James Fenton on Mandelstam’s Dante

“The poet’s widow describes how, at a point when Mandelstam refers to Dante’s need to lean on authority, she refused to write his words down, thinking that he meant the authority of rulers, and that he condoned Dante’s acceptance of their favours. ‘The word had no other meaning for us,’ she says, ‘and being heartily sick of such authorities, I wanted no others of any kind.’ ‘Haven’t you had enough of such authorities?’ I yelled at him, sitting in front of a blank, grey-coloured sheet of paper, my hands defiantly on my knees. ‘Do you still want more?'”

“Mandelstam was furious with her for getting above herself. She was angry back, and told him to find another wife. But in due course she did what the circumstances required during the Stalinist persecution: she learnt the essay by heart, in order to ensure its survival. It wasn’t printed until three decades later, in 1967, when an edition of 25,000 copies appeared in Moscow and quickly sold out – the first of Mandelstam’s works to appear after the thaw.

“The argument about authority warns us to read Mandelstam’s essay not only for what it tells us about Dante but also as a reflection on our own times, and Mandelstam’s. [. . .]”   –James Fenton, The Guardian, 2005

See full article here.