As the title “Elegy for John Donne” indicates, the poem is an elegy, a formal and sustained lament in verse form mourning the death of a particular person—in this case, the death of John Donne, the seventeenth century Metaphysical poet. The Russian title includes the word bolshaya (“big”), which connotes the importance and depth of this tribute to Donne. This adjective is omitted in the translation by George L. Kline used here. In the original and in translation, the poem is written in pentameter (ten syllables per poetic line), the metrical line used in Donne’s Holy Sonnets. The Russian version uses a precise rhyme scheme (ababcdcd); this English version does not.
The poem can be divided into four parts. In part 1 (lines 1-95), the absolute silence that Donne’s death has caused is felt throughout the world. Likening death to sleep—a celebrated Donnean metaphor—Joseph Brodsky gives the reader a catalog remarkable for its inclusiveness. Images of simple, everyday household items (beds, walls, carpets, pots, pans, doors) sleep next to a greater sleeping cosmos: St. Paul’s Cathedral, London, the sea, “this Island,” angels, even God.
In the second part (lines 96-127), this silence is broken by the sound of weeping: “But hark! Do you not hear in the chill night/ a sound of sobs, the whispered voice of fear?” There is a change in perspective. The speaker in this section addresses several questions,...
(The entire section is 412 words.)