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By Robert Alter

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That is, he came to associate some of his most basic values and imaginative allegiances with his Jewishness, whatever may have been the actual channels through which he came to them. If Judaism had threatened the poet as an unknown womb world, it could also on occa­ sion provide him an organizing myth for his own experience. Ineluctably, Mandelstam was almost everywhere perceived as a Jew in the world of Russian poetry which his achievement rapidly dominated. At the very outset, after having been taken briefly under the protection of the older Symbolist poet, Zina­ ida Gippius, he was tagged “Zinaida’s Jew-boy,” perhaps with a degree of playfulness but certainly not without an element of wry hostility.

The turn-of-the-century Russian intellectu­ al scene was marked by a reawakened interest in Christian mysticism; and the Symbolists, who were Mandelstam’s first models as poets even though he was to break with their po­ etic procedures, were profoundly involved in Christian reli- Defenses of the Imagination 36 This Library PDF version is for the use on an institutional computer only. com << Chapter >> Home | TOC gious ideas—in pointed contrast to most of the French Sym­ bolists, from whom they were supposed to have derived.

A kitchen match would keep me warm. Look, all I have with me is a clay pot And the twittering of the stars in my thin ears. I can’t help loving through unfledged bird skin the yellow of grass, warmth of the black earth. It is quite in keeping with this sense of things that Mandel­ stam never thought of himself as a martyr after he had been made the object of persecution, never imagined his fate as an imitation of Christ. His widow, whatever her own com­ mitments of belief, is too keen an observer not to recollect this firmly, and she states the matter with epigrammatic succinct-ness: “M.

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