The poets and the world war: "The Age" by Osip Ėmil'evič Mandel'štam

There's need to introduce one of the greatest poets of all times. The Russian Osip Ėmil'evič Mandel'štam was born in Warsaw in 1891 and did not spend on the army a part of his life due to his heart problems. Mandel'štam wrote the famous poem we include below in 1923, so long after the end of the war. A question may rise: why do we propose such poem written by someone that was not a soldier and why do we include it in a website fully concentrated on the First World War? It's quite easy to explain. First of all it's not necessary to take part to a war to write masterpieces about the warfare (take i.e. the case of the Italian novelist Federico De Roberto). Secondly, this is the opportunity to link and frame under a common view the shreds of time that a war leaves on the new terrain (Osip Ėmil'evič Mandel'štam will die before the Second World War in 1937 in a concentration camp not far from Vladivostok). The way Osip Ėmil'evič Mandel'štam addresses to "his century" is so unique and intense that we get out of this reading with a hand full of desperation and with the other squeezing a clean yet grim image of an entire age.

(from The Poems of Osip Mandelstam, tr. Ilya Bernstein - free pdf available here)

My age, my beast, who will be able
To peer into your pupils
And with his own blood glue together
The vertebrae of two centuries?
Blood-the-builder gushes
From the throat of earthly things,
And parasite merely trembles
On the threshold of new days.

A creature, as long as it is living,
Must carry its spine intact,
And wave plays in backbone
That is invisible to sight.
Like child’s tender cartilage
Is the age of an infant earth
But like lamb they have sacrificed
Life itself, bending low its head.

In order to free the age from bondage,
To begin the world anew,
The joints of days, gnarled and knotted,
Must be tied together by flute.
It is the age itself that causes
Human sorrow to undulate
And in the grass an adder breathes
Like golden measure of the age.

Buds will swell again as always
And green sprouts will spurt,
But your backbone has been broken,
My wonderful pitiful age!
And with meaningless smile,
You look backward, cruel and weak,
Like beast that used to be agile,
On the tracks of your own feet.

Blood-the-builder gushes
From the throat of earthly things,
And the ocean’s cartilage splashes
Hot fish against tepid shores.
And from the elevated bird net,
From the humid heaps of blue,
Indifference, indifference
Spills over your mortal wound.

Век мой, зверь мой

Век мой, зверь мой – кто сумеет
Заглянуть в твои зрачки
И своею кровью склеит
Двух столетий позвонки?

Кровь – строительница – хлещет
Горлом из земных вещей,
ахребетник лишь трепещет
На пороге новых дней.

Тварь, покуда жизнь хватает,
Донести хребет должна,
И невидимым играет
Позвоночником волна.

Словно нежный хрящ ребенка,
Век младенческий земли
Снова в жертву, как ягненка,
Темя жизни принесли.

Чтобы вырвать век из плена,
Чтобы новый мир начать,
Узловатых дней колена
Нужно флейтою связать.

Это век волну колышет
Человеческой тоской,
И в траве гадюка дышит
Мерой века золотой.

И еще набухнут почки.
Брызнет зелени побег,
Но разбит твой позвоночник,
Мой прекрасный жалкий век.

И с бессмысленной улыбкой
Вспять глядишь, жесток и слаб,
Словно зверь, когда-то гибкий,
На следы своих же лап.

Кровь-строительница хлещет
Горлом из земных вещей
И горячей рыбой мещет
В берег теплый хрящ морей.

И с высокой сетки птичьей,
От лазурных влажных глыб
Льется, льется безразличье
На смертельный твой ушиб.