Seamus Heaney: Osip and Nadezhda Mandelstam

As I have a paid subscription, here is the full text of Seamus Heaney’s 1981 London Review of Books article on the poet Osip Mandelstam, and his remarkable wife, Nadezhda, who preserved his works from oblivion.

Osip and Nadezhda Mandelstam

Seamus Heaney

The first sentence of Nadezhda Mandelstam’s Hope against Hope is one of the most memorable openings in all literature: ‘After slapping Alexei Tolstoi in the face, M. immediately returned to Moscow. From there he rang Akmatova every day, begging her to come.’ That was in 1934, and in his indispensable Mandelstam, Clarence Brown outlined the circumstances which led to this smack, whose sharp report not only unloosed the avalanche in which the poet Osip Mandelstam perished but also prepared the volcanic action which would begin thirty years later when his widow Nadezhda Mandelstam sat down to write her memoirs.

In 1932, Alexei Tolstoi had presided over a ‘comrades’ court’ set up by the Writers’ Union to hear Mandelstam’s complaint against the novelist Sargidzhan. The Mandelstams were by then in disrepute with the Soviet authorities and the novelist and his wife had been set to spy on them in their apartment building. As a result of the ensuing proximity, suspicion and hostility, Sargidzhan had finally hit Nadezhda ‘very hard’. The court found that ‘the whole affair was a survival from the bourgeois system and that both sides were equally to blame.’ A commotion then started in the court, the judges took refuge in a room, but in the end Tolstoi burst out through the crowd calling: ‘Leave me alone, leave me alone. I couldn’t do anything! We had our orders.’ Two years later Osip delivered the retaliatory smack. In Nadezhda’s words, Mandelstam thought that ‘the man ought not to have obeyed the orders. Not such orders. That’s the whole story.’

It is, of course, far from being the whole story. The slap was the outward sign of an inner grace which had returned to Mandelstam in the middle of 1930 when he made his journey to Armenia. In the course of his travels there, the sense of being right, the inner freedom without which he could not summon his poetry, was restored and his five years’ poetic silence was broken. Along with the poetry came the power not to obey orders, and almost, it would seem, as a proof to himself that the power was absolute, Mandelstam later wrote the uncharacteristically explicit and ‘political’ poem against Stalin, ‘the Kremlin mountaineer’. It was, in fact, this poem that was the real cause of Mandelstam’s first arrest a day or two after the face-slapping incident: David had faced Goliath with eight stony couplets in his sling.

The Moscow apartment was searched by the secret police, Mandelstam was taken to their headquarters in the Lubianka Prison, interrogated, and sentenced to three years of exile in Cherdyn, where, in a deranged state, he attempted suicide by throwing himself from a hospital window. Then the ‘miracle’, as Nadezhda Mandelstam calls it, happened. As a result of Stalin’s personal interest in the case, an interest kept warm by Pasternak’s subtle handling of a phone-call from the dictator himself, the sentence was commuted to exile in some town in European Russia, excluding the principal cities.

‘Suddenly M. remembered that Leonov, a biologist at Tashkent University, had said good things about Voronezh … Leonov’s father worked there as a prison doctor. “Who knows, perhaps we shall need a prison doctor,” said M., and we decided on Voronezh.’ The light-hearted tone seems to have been characteristic. And to a man who deliberately travelled light, who consciously identified himself with the raznochintsi, those ‘upstart intellectuals’ of the 1860s, and who at this stage was imbued with Dante to the extent that he found his own practice of composing poetry by mouth and often on foot prefigured in the master – ‘the step, linked to the breathing and saturated with thought: this Dante understands as the beginning of prosody’ – to such a man, who could also wonder ‘quite seriously, how many ox-hide shoes, how many sandals Alighieri wore out in the course of his poetic work, wandering about on the goatpaths of Italy’, the prospect of exile was not altogether disabling. However, this illusory sense of well-being only arose when he had regained his mental balance: during his hallucinations on the journey from Moscow to Cherdyn, and during his confinement in the hospital there, Mandelstam lived in terror, in an unmitigated awareness that he was doomed. Once his wife and the housekeeper had to hide the clock from him, to allay his demented conviction that executioners would arrive in the ward to shoot him at exactly six o’clock.

