One of the poems we will look at as an introduction to our study of twentieth-century poetry is Osip Mandelstam’s ‘The Age’. Here it is:
My beast, my age, who will try
to look you in the eye,
and weld the vertebrae
of century to century,
with blood? Creating blood
pours out of mortal things:
only the parasitic shudder,
when the new world sings.
As long as it still has life,
the creature lifts its bone,
and, along the secret line
of the spine, waves foam.
Once more life’s crown,
like a lamb, is sacrificed,
cartilage under the knife –
the age of the new-born.
To free life from jail,
and begin a new absolute,
the mass of knotted days
must be linked by means of a flute.
With human anguish
the age rocks the wave’s mass,
and the golden measure’s hissed
by a viper in the grass.
And new buds will swell, intact,
the green shoots engage,
but your spine is cracked
my beautiful, pitiful, age.
And grimacing dumbly, you writhe,
look back, feebly, with cruel jaws,
a creature, once supple and lithe,
at the tracks left by your paws.
(trans. A. S. Kline)
This poem was written around 1916, in the middle of the First World War and a year before the revolution that introduced communist rule in Russia. It is interesting to read ‘The Age’ alongside the Irish poet W.B. Yeats’ poem, ‘The Second Coming’ (something we’ll be doing in class). Yeats’ poem was written in 1919, just after the end of the First World War, and published in the modernist journal ‘The Dial’ in 1920. Here’s Yeats’ poem (you’ll also find it in the Norton Anthology, and in any good anthology of modern poetry):
THE SECOND COMING
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: a waste of desert sand;
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Wind shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
As I said, we’ll discuss these poems in class, but feel free to post thoughts about either or both of the poems here, either before or after that discussion.
You might notice, too, that I’ve taken the title for this course blog from Mandelstam’s poem. The vertebrae we’ll be trying to weld together are those of the twentieth and the twenty-first centuries, as we study the “cracked spine” of the “beautiful, pitiful age” into which we were born. (Of course, books as well as beasts and men can have “cracked spines”, although I’m not sure if that double meaning is present in the original Russian.)