Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 555

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 possible that Mandelstam is willing to forsake his Jewish ancestry for the sake of a better life for all. Perhaps he refers to the brotherhood of fellow writers, many of whom are unwilling to join the “new age,” or perhaps he has in mind his own spiritual and artistic values. What matters is that Mandelstam is willing to sacrifice his future for all the lofty causes he enumerates. That the wolfhound jumps on his back just the same, eliciting a bold cry of defiance, should not be blamed on the poet. At the same time, Mandelstam expresses his yearning for peace and serenity in a distant place such as Siberia. There is a hint of resignation in his plea to be left alone and allowed to find peace far away from predators. As Nadezhda observes in her book, the use of the image of a fur coat recurs in Mandelstam’s work as a symbol of the Russian winter and a cozy, stable existence. It is clear that the poet desires security, which is quite understandable under the circumstances.

While the ending of the poem remains inconclusive and the reader is left wondering what happened to the poet and whether his defiance was strong enough to overcome all the perceived threats, the real-life drama supplied the answers, attesting once again to the poet’s clairvoyance. That Mandelstam finds security in Siberia is both ironic and sad, for it was in Siberia that his life ended prematurely under the most tragic circumstances. Siberia has been a place of punishment and exile throughout Russian history, but Mandelstam’s premonition is nevertheless uncanny. The irony is that instead of blue foxes, he was met by the wolfhound again. Yet his defiant statement that “only my own kind will kill me” turned out to be true: While he has been physically killed by the “wolf,” as a poet he remains very much alive.

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