The Language of Recognition: Mandel′štam’s Poetic Encounter with Batjuškov

Osip Mandel′štam’s (1891–1938) encounter with Konstantin Batjuškov (1787–1855) occurred in print as early as 1912, continued throughout the poet’s lifetime, through borrowed rhymes, meters, a strong mutual interest in Italian imagery, and reached its apex in “Batjuškov,” a poem written in 1932, published as part of the Moscow Notebooks. How does this encounter take shape? More than a few generation gaps separate the two poets, but Lidija Ginzburg’s definition of early-nineteenth-century elegiac poetics as “the poetics of recognition” forges a bond between them. This paper intends to trace how the evocation of Batjuškov creates an intricate progression of sounds which unfolds into a patchwork of images and time frames in Mandel′štam’s poetry.

I would like to present Mandel′štam’s encounter with Batjuškov through the careful analysis of two poems: “I haven’t heard the tales of Ossian” (1914) and “Batjuškov” (1932). The Ossian poem will provide a poetic context for a later, more direct encounter with the elegiac poet: the image of the skald pronouncing another’s verse as his own prefigures what for Mandel′štam will subsequently dare to do in his later “Batjuškov” poem. When Mandel′štam invokes Batjuškov directly in his 1932 poem, he supplements his direct quotations with metrical imitation. Furthermore, the passages Mandel′štam chooses to quote from Batjuškov are taken from poems which are, in themselves, translations. This demonstrates another means of connecting the Batjuškov to the Ossian poem, and reinforces the act of bringing another’s poem into one’s own poetic sphere.

Mandel′štam’s evocation of Batjuškov is a moment of recognition: a meeting place of images, sounds, meters, and finally a way of envisioning and expounding the paradoxical relationship between poetic imitation and spontaneity, which forms an integral part of his poetics.