Osip Mandelstam: Selected Essays
translated by Sidney Monas
University of Texas Press, 245 pp., $15.95
Mandelstam: The Later Poetry
by Jennifer Baines
Cambridge University Press, 253 pp., $18.95
Mandelstam is now generally acknowledged as one of the greatest Russian poets in an age when Russian poetry was very fine. Some would even place him as the greatest among his contemporaries. Without a doubt he is the best critic of Russian poetry to appear in modern times. It is therefore a most welcome thing that we should have the critical writings, almost in their totality, translated with grace and accuracy by Sidney Monas.
Anna Akhmatova once said that Mandelstam reminded her “almost physiologically” of Keats. She must have been referring to his sensibility, which is rich and alert in a Keatsian way. There are other parallels. He too “touched the beautiful mythology of Greece” without dulling its brightness. He also resembles Keats in a sure knowledge of his own powers, and in the generosity and acumen with which he could assess the powers of others. Comparisons like this are never more than approximate, and may mislead as much as they help. But Mandelstam, with his “flint and iron,” and his eager curiosity, and that quiet confidence in his own art and in the importance of poetry, stands as near to Keats as to any other English poet.
Keats admired Hazlitt for his “depth of taste,” and the counterpart to Hazlitt in Mandelstam’s life was another poet, five years older than himself, Nikolai Gumilev, first husband of Akhmatova and recognized guide to the Acmeist school. When the Acmeists declared their aims, during that upheaval of Russian poetry just before the First World War, Gumilev wrote one of their manifestoes, and his criticism of contemporary verse in those years is second in quality only to Mandelstam’s. Seven years after Gumilev had been shot in 1921 for suspected complicity in an alleged counterrevolutionary plot, Mandelstam wrote to Akhmatova: “The conversation with Kolya has not broken off and it never will.”
The Acmeists, who were in revolt against the impalpability and remoteness of Symbolism, wanted a poetry of the actual, clear in outline, tangible, and ordered. They belonged all of them to St. Petersburg and, through its classical setting, the work of Italian architects, to the tradition of classical art in the Mediterranean. Their four mentors were Shakespeare, Villon, Rabelais, and Théophile Gautier, of whom the last might well seem hopelessly out of scale with the others, were it not that Pound too so much admired him. Gautier gave the school a preference for regularity of form and exact finish. He may not have been serious in the Arnoldian sense, but he did take his art responsibly.
We may suspect that Villon was for Mandelstam the most appealing of the four. He went to the Sorbonne in 1907-1909, where he read medieval French, and in 1913 (at the age of twenty-two) he published his highly perceptive essay on Villon. Just as twenty years later when composing the cardinal and very wide-ranging “Conversation with Dante” he made a point of interpreting Dante in the light of modern poetry, so he began this …