Joseph Brodsky is a versatile poet, metaliterary almost to a fault. Our argument, therefore, must focus on establishing not so much the intertextual links, largely self-evident, but the specific tenor of his rereadings. We will closely examine the Sixth of his “Twenty Sonnets to Mary, Queen of Scots” (1977: 49-60/1988: 18-26). The “Sonnets” are pointedly intertextual, permeated as they are with jocular references to Dante, Schiller, Pushkin, Gogol, Akhmatova, Russian proverbs and popular songs, Mozart, Manet, a 1940 Nazi movie about Mary Queen of Scots (Das Herz einer Koenigin, with Zarah Leander), Parisian architecture, and so on. They also constitute mock exercises in the genre. The parodic mode is especially pronounced in the Sixth sonnet, targeting one particular poem, Pushkin’s “I Loved You” (hereafter abbreviated as ILY). Compare Brodsky’s 1974 sonnet:









la vas liubil. Liubov’ eshche (vozmozhno,
chto prosto bol’) sverlit moi mozgi.
Vse razletelos’ k chertu na kuski.
Ia zastrelit’sia proboval, no slozhno
s oruzhiem. I dalee: viski:
v kotoryi vdarit’? Portila ne drozh’, no
zadumchivost’. Chert! vse ne po-liudski!
Ia vas liubil tak sil’no, beznadёzhno,
kak dai vam Bog drugimi — no ne dast!
On, buduchi na mnogoe gorazd,
ne sotvorit-po Parmenidu-dvazhdy
sei zhar v krovi, shirokokostnyi khrust,
chtob plomby v pasti plavilis’ ot zhazhdy
kosnut’sia — “biust” zacherkivaiu — ust!
I loved you. Love still (it is possible
that [it is] just pain) drills my brains.
The whole thing is shattered into the devil’s smithereens.
I tried shooting myself, but it is so complicated
with the weapons. And furthermore, the temples:
which one to whack? What spoiled it was not the trembling, but
pensiveness. Hell [Devil], what a mess!
I loved you so strongly, so hopelessly,
as God grant to you by others — but He won’t!
He, being of many capabilities,
will not create — according to Parmenides — twice,
this fever in my blood, [this] broad-boned crackling,
[such] that the fillings would melt in my jaws [muzzle] out of the desire [thirst]
to touch — “[your] bust” I delete — [your] lips! 1

with the 1829 Pushkin original:


la vas liubil: liubov’ eshche, byt’ mozhet,
V dushe moei ugasla ne sovsem;
No pust’ ona vas bol’she ne trevozhit;
Ia ne khochu pechalit’ vas nichem.
Ia vas liubil bezmolvno, beznadezhno,
To robos’iu, to revnost’iu tomim;
Ia vas liubil tak iskrenno, tak nezhno,
Kak dai vam Bog liubimoi byt’ drugim.
I loved you [once]; love still, perhaps,
In my soul is extinguished not completely;
But let it not disturb you any more;
I do not want to sadden you by anything.
I loved you speechlessly, hopelessly,
Now by shyness, now by jealousy tormented;
I loved you so sincerely, so tenderly,
As God grant to you to be loved by another.

By writing “over” a venerable classic, Brodsky grafted his sonnet onto not only the original but also a long tradition of versifying in its powerful vein. Our task is to see how the Sixth sonnet follows in the footsteps of the original, subverts it, and comes out as a distinctly Brodskian text. This threefold enterprise differs from Riffaterre’s (1978) bipartite ‘expansion-conversion’ procedure. In Riffaterre, the first stage, ‘expansion,’ consists of replicating/developing a ‘hypogram,’ that is, some traditional paradigm; after that, ‘conversion’ turns the results of ‘expansion’ into opposites. Thus, the second and final stage of text production is basically a negative operation. As parody, Brodsky’s sonnet inevitably instantiates the two Riffaterrian steps; but by being very much his own text, it offers a positive surplus (over the ‘expansion-conversion’ schema), which can be accounted for in terms of the author’s invariant themes (Zholkovsky 1984a: esp. 63-82; Shcheglov and Zholkovsky 1987). We will see Brodsky copying, spoofing, and appropriating Pushkin.

Brodsky’s uncanny sense of poetic lineage manifests itself in his very decision to “sonnetize” Pushkin s two-quatrain lyric, seizing on its affinity, thematic and metrical, with the genre. Indeed, the Russian sonnet used iambic pentameter as one of its meters, and the emergence of ILY was actually influenced by some French sonnets (more precisely, by two sonnets and another poem of Joseph Delorme/ Sainte-Beuve [Vickery 1972]; see nos. 8-10 in the list of ILY’s precursors in the Appendix to this chapter). Yet ILY’s return to the sonnet fold, administered by a modernist poet, has all the hallmarks of his idiosyncratic style. To approach the two facets of the problem, similarity and difference, we will begin with a look at the intertextual web that envelops both poems.

