Son of a leather merchant with a passion for German philosophy, Emil Veniaminovich Mandelshtam, and a gifted piano teacher, Flora Osipovna Verblovskaya. Osip Emilievich Mandelshtam was born in Warsaw, but raised with his two brothers in the cultural milieu of St. Petersburg's bourgeois intelligentsia. He attended the Tenishev Commercial School, whose director, Vladimir Vasilievich Gippius, poet, member of the Poets' Guild (Tsekh poetov), and author of ingenious critical essays, Mandelshtam revered as a unique influence on his formative years. After graduation in 1907, he travelled abroad, first to Paris (1907-08) and, following an interim year in St. Petersburg, to Germany (1909-10), to study Old French literature at the University of Heidelberg. In St. Petersburg, he attended both Vyacheslav Ivanov's Tower and meetings of the St. Petersburg Society of Philosophy. His first published poems appeared in August 1910 in Apollon. In 1911, he was baptized in the Vyborg Methodist Church, enrolled in the Department of History and Philology at the University of St. Petersburg, and joined Gumilyov's Poets' Guild, becoming an active member of the future Acmeist nucleus. Although Mandelshtam's initial poetic efforts were sent to Ivanov for comment and approval, by 1910 his essay, "Francois Villon" already expressed his basic Acmeist orientation. Stone (Kamen'), his first book of poems, appeared in 1913, concurrently with the publication of "Francois Villon" and the Acmeist manifestoes and programmatic verse in Apollon. Stone brought Mandelshtam instant recognition as one of Russia's finest young talents. Technically elegant, full of original perceptions and striking details, his earliest poetry concerned the precise depletion of human culture, from the human body to the choreography of a tennis match, from the music of Bach and Beethoven to the comparison of "silence" and "muteness" ("Silentium"), from Hagia Sophia to Notre Dame. His programmatic poem, 'Notre Dame', elucidates his manifesto, 'Morning of Acmeism'. Mandelshtam's poetry divides easily into two major periods, the published collections (poems of 1908-25) and the unpublished notebooks (poems of 1930-37), preserved by his wife, Nadezhda Mandelshtam, until they could be printed abroad. The published poetry includes Stone (Kamen', 1913, second, enlarged edition 1916, third edition as Pervaya kniga stikhov, 1923), Tristia (1922, republished as Vtoraya kniga, 1923), and Poems (Stikhotvoreniya, 1928) Poems contains the early poetry plus twenty new poems, "1921-1925 "
The poems of the 1920s differ from the earlier lyrics in their semantic density, form, and theme. Their inspiration is far more personal, meditative, and even metaphysical, evoking the dominant themes of Time, the Age, and the Poet. Experimentation with length, structural complexity, and rhythm, rhetorical questions, the contrasting motifs of power and frailty, and the emphasis on themes and images of contemporaneity, history, conscience, illness, death, darkness, and winter, bring these poems closer to the literary prose which dominates Mandelshtam's oeuvre in the 1920s and early 1930s.
The last five collections, which comprise over two-thirds of Mandelshtam's poetry, assure his reputation as the finest Russian poet of the 20th century. As the early poetry is illuminated by the manifestoes and prose essays of the 1910s and early 1920s, so the later poetry reflects the prose of the later 1920s and 1930s. A trip to Armenia in 1930, Nadezhda Mandelshtam claims, returned the gift of poetry to Osip Mandelshtam. Armenia, the image of promise and hope, figures in Fourth Prose and Journey to Armenia.
The last five collections include The First Moscow Notebook (October 1930-October 1931), The Second Moscow Notebook (May 1932-February 1934), The First Voronezh Notebook (April-July, 1935), The Second Voronezh Notebook (December 1936-February 1937), and The Third Voronezh Notebook (March-May 1937).
