In pursuit of the word: Robert Lowell's interest in the work of Osip Mandelstam

Brindle, Belinda Noreen. 1993. In pursuit of the word: Robert Lowell's interest in the work of Osip Mandelstam. Doctoral thesis, Goldsmiths, University of London [Thesis]

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Abstract or Description

Lowell was initially attracted to Mandelstam at the start of the sixties because he was little known,providing the possibility of writing original translations. However, Lowell and Mandelstam's common focus on concrete detail, complex imagery and intellectual subject matter quickly caught Lowell's interest. These affinities along with Lowell's poetic skills enabled him to produce some excellent translations--in The Atlantic Monthly (1963) and The New York Review of Books (1965)--which compare favourably with other major Mandelstam translations. Lowell was also quickly inspired by the affirmation of Mandelstam's poetry in the face of difficult external circumstances. From 1967 onwards, Lowell's interest was sustained because Mandelstam's poetics was a realisation of what eluded Lowell in his own poetry. Both wished to escape the dualism of language and experience, achieving a harmonious merging of self and culture. They both tried specifically to transcend words to the Word by way of the word's polysemy--its ability to have multiple meanings. Mandelstam's success is seen in his affirmative descriptions of the polysemous word in his poetry and critical prose. Lowell's failure is seen in his undermining of the polysemous power of the following Notebook words: blood, green, window, walk, fall, back, breathe, by expressing a lack of faith in their ability to describe his experience. Notebook thus remains nihilistic and trapped in language. However, Lowell does gain brief respite from his own language by absorbing some of Mandelstam's language into Notebook through literary allusion. Drafts of Notebook contain a large number of Mandelstam translations which only remain as fragments in the final Notebook. The ultimate removal of these drafts suggests that Lowell may have accepted he could only rely on his own language. Indeed, Lowell's expressions of failure as poetic theme are ultimately what contribute to his poetry's success.

Item Type:

Thesis (Doctoral)

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Robert Lowell, Osip Mandelstam, poetry, literary allusion



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Date Deposited:

05 Jul 2023 11:13

Last Modified:

08 Aug 2023 12:40


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