Archive for Osip Mandelstam

I like the grey silences…

Posted in Painting, Poetry with tags , on July 23, 2018 by Dylan Thomas Hayden

I like the grey silences under the arches:
Public prayer, funeral processions,
The affecting obligatory rites and requiems at Saint Isaac’s.

I like the priest’s unhurried step,
The winding-sheet’s expansive bodying-forth,
Lent’s Galilean gloom, like an ancient fishing-net,

And smoke of the Old Testament on glowing altars,
And the priest’s orphaned cry. And royal meekness:
Unsullied snow on shoulders, wild purple vestments.

Hagia Sophia and Saint Peter’s – everlasting barns of air and light,
Storehouses of universal goods,
Granaries of the New Testament.

Not to either of you is the spirit drawn in years of grave disaster:
Here, up the wide and sullen steps,
The wolves of tribulation slink; we’ll never betray their tracks:

For the slave is free, having overcome fear,
And in cool granaries, in deep bins,
The grain of whole and perfect faith is stored.

Text: Osip Mandelstam, Selected Poems. London: Penguin Books, 1991
Image: Lucas Cranach the Elder, St. Catherine Altarpiece (central panel), oil on limewood, 1506,
Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Dresden

The Virgin Soil of Time

Posted in Painting, Poetry with tags , on July 23, 2018 by Dylan Thomas Hayden

Poetry is the plow that turns up time so that the deep layers of time, the black soil, appear on top. There are epochs, however, when mankind, not content with the present, longing for time’s deeper layers, like the plowman, thirsts for the virgin soil of time.

One often hears: that might be good, but it belongs to yesterday. But I say: yesterday hasn’t been born yet.

Text: Osip Mandelstam, Selected Essays, translated by Sidney Monas. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1977
Image: Pieter Bruegel, De val van Icarus, oil on canvas, c. 1558, Koninklijke Musea voor Schone Kunsten van België, Brussel

Hagia Sophia

Posted in Architecture, Poetry with tags , on July 21, 2018 by Dylan Thomas Hayden

Hagia Sophia – here the Lord commanded
That nations and tsars should halt!
Your dome, according to an eye-witness,
Hangs from heaven as though by a chain.

All centuries take their measure from Justinian:
Out of her shrine, in Ephesus, Diana allowed
One hundred and seven green marble pillars
To be pillaged for his alien gods.

How did your lavish builder feel
When – with lofty hand and soul –
He set the apses and the chapels,
Arranging them at east and west?

A splendid temple, bathing in the peace –
A festival of light from forty windows;
Under the dome, on pendentives, the four Archangels
Sail onwards, most beautiful of all.

And this sage and spherical building
Shall outlive centuries and nations,
And the resonant sobbing of the seraphim
Shall not warp the dark gilt surfaces.

Text: Osip Mandelstam, Selected Poems. London: Penguin Books, 1991
Image: Seraph pendentive at Hagia Sophia, source unknown


Posted in Art, Philosophy with tags , , , on July 21, 2018 by Dylan Thomas Hayden

Christian art is always an action based on the great idea of redemption. It is an “imitation of Christ” infinitely various in its manifestations, an eternal return to the single creative act that began our historical era. Christian art is free. It is, in the full meaning of the phrase, “art for art’s sake.” No necessity of any kind, even the highest, clouds its bright inner freedom, for its prototype, that which it imitates, is the very redemption of the world by Christ. And so, not sacrifice, not redemption in art, but the free and joyful imitation of Christ—that is the keystone of Christian esthetics. Art cannot be a sacrifice, for a sacrifice has already been made; cannot be redemption, for the world along with the artist has already been redeemed. What then is left? A joyful commerce with the divine, like a game played by the Father with his children, a hide-and-seek of the spirit! The divine illusion of redemption, which is Christian art, is explained precisely by this game Divinity plays with us, permitting us to stray along the byways of mystery so that we would, as it were of ourselves, come upon salvation, having experienced catharsis, redemption in art. Christian artists are as it were the freedmen of the idea of redemption, rather than slaves, and they are not preachers. Our whole two-thousand-year-old culture, thanks to the miraculous mercy of Christianity, is the world’s release into freedom for the sake of play, for spiritual joy, for the free “imitation of Christ.”

