Some years ago I did one of my more bravura posts on the image of the black sun in Mandelstam, and now that I’m delving more deeply into Mandelstam and reading a shelf of books on him, I’m accumulating more background on the image. If you’re interested, go read the earlier post first, because this one is basically going to be an infodump without any attempt at connection or context.
Clarence Brown, in Chapter 11 of Mandelstam, discusses Mandelstam’s Phaedra poems, including the first poem in Tristia (Brown’s translation, followed by commentary, here; inadequate Burton Raffel translation here); the poem uses the phrase солнце черное ‘black sun’ twice (including the last line), and the center of the poem is Phaedra’s amazing line “Любовью черною я солнце запятнала,” “with my black love I have besmirched the sun.” At the end of the chapter (p. 218), Brown says:

In any case, the point is that the black sun furnishes us (line 13) with ‘guilty love,’ put literally, after Racine, as ‘black flame.’ After the refrain this has become, in line 15, a funeral torch. The black sun in ancient usage was the opposite of the sun of day, i.e. it was the night. And that is what Phèdre herself becomes in line 18: she is the night, and immediately says: ‘With my black love I have soiled the sun.’
Night ‘falls’ in Russian as it does in English, and to ‘fall upon’ is to attack. The night, the black sun, that has overcome Hippolytus, falls also upon Theseus, the hapless mourner of two deaths at the end of the tragedy. The black sun that arose in the first choral speech, gleamed darkly amid the broad daylight of the second, now lights the funeral of the last. In the final line, it is extinguished. The Russian verb uniat’, meaning ‘to calm, cool, assuage,’ has seldom had so sinister a meaning as here, where it refers to the death of Phèdre by her own hand, the final ‘cooling’ of her hot passion, for in this transformation of imagery, she has become the black sun, the night.

Omry Ronen, in a long essay at the end of my one-volume edition of Mandelstam (an expanded Russian translation of his essay in European Writers, The Twentieth Century, ed. George Stade, Vol 10, NY, 1990, 1619-1651, which I haven’t seen), has a short but intriguing discussion of the image (my translation):

The eschatological image in this poem [“Эта ночь непоправима” “Nothing can be done for this night“], undoubtedly, goes back to “Temnyi lik” [‘Dark face’] (1911), by Vasily Rozanov, the heretic-philosopher and brilliant writer who had studied the mutual links between Judaism, Christianity, sex, and human sacrifice. Asceticism in Russian Orthodoxy, he wrote, was a black light “around the Black Sun… It is this Black Sun, great Death in the world [великой мировой Смерти], metaphysical death, that is worshiped by the monks who by their very garments are called ‘black robes.'” (If anyone has access to the original English of this passage, I’d love to see it, because I’m not sure I’m interpreting it correctly.)

From Ch. 3 of Gregory Freidin’s A Coat of Many Colors: Osip Mandelstam and His Mythologies of Self-Presentation (with gratitude to UCal for putting it online free):

Mandelstam’s fundamental assumption about Pushkin was not radically different from that of Gippius or Rozanov;[74] nor was his view of an artist unrelated to Ivanov’s Orpheus participating in the “divinely erotic process.” Where he differed from them was in his pattern for presenting Pushkin’s “passion” or “pathos.” Developing his main thesis that the death of an artist “from a fully Christian point of view” represented his ultimate and central creative act, Mandelstam recalled the government’s shameful concealment of the place and time of Pushkin’s funeral service:

Pushkin’s funeral was held in the night. It was a secret funeral. The marble St. Isaac’s—a magnificent sarcophagus—waited in vain for the solar body of the poet. It was at night that the sun was placed into the coffin, and it was in freezing January that the sleds creaked, taking the poet’s remains to an out-of-the-way church.
I am recalling the picture of Pushkin’s funeral in order to evoke in your memory the image of the night sun, the image of the last Greek tragedy created by Euripides—the vision of the unfortunate Phaedra.[75]

