When the World Burns: How the Art of Poetry Turns Tragedy to Song

5pm Sundays • January 27 — February 17, 2019 • 4 Weeks • $25 (Recommended)

Osip Mandelstam

Osip Mandelstam

*The recommended $25 fee covers the cost of our coffee and snacks for the 4 weeks. If you are not able to pay this amount for any reason, please let us know. We would love for you join us no matter what you can afford.

Class Description

If it had not been for Anna Akhmatova and Nadezhda Mandelstam, the poet Osip Mandelstam would perhaps have been wholly forgotten. To save Mandelstam from oblivion, Anna and Nadezhda memorized his poems or hid away whatever copies they could.

The mind, apparently, was one of the only safe places left during Stalin's regime in early twentieth century Russia. Finally fed up with Mandelstam’s dissenting poems, Stalin exiled him, sending him to his death. All that was left of him was what remained in the minds of his wife Nadezhda and friends such as Anna or stashed away in secret places.

"What is poetry’s role when the world is burning?" Christian Wiman asked almost 90 years later. Both Wiman and Mandelstam found refuge in poetry through intense times of exile. For Mandelstam, the terror was Stalin’s ego. For Wiman, it was a life-threatening cancer.

Why, when life got so difficult, would these two men devote so much to poetry? And, though we may not face political exile or life-threatening illness, should we do the same?

Over the course of 4 weeks, we’ll discuss 6 themes of poetry in exile. Through a close reading of Wiman’s and Mandelstam’s poetry, and by bringing them into conversation with a handful of other poets and theologians, we’ll discover the power of poetry in life’s darkest times.

Week 1

Theme 1: How to find hope when it all burns down

"Our bright abyss is also—and simply—happiness"

In our first session together, we’ll explore theologies of exile explained by two important 20th century theologians: Hans Urs von Balthasar and Karl Barth. These will frame our discussion for the class. Then we’ll read read our first poems together, attempting to understand a central paradox of exile: you often find your way up by going down.

Theme 2: How to wait for Restoration

"We take time between our teeth like a bit"

In the middle of tragedy, time turns tyrannical. In session two, we’ll consider how exile presses us further into each moment, stretching time into eternity even as we long for an eternity that simply feels like the present. We’ll read poems that temper our clock-watching nature.


Week 2

Theme 3: How to make a home from the rubble

"Existence is our home and is here"

On the run or tossed between cities, Mandelshtam doubted he’d ever be rooted in a home again. In session three, we’ll discuss the importance of physical place and how we can make a home when our homes turn into prisons.

Theme 4: How to find your people through the fog

"Come with me and come what may"

How do you find your people if you’re not sure who to trust? In session four, we’ll focus on a love poem between Mandelstam and his wife that maps the tension between aloneness and loneliness and the special bond people can make when the whole world seems to be against them.


Week 3

Theme 5: How to rekindle belief from doubt

"Whisper it, less than whisper, like someone praying"

Session five raises the stakes. After navigating the physical, social, and temporal realities of the tragedy of exile, we’ll directly explore its spiritual realities. Exile induces doubt at the precise moment when we need faith the most. How can poetry spark the flame?

Theme 6: How to sing with smoke-filled lungs

"All my soul is bells, which will not ring"

Singing out of the silence—that’s the task of all exiled people. Exile presses us into a vacuum of silence that clarifies our speech, causing us to sing in our clearest tones. In this session, we’ll discuss Mandelstam’s final poem, asking how it summarises the previous five sessions of our study.


Week 4

How to keep Singing out of silence

In our final session, we’ll summarize the lessons we can learn from our entire study. We’ll also spend some time sharing the poems that we found most meaningful during out time together.


About the Facilitator

Christian Shockley is a teacher who writes. He studied Christianity & the Arts at King’s College London and the National Gallery where he wrote his dissertation on the poetry of Osip Mandelstam and Christian Wiman.

He also works at Pathwright. There, he spends his time thinking about the future of education and designing online courses for people like Princeton Theological Seminary and the C.S. Lewis Institute.

He writes and speaks about the intersection of visual art, poetry, and theology.



Group Discussion

Dates & Times

4 Sessions
5pm to 6:45pm
Jan. 27, Feb. 3, 10, 17


Leaf Institute of Art & Vocation
1278 Pendleton St, Greenville, SC 29611

Supplies Needed



Christian Shockley


$25 (Recommended)

Age / Level

College age through professional career