Osip Mandelstam

Осип Эмильевич Мандельштам

(1891 - 1938)


in Deutsch, hier                           



born Jan. 3 [Jan. 15, New Style], 1891, Warsaw, Pol., Russian Empire [now in Poland]
Dec. 27, 1938?, Vtoraya Rechka, near Vladivostok, Russia, U.S.S.R. [now in Russia]


Mandelshtam also spelled Mandelstam  major Russian poet and literary critic. Most of his works went unpublished in the Soviet Union during the Stalin era (1929–53) and were almost unknown outside that country until the mid-1960s.

Mandelshtam grew up in St. Petersburg in a cultured Jewish household. After graduating from the elite Tenishev School in 1907, he studied at the University of St. Petersburg as well as in France at the Sorbonne and in Germany at the University of Heidelberg.

His first poems appeared in the avant-garde journal Apollon (“Apollo”) in 1910. Together with Nikolay Gumilyov and Anna Akhmatova, Mandelshtam founded the Acmeist school of poetry, which rejected the mysticism and abstraction of Russian Symbolism and demanded clarity and compactness of form. Mandelshtam summed up his poetic credo in his manifesto Utro Akmeizma (“The Morning of Acmeism”). In 1913 his first slim volume of verse, Kamen (“Stone”), was published. During the Russian Civil War (1918–20), Mandelshtam spent time in the Crimea and Georgia. In 1922 he moved to Moscow, where his second volume of poetry, Tristia, appeared. He married Nadezhda Yakovlevna Khazina in 1922.

Mandelshtam's poetry, which was apolitical and intellectually demanding, distanced him from the official Soviet literary establishment. His poetry having been withdrawn from publication, he wrote children's tales and a collection of autobiographical stories, Shum vremeni (1925; “The Noise of Time”). A second edition of this work, augmented by the tale “Yegipetskaya marka” (“The Egyptian Stamp”), was published in 1928. That year, a volume of his collected poetry, Stikhotvoreniya (“Poems”), and a collection of literary criticism, O poezii (“On Poetry”), appeared. These were his last books published in the Soviet Union during his lifetime.

In May 1934 he was arrested for an epigram on Joseph Stalin he had written and read to a small circle of friends. In addition to describing Stalin's fingers as “worms” and his moustache as that of a cockroach, the draft that fell into the hands of the police called Stalin “the murderer and peasant slayer.”

Shattered by a fierce interrogation, Mandelshtam was exiled with his wife to the provincial town of Cherdyn. After hospitalization and a suicide attempt, he won permission to move to Voronezh. Though suffering from periodic bouts of mental illness, he composed a long cycle of poems, the Voronezhskiye tetradi (“Voronezh Notebooks”), which contain some of his finest lyrics.

In May 1937, having served his sentence, Mandelshtam returned with his wife to Moscow. But the following year he was arrested during a stay at a rest home. In a letter to his wife that autumn, Mandelshtam reported that he was ill in a transit camp near Vladivostok. Nothing further was ever heard from him. Soviet authorities officially gave his death date as Dec. 27, 1938, although he was also reported by government sources to have died “at the beginning of 1939.” It was primarily through the efforts of his widow, who died in 1980, that little of the poetry of Osip Mandelshtam was lost; she kept his works alive during the repression by memorizing them and by collecting copies.

After Stalin's death the publication in Russian of Mandelshtam's works was resumed.

His wife, Nadezhda Mandelstam (Nadezhda Mandelshtam), Hope Against Hope (1970, reissued 1989; originally published in Russian, 1970), and Hope Abandoned (1974, reissued 1989; originally published in Russian, 1972), memoirs by his wife, were published in the West in Russian and English.


Encyclopædia Britannica





Мы живем, под собою не чуя страны,

Наши речи за десять шагов не слышны,

А где хватит на полразговорца,

Там припомнят кремлёвского горца.

Его толстые пальцы, как черви, жирны,

А слова, как пудовые гири, верны,

Тараканьи смеются усища,

И сияют его голенища.


А вокруг него сброд тонкошеих вождей,

Он играет услугами полулюдей.

Кто свистит, кто мяучит, кто хнычет,

Он один лишь бабачит и тычет,

Как подкову, кует за указом указ:


Кому в пах, кому в лоб, кому в бровь, кому в глаз.

Что ни казнь у него - то малина

И широкая грудь осетина.


