Reading: Yet to die. Unalone still by Osip Mandelstam

Here is a pretty translation I found of a poem by Osip Mandelstam (1891 – 1938), one of Russia’s acclaimed anti-formalist (Acmeist) poets along with Akhmatova, Pasternak, Tsvetaeva. This was written in 1937:

Yet to die. Unalone still.
For now your pauper-friend is with you.
Together you delight in the grandeur of the plains,
And the dark, the cold, the storms of snow.

Live quiet and consoled
In gaudy poverty, in powerful destitution.
Blessed are those days and nights.
The work of this sweet voice is without sin.

Misery is he whom, like a shadow,
A dog’s barking frightens, the wind cuts down.
Poor is he who, half-alive himself
Begs his shade for pittance.

Unalone is a nice invention and sounds more ‘Russian’ to me than not alone (еще ты не один). The delight in the grandeur of the plains, together with a pauper-friend (с нищенкой-подругой) you find delight in the grandeur of the plains and the snowstorms. I found this element of the sublime in other poetry by Mandelstam as well.

And then poverty itself receives positive attributes: gaudy poverty, powerful destitution (В роскошной бедности, в могучей нищете). The days and nights are blessed and the work is without sin. Of course, we read experienced without sin. Poverty has an aspect of righteousness that doesn’t feel bad. And that is where it differs from misery or unhappiness (Несчастлив).

If you are afraid of your own shadow and the dog’s barking and don’t feel the grandeur of the wind, you’re miserable. You are poor, on the other hand, when you ask your shadow for alms (У тени милостыню просит), even though you’re already half dead. In other words, if we don’t give up our spirit and the reverence for the grandeur of nature, we will never go from merely poor to miserable (Несчастлив).

Reading: Yet to die. Unalone still by Osip Mandelstam was originally published on Meandering home

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Kamiel Choi

Dutch philosopher and poet, sometimes sharing thoughts on the internet.

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