Nadezhda’s awareness was equally unmitigated, but was sustained in the daylight of a sane consciousness, borne like a hot brand in her by now almost feral intelligence. Suddenly she became a guerrilla of the imagination, devoted to the cause of poetry, to the preservation of her husband’s achievement, and, in particular, to the preservation of his manuscripts. The words that formed part of the commuted sentence which was meant to ‘isolate’ and ‘preserve’ the poet might equally apply to the task she instinctively and religiously – the word is not too strong – undertook the moment the secret police entered their apartment. From then on, she was like a hunted priest in penal times, travelling dangerously with the altar-stone of the forbidden faith, disposing the manuscripts for safe keeping among the secret adherents. And inevitably, having consecrated herself a guardian, she was destined to become a witness.

As a consequence, the mature work of a great poet survived, and two of the most fortifying books of our times, Nadezhda Mandelstam’s Hope against Hope and Hope Abandoned (the titles constitute fierce puns on her first name, which means ‘hope’ in Russian), were finally written in the late Sixties. In these books, we have a devastating indictment of most of what happened in post-revolutionary Russia, and, more intimately, the story of Mandelstam’s Voronezh exile, his return to Moscow in 1937, his rearrest and deportation to a labour camp: ‘My first book was Stone and my last will be stone, too.’ He died just before his 48th birthday in a transit camp near Vladivostok, having travelled the five and a half thousand miles from Moscow in a prisoner transport train. The official cause of his death was given as ‘heart failure’: Mandelstam did suffer from a heart complaint, though he may in fact have died of typhus. His widow reports the way in which she was given the news:

I was sent a notice asking me to go to the post office at Nikita Gate. Here I was handed back the parcel I had sent to M. in the camp. ‘The addressee is dead,’ the young lady behind the counter informed me. It would be easy enough to establish the date on which the parcel was returned to me – it was the same day on which the newspapers published the long list of Government awards – the first ever – to Soviet writers.

By then, the Mandelstam canon had been established, though it was not until the New York edition of his Collected Works in 1955 that anything like a complete record got into print. Before that, more than two hundred of the poems were kept alive in ‘pre-Gutenberg’ conditions. As far as the Soviet reader was concerned, Mandelstam was finished as a poet after the appearance in 1928 of the three books which marked the culmination of his public writing career: his Poems, a collection of criticism entitled On Poetry, and a volume containing ‘The Noise of Time’, his autobiographical account of childhood in St Petersburg, and the fictional title piece ‘The Egyptian Stamp’. But in Voronezh the Mandelstams compiled three notebooks of the work that came after this. Nadezhda writes:

I have often been asked about the origin of these ‘Notebooks’. This was the name we used to refer to all the poems composed between 1930 and 1937 which we copied down in Voronezh in ordinary school exercise books (we were never able to get decent paper, and even these exercise books were hard to come by). The first group constituted what is now called the ‘First Voronezh Notebook’ [new work done in exile, it would seem], and then all the verse composed between 1930 and 1934, which had been confiscated during the search of our apartment, was copied down into a second notebook … In the fall of 1936, when some more poems had accumulated, M. asked me to get a new exercise book.

In spite of his disregard for ‘writing’ (the word was used contemptuously to describe, among other things, informers’ reports, and anyhow Mandelstam worked, not with a pen, but with his ‘moving lips’), the poet had come to realise that a manuscript was more durable than a man, and that memory could provide no permanent sanctuary for poetry. From that sanctuary, nevertheless, it emerged with poignant force. After Osip’s second arrest, for example, when Nadezhda worked the night shift in a textile factory in the town of Strunino, she kept herself awake by muttering the verses to herself: ‘I had to commit everything to memory in case all my papers were taken away from me, or the various people I had given copies to took fright and burned them in a moment of panic.’ And then there is this scene in a loft occupied by thieves, which was reported to Nadezhda by a man who had passed through the final transit camp at the same time as her husband:

Sitting with the criminals was a man with a grey stubble of beard, wearing a yellow leather coat. He was reciting verse which L. recognised. It was Mandelstam. The criminals offered him bread and the canned stuff, and he calmly helped himself and ate. Evidently he was only afraid to eat food given him by his jailers. He was listened to in complete silence and sometimes asked to repeat a poem.

Though the older Mandelstam was to identify himself increasingly with outcasts and exiles, his first circle of friends was very much at the centre of the literary world in pre-revolutionary Petersburg. In the third chapter of Hope Abandoned Nadezhda implicitly affirms the importance of this early security and friendship with poets such as Nicolai Gumilev and Anna Akmatova, and in so doing reveals the beauty and truth of her own nature. The chapter is about the moral and artistic nurture that can flow in a community of spirits who are ‘truly entitled to refer to themselves as “we” ’.

