The Poem

“To a Friend: In Memoriam” is a twenty-eight-line elegy replete with irony. The poem is a first-person address to the poet’s dead friend. The poet’s friend is also a poet, the author of “the most smashing ode” and a “word-plyer,” and hence is a double to the narrator-poet. Despite the poem’s specificity—the anonymity suggests the friend could be anyone—the narrator also addresses the condition of loss. Though the poet is separated from his friend by the grave as well as by geography (“I’m up here and, frankly, apart from this paltry/ talk of slabs, am too distant for you to distinguish a voice”), the poem has the immediacy and intimacy of direct address. The poem’s long lines and lack of stanzaic division underscore the immediacy.

The poem begins by establishing the relationship between the poem’s narrator and the unnamed “you.” It continues, in lines 9 through 16, as a catalog of the friend’s qualities: “a word-plyer, a liar, a gulper of bright, measly tears,/ an adorer of Ingres, of clangoring streetcars, of asphodels’ slumbers.” At line 17, the poem shifts to the poet’s wish that his dead friend may “lie, as though wrapped in an Orenburg shawl, in our dry, brownish mud.” The poem shifts again at line 20 to an acknowledgment of the pointlessness of death as exemplified by the circumstances of the friend. The final three lines are the poet’s farewell.

The poem changes its tone at several points. It opens with a political joke—that the Soviet authorities can, if they so desire, rehabilitate one from beyond the grave: “It’s for you whose name’s better omitted—since for them it’s no arduous task/ to produce you from under the slab.” The poem maintains this sense of irreverence as a backdrop, although it moves very assuredly into moments of pathos and anger, comic epithets, and searing commentary. It never lapses into generalities: Every phrase is descriptive of both the poem’s subject and of the poet’s emotional reaction to the death and the culture that tolerates such conditions of spiritual and material diminishment. This does not shift the poem into a strictly political posture, however. The meaninglessness of death and the diminishment of life throughout Russian history, both Czarist and Soviet, is Joseph Brodsky’s theme.

Forms and Devices

Brodsky’s poems are richly allusive, often drawing upon Greek mythology and literary history. “To a Friend: In Memoriam,” as might be expected in an elegy, mentions “Gloomy Charon,” who, in vain, seeks the fare for the soul’s passage to the underworld. The poet bids farewell from the shore, but confesses that he cannot distinguish which shore (of Charon’s river Lethe) he is on. Such a slight allusion to Charon nevertheless serves several distinct purposes. It interjects a rhetorical seriousness to the poem: The allusion maintains the decorum expected of an elegy. The allusion, and the use of allusions in general, conserves poetic idiom, iconography, and the memory of one’s entire being while forestalling sheer transience.

The reference to “the laced Goncharova,” the young and frivolous wife of Alexander Pushkin, exemplifies Brodsky’s use of literary allusions. At the height of his poetic powers, Pushkin died uselessly in a duel with one of his wife’s lovers. As with the death of the poet’s friend, Pushkin’s death is meaningless; indeed, the culture they all inhabited has an overwhelming fatalism. The “Orenburg shawl,” in which the poet wishes his friend wrapped, further emphasizes the sense of oppression and fatalism, for Orenburg was the site of the 1774 suppression of a peasant uprising that resulted in the strengthening of serfdom by Catherine II.

Brodsky, as is typical of Russian poets, brilliantly and, at times, flamboyantly uses rhyme. “To a...

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