Friday, February 03, 2017

`This Equilibrium of Sadness and Joy'

In his introduction to Hope against Hope (trans. Max Hayward, 1970), Clarence Brown writes of the poet and his widow:

“Nadezhda Yakovlevna [Mandelstam] calls him in one place `endlessly zhizneradostny.’ The word is usually rendered as `cheerful’ or `joyous’—rather feeble counters for an original that means, in its two parts, `life-glad.’ Those who seek the roots of poetry in a close equivalency with life will find it perfectly astonishing that there are so few sad poems in Mandelstam. But while this or that fact of his tragic existence can explain the brute meaning of many lines, nothing can explain the poetry of them other than the wild joy that he took in the Russian language.”

Looked at in reductively physical terms, Osip Mandelstam’s was a life of almost unrelieved suffering, especially in his later years. Hounded by Stalin’s goons, taunted by literary toadies, arrested, interrogated, forbidden to publish, exiled, driven mad with hunger and sickness, he died in a Siberian transit camp. Consider zhizneradostny again – life-glad, the gladness rings through the King James Bible. Brown cites a line of Pushkin’s used by Mandelstam: “My sadness is luminous.” He quotes Hamlet (Act II, Scene 2):

“. . . it cannot be
But I am pigeon-liver’d and lack gall
To make oppression bitter.”

And Yeats’ great lines from “Lapis Lazuli”:

“They know that Hamlet and Lear are gay;
Gaiety transfiguring all that dread.”

And there is a poem by Mandelstam which begins in grotesquerie and modulates into gladness and hope (Selected Poems, trans. Clarence Brown and W. S. Merwin, 1973):

“Mounds of human heads are wandering into the distance.
I dwindle among them. Nobody sees me. But in books
much loved, and in children’s games I shall rise
from the dead to say the sun is shining.”

I’m with Dr. Johnson in The Rambler #141, when he writes: “My company gave alacrity to a frolick, and gladness to a holiday.” I’ll take Ella Fitzgerald over Billie Holiday, Matisse over Rothko, Richard Wilbur over Sharon Olds. Gladness and misery mingle in Mandelstam, as they do in the rest of us. After referring to Pushkin’s “stubborn joyousness” in his biography Mandelstam (1973), Brown writes: “I think it will depend upon the reader whether he responds most, in this equilibrium of sadness and joy, to the one or the other, but both are simultaneously there.”


Nige said...

We could do with an English word for that great achieved thing, 'life-gladness'. I guess it's close to the third element in Marianne Moore's 'humility, concentration, gusto' - and born of the other two?

zmkc said...

That "Mounds of human heads" poem is so moving. Does it have a title? I have seen it elsewhere, but never titled. Perhaps it has none.