I am quite convinced that without such a ‘we’, there can be no proper fulfilment of even the most ordinary ‘I’, that is, of the personality. To find its fulfilment, the ‘I’ needs at least two complementary dimensions: ‘we’ and – if it is fortunate – ‘you’. I think M. was lucky to have had a moment in his life when he was linked by the pronoun ‘we’ with a group of others.

And later: ‘A real community is unshakable, indubitable, and enduring. It cannot be broken up, pulled apart, or destroyed. It remains unaffected and whole even when the people united by it are already in their graves.’

Against this true church of values, the heretical cliques of the Soviet establishment could not finally prevail, though they did indeed win in the short run, by shooting Gumilev (Akmatova’s first husband) in 1921, by hounding Mandelstam to exile and death, and by keeping Akmatova silenced for decades. Nevertheless, from her vantage point in the 1960s, Nadezhda could triumphantly declare the conviction that carried her through the blackest times and could pronounce her anathema on the enemies with the unthinking authority of somebody brushing a fly from her food: ‘Such cliques are not proof of the existence of a sense of fellowship, since they consist of individualists who are out to achieve only their own aims. They refer to themselves as “we”, but in this context the pronoun indicates only a plurality devoid of any deeper sense or significance.’ The underlying theme of the memoirs is this war between humanist values and the utilitarian system which was imposed by decree and then by terror, and the story they tell is so unrelentingly distressing that it is easy to forget the pure literary exuberance of the earliest period of Mandelstam’s first association with these Acmeist poets, when his main war was with the Symbolists and when his shoes had been worn out only by student travels to Paris and Heidelberg and, almost certainly, Italy.

Robert Tracy gives an account of the main influences in the air at the time of Mandelstam’s first book, Stone, here translated in toto into rhymed verse, with a parallel Russian text, an excellent introduction and very illuminating notes. Tracy evokes the world of Mandelstam’s childhood and schooling, so hyperbolically conjured by the poet himself in ‘The Noise of Time’, and notes that the later sense of ‘not belonging’ was already present in the child’s awareness of a tension between the ‘Judaic chaos’ of his home and the imperial world of Petersburg, ‘the granite paradise of my sedate strolls’. Tracy also glances at the importance of the education in Classical and Russian literature which Mandelstam received at the Tenishev School, where his most influential teacher was the Symbolist poet, V.V. Grippius, brought to unforgettable life in ‘The Noise of Time’:

V.V. had established personal relations with Russian writers, splenetic and loving liaisons filled with noble enviousness, jealousy, with jocular disrespect, grievous unfairness – as is customary between the members of one family … The judgments of V.V. continue to hold me in their power down to the present day. The grand tour I made with him … has remained the only one. After that, I merely ‘read a bit’.

Yet it was not with the Symbolist Grippius that he finally discovered his true poetic direction, but with the group known as the Acmeists, the most important of whom constituted that first community referred to by Nadezhda simply as ‘The Three’.

The Acmeists were formed by reaction to and fission from the Symbolists. In the words of Clarence Brown, ‘they called for the abandonment of the Symbolists’ metaphysical dualism and for a return to the things of this world, for a classical and Mediterranean clarity as opposed to the gothic and northern haze of the Symbolists, and for a firm and virile approach to life.’ Great manifesto stuff. Moreover, there was ‘a determination to introduce some Mozartian – and Pushkinian – lightness into poetry’, a sense of the poem as an animated structure, an equilibrium of forces, an architecture. All of which coursed and boiled in Mandelstam as a furious devotion to the physical word, the etymological memory bank, the word as its own form and content – ‘the word is a bundle and meaning sticks out of it in various directions.’ This brusque domestic approach, this impatience with the way Symbolism ‘demoralised perception’, runs through all his prose and verse. When he was at full tilt – and he never wrote without being there – his profound contact with the common, miraculous resources of the language as a phonetic instrument kept him close to the grain of the ordinary even as his tongue planed curlicues of fantastic association off that grain. His essay ‘On the Nature of the Word’, published in 1922 and therefore a kind of recapitulation of his first ideas, has a brilliant certainty and roguery about it, as when he delivers his famous attack on the Symbolist rose:

The rose is a likeness of the sun, the sun is a likeness of the rose, a dove – of a girl, and a girl – of a dove. Images are gutted like scarecrows and packed with foreign content. In place of the Symbolist forest, we are left with a workshop producing scarecrows … Nothing is left but a terrifying quadrille of ‘correspondences’ nodding to one another. Eternal winking. Never a clear word, nothing but hints and reticent whispers. The rose nods to the girl, the girl to the rose. No one wants to be himself.

