“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 of years.” Death takes the singer, not the song; it has no need for the fields or seas or well-wrought lines in a poem. Eliot the Anglican convert may have managed to live through Christmas into the beginning of the new year, but the new year itself marks the end of the old year and its holiday; the calendar rhythm of the year, like the rhythm of ocean waves, bears him away from his own high holiday. Time and tides rather than God pull him out to sea, leaving the rest of humanity on dry land.
Part 2 continues in the same meter and on the same vast scale of seas and continents. However, the realistic cityscape is replaced by a funeral tableau, a scene straight from a Greek or Roman bas-relief. Magi, prophets and priests of antiquity, are called in to hold the halo while two mournful female figures stand downcast on either side of the grave (that is, the ocean). They are America, where Eliot’s life began, and England, where it ended (in Russian, Amerika and Anglia, both feminine nouns). The final line of part 2 is a single sentence set apart that acts as a conclusion: “But each grave is the limit of the earth.” Part 3 shifts meter and rhyme scheme. The poet invokes the god Apollo to cast down his own wreath at Eliot’s feet as a marker of immortality in the mortal realm. The footsteps and songs will be remembered by the trees and the land, by wind, by every sheaf of grain. What he has left behind will be felt, invisibly but tangibly, in the same way that love is felt after the loved one disappears forever. Just as the body recalls touch, memory recalls words.
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