Ноябрь 1933



We live, deaf to the land beneath us,
Ten steps away no one hears our speeches,

All we hear is the Kremlin mountaineer,
The murderer and peasant-slayer.

His fingers are fat as grubs
And the words, final as lead weights, fall from his lips,

His cockroach whiskers leer
And his boot tops gleam.

Around him a rabble of thin-necked leaders -
fawning half-men for him to play with.

The whinny, purr or whine
As he prates and points a finger,

One by one forging his laws, to be flung
Like horseshoes at the head, to the eye or the groin.

And every killing is a treat
For the broad-chested Ossete *.

* Ossette is a reference to the rumour that Stalin was from a people of Iranian stock that lived in an area north of Georgia.

Translation by A.S. Kline reprinted in full on p. 102.— Russian Studies in Literature, vol. 42, no. 4, Fall 2006, pp. 73–102. M.E. Sharpe, Inc. University of Rochester ISSN 1061–1975/2006, article "This Is Not a Fact of Literature but an Act of Suicide", by Aleksandr Kushner





Куда как страшно нам с тобой,
Товарищ большеротый мой!

Ох, как крошится наш табак,
Щелкунчик, дружок, дурак!

А мог бы жизнь просвистать скворцом,
Заесть ореховым пирогом...

Да, видно, нельзя никак.

октябрь 1930



Que grande medo temos, tu e eu,

Seu boquinha de raia, amigo meu!


Oh, como se esfarela este tabaco,

Quebra-nozes compincha, meu velhaco!


E eu podia ter  assobiado a vida,

A bolinho de noz acompanhada,


Pois, mas não pode ser nada…


Outubro 1930





Мы с тобой на кухне посидим,
Сладко пахнет белый керосин.

Острый нож да хлеба каравай...
Хочешь, примус туго накачай,

А не то веревок собери
Завязать корзину до зари,

Чтобы нам уехать на вокзал,
Где бы нас никто не отыскал.

январь 1931




Nos sentaremos na cozinha quieta,

Tem cheiro doce o petróleo violeta;


Uma faca aguda, um pão redondo inteiro….

E tu avivando à bomba o fogareiro,


Se não, desencanta aí um cordel

P’ra atar uma trouxa antes de alvorecer,


E a estação do comboio será norte

Para ir onde ninguém nos encontre.


Janeiro 1931








Когда городская выходит на стогны луна,
И медленно ей озаряется город дремучий,
И ночь нарастает, унынья и меди полна,
И грубому времени воск уступает певучий,

И плачет кукушка на каменной башне своей,
И бледная жница, сходящая в мир бездыханный,
Тихонько шевелит огромные спины теней,

И желтой соломой бросает на пол деревянный...






Quando sai para os céus a lua citadina,

E a noite prenhe de cobre e mágoa cresce,

E de lua a cidade espessa se ilumina,

E a cera canora ao tempo rude cede,


E na sua torre de pedra o cuco chora,

E a pobre ceifeira – no mundo dessangrado –

Ajeita de leves agulhas da sombra enorme

E as lança, palha amarela, no sobrado…







Дано мне тело - что мне делать с ним,
Таким единым и таким моим?
За радость тихую дышать и жить
Кого, скажите, мне благодарить?

Я и садовник, я же и цветок,
В темнице мира я не одинок.

На стекла вечности уже легло
Мое дыхание, мое тепло.

Запечатлеется на нем узор,

Неузнаваемый с недавних пор.

Пускай мгновения стекает муть -
Узора милого не зачеркнуть.




O corpo me é dado – e com que fim,

Meu corpo único, tão de mim?


Pela alegria chã de respirar,

Silenciosa, a quem devo louvar?


Sou jardineiro e sou flor – cativo

Na prisão do mundo sozinho não vivo.


E já nos vidros da eternidade

Cai meu calor, meu sopro respirado.


Nela se grava um desenho p’ra sempre,

Irreconhecível de tão recente.


Escorra do momento a água turva –

O desenho amado não esbate à chuva.







Только детские книги читать,
Только детские думы лелеять,
Все большое далеко развеять,
Из глубокой печали возстать.

Я от жизни смертельно устал,
Ничего от нея не приемлю,
Но люблю мою бедную землю,
Оттого что иной не видал.

Я качался в далеком саду
На простой деревяанной качели,
И высокие темные ели
Вспоминаю в туманном бреду.