Against the shimmer and wobble and sylvan elusiveness of all this, Mandelstam’s instinct led him to seek the reliable quarry face and the vaulted solidity of buildings. Stone became his image, hardness and design his consolation. Even as late as his Journey to Armenia we find him swooping with pure happiness on finds like this:

When I was a child a stupid sort of touchiness, a false pride, kept me from ever going out to look for berries or stooping down over mushrooms. Gothic pinecones and hypocritical acorns in their monastic caps pleased me more than mushrooms. I would stroke the pinecones. They would bristle. They were trying to convince me of something. In their shelled tenderness, in their geometrical gaping I sensed the rudiments of architecture, the demon of which has accompanied me throughout my life.

Robert Tracy also discusses the significance of architecture and stone, and provides a lucid commentary on the central importance of Mandelstam’s poems about buildings; and he has taken the poet’s discipline to heart in his translations, attempting to keep the symmetries and pointings of rhyme and stanza. As a result, the original becomes a faithful and sturdy English house, warmed by intimacy, lit by scholarship, and with many appealing features of its own.

Tracy’s ear is not as gifted as Mandelstam’s – whose is? and the high voltage of inner associative word-play which one understands to be so distinctive in Russian disappears. But there is much to be gained from holding onto metre and rhyme: the metaphorical basis in building is thereby preserved – though to speak too much in these building terms is probably to misrepresent the excitements of the ‘moving lips’. A Russian poet once told me that the Mandelstam stanza has the resonant impact of late Yeats, so Tracy had his work cut out. But rises to the occasion in, for example, the version of Poem 78:

Sleeplessness. Homer. The sails tight.
I have the catalogue of ships half read:
That file of cranes, long fledgling line that spread
And lifted once over Hellas, into flight.

Like a wedge of cranes into an alien place –
The god’s spume foaming in the prince’s hair –
Where do you sail? If Helen were not there
What would Troy matter, men of Achaean race?

The sea, and Homer – it’s love that moves all things.
To whom should I listen? Homer falls silent now
And the black sea surges toward my pillow
Like a loud declaimer, heavily thundering.

As a rendering of a text this is more than impressive. But what makes Tracy’s book invaluable is his feeling for context. His introduction has an important section, entitled ‘Poetry and Quotation’, where he rightly insists on the way Mandelstam’s poems are ‘as firmly rooted in both an historical and cultural context and in physical reality as Joyce’s Ulysses or Eliot’s Waste Land’. His notes to the poems will be essential for those who seek to locate this context, especially when it turns out to be other Russian poetry or Mandelstam’s criticism.

In his ‘Conversation about Dante’ (see The Complete Critical Prose and Letters), Mandelstam took particular pleasure in the ‘orgy of quotation’ at the end of Inferno 4 which constituted a small part of Dante’s ‘keyboard of references’; and in the notes to the poem above, having quoted Homer’s simile of geese and cranes and swans from the catalogue of the ships in Iliad 2, Tracy takes us back to another part of the ‘Conversation’, where Mandelstam is discussing the way Dante’s similes are never just descriptive but give ‘the inner image of the structure or the force’, and goes on to point out that Dante’s large group of bird similes corresponds to ‘the instinct of pilgrimage, travel, colonisation, migration’. By thus juxtaposing the Iliad and the ‘Conversation’, and by further adducing Mandelstam’s remark that Dante’s pen was a bird’s feather, and that ‘his technique of writing in broad strokes and curves grows into the figured flights of flocks of birds,’ Tracy truly illuminates the poem – relating its free imaginative probes to a whole nexus of later, more explicitly argued convictions of the poet’s.

Another thing that comes across in these translations is the verve and immediacy of the poems’ occasions, recalling the Acmeist programme of ‘this worldness’: there are poems about tennis and ice-cream and silent movies, poems that seem to jump into being on impulse. At times Tracy hits the note of casual intent with convincing ease:

When I hear the English tongue
Like a whistle, but even shriller –
I see Oliver Twist among
A heaping of office ledgers.

