“Octaves” and Other Poems by Osip Mandelstam

Do not tempt foreign tongues–attempt forgetting them, alas,
Because your teeth will never bite the glass.

How painful is to share the flight of a foreign trill–
You’ll get an evil pay for an unlawful thrill,

For foreign name on that last day won’t save this
Dying flesh and these immortal thinking lips.

What if Tasso and Ariosto who are enchanting us
Are monsters with azure brains and scales of moistened eyes?

And as a punishment for pride, inveterate worshipper of sound,
You’ll get a vinegar sponge for traitor’s lips spellbound.

(May 1933)


It’s cold in Europe. It’s dark in Italy.
Power is disgusting like licking a barber’s hand.
Oh if I could, and quickly so, because I cannot stand–
Wide open a broad window on the Adriatic Sea.

Over a musky rose–a buzzing of a bee,
A muscular grasshopper in a midday steppe, and
The horseshoes of a winged horse are heavy,
An hourglass is full of yellow and golden sand.

In the cicada’s tongue, a captivating blend
Of Pushkin’s melancholy and Mediterranean pride,
Like clinging, clutching importunate ivy,
He plays tricks on Orlando and lies courageously.

The hourglass is full of yellow and golden sand.
A muscular grasshopper in a midday steppe, and
On the moon will a broad-shouldered liar land.

A courteous Ariosto, an embassy fox, a coon,
A blooming fern, a sail, assail, astonish,
You heard the voices of thrushes on the moon
And served as a learned counselor at the court of fish.

O, city of lizards without a soul, you bore
Your sons conceived by witches and by judges,
Hard-hearted Ferrara, you kept them on a chain,
While in the wilderness the sun of reddish wisdom rose.

We are amazed by a butcher’s little store,
By a baby sleeping under the net of bluish flies,
By a lamb on a hill, a monk on a donkey, by
The duke’s soldiers stupefied by drinking wine,
By garlic, plague, and then by the demise–
The loss, fresh as a new-born dawn, shocks us as a surprise.

(May 1933-July 1935)



I love when the substance appears,
When gasping for two or three times,
Or four times you need, and it clears–
A straightening breath then arrives.

Then drawing green forms and spheres
By the arches of fast racing sails,
Space, half-awake child without peers,
Who never knew cradle, plays.

(November 1933-July 1935)


I love when the substance appears,
When gasping for two or three times,
Or four times you need, and it clears–
A straightening breath then arrives.

And then it’s so joyful and painful
When a moment approaches as bliss,
And a straightening arch is so gleeful–
My mutter with meaning it fills.

(November 1933-January 1934)


Oh, Moslem-butterfly,
All wrapped in a cut shroud,
Full of death and of life,
So big–this is you without doubt!

With enormous feelers-antennas,
You hide in a burnous your head,
Your shroud is unfolded like a banner,
Fold your wings–for I certainly dread.

(November 1933-January 1934)


A tiny appendage of the sixth sense
Or lizard’s parietal eye,
Monasteries of clams and snails,
And a hum of flickering cilia nearby.

Inaccessible–how close, but try to unfold–
One can neither see it, nor unbind,
As if a note from somebody you hold
And it should be immediately replied…

(May 1932-January 1934)


Overcoming the hardiness of nature,
A blue-firm eye has reached its law.
The layers under the crust would freak and fracture,
And like a moan from breast, then breaks the ore.

Underdeveloped feeler struggles to explore,
Along a winding path bent like a horn would battle,
To grasp the inner excess of space, its core–
The source of a cupola and a petal.

(January-February 1934)


When having destroyed a draft, you are
Keeping in your diligent mind
A period whole in its inner dark,
Without tiresome notes, it will find
Strength, self-propelled, to hold tight,
Without engine or else, with closed eyes,
Its relation to paper can be described
As that of a cupola to the skies.

(November 1933-January 1934)


Both Schubert on the waters and Mozart in birds’ chirping,
And Goethe whistling on a winding path,
And even Hamlet, whose thoughts were fearfully stepping,
All trusted in the crowd and felt its pulse.

Perhaps the whisper was born before lips,
And the leaves in treelessness circled and flew,
And those, to whom we impart our experience as bliss,
Acquire their forms before we do.

(November 1933-January 1934)


And the jagged bough of a maple-tree
Bathes in round corners and thrives,
And one can draw pictures on walls
With the specks of dust from butterflies.

Things like living mosques do appear,
And I suddenly now realize
Perhaps we are all Hagia Sophia
With a countless multitude of eyes.

