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Osip Mandelstam was a twentieth-century Russian poet associated with the Acmeist movement, which rejected the mysticism and obscurity of the Symbolists and attempted to restore clarity to poetic language. A diehard nonconformist, his attempts to maintain his artistic independence after the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 resulted in ostracism, exile, and ultimately, death in Joseph Stalin’s labor camps. After Stalin’s death in 1953 (and long after his own death), Mandelstam was “rehabilitated” and his work has undergone a revival.

Works in Biographical and Historical Context

Beyond the Pale, Childhood from Warsaw to St. Petersburg

Osip Emil’evich Mandelstam was born on January 3, 1891, in Warsaw, then a part of Russia, into a middle-class Jewish family. His father, a leather merchant, paid for permission for his family to leave the ”Pale of Settlement” where most Jews lived. They settled in St. Petersburg, where they lived relatively free of anti-Semitic hostility. Mandelstam attended the Tenishev Commercial School, obtaining an excellent education. He began to write poetry while still in secondary school.

”Towers We Can Build Ourselves”

Mandelstam described his ethnic background as ”Jewish chaos,” and he always experienced a tension between his Jewish home life and the Russian iteration of Western European culture. After graduating from Tenishev, he continued his education abroad, attending both the Sorbonne in Paris and the University of Heidelberg in Germany. Fluent in French and German, he learned enough Italian to quote lines from Dante by heart. Back in Russia by the fall of 1911, he enrolled in St. Petersburg University. Like some nonreligious Jews seeking career advancement, he converted to Christianity (though not the state-sanctioned Russian Orthodox Church).

While still a student, he joined the Guild of Poets and grew close to poets Nikolai Gumilev and Anna Akhmatova. A new literary movement, called Acmeism, emerged from the gatherings of this guild, with Mandel-tam as one of its leaders and theorists. The Acmeists disdained what they considered the vagueness and excessive metaphysical bent of Symbolism, Russia’s dominant poetic genre at the time. The Acmeists sought not to fly too high, Mandelstam wrote, but rather ”to rise only to the level of towers we can build ourselves.”

His first collection of poetry, Stone (1913), exhibits the transition from Symbolism to the new Acmeist aesthetic. The poems are direct, intuitive expressions of thoughts, feelings, and observations. They celebrate triumphs of culture such as feats of Roman and Byzantine architecture, and the city of St. Petersburg itself. The collection immediately established Mandelstam in the upper echelon of Russian poets.

A Nonconformist: Putting Self before State

Unfortunately for Mandelstam, the 1910s were hardly a prosperous decade for establishing oneself as a poet in Russia. Before the First World War came to an end, Russia erupted in 1917 into revolution, and the Bolsheviks who took control soon began bending art, and artists, to propagandistic ends. Mandelstam had supported the revolution early on, but had difficulty applying his creativity to the political ends of Russia’s new government. Instead, he promoted his own humanism, and soon earned reproach from those artists and intellectuals who saw service to the State as the highest form of humanism. Legend has Mandelstam exhibiting his independence of mind at a party in 1918: When he saw Yakov Blumkin, the deputy chief of security, drunkenly signing execution orders for alleged counterrevolutionaries, Mandelstam snatched the papers and tore them to shreds.

In 1919, he met his future wife, Nadezhda Iakovlevna Khazine. They were married in 1922 and moved to Moscow, the year the revolution achieved its own consolidation and the Soviet Union as such was formed. Their acquaintance that year with Nikolai Bukharin, a leading figure in the government, proved a very helpful relationship over the next decade. That year, Mandelstam also published his second poetry collection, Tristia, a book that implicitly celebrates the individual over the masses and love over comradeship—subversive views in a Communist society.

The Mandelstams returned to St. Petersburg, now called Leningrad, in 1924—the year of the death of Vladimir Ilych Lenin, leader of the revolution and early Soviet Union. It was becoming increasingly difficult for the nonconformist Mandelstam to maintain himself as a poet. He never joined the groups that controlled the literary scene under the progressively intrusive guidance of the Communist Party. Other artists who had adopted his defiant stance, such as Nikolai Gumilev, had already been executed. He made a living as a translator, journalist, and children’s writer. In 1925, however, he published an autobiographical prose work, The Noise of Time. The authorities were again displeased with this work’s emphasis on its author’s personal story.

