outlook of traditional Christianity. There is no affinity for martyrdom, no yearning for celestial refuges anywhere in his verse. These lines from a 1922 poem are perfectly continuous with whatever he wrote, early and late, though this particular emphasis becomes stronger and more resonant as he begins to enter more and more into the perceived shadow of his own death:

The warm droppings of a few hens
and a tepid muddle of sheep.
For life, for life and care, I'll give up everything.
A kitchen match would keep me warm.

Look, all I have with me is a clay pot
And the twittering of the stars in my thin ears.
I can't help loving through unfledged bird skin
the yellow of grass, warmth of the black earth.

It is quite in keeping with this sense of things that Mandelstam never thought of himself as a martyr after he had been made the object of persecution, never imagined his fate as an imitation of Christ. His widow, whatever her own commitments of belief, is too keen an observer not to recollect this firmly, and she states the matter with epigrammatic succinctness: “M. had no taste for martyrdom, but the price one had to pay to live was much too high.”


Did Mandelstam's Jewish origins have anything to do with the nature of his imaginative work, with the stance toward reality that he ultimately assumed? Was he a vestigial Jew, merely an ex-Jew, or a Jew somehow productively conscious of his Jewishness? The second possibility was never open to him, and I think one can say, with only a little schematic simplification, that in the course of his maturation he moved perceptibly from the first position to the third, from a vestigial Jewish identity to one that was integrated into his imaginative life.

To begin with, as the gifted son with literary aspirations of Russified bourgeois parents, being a Jew must have seemed more a hindrance than anything else, an obstacle to entering into the fullness of Russian culture. Mandelstam's lack of compunction about going through the forms of conversion in order to be admitted into Petersburg University is not really surprising. In the autobiographical chapters he composed in 1925 under the title, The Noise of Time,5 the Jewish aspects of his parents' home constitute a moribund realm of obsolescent rituals and traditional objects in tatters and shreds. On the bookshelves of his “enlightened” father, unread Hebrew volumes lay gathering dust a shelf below Goethe and Schiller, and two shelves below his mother's Pushkin and Lermontov. His father, like many comfortable Jewish burghers of the period, hired a Hebrew tutor for the boy, but the language with its “spiky script” remained alien, impenetrable, and the child vividly sensed that this, too, was an empty charade when he saw his young Hebrew nationalist tutor hide his Jewish pride upon going out into the street.

On a visit to his grandparents in Riga, Mandelstam recalls his grandfather placing a black and yellow cloth over his shoulders and making him mumble some uncomprehended Hebrew words. The memory looks suspiciously like a compound of actual recollection and projected fantasy, since there is no traditional practice of placing a talit over a child in this way except in synagogue on the festival of Simchat Torah; but the distortion is revealing, for it betrays a sense of being swathed, entangled, in the musty vestitures of a moribund Judaism. The slightly puzzling yellow of the cloth must be that dull brownish-yellow hue that the wool of an old prayer shawl characteristically assumes. In the private symbology of his poetry and prose, Mandelstam would repeatedly use yellow and black as the emblematic colors of Judaism, often reinforcing through them a sense of Judaism as belonging to an inverted netherworld, apart from the multicolored pageantry of Russian reality. In a poem written in 1916, he thinks of himself born into that ancestral world illumined by a black sun: “At Jerusalem's gate/ a black sun has risen./ The yellow one frightens me more.”

The paradoxical complement to the images of Jewishness as decay and perhaps interment is his reiterated vision of it, again in The Noise of Time, as a realm of formless origins: “All the elegant mirage of Petersburg [evoked in the preceding paragraphs] was merely a dream, a brilliant covering thrown over the abyss, while round about there sprawled the chaos of Judaism—not a motherland, not a house, not a hearth, but precisely a chaos, the unknown womb world whence I had issued, which I feared, about which I made vague conjectures and fled, always fled.” The flight from the unknown womb world invites psychological conjecture, especially since Mandelstam oddly fancied his marriage to a Jewish woman as an ultimately incestuous union, an idea he stressed in a 1920 poem where Nadezhda figures as the biblical Leah who in turn—the refraction of sources is typical of Mandelstam—blends with Lot's daughters.