To read only children's books,
To have only childish thoughts,
To throw everything grown-up away,
To rise from deep sadness.

I am deathly tired of life,
I will accept nothing from it.
But I love my poor land,
For I have seen no other.

I rocked in a distant garden
On a plain wooden swing,
Tall dark fir trees
I recall in a hazy fever.






Мы живем под собою не чуя страны,
Наши речи за десять шагов не слышны,
А где хватит на полразговорца, -
Там помянут кремлевского горца.
Его толстые пальцы, как черви, жирны,
И слова, как пудовые гири, верны,
Тараканьи смеются усища,
И сияют его голенища.

А вокруг его сброд толстокожих вождей,
Он играет услугами полулюдей.

Кто свистит, кто мяучит, кто хнычет,
Он один лишь бабачит и тычет.

Как подковы кует за указом указ -
Кому в лоб, кому в бровь, кому в пах, кому в глаз.
Что ни казнь у него, то малина
И широкая грудь осетина.

ноябрь 1933


Vivemos sem sentir o país sob os pés,

Nem a dez passos ouvimos o que se diz,

E quando chegamos enfim à meia fala

O montanheiro do Kremlim lá vem à baila.

Dedos gordurosos como vérmina gorda,

As palavras certas como pesos de arroba.

Riem-se-lhe os bigodes de barata,

Reluzem-lhe os canos de bota alta.


À volta a escumalha – guias de fino pescoço –

Nas vénias da semigente ele brinca com gozo.

Um assobia, o outro geme, aquele mia,

Só ele trata por tu, escolhe companhia.

Como ferraduras, lei ‘trás de lei ele oferta,

Em cheio na virilha, olho e sobrolho e testa.

Cada morte que faz – crime malino

E o peitaço tem amplo, ossetino.


Novembro, 1933



Это какая улица?

Улица Мандельштама

Что за фамилия чертова -
Как ее ни вывертывай,
Криво звучит, а не прямо.
Мало в нем было линейного,
Нрава он был не лилейного,
И потому эта улица,
Или, верней, эта яма
Так и зовется по имени
Этого Мандельштама...

Апрель 1935




Que raio de rua é esta?

É a rua Mandelstam.

Mas que diabo de nome,

por mais voltas que lhe dês,

soa torto, enviesado.


Ele era pouco linear

e de jeito nada brando.

É por isso que esta rua,

ou melhor, este buraco,

se conhece pelo nome

de um tal Mandelstam.


Abril de 1935


De FOGO ERRANTE, Antologia poética, Óssip Mandelstam, Tradução de Nina Guerra e Filipe Guerra. Relógio de Água, Lisboa, Julho de 2001 ISBN 972-708-628-4



Московский дождик
     Он подает куда как скупо
     Свой воробьиный холодок —
     Немного нам, немного купам,
     Немного вишням на лоток.
     И в темноте растет кипенье —
     Чаинок легкая возня,
     Как бы воздушный муравейник
     Пирует в темных зеленях.
     Из свежих капель виноградник
     Зашевелился в мураве:
     Как будто холода рассадник
     Открылся в лапчатой Москве!



The Soft Moscow Rain


It shares so stingily

its sparrow cold –

a little for us, a little for the clumps of trees,

a little for the cherries for the hawker’s stall.


And a bubbling grows in the darkness,

the light fussing of tea-leaves,

as though an ant-hill in the air

were feasting in the dark green grass;


fresh drops stirred

like grapes in the grass,

as though the hot-bed of the cold

was revealed in web-footed Moscow.




Translation by Richard McKane              



Cf. Mandelstam’s prose sketch “A Cold Summer”: “[It seemed] as though a sack of ice which just wouldn’t melt was hidden in the thick greenery of Neskuchnyi Gardens, and coldness crawled out across the whole of the web-footed Moscow”. The tea-leaves convey the impression of birds in the sky; the ant-hill as an image of the populous city has its earliest Russian precedent in Dostoevsky.

Note by Michael Basker


Translation and Notes from “Ten Russian Poets, Surviving the Twentieth Century”, edited by Richard McKane, Anvil Press Poetry, London, 2003, ISBN 0 85646 328 0



А небо будущим беременно...

