Poet of Loneliness
Whoever has a heart, must hear, oh time
How your ship is going down to the bottom.
O. Mandelshtam: Tristia (Spring, 1918)
Clarence Brown, in an insightful essay on Mandelshtam, wrote the following: “He was a master at describing emptiness, absence, vacancy, silence. I know of no equal to him in this regard, at least not in literature” (Ma, I, iv). Emptiness, absence, vacancy and silence are all metaphors of loneliness which marked his poetry from beginning to end.
But even his essays on poetry, most of them written in the 1920s, confirmed this sense of human solitude and isolation. The poet, he wrote, stood alone, having only his innate poetic sense to follow. This was why there was no need to belong to any poetic schools or established poetics (Ma, II, 225). The poet’s only link in the universe was to God (Ma, II, 233-34) and it was perhaps because of this spiritual connection that the poet had that “teleological warmth” with which to humanize his environment (Ma, II, 253), and the strength to remain true to himself and to his poetic calling (Ma, II, 236). It was this creative sense of being that allowed him to keep that “consciousness of his poetic integrity” (Ma, II, 240), infuse his poetry with life (Ma, II, 259) and guard it against being infected by that fatal “peace of despair” (Ma, II, 276) that had characterized the spiritual climate of the 19th century.
In a crucial sense, Mandelshtam’s essay on the French poet François Villon was, psychologically speaking, a parallel life to his own: “The 15th century was cruel to individual destinies” (Ma, II, 305). Their intensely felt loneliness and social isolation must have been like Rilke’s, with nothing to fall back upon except poetry. This kind of loneliness has been said to have