The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

The power of “Elegy for John Donne” is developed through Brodsky’s use of images, metaphors, and specific allusions to Donne’s work. The strongest image is that of the silence that pervades the entire poem, a silence so deep that the reader can hear his or her own breath. The snow gently falling and blanketing all things sleeping adds to the intensity of silence and darkness. The images range from the smallest, most insignificant items to the cosmic order of the universe: “Dark Hell-fires sleep, and glorious Paradise.” Brodsky’s lists are reminiscent of the staccato lists in Donne’s poems. In lines 7 and 8, Brodsky strings together sleeping images: “fresh linen, nightlamp, chests of drawers, a clock,/ a mirror, stairways, doors.” Donne, in Holy Sonnet 7, enumerates the causes of sleep/death: “War, dearth, age, agues, tyrannies,/ Despair, law, chance.”

The poem, as a whole, turns on the metaphor of death as sleep. Donne, too, employs this metaphor in several of his poems. Brodsky’s sleep image permeates the poem, especially in the first part where, because Donne is dead, “All these things have sunk in sleep./ Yes, all things.” This is strongly reminiscent of the dead world that Donne experienced after the early death of his wife: “The world’s whole sap is sunkLife is shrunk,/ Dead and interred” (“A Nocturnal upon St. Lucy’s Day, Being the Shortest Day”). In Holy Sonnet 6, Donne writes, “And gluttonous death will...

(The entire section is 536 words.)