Опять войны разноголосица 

На древних плоскогорьях мира,
И лопастью пропеллер лоснится,
Как кость точеная тапира.
Крыла и смерти уравнение, -
С алгебраических пирушек
Слетев, он помнит измерение
Других эбеновых игрушек,
Врагиню ночь, рассадник вражеский,
Существ коротких ластоногих
И молодую силу тяжести:
Так начиналасть власть немногих...



Итак, готовьтесь жить во времени,
Где нет ни волка, ни тапира,
А небо будущим беременно -
Пшеницей сытого эфира.
А то сегодня победители
Кладбища лета обходили,
Ломали крылья стрекозиные
И молоточками казнили.



Давайте слушать грома проповедь,
Как внуки Себастьяна Баха,
А на востоке и на западе
Органные поставим крылья!
Давайте бросим бури яблоко
На стол пирующим землянам
И на стеклянном блюде облака
Поставим явств посередине.
Давайте все покроем заново
Камчатной скатертью пространства,
Переговариваясь, радуясь,
Друг другу подавая брашна.
На круговом, на мирном судьбище
Зарею кровь оледенится.
В беременном глубоком будущем
Жужжит большая медуница.



А вам, в безвеременьи летающим
Под хлыст войны за власть немногих, -
Хотя бы честь млекопитающих,
Хотя бы совесть ластоногих.
И тем печальнее, тем горше нам,
Что люди-птицы хуже зверя
И что стервятникам и коршунам
Мы поневоле больше верим.
Как шапка холода альпийского,
Из года в год, в жару и лето,
На лбу высоком человечества
Войны холодные ладони.
А ты, глубокое и сытое,
Забременевшее лазурью,
Как чешуя многоочитое,
И альфа и омега бури;
Тебе - чужое и безбровое,
Из поколенья в поколение, -
Всегда высокое и новое
Передается удивление.





The Sky is pregnant with the Future

Once more the cacophony of war

on the ancient plateaux of the world,

and the propeller’s blade glistens

like the sharpened bone of a tapir.

The equation of the wing and death,

having flown from the feasts

of algebra, remembers the measure

of other ebony toys,

the hostile night, the enemy breeding-ground

of short creatures, web-footed,

and the young force of gravity:

here began the power of the few.


So, prepare to live in the time

where there is no wolf, no tapir

and the heavens are pregnant with the future –

with the wheat of the sated ether.

For today the conquerors

went round the cemeteries of floght,

they broke the dragonfly wings

and executed with little hammers.


Let’s listen to the sermon if thunder

like the grandchildren of Sebastian Bach,

and let us place organ wings

in the east and in the west!

Let’s throw the apple of the storm

onto the table for the feasting earthlings

and let us place on a glass dish

a cloud in the middle of victuals.

Let’s cover all anew

with the damasked tablecloth of space,

talking things through, rejoicing,

giving food one to the other.

At the round Court of Peace

the blood will turn to ive at dawn,

in the deep, pregnant future

a huge honey-bee is buzzing.


And you, flying in timelessness

under the whip of war, for the power of the few –

if you only had the honour of mammals,

if you only had the conscience of the flipper-footed!

And the more sad, the more bitter it is for us

that bird-people are worse than beasts

and that unwillingly we have more trust in

carrion-crows and kites.

Like a hat of Alpine cold,

year in and year out, in the heat and summer

the cold palms of war

are on the high forehead of humanity.

And you, deep and sated,

having become pregnant with the azure,

scaled, many-eyed,

the alpha and omega of the storm,

to you – alien and eyebrowless –

from generation to generation

always a lofty and new

surprise is communicated.


1923, 1929

Translation by Richard McKane          



Written against the background of the Hague and Genoa Peace Conferences, the Rapallo Treaty between Germany and the USSR, and Mussolini’s rise to power. Section 1 describes the emergence of the aeroplane, the key to power, observing a foreshortened enemy from the Sky. Sections 2 and 3 seem to deal principally with anticipation of a Golden Age of peace, a higher phase of evolution, where poetry (wheat, honey-bees) can flourish in an organized, cosmic concord with distinctly Khlebnikovian overtones. There is reference to the destruction of German aviation under the Treaty of Versailles; the term for food in the third verse paragraph, brashna, suggests a meatless feast, in which (via Tyutchev) the chaos of night is covered over by the damask cloth. Section 4 begins despairingly: “timelessness” (via Blok) is the present anti-historical age, in which destructive pilots lack the conscience of beasts and war oppresses aspiring humanity. The conclusion seems deeply ambivalent: the pregnant sky may still promise harmony – or prove grotesquely indifferent and frighteningly unpredictable.

