Osip Mandelstam's Silentium

Osip Emilievich Mandelstam's (1891-1938) poem 'Silentium' appeared in his debut collection 'Stone' in 1910. It was written on a theme well known to Russians from a Tiutchev poem of the same name. Tiutchev's poem is often see as the inspiration of Russian Symbolism, moreover, which was the major movement in Russian poetry when 'Stone' was published. Should we translate the poem as a Symbolist and look for tenuous correlations in the symbols, or as a precursor to Mandelstam's later Aceism?

Poets are often not conscious or belonging to any particular movement, of course, or completely so, and the characteristics of poetry movements tend to recognized only later, when scholarly studies are put together. But in this case we do need to know, if only to ensure technical questions — whether to reproduce the iambic tetrameters of the original or use a more contemporary style — do not close off the various interpretations the original Russian supports.

mandelstam silentium translation

In fact, several decisions have to be taken here. Do we reproduce the abba rhyme? Versions 1, 2 and 5 listed below have, though with some contrivance; the other's haven't.

Russian Text


Она еще не родилась,
Она и музыка и слово,
И потому всего живого
Ненарушаемая связь.

Спокойно дышат моря груди,
Но, как безумный, светел день.
И пены бледная сирень
В черно-лазоревом сосуде.

Да обретут мои уста
Первоначальную немоту,
Как кристаллическую ноту,
Что от рождения чиста!

Останься пеной, Афродита,
И, слово, в музыку вернись,
И, сердце, сердца устыдись,
С первоосновой жизни слито!

1910, 1935

The TTS Audio Recording is:

Analysis of Poem 'Silentium'

The poem is in simple iambic tetrameters, rhymed aBBa:

Она́ ещё не родила́сь,    4a
Она́ и му́зыка и сло́во,   4B
И потому́ всего́ живо́го    4B
Ненарушаемая связь.    4a

Previous Translations of 'Silentium'

There are four renderings on Ruverses of rather mixed quality. I give the last stanza of each:

1. Andrey Kneller

Remain as foam, O, Aphrodite,
And let no word from music part,
Let heart become ashamed of heart,
With origins of life fused tightly!

2. Ilya Shambat

Be foam, O Venus, stay as mists,
And words to music do return
And heart, at heart's own shame do burn,
Fused with the core of what exists!

3. Robert Chandler and Boris Dralyuk

Stay, Aphrodite, as foam.
Return, word, to music.
Heart, be shy of heart,
fused with life’s root

4. Albert C. Todd

Stay, Aphrodite, as the glistening foam,
And Word, return to the music,
And Heart, feel shame for the heart,
When fused with life’s first principle.

5. There is also a translation by Tony Kline on his Poetry in Translation site:

Stay as foam Aphrodite – Art –
and return, Word, where music begins:
and, fused with life’s origins,
be ashamed heart, of heart!


What do we make of the last line, where the literal meaning is 'It is merged with the fundamental principle of life!'?'

I don't think there is a right or wrong approach to translation – beyond a certain trendiness in the university presses – only a careful weighing up of what is gained and lost as a consequence. Serious poets today would dispense with traditional approaches, I suspect, and write something like the following for the first stanza:

She is as yet unborn,
she is both music and the word,
In all living things she makes
a bond unbreakable.

The style is close to that of version 3, and is pleasing in its way: precise, uncluttered, faithful to the Russian. I would myself much prefer to read good free verse/prose verse than less-than-good traditional verse.

Traditional verse usually involves some distortions of meaning, which occur in the other renderings above, though only serious in rendering 5.

Understanding the Poem

By this point we really do need to understand the poem, which I would read as follows:

She hasn't been born yet, Who is the 'she'?
She is both music and the word, Aphrodite, goddess of love, or poetry?
And therefore of all living things Is so, this is Mandelstam's manifesto and a large claim if the 'she' is poetry.
An unbreakable bond. Adding to manifesto: love or poetry in part of life.

