Tuesday, 3 April 2012

Osip Mandelstam's 'Notre Dame': "To Make Grim Bulk a Thing of Beauty"

NOTRE DAME (Osip Mandelstam, translated by A Z Foreman)

Where foreign clans were tried in Roman court
The basilica stands. First in delight
Like early Adam, stretching nerves, the light
Groined archway bunches muscle out for sport.

But things outside betray the secret plan:
A pact of arch and buttress here forestalls
A burly mass from flattening the walls
In deadlock with the bold vault's battering ram.

A well-turned maze. Primeval wood and stone.
The Gothic spirit's rational abyss.
Egyptian brawn and Christian timidness.
Reed next to oak. The plumb-line takes the throne.

But, stronghold Notre Dame, the more acutely
I studied your great ribs' monstrosity,
The more I thought: a time shall come for me
To likewise make grim bulk a thing of beauty.

Translation © A Z Foreman. Used by permission. Taken from http://poemsintranslation.blogspot.co.uk/

I'm probably not ready to write anything about Osip Mandelstam. I am sure that his name has circled around the edges of my consciousness occasionally, for years - it is certainly iconic. His influence upon so many poets and artists has been immense. Mandelstam's name shows up in Paul Celan's work, which probably caught my interest recently.

In Brest, before hoops of flame,
in the tent where the tiger leapt,
there, Finite, I heard you sing,
there I saw you, Mandelstam.

(from 'Afternoon with Circus and Citadel', Paul Celan, translated by Michael Hamburger)

Mandelstam died quite young, because of his creative work; specifically, a famous poem targeting Stalin, The Stalin Epigram. He was born in Poland of Jewish parents but grew up in Russia. Dedicating many years of his life to Symbolist and Acmeist poetry, he became increasingly open about his opposition to Stalin's totalitarian government. He was exiled and eventually died in one of the Soviet Union's labour camps.

I love the above picture, which shows Mandelstam on the left, with his friends and fellow poets Chukovsky, Livshits and Annenkov, in 1914. Their faces betray passion and self-confidence. They could not possibly be more vivid, even filmic. It's as though they are still alive.

I thought the above poem was superb, also being an admirer of the Gothic magnificence of Notre Dame in Paris. I wondered if the final lines ("a time shall come for me/To likewise make grim bulk a thing of beauty") referred to the fact that Mandelstam bore witness to oppressive rulership and wanted to produce something transformative from his experiences. However, the poem was published in 1912, before the Bolsheviks took power - so I'm probably completely off. Still, I wonder if there is something prophetic about the words of the poem, looking ahead to the brave and tragic events of his life. Poetry certainly ventures into that territory, more so than most forms of art.


  1. One of my most faithful blog readers (who doesn't comment here, as yet anyway) mentioned to me that Mandelstam could very well have been thinking of Tsarist rule, as well. A very good point.

    I really should brush up on my Russian history if I'm going to read Mandelstam...

  2. 'They could not possibly be more vivid, even filmic.' This is such an nice line. Thanks for writing it! Also your reflection about poetry venturing more into the realm of the prophetic than other art forms is so interesting. I'm going to be thinking about that. Chukovsky was apparently much loved by all who knew him. Of Mandelstam's work, I am continually overwhelmed by the beauty and depth of so many of his poems in 'Tristia', especially the one that begins: 'I have learned the science of parting...' It haunts me periodically.

    1. Thank you! I really fell in love with this photo. The personalities of these men leaps out of it. You feel you would have wanted to know them. I'd like to look into all of them some more.

      I still have read only a little Mandelstam but have found it overwhelmingly powerful. I will look up the poem you mentioned!