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Before his six years’ silence, Mandelshtam also experimented with freer, more expansive forms, explicitly or implicitly odes, to deal with the vast disparities between an increasingly threatening Moscow and the starry eternity by which he had always measured events and time. Political imagery gives way to metaphors of predation, oppression and summary execution, traditional in Russian fable and urban folklore: 1 January 1924 has imagery of judicial murder: ‘Lips sealed with tin’, the Underwood typewriter with the cartilage of a pike and deadly ‘layers of lime’. The imagery of threat and the astral symbols lie dormant until they surface with renewed effect in the 1930s. These six years, however unhappy in their wanderings and insecurity, were not entirely wasted. Like other Acmeists, Mandelshtam sought refuge in new spheres of activity, notably reading and translating Italian poetry, which seemed to hold the secret of survival in an age of lethal political conflict. Dante and Petrarch were soon to be of enormous significance to Mandelshtam as sources of themes, even new sounds, but above all as mapmakers of hell.

Hostility and suspicion in literary circles, even from such established pre-revolutionary figures as Andrey Bely, drove Mandelshtam into new intellectual regions. In the Soviet Union speculation was still relatively free among natural and physical scientists: the biologists and physicists so valuable to the Communists’ development plans were the last reservoir of free thinking and international communication. It was among them that Mandelshtam found new acquaintance and ideas. Not until the 1930s were these new themes assimilated into Mandelshtam’s poetics, but they were to give his poetry, and that of his younger contemporary Zabolotsky, resources almost unprecedented in European literature.

Even in My time of 1923, Mandelshtam shows an impressive familiarity with biological terminology; biology is the first of the sciences – followed by physics and cosmology – to enlarge his poetics. By 1930 he had made friends with Boris Kuzin, an eager proponent of neo-Lamarckism, a theory of evolution discredited before and since which propounds the inheritance of acquired characteristics and supposes that species evolve by an almost spiritual response to the demands of their environment. Stalin and his charlatan agronomist Lysenko favoured this pre-Darwinian theory for its implications in creating Homo sovieticus out of Homo sapiens and for the promise of training wheat to grow in the Arctic: very soon, however, the neo-Lamarckists were to be purged for the implicit idealism, even theism, of their doctrines. Mandelshtam went back to the original Philosophie zoologique of 1809 and saw something the biologists had ignored: Lamarck treats evolution as though it were literally a descent from warm-blooded humanity through the reptiles to the insensate protean forms of life and implies, as well he might after his bitter experience of the French revolution, that evolution is a reversible process, a ladder (une échelle) that nature could well descend or even snatch away. Furthermore, Lamarck’s hierarchical survey of the genera and families of animals uncannily echoes Dante’s nine circles of hell, each circle blacker and more painful.

Biology and Italian poetry are linked: the narrative thread spun by Ariosto in the poem of that name, the cult of the dead Laura in the Petrarch sonnets that Mandelshtam so lovingly translated in 1933, the yearning for an unattainable Florence and Tuscany in the poems of the 1930s all correspond to Lamarck’s exploration of nature’s abysses, the unattainable sixth sense in ‘the lizard’s pineal eye’ (the fourth eight-line poem of 1934): these are secret worlds: as a variant of Ariosto puts it, ‘Friend of Ariosto, Petrarch and Tasso –/ Senseless, salty-sweet language/And the charming bivalves of clinched sounds, –/I’m afraid to open the clam’s pearl with a knife.’ Their labyrinthine symmetry creates a structure that enables Mandelshtam to make tragic sense of Stalin’s epoch.

This relevance of the Italian classics and of natural sciences to his predicament struck Mandelshtam on his last journey into Asia, a trip with biologists to Armenia that Bukharin’s patronage had gained for him. The 1930s brought about the ‘impact of Asia’ on Mandelshtam and many of his contemporaries: for Russian poets, Armenia and Georgia had replaced Italy and France as lands where lemon trees bloomed. Given the traditional Russian associations of Asia with the blind tyranny of Medes and Persians as opposed to Europe’s Hellenic freedom, it is only natural that Soviet poets should see ominous relevance in the cultural switch they were forced to make that accords with MacNeice’s lines: ‘For we are obsolete who like the lesser things,/Who play in corners with looking-glass and beads;/It is better we should go quickly, go into Asia…’

Dante, biology and Asia were the explosive: the detonator was provided by the second important death in Mandelshtam’s career, that of Mayakovsky, which ‘released the stream of poetry’ in him, as his widow phrased it. If Mayakovsky, sympathizer and propagandist, could not live under the regime, then the ‘genre of silence’ appeared to offer no safeguards. However irrational the reasoning, both Pasternak and Mandelshtam experienced a ‘second birth’ on Mayakovsky’s death: between 1930 and 1932 they wrote what are arguably their finest and boldest lyrics, using the last bubbles of freedom and the incomprehension of their censors to get them into print before twenty years of terror took poetry back to a purely oral genre.

In Tbilisi, on his way back from Armenia, in November 1930 Mandelshtam wrote a remarkable chain of stanzas to celebrate his reawakening to new, harsher textures, a ‘cat language’ of oral and written scratches and an Asiastic endurance of history’s oppression. Years later, when Armenia has faded from his themes, the new sensations of being blinded and deafened by menacing colours and sounds are permanently incorporated into Mandelshtam’s phonetic line and images. Armenia thus gives Mandelshtam not just a landscape for a new era – ‘a costly clay’ – but a new Asiatic language, rich in whispered consonants, fit for sotto voce and hermetic writing. But its history, the fall of a kingdom to imperial tyranny, is of allegorical importance in the prose account Mandelshtam wrote of his Journey. This poetic prose mingles history, landscape and travelogue with an account of Mandelshtam’s induction into science, ‘Around the Naturalists’, and eventually gives rise to poems such as Lamarck of 1932 in which he identifies with the neglected ‘patriarch’ of evolution and prepares to experience his descent into the world of the arachnids, a typically spidery hell for Russian writers.

Between 1932 and his first arrest in 1934 Mandelshtam treats Russian, Italian and German poets in the same way as he does Lamarck, as precursors whom he must follow to the bitter end, whether the deviously self-sustaining narration of Ariosto or the arrogance of Pushkin’s predecessor, Batyushkov, who pursued his ‘eternal dreams, samples of blood,/From one glass to another’ at the cost of his own sanity. Alien tongues are not just sources of new ideas, material for translation but – as Latin and Greek had been in the 1920s and 1920s – means for personal survival. Addressing the heroic Sturm und Drang poets in To the German language, Mandelshtam declares that ‘An alien language will be a foetal membrane for me,/And long before I dared be born.’