Note by Michael Basker

Translation and Notes from “Ten Russian Poets, Surviving the Twentieth Century”, edited by Richard McKane, Anvil Press Poetry, London, 2003, ISBN 0 85646 328 0



     Я чувствую непобeдимый страхъ
     Въ присутствiи таинственныхъ высотъ,
     Я ласточкой доволенъ въ небесахъ,
     И колокольни я люблю полетъ!
     И, кажется, старинный пeшеходъ,
     Надъ пропастью, на гнущихся мосткахъ,
     Я слушаю -- какъ снeжный комъ растетъ
     И вeчность бьетъ на каменныхъ часахъ.
     Когда бы такъ! Но я не путникъ тотъ,
     Мелькающiй на выцвeтшихъ листахъ,
     И подлинно во мнe печаль поетъ;
     Дeйствительно лавина есть въ горахъ!
     И вся моя душа -- въ колоколахъ --
     Но музыка отъ бездны не спасетъ!
    I feel a fear that I cannot defy
     In presence of the secretive above.
     Like swallow I am happy in the sky
     And loftiness of towers I love
     It seems as though the ancient overpass
     Over abyss on bending beams that groan
     I hear. A snowball grows and gathers mass,
     Eternity sounds on the hours of stone!
     When would it be! But it is not my role
     To dance on faded leaves and scream and hiss
     And sadness sings in me without control -
     I feel an avalanche in heaven's bliss!
     And in the bell tower you can find my soul
     But music will not save from the Abyss!






Я чувствую непобедимый страх
В присутвии таинственных высот.   
Я ласточкой довoпен в небесах
И копокoльни я люблю полет!
И, кажется,  старинный пешехoд,
Над  пропастью, на гнущихся  мосткх,
Я спушаю, как снежный ком растет
И вечность бьет на каменных часах.
Когда бы так! Но я не путник тот,
Мелькающий  на выцветших  листах,
И подлинно во мне печаль поет;
Действительно, лавина есть в горах!
И вся моя душа - в колоколах, спасет!




Sinto é um medo, um medo insuperável

Defronte das alturas misteriosas.

E dizer que me agradam andorinhas

No céu e do campanário o alto voo!


Caminheiro de outrora, cá me iludo

Pensando ouvir à borda do abismo

A pedra a ceder, a bola de neve,

O relógio batendo eternidade.


Se assim fosse! Mas não sou o peregrino

Que vem dos fólios antigos desbotados,

E o que em mim real canta é esta angústia:

Certo – desce uma avalancha das montanhas!

E toda a minha alma está nos sinos,

Só que a música não salva dos abismos!




За гремучую доблесть грядущих веков,
За высокое племя людей
Я лишился и чаши на пире отцов,
И веселья, и чести своей,
Мне на плечи кидается век-волкодав,
Но не волк я по крови своей,
Запихай меня лучше, как шапку, в рукав
Жаркой шубы сибирских степей.
Чтоб не видеть ни труса, ни хлипкой грязцы,
Ни кровавых костей в колесе,
Чтоб сияли всю ночь голубые песцы
Мне в своей первобытной красе,
Уведи меня в ночь, где течет Енисей
И сосна до звезды достает,
Потому что не волк я по крови своей
И меня только равный убьет.

17-28 марта 1931, конец 1935


Per l’alto valore dei secoli a venire,
per la nobile stirpe umana ho rinunciato
anche ad alzare il calice al banchetto dei padri
e alla letizia e al mio stesso onore.

Mi incalza alle spalle il secolo-canelupo,
ma non ho sangue di lupo nelle vene;
ficcami piuttosto come un cappello nella manica
della calda pelliccia delle steppe siberiane,

che io non veda il vigliacco, né il gracile lerciume,
né le ossa insanguinate sulla ruota,
e per me tutta notte brillino volpi azzurre
nella loro bellezza primigenia.

Portami via nella notte, dove scorre l’Enisej
e il pino si slancia a toccare la stella,
perché nelle mie vene non c’è sangue di lupo
e soltanto un mio pari potrà uccidermi.









Я вернулся в мой город, знакомый до слез,

До прожилок, до детских припухлых желез.


Ты вернулся сюда, так глотай же скорей

Рыбий жир ленинградских речных фонарей,


Узнавай же скорее декабрьский денек,

Где к зловещему дегтю подмешан желток.


