Osip Mandelstam, “Your image, tormenting and elusive”

15 (from Stone)
Osip Mandelstam (tr. David McDuff)

Your image, tormenting and elusive,
I could not touch in the mist.
“God!” I said by mistake,
never thinking to say that myself.

God’s name like a gigantic bird
flew out from my breast.
Before me thick mist swarms,
behind me stands an empty cage.


We can’t really close-read this. McDuff admits his translations are far from literal: “I cannot claim any consistent level of success in presenting the originals in English as poems in their own right. Occasionally I may have succeeded in doing this, but my original aim was simpler – to provide a statement of the meaning of the poems” (McDuff xxi). Wiman talks about the sound of Mandelstam being very important to him. I think the fact that is impossible to capture without any Russian has to be paramount for us.

What’s left are images and a problem. As always, the question is what the problem is. The speaker has been confronted with a godlike image. Maybe it was a beloved; it certainly sounds that way (“tormenting,” “elusive”). If the image is God, that’s two problems. First, should God be lowered to concerns of erotic love? We’ll call that the believer’s problem. Second, the non-believer’s: do erotic longings bring one to something too theistic?

How are the two problems tied together? We can see we’re at a point both apologetic and atheistic. But the moment of the call is also multiple. “God!” could be frustration as well as a plea. If a plea, is it the beloved? One can’t really call that a lowering of God if things work out. Then again, one can say God was irrelevant to the whole process. Who was loved again? No matter what, the speaker thinks he made a “mistake” – he was “never thinking to say that myself.”

Either way – the name of “God,” in being mentioned, flew away. It didn’t fly away like a dove or raven. It did as a “gigantic bird,” like as if it was a burden perched. Is there something natural in letting one’s eros involve what we think are divine aspirations? The problem isn’t us necessarily, but rather the image. It flickers in the mist. Is all there is mist? Was the image simply mist itself? The release of “God” as a name both confirming and limiting the significance of our desire forces the speaker to the reality of that desire. This is not adolescent idealization. Wiman translates Mandelstam’s “Night Piece:”

Come love let us sit together
In the cramped kitchen breathing kerosene.
There’s fuel enough to forget the weather,
The knife is ours and the bread is clean.

Come love let us play the game
Of what to take and when to run,
Of come with me and come what may
And holding hands to hold off the sun.

That was written in Russian in 1931. To love and be loved is as fundamental as it gets in the face of tyranny and murder. The mist is real. Behind the speaker “stands an empty cage.” Is the speaker the bird himself? Or has he given up loving? Or is he between what was his heart and the reality of that image? The last is the most credible possibility. It is also one where the speaker sits in judgment of himself.


Mandelstam, Osip. Selected Poems. trans. David McDuff. New York: FSG, 1975.


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