Saturday, February 07, 2015
The Selected Poems
by Osip Mandelstam
Hagia Sophia: here, God himself decreed
Nations and kings to stop! As witness eyes
In words, your ancient cupola is indeed,
As if on a chain, suspended from the skies.
Across the centuries, Justinian’s example
Shines: Diana of Ephesus abets
The theft of 107 columns in green marble
For the benefit of those alien gods.
In lofty thought, your magnanimous architect,
Noble of spirit, arranged the nave, exedrae,
Semi-domes, apses, pillars, et cetera,
Once he had indicated east and west.
The lovely temple is bathing in the world,
Its forty windows hold a triumph of light.
Under the dome, with sails of wings bedight,
The four archangels are the most beautiful.
This wise and spherical construction
Will outlive many a loud age and nation.
Echoes of choirs of cherubim weeping
Will fail to warp the darkened gilding.*
Osip Mandelstam was born in 1891. After surviving the revolution in 1922 Mandelstam married Madezhda Iokovlevna Khazin, who accompanied him throughout his years of exile and imprisonment. In the 1920s Mandelstam supported himself by writing children's books and translating works by Upton Sinclair, Jules Romains, Charles de Coster and others. He did not compose poems from 1925 to 1930 but turned to prose. In 1930 he made a trip to Armenia. Mandelstam saw his role as an outsider and drew parallels with his fate and Pushkin's. The importance of preserving the cultural tradition became for the poet a central concern. The Soviet cultural authorities were rightly suspicious of his loyalty to the Bolshevik rule. To escape his influential enemies Mandelstam traveled as a journalist in the distant provinces. Mandelstam's Journey to Armenia (1933) became his last major work published during his life time.
'We live, deaf to the land beneath us,
Ten steps away no one hears our speeches,
But where there's so much as a half a conversation
The Kremlin's mountaineer will get his mention.'
(from 'Stalin' 1934)
Mandelstam was arrested for 'counter-revolutionary' activities in May 1938 and sentenced to five years in a labour camp. Interrogated by Nikolay Shivarov, he confessed that he had written a counter-revolutionary a poem which started with the lines: 'We live without sensing the country beneath us, At ten paces, our speech has no sound and when there's the will to half-open our mouths the Kremlin crag-dweller bars the way.'
In the transit camp, Mandelstam was already so weak that he couldn't stand. He died in the Gulag Archipelago in Vtoraia rechka, near Vladivostok, on December 27, 1938.His body was taken to a common grave.
*Translated by Philip Nikolayev