in memory of Joseph Brodsky

Heaney pens a last message of respect, admiration and affection for a deceased friend and fellow Nobel Laureate whose ‘exhilarating’ company he had much enjoyed. He summed up his feelings in a posthumous tribute published in the New York Times: I first met him passing through London in 1972 on the second leg of his journey from dissidence in Russia to exile in the United States; he was a verifying presence. His mixture of brilliance and sweetness, of the highest standards and the most refreshing common sense, never failed to be both fortifying and endearing. Every encounter with him constituted a renewal of belief in the possibilities of poetry.

In ‘Finders Keepers Heaney said that having to talk of him in the past tense ‘feels like an affront to grammar itself’ –

Clues and connections: Yeats and Brodsky both died on the same day in 1939 and 1996 respectively; Auden wrote an elegy ‘In Memory of W.B.Yeats’ in 1940; ‘On Grief and Reason’ is the second volume of Joseph Brodsky’s essays, and the first to be published after he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1987; this volume and Brodsky’s Nobel lecture include comments on political exile in one’s own land – Brodsky was exiled to a swampy farm near Archangel, north-east of St Petersburg and across the White Sea from Finland; Auden was instrumental in helping Brodsky get to America after he was expelled by the Soviet Union and helped him to settle.

Heaney’s emphatically positive introduction (Joseph, yes) of a fellow rhythm-tapper (tum tee, tee tum, tum and so on – you know the beat) brings in Yeats’ elegist (Wystan Auden) another metre beater (marched to itmetric feet … unstressed and stressed) whose ‘In Memory of W.B.Yeats’ poem of 1940 laid William Yeats to rest.

The date (January twenty-eight) is both deceitfully negative (double-crossed) and a day of doleful funeral processions (death-marched) for the passing of Brodsky and Yeats.

Heaney has gone back to a format (I tread again) à la Auden (-esque) using metre and rhythm familiar to the man (measured ways), a recognisable pattern – self-limiting perhaps (quatrain by constrained quatrain) but entirely suitable to transmit themes (meting grief and reason out) that Brodsky regarded as the duty of poetry (as you said a poem ought).

Deliberate use of a rhythm that inverts the stress (trochee, trochee, falling) is tailor-made for current sentiments (grief and metre order us).

Brodsky the university professor insisted his students recite poems by heart (repetition is the rule) and, as Heaney notes in ‘Finders Keeper’, was fond of putting a twist on the words of others (spins on lines we learnt at school).

Heaney is faced with a double dose of cold in the poet and the world: the cold reception Yeats’ remains met on their return from France in 1939 (Dublin Airport locked in frost) and Brodsky frozen stiff in death elsewhere (rigor mortis in your breast).

Death (your heart a frozen well) is irreversible… no way back – neither hand-tool nor printed page (ice no axe or book), neither warming, gentle classical tone (no Horatian ode) nor sign of creativity (poetic foot imprint), neither skilful poetic variation (quatrain shift), nor creative surprise (couplet dint) … not the thought of what it took to survive internal exile on a wintry waterlogged farm with a seraphic name  (ice of Archangelic strength), nor the deceitful weather of January (this hard two-faced month), nor the ultimate Satan grip of ice like Dante’s in deep hell.

In life a warm-hearted sharer in the green room (once in Western Massachusetts the reading due to start) Brodsky came hip-flask-laden for them both (pepper vodka … warmed my spirits and my heart).

Now dead, no spirit (vodka, cold or hot) no ‘water of life’ (aquavit or uisquehaugh) can restore the signs of life (blood back to your cheeks), or alter his political incorrectness – the colour to your jokes that rode roughshod over sensitive issues involving sex and sect, irrespective of other people’s feelings (everything against the grain) – or temper Brodsky’s addiction for alcohol and nicotine (drinking, smoking like a train).

Heaney re-lives or invents (the incident goes unrecorded in DOD’s Chronology of Heaney’s schedules) a harmonious rail journey in each other’s company, heading west for Tampere in Finland that brought together their writerly interests and natures (swapping manuscripts and quips), their super-sharp intellects (both of us like cracking whips) and sense of relaxed competition (sharpened upmaking free).

In ‘Finders Keeper’ Heaney described talking to Brodsky: ‘Conversation achieved immediate vertical take-off and no deceleration was possible’.

