Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 415
There are four stanzas of eight-syllable lines in “The Age.” In line 1, the poet addresses his age directly and immediately equates it with a beast (“My age, my beast”); this central metaphor sets the tone for the entire poem. He is puzzled about his age and wonders who can fathom its true nature. He sees that the present world is being built of blood; it is gushing from the throat of the earthly things, so that only a parasite is trembling, in expectation of good things. The mood of the first stanza is bleak.
That mood continues in stanza 2. The poet maintains that every creature must carry its backbone and that every wave plays with this invisible spine. He calls the present age an infant and equates it with the tender cartilage of a baby. Life is being sacrificed. To what, the poet does not say, although at the beginning of stanza 3 he speaks of captivity. If one is to liberate himself from this captivity, one must “tie the knotty elbows/ Of days together with a flute.” The flute represents poetry. This is the force that can bring about liberation. The poet again refers to the nature of the age as one of melancholy: an adder in the grass becomes its “golden measure.”
In the final stanza, the poet rejoices briefly at a possible salvation that would come when the buds would swell again and the green shoots would spurt, but he quickly reminds the reader that the backbone of the age is broken. He ruefully calls his age both beautiful and pitiful, cruel and weak, looking at the past with a senseless smile, like a beast that, once supple, looks at the tracks of its own paws. The poem ends on a resigned note, seemingly without a solution to the dilemma postulated at the beginning and explored in the middle of the poem.
“The Age” is the testimony of the poet’s own encounters with the beast of the new age. Mandelstam believed in the high mission of art, and particularly of poetry, as represented by the flute. Amid the horrors of destruction and the rejection of everything that was not the accepted dogma, he still hoped that art could save humanity. The beast that was once “beautiful” and “supple”—a reference to the unfulfilled promises of the revolution—can now only look at the tracks of its own paws. “The cranium of life has been sacrificed” once again—this time with frightening finality.