During the 1930s, the poet's life became his basic lyric material, as distinct from the monuments of human culture represented in the early volumes and the predominantly Man-centered meditations of the 1920s. The poet's personal life unites the five Notebooks, combining Mandelshtam's tragic vision—prescience of his own death and the death of culture—with his inimitable spirit of love and defiance. The Notebooks record the signs in the universe signaling that all is not lost and the imperatives demanded by the human soul that cannot be denied. They contain direct, impetuous, poignant utterances, mutterings. and expressions of feeling which do not merely record, describe or evoke, but overwhelm the reader in their immediacy: delight in the unexpected, joy at being alive, intimate revelations of this world's warmth and beauty as well as intimations and declarations of fortitude and courage in the face of Soviet reality and Time itself. The distance of unambiguous self-confidence, the ambiguity of the meditative thinker, and the outrage of the polemicist are tempered by the seeming simplicity of direct involvement or the intimacy of genuine conversation. The voice of the friend, companion, lover, or eyewitness reflects, despairs, fears, rages, rejoices, and judges. The poetry of the Notebooks is defined by a verbal texture richer and denser than the poetry of any previous Russian poet. A limpid precision, sharpness of focus, and vivid, dynamic inner mobility endow these lyrics with a kind of grandeur or elegance rarely encountered in the 20th century. While The First Voronezh Notebook, although composed in exile, radiates the energy and joy of life in such poems as: (#299) "The Black Earth" (Chernozern), (#303) "What Street is This/Mandelshtam Street," or (#305) "I must live, even though I died twice," the later poetry also expresses the poet's uncanny sensitivity to mood changes, his inimitable perspicacity of the mystery of movement, and his awesome need to affirm conscience, consciousness, and the process of becoming, in such poems as: (#380) "Maybe this is the beginning of madness," (#384) "How I wish I could fly," or the concluding poem, (#394) "Toward the empty earth ..." in The Third Voronezh Notebook. Unfortunately, the density of sound patterns in the latter is impossible to render into English, for permanence resounds in the echo of footsteps, in the repetition of nouns and verbs of movement and accompaniment, and in the emphasis on the continuity and discontinuity of time past, present, and future. Presence and absence, permanence and promise are related to the reality of the earth, spring, and life, as well as to the potential of promise, spring, and resurrection:
"Francois Villon," which may be regarded as Mandelshtam's first printed Acmeist manifesto, contains in embryonic form many thematic and stylistic elements of his future poetry and prose, including the intellectual and aesthetic dilemmas confronting him between 1910 and the early 1920s: (1) the image and role of the poet, (2) the nature and source of poetry and the poetic impulse, (3) the relationship of art to society or, on a more cosmic scale, to history or Time, and (4) the relationship between the poet and the reader. Mandelshtam's essay "Pushkin and Scriabin" (begun in 1915, but completed only in the early 1920s), asserts that the poet's "consciousness of being right" is a fundamental characteristic of the "Christian artist," defined as a free spirit, absolutely unburdened by questions of "necessity." In direct contrast, his essays on Chaadaev and Chenier (also dating from 1914-15) indicate the young poet's profound concern with intellectual and moral issues, his abiding interest in the problem of freedom and morality, and his serious concern over the question of the relationship of the artist to society. These essays provide an extraordinary insight into his self-image, foreshadowing the metaphor of the raznochinets-pisatel' (intellectual-author or "philological nihilist") which he applies to himself in his autobiographical The Noise of Time (1922-23) and, again in 1933, to Dante, Pushkin, and himself. "Pyotr Chaadaev" is particularly significant in that it implicitly associates the image of the raznochinets-pisatel' with Russia itself, identifying "moral freedom" as the essence of Russian national identity, establishing it as a vital source of every subsequent Russian writer's world view. "Remarks on Chenier" contains Mandelshtam's revelation that, "Chenier ingeniously found the middle road between the classical and romantic manner." His own rejection of absolutes and concomitant striving towards meaningful synthesis is achieved in the essay, "On the Nature of the Word" (1922). Here he not only broadens his definition of Acmeism, but points out how the poet's duty to the State is a lesser form of moral commitment than confronting Time itself, in the name of "the word." Consequently, the poet's obligation is to educate his fellow "Men," not merely to educate the "citizens" of the State. The reader must constantly remind himself that the impulse behind Mandelshtam's conception of moral obligation is aesthetic, that is, it must not be politically or even philosophically justified. The moral imperative and moral freedom are perceived as eternal verities which the poet must reveal, celebrate and, ultimately, preserve.
As Mandelshtam matured, the bonds between his poetry and prose gradually tightened. Not only did the themes of his essays influence his poems, but by 1923, the major turning point in his life and literary career, the verbal fabric of his poetry found expression in his literary prose. His literary prose, begun in 1922 and 1923, may be read as a series of autobiographical syntheses in which the autobiographical impulse mediates between the intellectual and aesthetic impulses. In these works, the poet subtly reveals aesthetic solutions to artistic. intellectual, and moral problems, solutions which emerge from the poet's unique "philological" focus—from his literal, Mandelshtamian "love of the word," from his "insatiable hunger for thought," and from his quest to determine "what is perceptible to the mind seeking unities and connections." His first masterpiece of literary prose. The Noise of Time, was simultaneously the culmination of the first phase of his life as a poet - his artistic rite de passage - and an aesthetic declaration of intellectual maturity. Stylistically, it