Петербург! я еще не хочу умирать!

У тебя телефонов моих номера.


Петербург! У меня еще есть адреса,

По которым найду мертвецов голоса.


Я на лестнице черной живу, и в висок

Ударяет мне вырванный с мясом звонок,


И всю ночь напролет жду гостей дорогих,

Шевеля кандалами цепочек дверных.


Декабрь 1930


I've come back to my city. These are my own old tears,
my own little veins, the swollen glands of my childhood.
So you're back. Open wide. Swallow
the fish-oil from the river lamps of Leningrad.
Open your eyes. Do you know this December day,
the egg-yolk with the deadly tar beaten into it?
Petersburg! I don't want to die yet!
You know my telephone numbers.
Petersburg! I've still got the addresses:
I can look up dead voices.
I live on back stairs, and the bell,
torn out nerves and all, jangles in my temples.
A I wait till morning for guests that I love,
and rattle the door in chains.        
(December 1930)





Бессонница. Гомер. Тугие паруса.

Я список кораблей прочел до середины:

Сей длинный выводок, сей поезд журавлиный,

Что над Элладою когда-то поднялся.


Как журавлиный клин в чужие рубежи,-

На головах царей божественная пена,-

Куда плывете вы? Когда бы не Елена,

Что Троя вам одна, ахейские мужи?


И море, и Гомер - всё движется любовью.

Кого же слушать мне? И вот Гомер молчит,

И море черное, витийствуя, шумит

И с тяжким грохотом подходит к изголовью.





Nuit sans sommeil. Homère. Voilures étarquées.
J'ai lu jusqu'à moitié le Catalogue des vaisseaux:
cette longue nichée, cette volée de grues
qui sur l'Hellade un jour s'est déployée.

Triangle migrateur visant les rives neuves
la tête de tes rois dans l'écume divine
où courent tes vaisseaux ? Et si ce n'est Hélène,
qui vous appellent à Troie, ô guerriers achéens ?

Homère et l'océan, tout est mû par l'amour.
Moi, qui dois-je écouter? Homère ici se tait
et voici que la mer, ténébreuse, oratoire,
déferle pesamment à mon chevet."

Extrait de Mémoires d'Europe 1900-1993, Folio, page 117



Salvo indicação diferente, as traduções para português são de Nina Guerra e Filipe Guerra e foram extraídas de Ossip Mandelstam, Guarda minha fala para sempre,  Documenta Poetica n.º 35, Assírio & Alvim, Lisboa.






Poetic Injustice

Osip Mandelstam claimed Russian as the "pure and clear" medium of great literature. His misfortune was to be an artist in a political age.

By Adam Kirsch

"My animal, my age," wrote Osip Mandelstam in 1923, "who will ever be able/to look into your eyes?" In Stalin's Russia, few writers looked directly into the murderous eyes of the age and lived. Strangely, it was the poets—seemingly the least threatening of writers—who suffered the most. Lev Gumilyov was executed by a firing squad in 1921, leaving his ex-wife, Anna Akhmatova, to face decades of harassment and censorship; Marina Tsvetaeva committed suicide in 1941, after years of persecution; Peretz Markish was executed, along with other
Jewish writers, in 1952.

But it was Mandelstam who became the emblematic martyr of poetry under Communism. This is partly because he was, by common consent, one of the greatest Russian poets who ever lived; in the words of his successor Joseph Brodsky, "what he did will last as long as the Russian language exists." For readers who can only approach Mandelstam's poetry through the distorting scrim of translation, however, his legend is based largely on his wife Nadezhda's great memoir, Hope Against Hope, first published in 1970. As Brodsky said, "one would instantly understand—even without knowing a single line by Mandelstam—that it is indeed a great poet being recalled in these pages, because of the quantity and energy of the evil directed against him." This evil took the form of slander, censorship, arrest, exile, and finally imprisonment in the Gulag, where Mandelstam died—officially, of a heart attack—in 1938.