Heaney reports the irony: Brodsky’s exile in 1972 was for him a liberation that took him westwards to America; paradoxically the repressive political ideologies that would eventually constrain him, put him on trial and condemn him had entered Russia out of exile by train more than half a century earlier in 1917 (Lenin’s train-trip in reverse).

Heaney enumerates what he best remembers of a man now lost forever (nevermore): his capacity to garner information rapidly (wild speed-read); the ruminative pose (tilted head); the sudden launch of intellect (deck where mind took off), his ready access to mischievous word-play (that rush to pun), his brisk (hurry through) de-cluttering of stylistic obstacles (yon jammed enjambements piling up); the way he fearlessly took the fight to the communist threats against his voice and person (you went above the top), his standing-proudness (nose in air), his all-systems-go use (foot to the floor … revving English like a car) of a language that was not his own (hijacked when you robbed its bank) and used in preference to his mother tongue (Russian was your reserve tank).

Heaney delivers a final valediction (his gist though not his words) … ‘So Joseph’, says Heaney to him, ‘your treasured legacy (worshipped language) was powerless against old age and unhealthy life-style (damage time has done to you); your tersely expressed belief (peremptory trust) in the supremacy of what sits on the page or in the mouth (words alone) has reached its coda (bites the dust)’.

‘Maybe you are still there somewhere’ – Heaney turns to the twelve tablets of a Sumerian epic according to which Gilgamesh rejected that irreversible mortality was Man’s lot (dust-cakes … feed the dead) – ‘so If you can still hear me JB’ in your elsewhere world, says Heaney, then ‘tuck in’ (be their guest) ‘go on doing what Auden said good poets do – maintain your trenchant tone (bite) however minimal the rations (break their bread).’