For the younger Mandelstam, in other words, to become preeminently Russian, and beyond that, European, was to define oneself by joining with what was patently other, and so to escape the threat of a primal merging with one's origins. Clarence Brown aptly observes that the implicit opposite to “Judaic chaos” was Christian order, and it is Christianity not as a corpus of belief but primarily as an aesthetic idea, the embodiment of an elaborated order, that attracts this poet devoted to the creation of architectural coherence in language. The allure of order was compounded by a sense of Christianity as a sphere of serious spirituality that stood in contrast to the jejune worldly rationalism of his parents' post-traditional Jewish home. For a while he entertained the notion of the church as the necessary foundation for society, but, his widow informs us, by the 1920's he had completely dropped this idea.


What is behind the younger Mandelstam's theorizing about the need for Christianity is a distinctive Russian version of a familiar modern pattern: the writer of Jewish origins who is impelled at least in part to deny or denigrate his Jewishness in order to participate fully in the literary culture of his country. On the crudest level, but also the one most universally shared, the phenomenon is perceptible in the feeling of so many literary people in this predicament that there is something unseemly about being a Jew, something that goes against the very nature of cultivated letters; and the young Mandelstam in fact appears to be troubled by feelings of this sort. Such a sense of malaise, or inferiority, may be no different for a writer than for anyone else suffering from the anxieties of belonging to a cultural minority, but what complicates the situation of the imaginative writer is the profound way in which any national literature constitutes an enormously nuanced, self-allusive system intimately linked with a particular history and a particular set of traditions. For someone from a minority, in other words, to enter into the system and create from within it involves a difficult process of assimilation in depth, what becomes in many a hyper-acculturation.

The Christian character of so much European literature of course poses special problems for the Jewish writer embarked on the adventure of assimilation. In the West, where the Christian aspect of literary culture has tended to be somewhat diffuse or merely residual over the last two centuries, it was usually sufficient for a writer of Jewish origins to make himself into a reasonable facsimile of his counterparts in the majority culture in regard to matters of style, taste, intellectual reference, but not of creed: in America, for example, one could compose a substantial list of such self-consciously acculturated poets, critics, novelists. In Russia, as far as an outsider can judge, the case seems to have been somewhat different, at least until quite recently. The two giants of the 19th-century Russian novel were of course deeply serious Christians. The turn-of-the-century Russian intellectual scene was marked by a reawakened interest in Christian mysticism; and the Symbolists, who were Mandelstam's first models as poets even though he was to break with their poetic procedures, were profoundly involved in Christian religious ideas—in pointed contrast to most of the French Symbolists, from whom they were supposed to have derived.

Russia, then, becomes an instructive extreme instance of the problematics of literary assimilation, offering in our century a literature with strong bonds to Christianity and at the same time a literature where, as nowhere else, Jews achieve the highest artistic eminence. The identification of Russian things with Christian belief is, I suspect, more potent for someone who is primarily a writer of poetry than it is for a writer of prose. Pasternak, who was also born a Jew and with whom Mandelstam maintained a guarded friendship, enthusiastically embraced Christianity, and his conversion surely had some connection with his highly conscious aspiration to attain a place of honor in Russian poetry. Babel, on the other hand, the great short-story writer whom Mandelstam also knew and admired, was not tempted by Christianity as such, though in dealing in his fiction with moral character operating in the medium of history, his tendency to hyper-acculturation took the form of an oscillating fascination with the alien Cossack ethos of virility and violence.


Perhaps the apogee of Mandelstam's romance with Christianity is a 1915 essay, “Pushkin and Scriabin,” of which only fragments have survived. From the passages Clarence Brown incorporates in his critical study, one can readily observe the strained intermarriage between Mandelstam's personal conception of art and his tendency at that early point in his career to identify art with Christianity. Since redemption and sacrifice have already been effected by Christ, Mandelstam argues, these qualities have no place in art, which is thus left to be absolutely free, to constitute its own sphere of joyous playfulness. It is uniquely through Christianity, then, that art becomes a realm of spontaneous freedom. The rather abstract ingenuity of the argument, of course, has nothing whatever to do with the historical facts of Christianity and the nature of art under the Christian dispensation. The notion of art as play and freedom is something Mandelstam would cling to always, for which he would eventually die, but by the 20's he disavowed “Pushkin and Scriabin” as his aesthetic credo—at least partly, one can assume, because of its programmatic insistence on the Christian component of art.

