The Poem

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 412

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.

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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, trying to discover who is crying, asking in succession his angel, the cherubim, Saint Paul, God, and Gabriel. Only silence answers back.

In the third section (lines 128-184), Donne’s soul identifies itself as the one grieving and credits Donne with the power of soaring above the “dark sins and passions” of which his poetry speaks so eloquently. Again, the reader is given a catalog of some of the varied subjects of Donne’s poetic voice: Hell, Heaven, love, life, lust, the Last Judgment. This section ends with the soul claiming that it is Donne himself who weeps: “It is not I who sob. Tis thou, John Donne:/ thou liest alone.”

By the last section (lines 129-213), dawn, the image of regeneration and rebirth, starts to break. Brodsky likens Donne to a wild bird who will wake at dawn so that he can finish his final lines, uniting body and soul. Throughout the poem, the images of sleep and silence are intensified by the snow falling and swirling in, on, and between the poetic lines.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 536

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 instantly unjoint/ My body and soul, and I shall sleep a space.” “Elegy for John Donne” moves from deep night toward a physical waking from sleep as dawn breaks at the end of the poem and toward a spiritual waking from death: “But see, there from the clouds will shine/ that star which made thy world endure till now.” This echoes Donne’s own conviction that “One short sleep past, we wake eternally” (Holy Sonnet 10).

Specific allusions to Donne’s poetry, prose, and life abound and give the poem added depth and significance. Some knowledge of Donne’s poetic voice enriches the reader’s experience and enhances the power of Brodsky’s poem. The juxtaposition of anxiety and sin in line 73 evokes many of Donne’s Holy Sonnets. In line 42 (“This Island sleeps, embraced by lonely dreams”), the key words “Island” and “lonely” echo and deny Donne’s assertion that “No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main” (“Meditation XVII” from Devotions upon Emergent Occasions, 1624). Both the sound of weeping and the image of tears permeate Donne’s poetry. Other images shared by both poets include shadows, mirrors, the crucifix, windows, and the sea.

A crucial echoing image is Brodsky’s tolling bell, now silent: “No din of baying hound/ or tolling bell disturbs the silent air,” resounding in its silence Donne’s bell that called him toward death when he was seriously ill: “never send to know for whom the bells toll; it tolls for thee” (“Meditation XVII”). Donne implies that, when a member of the community dies, those involved in that community participate in that death, just as Brodsky implies that Donne’s death has diminished the world and its inhabitants.

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Themes