Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 460

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An elegy, by definition, deals with death and life, the ephemeral and the eternal. It need not deal with anyone famous or powerful, but when it does, it often makes a point of just how fleeting fame and power are. In the case of tyrants and warlords, the elegy may act as a warning that earthly victories and treasures, however glorious, cannot be taken into the afterlife. In the case of poets, the message is a different one: Beginning with Horace and his ode “Exegi monumentum aere perennius,” poets have spoken of the monument that will last as long as art and human memory that other poets have built and that they hope to build for themselves.

At the same time, poets (Eliot included) are mortal, and when they leave this earth they leave forever. For all the play in part 1 on endings equaling beginnings, on cycles and rhythms, the living are orphaned, left behind. Part 2 ends with the unequivocal statement that “each grave is the limit of the earth,” and Eliot’s departure in part 3 is as final as the end of love. Still—and this is Brodsky’s contribution to the tradition—the love may no longer be visible, but it is tangible. The body remembers touch, and the ordinary things of earth—footsteps, grass, wood—remember sound. Words, even if never carved in stone, have weight and mass and continue to exist as part of this world.

If poets are mortal, poetry is not. Horace’s ode was translated by Russian poets Gavrila Derzhavin and Alexander Pushkin and so became part of the Russian tradition just as Russian poetry became part of the classical tradition. Brodsky’s mention of Horace automatically brings in Pushkin and Derzhavin, and, by incorporating some of Eliot’s own imagery and sensibility and alluding to Mandelstam and Akhmatova, Brodsky connects them all and connects himself, in turn, to them. His choice of subject (Eliot) and his choice of model (Auden on Yeats) brings in English-Irish-American speech as well, adding another link to the connection or another strand to the web of association called context. In his famous essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” Eliot talks about tradition not as “blind adherence” to what others have done but as a historical sense, a sense that the past is both past and present. “The feeling that the whole of the literature of Europe from Homer and within it the whole of the literature of his own country has a simultaneous existence and a simultaneous order” is what gives writers a sense of their own time and their own place. Meaning does not exist in a vacuum but rather in a context. Brodsky both pays tribute to the tradition and changes it by his presence.