Go ask Charles Dickens this,
How it was in London then:
The old City with Dombey’s office,
The yellow waters of the Thames.

There is a salubrious élan about much of the book, and the fact that this is indeed a book, not just a selection of the significant poems, amplifies our sense of what Stone really meant to its contemporary readers. Most people interested in Mandelstam will have known the importance of the key pieces on architecture – ‘Hagia Sophia’, ‘Notre Dame’, ‘The Admiralty’ – and admired their confident and ambitious note: but to know them side by side with other poems that are less earnestly assured is to come to a fuller appreciation of their corroborating force. The following poem (No 62), which charmed me when it appeared in W.S. Merwin and Clarence Brown’s freer handling, deepened its claims by reappearing in this more literal and metrical version:

Orioles in the woods, and the only measure
In tonic verse is to know short vowels from long.
There’s a brimming over once in each year, when Nature
Slowly draws itself out, like the meter in Homer’s song.

This is a day that yawns like a caesura:
Quiet since dawn, and wearily drawn out;
Oxen at pasture, golden indolence to draw
From a pipe of reeds the richness of one full note.

Mandelstam’s slap in the face to Alexei Tolstoi was by no means his first contact with that member of the great family. Count Tolstoi had emigrated after the Revolution, though he did eventually return to Russia as ‘The Red Count’ and made himself into a useful arm of the young regime. In 1923, however, as editor of a literary supplement to the Berlin newspaper On the Eve, he had published Mandelstam’s essay ‘Humanism and the Present’, and it would seem that at that point it was the poet who was on the side of the regime – or at least half-ready to fool himself that he was. In retrospect, the whole piece takes on a tragic and ironical colouring.

Mandelstam begins by outlining his conception of the ideal society, which naturally turns out to have the same structure as the ideal building or poem. The stone, the word, the individual must maintain and fulfil their whole creative selves, but they must also be a part of a ‘we’, a ‘social architecture’, in order to bring their potential to its most fruitful development. Mandelstam is taking his note to some extent from the temper of the times and entering into the hunt for ‘new forms’: an optimistic view of the Revolution is implicit when he speaks of a new ‘social Gothic: the free play of weights and forces, a human society conceived as a complex and dense architectural forest wherein everything is efficient and individual, and where every detail answers to the conception of the whole’. And yet this enhancing vision of harmony has been preceded at the start of the essay by a cruel and powerfully realised vision of the inhuman society, of those epochs when the individual life was treated as insignificant, when the social architecture was a crushing pyramid:

‘Assyrian prisoners swarm like baby chicks under the feet of an enormous king; warriors personifying the power of the state inimical to man kill bound pygmies with long spears while Egyptians and Egyptian builders treat the human mass as building material in abundant supply, easily obtainable in any quantity.’

Fifteen years before his experience of the transport trains and the compound of a camp, Mandelstam’s prophetic soul trembles with foreknowledge, and though he valiantly holds himself in check – or is prepared for the moment to disguise the trembling from himself – the signs are everywhere. His allusion to the English concept of ‘home’ as a revolutionary concept is followed by the thought that that was ‘a kind of revolution more deeply rooted and akin to our age than the French’. Wishful thinking. But not half as wishful as the concluding paragraphs:

The fact that the values of humanism have now become rare, as if taken out of circulation and hidden underground, is not a bad sign in itself. Humanistic values have merely withdrawn, concealed themselves like gold currency …

The transition to gold currency is the business of the future, and in the province of culture what lies before us is the replacement of temporary ideas – of paper banknotes – with the gold coinage of the European humanistic tradition; the magnificent florins of humanism will ring once again, not against the archaeologist’s spade, but … like the jingling coins of common currency passing from hand to hand.

It may only be a chance of translation that the coin of Mandelstam’s hope is the Florentine one, the currency of Dante’s city, the Dante whom he would come upon in the Thirties and who would help him to live by the pure standard while false currency swirled all around him like blinding chaff.

Three years after this essay Mandelstam had stopped fooling himself about the nature of the world he was living in: but he had also stopped writing poetry. Nadezhda goes into the reasons for this five-year block, which ended in 1930, and implies that her husband’s physical ailments as well as his imaginative ones may have had their origin in what was for him the central problem, the question of his relation to his times. She notes that it was when Mandelstam was being delivered the official line on poetry by the head of children’s literature at the State Publishing House, and feeling he could stand the tempting voice no longer, that he heard a ringing in his ears which drowned it out – a sound which marked the onset of his first bout of angina pectoris.

