Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

The main theme in “Wolf” is a defiant resistance to the persecution of humanity. On the basis of the circumstances surrounding Mandelstam’s life as attested most forcefully in Hope Against Hope (1970), the memoirs of his widow Nadezhda Mandelstam, it is certain that his own experience, or a premonition of it, inspired the poem. The persecution of Mandelstam by the Stalinist authorities began in the late 1920’s, gathered steam in the 1930’s, and culminated in his death in a concentration camp in Siberia in 1938. At the time this poem was written, he was obsessed by the distinct possibility that he would be arrested, which indeed he was a short time later. Images and metaphors in the poems of the Wolf cycle hint time and again at that possibility. The use of the main metaphor, the wolfhound, for the name of the period (vek-volkodav, “the age of the wolfhound”) unmistakably defines the poet’s understanding of the period. He strengthens that definition with frightening images of “the snivellingsickly smears” and “the bloody bones on the wheel” in order to castigate cowardice and sycophancy among those helping the operation of the bloody wheel.

The poet is determined not to give in to the threats. His defiance is prefaced by a declaration of his sacrifice “For the sake of the future’s trumpeting heroics,/ for that exalted tribe” at his “fathers’ feast.” Although these references are ambiguous, it is...

(The entire section is 555 words.)