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 essay with the comment that Villon and Verlaine are “strikingly similar” in “the vibration of their voices.” Mandelstam was to remember Villon in one of his latest poems, written at Voronezh in March-April 1937, a year before his final arrest, which led to his death in a Siberian camp. This poem contrasts the crushing immobility of Egyptian architecture with the freedom of Gothic. In the essay he had discussed “the physiology of Gothic”:
Authentic medieval blood flowed in the veins of Villon. To this he owed his integrity, his temperament, his spiritual originality.
About the same time he produced another essay, “The Morning of Acmeism,” serving as a companion (though then unpublished) manifesto to Gumilev’s. Here too the Middle Ages are described as “a period of physiological genius.” Mandelstam in many of his earlier poems wrote about architecture—Hagia Sophia, Notre Dame, the Admiralty Building in St. Petersburg. The poet for him is a builder—“The architect says: I build. That means: I am right”—just as Bach builds to establish relationships in music.
So Mandelstam’s view of the Middle Ages is wholly unlike that taken by the Pre-Raphaelites. For him they are never static, any more than the buildings are static in his poems. When at the end of his life he again wrote a poem on a French cathedral (Rheims or Laon), he saw it, perhaps with Notre Dame also in mind, as exemplifying what Dr. Baines has called an “untamed physiological riot.” Gothic, he wrote in the essay on Villon, is “the triumph of dynamics.” Mandelstam’s own poetry, despite the classical restraint of its manner, is nothing if not a “triumph of dynamics.”
For this reason Professor Monas has properly given pride of place to “Conversation about Dante” (the translation he uses is that by Clarence Brown, author of the best and fullest monograph to date on Mandelstam,* and Robert Hughes). The “Conversation” is the last of Mandelstam’s critical writings, most of which had been completed before the collection About Poetry was published in 1928. Lydia Ginzburg, who heard him read the essay in 1933, together with his own recent poems, was struck, she says, by “the remarkable affinities between the essay, the poems, and the table talk” (which ran on poetry and painting). Dr. Baines, in her meticulous and very useful study of the verse Mandelstam wrote in the 1930s (which has the benefit of much comment from his widow Nadezhda), recognizes how important the “Conversation” is for the understanding of his own poems. Dante from the time Mandelstam began to read him in the late 1920s had become in his eyes what Vergil was to Dante himself—l’altissimo poeta, and the one from whom a modern had most to learn.
The lessons he derived from Dante enabled him to clarify his own practice. The same principle had been latent in Mandelstam’s earlier poetry that was now explicitly recognized by him in the work of his final stage. Both as poet and critical thinker he was remarkably consistent. During the last five years of the Twenties, when he had fallen silent—much the same silence befell Pasternak and Akhmatova then or later—Mandelstam examined and revised his values. It was the writing of his “Fourth Prose” in 1929-1930 and an excursion Bukharin made possible, recorded in Journey to Armenia, that set him free once more to write poetry. In “Fourth Prose” he had declared:
My work, no matter what form it might take, is seen as mischief, as lawlessness, as incidental. But that’s the way I want it….
Armenia brought him back to his true self, a self depending on the “inner ear” which could never play a poet false. There was everything congenial to him in this country of red and ochre landscape, ancient churches, and resonant pottery:
The Armenians’ fullness of life, their rough tenderness, their noble inclination for hard work, their inexplicable aversion to any kind of metaphysics, and their splendid intimacy with the world of real things—all this said to me: you’re awake, don’t be afraid of your own time, don’t be sly.
In “Fourth Prose” he had been for others the “scoundrel” who “keeps on evading the issue.” The superb poetry of his last seven years of activity evades no issues, and it brings him very close to the Dante whom he describes in the “Conversation.”
Mandelstam admired Dante for being the supreme “strategist of transformations”—not the serene master of lapidary statement dear to nineteenth-century scholarship, but a poet like the moderns whose problem was to contend with “a huge inner imbalance.” He had no place with the Parnassians—any more than the young Mandelstam himself, whose classicism was far removed from the static pomp of Heredia or Leconte de Lisle. Dante belonged with Baudelaire and Verlaine, and still more with Rimbaud. “His contemporaneity is inexhaustible, measureless and unending” and the poetry he wrote “characterized by all the forms of energy known to modern science.”