It is revealing that Mandelstam's fullest, most original statement on the nature of poetry, “Talking About Dante”6 (1933), manages to discuss the author of The Divine Comedy for some 16,000 words without once considering him as a Christian poet. Dante's poem is described as a vast “stereometric body,” a many-hued wonder of “crystallographic” form, the supreme realized example of the infinite transformability of poetic material, but it is never spoken of as a statement of Christian faith, a poetic unity made possible through the systematic coherence of classical Christian theology. By this point in his life Mandelstam was sure of the idea of lucid order as a product of humanistic culture, and he no longer needed to associate that idea with Christianity. He had a deeply abiding sense of being heir to a Judeo-Christian tradition, but, as Mme. Mandelstam observes in Hope Abandoned, he linked that tradition with the Hellenic one as part of a general Mediterranean heritage of civilizing values; and I think the inference is clear that he came to see Christianity and Judaism alike as bodies of humanistic achievement, not of theological imperatives. Having shifted to that perspective, he was able to adopt a more affirmative attitude toward his own Jewishness, which could now be seen with less ambivalence not as a hindrance but as a valuable, historically authenticated point of departure for profound participation in an overarching European culture.

“As a little bit of musk fills an entire house,” Mandelstam noted memorably in The Noise of Time, “so the least influence of Judaism overflows all of one's life.” In context, the implications of the statement are more ambiguous than might appear, for what immediately follows is that description of the Judaism of his childhood as a moribund world, so the clinging pungency might, by inference, be an odor of decay. The younger Mandelstam indeed exhibits an element of uneasiness about his Jewish origins: in the pre-Revolutionary days in Petersburg, he never invited anyone to his family home, rarely mentioned his parents in conversation, and impatiently disclaimed kinship with another Mandelstam whose path he had crossed. He also, however, resisted the suggestion that he adopt a Russian last name, as many Jewish writers had done, so even at the beginning his vague embarrassment was balanced in part by some residual Jewish pride. The simile of the little bit of musk tends to have greater validity, with more positive implications, for the later Mandelstam, though one must be very careful not to pounce on the aphorism and use its authority to insist on a “Jewish key” to Mandelstam's achievement. Perhaps the essential point to stress here is not the debatable issue of the assertion's objective validity but simply that it had a certain psychological validity for Mandelstam. That is, he came to associate some of his most basic values and imaginative allegiances with his Jewishness, whatever may have been the actual channels through which he came to them. If Judaism had threatened the poet as an unknown womb world, it could also on occasion provide him an organizing myth for his own experience.


Ineluctably, Mandelstam was almost everywhere perceived as a Jew in the world of Russian poetry which his achievement rapidly dominated. At the very outset, after having been taken briefly under the protection of the older Symbolist poet, Zinaida Gippius, he was tagged “Zinaida's Jew-boy,” perhaps with a degree of playfulness but certainly not without an element of wry hostility. The attacks on him that began in the later 20's were often laced with anti-Semitism, and that has been true even posthumously, with certain Russian nativists recently referring to him as a “Jewish cancer” on the body of Russian poetry. The mature Mandelstam, especially in the last decade of his life, tended more and more to respond to this repeated imputation of his being a Jewish outsider by insisting on his Jewishness as a major source of his poetic vision, as his distinctive avenue of entrance into the higher European civilization. He took an avid interest in whatever he encountered of Jewish culture, his widow comments in connection with his friendship and enthusiasm for the prominent Yiddish actor and director, Mikhoels (later murdered by Stalin). As the Stalinist barbarism deepened, he appears to have identified imaginatively with historical Jewish suffering as an inspiriting model for confronting his own dire situation. Particularly revealing in this respect is the story with which he turned aside the inquiry of a GPU commandant in Voronezh in 1935 when he was challenged about his current occupation. Deprived of regular employment, he replied, he was devoting himself to the study in Spanish of the work of a certain Jewish poet who had spent years in the dungeons of the Inquisition, every day mentally composing a sonnet, released only to be imprisoned again and put in chains—whereupon he continued to compose sonnets.

