The Prose of Osip Mandelstam
Ossip Emilievich Mandelstamm was born in St. Petersburg in 1891 and died in a Soviet prison camp. He belonged to a generation of Russian writers who revolted against the unbridled mysticism, the self-dramatizing metaphysical dreams, and the conscious “decadence” of the Russian Symbolist writers. Their master was the remarkable and still under-valued poet Innokenti Annensky, the withdrawn, fastidious classical schoolmaster who taught Greek in the famous Lycée in Tsarskoe Selo. An absorbed and patient craftsman, remote from the political passions of his day, austere, aesthetic, and contemplative, Annensky was a preserver and recreator of what, for want of a better term, may be described as the classical tradition in Russian verse, which descends in a direct line from the godlike figure to whom all Russian writers pray, from whom they all stem, and against whose authority no rebellion ever succeeded—Pushkin himself. In the years before World War I these poets called themselves Acmeists and sometimes Adamists. They were a Petersburg sect, nor is it extravagant to suppose that the formal lines of that coldly beautiful city were not without influence upon their writing. Annensky’s most gifted followers, Nikolai Gumilyov, Anna Akhmatova, and Mandelstamm, founded the Guild of Poets, the very title of which conveys their conception of poetry not as a way of life and a source of revelation but as a craft, the art of placing words in lines, the creation of public objects independent of the private lives of their creators. Their verse with its exact images and firm, rigorously executed structure was equally remote from the civic poetry of the left-wing poets of the nineteenth century, the visionary, insistently personal, at times violently egotistic, art of the Symbolists, the lyrical self-intoxicated verse of the peasant-poets, and the frantic gestures of the Ego-Futurists, the Cubo-Futurists, and other self-conscious revolutionaries. Among them Mandelstamm was early acknowledged as a leader and a model. His poetry, although its scope was deliberately confined, possessed a purity and perfection of form never again attained in Russia.
There are poets who are poets only when they write poetry, whose prose could have been written by someone who had never written a line of verse, and there are poets (both good and bad) whose every expression is that of a poet, sometimes to the detriment of their work as a whole. Pushkin’s stories, histories, letters, are classical models of beautiful and lucid prose. When he is not writing poetry he is not a poet any more than Milton or Byron or Vigny or Valéry or Eliot or Auden are in their prose; unlike, that is to say, Yeats, D’Annunzio, and, for the most part, Alexander Blok. All that Mandelstamm wrote is written by a poet. His prose is a poet’s prose—this he has in common with Pasternak. This, but little else. Pasternak, his friend, contemporary, rival (as writers, they felt no great sympathy for each other) was only too acutely conscious of the history of his time, of his own place in it,…
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