Jennifer Baines emphasizes the idea of the poetic “impulse” about which Mandelstam had said:
In talking of Dante, it is more proper to have in mind the question of impulses and not the generation of forms.
There is a valuable chapter in Nadezhda Mandelstam’s Hope Against Hope (“Cycle”) which explains how a single poem could become for him the matrix of a whole series. The terms she uses in this and the following chapter (not to be found in the English translation) are those of natural growth; “a cluster of shoots all sprouting from a main stem,” “twin kernels” or “philippines,” the “cuttings” which are grafted by a gardener. Mandelstam gave another name to the process: he called it “the transformability of poetic material.” Like so many other poets since Coleridge he was intensely aware of poetry as an act of the imagination which implicitly or openly may describe itself. His metaphor in the “Conversation” for the poet’s task is now quite widely known. Mandelstam sees it as the attempt to cross a river by leaping from one Chinese junk to another, each of which is following its own direction. In another striking image he speaks of poetic thought for Dante (and by implication for himself) as resembling a fantastic airplane which in flight actually creates and launches another airplane, then creates a third.
Mandelstam is unique among the foremost Russian poets of his own time in never having attempted a long poem comparable to Pasternak’s “Nineteen Five” and “Lieutenant Schmidt” or Akhmatova’s “Poem Without a Hero.” But all his work, as Nadezhda Mandelstam has maintained, falls into “books” no less complete and internally coherent than those of Yeats or Blok, and each of the cycles that makes up a book has behind it an impulse which was allowed free play until it had been exhausted. The process is more clearly visible in the poems he wrote during the 1930s at Moscow and then in exile at Voronezh, but even in the earlier work one is strongly aware of the connection between separate poems, the ramification of themes. As a young man he had written about Pyotr Chaadaev, friend of Pushkin and bold speculator on Russian destiny, whom Mandelstam found to be exemplary for his own case. What he admired particularly in Chaadaev was “a deep harmony, the virtual fusion of the moral and intellectual element,” which gave his personality “its special firmness.” Here Mandelstam stresses
the requirement of unity, which determines the structure of chosen intellects.
In his day, and especially in the moral confusion of Soviet Russia, nothing might have seemed less attainable than the unity manifested by Dante’s great poem. Yet incredibly the effect of Mandelstam’s Voronezh poems is not unlike that of the Divine Comedy. There is, of course, no steady and assured progression from hell through purgatory to heaven. But all three states are present. There was the hell of fear, isolation, and seeming powerlessness. This he appears to have foreseen in his essay on Villon:
The fifteenth century was cruel to personal destinies. It turned many of its respectable and sober people into Jobs, murmuring in the depths of their gloomy dungeons and accusing God of injustice.
There was purgatory when in January 1937, alive to the dangers of the terrible year ahead, he had tried unsuccessfully to write a placatory ode to Stalin. His “inner ear” saved him from this, and a number of lyrics, against his original intention, speak out against “the Judas of peoples to be.” Through these poems, with pain and self-chastisement, he worked his penance, to find the equivalent of heaven in his developing poetic experience. This was manifested in a group of poems which, despite his fears of approaching cataclysm in “Verses on the Unknown Soldier” (February-March, 1937) and all the horrors of his present condition, affirm the sort of existential happiness which had often been known to Keats:
The setting sun will always set me to rights—or if a Sparrow come before my Window I take part in its existence and pick about the Gravel.
Mandelstam had a little earlier taken part in the existence of a goldfinch. Now he could find pleasure not only in “the grandeur of the plains” but even in “gloom, and hunger, and the blizzard”; in writing poetry that was innocent of base motive (unlike the projected ode to Stalin) and necessary for the people no less than air or bread; in the incomparability of any true individual who is alive; in the “sticky vow” of spring leaves; and in an ancient Cretan pot that depicted
…the flying fish that is chance
And the water saying Yes.
Chance, the flying fish, was a necessary aid to the imagination, and the water, voda, had no alternative but to utter with every ripple the sound of its last syllable, da.
