Osip Mandelstam

Russian poet and essayist (1891-1938)

Osip Emilyevich Mandelstam (also spelled Mandelshtam; Russian: О́сип Эми́льевич Мандельшта́м; January 15, 1891December 27, 1938) was a Russian poet and essayist, one of the foremost members of the Acmeist school of poets.

NKVD photo after the second arrest, 1938

Quotes edit

  • Only in Russia poetry is respected – it gets people killed. Is there anywhere else where poetry is so common a motive for murder?
  • The October Revolution could not but influence my work since it took away my "biography," my sense of individual significance. I am grateful to it, however, for once and for all putting an end to my spiritual security and to a cultural life supported by unearned cultural income... I feel indebted to the Revolution, but I offer it gifts for which it still has no need. The question about what a writer should be is completely incomprehensible to me: to answer it would be tantamount to inventing a writer, that is, to writing his works for him.
    • A POET ABOUT HIMSELF translated into English in The complete critical prose (1997)
  • Every book should be an incentive to studying the language. Every book should provide at least some contact with the original, for example, a parallel text and a glossary. At present we are struggling to take the translation business away from the caste leader, for whom the mass reader is a fiction, an "easy mark" ignorant of foreign languages.
    • ON TRANSLATIONS translated into English in The complete critical prose (1997)
  • Why can't we shake things up, why can't these good translators be utilized in collective undertakings?
    • ON TRANSLATIONS translated into English in The complete critical prose (1997)
  • As the circulation of translated literature increases, we can observe the growth of interest in language study among the Komsomol masses, among the working youth, and in the colleges. Just how young people undertake the study of foreign languages is of interest: they approach language learning with the triumphant spirit of a conqueror invading previously forbidden territory. Knowledge of languages is a mighty weapon in the hands of the ruling class. With the aid of this weapon the composition of the entire cultural present is counterfeited and world literature is falsified until it reaches the condition demanded by people of position.
    • ON TRANSLATIONS translated into English in The complete critical prose (1997)


translated into English in The complete critical prose (1997)

  • Speed, the pace of the present, cannot be measured by subways or skyscrapers, but only by the cheerful grass thrusting itself forth from under city stones.
  • Apples, bread, potatoes-from now on they will quench not only physical but spiritual hunger.
  • Cultural values ornament the State, endowing it with color, form, and, if you will, even gender. Inscriptions on State buildings, tombs, and gateways insure the State against the ravages of time.
  • The separation of Culture and the State is the most significant event of our revolution.
  • the poet has no fear of recurrence and is easily intoxicated on Classical wine.
  • Today a kind of speaking in tongues is taking place. In sacred frenzy poets speak the language of all times, all cultures. Nothing is impossible.
  • the word wanders freely around the thing, like the soul around an abandoned, but not forgotten body.
  • Poetry is the plough that turns up time in such a way that the abyssal strata of time, its black earth, appear on the surface. There are epochs, however, when mankind, not satisfied with the present, yearning like the ploughman for the abyssal strata of time, thirsts for the virgin soil of time. Revolution in art inevitably leads to Classicism, not because David reaped the harvest of Robespierre, but because that is what the earth desires.
  • One often hears: that is good but it belongs to yesterday. But I say: yesterday has not yet been born. It has not yet really existed. I want Ovid, Pushkin, and Catullus to live once more, and I am not satisfied with the historical Ovid, Pushkin, and Catullus.
  • It is indeed astonishing that all are obsessed with poets and cannot tear themselves away from them. You would think that once they were read, that was that. Transcended, as they say now. Nothing could be farther from the truth.
  • The life of the word has entered a heroic era. The word is flesh and bread. It shares the fate of bread and flesh: suffering. People are hungry. The State is even hungrier. But there is something still hungrier: Time. Time wants to devour the State...There is nothing hungrier than the contemporary State, and a hungry State is more terrifying than a hungry man. To show compassion for the State which denies the word shall be the contemporary poet's social obligation and heroic feat.
  • Classical poetry is the poetry of revolution


translated into English in The complete critical prose (1997)

  • One question conditions the dynamics and balance of color in the composition of a painting: whence the source of light?
  • The eighteenth century was an age of secularization, that is, it recognized human thought and activity as worldly ventures. Hatred for the priesthood, the hieratic cult, and the liturgy was deep in its blood. Although not an age devoted predominantly to social struggle, it was a period when society was painfully aware of caste. The determinism inherited from the Middle Ages hung menacingly over philosophy and enlightenment, and over its political experiments right down to the tiers état. The caste of priests, the caste of warriors, the caste of landowners-those were the concepts through which "enlightened minds" operated. These castes should not be confused with classes: the above-mentioned elements were all considered necessary to the sacred architectonics of any society. The immense, accumulated energy of social conflict sought an outlet. All the aggressive demands of the age, all the strength of its principled indignation, fell upon the caste of priests.
  • The French Revolution ended when the spirit of Classical vengeance abandoned it. The Revolution had reduced the priesthood to ashes, destroyed social determinism, and brought the secularization of Europe to its ultimate conclusion. It was then washed up on the shore of the nineteenth century as an already unfathomable thing, not as a Gorgon's head, but as a fascicle of seaweed. Out of the union of mind and the furies a mongrel was born, equally alien to the high rationalism of the Encyclopedia and to the Classical raging of the revolutionary storm-Romanticism. Nevertheless, as it developed, the nineteenth century moved much further away from its predecessor than Romanticism. The nineteenth century was the conduit of Buddhist influence in European culture.
  • The essence of nineteenth century cognitive activity is projection.
  • a taste for historical reincarnation and total understanding is not constant; it is a transient taste. And our century has begun under the sign of great intolerance, exclusiveness, and conscious noncomprehension of other worlds.