During this time he supported himself by translations and by working more or less under the umbrella of various party organisations and publications, yet he was becoming more and more alienated. He felt himself to be ‘a double-dealer with a divided soul’, conniving with the ‘new’ by dealing with the officials of a literature he despised, but still committed in his deepest being to the ‘old’ values. Among the new men, ‘Christian morality – including the ancient commandment, “Thou shalt not kill” – was blithely identified with “bourgeois” morality.’ His disaffection was matched by their distrust and hostility, and it was inevitable for somebody with Mandelstam’s impulsively courageous nature – and somebody living in the bracing moral air of Nadezhda’s company – that a confrontation would occur.

In the spring of 1928, he made the first move in his offensive by intervening on behalf of five elderly bank clerks who were going to be executed. He harried people in government offices, but his decisive move was to send to the sympathetic Bukharin a copy of the recently published Poems with an inscription saying that ‘every line in this book argues against what you plan to do.’ Counter-attack took place that summer, when a publisher neglected to put the name of the original translators on the title page of a work which Mandelstam had revised, so that he was denounced, unjustly, as a plagiarist. After gruelling court hearings and interrogations, a commission of the Federation of Soviet Writers’ Organisations found him morally to blame for the fact that the publisher had failed to make a contract with the earlier translators. The couple lost their apartment, and for the moment Mandelstam lay low.

In one of her most memorable phrases, Nadezhda describes her husband’s work on a poem as a dig for ‘the nugget of harmony’, and in the same chapter comments that ‘the search for lost words is an attempt to remember what is still to be brought into being.’ During these troubled years it was as if Mandelstam had mislaid the nugget of harmony, and could not speak the lost words. But he recovered, suddenly and exultantly, in the summer and autumn of 1930, during his trip to Armenia. There he denounced the official formula for literature, ‘National in form, Socialist in content’, as stupid and illiterate – the formula was Stalin’s – and turned away from the company of writers to spend his time with scientists and biologists. He wrote the angry, elliptical and cathartic ‘Fourth Prose’, which rolls the universe of his true values into a ball that is deadly as an iron boule, and symbolically tore off the fur coat he associated with privileges that came to those writers who fell into line with the regime: ‘The race of professional writers emits a repugnant odour … yet it is forever close to the authorities, who find its members shelter in the red-light districts, as prostitutes. For literature is forever fulfilling a single assignment: it helps the rulers keep their soldiers in line and it helps the judges arbitrarily dispose of the condemned.’ And: ‘I tear off my own literary fur coat and trample it underfoot. I shall run three times around the boulevard rings of Moscow in nothing but my jacket in a 30-degree frost. I shall run away from the yellow hospital of the Komsomol arcade straight toward mortal pneumonia … if only not to hear the ringing of pieces of silver and the counting of printer’s sheets.’ He reclaimed his inner freedom, fell greedily upon the nugget, insisted on the purity and objectivity of his kind of poetry: ‘making Brussels lace involves real work, but its major components, those supporting the design, are air, perforations and truancy.’ He remembered what still had to be brought into being, but, as the image of ‘mortal pneumonia’ reveals, he did all this in the full knowledge that he would pay with his life for this healing of his divided soul.

Journey to Armenia is now available in Clarence Brown’s translation, with an introduction by Bruce Chatwin. It appeared first in the Soviet magazine Zvezda in 1933, and was the last piece of his work that Mandelstam would see published in his lifetime. To call it travel writing is to miss the mark almost as badly as the Pravda reviewer who savaged Mandelstam for failing to notice ‘the thriving, bustling Armenia which is joyfully building socialism’. When Mandelstam complained that he thought it impermissible for the country’s leading newspaper to print ‘yellow-press articles’, an official rebuked him: ‘Mandelstam, you are talking of Pravda.’ ‘It’s not my fault if the article was published in Pravda,’ Mandelstam replied. Obviously the cure was complete.

The reviewer hit the mark, nevertheless, even if it was for perverse reasons, when he found the discredited Acmeist mode alive in the piece: ‘this is a style of speaking, writing and travelling cultivated before the Revolution’ – and therefore to be extirpated. All of Mandelstam’s old trust in the resources of language, his identification with the clarity and Classical aura of the Mediterranean, his rejoicing in the ‘Hellenic’ nature of the Russian inheritance, the ebullient philological certitude of his essay ‘On the Nature of the Word’ – all was revived by his physical encounter with the Armenian language and landscape. Addenda and notes which did not find their way into the text make it clear that Mandelstam was aware of exactly what was going on in himself:

(If I accept total immersion in sound, steadfastness and vigour as time-honoured and just, my visit to Armenia has not been in vain.)

