Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 529

“Elegy for John Donne” embodies several important themes. Brodsky posits that, when a poet dies, the world he or she has created also dies, as Donne testifies in “The Will”: “I’ll undo/ The world by dying.” Brodsky intensifies the totality of this dead world by including the world as he knows it in the sleep that settles upon the universe. Simultaneously, however, Brodsky asserts the immortality of the world created by the genius of the poet. Donne’s England comes vibrantly alive because of Brodsky’s power of evocation.

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Another crucial theme is the affinity between Brodsky and Donne. They share a strong spiritual bond: Both of them are Metaphysical poets deeply concerned with realities, beyond the merely physical, of love, death, solitude, sin, salvation, and regeneration; both are poets who are lone islands isolated from the greater sea of humanity, Donne because of his thwarted political ambitions and his self-imposed exile from a world that did not understand him and Brodsky because of political powers that accused him of scorning useful work that would contribute to the good of Communism. Eventually, Brodsky was tried for “social parasitism” and exiled to five years of forced labor at a state farm in Arkhangel’sk; he left his homeland for good in 1972 when he emigrated to the United States. This shared loneliness resounds throughout “Elegy for John Donne.”

Brodsky’s poem moves toward regeneration, especially near the end of the poem, where images of falling rain and wet earth signal rebirth. The star, mentioned twice in the latter part, illuminates the final moment of spiritual awakening. At first, the star is hidden, yet felt, as Brodsky imagines Donne “himself entrusting to that steady star/ which now is closed in clouds.” This star soars into full view at the close of the poem, where it clearly evokes the stars with which Dante Alighieri (another exiled poet) ends each of the three parts to his La divina commedia (c.1320; The Divine Comedy, 1472), especially at the end of Inferno, when Dante physically and spiritually has conquered death: “we emerged to see—once more—the stars.” Using the image of the star pointing to a transcendent reality of a possible reunion with the Creator, Brodsky ends his poem, “But see, there from the clouds will shine/ that star which made thy world endure till now.”

The poem, as a whole, is held together by Brodsky’s brilliant intertwining metaphor of weaving, using such ephemeral material as snowflake needles to thread together the web of images and allusions, healing the torn body and stitching together body to soul, night to dawn, and earth to heaven. Early in the poem, the needle is threadless, as the soul of Donne is shown as “needle-thin,/ yet without thread.” By the end of the poem, the snow closes the gap between Donne’s body and soul, “its needles flying back and forth, back, forth!” This metaphor is complemented by the conventional metaphor of the body as a garment for the soul. In death, it is torn, full of holes, and in shreds. The metaphors combine in the symbolic and transcendent image of the star “bringing the healing needle home.”

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