initiated a new phase in the poet's creative consciousness in that for the first time he recognized his autobiography as basic poetic material and began to make it the lyrical persona of his poems. Furthermore, after 1923, certain secondary or even tertiary motifs in his earlier writings emerge as dominant autobiographical themes: the theme of the creative consciousness in an alien environment ("The Egyptian Stamp," "Fourth Prose," and "Journey to Armenia"); the Jewish theme (the Kievan sketches, "The Egyptian Stamp," and "Fourth Prose"); the theme of the creative process (as an organic phenomenon in "Journey to Armenia," as "performance" in "Conversation about Dante"); the theme of the reader (polemical essays of the late 1920s, "Journey to Armenia," and "Conversation about Dante"); the theme of death and immortality (works of the 1930s). Following The Noise of Time, Mandelshtam's four major works of literary prose are: "The Egyptian Stamp" (1927), "Fourth Prose" (1928-30), "Journey to Armenia" (1931-32), and "Conversation about Dante" (spring-summer, 1933). "The Egyptian Stamp" may be perceived as a second autobiographical act, in which Mandelshtam concentrates on the terrifying prospects for the mature creative consciousness in an alien environment, rather than on the reminiscences of formative childhood experiences. In his essay "The End of the Novel" Mandelshtam predicted: "The future development of the novel will be no less than the history of the atomization of biography as the form of personal existence, even more, we shall witness the catastrophic ruin of biography." "The Egyptian Stamp" fictionalizes this idea. The would-be author makes an abortive attempt to write a 19th-century biographical novel, but in the end, the third-person narrator expresses relief at being able to switch from third person to first. Two years later, Mandelshtam no longer even considered the objective approach of the novel. His protagonist in "Fourth Prose" emerges triumphant over all forms of death and destruction, as a poet, Jew, and social outcast, cognizant of his rights as a poet and as a human being in an environment demanding his destruction. The passive surrealist dream and abortive novel—"The Egyptian Stamp"—yields to perverse literary exorcism. "Fourth Prose" is organized around the juxtaposition of the polemical and the lyrical. Sixteen prose vignettes, arranged like stanzas according to the musical paradigm of a theme and variations, take as their major theme. Man's response to the Old Testament Commandment: "Thou shall not kill." The Jew, the outcast, and the genuine poet are associated with the field of images connected with Life and "the life of the word": escape, freedom, the Promised Land, the South, Armenia, creature comforts, fantasy, imagination, dreams, genuine literature, happiness, free verbal expression (including nonsense language and children's ditties), human dignity, justice, truth, pride, and perversity. Mandelshtam's Jewish consciousness reaches its peak in "Fourth Prose," as the synonyms, "Jew" and poet, reinforce, broaden, and universalize the moral and aesthetic power of the earlier image of the raznochinets-pisatel'. The writer finally merges his ideals of art as moral wisdom and art as celebration. "Journey to Armenia" expresses Mandelshtam's experience of reprieve, or second birth. Like each of the poet's preceding works of literary prose, it functions as a summation and conclusion of a particular phase in both his personal autobiography and his creative consciousness. "Conversation about Dante" is a counterpart to "Journey to Armenia," thematically and structurally. While the earlier work focuses on organic recurrence - physiological, philological and historical continuity, the life cycle, the relationship between the phenomenon of growth and the organic nature of memory - as a phenomenon of natural order, subtly enhanced by the Christian vision and the "philological" imperative, the latter attempts to reveal the instinct for form creation which underlies the immortality of art: the impulse behind the creative process—to preserve the eternal verities through human creativity and the phenomenon of the perpetuation of art through generations of readers. "Conversation about Dante" is Mandelshtam's last extant attempt to identify the impulse behind the text both for himself as poet and reader, and for his ideal "reader in posterity." The boldness and originality of "Conversation about Dante" derive from Mandelshtam's interest in defining the effect of a great poet on himself as both reader and poet. The essay is thus directed toward the active poetic genius, the external model being Dante, the internal experience being his own creative cognition. "Conversation about Dante" also differs from the typical critical essay of the 1920s and 1930s in containing numerous autobiographical digressions which focus on the poet's own emotional, often physiological "love of the word," his fascination with verbal texture, phonology, sound harmony, and the relationship of the poetic impulse to the text. Mandelshtam's insights into Dante's poetics, as well as into the "psychological foundation" of Dante's creative process—the relationship between the poet and the man, the link between his psychological and creative impulses—reveal much that is fundamental to Mandelshtam's own aesthetic vision. "Conversation about Dante" thus presents the autobiographical experience of a poet-''philologist" reading the work of an immortal poet while discoursing on his own poetic experience, defining and clarifying it. Hence, Mandelshtam's reference to Dante as a fellow raznochinets harks back to the imagery of The Noise of Time, for Dante could be considered a raznochinets only in terms of Mandelshtam's bold autobiographical metaphor:
date given on Mandelshtam's death certificate is 27th December 1938. As
of his second arrest, 1st May 1938, he became a non-person. Only with
the death of Stalin was the official "rehabilitation" begun in August
1956 conceivable. The commission appointed in 1957 by the Writers Union
to oversee the poet's remains included the poet's widow, Nadezhda, her
brother, Evgeny Yakovievich Khazin, the poet, Anna Akhmatova, the writer
Ilya Erenburg, and the critics, Z. S. Paperny, A. A. Surkov and N. I.
Khardzhiev. Not until 1973, however, did a large selection of his poetry
appear in the Soviet Union in the Poet's Library series.