Quotes about Mandelstam edit

  • When the mass terror erupted in 1936, however, Birobidzhan would be the stage of frightful liquidations, a real pogrom against Jewish communists, the pioneers of this 'centre of Jewish culture. From one day to the next, Professor Liberberg, president of the republic's executive committee, disappeared; a few months later, a newspaper revealed that he had been 'unmasked' as a 'cowardly counterrevolutionary and Trotskyist, a bourgeois nationalist'; in 1937 and 1938, his successors experienced the same fate. In all the regions where a Jewish population was concentrated, thousands of activists of the Jewish sections, party militants, journalists of the Yiddish press and other writers were arrested; among many others, such major figures as Isaac Babel and Osip Mandelstam vanished in the maelstrom.
    • Alain Brossat and Sylvia Klingberg, Revolutionary Yiddishland: A History of Jewish Radicalism (2016)
  • The story of Mandelstam's final years, thanks to his widow... is now widely known. He was arrested in 1934 for having composed a poem in which he made grim fun of Stalin, the 'Kremlin Mountaineer', and his relish for torture and execution... Someone informed on him and he was immediately clapped into prison, where he underwent intensive interrogation and psychological and physical torment. Friends intervened in so far as they dared or were able—his protector Bukharin was to be among Stalin's purge later in the decade—and by some miracle the intervention worked. The poet was not shot, as... expected... but exiled, first to a small town in the Urals (where, half insane from the prison experience, he attempted to kill himself...)... His wife was at his side from the moment he was put on the train into exile... The term of exile expired in May, 1937, and the Mandelstams returned to Moscow only to find that they had lost the right to 'living-space... Homeless and unable to find work, the following twelve month[s] is a nightmare of wandering and terror: the wave of second arrests... was under way. Mandelstam's condition worsened. He had two heart attacks. Finally in May 1938, they received Mandelstam's sentence 'for counter-revolutionary activities'... five years of hard labor (he had been seized at a rural sanatorium where he was recuperating). Held for a while in prison, he was put... on one of the prisoner trains [to] remote eastern regions. He seems to have been quite insane at times, though there were lucid intervals. ...[H]e wrote a last letter in October, 1938... saying that he was being held at a transit camp pending shipment to a permanent one. Alexander Mandelstam received notice that his brother had died—of 'heart failure'—on 27 December 1938.
    • Clarence Brown, Introduction, Osip Mandelstam, Selected Poems (1973) pp. xii-xiv, Tr. Clarence Brown & W. S. Merwin.
  • when I wrote a book called The Dew Breaker, a book about a choukèt lawoze, or a Duvalier-era torturer, a book that is partly set in the period following the Numa and Drouin executions, I used an epigraph from a poem by Osip Mandelstam, who famously said, "Only in Russia is poetry respected-it gets people killed." The quotation I used is: "Maybe this is the beginning of madness.../Forgive me for what I am saying./Read it... quietly, quietly."
  • I think the first discovery I made for myself which I didn't necessarily share with my family or my friends, but came upon myself, was Russian literature. I've always felt very much enthralled to writers like Dostoevsky, especially, and Chekhov. In later years, modern Russian poets like Pasternak and Mandelstam and Akhmatova have meant a great deal to me. Poetry more than prose.
    • Anita Desai In Interviews with Writers of the Post-Colonial World edited by Feroza Jussawalla and Reed Way Dasenbrock (1992)
  • he was totally unconcerned about winning a place for himself in the world of letters. He was much too busy. What with books, people, conversation, the events of the day, and even the lowly business of running to the shop for bread or kerosene, his time was fully occupied...For all my light-headedness, even I was astonished at his improvidence. And the times were not propitious.
    • Nadezhda Mandelstam Hope Abandoned (1974) chapter 1, Translated from the Russian by Max Hayward
  • I never ceased to believe in M.'s and Akhmatova's poetry. In our depersonalized world where everything human was silenced, only the poet preserved his "self" and a voice which can still be heard even now.
    • Nadezhda Mandelstam Hope Abandoned (1974) chapter 1, Translated from the Russian by Max Hayward
  • I found it funny that he never wrote at a table like everybody else, but always put his paper on a chair and squatted in front of it on his haunches.
    • Nadezhda Mandelstam Hope Abandoned (1974) chapter 1, Translated from the Russian by Max Hayward

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