Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

The overriding theme in “The Age” is Mandelstam’s argument with the age in which he lived. The poem therefore makes it difficult to agree completely with those critics who have characterized him as aloof and unconcerned with happenings around him. On the contrary, he was very much concerned with the life outside of his admittedly secluded poetic world, as attested by direct references in this and many other poems.

“The Age” was written in 1922, only a few years after the beginning of the October Revolution in Russia and, more important, only two years after the “new age” in the Soviet Union had begun to take shape. Mandelstam was directly affected by the revolution, but only as a bystander—even as such, he was on one or two occasions close to losing his life. The external manifestations of change, danger, and loss were not so much on his mind as were the more important potential losses—those of human dignity and artistic freedom. For this reason, his characterization of his age as a beast refers primarily to the possible destruction of both of those values, which were always more precious to him than anything else.

In this light, the mood of the poem is essentially pessimistic. This is underscored primarily by the use of the beast metaphor, which usually carries dangerous and destructive connotations. The fact that the beast is young and dying, and is therefore a victim itself, does not diminish its destructive role. When...

(The entire section is 439 words.)