Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“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.

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...

(The entire section is 529 words.)