The Poem

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 394

“The Age” consists of four stanzas of eight-syllable lines, which are rhymed ababcdcd throughout. The title refers to the age in which Osip Mandelstam lived and which he addresses in the poem. It is one of several poems with a related theme—the poet’s running dialogue (indeed, an argument) with his own age.

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In the very first line, the poet addresses his age directly and immediately equates it with a beast (“My age, my beast”). This equation sets the tone for the entire poem. He expresses his puzzlement about his age by wondering who can fathom its true nature and who will be able to glue together the two centuries, the preceding and the present one, both of which the poet has witnessed. He sees that the present world is being built of blood; it is gushing from the throat of earthly things, so that only a parasite is trembling in expectation of good things on the threshold of new days.

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. Because of the age’s infancy, the cranium of life has once again been sacrificed like a lamb. To what cause the sacrifice is to be made, the poet does not state explicitly, although at the beginning of the third stanza 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,” clearly hinting at a power that can accomplish the liberation. The poet again refers to the nature of the age as one of anguish: A viper in the grass becomes its measure.

In the last stanza, the poet seems to rejoice in a possible liberation, when the buds would swell again and the green shoots would spurt, but he quickly reminds himself that the backbone of the age is broken. He ruefully calls his age beautiful but pitiful, cruel and weak, looking at the past with a senseless smile—as a beast, 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.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 455

“The Age” is built predominantly of metaphors. There is an intricate system of metaphors designed to hold together the structure (organism) of the entire poem. The principal metaphor is a beast standing for the age in which the poet lives. Other, smaller metaphors reinforce the main one. Several refer to the physical nature of the beast: pupils, the vertebrae, blood, backbone, the cranium, paws. Just as the beast is a live being, so is the age.

Other metaphors are also taken from the living world. Blood, the essence of life, is referred to as a substance that builds, a substance which can cement “the vertebrae of two centuries.” It can also signify a loss of life, however, indicating that it can rip asunder, as well as cement (“gushing through the throat of things upon the earth”). A creature that must carry its own backbone is another example. A parasite referred to in the first stanza is also a live being depending for its existence on another living being. The tender age is compared to baby’s cartilage, which is sacrificed like a lamb—another young being. Days have “knotty elbows,” which must be tied if one is to find a solution. Finally, when the solution gleams as a possibility (although a fleeting one), the rebirth is metaphorized by buds and green sprouts.

The poet refers to the age as a living being, calling it at one point “the age of the infant earth.” It rocks the wave of human anguish. Other references to the age/beast also reveal the connection with a living being. The age is addressed almost as a human being: “My beautiful, pitiful age.” It can look backward; it can smile. It can also be cruel and weak.

Built into this system of metaphors is Mandelstam’s depiction of the phenomena of life and death. The repeated references to a broken backbone allude to the possibility of, or nearness to, death. When the poet asks at the very beginning who will look into the age’s pupils, he refers to an agelong method of checking whether life has turned to death. The mention of the sacrifice of a lamb is another age-old expression connected with death. The poem, in fact, is filled with metaphors that refer now to life, now to death. The separation of the one state from the other is tenuous; indeed, the beast is mortally wounded, and the end is only a matter of time. Finally, two additional metaphors should be mentioned. One is the wave, which stands for water or the sea and which can be interpreted as a metaphor for life. The other is a flute, which clearly refers to art and, more specifically, to lyric poetry.

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Themes