Poetry from the European Languages

Mandelshtam (1891–1938)

Translated by A. S. Kline © Copyright 2000 All Rights Reserved

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Osip Mandelshtam was Jewish, of Latvian parents, and was brought up in St Petersburg. He visited the Crimea in 1921. His individualistic poetry with its responsiveness to classical Greece and Rome, and its lament for the direction the Russian Revolution had taken, provoked and offended Stalin and he was arrested and exiled to Voronezh (near the Don, south of Moscow) in 1934. He returned from exile but was re-arrested in 1938 and died on his way to a labour camp.

Mandelshtam (1891–1938)


I have studied the Science of departures,

in night’s sorrows, when a woman’s hair falls down.

The oxen chew, there’s the waiting, pure,

in the last hours of vigil in the town,

and I reverence night’s ritual cock-crowing,

when reddened eyes lift sorrow’s load and choose

to stare at distance, and a woman’s crying

is mingled with the singing of the Muse.

Who knows, when the word ‘departure’ is spoken

what kind of separation is at hand,

or of what that cock-crow is a token,

when a fire on the Acropolis lights the ground,

and why at the dawning of a new life,

when the ox chews lazily in its stall,

the cock, the herald of the new life,

flaps his wings on the city wall?

I like the monotony of spinning,

the shuttle moves to and fro,

the spindle hums. Look, barefoot Delia’s running

to meet you, like swansdown on the road!

How threadbare the language of joy’s game,

how meagre the foundation of our life!

Everything was, and is repeated again:

it’s the flash of recognition brings delight.

So be it: on a dish of clean earthenware,

like a flattened squirrel’s pelt, a shape,

forms a small, transparent figure, where

a girl’s face bends to gaze at the wax’s fate.

Not for us to prophesy, Erebus, Brother of Night:

Wax is for women: Bronze is for men.

Our fate is only given in fight,

to die by divination is given to them.

(Mandelshtam wrote: ‘In night’s stillness a lover speaks one tender name instead of the other, and suddenly knows that this has happened before: the words, and her hair, and the cock crowing under the window, that already crowed in Ovid’s Tristia. And he is overcome by the deep delight of recognition....’ in ‘The Word and Culture’ in Sobraniye sochineniy. The reference is to the night before Ovid’s departure to his Black Sea exile, in his Tristia Book I. III )

(Divination was carried out by girls, who melted candle wax on the surface of a shallow dish of water, to form random shapes)

(Erebus was the son of Chaos, and Night his sister. In versions of the Greek myths Eros and Nemesis are the children of Erebus and Night. Erebus is also a place of shadows between Earth and Hades)


Sisters - Heaviness and Tenderness- you look the same.

Wasps and bees both suck the heavy rose.

Man dies, and the hot sand cools again.

Carried off on a black stretcher, yesterday’s sun goes.

Oh, honeycombs’ heaviness, nets’ tenderness,

it’s easier to lift a stone than to say your name!

I have one purpose left, a golden purpose,

how, from time’s weight, to free myself again.

I drink the turbid air like a dark water.

The rose was earth; time, ploughed from underneath.

Woven, the heavy, tender roses, in a slow vortex,

the roses, heaviness and tenderness, in a double-wreath.

(Mandelshtam said ‘Poetry is the plough that turns up time, so that the deepest layer, its black earth, is on top.’)


This is what I most want

unpursued, alone

to reach beyond the light

that I am furthest from.

And for you to shine there-

no other happiness-

and learn, from starlight,

what its fire might suggest.

A star burns as a star,

light becomes light,

because our murmuring

strengthens us, and warms the night.

And I want to say to you

my little one, whispering,

I can only lift you towards the light

by means of this babbling.

(Written for his wife, Nadezhda)


From a fearful height, a wandering light,

but does a star glitter like this, crying?

Transparent star, wandering light

your brother, Petropolis, is dying.

From a fearful height, earthly dreams are alight,

and a green star is crying.

Oh star, if you are the brother of water and light,

your brother, Petropolis, is dying.

A monstrous ship, from a fearful height,

is rushing on, spreading its wings, flying.

Green star, in beautiful poverty,

your brother, Petropolis, is dying.

Transparent spring has broken, above the black Neva’s hiss

the wax of immortality is liquefying.

Oh if you are star – your city, Petropolis,

your brother, Petropolis, is dying.

(Petropolis was Pushkin’s and Derzhavin’s name for St. Petersburg, Peter the Great’s granite city on the River Neva, his ‘window on Europe’. The poem was written during the early years of the Revolution.)