Classical allusion - a Russian modernism? Mandelstam's use of classical allusion

Essay 2002 15 Pages

Russian / Slavic Languages


Classical allusion – a Russian Modernism?

Before we look at individual poems and the many allusions to Greek Mythology, it is necessary – as always it seems – to make a few remarks on translation. Afterwards, it might be helpful to ask ourselves a few general questions as to why and to what effect authors have used or are still using myth in their writing; so that we can then try to establish which of these approaches is closest to Mandelstam’s use of Greek Mythology.

Fortunately, Mandelstam has commented widely on general questions of poetics, in his essays, which often take the form of reviews of other authors and their shortcomings. By then applying these criteria to Mandelstam’s own work and thus knowing his poetic aspirations, his poetry should appear less enigmatic. Especially, as Greek Myth lies at the centre of Mandelstam’s poetic thought, an analysis of these statements is a valid and useful approach in order to gain access to his demanding poetry.

Using a variety of examples of Mandelstam’s use of Greek Myth, I will quote from various poems from his two earlier collections Kamen (The Stone) and Tristia and then finally take a closer look at his poem Silentium. Unfortunately, I will not be able to individually interpret all the poems which I have searched for Greek allusions, nor can I print them here in full. Yet, I will attempt to give a full picture of the context that these quotes come from.

Translating Mandelstam

As I do not speak Russian, I can only be astonished at how greatly translations of Mandelstam’s poetry vary. I can only wonder why this may be so and I must rely on the various prefaces by the editors and translators and their judgements on how Mandelstam is to be translated, as well as other critics’ opinions on who has achieved the most truthful rendering of these poems.

Some critics name Paul Celan’s translations into German as particularly convincing and close to the original Russian idiom. Unfortunately, he has not translated all the poems that we need to look at for our purpose. And, to avoid quoting this Russian poet both in English and German in this essay, I have had to omit Celan’s translations altogether.

Otherwise I can only ‘blindly’ choose the version which I like best. This may even be the only option - even for someone knowing Russian - as with the help of two Russian-speaking friends, we could establish, that all translations are too remote from the literal translation of a particular poem as to be able to retranslate them. This is surely for the sake of preserving the impression of a great Russian poem, not by making it sound like a translation, but rather like an equally worthy poem in the target language. Yet it results in having to choose which translation is the best poem in itself without giving much concern to its unknown original, which is of course also a bizarre and quite likely flawed attempt, as, ironically, it is impossible for us to know, how far the poems we are working with here, are really still Mandelstam’s poems.

General remarks on the use of Classical allusion

Reflecting on why and how authors have made use of classical allusion, three partly contradictory aspects appear. Firstly, setting a work of literature in the past may well be a way of secretly criticising the present. Figures of myth and other cultural references may be put in a new context, in which they may take on a very explicit political significance. Therefore the first thing that came to my mind was that this might also be the case with Mandelstam’s poems, namely that they were essentially political and the Classical allusions were the clue to it; although this approach soon proved fruitless.

Then, if it is not a somewhat concealed attempt at dealing with the present, the second possibility is that the use of Mythology (and fairy tales for that matter) may well be a form of escapism; both linguistically and creatively. When words can no longer express something, the symbols and personifications of Greek mythology often lend themselves to the artist. This is because these are ancient concepts and ideas to borrow from and especially because an allusion can be enough to evoke a whole realm of significance in a work of art. The artist can talk about the abstract or the political in a form which is both enigmatically poetic and simple as well as personal and general. This borrowing from our general cultural inheritance may be a form of escapism in so far as, for example, an allusion, say to Aphrodite, can be used in order to avoid having to find a modern expression for the various aspects of love she symbolises. Also, there are many aspects to each of the gods; many possible interpretations. Hence, the allusion will always remain comfortably vague and the poem ambiguous.

Furthermore, not just through this ambiguity, such allusion lends itself particularly well to the poetic idiom, as it is a simple way to condense a poem. It also gives it a new and almost epic dimension, since when the name of a god or other mythological figure appears, the reader associates this with a number of stories. Therefore, the poem can now refer to such stories and even be said to be re-telling them, without needing to sacrifice its particular aesthetics, i.e. without any need to fall into a prose like language. Therefore there are two ways in which the use of mythology can be escapist – in style as well as in content.

