“Verses on the Death of T. S. Eliot” is a poem in three parts modeled on W. H. Auden’s 1939 elegy “In Memory of W. B. Yeats.” The classic elegy of Western tradition is a meditation on death, be it the death of a particular person or death as the inevitable end of all things mortal. At the same time, it “finds consolation in the contemplation of some permanent principle” (Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, 1974). Joseph Brodsky’s elegy, like Auden’s, mourns the death of a poet; unlike Auden’s, it takes considerable comfort—even exults—in the power of memory and poetry.
Thomas Stearns Eliot, American expatriate and British subject, died in England on January 4, 1965. Brodsky, Soviet citizen in exile in Russia’s far north, learned of the elder poet’s death a week or so after the fact. Part 1 begins with the flat statement of when and where Eliot died: “at the start of the year, in January” in a city of streetlights, entryways, intersections, and doors inhabited by darkness, cold, and snow. The city seems concrete enough, a real and practical place haunted by eternal but practical concerns. The question of inheritance is raised, but, in a shift to another plane, Eliot’s heirs are the Muses, who can hardly complain that he has left them bankrupt. Poetry may be orphaned, “yet it breeds within the glass/ of lonely days,” echoing like Narcissus’s lovesick nymph and visible in the rhythm of time and the “rhyme...
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