Scandal and Exile

In 1928, the year Josef Stalin consolidated his rule of the Communist Party and with it the Soviet Union, Mandelstam—despite continued antagonism from state officials—managed to produce three more volumes: The Egyptian Stamp, a surreal, stream-of-consciousness novella about the sufferings of a Russian Jew; Poems, his final and most complete collection of poems in a more complex style reflecting his maturation as a lyricist; and On Poetry, a collection of his literary criticism. The influence of Bukharin, a poetry enthusiast in Stalin’s ruling circle, helps explain Mandelstam’s success at getting his work into print.

His fortunes changed the following year, when he was falsely accused of plagiarism. Mandelstam was exonerated, but the scandal and negative publicity damaged his reputation. Bukharin interceded and managed to have Mandelstam and his wife sent to Armenia as journalists. After a six-month journey, Mandelstam returned in 1930; his travel account, Journey to Armenia, was the last work he published during his lifetime. It appeared in 1933 in the literary magazine Zvezda (Star), whose editor lost his job for publishing it.

Mandelstam sped his own demise when he wrote, in 1933, a satirical poem characterizing Stalin as a gleeful executioner with a cockroach moustache. This sixteen-line poem, known as the ”Stalin Epigram,” may have been Mandelstam’s response to the great famine brought about by Stalin’s policies of agrarian collectivization— where individual farmers were forced to turn their crops over to the government for distribution. Mandelstam read the offending poem to a small group, and was soon arrested and tortured. Quite likely, Bukharin saved his friend from execution or the notorious labor camps—this time. Instead, Mandelstam was exiled to the Ural Mountains. After he attempted suicide in a hospital in Cherdyn, his sentence was softened, and eventually he was allowed to settle in Voronezh, a provincial capital south of Moscow. He wrote three notebooks of haunting poetry there, fearlessly depicting his hardships and criticizing the murderous Stalin. His wife preserved these documents and published them after his death as The Voronezh Notebooks (published posthumously in 1980).

Death and Rehabilitation

By May of 1937, Mandelstam’s sentence was over, but he and Nadezhda were not allowed to settle within one hundred kilometers of Moscow. The state had seized their house; homeless and destitute, he suffered two heart attacks. Furthermore, the literary establishment attacked him in print, and he was rearrested as a counterrevolutionary in May of 1938—at the behest of the General Secretary of the Leningrad Writers’ Union. He was sentenced to five years in a Siberian labor camp, and died that December of an unknown illness while in transit. He was one of millions to die in connection with Stalin’s deeply paranoid state security policies, which encouraged denunciation of one’s fellows and punished suspected ”enemies of the state” with implacable ferocity, if also a certain arbitrariness.

After Stalin’s death, Mandelstam was posthumously deemed rehabilitated and exonerated of the charge of counterrevolutionary activity. His widow, Nadezhda, published two memoirs in the 1970s, which helped revive interest in his writing. Mandelstam has come to be recognized, particularly in the West, as one of the Russian language’s greatest, most inspiring poets.

Works in Literary Context

Mandelstam was a Russian ”Westernist” who derived much of his inspiration from sources foreign to his cultural background, including Charles Dickens, Edgar Allan Poe, French Symbolists such as Charles Baudelaire and Paul Verlaine, and the classical mythology of the ancient Greek world. Mandelstam’s poetry is rich in quotations from and allusions to both Russian and world literature, art, music, and architecture; a great deal of cultural knowledge is necessary to fully appreciate Mandelstam’s work.

From Symbolism to Acmeism

As a young man in St. Petersburg, Mandelstam attended the literary salon of Viacheslav Ivanov, the well-known Symbolist poet, whose work encompassed metaphysical, occult concerns. Mandelstam’s early poetry is clearly influenced by Ivanov in its Symbolist imagery and neo-Romantic ethos, but he broke away when he joined the Guild of Poets with Gumilev and Akhmatova. In 1913, Mandelstam penned The Morning of Acmeism, the manifesto for the new movement. The Acmeists would steer away from Ivanov’s mysticism toward its polar opposite, order and clarity. Their voice would be direct and unpretentious, and it would embrace as supreme the achievements of human culture. Mandelstam’s first book of poetry, Stone, is considered the movement’s finest achievement—the acme of Acmeism.

