To Urania

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 7)

The poems in Joseph Brodsky’s To Urania are a mixed lot, and their dates of composition cover almost a quarter of a century. The focus, however, is on poems taken from his previous collection of poems written in Russian, Uraniia (Urania), published in 1987 by Ardis in Ann Arbor, Michigan. The collection in English puts into relief two of Brodsky’s salient features as a poet. The first is perhaps his greatest strength; the second is one of his greatest obstacles, the problem of translation.

The best poems in this volume achieve a remarkable breadth of freedom and range of reference. These elements are prominent in the poem addressed to his friend Thomas Venclova, “Lithuanian Nocturne,” but are also present in other poems. The breadth is a function of perspective and available space, or rather, different spaces. Unlike the writer of fiction, who is usually close to the consciousness of one of his characters and located at a specific point in space and time, Brodsky’s consciousness as a poet assumes what might be called near-infinite possibility. The consciousness is completely his own: not that of any persona or a synthetic lyric voice or a colored, emotive attitude. The perspective assumed by the speaking voice of the poem is multiple and remarkably agile. At one point he calls it playfully “an aspect of air”; at another, he says that his poem should be seen

from the viewpointof air,of pure air! Air indeed is the epiloguefor one’s retina: nobody stands to inhabitair! It is our “homeward”! That townwhich all syllables longto return to. . . .

The poem is a marvelous evocation of a country that Brodsky knew hardly at all, Lithuania; the poem is also about poetry and the imagination. Yet this poetry is completely at home in the world. It has both multiple perspectives and no perspectives at all; it can light upon any thing or detail for its theme, whether the creaking wheel of a cart, a KGB microphone in the mattress of a hotel room, a medieval legend, or an item from a current newspaper.

All of these are the terrain of the muse, the Urania of the title of the collection. One of nine muses, she was the patroness of astronomy. At one point, Brodsky addresses her:

Muse of dots lost in space! Muse of things one makes outthrough a telescope only! Muse of subtractionbut without remainders! Of zeroes, in short.You who order the throatto avoid lamentation,not to go overboard.

The humor and lightness of touch in this passage are important. The freedom Brodsky assumes is not an insistence on subjectivity; it is a license neither for multiple free-association nor for subjective protection. When he learned that he had just received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1987, he humorously parodied Neil Armstrong’s statement after landing on the moon and told reporters: “A small step for mankind, a giant step for me!” This ironic humor is related to a very firm respect for a reality that is outside himself. For a lesser poet, freedom easily becomes sheer associative display or self-absorption; for Brodsky it is a means for redirecting his attention outward.

Brodsky’s humor often becomes functional in his poems. It affects not only their texture but also structure and closure. A poem on Venice ends:

And the blinding lagoon is lappingat the shore as the dim pupil’s bright penaltyfor its wish to arrest a landscape quite happyhere without me.

Wry self-deflation leads the poem to its conclusion.

Brodsky is not a self-effacing poet. Often he is in the foreground of the poem, as in his sequence about Mary Stuart, where he imagines himself courting her. Yet he rarely loses sight of the broader reality for long, and his poems usually give an impression of an extensive frame of reference. Humor is quickly transformed into a play of perspectives, showing that reality is far broader than it appears from any single perspective. “My life has dragged on,” he repeats several times in “Eclogue IV: Winter,” and continues

The signs are plenty.

(The entire section is 1941 words.)

The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“To Urania” is the title poem of To Urania, a collection of Joseph Brodsky’s poetry in English and translations from his Russian poetry. Like most of the Russian poems in the collection, “To Urania” was translated by Brodsky himself.

The title of the poem leads one to expect that it is an invocation to the Muse, an apostrophe, or direct address, to a personified source of inspiration. Urania is one of the nine muses of classical mythology, the daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne, or Memory. She is the muse of astronomy, the science which, for the ancients, offered a way of reading the pattern of human destiny in the mysterious symbolic language of the heavens. Consequently, many Renaissance writers considered her to be the muse of poetry. She is invoked by John Milton at a crucial juncture in Paradise, (1667).

“To Urania” contradicts the expectations raised by its title. It is really an interior monologue, directed at no one in particular. The “you” referred to at certain points is as impersonal as other pronouns used in the poem, such as “one” or “a man.” Brodsky never speaks directly to the Muse here. Note the following apostrophe to Urania from Brodsky’s “Lithuanian Nocturne” (1988): “Muse! from the heights where you/ dwell, beyond any creed’s stratosphere . . ./ look, I pray you.” In place of the formal, elevated mood of such passages, “To Urania” gives the impression of a man talking to himself. There is a pervasive note of gentle self-mockery. The poem moves back and forth disconnectedly between an impersonal, intellectual tone and a casual, ironic one, devoting itself now to concrete imagery, now to abstract statement.

The emotional keynote of the poem’s opening is a sense of...

(The entire section is 727 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

In “To Urania,” philosophical statements about time and space, fate and freedom seem to be reconciled only partially with descriptive images drawn from the immediate surroundings. The use of comical imagery and word choices, as well as peculiar partial rhymes (“Clio” and “bio,” for example), creates a deceptively casual tone which heightens this contrast.

The way in which the statement flows into and is connected with the imagery has two aspects. The first is logical and demonstrative. The poet uses the images of the window and the leaf in the second and third lines to illustrate and confirm the statement with which he opens the poem. In the next two lines, he places himself alongside these inanimate objects, conveying how he sees himself as part of the scheme of powerless, limited things.

Similarly, the long series of images that conclude the poem logically support the poet’s sudden insight into the difference between Urania and Clio. The simple things that the poem places before the reader’s eyes are pointed to, verbally, as verifying this insight. “There they are, blueberry-laden forests” the poet declares, as if to say, “These are the things that Clio hides and Urania reveals.” This kind of verbal pointing is called deixis.

The shift from philosophical to mythological statement, likewise, is presented as a logical connection. The traveler suddenly realizes, “That’s why Urania’s older than...

(The entire section is 525 words.)