Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 439

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.

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“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 coupled with the damage it has wrought, it is not surprising that the poet considers his age in mostly negative terms.

Mandelstam’s hopelessness is relieved only for a moment when, in the third stanza, he allows for a possibility of a solution. He sees this possibility in the healing and rejuvenating power of art, as symbolized by a flute. He says clearly that, in order to lead life out of captivity and start anew, “one must tie the knotty elbows/ Of days together with a flute.” Tying the knotty elbows of days simply means joining the old and the new, rather than rejecting the old or destroying it.

Throughout his life, Mandelstam believed in the high mission of art, and particularly of poetry. Amid the horrors of destruction and the rejection of everything that was different from the accepted dogma, he still hoped for a moment that art could save humankind. The hope is fleeting. 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.

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