It was Mandelstam's misfortune to be a pure artist in a generation doomed to politics: "The wolfhound age springs at my shoulders/Though I'm no wolf by blood." He was born in 1891, to a Jewish family in Warsaw. Unlike the vast majority of Jews in the Russian Empire, the Mandelstams were able, thanks to business connections, to escape the Pale of Settlement, moving to St. Petersburg while their son was still very young. (The exact date, like much about Mandelstam's early life, remains unknown.) It was as a Petersburger, then, that Mandelstam was raised, and the city became one of the central subjects of his work. In a poem written in 1930, he would assert his claim to the city the Soviets renamed Leningrad:

I've come back to my city. These are my own old tears,
my own little veins, the swollen glands of my childhood...

Petersburg! I've still got the addresses:
I can look up dead voices.

Mandelstam's anomalous position as a Jew in the Russian capital helped to fuel his intense need to claim and be claimed. His poetry, saturated in Russian history and classical myth, almost never treats Jewish subjects; Judaism is the only major part of the European cultural inheritance that Mandelstam holds at arm's length. His deep discomfort with Jewishness began in childhood, as he records in his impressionistic memoir The Noise of Time. From the beginning, the future poet saw the choice between Russian and Jewish identities as a choice between languages:

In my childhood I absolutely never heard Yiddish....The speech of my mother was clear and sonorous without the least foreign admixture, with rather wide and too open vowels—the literary Great Russian language. Her vocabulary was poor and restricted, the locutions were trite, but it was a language, it had roots and confidence. Mother loved to speak and took joy in the roots and sounds of her Great Russian speech, impoverished by intellectual clichés. Was she not the first of her whole family to achieve pure and clear Russian sounds? My father had absolutely no language; his speech was tongue-tie and languagelessness. The Russian speech of a Polish Jew? No. The speech of a German Jew? No again.... it was anything in the world, but not a language, neither Russian nor German.

Whenever Jewishness appears in The Noise of Time, it takes the form of an ugly and alien language. When his family makes a rare visit to the synagogue, the young Mandelstam notes "how offensive was the crude speech of the rabbi...how utterly vulgar all that he said!" When he travels to visit his grandparents in Riga, his grandfather tries to teach him to pray in Hebrew, with miserable results: "my grandfather drew from a drawer of a chest a black-and-yellow silk cloth, put it around my shoulders, and made me repeat after him words composed of unknown sounds; but, dissatisfied with my babble, he grew angry and shook his head in disapproval. I felt stifled and afraid." When his parents hire a "real Jewish teacher" for him, Mandelstam's first impression is that "his correct Russian sounded false."

All of these incidents help to explain why Mandelstam titled one chapter of his memoir "The Judaic Chaos." Judaism, for him, meant an archaic, incomprehensible, embarrassing language; Russian was the "pure and clear" medium of great literature. The ferocity with which he cleaved to Russian and Russianness verges at times on downright self-hatred. Reading the stories in his Hebrew primer, he remembers, "I saw nothing of myself...and with all my being revolted against the book and the subject." In part, such a reaction can be ascribed to Mandelstam's predicament as a Jew in gentile Petersburg. But just as important was his conviction that a poet's connection with his language must be exclusive and primeval:

Sweeter to me
than the singing speech of Italy
is the language to which I was born.
Notes of remote harps well up in it
in secret.

The problem of language, which did so much to shape Mandelstam's identity, is still central to how we approach his work. Russian poetry, unlike Russian prose, has very rarely been translated successfully into English. "It has always been difficult for Westerners...to believe in the greatness of Pushkin," noted Edmund Wilson; W.H. Auden complained, "I don't see why Mandelstam is considered a great poet. The translations that I've seen don't convince me at all."

Now readers have another chance to be convinced by one of the first English translations of Mandelstam, just brought back into print by New York Review Books. Selected Poems of Osip Mandelstam, translated by the eminent poet W.S. Merwin and the Mandelstam specialist Clarence Brown, first came out in 1974. Brown, a Russian scholar at Princeton, was instrumental in bringing Mandelstam to the English-speaking world, writing the first biography of the poet and translating his essays and memoirs. This volume had its origins in the translations Brown roughed out for use in his biography; he and Merwin worked together to turn them into viable English poems.

But are they faithful reflections of what Mandelstam wrote? Joseph Brodsky, a formidable authority, insisted that they were not. In his essay on Mandelstam, "The Child of Civilization" (it can be found in his essay collection Less Than One), Brodsky took aim at translators who turn Mandelstam's rigorously formal poems into free verse. "Calls for the use of 'an instrument of poetry in our own time,'" Brodsky insisted, mean stripping Mandelstam of his extremely dense verbal music; the result is "a sort of common denominator of modern verbal art." "The cavalier treatment" of meter and rhyme, Brodsky wrote hyperbolically, "is at best a sacrilege, at worst a mutilation or a murder."

