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AGE, by             Poet Analysis     Poet's Biography

The poem "Age" by Osip Mandelstam, like much of his work, is a complex meditation on time, history, and the human condition. As one of Russia's most prominent poets, Mandelstam wrote during a period fraught with political turmoil and personal strife, which ultimately led to his death in a Soviet labor camp. This lends the poem a layer of tragic irony; it grapples with the beast of "age," of time passing, in the knowledge that Mandelstam's own time was cruelly limited.

The poem begins with a challenge, asking who will dare to "look you [age] in the eye," and attempt to bridge the gap between centuries. The "welding of vertebrae" suggests a continuum of history, a linkage of past, present, and future, bound together "with blood." Blood here is both life-force and a mark of suffering, a commonality that unites different eras.

Mandelstam employs vivid biological metaphors to describe this passage of time. The "parasitic shudder" may allude to how each age feeds off the one before it, parasitically dependent yet also transformative ("when the new world sings"). The imagery of the creature lifting its "bone" and the foaming "waves" along the spine might be interpreted as a representation of life persisting through challenges, growing and adapting.

The poem's tone shifts in the middle stanzas, becoming more specific in its imagery. The "lamb" being sacrificed suggests an almost biblical weight to the turning of the age, a martyrdom that paves the way for new beginnings ("the age of the new-born"). The flute that "links" the "mass of knotted days" could signify art's role in making sense of life's complexities, providing a harmonious understanding of disjointed times.

However, Mandelstam does not shy away from the cost of this historical process. The "golden measure" is "hissed by a viper in the grass," perhaps an acknowledgment of the dangerous seductions of idealism, especially relevant in a pre-Stalinist context. The "human anguish" that "rocks the wave's mass" speaks to the collective suffering inherent in any transitionary period.

The poem concludes on a note of both admiration and pity for the "age" it addresses. Despite the promise of "new buds" and "green shoots," the age's "spine is cracked." This dual image of potential and fragility captures the contradiction at the heart of human progress; every new beginning comes at a cost, and every age bears the marks ("tracks left by your paws") of its own struggles and defeats.

In "Age," Mandelstam has encapsulated the cyclical nature of history, the tension between decay and renewal, and the inescapable "beast" of time that both frees and imprisons. It's a poignant reminder of the author's historical context, a man who lived through an era that witnessed the crumbling of old orders and the painful birth of the new, a process that ultimately consumed him. The poem serves as a complex mirror to the age it critiques, reflecting the beauty, potential, suffering, and tragedy inherent in the passage of time.

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