Some days ago, I went to the exhibition “Ossip Mandelstam – Wort und Schicksal (word and destiny)” in Heidelberg’s oldtown. The Jewish Russian poet and essayist was a student at Heidelberg University in 1909/10, and it was here that he started writing. His tragic life shows how much our lives are influenced by policy-makers and that beautiful art always finds a way to come to the surface.
In 1913, when Mandelstam was 22, his first collection of poems “The Stone” was published. His early poems reveal that Mandelstam was a gifted writer, and destined to become one of Russia’s best modern poets.
What shall I do with this body they gave me,
so much my own, so intimate with me?
For being alive, for the joy of calm breath,
tell me, who should I bless?
I am the flower, and the gardener as well,
and am not solitary, in earth’s cell.
My living warmth, exhaled, you can see,
on the clear glass of eternity.
A pattern set down,
until now, unknown.
Breath evaporates without trace,
but form no one can deface.
Mandelstam was well-known in Russian literary circles, but not able to earn a living as a poet. The October Revolution in 1917 was a turning point in his life, because Stalin and his followers brutally silenced all critical voices. Mandelstam started to store his poems in his memory, instead of writing them down. Together with his wife Nadeschda, he was forced to live in inner exile in different places, such as Moscow, St. Petersburg, and Tiflis.
I don’t remember the word I wished to say.
The blind swallow returns to the hall of shadow,
on shorn wings, with the translucent ones to play.
The song of night is sung without memory, though.
No birds. No blossoms on the dried flowers.
The manes of night’s horses are translucent.
An empty boat drifts on the naked river.
Lost among grasshoppers the word’s quiescent.
It swells slowly like a shrine, or a canvas sheet,
hurling itself down, mad, like Antigone,
or falls, now, a dead swallow at our feet.
with a twig of greenness, and a Stygian sympathy.
to bring back the diffidence of the intuitive caress,
and the full delight of recognition.
I am so fearful of the sobs of The Muses,
the mist, the bell-sounds, perdition.
Mortal creatures can love and recognise: sound may
pour out, for them, through their fingers, and overflow:
I don’t remember the word I wished to say,
and a fleshless thought returns to the house of shadow.
The translucent one speaks in another guise,
always the swallow, dear one, Antigone….
on the lips the burning of black ice,
and Stygian sounds in the memory
Mandelstam composed a vituperative poem directed against Stalin in 1933, and got arrested, tortured, and banished. In 1938, Mandelstam died in a prison in Wladiwostok. Fortunately, his wife Nadeschda and his friends could remember many of his poems and save them for later generations.
The sad truth is that Mandelstam’s tragic life is nothing special. Even today, critical writers are monitored and face punishment in all parts of the world.
Night, maybe you don’t need
From the world’s reach,
a shell without a pearl’s seed,
I’m thrown on your beach.
You move indifferent seas,
and always sing,
but you will still be pleased,
with this superfluous thing.
You lie nearby on the shore,
wrapped in your chasuble,
and the great bell of the waves’ roar,
you will fasten to the shell.
Your murmuring foam will kiss
the walls of the fragile shell,
with wind and rain and mist,
like a heart where nothing dwells.
– Ossip Mandelstam
(translation of poems by A. S. Kline)