Continuing the principle of seeing Greek Mythology in literature as a means of escapism, it becomes apparent, that referring back to myth and also to oral tradition has always been ‘popular’ at times of crisis, where emptiness needed to be filled. The most obvious example is the Renaissance.

Yet, can escapism be a valid explanation for this phenomenon, too?[1]

Not necessarily, and this is where the second characteristic of Classical allusion comes into play, namely that in the end, referring to Greek or Roman Mythology always means to place oneself in a certain tradition -- the humanist-symbolist tradition.

In this third scenario, and given the very nature of referencing, Classical allusion is also a means of ‘going back to the roots’ of our cultural inheritance. This is always a ‘starting afresh’ or at least a redefining of our relationship towards literary history. It is also always a ‘recovery of a loss’. And this, together with its aesthetic aspects, seems to be Mandelstam’s particularly concern.

So, does this then make Mandelstam a conservative writer? Is he behind his time or is his personal approach to Greek Mythology even in a way ahead of Modernism? These questions are interesting to bear in mind, when looking at Mandelstam’s Critical Essays.

Mandelstam’s Poetics and Classical allusion

Now, why and how does Mandelstam refer to Greek mythology? What significance does it have in his writing? First of all it needs to be said that Mandelstam was particular in his rejection of the idea of an individual poetics. Yet, as he is a writer of many contradictions, especially if one compares his agenda and his actual works, paradoxically (or perhaps not paradoxically) his Critical Essays do, in fact, give a more than sound portrait of such an individual poetics! To expose this, I propose to go from the general to the detail, until we are close enough to actually look at how these details occur in specific poems.

In his essay A Letter about Russian Poetry, Mandelstam describes myth as an attempt to enter the “international realm of European thought”, which equals a “demand for international recognition” of Russian Poetry as having its own voice with its own approach to such traditional concepts and techniques as allusions to Greek Mythology. This would confirm the assumption that the ‘recovery’ of a lost cultural background is one of Mandelstam’s central aims. Yet as the following quotation shows, there is more to it than a simple recovery and reconnection with Russia’s Hellenic culture; for Mandelstam is very specific about how Greek Mythology is to be used.

Balmont’s grandiose comic hymns turned out to be immature and inept in poetic practice. The glorified urbanism of young Bryusov, who entered poetry as the singer of the universal city, was obscured by history, since the poet’s sounds and images turned out to be far from compatible with his favourite theme. Andrei Bely’s transcendental poetry proved incapable of keeping his metaphysics from becoming shabby and outmoded. Vyacheslav Ivanov and his complex Byzantine-Hellenic world fared somewhat better. Actually as much as a pioneer and colonizer as his fellow Symbolists, he did not treat Byzantium and Hellas as foreign lands destined for conquests, but rightly perceived in them the cultural springs of Russian Poetry. However, because he lacked a sense of proportion (a peculiarity of the symbolists in general), Ivanov overburdened his poetry with an incredible quantity of Byzantine-Hellenic images and myths which depreciated its value. (Collected Critical Prose, p.171f).

Even without knowing the authors who are referred to here, one can still grasp the basic message; namely that European Classical culture is neither to be imitated, nor simply assimilated or integrated but reinvented within the Russian culture. For such reinvention, Mandelstam has many images and metaphors, which also recur in some of his poetry. These are images of re-clothing like the ‘fur-coat’, that comes to symbolise the eastern aspects of Russian culture as in the last stanza of poem 84:


[1] Maybe it could account for certain aspects, but there is not enough space to explore this in greater detail here; the main point of this paragraph on the general possibilities of Greek myth in literature simply being to quickly raise those issues, so that when looking at the poetics and poetry of Mandelstam, these remain at the back of our minds.


ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
441 KB
Catalog Number
Institution / College
University of Canterbury – School of European Culture and Languages
Classical Russian Mandelstam Lyrik 20. Jahrhundert Referenzen zur Griechieschen Mythologie Griechische Sagenwelt in Russland



Title: Classical allusion - a Russian modernism? Mandelstam's use of classical allusion