Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“To Urania” deliberately moves, as the old saying goes, “from the ridiculous to the sublime.” The idea of the “sublime” in philosophy and art traditionally refers to the transcending of physical and intellectual limitations toward a vision of higher reality. Dante ascending into Paradise is a classic example. The image of the limitless ocean evoked in the final lines of this poem is, in fact, a conventional symbol of the sublime in the writings of philosophers such as Edmund Burke and Immanuel Kant.

The sublime also often implies losing one’s sense of identity when confronted with something that overwhelms the power to influence or comprehend it. In “To Urania,” the motivation of the journey, the desire to abandon a burdensome former identity, is very much in keeping with the quest for such an experience. In this way, the search for the sublime comes into contact with the experience of exile. Exile is a theme of great personal significance to Brodsky, a Russian émigré.

In contrast with the sublime, the “ridiculous” expresses what it is like to be subject to the limitations of circumstance and the foibles of human nature. Therefore, in the end, as the stranded, frustrated traveler seems to transcend his limitations, his imagination takes a comic turn. The mundane desires symbolized by lacy underwear are juxtaposed with the limitless expanses of the ocean. The poem’s last image injects a note of comic anticlimax, or bathos, the very opposite of the sublime.

Finally, “To Urania” is an important poem because its ironies encompass a tension crucial to much of Brodsky’s poetry, an unresolved conflict between classicism and modernism, between the past, as reflected in poetic tradition, and the present. This tension is evoked by the poet’s myth of the rivalry between the sisters, Urania and Clio. As the muse of history, Clio represents the disorderly flux of human affairs, confined to time and space. Urania represents a transcendent, unchanging reality. As the traveler turns from Clio toward Urania, then, he moves toward a moment in which this implicit idea of transcendent reality turns out to be nothing more than a reflection of mundane desire. If everything has its limit, as the poet says at the outset, perhaps the only unchanging truth about the human condition affirmed by “To Urania” is that there is no escape from Clio, no escape from the time-bound, desire-bound self.