Reading Tristia, my second Mandelstam after reading Voronezh Notebooks about a year ago, and I’m doing my best to like it but it’s hard work. He’s simply too clever for me! It’s just like reading Cavafy; I love them both but I’m always so aware that three-quarters of what they’re saying must just be going over my head, that there is probably so much more to their poems than what appears to me. Mandelstam is always talking about the past (the classical past, specifically), about mythology, lost cities and dying cities, and making references to the dead, to gods and ghosts and other people I don’t know! And just like Cavafy, these are all themes that I’m interested in, but he speaks of these things and because I don’t know them for myself their full significance is lost to me. I want to know how Mandelstam approaches and deals with them, the specifics of the questions he’s asking, but I feel like I’m watching from the other side of a glass, or maybe that I’m listening in from the next room; I know there’s a conversation taking place, and I can hear the voices, but I can’t quite make everything out.
If only I’d had a good girls’-school sort of education my whole childhood and I could have done Latin and Greek and all the rest! If only to better ‘get’ Tristia; for then I would know.