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Osip Mandelstam's Tristia


Osip Emilievich Mandelstam's (1891-1938) poem 'Tristia' was the title poem of the collection of the same name that appeared in 1923. Mandelstam was living intermittently in self-exile in the south, and the title obviously echoes the poems written by Ovid when exiled by Augustus to the unfriendly shores of the Black Sea. References to exile and the classical world are scattered through the collection, but suggest that Mandelstam still saw some hope beyond this difficult period in Russia's history. That proved to be over-optimistic. Mandelstam and his wife were arrested during the 1930 purges and sentenced to three year’s exile in the northern Urals. Subsequently they settled in Voronezh, but Mandelstam was again arrested in 1938, and sentenced to five years’ detention in the gulag labour camps. He died of cold and hunger, near-insane, it was reported, in a transit camp near Vladivostok.

mandelstam tristia translation

These were the early days of the Soviet Revolution, where there was much much apprehension, confusion and social upheaval, to which the conventional view of classical world offered an unchanging refuge, unreal and illusory though that image was.

Russian Text

Tristia

Я изучил науку расставанья
В простоволосых жалобах ночных.
Жуют волы, и длится ожиданье —
Последний час вигилий городских,
И чту обряд той петушиной ночи,
Когда, подняв дорожной скорби груз,
Глядели вдаль заплаканные очи
И женский плач мешался с пеньем муз.

Кто может знать при слове «расставанье»
Какая нам разлука предстоит,
Что нам сулит петушье восклицанье,
Когда огонь в акрополе горит,
И на заре какой-то новой жизни,
Когда в сенях лениво вол жует,
Зачем петух, глашатай новой жизни,
На городской стене крылами бьет?

И я люблю обыкновенье пряжи:
Снует челнок, веретено жужжит.
Смотри, навстречу, словно пух лебяжий,
Уже босая Делия летит!
О, нашей жизни скудная основа,
Куда как беден радости язык!
Все было встарь, все повторится снова,
И сладок нам лишь узнаванья миг.

Да будет так: прозрачная фигурка
На чистом блюде глиняном лежит,
Как беличья распластанная шкурка,
Склонясь над воском, девушка глядит.
Не нам гадать о греческом Эребе,
Для женщин воск, что для мужчины медь.
Нам только в битвах выпадает жребий,
А им дано гадая умереть.

1918


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Analysis of Poem 'Tristia'

The poem is in iambic pentameters, the stanza rhymed AbAbCdCd:

Я изучи́л нау́ку расстава́нья   5A
В простоволо́сых жа́лобах ночны́х.   5b
Жую́т волы́, и дли́тся ожида́нье —   5A
После́дний час виги́лий городски́х,   5b
И чту обря́д той петуши́ной но́чи,   5C
Когда́, подня́в доро́жной ско́рби груз,   5d
Гляде́ли вдаль запла́канные о́чи   5C
И же́нский плач меша́лся с пе́ньем муз.   5d

Previous Translations of 'Tristia'

Ruverses have three renderings. I give the first stanza of each:

1. Mark L. Mosher

I have learned the science of parting
In bare-headed laments of night.
The oxen graze, the waiting goes on —
The final hour of vigils in town,
And I honor the rituals of cockerel night,
When, bearing the weight of a journey endured,
Tear-stained eyes gazed into the void
And a woman's cry mixed with singing of the muse.

2. Ilya Shambat

The essence of farewell I have extracted
From hatless laments of the sleepless night
As oxen chew, and waiting grows protracted,
And end of city vigil is in sight —
And I recall the rooster night with fear
When lost in doleful journey for too long
Into the void the tear-drenched eyes did peer
And woman's cry mingled with muse's song.

3. Stanley Kunitz

I made myself an expert in farewells
By studying laments, the night-fall of a woman’s hair.
Oxen chew their cud; anticipation lags;
It is the town’s last restless hour;
And I praise that ritual night when the cocks crowed
And eyelids, heavy with the griefs that pass,
Opened to the light, while her weeping flowed
Into the sound of the Muses singing.

4. There is beautifully written translation – a little free but respecting the feminine rhymes – by Peter McCarey on the The Fortnightly Review. The first stanza runs:

All there is to know on the art of leaving
I’ve learned in careful pillow-talk at night.
The oxen ruminate. It’ll soon be morning;
The night watch does its rounds, round to the light.
I trace the rubric of the cockerel darkness
When, taking up his road, with brimming eyes,
The one who’s leaving suddenly feels its harshness
Hit home: the muses’ song, the women’s cries.

5. Tony Kline's on Poetry in Translation is:

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.

Understanding the Poem


The references are not saying anything specific. Erebus is the personification of darkness, but not generally used in divination. Is the fire burning in Когда огонь в акрополе горит a votive fire or one denoting warfare? We don't know.

Critics have dug up some details. {2} Tristia quotes a line and a theme from a poem by Akhmatova. Delia refers to one of Batyushkov’s free translations from Tibullus, referring to a woman called Plania, though she is naked rather than bare-footed. They seem not to matter, only adding to the general sense of poignancy and bitterness in separation.

English Translation of Mandelstam's 'Tristia'


Particulars of farewell I’ve had to learn
from sad and loose-haired pillow talk at night.
The oxen munch, and waiting hours return
as rounds in cities do. There is a rite
of nighttime choruses, which I respect.
By this is lightened sorrow on the road ahead,
lessening tears with which far looks are flecked,
the Muses singing, in which they're mixed and shed.

Who can know what parting means,
how coming separation burdens cares?
Or if that herald of new day, the rooster, keens
as fire across the temple precincts flares?
Or at the dawn of some new life, the ox
be quietly ruminating in its stall,
and those heralds of rebirth, the cocks,
walk, flapping their wings, on city wall.

I love the customs involved in weaving flax:
how the spindle's singing, the shuttle fetched.
She comes to me aloft in down-soft facts,
this Delia, barefoot, on wings outstretched.
What meagre basis have our lives when
even joy's own utterance is not garrulous?
Everything is old, and will happen again,
and only the recognition be sweet to us.

So be it then. A transparent figurine lies
out on a clean white dish of earthenware.
A squirrel’s skin is flattened into size,
and over the wax will a girl muse and stare.
Not ours to question the the Grecian Erebus.
Women have wax, but bronze must serve for men.
It's only in battle that we draw lots thus,
but theirs the gift to die, still guessing when.

References and Resources

1. Espinós, J. (2015). The Realm of Hades and Its Symbols in Mandel'štam's Tristia: A Transparent Path to Redemption. Russian Literature. 77. 10.1016/j.ruslit.2015.04.001. (Researchgate)

2. Peter McCarey, P. (2022) The Fortnightly Review. Notes to the translation.

3. Poems by Osip Mandelshtam. Introduction in Ruverses.

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

Postscript

And so, as in Pasternak's 'My Sister — Life' we reach the edge of Modernism in Russian poetry, where the text becomes ambiguous, fragmentary and discontinuous, requiring scholarship for its appreciation, a situation common in contemporary poetry. That makes translation difficult, as there is no detachable meaning in general that the English rendering can bring across, only assemblages of word-for-word transcriptions, which may be accurate, but do not fully cohere into poetry, at least as the word is commonly understood.