Biography Osip Emilevich Mandelstam

Osip Emilevich Mandelstam

photo of Osip Emilevich Mandelstam
  • Time Period1891 - 1938
  • Place
  • CountryPoland

Poet Biography

Osip Mandelstam, also Osip Mandel'shtam, was born in Warsaw and grew up in St.Petersburg. His father was a successful leather-goods dealer and his mother a piano teacher. Mandelstam's parents were Jewish, but not very religious. At home Mandelstam was taught by tutors and governesses. He attended the prestigious Tenishev School (1900-07) and traveled then to Paris (1907-08) and Germany (1908-10), where he studied Old French literature at the University of Heidelberg (1909-10). In 1911-17 he studied philosophy at St. Petersburg University but did not graduate. Mandelstam was member of 'Poets Guild' from 1911 and hand close personal ties with Anna Akhmatova and Nikolai Gumilev. His first poems appeared in 1910 in the journal Apollon.

As a poet Mandelstam gained fame with the collection 'KAMEN' (Stone), which appeared in 1913. The subject matters ranged from music to such triumphs of culture as the Roman classical architecture and the Byzantine cathedral of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople. It was followed by 'TRISTIA' (1922), which confirmed his position as a poet, and 'STIKHOTVORENIA' 1921-25, (1928). In Tristia Mandelstam made connections with the classical world and contemporary Russia as in Kamen, but among the new themes was the notion of exile. The mood is sad, the poet is saying his farewells: "I have studied science of saying good-by in 'bareheaded laments at night'.

Mandelstam welcomed February 1917 Revolution but he was hostile at first to October 1917 Revolution. In 1918 he worked briefly for Anatoly Lunacharskii's Education Ministry in Moskow. With his frequent visits to the south Mandelstam avoided much of the troubles that complicated everyday life during the Civil War. After Revolution his views about contemporary poetry became harsh. The poetry of young people was for him a ceaseless cry of an infant, Mayakovsky was childish and Marina Tsvetaeva tasteless. He only accepted Pasternak and also admired Akhmatova.

In 1922 Mandelstam married Madezhda Iokovlevna Khazin, who accompanied him throughout his years of exile and imprisonment. In the 1920s Mandelstam supported himself by writing children's books and translating works by Upton Sinclair, Jules Romains, Charles de Coster and others. He did not compose poems from 1925 to 1930 but turned to prose. In 1930 he made a trip to Armenia. Mandelstam saw his role as an outsider and drew parallels with his fate and Pushkin's. The importance of preserving the cultural tradition became for the poet a central concern. The Soviet cultural authorities were rightly suspicious of his loyalty to the Bolshevik rule. To escape his influential enemies Mandelstam traveled as a journalist in the distant provinces. Mandelstam's Journey to Armenia (1933) became his last major work published during his life time.

'We live, deaf to the land beneath us,
Ten steps away no one hears our speeches,
But where there's so much as a half a conversation
The Kremlin's mountaineer will get his mention.'
(from 'Stalin' 1934)

Mandelstam was arrested first time in 1934 for epigram he had written on Joseph Stalin. 'And every killing is a treat, For the broad-chested Ossete.' Stalin took a personal interst in Mandelstam and also had a telephone conversation with Boris Pasternak, asking whether he had been present when the lampoon about himself, Stalin, was recited by Mandelstam. Pasternak answered that it seemed to him of no importance but he wanted to speak with Stalin about very important matters. Mandelstam was exiled to Cherdyn. After suicide attempt, his sentence was commuted to exile in Voronezh, ending in 1937. In his notebooks from Voronezh (1935-37) Mandelstam wrote 'He thinks in bone and feels with his brow and tries to recall his human form', eventually the poet identifies himself with Stalin, his tormentor, cut off from humanity.

During this period Mandelstam wrote for Natasha Shtempel, his brave friend in the hard conditions, a poem in which he again gave women the role of mourning and preserving: 'To accompany the resurrected and to be the first, to welcome the dead is their vocation. And to demand caresses from them is criminal.'

Mandelstam was arrested for 'counter-revolutionary' activities in May 1938 and sentenced to five years in a labour camp. Interrogated by Nikolay Shivarov, he confessed that he had written a counter-revolutionary a poem which started with the lines: 'We live without sensing the country beneath us, At ten paces, our speech has no sound and when there's the will to half-open our mouths
the Kremlin crag-dweller bars the way.'
In the transit camp, Mandelstam was already so weak that he couldn't stand. He died in the Gulag Archipelago in Vtoraia rechka, near Vladivostok, on December 27, 1938.His body was taken to a common grave.

International fame Mandelstam started to acclaim in the 1970s, when his works were published in the West and in the Soviet Union. His widow Nadezhda Mandelstam published her memoirs 'HOPE AGAINST HOPE' (1970) and 'HOPE ABANDONED' (1974), which depicted their life and Stalin era. Mandelstam's 'Voronez poems', published in 1990, are the closest approximation what the poet planned to write if he had survived.

Mandelstam wrote a wide range of essays. 'Conversations about Dante' has been considered a masterpiece of modern criticism with its fanciful use of analogies. Mandelstam writes that Pushkin's 'splendid white teeth are the masculine pearls of Russian poetry.' He sees the Divine Comedy as a"journey with conversations" and draws attention to Dante's use of colors. The text is constantly compared to music. "I compare, therefore I am,' so Dante might have put it. He was the Descartes of metaphor. Because matter is revealed to our consciousness (and how could we experience someone else's?) through metaphor alone, because there is no existence outside comparison, because existence itself is comparion."