“Filled with Space and Time”: Time-Space (“Chronotope”) and the Thirst for Culture in the Poetry of Mandel′štam and Yeats

Ian Probstein, New York

In the poem “Insomnia. Homer. Tautly swelling sails...” (1) a chain of nominal sentences “performing (or acting out),” in the Mandel′štamian dictum, a stream of consciousness is at the same time a chain of metonymies of space, history, culture. “The catalogue of ships” which sailed to Troy is a link which connects epochs. Both Homer and the sea: all things are moved by love is the metamorphosis which links “disparate ideas” (Lomonosov). The sea is not only a metaphor of love (2), but first and foremost, of time and history. The last two verses of the poem: “And the dark sea thunders, eloquent, / And rumbling heavily it breaks beneath my bed,” are finally washing away the boundary between a sleepless night in Koktebel′ and the siege of Troy: this joint means a shift in time-space, it symbolizes the integrity of time and history: the closeness of historic epochs is vivid and palpable. In his famous poem of 1917 Mandel′štam wrote: “And leaving his ship, canvas worn-out on the seas,/ Odysseus came back filled with time and space.” (3) A thirst for history and high antiquity does not simply symbolize Mandel′štam’s “nostalgia for world culture”: it is rather his concern for the integrity of culture, history, and time-space.

In my view, we encounter the same feelings, poetic motive, and the sense of history in the famous poem by Yeats, “Sailing to Byzantium” (1927), in which the lyrical hero of the poem is leaving “now and here,” the country which is not “for the old men.” Having acquired the lesson of the “monuments of unageing intellect,” he is sailing to Byzantium: this journey is not only a transfer in time and space, but also in culture. Byzantium is a symbol of spirit and culture both for the poet and his lyrical hero.

For Yeats as well as for Mandel′štam the past is a treasury, their nostalgia is not exactly for the past time, but for the cultural and spiritual values. For Mandel′štam the motive of overcoming separation in time and isolation of culture was inevitably connected with the theme of creativity, with the process of naming things, “that heals from amnesia” (“The Finder of a Horseshoe”). Having acquired a name, an object acquires being and is saved from oblivion. For Yeats, creativity, beauty are means of conquering human frailty “and all complexities of mire or blood.” However, for both poets “Sailing to Byzantium,” to Greece, to the Mediterranean shores in general, is a quest for “the world culture,” for the “monuments of unageing intellect.”

Although V. N. Toporov wrote in his book Aeneus, the Man of Destiny about epic poetry, his definition “the locus of the definite intersection of the two themes mentioned above—Virgil and the Mediterranean—is space, time, and the sphere of spirit,” can, in our view, shed light on the problem of affinity of Mandel′štam’s and Yeats’ philosophical ideas and poetic motives: a desire to reunite time, culture, and spirit, or, perhaps, to find such a point of observation in the universe from which time, history, and culture would be seen in their integrity.


1. Bernard Meares’s translation. Osip Mandelstam. 50 Poems. New York: Persea Books, 1977.

2. Cf. Nielson N. A. “Insomnia.” In: Mandelstam and Antiquity. Moscow, 1995, pp. 65–76.

3. Translation by James Green. Osip Mandelstam. London, 1980.