If I accept as time-honoured both the shadow of the oak tree and the shadow of the grave, and, indeed, the steadfastness of speech articulation, how shall I ever appreciate the present age?

Poetry came back to him. Indeed, the prose itself is bursting with eagerness to break out as a sequence of poems. As each sensation hits the tightly stretched drumhead of each sense, it emits waves from the omnipresent ‘nugget of harmony’. Supply has been located, the gusher has been broached and capped, the linguistic hydraulics grip and shift into action all over again. As usual, the best glosses on the book are from the book itself: ‘the helix of the ear becomes finer and is whorled in a different pattern.’ And not just the ear, but the eye and the nose: there is a snout-twitching immediacy, a bushman’s eagerness of body and instinct. What Mandelstam said of Darwin’s style applies here perfectly to his own: the power of perception functions as an instrument of thought.

The nearest thing in English is Lawrence’s travel writing: reading Lawrence, though, we are always aware that we are being given a lesson in how to respond. And the same is true to a lesser extent of Hopkins’s notebooks, which also come to mind in this context. Lawrence does not renounce himself as purely as Mandelstam does: there is an underlying evangelical design in his most delightful annotations, whereas, with Mandelstam, the moral ground has been cleared beforehand (in the ‘Fourth Prose’) and he can now joyfully set about quarantining the whole world in the voluble compound of language itself. The old Christian ethos of Armenia and his own inner weather of feeling came together in a marvellous reaction that demonstrates upon the pulses the truth of his belief that ‘the whole of our two-thousand-year-old culture is a setting of the world free for play.’

Journey to Armenia, then, is more than a rococo set of impressions. It is the celebration of a poet’s return to his senses. It is a paean to the reality of poetry as a power as truly present in the nature of things as the power of growth itself. It is Shakespearian in the way it confounds art and nature – an identification glimpsed earlier in Poem No 62 – and Bruce Chatwin rightly directs attention to the paragraph which gave such offence to the fur-coat brigade, a passage which throbs at one point with a memory of Mandelstam’s first literary mentor, the Symbolist Grippius, who ‘loved poems in which there were such energetic and happy rhymes as plamen (flame) – kamen (stone)’: ‘A plant is a sound evoked by the wand of a termenvox and it coos in a sphere oversaturated with wave processes. It is the envoy of a living thunderstorm that rages permanently in the universe – akin in equal measure to stone and lightning! A plant in the world is an event, a happening, an arrow, and not a boring, bearded development.’

Prose may be easier to translate – even this prose – than poetry. At any rate, I cannot believe we lose much by reading the book in Clarence Brown’s lucid and athletic English, which gives us ‘the golden currency of cognac in the secret cupboard of the mountain sun’. But underneath all the Hopkinsian carol and creation there lurked the blue-bleak embers of the fate he knew he was embracing: ‘The Armenians’ fullness with life, their rude tenderness, their noble inclination for hard work, their inexplicable aversion to anything metaphysical and their splendid intimacy with the world of real things – all of this said to me: you’re awake, don’t be afraid of your own time, don’t be sly.’

One of the lovely constants of Nadezhda Mandelstam’s books is the deeply-tuned love she had for Osip. They were obviously a powerful couple to encounter, and they obviously did operate very much as a couple. Without her, Mandelstam might have been less certainly himself, and her pride in him and her love – the love of a wife, after all, bearing its own secret wounds and fully aware of the partner’s weak spots – made it possible for her to lay the whole truth open. She discusses Mandelstam’s wavering fidelity to ‘the three’ in the early Twenties when he was prepared to write critically of Akmatova; she tells with great insight the story of his failed attempts to write an ode to Stalin in the hope of reinstating himself to favour after the Voronezh interlude; and of his visit to the White Sea Canal in 1937 under the auspices of the Union of Soviet Writers, when a sympathetic spirit in that organisation thought that Mandelstam might still save himself by delivering the socialist realism goods. Mandelstam was only able to turn out something on the landscape – a failure that Nadezhda reports with dry delight. She even reports the details of another failure, Mandelstam’s affair in 1925 with Olga Vaskel: ‘I am still surprised even now at the ruthless way he chose between us.’