Altogether, the idea of historical continuity assumed progressively greater central importance for Mandelstam, and his belonging to the preeminently history-harried, history-laden people became in this connection a dynamic element of consciousness. “His conviction,” we are told in Hope Against Hope, “that culture, like grace, is bestowed by a process of continuity led M. to see the Mediterranean as the ‘holy land.’” The Mediterranean sacred soil included for him Greece and Italy as well as Palestine, and, by a loose personal association of climate and geography, the Crimea and the Caucasus, where he traveled with his wife and wrote some of his most glowing poetry. Mme. Mandelstam herself puzzles over this professed affinity for Mediterranean culture, suggesting that it makes no particular sense for a Russian boy raised in Petersburg to imagine he had a biological bond with the Mediterranean world simply because of his Jewish parentage. The point, of course, is not that such an identification with Mediterranean values need be actually grounded in facts of heredity, only that it establish itself as a potent fact of consciousness for the poet. Though Mandelstam was an intensely Russian poet—some of his poems are so dense with allusions to earlier Russian poetry and history as to be impenetrable in any translation—he urgently needed an imaginative bridge out of his time and place, and his awareness of himself as a Jew gave him a sense of inner distance, a feeling of privileged at-homeness in the broad continuum of cultural values that went back three millennia and that was now threatened by the revolutionary reign of bureaucratized brutality. His widow's comment in Hope Abandoned on the presence of Jewish themes in his poetry makes perfect sense in the light of this general orientation: such poems were “not numerous—but always deeply significant.”

By the end of the 1920's, the “Judaic chaos” always to be fled had given way to a sense of Jewishness as an ancient aristocratic lineage. At the beginning of “Fourth Prose”7 Mandelstam reflects with satirical tartness on the assimilated bourgeois Jews of Petersburg, “descended from rabbis of patrician blood,” who ended up seeking the waters of salvation at Turgenevian and Lermontovian spas. Later in “Fourth Prose,” he makes a special point of assuming the stance of a Jew against the ravening pack of party-prodded hacks (Soviet “writerdom”) that wanted to destroy him: “I insist that writerdom, as it has developed in Europe and above all in Russia, is incompatible with the honorable title of Jew, of which I am proud. My blood, burdened with its inheritance from sheep breeders, patriarchs, and kings, rebels against the shifty gypsyishness of the writing tribe.”

Two years later, in 1931, he would explore the identification with an ancient Jewish king as a key symbol of his own poetic power in “Canzone,” one of the remarkable poems in his mature style of permutated allusions. “Canzone” offers a view out across the Armenian landscape as an optical emblem of poetic vision. Armenia, the land of Ararat, and, as Mandelstam called it elsewhere, a “younger sister of Judea,” merges with biblical Zion, and the sharp-eyed poet, enriched with “the Psalmist's legacy to a seer,” imagines himself peering through “exquisite Zeiss/binoculars, King David's precious gift” (translation by Max Hayward in Hope Abandoned). These visionary lenses give a precise definition to details of the landscape, a primary intensity to color in a world where everything has ominously faded. Thus the “Mediterranean” poet, recollecting a recently visited Armenia as he writes in Moscow, dreams of fulfilling his ancient vocation by leaving the northern regions “to steep in vision destiny's finale/and say selah to the Chief of the Jews/ for his crimson caress.”

Mme. Mandelstam devotes several intriguing paragraphs to that peculiar crimson caress, connecting it with Rembrandt's painting, The Prodigal Son, that hangs in the Hermitage in Leningrad, in which the figure of the forgiving father is bathed in a reddish aura from his mantle. The Russian color-word, malinovy, we are informed in a note by Max Hayward, derives from malina, raspberry, and carries connotations of richness, mellowness, warmth. For our purposes, what is most important is the association of crimson with royalty in the figure of the poet-king of ancient Israel, and the fact that by identifying a rich intensity of color with the Jewish heritage Mandelstam was precisely reversing his earlier version of Judaism as faded yellow and stark black over against the polychromatic splendor of the Russian world. Instead of a chaos of origins, the Jewish past had become a vividly imaged myth of origins.


Let us keep ultimate distinctions clear. Osip Mandelstam did not believe either in Judaism or Christianity: he believed in poetry. For a time, he was inclined to associate poetry with Christianity because of his notions of Christian order and of the apparent spiritual seriousness of Christianity. Eventually, he emphasized instead the crucial historical consciousness made available to him as a poet by the fact of his being a Jew, and perhaps the Jewish stress was a more congenial one now precisely because it involved not belief but a sense of participation in a long cultural tradition. In a 1912 manifesto, “The Morning of Acmeism” (a full translation appears in Brown's critical study), Mandelstam talks about the way “a poet raises a phenomenon to its tenth power,” producing a “monstrously condensed reality.” And that reality, he goes on to say, “is the word as such.”

