The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“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...

(The entire section is 478 words.)