Mandelstam grew up in St.Petersburg; his father was a leather merchant, and his mother a piano teacher. After graduating from school he visited Paris and became enamoured, like TS Eliot, of the work of the French Symbolists, but on his return to Russia he became associated with a poetic movement called Acmeism that emphasized clear language and concrete imagery. In any case, the work of great poets exceeds the bounds of poetic schools. Mandelstam once referred to poetry as "sweet-voiced labour". Here, in a translation by Albert C. Todd, is "A Body Was Given To Me", a poem from his late twenties ripe with the sound of a polished "sweet voice":
A Body Was Given To Me"For the quiet joy of breathing and living,/Who is it, tell me, that I must thank?" - what beautiful lines are those. Note especially how the pause in the second line "fills out" the line - the words "tell me" are not strictly necessary, but the pause makes the line sound somehow reverential and prayerful. Just looking at these lines one can see how, as the writer and translator Christopher Logue says in an interview, "a poem’s text is a sort of [musical]score as well as a text". The work of the young Mandelstam celebrates the music of life and of poetry. "And if a song's properly sung/With a full heart, then at last/All disappears; there remain/Just the singer, space and the stars!"
A body was given to me - what to do with it,
So unique and so much my own?
For the quiet joy of breathing and living,
Who is it, tell me, that I must thank?
I am the gardener, I am the flower as well,
In the dungeon of the world I am not alone.
On the glass of eternity has already settled
My breathing, my warmth.
A pattern prints itself on it,
Unrecognizable of late.
Let the lees of the moment trickle down -
The lovely pattern must not be wiped away.
The great and unavoidable event of Mandelstam's life, as of the lives of everybody of his generation, was the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 that sought, and managed to bring about by force, a complete break with all the ways of the old tsarist Russia. Mandelstam, like many other Russian poets and intellectuals, felt ambivalently towards the Revolution; it both attracted and terrifed him. In one of his poems, "The Age", he compares the age to a wild animal with a broken back, looking at its own footprints.
Although he realised swiftly enough that there was something warped about the Communist dream, the confidence radiated by many of his peers threw Mandelstam into corrosive self-doubt (indeed, it was to be decades before the truth about the worst excesses of the Communist regime in Russia emerged). As his wife Nadezhda Mandelstam, whose book Hope Against Hope is one of the greatest works of Russian dissident literature, remarked, "It is not so simple to go against everybody and against the times. The power of the 'general will' is enormous - to resist it is much harder than people think - and we are all marked by the times we live in."
At the time the mere suspicion of dissent brought in its wake harassment by the Cheka, the Soviet secret police. Mandelstam soon found visitors from the government landing up at his home to ask him questions and explain to him the meaning of this or that line from his work. Mandelstam gave up writing poetry for several years. When he began writing again in the nineteen-thirties, the truth had become clear to him, though not to millions of his countrymen. His voice was now, in the words of his wife, "the voice of an outsider who knew he was alone and prized his isolation".
And what isolation. Here is Mandelstam's poem about Stalin from 1934, "We Live, Not Feeling":
We Live, Not FeelingEach detail of this poem is carefully selected to give a sense of looming menace. People speak in whispers; the only time they can raise their voice is when they speak well of the "Kremlin mountain man". Images of metal, hard and unfeeling, predominate in the description of Stalin - his words like pound weights, his decrees his horsehoes. He exudes danger from every angle and every pore, and both the people with him and those oppressed by him have been reduced to "half-people", who live not feeling.
We live, not feeling the country beneath us,
Our speech inaudible ten steps away,
But where they're up to half a conversation -
They'll speak of the Kremlin mountain man.
His thick fingers are fat like worms,
And his words certain as pound weights.
His cockroach whiskers laugh,
And the top of his boots glisten.
And all around his rabble of thick-skinned leaders,
He plays through services of half-people.
Some whistle, some meow, some snivel,
He alone merely caterwauls and prods.
Like horseshoes he forges decree after decree-
Some get it in the forehead, some in the brow,
some in the groin, and some in the eye.
Whatever the execution - it's a raspberry to him
And his Georgian chest is broad.
And the "sweet voice" of the young Mandelstam - it has itself become harsh and metallic in these new circumstances. Mandelstam was arrested soon after, and sent to prison, where he lost his mental balance and tried to commit suicide; eventually he died in prison in 1938. His wife zealously preserved his manuscripts, often in ingenious hiding places, through the long years of Soviet censorship, and they began to appear in the sixties and seventies under the more liberal regimes of those years.
More poems by Mandelstam can be found here and here. Adam Kirsch has an excellent essay on Mandelstam here. Mandelstam can be heard reading some of his poems here at the large archive of Russian poetry www.russianpoetry.net. An extract from Nadezhda Mandelstam's Hope Against Hope, "The Date of Death", can be found here.
And here are some links to aspects of the Russian experiment with Communism, perhaps the worst set of political ideas ever to have been given credence by intelligent men and women across wide swathes of space and time. Frances Stonor Saunders's beautiful essay "The Lost Tribe of Russia" - one of the sharpest book reviews I've ever read - deals with Lesley Chamberlain's recent book The Philosophy Steamer, about a group of Russian intellectuals sent into exile by Lenin in 1922 and sundered from their homeland for good.
In February there were a host of essays published in the world press to mark the fiftieth anniversary of Khrushchev's famed secret speech to the Twentieth Congress in 1956, of which here is one of the best, "Khrushchev’s secret speech and the end of Communism", written by the Soviet dissident Roy Medvedev.
And from some years ago, "You Are Strong, You Are Weak, Mother Russia" by the scholar of Russian history Robert Conquest, about why the reasons for Russia's problems with the transition to democracy, in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union, may be glimpsed in Russia's centuries-long history of authoritarian rule. ("Above all, nations do not escape their history.")
And finally, an old post about the Turkish poet Nazim Hikmet, who also spent a great deal of time in prison, and whose work also devotes itself to understanding what it is to "live with feeling".