The seas of the chest breathe calmly, We would take the sea that gave birth to Aphrodite calmly.
But, like crazy, the day is bright. Though daily events agitate us.
And foam pale lilac A reference to Aphrodite, lilac is the traditional colour {1}
In a black and azure vessel. 'Vessel' here is a container, not a ship. For oblations?

May my lips find When I drink from the vessel
Initial dumbness, I find I can say nothing
Like a crystal note, But she (love or poetry) is like a crystal note.
That she is pure from birth! One of the Platonic forms?

Stay foam, Aphrodite, Let not love be born
And, word, come back to music, Let word reunite with music
And, heart, heart be ashamed, Emphasis on heart, or heart be ashamed of itself?
It is merged with the fundamental principle of life! Love or poetry merges with life.

Given this cleverness, readers may understand why I'm not over-fond of twentieth century poetry. Critical articles {2} do help a little, however. The 'she' is probably the harmony of beauty, which combines both poetry and music and is the apogee of everything perfect that exists in the world, i.e. is a Platonic form. The poet asks Aphrodite to remain foam, implying that the goddess is too loud for perfection. A day that was "bright as crazy" may mean some moment of insight and inspiration experienced by the author. The last quatrain may refer to the biblical theme: hearts shamed by each other most likely allude to the shame experienced by Adam and Eve after they ate the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge. Mandelstam calls for a return to the original harmony - "the fundamental principle of life."

In more depth, there are problems. {2} Tyutchev considers the relationship between thought and word), finding it impossible to personally express in a word the thought of his spiritual world and be understood by the Other. Mandelstam, on the other hand, is dealing with the nature of lyrics, the primordial connection between music and words, and urging a return to the pre-verbal.

Ivanov's comments are relevant here:

'The development of the poetic gift is a refinement of the inner ear: the poet must catch, in all purity, his true sounds.'

'Two mysterious decrees determined the fate of Socrates. One, early, was: "Know thyself." Another, too late: "Surrender to the music." ' Who "was born a poet" hears these decrees at the same time; or, more often, he hears the second early, and does not recognize the first in it: but follows both blindly.

'Lyrics, first of all, is the mastery of rhythm and number, as the driving and building principles of a person's inner life; and, through mastery of them in the spirit, communion with their universal mystery...'

Mandelstam wrote about this himself two years later: 'The poem is alive in an internal way, in that sounding mold of the form that precedes the written poem. Not a single word yet, but the poem already sounds. It sounds like an inner image, it is the poet's ear that touches it.' Hearts may merge instinctively, without a need for an Aphrodite love-bond.

English Translation of Mandelstam's 'Silentium'

The upshot of this brief detour into critical analysis is that instead of writing:

She's yet unborn to those beyond,
she is both music and the word:
by all things living she is heard,
unbreakable that diamond bond.

The ocean's breast breathes calmly too.
But giddily the day is bright
and foam is shown in lilac light,
the vessel in dark azure blue.

May my lips know deeper thirst,
that what is silence in the throat
become in this a crystal note
and she be blest as pure from first.

Aphrodite, stay as foam,
and word as music keep its part,
and heart that's bashful of the heart
make living so its primal home.

We are now required to write something closer to this:

Unborn she is to all beyond,
she is both music and the word:
by all things living she is heard,
unbreakable that early bond.

The ocean's breast breathes calmly through.
Abundantly the day is bright
and foam is shown in lilac light:
the vessel in dark azure blue.

Deny my lips a deeper thirst,
for what is silence in the throat
becomes itself a crystal note
in harmony as from the first.

Aphrodite, stay as foam,
and word as music keep your part,
the heart's unneeded by the heart
when life is fused with its first home.

References and Resources

1. Ningthoujam, D.S. Abbreviated Lives Tragic Tales of Artists Scientists and Writers. (Blue Rose Publishers 2022) 185. Google Books.

2. Silentium Mandelstam. Osip Mandelstam, "Silentium": analysis of the poem. Extended article in English. Includes much more than I have summarized here.

3. Poems by Osip Mandelshtam. Introduction in Ruverses.

4. Bristol, E., A History of Russian Poetry (O.U.P., 1991) 205-7.

Russian poem translations on this site: listing.