~ Poet: Osip Mandelstam ~

“In the forests the gilded leaves” by Osip Mandelstam


This video is from a series of Slavyansky Bank television commercials using works of famous Russian Silver Age poets. The dramatization of Osip Mandelstam’s poem is by the Kazakh Russian film director Timur Bekmambetov (see the Night Watch trilogy for more information on the director).

Сусальным золотом горят
В лесах рождественские елки,
В кустах игрушечные волки
Глазами страшными глядят.

О, вечная моя печаль,
О, тихая моя свобода
И неживого небосвода
Всегда смеющийся хрусталь!


In the forests the gilded leaves
of the Christmas pines are on fire,
And from the bushes the toy wolves
Glower with their terrifying eyes.

Oh, my never ending sadness,
Oh, my barely whispered freedom,
And of the dispirited horizon
The eternally mocking crystal!


This occasion represents an opportunity for me to develop my thoughts toward an introduction to Osip Mandelstam’s particular symbolic vocabulary, having just received two acceptances of my translations that between them span his whole life’s work. Cardinal Points is taking 2 early miniatures (like this one, from 1908-1910) along with two late ones and 3 of his children’s verses from the mid-20s, when he’d given up on verse and wrote critical prose and poetry for children (the only things he could publish and have a source of income from). And Modern Poetry in Translation is taking a selection of his last poems, from the so-called Voronezh Notebooks. The thing is, the significance of this one is all subtext, one of the earliest efforts of a 17-year-old, newly-minted Symbolist which may yet be said to come to define his entire life’s work (a kind of teleology, holographic anamorphosis in respect to time, an enfolding and unfolding of fate.)

Most (perhaps almost all) Russians have been and are mystified by the meaning of this one (and the rest of Mandelstam’s work) and react to it on an almost instinctual, emotive, gut level, as though it were a piece of pure Impressionism (or rather the Expressionism that chronologically was still to come). This video, in a totally anachronistic fashion, which yet works perfectly so that the poem almost seems to reflect Mandelstam’s foreboding-filled reading of his own fate, envisions a juxtaposition between a scapegoating of a Jewish youth that is then somehow malevolently enacted through the mature poet’s antagonistic relationship with Stalin. Or rather the reverse, the youth a flashback, as though the poem was in reality written to refer allegorically to the political woods and wolves.

But no, this was not so! The date of composition is 1908, indeed one of his very first poems. How eerie then! Just as the smallest part of a hologram contains the whole image, so the epiphany relative to time, not déjà vu but its opposite, a sense of projection into future time, a moment of existentialist tunnel-vision that envisions in sum total a life lived, a time capsule that is then opened exactly 30 years later at the moment of the poet’s death! Just as each cell contains in its double-helix strands of DNA , later transcribed and regulated, in toto at least the instructions for the whole human being, so the woof and warp of fate are to a degree predetermined; as the saying goes, character (regulated by environment, nurture, and circumstance) is fate. It is as though each poet is born to do the work that only she was born to do.

In Mandelstam’s case, this work announces itself in 1911 with a departure from Symbolism and the formation of The Guild of Poets (aptly named for its emphasis on the element of craft), or Acmeism (in the Parnassian sense of “the best of world culture,”) for which Mandelstam then becomes the leading proponent and exemplar. This break with Symbolism however was not a radical one, nor even intended as a disavowal but rather a modification, its primary intention being to shift the focus of symbolism away from the ethereal to the mundane, to the world of objects (“direct expression through images,”) toward “Beautiful Clarity” in the words of the poet and critic Mikhail Kuzmin, from the Dionysian back to the Apollonian. Mandelstam’s symbolic vocabulary I mention at the outset consists of words like “tree,” “candle,” “forest,” “building,” “stone.” It may also be said then that the present early poem initiates the shaping of a world-view, of a symbolic vision that then pervades the remaining 30 years of Mandelstam’s life’s work, and more specifically his complicated and never resolved relationship to Judaism and Christianity.

Sometime during 1911, Mandelstam surreptitiously and almost certainly for practical reasons converts (perhaps on a visit to Finland) so as to avoid the racial quotas and enter St. Petersburg University to complete the studies he had begun at Heidelberg. Being from a thoroughly secularized family, Mandelstam had never felt any Jewish inclinations and because of the “disability” was, if anything, always conflicted about his race. On the other hand, having had no spiritual education, Christianity held out at least the promise of a spiritual life. A conversion to Orthodoxy however, because of the appearance of compulsion and of unethical convenience, not only held little appeal but was likely distasteful, so that even the choice of the conversion (variously cited, to Methodism or Lutheranism) was a source of dis-ease. In all of this, there is a remarkable similarity to Mandelstam in the religious content of Joseph Brodsky’s life and work, so that both of them may be, and have been, viewed as essentially Christian poets.

Now, I must admit that I am projecting in all of this an element of psychologism, but in my defense will say that the act of translation, that reading par-excellence, is above all an act of empathy. Also, a poet myself, I understand that much of a life’s work is not by design but a matter of enactment of unconscious content. Support for such broad assertions would require an analysis of the following poems (see notes,) something that is of course outside the scope of this introduction (but which has certainly been undertaken in the academic context.)

Collection of Osip Mandelstam links:

10 extant audio recordings of Mandelstam reading his own poems.

Video of Joseph Brodsky’s analysis and reciting (in Russian) of Mandelstam, in comparison to Tsvetaeva, Akhmatova, and Pasternak and in the context of the catastrophic times of World War, Revolution, and Socialist conformity.

Bruce McCleland’s translation of Mandelstam’s book Tristia with facing, transliterated (“sounded-out”) texts.

Another early cryptic miniature, “Thin cross” (1910,) in Offcourse selection of 6 of my translations of Mandelstam miniatures.

A few more Mandelstam (& Tsvetaeva) miniatures in my translation, including 4 from the Voronezh Notebooks that (though not in these) often contain Christian symbolism.

The seemingly ambivalent, post-conversion “The Lutheran” (1912), with its penultimate line: “We neither worship heaven nor fear hell….”

Mandelstam’s book of children’s verses, Primus, with my English translations.