Russian poetry in Mandelstam’s age revealed such an abundance of talent that the poetry of other nations at that time—whether in Germany, France, Spain, or the Anglo-Saxon world—must be diminished by the comparison. The distinctive notes of Mayakovsky, Khlebnikov, Pasternak, Tsvetaeva, Akhmatova, Mandelstam (not to mention the widely popular Esenin, or the close forerunners of this generation, Blok and Annensky) are highly individual, and testify to a variety of inspiration which can be matched only in Russian prose of the previous century. At this late moment of our own century we can now recognize that its early years were among the world’s most interesting poetic ages, however unequal the achievement. The best poetry written in Mandelstam’s generation is that which attests to the survival of art and conscience—for him the two were inseparable—in a time and place where both seemed to have the flimsiest of chances to hold out.
Among these poets, and one particularly thinks of Pasternak, Akhmatova, and Tsvetaeva as the most steadfast and therefore the most necessary, along with him, for our present sustaining, it is Mandelstam who thought with the greatest depth. The other three were often miraculously right in their perceptions—but not one of them, even Pasternak, could offer an intellectual system extending to many facets of life in the way Mandelstam did. The consistency of his beliefs, the rigor with which he tested and purified them, make him a true follower of Dante—and without all that “romantic detritus” which disqualified Baudelaire in Eliot’s view from being called “a fragmentary Dante, for what that description is worth.” Mandelstam by consistent hard thinking and multiple awareness achieved, in the most distracting and distracted of times, that “requirement of unity, which determines the structure of chosen intellects.”
What we call genius in art is an inner consistency, an extreme fidelity to impressions which comes instinctively to reject all that has not been truly observed and felt. The lack of this consistency results in a spoiled talent, of which there are many at all times. Unusual is the kind of genius that achieves not only balance and harmony, but also a continuous drive of related inquiry and explication throughout the man’s entire creative life. That is the merit of Mandelstam. It would not in itself make him a greater poet than his contemporaries. Dante is not obviously superior to Shakespeare for his consummate mastery of a system, and Milton in the same case is clearly inferior. But the unity of Mandelstam’s thought and the close relation of his essays to his poems give him the added interest that pertains also to Eliot. However, Eliot’s thinking quite often became that of a publicist rather than a poet, and there are grave contradictions between the Christian apologist and the artist which show in Four Quartets and elsewhere. With a mind less evasive than Eliot’s and a moral courage that may have necessitated some oblique writing but did not make any habitual recourse to irony, Mandelstam could appropriate to himself as early as 1913 the words of Luther: “Hier stehe ich—ich kann nicht anders.” He wanted humanity in the modern age to become as hard as a diamond, and similarly indestructible: “man must stand more firmly, because man should be the firmest thing on earth.”
The stability he sought and achieved rested on Hellenism, in his own interpretation of the word, and on a Christian humanism. Mandelstam had been strongly attracted by the old Christian civilizations of Georgia and Armenia, by what he called “the cold mountain air” of Christianity, where the “Sienese hills make intercession for us,” and by the great cathedrals, Hagia Sophia and Notre Dame, and the music of Palestrina and Bach. He delighted in the Kremlin churches because they were the work of Italian architects, fusing the spirit of Russia with that of the Mediterranean. His classicism was illustrated for him by the poet Annensky, a kind of godfather to the Acmeist school, who had been able to express
an inner Hellenism adequate to the spirit of the Russian language, a domestic Hellenism so to speak. Hellenism is a baking dish, a pair of tongs, an earthenware jug with milk; it is domestic utensils, crockery, the body’s whole ambiance; Hellenism is the warmth of the hearth felt as something sacred….
For Mandelstam “the human dwelling, the free house of man,” is earth’s “best ornament and the most solid thing that exists.”
Like Eliot he deplored most manifestations of the nineteenth century, which had “nothing except sight, empty and rapacious, with a singular passion for devouring any object, any epoch.” And he concluded, in 1922:
To Europeanize and humanize the twentieth century, to make it glow with a theological warmth—that is the task facing the survivors of the collapse of the nineteenth century, those who have been cast ashore by the will of the fates on a new historical continent.
One who expresses his ideal in this way must take a lofty view both of Europe and humanity; but in his poems it finds ample endorsement.
March 9, 1978