When the Russian poet Osip Mandelstam revealed his assortment Tristia in 1922, the Bolshevik authorities had begun to tighten its grip on artists, pressuring them to make use of their expertise for propaganda. Though he sympathized with the socialist trigger, Mandelstam didn’t imagine in writing for any political agenda. But he knew how grave the implications of refusing could possibly be: All round him, artists have been fleeing or falling sufferer to the state. His fellow poet Nikolay Gumilev had simply been executed, in 1921.
Tristia was a delicate rebuke to Bolshevik intimidation: Instead of glorifying the Soviet Union, Mandelstam mined historical Greek mythology for themes of affection, magnificence, dying, and everlasting life. He appeared to be reaching for some transcendence from the chaos of his personal nation—and maybe from his personal mortality, of which he will need to have been so keenly conscious. Mandelstam ultimately skilled torture, exile, and imprisonment, and died in a transit camp on the age of 47.
“The Necklace”—first revealed in Tristia and translated by Christian Wiman for The Atlantic in 2012—invokes Persephone, whose nickname was Melitodes, or the Honeyed One. Persephone is the queen of the underworld, however she’s additionally the goddess of spring; her presence brings life again after the lifeless winter on Earth, creating the seasons. Bees are an ideal image for such cycles. Some historical Greeks believed them to be reincarnated human souls. And honeybees, whose life spans are fleeting, pollinate crops and produce honey earlier than they die, permitting different creatures to thrive.
Here, Mandelstam imagines a necklace—a present, like an providing to the gods—fabricated from bees who perished turning honey into solar. “You can’t untie a boat unmoored,” he writes, “Fur-shod shadows can’t be heard, / Nor terror, in this life, mastered.” This poem is a name for mercy. It’s additionally an expression of the hope that, though darkness can’t be pushed from humanity, some sweetness may come from it. Before dying, he says, we should harvest what we will from love: “what’s left for us, and of us.”
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