To a Friend Themes
by Joseph Brodsky

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Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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“To a Friend: In Memoriam,” like many elegies, describes a life. Implicitly, Brodsky realizes that one’s life cannot be exempt from the far-reaching forces of one’s cultural history. Brodsky’s poems are deeply concerned with betrayal, solitude, suffering, and separation. They also demonstrate his intense belief in poetry as an ethical process linked with life. To Brodsky, poetry is a form of endurance, a means of witnessing survival. “To a Friend: In Memoriam” is a means of memory surviving because the poem survives life and death.

Both the poet and his double exemplify endurance. They greet adversity with ironic humor that is simultaneously self-effacing and fully aware of the ironic circumstances. When confronted with the prospect of eternal nothingness, the poet’s double states, “This will do for the duration.” This ironic response suggests that although readers are at the mercy of their definitions, through irony or other figurative uses of languages, they may call into question their perceptions or customary ways of understanding the conditions and concepts by which they live.

Such metaphysical wit, however, is tempered by the poet’s own realism, which has the last word: “for you now it has no importance.” The inclusive “it” absorbs not only the poet’s farewell, but the whole of the poem, the record of life. This final phrase demonstrates the poet’s unwillingness to elevate his perceptions or to privilege his position. The final phrase also reveals a certain amount of resignation and pain. The poet realizes the extent of his powers, and for his friend these poetic powers are limited severely. The poet may recall for readers this past life, but not even his farewells can be heard by the one being elegized. Hence, the poet’s words are silenced; his address fails to reach its intended listener while readers simply overhear this address.

The final phrase reflects the opening of the poem, where the arbitrary nature of the state reflects the arbitrariness of death. The anonymity of the friend draws one’s attention to the poet’s condition. The poem speaks to the reader’s transience, but in a way that is both irreverent (achieved through the poem’s juxtapositions and irony) and modest (demonstrated by the poet’s almost self-denying stance toward his work). Brodsky, like his mentor, W. H. Auden, is a consummate elegiac poet. “To a Friend: In Memoriam” is perhaps his most bitter and ironic elegy.