It has been noted that Euripides’ Phaedra had no such vision,[76] but the meaning, at least in the most immediate sense, is not hard to come by. Whatever else Mandelstam may have had in mind, the image of the “night sun,” although most likely borrowed from the vocabulary of Viacheslav Ivanov,[77] is emblematic of Hippolytus, who in chastity and innocence had to suffer for the most unchaste of crimes. Taking his cue in part from Gippius and in part from Annenskii’s interpretation of Euripides, Mandelstam presented Pushkin as a martyr to the cause of sublimating sensuality into Passion (the “fiery asceticism” of Gippius) and freeing humanity from, in Annenskii’s words, “the yoke of the vegetative form of the soul.” Furthermore, as in Euripides, the one who set the fatal trap for Hippolytus was herself an innocent and tormented victim. Now, in 1915, Phaedra’s vision had returned once again: “In the fateful hours of purgation and storm, we have raised Skriabin over our heads, his sun-heart burns over us; but—alas!—this is not the sun of redemption, but the sun of guilt. Affirming Skriabin as her symbol in the hour of a world war, Phaedra-Russia . . .”[78]
The extant manuscript breaks off at this point, but the overall context allows one to reconstruct with some certainty the symbolic meaning that “Phaedra-Russia” was meant to convey: Hippolytus was to Phaedra what Pushkin and Skriabin were to Russia. Although Mandelstam may have intended to be no more than suggestive, his analogy between the relationship of Hippolytus to Phaedra in Euripides and that of the two symbolic figures of Russian art to their country was quite deliberate. Indeed, the enigmatic and unexpected Phaedra is invoked in the essay four times, whereas the Orpheus of Viacheslav Ivanov, who provided Mandelstam with the image of the “sun-heart,”[79] appears only once, and in a negative context at that.

Here are the two footnotes relevant to the image:

76. In his introduction’ to SS 3, Iurii Ivask suggests that the image of the “black sun” may have been associated with Nerval’s “soleil noir” from “El desdichado” (SS 3, pp. xxii). Mandelstam was certainly aware of Nerval, whose work appeared in translations in Russia in early 1910, for instance in Severnye zapiski, in which Mandelstam was frequently published. Many possible sources of Mandelstam’s image are offered by the editors of SS 3 (pp. 404-411), from antiquity through the Old and the New Testaments, the Talmud, and early Christian literature to The Lay of Igor’s Campaign and Avvakum’s autobiography. Kiril Taranovsky pointed to Viacheslav lvanov’s poetry as a possible source (Essays on Mandel’stam [Cambridge, Mass., 1976], p. 87). Nadezhda Mandelstam gives particular emphasis to Avvakum’s Life (“a book he was always reading”), The Lay of Igor’s Campaign, Gogol’s words about Pushkin’s death, and, finally, the eclipse during the Crucifixion in Matthew and Luke (NM 2, pp. 127-128). As she has also pointed out, the association of Pushkin with the sun being buried may go back to Gogol’s lamentation after Pushkin’s death (NM 2, p. 127). Contrary to her assertion, however, a careful perusal of Annenskii’s critical prose yields no instances of “black” or “night sun.” The image, however, was common enough in contemporary poetry, and it appears in a Briusovian poem by Mikhail Lozinskii, “West”‘ (1908; in Gornyi kliuch, 2d ed. [Petrograd, 1922], p. 73). I have narrowed my discussion to the sources that help define the “trajectory” of Mandelstam’s usage without attempting an exhaustive catalog of possible allusions.
77. Cf. Viach. Ivanov’s “Serdtse Dionisa” (The Heart of Dionysus, 1910) from Cor ardens: “Oh Parnassus, . . . offering a sacrifice, thou concealed in the solar sepulcher the heart of the ancient Zagreus . . . the heart of Sun-Dionysus.” Or consider his “Orfei rasterzannyi” (Orpheus Rent) from Prozrachnost’ (1904): “O night sun, sing to thy dark music the testament of day in the tears of darkness.” A more recent relevant text: “The lyre-player [Orpheus], both as Phoebus and as the creator of rhythm [Eurhythmos], sang in the night the harmony of the spheres, setting them in motion and thereby calling out the sun. He himself was the night sun, like Dionysus, and, like him, he was a martyr. The mystical Musagetes is Orpheus, the sun of the dark depths, the logos of the profound, internally empirical knowledge” (Viach. Ivanov, “Orfei,” Trudy i dni 1 [January-February 1912]: 63). Taranovsky suggests Racine’s flamme funeste and limits Mandelstam’s usage in “Fedra” to the “black sun of wild and sleepless passion” (Essays on Mandel’stam, p. 150n. 6). Note that a good key to Mandelstam’s usage of the image may be found in Vladislav Khodasevich’s “Ballada,” which thematizes the same usage in reverse: a sixteen-watt bulb of prosaic and meager existence is replaced by the lyre-playing astral Orpheus.