As time went on, Mandelstam would enrich and complicate his conception of the reality generated by the word as such, but two decades later, in his remarkable essay on Dante, it is a conception to which he still remains faithful. Poetry, he announces at the beginning of the essay, is neither part of nature nor, in any ordinary sense of the term, an imitation of nature; “but it is something that, with astonishing independence, settles down in a new extra-spatial field of action, not so much narrating nature as acting it out by means of its instruments, which are called images.” These images, of course, are cast in language, and so dynamically interact with one another in a poem in regard to their linguistic and phonetic properties as well as their visual ones. In this way Mandelstam arrives at the view that within the independent, extra-spatial field of its operation, poetic material is not referential but generated by the poem's restless exploration of its own patterns, image begetting image through the complicating reinforcements of multiple association and sound. Poetry is of course made out of human experience in this world, but it achieves its “monstrously condensed reality” through its freedom to follow its own uncannily non-discursive, asyntactical logic of images and sounds.

This doctrine of language and reality has little to do either with Judaism or Christianity, or, for that matter, with any “Judeo-Christian tradition,” though the Jewish notion of inexhaustible revelation through words and their exegesis may be more congenial to such an aesthetic than the Christian idea of the Logos, the single incarnate Word. What the doctrine does reflect is Mandelstam's personal relation to the Old Testament and the New, to the corpus of Homer, Ovid, Dante, Villon, Pushkin, as luminous patterns of language. Once he could imagine for himself a connection with Judaism not through the remembered mustiness of his grandfather's house but through words—those of a Spanish poet or of the Psalmist, those of the biblical narrator telling the story of his namesake Joseph—he was free to conceive himself as a Jewish poet, custodian of Mediterranean crimsons and blues and golds in the bleakness of a northern landscape and a harsh time. Homer could as easily have been the imagined source of his legacy as David, and, indeed, there are rich and abundant allusions to Homer in his verse, but it was more natural for him to fashion his personal myth of the poetic vocation out of Psalmist and Levite because of his pressing consciousness of himself as a Jew.

The inner freedom of poetry to “condense” reality was in Mandelstam's view absolutely indispensable to civilized existence—the people needed it as they needed air, bread, and light, he would write in a late poem, “to keep them awake forever”—and it was just this freedom that a totalitarian regime could not tolerate in the least degree. Mandelstam's decision to write the “Stalin Epigram” in 1934 and to read it to a group of friends was a necessary one for him, even with the knowledge that it would probably mean his death. As his wife justly notes in Hope Abandoned, he needed an act of defiance like that, and like “Fourth Prose” before it, “to smash the glass cage in which he was imprisoned and regain his freedom” in order to preserve his own life-sustaining poetic voice. “You cannot write poetry in a glass cage,” Mme. Mandelstam concludes, “—there is no air.” There is compelling logic in his representation of Stalin in the fatal poem as a kind of mythic antitype to poetry, the implacable issuer of “words like measures of weight” which kill, who arrogates all language to his own homicidal purposes and surrounds himself with fawning retainers that can only grunt and squeal like beasts.

One senses in the magnificent poetry of the so-called Voronezh Notebooks, the poems Mandelstam wrote in his exile in the Don region, 1935-37, a paradoxical quality in the midst of terror that Walter Benjamin once attributed to Kafka—a radiant serenity. It is a quality, I think, that derives in great part from the ultimate faith Mandelstam placed in the abiding validity, the indispensability, of the poetic enterprise, which he was now living out, writing out, to its utmost consequences. To be sure, he was not entirely free of chill premonitions about his own imminent fate and, equally, that of mankind. There are poems, therefore, that touch an ominous note of intimated apocalypse, like the one in which he watches lines of prisoners crossing “the plains' beaten weight” and wonders whether crawling across these expanses is “the one whose name we shriek in our sleep—/the Judas of nations unborn.” What is remarkable is that the apocalyptic vision should be given such a secondary emphasis in the Voronezh Notebooks. Mandelstam's poetic celebration of the here and now was never more intense, more sensuously alive, than in these poems. His private Mediterranean myth provides one imaginative source for this celebration, surfacing here and there in the explicit imagery of Cretan pottery, Greek flutes, the Italy of Dante, the yea-saying sea, and, repeatedly, the display of Mediterranean blue. More immediately, the actual Voronezh landscape is present in all its multiplex, poignant particularity—green trees “exploding” out of the muddy spring earth wreathed in milky fog, the ice-clogged canals of a jagged winter scene, a master colorist's version of Deep Saddle-Bow Mountain in yellows and reds, “raspberry and pure gold.” It is easy enough to accept on the evidence of the poems alone Nadezhda Mandelstam's assertion that during the Voronezh period the couple were happy as puppies, draining every lived moment to the fullest.

