The Neo-classical craftsmanship of Tristia was greeted by sympathetic critics as ‘the overcoming of Symbolism’; in fact, Tristia’s precision of tone is a preparation for the more starkly expressed revelations of the poetry of the 1930s. In 1922, however, Mandelshtam’s achievement was more noticeable than a decade earlier: the Symbolists had died, emigrated or abandoned poetry; surviving Futurists, such as Mayakovsky, had lapsed for a while into versifying propaganda; the new proletarian poets were disappointing in their incompetence. Only Pasternak’s My Sister Life – ‘a cure for tuberculosis’, as Mandelshtam generously acclaimed it – made a greater impact than Tristia, for Pasternak flooded his readers with sense impressions, private allusions and breathless inventiveness, quite unlike the orderly Hellenic imagery, the elegiac cadences and traditional sonorities of Mandelshtam. Before his execution, Gumilev had become disorientated enough to develop into a Symbolist; Akhmatova, on the verge of silence, had reduced poetry to austere aphorism: Mandelshtam was the only recognizable major Acmeist poet still writing.
Eventually, he made his way back from the Hellenic hinterland to Moscow, travelling over the Black Sea to Georgia three times between 1919 and 1922. Unlike Pasternak and Zabolotsky, however, he was never able to establish himself in the more hospitable Caucasus; too unsettled and outspoken to fit in with the ritual respect offered to poets, too preoccupied with the need to confront the moral vacuum at the centre of power, he returned to Petrograd and Moscow.
The proof that Mandelshtam was political is to be found in his heroic protests to Dzerzhinsky and Bukharin about Blyumkin, a secret policeman whom he caught filling in a blank signed death warrant with innocent names: this act put Mandelshtam’s life at risk and may have contributed to his final doom. More important still are his much misinterpreted ‘historiosophic’ poems, such as The Twilight of Freedom, where the revolution is seen as a cosmic catastrophe, the earth out of its orbit, and the poet reacts with sympathy, not condemnation, for the leaders attempting to take the helm. Like Blok’s The Twelve, such poems were misunderstood and condemned by left and right: the left could not forgive the elegiac tone and the right could not share the sense of tragic necessity. Those Bolsheviks, such as Lunacharsky and Bukharin, who could value such interpretations of their revolution, were few and very vulnerable. The real menace of the times was brought home to Mandelshtam in 1921 by the execution of Gumilev which, for all its self-willed martyrdom, was the first of several events that shifted Mandelshtam’s allegiance to the world of the dead.
The world of the dead is ever-present in Tristia: Mandelshtam is constantly trying to retrieve his thoughts from the shadowy realm of Persephone, the refuge of Psyche, who symbolizes for him the free spirit, the unspoken word. ‘The blind swallow flies back to her palace of shadows;/A nocturnal song is sung in a frenzy.’ Swallows, the classical symbol of communication between the land of the living and the city of the dead, represent both free poetic thought and political freedom to Mandelshtam: the coming of totalitarianism he imagines as the ‘binding of swallows into battle legions’. His poetics and his historical thinking are indivisible.
Mandelshtam’s long-term view was perhaps even less acceptable to Soviet ideology than Gumilev’s straightforward hostility. After Tristia Mandelshtam found his access to publishers more and more difficult. His attempts to settle in Leningrad foundered on hostility and he was forced by 1928 to settle in Moscow. The last poems of Tristia date from 1921: in any case the atmosphere for lyrical poetry was growing too rare. Russian literature felt itself to have reached an epic phase, where only narrative prose and the cinema could hope to assimilate what had happened. From 1922, Akhmatova and Pasternak virtually deserted lyricism for other fields, Akhmatova for the ‘genre of silence’, Pasternak for the illusive objectivity of narrative poetry, and Mandelshtam likewise moved towards prose as self-expression and translation as a means of earning a living. The Soviet reader naturally benefited from the influx of talent in translation and children’s books, written by those who were refugees from their own thoughts, but the history of Russian poetry came to a decade or so’s hiatus in 1923.
The ‘other voice of prose’ which Mandleshtam revealed in the mid-1920s was no mere surrogate, but an equally penetrating and perhaps even more original alternative to verse. The ‘anti-memoirs’ of The Noise of Time are a haunting evocation of the cultural influences – texts, teachers, childhood friends – on the adolescent poet, and the novella The Egyptian Stamp is a dense hallucinatory vision of the revolution and its effect on the naïve poetic persona. (Both works have been translated by Clarence Brown.) But this is more than autobiography, fictionalized or not: ‘I want to speak about something other than myself, to follow the age, the noise and growth of time… Revolution is itself life and death and cannot bear hearing people trivialising life and death. Its throat is dry with thirst but it will not accept a single drop of moisture from an outsider’s hands.’ But for all its importance as a vehicle for tracing his spiritual growth and measuring his distance and involvement, Mandelshtam, unlike Pasternak, never allowed prose to supplant verse. For a few years his poetry was undergoing a period of pupation before it burst out, metamorphosed and not immediately recognizable.
The relatively few poems of 1921 to 1924 lie halfway between the musicality of Tristia and the silence of the later 1920s: one’s first reaction is to dismiss them as cryptic. But a reading of earlier Mandelshtam makes deciphering straightforward: the difference is that these are written for a familiar reader, who has mastered the code for his images’ symbolic values. The density of ‘I was washing at night in the courtyard,’ which sets with minimal text a starlit night reflected in a rainwater butt, expands into sense when we remember the value of starlight as unalterable truth, salt as an image of painful realization, so that the eight-line poem becomes a cosmic contrast of eternal clarity and temporary murk, as stark and unmusical as a mathematical equation.
The compression of Mandelshtam’s ideas of private and public time is most powerful in My time of 1923, where time is seen as a beast with a broken spine, turned cruel and vindictive, the poet unable to restore its unity. Here Mandelshtam has compressed an idea that goes back through Mayakovsky and Cubist painting to Verlaine, the idea of a whole human being as a musical instrument (the flute as the image of the spine, the vertebrae its keys), whose only purpose is harmony and which is destroyed when its integrity is broken: Verlaine’s Art poétique and Mayakovsky’s Flute-Spine are subsumed here, as is the classical tradition of Russian poetry, Pushkin and Tyutchev, in the vision of nature still ‘gushing out greenly’ while human life is crushed to death.