The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“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.

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.