(November 1933-January 1934)


Tell me, a draftsman of the desert,
A geometrician of Arabian sands,
Will the lines unrestrained exert
The power of a violent wind?
–I am not concerned with the tremor,
The awe of his Judean concerns:
He molds his experience from murmur,
And his murmur he drinks from what he learns.

(November 1933-January 1934)


We drink the delusion of causes
From the cups full of needles and plague
And hook infinitesimal numbers,
That look like an easy light death.
And a child is stricken by silence
Where trifles grapple and play:
A big universe peacefully slumbers
In the cradle of little eternity.


So I leave space for a wild garden
Of values and break at my will
A seeming permanence of causes,
And there, alone and tranquil,

Infinity, I read your textbook,
That can offer solutions and heal,
A leafless, primeval, wild heal-book,
A task-book of infinite roots.

(November 1933-July 1935)


Not I, not you–but they
Have all the power of the gender endings:
A porous reed is singing with the air,
The snails of human lips will gratefully inhale
Their breathing heaviness. They are

Unnamed. Go into their cartilages–and
You’ll inherit their kingdoms then.

Wandering in curves and windings,
You’ll show the human kind
And human living hearts
How they enjoy and strive–in ebbs and tides.

(December 9-27, 1936)

On “Octaves”

(Ian Probstein)

Known for his famous definition of Acmeism as “nostalgia (or thirst) for world culture,” in the later poem of 1933 Osip Mandelstam wrote: “Do not tempt foreign tongues–attempt forgetting them, alas,/Because your teeth will never bite the glass,” which seems to deny everything he believed.

Having gone through all the circles of earthly hell and purgatory and anticipating his own arrest and perhaps death, Mandelstam, nevertheless, claims that heaven is a “lifetime home” creating thus his own pattern of “Paradiso terrestre.” Unlike Yeats, Mandelstam does not see a contradiction between nature and eternity, and has never dreamed of departing from nature; he even feels inferior to it:

Ne u menia, ne u tebia–u nikh
Vsia sila okonchanii rodovykh…

(It’s not I, not you–it’s they/Who have the entire strength of the gender (ancestral) endings.) In his usual manner, Mandelstam simultaneously implies several meanings in the word rodovoi: “ancestral,” “genus,” and “generic,” thus alluding to being and procreation, as well as “gender,” alluding to creativity. He then states that “porous reeds are singing naturally in the wind,/and the snails of human lips (the metaphor speaks for itself)/will gratefully absorb their breathing heaviness.” Mandelstam urges (addressing himself rather than his readers) “to enter their cartilage/and you will be the heir of their kingdoms. //And for humans, for their living hearts/Wandering in their curves and twists,/You will picture both their pleasures/And the pain that tortures them in time of tides.”(1) On another occasion he wrote: “Na podvizhnoi lestnitse Lamarka/Ia zaimu posledniuiu stupen” (On Lamarck’s flexible scale/I will take the lowest stair), alluding to Jean Baptiste Lamarck’s theory of organic evolution, which Mandelstam openly admired both in his poetry and in prose: “Lamarck feels the rifts between classes. He hears the pauses and syncopes of the evolutionary line.” Before that he noted, “In Lamarck’s reversed, descending movement down the ladder of living creatures resides the greatness of Dante. The lower forms of organic existence are humanity’s Inferno.” (CPL 367). “Inferno” is a key word. If memory, progress, human refined intellect does not matter, then it is better to lose memory:

If all living nature is but an error
Of a short nightmarish day,
I will take the lowest stair
On Lamarck’s flexible scale.

Now the stanza acquires a different connotation due to the if-clause, and the epithet “nightmarish.” The poem seems to talk about Lamarck’s theory of organic evolution, but it really implies a sharp protest about the poet’s contemporary life:

He says that nature abounds in breaks,
There’s no vision–you see for the last time.

He says: “The resonance will cease,
You loved Mozart in vain:
A spider’s deafness will seize
You–this gap is beyond our strength.”

Nadezhda Mandelstam wrote in her “Comments to the Poems of 1930-1937” that in “Lamarck” and in the “Octaves” 8 and 9 there is “a horrible fall of human beings who forgot Mozart and denied everything (mind, vision, hearing) in that kingdom of spider-like deafness” (Third Book, 2006: 283). (2)

In contemporary “nightmarish” Soviet life there was no need either for vision or hearing; therefore there was no need in art or music; naturally it is Mandelstam, not Lamarck, who bitterly exclaims, “You loved Mozart in vain” and makes horrifying predictions. In contemporary life, as Mandelstam observed it, only primitive types survived. There was no more need in the “uninterrupted procession of generations,” as Przybylsky observed, analyzing Mandelstam’s poem of 1912 “Hagia Sophia” (109). Reading “Lamarck,” one might even suppose that there is no need in humanity at all, in being “homo sapiens.” That is why, in the end of “Lamarck,” written 20 years after “Hagia Sophia,” the poet makes gloomy predictions:

Nature has turned away
As if she didn’t need us anymore
And put our medulla, spine cord,
In a dark sheathe like a sword.