Time and the Word

Stone introduces the reader to aspects of Mandelstam’s verse that are apparent in later collections. His poetry is logocentric—defined by language, the organ through which man perceives and tries to master the world. ”The living Word,” manifested in many ways, is one of Mandelstam’s main themes. The theme of time is also central to Mandelstam’s poetry. He embraces a ”pan-chronic’ vision, in which memory can link vast distances in space and time to form an organic whole. Prime examples of this vision are his poems devoted to great edifices, such as ”Notre Dame” (1913), in which the poet connects biblical Eden, ancient Egypt and Rome, the Gothic Middle Ages, and the modern day. Similarly, in ”Hagia Sophia” (1913), there is a communion of classical, Christian, and contemporary figures.

Works in Critical Context

Mandelstam’s poetry combines the virtues of musicality and intellectual challenge. It can be read and appreciated on different levels. Some commentators have derided his verse, with its refined aesthetic and copious references to works of art and architecture, as dispassionate and detached from the concerns of the world outside art. Other critics have demonstrated, however, that Mandelstam was sensitive to and often reacted to the events of the rapidly changing world around him. The poem ”The Age” (from his 1928 collection), for example, expresses his hopes and apprehensions for the future of postrevolutionary Russia.

In the years since his rehabilitation, Mandelstam has been recognized as one of the most important Russian writers of the twentieth century, most significantly in his homeland, where he was once reduced to the status of literary ”nonperson.” During the Cold War, his work gained widespread attention in the West. His verse has been translated into many languages and published in many collections. The scholarly literature on him is voluminous and growing rapidly. Generally, the poems in Stone and Tristia are judged superior to those produced in the 1930s; however, recent studies of his later poetry take issue with this view. As Ervin C. Brody writes in his introduction to Poems from Mandelstam, a collection translated by R. H. Morrison:

No Soviet poet of modern sensibility reflected so intensively as Mandelstam the loss of historical and philosophical self-assurance and the emerging discrepancies between state order and the isolation of individual consciousness…. He was chiefly concerned with the preservation of Russia’s cultural and moral heritage, and his best poetry attests to the survival of art and consciousness.

References:

  1. Baines, Jennifer. Mandelstam: The Later Poetry. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1976.
  2. Brown, Clarence. Mandelstam. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1973.
  3. Broyde, Steven. Osip Mandel’shtam and His Age: A Commentary on the Themes of War and Revolution in the Poetry, 1913-1923. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1975.
  4. Cavanagh, Clare. Osip Mandelstam and the Modernist Creation of Tradition. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1995.
  5. Freidin, Gregory. A Coat of Many Colors: Osip Mandelstam and his Mythologies of Self-Presentation. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1987.
  6. Isenberg, Charles. Substantial Proofs of Being: Osip Mandelstam’s Literary Prose. Columbus, Ohio: Slavica, 1986.
  7. Mandelstam, Nadezhda Iakovlevna. Hope Abandoned. New York: Atheneum, 1974.
  8. –. Hope Against Hope. New York: Atheneum, 1972.
  9. Pollak, Nancy. Mandelstam the Reader. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995.
  10. Przybylski, Ryszard. An Essay on the Poetry of Osip Mandelstam: God’s Grateful Guest. Trans. Madeline G. Levine. Ann Arbor, Mich.: Ardis, 1987.
  11. Ronen, Omry. An Approach to Mandelstam. Jerusalem: Magnes, 1983.
  12. Zeeman, Peter. The Later Poetry of Osip Mandelstam: Text and Context. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1988.
  13. Bukhshtab, Boris Iakovlevich. ”The Poetry of Mandel’stam.” Russian Literature Triquarterly 1 (1971): 262-82.
  14. Rayfield, Donald. ”Mandelstam’s Voronezh Poetry.” Russian Literature Triquarterly 11 (1975): 323-62.

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