The “SS 3” he keeps referencing is the first complete edition of Mandelstam by Struve and Filippov: Осип Мандельштам, Собр. соч., в четырёх томах под редакцией проф. Г.П.Струве и Б. А. Филиппова, Межд. Лит. Содружество, 1967-1981. I’d sure like to read the discussion there, which is apparently quite comprehensive.
Addendum to the Addenda. For reggae/dub lovers, “black sun” in an entirely different context: “Every morning the black sun rise. It shines out of the Ark of the Covenant…” I hadn’t been familiar with The Congos, but I like them.
Further Addenda. I’ve turned up a whole article by Victor Terras on this subject, “The black sun: Orphic imagery in the poetry of Osip Mandelstam” (Slavic and East European Journal 45 [2001], pp. 45-60):

The myth of Orpheus and Euridice has found an echo in many works of world literature, including Russian. It also appears in Mandelstam, but it is not per se the source of orphic imagery, such as that of a black sun. Rather, orphic imagery is derived from religious cults founded by Orpheus. The evidence on these cults from classical antiquity is sparse and contradictory. In particular, Orpheus’s relation to Dionysus is problematic. Legend has it that Orpheus was torn to pieces by Maenads for favoring Apollo over Dionysus, but then, too, he is often identified with Dionysus, “the suffering god.” The pursuit of moral and physical purity is “orphic,” but so are Dionysian revels. The orphic tendency to a dualist worldview leads to an ambivalence of opposing principles, such as life: death, day: night, and heaven: nether world. Specifically, a Dionysus-Nyctelios is venerated as an antipode of Apollo-Helios. A distinctive trait is an apparent preference for the nocturnal and a fascination with the nether world. Orphic cosmogony has Night for the mother of Ouranus and Gaia (Heaven and Earth), with Zeus and Hera only the fifth generation. Night is personified and very much the supreme deity.[…]
We know that precisely at the time of Mandelstam’s intensive contact with [Vyacheslav] Ivanov, the latter was lecturing on Novalis and translating his poetry and, in particular, his Hymnen an die Nacht. In the very first of these hymns we find a “liebliche Sonne der Nacht,” translated as Mne solntsem ty polunochnym siiaesh’, “You shine for me as a midnight sun” (Ivanov, Sobranie 4: 185). The not inconsiderable role played by Novalis in Mandelstam’s thought (see Terras) is surely due to Ivanov’s mediation. All of the examples of orphic imagery which appear in Mandelstam’s poetry appear in much greater concentration in Ivanov, where they are an integral part of an organic worldview. In the following brief poem the entire worldview of classical Orphism is expressed:

The Sun of Night
Truth is a luminous gift,
A gift of nocturnal Love.
Do not believe the truth of day;
Fear dark magic.
In the former, love is banned;
In the latter, there is no truth.
At midnight call the never setting light!
    (Sobranie 4: 53)