The Merwin-Brown translation is one of the sacrileges he had in mind. The phrase he quotes so derisively comes from Brown's introduction: "We have tried to translate Mandelstam into the English that works as an instrument of poetry in our own time." In this they are successful, at least in the sense that their versions are idiomatic. Certainly they avoid the kind of awkward, stilted rhymes that Brodsky himself produced when he tried to translate his own work into English. Whether the result is close to Mandelstam, only a reader fluent in both Russian and English—that is, a reader who doesn't need a translation in the first place—can say for sure. All Brown ventures to guarantee is that "we have not consciously invented thoughts or images that the original could in no sense warrant."

The problem of translation is made still more complicated, in Mandelstam's case, by the fact that he is an exceptionally difficult poet, even in Russian. (Several translators have since tried their hand at bringing him into English, including Bernard Meares, James Green, and Richard and Elizabeth McKane; read a
discussion of their comparative merits.) Mandelstam belonged to the generation of T.S. Eliot, and took part in a Russian literary movement, Acmeism, that was roughly analogous to Anglo-American Modernism. His work has the density, free association, and accelerated movement typical of high modernist poetry; as Brown writes, Mandelstam shares "the intuitive and purely verbal logic...of Mallarmé."

To read these Selected Poems, then, is not to understand Mandelstam fully—even in the way that certain parts of Eliot can be understood poetically even as they remain opaque. Instead, Merwin and Brown offer glimpses of magnificence. Here is the early Mandelstam of Stone (1913), praising the strict classicism of Petersburg's Admiralty building:

An aerial ship and a touch-me-not mast,
a yardstick for Peter's successors, teaching
that beauty is no demi-god's whim,
it's the plain carpenter's fierce rule-of-eye.

Here, as often, Merwin makes Mandelstam sound rather like Robert Lowell, another poet obsessed by history. In the poems of Tristia (1922), his second book, Mandelstam evokes distant times and places with remarkable suggestiveness:

O Venice, the weight of your garments
and of your mirrors in their cypress frames!
Your air is cut in facets, and mountains
of blue decayed glass melt in the bedchamber.

Perhaps the most powerful phase of Mandelstam's writing came in the first half of the 1920s, when he composed his great odes: "He Who Finds a Horseshoe," "The Slate Ode," "1 January 1924." These poems have something of Hölderlin's cosmic vision, and something of Yeats's hieratic grandeur:

Now I study the scratched diary
of the slate's summer,
the language of flint and air,
a layer of darkness, a layer of light.
I want to thrust my hand
into the flint path from an old song
as into a wound, and hold together
the flint and the water, the horseshoe and the ring.

In the late 1920s Mandelstam fell silent, increasingly oppressed by the regimentation of Soviet literature. When he started to write again, in 1930, he was more shockingly explicit than ever in his resistance to the "wolfhound age." It was a poem about Stalin that led to his first arrest in 1934:


Our lives no longer feel ground under them.
At ten paces you can't hear our words.

But wherever there's a snatch of talk
it turns to the Kremlin mountaineer,

the ten thick worms his fingers,
his words like measures of weight,

the huge laughing cockroaches on his top lip,
the glitter of his boot-rims.

After his imprisonment, Mandelstam was physically and mentally shattered; he even tried to commit suicide by jumping out a window. In the three years he and Nadezhda spent in exile in Voronezh, Osip Mandelstam produced the work known as the "Voronezh Notebooks," which his widow managed to preserve through decades of persecution. In these last poems, most of them brief and fragmentary, Mandelstam writes as one already condemned to die, but still determined to bear witness:

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

The Merwin-Brown Selected Poems gives us only a partial view of Mandelstam. For one thing, some of his most famous poems, such as "Hagia Sophia" and "Notre Dame," are not included. More crucial, as Brodsky pointed out, is the question of form: Russian formal verse is a medium essentially different from American free verse. There is no way to guess at all the associations and implications, the echoes and nuances, that a Russian reader finds in Mandelstam. Perhaps all an English reader can do is try to conjecture an original from the wide range of copies produced by different translators. For this purpose, the Merwin-Brown version remains important and valuable.

Adam Kirsch is the book critic of the New York Sun.