The Poem

“Wolf” is a short poem of sixteen lines divided into four quatrains. It is one of several poems written in the spring of 1931 on the same theme; they are considered by some literary historians to be variants of the same poem and are therefore known as the “Wolf cycle,” “Wolf” being the central poem. Written in the first person and in the present tense, it is, like many of Osip Mandelstam’s verses, highly autobiographical. In order to interpret the poem correctly, circumstances of Mandelstam’s life in the late 1920’s and early 1930’s must be taken into account. From the events of Mandelstam’s life at this time, it is certain that the poet and the persona are identical.

The title suggests a predator and, consequently, a danger to the persona. The poem opens with an assessment of the poet’s position in society and history. He avers that for the sake “of the future’s trumpeting heroics” and of “that exalted tribe,” he has deliberately deprived himself of the merriment and honor at his “fathers’ feast.” Without specifically naming the “exalted tribe” or his fathers, he dwells on the degree of and reason for his sacrifice. This becomes clearer in the second stanza, in which he complains that “The wolfhound age” has jumped on his shoulders, thus introducing a feeling of mortal danger to the poet. In the next line, he hastens to add that he is not a wolf by blood, indicating that he is not in the same league with...

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Forms and Devices

The poem is written in a conventional style typical of Russian poetry of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. It is rhymed abab with twelve-syllable lines alternating with nine-syllable lines, resulting in a distinct, strong rhythm and a highly musical quality, which, unfortunately and perhaps inevitably, is not fully reproduced in translation. The two most striking devices used by Mandelstam are images and metaphors. The first image that strikes the reader’s eye is the cup at the feast. Although the image itself is not ambiguous, its significance is somewhat unclear. It is also not clear of whose glory the poet speaks or to what “exalted tribe” he refers. Yet there is no doubt that a feast is taking place. Speaking of his preferences, Mandelstam uses a powerful image of a hat tucked into a sleeve of a fur coat of the Siberian steppes, which suggests warmth, security, aloofness, and beauty. The beauty of a peaceful river flowing through the steppes of Siberia is enhanced by the images of blue foxes shining in the night amid primeval snow by tall pine trees reaching out to the stars. These beautiful images are contrasted to “the snivellingsickly smears” of the poet’s surroundings, which he is forced to endure and from which he would rather escape.

There are fewer metaphors, but one of them occupies a central position. It is the so-called mother metaphor: the wolf. It stands not so much for a wolf in nature as it does for a bloodthirsty predator underlying the beastly nature of modern existence in the persona’s society. This is clear from the word Mandelstam uses, volkodav, which does not mean simply a wolf but a wolf-dog or wolfhound, corresponding to the nature of the times depicted. Mandelstam extends the metaphor by refusing to identify with it, thus placing it in a sharper focus. Another metaphor, “bloody bones in the wheel,” is even more drastic. It stands for the oppressive, torturous age in which the persona lives and for the force of a turning wheel that grinds on inexorably and, like fate, cannot easily be stopped or escaped. Thus, by reinforcing the metaphor introduced in the second stanza (“wolf”) and by repeating the salient phrase (“I’m no wolf by blood”), Mandelstam creates a powerful sequence of images and metaphors that support and sharpen the quintessence of the poem.