Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“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...

(The entire section is 405 words.)