Mandelstam stamp

by Henry King

For a couple of years now, I’ve had an on-off obsession with Osip Mandelstam, the Russian poet who famously died on his way to a gulag after insulting Joseph Stalin in a poem.* I don’t speak Russian, so my access to his poetry comes via translations (as well as reading around him, in critical studies, and Hope against Hope, the biography by his widow). There are several versions, including scattered poems by Donald Davie, Joseph Brodsky, and Christopher Middleton among others; the three collections on my bookshelf as those by James Greene, W.S. Merwin with Clarence Brown (the great Mandelstam scholar; I also have Brown’s translation of the Selected Prose), and the extremely idiosyncratic versions of Christian Wiman. But I’m always looking for new versions, so it’s with great excitement that I’ve been following the emergence of new translations by the British poet Alistair Noon. Noon’s versions have been appearing on numerous websites, and will eventually come out as a full collection. But though this definitive volume hasn’t appeared yet, I think there are enough poems out there already to warrant an initial appraisal.

The most striking aspect of the versions I’ve seen is that Noon is intent on rendering Mandelstam in rhyme. (Noon is unusual among contemporary British poets for his heavy use of traditional forms: his first collection, Earth Records, begins with a long series of sonnets, for more about which see Peter Riley’s article at The Fortnightly Review.) Donald Davie identified rhyme as the crucial difference between the versions by Merwin and Brown and by James Greene. Davie’s argument is that “Mandelstam’s poems themselves yearn towards, and achieve, forms that are ‘bent in,’ rounded, sounding a full bell-note”[1] – most obviously in their full rhymes, as well as their regular metres. Merwin and Brown’s versions, Davie argues, are American in that they translate Mandelstam “into that one of the twentieth-century idioms which is […] pre-eminently vowed to the open-ended and the discontinuous.” [2] Greene, by contrast, uses more rhyme, and approximates more closely to traditional metres. We can see this clearly in an untitled four-line poem from Mandelstam’s first collection, Stone:

All the lamps were turned low.
You slipped out quickly in a thin shawl.
We disturbed no one.
The servants went on sleeping. (Merwin and Brown) [3]

Suddenly, from the dimly lit hall
You slipped out in a light shawl;
The servants slept on,
We disturbed no one… (Greene) [4]

The wording is very similar – identical in places – and little of the content is changed; but Greene’s version, as well as rhyming, captures the speed of the escape in how the sense is run over across the first two lines (though not all of his versions are as successful as this). Donald Davie’s argument remains convincing to me, and so I’m inclined to favour versions that at least approximate rhyme. I think Joseph Brodsky would agree: his essay on Mandelstam, “The Child of Civilisation,” is absolutely excoriating towards what he calls the “self-assured, insufferable stylistic provincialism” of “an absolutely impersonal product, a sort of common denominator of modern verbal art” [5]. He also throws in his own rhymed and metrical version of “Tristia,” just to indicate the direction he thinks translators ought to go in.

Credit is due to Alistair Noon, then, for taking this demanding path. What’s more, some of his versions seem to me incredibly effective, like this one from the Oxonian Review:

One night I was washing in the yard,
above me a sky of jostling stars –
like salt on an axe, each beam –
the barrel near-frozen to the brim.

The gates were shut and locked;
believe me, the earth is strict.
You won’t find a principle cleaner
than the truth there is in fresh linen.

A star dissolves like salt in the barrel.
The ice-cold water blackens.
A cleaner death, saltier troubles,
and the earth is more truthful and terrible.

Here’s the first stanza of Greene’s version for comparison:

I was washing at night in the courtyard,
Harsh stars shone in the sky.
Starlight, like salt on an axe-head –
The rain-butt was brim-full and frozen. [6]

You’ll notice that Noon’s rhymes are not “full.” Sometimes he rhymes the consonants, as in “locked” with “strict”; but more regularly it’s the vowels’ chime. Often, he rhymes vowels across masculine and feminine endings, as in this stanza from “Concert at a Railway Station,” published at Asymptote:

A sphere of glass. A park’s proportions.
An iron world whose entrancement is deep.
A coach speeds off with a peacock’s call,
to a noisy feast in misty Elysium,
victorious, it makes a forte-piano roar.
I’m late. And afraid. And asleep.

The musical theme here is significant: although Mandelstam’s art developed in many important senses by analogy with architecture and stonework (as in his famous poems on Hagia Sophia and Notre Dame), his early poems show the influence of the Symbolist analogy of music, and it would recur throughout his career (as in a late, Keatsian poem about a Greek flute). Vowel-rhyming is, by its nature, more amenable to song than consonantal rhymes – just look at most song lyrics – because the vowel is what sustains the note. In speech, on the other hand, consonants have greater articulatory force. Push this contradistinction further, and vowel-music seems to transcend the rational discourse of consonantal speech as it approaches the affective condition of song. It is appropriate to Mandelstam, therefore, that Noon should use vowel-rhymes when translating a declaration – if you can call it that – such as this:

As if we’d seen the sun into the ground,
we’ll meet up in St. Petersburg again,
the first time that our lips will pronounce
a perfect word that transcends all sense.

–Untitled, ll.1-4, from Cerise Press

And yet I’m not convinced by “see the sun into the ground,” still less by “we’ll meet up” – it feels too slangy to me. Again, I don’t speak Russian, so I can’t say with authority; but I hear more of what Clarence Brown refers to as the “cello sound” [7] of Mandelstam’s voice, its grandeur, in the Merwin and Brown version:

We shall meet again, in Petersburg,
as though we had buried the sun there,
and then we shall pronounce for the first time
the blessed word with no meaning. [8]

“Blessed” also better captures the meaning of блаженное (“blazhennoye”), which (online dictionaries inform me) is closer to “blissful” or “beatific,” and carries more religious, moral connotations than “perfect.” It may be that modern English simply is slangier and carries less religious import than it did even forty years ago. This issue of how much agency the poet has within the prevailing linguistic circumstances is a fraught one: Ezra Pound wrote that

The “age demanded” chiefly a mould in plaster,
Made with no loss of time,
A prose kinema, not, not assuredly, alabaster
Or the “sculpture” of rhyme. [9]

Alistair Noon deserves respect for attempting this kind of “sculpture.” I can’t wait to see what he’ll have made of my favourite poems, and I’m certain that his translations will be an invaluable addition to Mandelstam-lovers’ bookshelves.

* This article was previously published on Henry’s blog Between Sound and Sense.

[1] Donald Davie, Foreword to Osip Mandelstam: Selected Poems, translated by James Greene (London: Penguin 1991) p.xv

[2] Ibid. p.xvi

[3] Osip Mandelstam: Selected Poems, translated by Clarence Brown and W.S. Merwin (Oxford: OUP 1973) p.3

[4] Greene 1991, p.3

[5] Joseph Brodsky, ‘The Child of Civilisation’ in Less than One: Selected Essays (Harmondsworth: Penguin 1987) p.142

[6] Greene 1991, p.43

[7] Brown and Merwin 1973, p.xviii

[8] Ibid. p.31

[9] Ezra Pound, ‘Hugh Selwyn Mauberley’, Selected Poems 1908-1959 (London: Faber and Faber 1975) p.99, ll.29-32