The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“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.