  • H. Auden (1907-73): Wystan Hugh; b York England; Oxford educated; who spent time abroad – in Iceland as a travel destination and on the European continent including Berlin partly to satisfy his rebellious political spirit; taught in English private schools; became an American citizen in 1946; later appointed Oxford University Professor of Poetry (1956-61);
  • -esque: word-forming element meaning ’resembling or suggesting the style of’; from French -esque“like, in the manner of,”
  • Brodsky, Joseph (1940-96): poet, essayist, playwright, translator; born Leningrad; expelled from Russia in 1972 moving to the US; Heaney published a posthumous tribute to Brodsky in the New York Times (reprinted in Finders Keepers) and elegized him in ‘Audenesque’; awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature (1987);
  • William Butler Yeats 13th June 1865 -28th January 1939) is widely considered to be one of the greatest poets of the 20th century; belonged to the Protestant, Anglo-Irish minority that had controlled the economic, political, social, and cultural life of Ireland but was staunch in affirming his Irish nationality. Nobel Laureate (1923);
  • The Irish Times reminded us in 2008 of the circumstances of Yeats’ burial in September 1948:WB Yeats died on the Cote d’Azur in January 1939 after a period of bad health; almost a decade later his remains were brought back to Ireland for burial; reinterred at Drumcliffe in Co. Sligo; considerable doubts were later cast on the authenticity of Yeats’ remains by the French authorities
  • beat (first pun): assault, abuse; (poetic) rhythm, measure, cadence, rhythmical pattern;
  • metric foot: unit of language with stressed-stressed syllables;
  • stress: prominent sound;
  • double-crossed (potential pun): betrayal; negative X indicator, here of 2 funerals;
  • death-march: solemn funeral procession;
  • measure: metre, cadence, rhythm, foot;
  • constrained: tied to a rhythmic pattern;
  • mete out: give out (generally something unpleasant or critical;
  • trochee: metric foot of one long/stressed syllable followed by a short unstressed syllable (/ u )
  • repetition: rote from memory
  • spin: personal angle on something said;
  • lock in: incapacitate, prevent from operating;
  • rigor mortis: L. ‘stiffness of death’;
  • Horatian ode: short lyric poem written in stanzas of two or four lines in the manner of the 1st-century-bc Latin poet Horace. … Horace’s tone is generally serious and serene, often touched with irony and melancholy but sometimes with gentle humour.
  • shift: transfer (perhaps between speakers using completely different languages);
  • dint: impact;
  • two-faced: Janus, from ancient Roman religion and myth was depicted with two faces, on looking forwards, the other back; January carries his name; as an adjective it carriesaccompanied by a connotation of insincerity and deceit;
  • Dante: in his ‘Inferno’ Satan is portrayed as a giant demon, frozen mid-breast in iceat the centre of Hell;
  • aquavit/ uisquehaugh: two distilled spirits, the first from potato starch, the second from grain, sharing a common linguistic association: whisky is an anglicization of the Gaelic word uisce (or uisge) ‘water’ and ‘beatha ‘life’; distilled alcohol was known in Latin as aqua vitae (“water of life”).
  • colour: humour is often colour-coded: black dealing with morbid subjects, blue with crude items;
  • joke: witty tale;
  • political correctness: avoidance of forms of expression perceived to insult people who are socially disadvantaged or discriminated against
  • sect: group some might regard as extreme or dangerous;
  • against the grain: contrary, against natural inclination;
  • like a train (simile): ( see also ‘like a chimney’) emitting smoke as an indicator of continual smoking;
  • swap: exchange;
  • quip: witty remark response;
  • cracking whip: mini sonic boom produced when part of the movement goes quicker than the speed of sound;
  • sharpen up: raise one’s game;
  • make free: respond generously;
  • Tampere: city in southern Finland north of Helsinki; on a direct rail route between Scandinavia and Russia
  • Lenin’s train-trip: a bronze plaque mounted on a blue tile wall at Haparanda, Sweden on the border adjacent to Tornio with Finland states: ‘Here Lenin passed through … on April 15, 1917, on his way from exile in Switzerland to Petrograd in Russia.’; joined by 29 other Russian exiles, a Pole and a Swiss, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin’s intention was to try to seize power from the government and declare a ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ a phrase coined in the mid-19th century and adopted by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, the founders of Marxism.
  • In reverse: in the opposite direction;
  • speed-read: rapid assimilation of several phrases of a text at once
  • tilted: at an angle, suggestive of thoughtful consideration;
  • pun: play on words, double-entendre, innuendo;
  • yon: yonder, picked out from distance;
  • jam (pun): congestion; try out improvised solos
  • enjambement: continuation of a poetic sentence without pause or punctuation from one line to the next;
  • go over the top: WWI expression of valour resulting from compulsory exposure to annihilation;
  • foot to the floor: at the highest speed the accelerator pedal can produce;
  • rev up: produce the sounds of acceleration just prior to releasing the clutch
  • hijack: take possession of (someone else’s …)
  • worship: extol, revere
  • peremptory: brusque, authoritative;
  • trust: confidence, belief;
  • bite the dust: euphemism for ‘die’, return to dust;
  • dust-cake: oxymoron – ostensibly attractive food with no nutritive content;