The joyous intensity with which Mandelstam effects these condensations of reality as a Dichter der irdischen Welt—a phrase coined by Erich Auerbach to characterize Dante's acute poetic focus on the earthly realm—is perfectly complemented by the utter conviction and dignity of the poems in which the poet quietly, unaffectedly defies his persecutors.

You took away all the oceans and all the room.
You gave me my shoe-size in earth with bars
    around it.
Where did it get you? Nowhere.
You left me my lips, and they shape words,
    even in silence.

In the supreme imaginative clarity of these last poems, Mandelstam stands beyond ethnic origin or credal affiliations as a luminous witness for poetry itself—not its martyr but its exemplary practitioner, demonstrating the vivifying freshness of the poet's transformational play with language even under the impending darkness of the final terror. History and the literary tradition kept running through his head as he crystallized the present moment in his verse, and he may well have thought of his bond with the people that through two millennia had been left only its words, its moving lips, by its oppressors, yet with that had achieved much, and had persisted. In the engulfing cataclysm of his own era, Mandelstam could reflect on the stubborn durability of the whole broad multilingual literary tradition that had come down to him somehow unbroken through all its historical vicissitudes; and so, with the confidence of a master in his perfected craft, he could hope at the end that his poetry, too, would survive the murderous new order determined to extirpate it and all it stood for.

Mounds of human heads are wandering into the
I dwindle among them. Nobody sees me. But in
much loved, and in children's games I shall
from the dead to say the sun is shining.


1 Translated by Max Hayward, Atheneum (1970), 431 pp., $10.

2 Mandelstam, Cambridge University Press, 320 pp., $13.95. English readers owe a large debt of gratitude to Brown, who has done so much to uncover Mandelstam, and has himself translated most of Mandelstam's prose with grace and clarity.

3 The translation is one of those done by Clarence Brown for the purposes of his critical book, and of these, one can say that they are at least quite usable by a contemporary reader of English. Brown has collaborated with W. S. Merwin on a Selected Poems of Osip Mandelstam (Atheneum, 100 pp., $6.25) and many of these renderings are wonderfully elegant, moving English poems. The most striking ones are surely finer than even the best of Merwin's own fairly impressive poetic production, if that is any indication of the power of the originals. Nevertheless, my colleague Simon Karlinsky, the eminent Slavicist, has suggested to me that Merwin's poised versions of Mandelstam are like monochromatic representations of richly colored paintings, and Brown's generally accurate construal of the original sometimes falters. By all critical accounts, Mandelstam's Russian verse is a continuous pyrotechnic performance of word-play, sound-play, and layered allusiveness, typically using traditional metrical schemes and rhyming forms to generate a vibrantly expressive musicality. But what happens when anyone but a poet of towering genius tries to cast Mandelstam in English rhyme or to reproduce his wordplay is painfully illustrated by Bernard Meares's attempts in Modern Poetry in Translation 17. The rhymes clink and tinkle absurdly, the diction is dolloped with little bits of poesy like “beauteous plight” and “divine abyss,” and Stalin, in a devastating poetic assault on totalitarianism, is rendered in cute Disney fashion as “the gremlin in the Kremlin.” A disaster in the opposite direction is The Complete Poetry of Osip Emilevich Mandelstam, done in collaboration by Burton Raffel and Alla Burago (State University of New York Press, 353 pp., $15) . The best one can say of this is that it gives some rough idea of the contents of all the extant poems, but it is very difficult to experience these translations as poetry. Raffel has a tin ear; his renditions are arhythmic and often unidiomatic, and in stumbling after the guidance of his native informant he very frequently succeeds in making gibberish out of whatever the original may mean. For the time being, then, our best English approximation of Mandelstam is clearly Brown and Merwin, and it is their versions that I will be citing here unless I indicate otherwise.


4 Hope Abandoned, translated by Max Hayward, Atheneum, 687 pp., $13.95.

5 The full text is available in The Prose of Osip Mandelstam, translated by Clarence Brown, Princeton University Press, 209 pp., paperback, $2.95. Selections were also published in COMMENTARY, October 1965.

6 English translation by Clarence Brown and Robert Hughes in Delos 6, 1971.

7 English translation by Clarence Brown, Hudson Review, Spring 1970.

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