She once kept two dogs which she described as ‘savage, vicious and faithful’, and the first and last adjectives of that triad apply to her record of the Soviet era, and in particular to her anatomy of the spirit of compromise and adaptability that prevailed among the tribe of comrades who wrote with ease. She was not herself a poet, though she knew everything about it and her memoirs are a poetic education in themselves, but like her husband she, too, addressed the ‘reader in posterity’, not as an artist but as a witness. There is a note of almost maternal joy when she relates Mandelstam’s transformation, after the ‘Fourth Prose’ had cleared the bad air generated by the plagiarism denunciation and its aftermath:

The two years spent on this business were rewarded a hundred times over: the ‘sick son of the age’ now realised that he was in fact healthy … M.’s was henceforth the voice of an outsider who knew he was alone and prized his isolation. M. had come of age and assumed the voice of a witness. His spirit was no longer troubled.

One senses that for her the achievement of this role sets the crown upon the lifetime of artistic effort.

In a way, her memoirs constitute two autobiographies and she has written a more explicit one for Osip than he could have written himself. Mandelstam’s metamorphic excitements, his need to perform war-dances in the middle of the war – this would certainly have produced something astonishing, but something less particularised and indexed. He would not have dealt the cards face-up on the table as Nadezhda has done: in his hands they would have become as fluent as the whole spread flowering in the hands of a card-sharp. It is not that his intellectual stamina or moral insight were any less than his wife’s but purely a matter of a differently organised response. Mandelstam was interested in the human being as an instrument, how he was framed and tuned: his wife was more interested in the way the instrument was worked upon by the moral intelligence.

As a writer, Nadezhda possesses a quality of tenaciousness, a ledger-maker’s appetite for detail, a cask-bursting passion to be as exact and exacting as possible. Yet the record is as free of vindictiveness as it is shy of ornament. The details in her writing remain literal and clear as rivets brightened by the punch: the uneaten egg that had been borrowed as a treat for Akmatova only to sit on the table all night during a search of the apartment, the marks that Stalin’s greasy fingers left on books he was lent, the deadly courteous gesture of Mandelstam’s first interrogator: ‘I had now nearly sinned against time-honoured tradition by shaking hands with a member of the secret police. But the interrogator saved me from disgrace by not responding – he did not shake hands with people like me – that is, with his potential victims.’ One can imagine Osip, in the circumstances, making a metaphor of the man’s nature from the way he pronounced a certain word.

As a result of their different gifts and their heroic lives, when Osip died in December 1938 and Nadezhda died in December last year, nothing died with them. They have added immeasurably to that ‘world culture’ which they longed for, and the most recent testimony to this is a volume of poems published to coincide with an international seminar on Mandelstam’s work at the Cambridge Poetry Festival in June of this year. It contains work by 47 poets, in eight languages, from 12 countries. One of my own poems which was obliquely inspired by the thought of his exile appears in the volume. To see it included there, in the same garland of homage that includes Akmatova’s hard-won ‘Voronezh’, made me wince when I received my copy. I could not help thinking of the poet during his period of confusion in the Twenties, when he was no longer certain of ‘being right’. Nadezhda reports: ‘True, there were always readers who stood up for him, but M. was somehow, despite himself, repelled by them.’


About Chris Floyd

Tennessee. Moscow. Oxford.
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2 Responses to Seamus Heaney: Osip and Nadezhda Mandelstam

  1. ck says:

    Thank you, Chris, for sharing this piece of writing by Heaney. I was reading Mandelstam in English, was trying to search online for a note of explanation on his Admiralty. The returns are pretty thin, but there you are, your blog. Thank you again Chris.

  2. Mahalo piha (full thanks) for Heaneyʻs review of N. Mandelstamʻs views in her two books HOPE. Mention of Mandelstamʻs rudeness to Tolstoy appears in Ilya Kaminskyʻs introduction to Christian Wimanʻs translation of Mandelstamʻs poems. Rivetting, historically important, instructive on literary paradigms, and biographically informative, Heaneyʻs account is fascinating. For he, too, had suffered, personally, and as the subject of a state whose language and culture are equal to any and all in richness — dependent on human memory never to allow repeated. Such an review as this one ordinarily is preserved species art work. I am so glad you thought it worth sharing. Mahalo nui loa.

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