  • Gilgamesh: historical king of the Sumerian city-state of Uruk, a major hero in ancient Mesopotamian mythology; protagonist of the Epic of Gilgamesh, a poem written in Akkadian during the late second millennium BC; written 1500 years before Homer wrote the Iliad and regarded by some as the world’s oldest literary text; the inevitability of death is perhaps the main lesson Gilgamesh learns;
  • break bread: From Auden’s May 1969 poem ‘The Garrison’ : ‘thanks to personal song and language (of the artist/ poet) … it’s possible for the breathing to break bread with the dead’, later clarified via a Swedish television interview in the same year: ‘The arts are almost the only way we have of breaking bread with the dead’ and that without this communication ‘we’d be entirely enclosed in the present and it’s not a fully human life’
  • 17 quatrains (Q) with tight rhythms based around 7 syllables per line (the 2 x 8 sylls near and at the end provide the extra beat that adds gravitas to the Auden reference;
  • 14 sentences offer a balance between punctuated and enjambed lines; the rhyme pattern aabb/ ccdd etc. is largely tight but included near or assonant pairs (Massachusetts is a cunning ‘rhyme’!)
  • Heaney provides a dense weave of sounds to accompany the intertwining of ideas, coincidences, allusions in the poem itself;
  • Plethora of poetic terms readily understood by wordsmiths: ’beat…metric feet…stress…measure…quatrain…trochee…metre…ode…foot…couplet…ejambement’;
  • dedication immediately confirmed by direct address ‘Joseph’;
  • Q1: complements rhyme ‘yes…metric…unstressed…stressed…rest’; adds assonant echoes: ‘Joseph…know’/ ‘ Wyst…it…laying William’; alliterative strands: rich in nasal [m/n]. alveolar [t] and sibilants [s];
  • Q2: assonant echoes ‘there…death…twenty’/ ‘day…date…eight ;alliterative alveolar [t/d]; punning compounds ‘double-crossed’ (two negative happenings / death’s betrayal)/ ‘ death-marched’ allusion to slow walking ordert and musical dirge accompaniment);
  • Q3 assonant echoes: ‘measured…tread’/ ‘ways…again…constrained quatrain’/ ‘meting grief and reason’;use of modal auxiliary to hint at reverence ‘ought’; alliterative nasals [m/n]; velar [k] in l. 2;
  • Q4: in addition to rhymes, assonant carry over from Q3 ‘poem’ into ‘trochee, trochee’ and near repeat ‘grief and metre’/ ‘falling…order’/ ‘repetition is…spins’; alliterative [l]’rule…lines…learnt…school’; velar [k/g]; sibilant variants [s/k/sh];
  • Q5: rich assonant [i] ‘repetition…in…Dublin…in…rigor mortis…in’/ paired ‘cold…poet’ and ‘port…mortis’ and ‘locked in frost’; alliterative bilabial [p/b];
  • Q6: assonant chains ‘no…no Horatian ode’/ ‘break…Horatian…quatrain’/ ‘uynlock…couplet…foot’/ ‘imprint…shift…dint; strong alliterative [k] component then alveolar [t];
  • Q7: ‘ice ‘ of 6 carried through and repeated alongside ‘like’/assonant ‘ Archangelic…hard…heart’; punning compound ‘two-faced’ both deceitful and, like Janus of January, twin-faced looking forwards and backwards;
  • Q8: assonances ‘vodka…once’/ ‘you produced…Massachusetts…due’; alliterative bilabial [p] alongside alveolar [t/d], sibilants [s] and intelabial [w] ‘once…Western…warmed’;
  • Q9: negative ‘no’ recurs as part of an assonant chain ‘no..cold…jokes’/ ‘vit…uis…cheeks’/ ‘augh…or…colour’…your’’/ ‘vodka…hot’; alliterative velar [k] ‘vodka…uisque…cheeks…colour’;
  • Q10: close rhymes aa/bb alongside assonances ‘correct…sex…sect’/ ‘jokes…smoking’/ ‘politically incorrect’; alliterative sibilants [s] and velar [k/g]; comparison Brodsky/ train;
  • Q11: assonances: ‘in…in…Finland…swapping…scripts…quips…cracking whips’; alliterative effects: nasal [m/n], bilabial [p/b] and sibilant [s];
  • Q12: assonant ‘heading west…West…meant…Lenin’/’ .making…train’; alliterative labio-dentals [f/v];
  • Q13: negatives of ‘ all gone…no longer possible’ repeated; assonances ‘wild…mind…mind’/ ‘speed read’/ ‘never…head…deck where’/ ‘flash and a’; comparison: Brodsky launchinh into speech/ suypersonic jet leaving an aircraft-carrier; alliterative alveolar [t/d];
  • Q14: assonant ‘rush…pun…hurry… above’/ ‘jambed enjambements’; biolabial alliteration [b/p] ‘jambed enjambements piling up’; comparisom Brodsky/ soldier sadvancing from a trench over rubble;
  • Q15; antithesis ‘nose … air…foot…floor’ might suggest a superior attitude; comparison Brodsky bank/ language robber; metaphor of car includes first language/ second language; alliterative labio-dental [f/v]; [r] robbed…Russian…your reserve’; assonant ‘like…hijacked’;
  • Q16: assonant ‘language…damage’, ‘undo…done…trust…dust’/ ‘time…bites’/ ‘worshipped…words’; alliterative alveolar [t/d]; bilabial [p/b] and sibilants [s]; ‘peremptory’ echoes ‘nose in air’ of previous verse; note added beat in l.4
  • Q17: assonant chains ‘see…feed…be’ /‘’nesh…dead…guest…said…their bread’/ ‘again…break; alliterative alveolar [t/d], sibilants [s/sh] and bilabial[p/b]; indirect borrowing from Auden; Sumerian link – Gilganesh;


  • Heaney is a meticulous craftsman using combinations of vowel and consonant to form a poem that is something to be listened to.
  • the music of the poem: fourteen assonant strands are woven into the text; Heaney places them grouped within specific areas to create internal rhymes , or reprises them at intervals or threads them through the text;
  • syllables without highlight are largely the unstressed sound as in common, little [ə]


  • alliterative effects allow pulses or beats, soothings or hissings or frictions of consonant sound to modify the assonant melodies; this is sonic engineering of the first order;
  • a full breakdown of consonant sounds and where in the mouth they are formed is to be found in the Afterthoughts section;


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