OSIP MANDELSTAM was born into a Jewish family in Warsaw in 1891, grew up in St. Petersburg, was educated there and in Paris and Heidelerg. He eked out a marginal living by hack scribbling, translating (sinclair, Romain, Duhamel, Walter Scott), and writing poems. The first volume of poetry, Stone, appeared in 1913, followed by Tristia (1922), Second Book (1923), and Poems (1928). He also wrote autobiography and criticism beginig with a 1910 essay on Villion and ending with On Poetry in 1928. He discovered his Jewish consciousness in the '20s, and in the '30s turned inward as if toward an imaginary home. In 1934 he was arrested and exiled (he jumped from a window to kill himself, brike his arm) for having written a short poem satirizing. Satlin, which reads in part:
His fingers are earthworms, thick and fat;
He drops his words like forty-pound pats.
The shine on his boottops is double-bright.
And his cockroach moustache jips in delight . . .
No matter who's shot, the fat of the land
Is served him for dinner again and again.
Released in 1937 and re-arrested in 1938, Mandelstam was sentenced to five years at hard labour. Rejected or persecuted all his adult life, he came to suffer agonising paranoia and, thinking he would be poisoned, took food from other prisoners; in retaliation, they mobbed and kill him in December 1938. All his poetry of the '30s and much of his other writing, zealously and secretively preserved by his wife Nadezhda Yakovlevna and by intimate friends, has been published only posthumously.
Exceptional artistic movements arose in the cellars and cafes of New York and Paris, Moscow and Leningrad in the '20s, leading to the mature work of extraordinary writers. Those who knew Mandelstam best admired his poetry because it did not hymn industralization or socialism but sang of Hellenism, and "the flame inside my head" actually pointed out the relevance of poetry to modern life, the aptness of satire, the strength of metaphor, and the herotic stature of the lyric outburst by which a man expresses first consciousness:
May the song be sung forever.
That you returned to the gentle meadow-
Down dropped a soft, warm swallow
On the streaming snow.
The compactness of his lines and their exquisite musical phrasing took his poetry far beyond "our poor and skimpy literature worn thin like a begger's curse" to what was symbolized by the Parthenon and, looking ahead, to "the reader in posterity."
Ten years ago, Professors Clarence Brown, Boris Filippov, Yury Ivask and Gleb Struve edited a three-volume Collected Works in Russian, and there have been several translations, among them: a volume of autobiographical prose translated by Professor Brown (1965); a Selected Poems by Brown and W. S. Merwin (1973); a Selected Poems with facing Russian and English by David Mcduff (1975); and, most recently, Osip Mandelstam: Poems, chosen and translated by James Green (1978). Now, Jane Garry Harris of the University of Pottsburgh and her colleague Constance Link offer appealing translation of criticism and commentary from volumes two and three of the Collected Works. Essays, reviews, vignettes, a previously unreprinted piece on Jack London, and 97 letters are chronologically grouped, excellently footnoted (with proper thanks and acknowledgments), and smoothly translated. From this material ancillary to the poems, we learn-urged by Mandelstam to "study the coordination of the impulse and the text," - how sometimes fine, sometimes broad, and sometimes arbitrary a literary thinkers Mandelstam was.
Advocating a fresh poetry against the slipshod religiosity of Symbolism - "Down with Symbolism! Long live the living rose!" - he declared that "professional Symbolism." led to demoralized perception. The image, "a word which has been sealed up," had become inimical to man.
But a word is not a thing. Its significance is not a translation of itself . . . A verbal representation is a complex composite of phenomena . . . a 'system.'
And he proposed creation of an organic poetics, biological in nature rather than legislative, in which the word is as vital as the liver or the heart and which, like a man, comes complete and independent.
Mandelstam's essays and reviews are of two kinds: historical and polemical. The one sums up the past to explain contemporary positions and requirements; the other supports friends and attacks enemies. Both are not a critic's but a poet's prose. Intensely poetic are his self-defences, particularly "Foutyh Prose," a savage, parodic demilition of the unscrupulous "gypsy gang" that runs the Soviet literary world, and "Journey to Armenia," a reflective travelogue on a 1930 trip, which, his widow writes, "restored the gift of poetry to M." In that southern paradise, among kind people and wild strawberries, he concluded that "I have been as blind as a silkworm all my life."
Most of the letters are from Mandelstam to his wife; although they report some literary bussiness, they really belong to her. A letter to Kornei Chukovsky in early 1937 described Mandelstam's fear of being alone and asks for an appeal to Stalin. Chukovsky helped many writers, but even he couldn't move an unmovable moutain. "I will not comply with another sentence of exile," Mandelstam wrote; "I can't." He died, but his poems merged into the current of great Russian literature, where they testify to his grand vision and indomitably noble spirit, and where - as he would have wished - they keep the language alive. CAPTION: Picture, Osip Mandelstam