, Volume 28, Issue 4, pp 281-335

Mandel'štam and Dante: TheDivine Comedy in Mandel'štam's poetry of the 1930s

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Abstract

Osip Mandel'štam (1891–1938?) belongs among the greatest Russian poets of the twentieth century. During the thirties, when he led a tragic existence and felt a premonition of his inevitable violent death, Mandel'štam saw in Dante not only the greatest poet, but also his own superior teacher, and his poems of that period contain a tormented meditation on the masterpiece of Dante's genius — theDivine Comedy.

Epic poetry of Dante, Homer, Virgil and others was possible because the inner world of each poet was essentially at one with the ethos of the society in which he lived.

Mandel'štam's inner world was Judaeo-Christian, European, and rooted in classical and neo-Platonic philosophy, but his outer world, consisting of a new Marxist or pseudo-Marxist system, was totally at odds with it. Thus Mandel'štam could not embody the epic impulse of the society he opposed. He was left with the tormented lyric impulse.

The fundamental conflict between Mandel'štam as a lyric poet and the society in which he had to live and work accounts for the fact that his vision of Stalinist society in a number of respects remarkably corresponds to Dante's vision of a perverted divine order in theInferno.

I would like to express my gratitude to A. H. Armstrong, R. Crouse, J. Doull and P. Modesto for their valuable help in my reading of Dante. For criticisms and revisions of my English, I am grateful to J. Barnstead, P. Duffy, E. Flynn, E. Glazov-Corrigan, Y. Glazov, P. Kussmaul, D. Laferriere, M. Matthews, D. Thomson and I. Vitins.