Orphic truth is paradoxic: It is a luminous gift, yet it is a gift of nocturnal Love. Love is a hypostasis of Night. The light that will not set – the Sun of Night – is Dionysus-Nyctelios, as we learn from several other poems. The conflict of Euripides’ Hippolytus is suggested in the lines that the truth of Day bans love, and is countered by the black magic of Night: the pure but loveless follower of Artemis, Hippolytus, falls victim to the machinations of vengeful Cypris-Night. In this, as well as in several other poems, the Sun of Night is said to be superior to the Sun of Day. It is sole splendidior, candidior nive, as the epigraph to “De Profundis” asserts (Sobranie 2: 237).[…]
There are more instances of a “black sun” in Mandelstam than in Ivanov. But there is a difference: Mandelstam’s orphic imagery does not reflect an organic worldview. Each appearance of the “black sun” is a conceit in its own right, used for the particular effect of the poem. This accounts for the varied contexts in which the “black sun” appears.

Nyctelios (νυκτέλιος) is just a Greek adjective meaning ‘nocturnal,’ but it looks, especially in transliteration, where you don’t notice the difference in vowel length, as if it might mean ‘night sun’ (νύξ + ήλιος); Terras makes this mistake, as does Vyacheslav Ivanov in “Две стихии в современном символизме,” p. 555: “тот же Дионис, что доселе известен был только как Никтелиос, ночное Солнце” (‘that same Dionysos hitherto known only as Nyktelios, the night Sun’). There is also a discussion of the “black sun” image in Nadezhda Mandelstam’s Hope Abandoned, in chapter 13, “The Young Levite,” on pp. 108-14 in my Atheneum paperback: “When the sun is combined with blackness…, it means that life is ebbing, nearing its end, sinking into twilight as freedom is extinguished….”
Lagniappe (8/25/2011): Sholokhov uses the image at the end of the penultimate chapter of Book Four of Quiet Don: “Словно пробудившись от тяжкого сна, он поднял голову и увидел над собой черное небо и ослепительно сияющий черный диск солнца” [As if awakening from a heavy sleep, he lifted his head and saw above him a black sky and the blindingly radiant black disk of the sun]. And Ivan Efremov uses it in his groundbreaking sf novel Туманность Андромеды [The Andromeda Nebula]: “Это заходило черное солнце” [It was the setting of the black sun].” The black suns, they’re everywhere!


  1. Tony Knight translates:
    This night is irredeemable.
    Where you are, it is still bright.
    At the gates of Jerusalem,
    a black sun is alight.
    A conventional German translation of Mandelstam´s text would be somewhat similar to Knight´s attempt:
    Diese Nacht ist nicht zu heilen,
    aber bei euch ist noch Licht.
    An den Toren Jerusalems
    ging eine schwarze Sonne auf.
    Paul Celan, however, intensifies this to:
    Diese Nacht: Nicht Gutzumachen.
    bei euch: Licht, trotzdem.
    Sonnen, schwarz, die sich entfachen
    vor Jerusalem.
    Celan published a volume of translations of poems by Mandelstam, Blok and Jessenin in the late 1950s. also lists an audio CD from the late 1960s on which Celan recites his German versions of Mandelstam, Blok and Jessenin. Mandelstam was probably the strongest of all literary influences on Celan. Only Kafka could be considered to have been as important to him as Mandelstam. Are there other great non-Russian writers on whom Mandelstam left as much of an imprint as he did on Celan?

  2. Sorry for the incorrect spacing – this post got me excited when I realized that I must have Celan´s translations buried deep in a box somewhere.

  3. I like the sound of the Celan, but I don’t like the fact that he pluralized the sun; that seems to me an excessive liberty to take. Interesting question about non-Russian writers influenced by Mandelstam—now you’ve got me curious too!
    (I fixed the spacing with my hattic powers.)

  4. Absolutely fascinating (as was the original post). I’m re-reading all the Greek tragedies this winter; the Euripides connection is very interesting to me. Not sure whether to thank you or not for the link to Gregory Freidin, but off I go…

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