Christianity took its place and stood there in an absolutely free relationship to art, and this no human religion of any kind has been able to do either before or after it.

Nourishing art, giving art of its flesh, offering it in the way of a sturdy metaphysical foundation the most real fact of redemption, Christianity demanded nothing in return. Christian culture is therefore not threatened by the danger of inner impoverishment. It is inexhaustible, infinite, because, triumphing over time, again and again it condenses grace into magnificent clouds and lets it pour out in life-giving rain. One cannot be sufficiently emphatic in pointing out the fact that, for its character of eternal freshness and unfadingness, European culture is indebted to the mercy of Christianity in its relationship to art.

Text: Osip Mandelstam, Selected Essays, translated by Sidney Monas. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1977
Image: Andrea del Verrocchio, Resurrezione di Cristo, painted terracotta, c. 1463, Museo Nazionale del Bargello, Florence

Mandelstam on Poetry

Posted in Poetry with tags on January 15, 2015 by Dylan Thomas Hayden

“Only in Russia is poetry respected, it gets people killed. Is there anywhere else where poetry is so common a motive for murder?”


Tyrant as Poet

Posted in Poetry with tags , , on August 22, 2012 by Dylan Thomas Hayden

Stalin’s early verses explain his obsessional, destructive interest in literature as dictator as well as his reverence for — and jealousy of — brilliant poets such as Osip Mandelstam and Boris Pasternak. The words and influence of this ‘Kremlin crag-dweller’ and ‘peasant-slayer’ on literature were, as Mandelstam wrote in his famously scabrous poem denouncing Stalin, ‘leaden’, his ‘fat fingers…greasy as maggots’. But, ironically, the swaggering brute rightly notorious for his oafish philistinism concealed a classically educated man of letters with surprising knowledge. Stalin never ceased caring about poetry. Mandelstam was right when he said, ‘In Russia, poetry is really valued, here they kill for it.’

The ex-romantic poet despised and destroyed modernism but promoted his distorted version of Romanticism, Socialist Realism. He knew Nekrasov and Pushkin by heart, read Goethe and Shakespeare in translation, and could recite Walt Whitman. He talked endlessly about the Georgian poets of his childhood, and he himself helped edit a Russian translation of Rustaveli’s Knight in the Panther Skin, delicately translating some of the couplets himself and asking modestly: ‘Will they do?’

Stalin respected artistic talent, generally preferring to kill Party hacks instead of brilliant poets. Hence on Mandelstam’s arrest Stalin ordered, ‘Isolate but preserve.’ He would preserve most of his geniuses, such as Shostakovich, Bulgakov and Eisenstein, sometimes telephoning and encouraging them, at other times denouncing and impoverishing them. When he called Pasternak in one of his telephonic lightning-strikes from Olympus, he asked about Mandelstam: ‘He’s a genius, isn’t he?’ Mandelstam’s tragedy was sealed not only by his suicidal decision to mock Stalin in verse — the medium of the dictator’s own childhood dreams — but also by Pasternak’s failure to assert that his colleague was indeed a genius. Mandelstam was not sentenced to death, but nor was he preserved, perishing on the dystopian road to Gulag hell. But Stalin did preserve Pasternak: ‘Leave that cloud-dweller in peace.’

–From Young Stalin by Simon Sebag Montefiore


Posted in Poetry with tags on June 15, 2012 by Dylan Thomas Hayden

You are the guilty debtor of a long thirst,
the wise procurer of wine and water,
on your sides, the young goats dance
and the fruits ripen to the music.

The flutes whistle, swear and are angry
at the trouble on your black and red rim
and no one can take you up
and put this trouble right.

–Mandelstam trans. McKane