She was late or just forgot
To put down a drawbridge for those
Who have a green grave,
A lithe laughter and a red breath.

Yet, I would not completely agree with the poet’s wife that the “Octaves” have the same connotations as “Lamarck.” In my view, in the “Octaves” the poet acquired strength and will power to preserve cultural memory and bridge the gaps and breaks, to name the unnamed, thus overcoming the infernal state of oblivion:

A tiny appendage of the sixth sense
Or lizard’s parietal eye,
Monasteries of snails and shells,
And a hum of flickering cilia nearby.

Inaccessible–how close, but try to unfold–
One can neither see it, nor unbind,
As if a note from somebody you hold
And it should be immediately replied…

(“Octaves” 4)

Therefore, the poet’s duty is to reveal the joys and pains of those unnamed and unconscious creatures, that is, to name the unnamed. As was correctly noted by Toporov, “A poet…gives his reader a gift of what is preserved in his ancestral memory, which in the most rare cases binds a child to something that existed before civilization, before speech and even before birth with that foundation (S pervoosnovoi zhizni slito (Merged with the foundation of life)) that is the content and the meaning of those “recollections” explicated from chaos…”(3) (Toporov 435).


(1) It is evident that Mandelstam uses here the second person singular in place of the first person. A specific role of personal pronouns in the structure of a poetic text was profoundly analyzed by R. Jakobson in “Poeziia grammatiki i grammatika poezii” (Grammar of Poetry and Poetry of Grammar) in Poetics. Poetyca. Warszawa: 1961, p. 405, 409; G. A. Gukovskii in Pushkin i russkiie romantiki (Pushkin and Russian Romantics), Moskva: 1965; and Iu. Lotman in “Zametki po poetike Tiutcheva” (Notes on Tiutchev’s poetics), in O poetakh i poezii, Sankt Peterburg: 1996, p. 553-564.

(2) Mandelstam, Nadezhda. The Third Book. Moscow: Agraf, 2006.

(3) Mif. Ritual. Simvol. Obraz. Issledovaniia d jblasti mifopoeticheskogo. (Myth. Ritual. Symbol. Image. Research in the spehere of mythopoetics.) Moscow: Progress, 1995.


Osip Mandelstam

A great Russian poet, Osip Mandelstam (1891-1938) lead an unsettled life full of tribulations, wandering, and exile. After his “Stalin epigram” of 1933, for which the dictator, who used to say that “vengeance is a cold dish,” never forgave the poet, Mandelstam first was sent to Cherdyn’ in Siberia. Then, due to the protection of Bukharin, a powerful Communist party functionary who was fond of Mandelstam’s poetry, the term was somehow softened: Mandelstam was required to live in the provincial town of Voronezh, deprived of the right to live in the capital and big cities. In 1937, he finally was arrested again and sent to Vladivostok labor (virtually concentration) camp, where he perished in 1938. The exact date of his death is unknown; neither has the poet a grave of his own.

Ian Probstein

Ian Probstein is assistant professor of English at Touro College, New York and a bilingual English-Russian poet, translator, and critic. He holds a PhD in comparative literature from the Russian State University for the Humanities (Moscow) and an MA in English and comparative literature from the CUNY Graduate Center. He has published seven books of poetry in Russian and one in English, and more than a dozen of books of translation. He has compiled and/or edited more than twenty books and anthologies of poetry in translation. He is the first translator of Thomas Traherne's poems as well as Gerard Manley Hopkins's "Germany" into Russian. Complete Poems and Selected Cantos of Ezra Pound in Russian Translation: A Bilingual Edition (St. Petersburg: Vladimir Dahl, 2003), which he compiled, edited, and contributed to as a translator, was named Russia's best book of translation and poetry in 2003 by Book Review and EX Libris NG. His poetry, translations, and essays have appeared in Interlitq, Salonika, International Poetry Review, Spring (the journal of the E.E. Cummings Society), The McNeese Review 46, and the books Vita Nuova (Philadelphia: R.E.M. Press, 1992) and Dialogism and Lyric Self-Fashioning (Selinsgrove: Susquehanna University Press, 2008).

English translation copyright (c) Ian Probstein, 2011.