“I Loved You”: A Map of Rewritings

ILY never did lack attention. One of Pushkin’s most famous poems, it has been repeatedly anthologized, set to music, and analyzed by critics, including Roman Jakobson (1985[1961]), who made it into a test case of his “poetry of grammar.”2 If one needed an archetypal instance of anxiety of influence, Mikhail Lermontov’s reception of a song to the words of ILY (as reported by E. Sushkova, with whom he had a controversial involvement) is one:

When [M. L. Jakovlev] started singing: “I loved you:. . .” — Michel whispered to me that these words expressed clearly his feelings at the moment.-“But let it not disturb …” — Oh, no . . . , let it disturb, that’s the surest way not to be forgotten…. 1 do not understand timidity and speechlessness . . . , and as for hopelessness, I leave it to women…. Th[e ending] has to be changed completely; is it natural to wish happiness to your beloved woman, and particularly with another? No, let her be unhappy…. All the same, it’s a pity that I did not write this poem…. But there is a piece by Baratynsky which I like even more . . . , and he started reciting [Baratynsky’s “Uverenie,” no. 6 in the Appendix, 18291. (See Eikhenbaum 1981: 43-44; Glasse 1979:112)

Lermontov exhibits an entire paradigm of intertextual hard feelings, featuring a dominant predecessor, Pushkin, who is in control of the terrain (including song lyrics), and his strong follower, Lermontov, who cannot help admiring and identifying with him; both envy and the urge to shake oneself free; groping for a change in sensibility; and recourse to an alternative poetic authority, Pushkin’s contemporary Evgeny Baratynsky.

The poetic resonance of ILY was felt immediately upon its publication in 1830. None other than a very young Lermontov responded to it (some eight years before his comments to Sushkova) with two rather pompous echoes culminating with two-liners patterned on ILY’s ending: “Nobody could have loved you as I [did], /So flamingly and so pure-heartedly” (no. 23); “No! I must be content even with/ Having seen you miss another!” (no. 24). Other late romantics followed suit, among them Benediktov, Ogarev, Grigor’ev, and Fet. The chain of variations on ILY stretched into the Silver Age and after.

However, to speak of a chain is an oversimplification, if only because the sonnet connection already creates a loop. The picture is complicated by another early source of ILY: the genre of elegiac album poetry of the 1810s-1820s, which treated, often in iambic pentameter (newly assimilated and very popular at the time; M. Gasparov 1984a: 116-17), unrequited love and similar melancholy topics. The genre was much cultivated by Pushkin, whose characteristic interest in the ambivalent interplay of ‘passion’ and ‘restraint’ (Zholkovsky 1984a: 159-78) it fitted so well.

About a dozen pre-1829 Pushkin lyrics testify to the gradual germination of ILY’s thematic and stylistic makeup.

As early as 1816, Pushkin wrote a poem (no. 11) that uses the trite metaphors of flames and the cooling of unhappy love; speaks of the soul, its sadness and humble restraint; juxtaposes the speaker’s love with a rival’s loving and being loved; underscores this contrast with a lexical parallelism (“I love alone — he loves and is loved!”); rhymes drugim, “another,” with liubim, “[is] loved”; expresses self-abnegation through a concessive phrase (“let …”) and a reference to the suffering speaker in the third person (“She will not smile at his [my] verses”); 3nd ends on a sequence of i rhymes.

The same and other components of ILY’s future finds would repeatedly emerge in various combinations — being rehearsed, as it were — over the next decade 4

and keep recurring after 1829 — for instance, in “To ***” (no. 22): “And with my heart to wish her all the best in life, . . . /Everything — even the happiness of the man chosen as her spouse.”

To complicate matters further, similar patterns were also tried out by Pushkin’s predecessors and contemporaries, notably Baratynsky. Several of his poems contain the motif of ‘(nearly) extinct love.’

His “To Alina” (no. 2) foreshadows ILY’s vocabulary (“I loved …. was loved by you”; “in my soul …” — with the same inversion as in ILY: v dushe moei ).

His “Avowal” (no. 5) anticipates ILY in many ways (“tenderness”, “sad,” “be calm,” “speechless,” “another” [as a rhyme word], and the entire phrase “The flame of my love is extinguished in my soul”). Small wonder that Pushkin admired the poem to the point of contemplating an end to his own elegy writing (Pushkin 1937-49, 13: 84).

Pushkin may have especially appreciated Baratynsky’s original treatment of the love triangle in “Avowal.”

The male speaker consoles his beloved as his love for her cools off, and he deliberately sets about marrying a woman he does not love. Remarkably, the poem’s later (1835) version bears additional affinities with ILY (e.g., the words ‘jealous’ and ‘weakening gradually’). 5/p>

Thus, Baratynsky’s “Avowal” can be counted among ILY’s precursors and its progeny.

Finally, Baratynsky’s “To … 0” (no. 3) anticipates the way the gesture of ‘withdrawal in favor of another’ is iconized, in ILY, by the ‘love’ word’s ‘retreat’ from the rhyming position. The icon consists of two patterns: (1) ‘Prediction : the sequence liubil—tomim — liubil (loved — [was] tormented — loved) creates the expectation of liubim ([be] loved) as the final rhyme; and (2) ‘concession’: the expectation is simultaneously frustrated and fulfilled: liubim fails to appear as the closural rhyme but is retained, albeit in a more modest, pre-final position. Both patterns were anticipated in Baratynsky’s and Pushkin’s texts prior to ILY:

Pushkin’s nos. 14-15 combine the predictive pattern with a paradoxical twist at the end (but without a thematic ‘withdrawal’). Baratynsky’s no. 3 features separately a ‘withdrawal’ and a concessive pattern, while in two other poems he tries out variants of the predictive-concessive arrangement: “1 was not the loved one; / You, perhaps, were loved by me” (no. 4); “Ah, I can still love, / Although I do not flatter myself to be loved” (no. 2).

If the emergence of ILY involves a network of sources (with some of the poem’s most felicitous solutions resulting from conflations of multiple tributaries), no less is true of its progeny. Nor are pre-ILY links totally insulated from later processes. For instance, an Ogarev poem combines several obvious echoes of ILY with an ending cloned from one of Pushkin’s pre-ILY experiments.6And the later the moment, the denser and wider spreads the web of intertextual links, sometimes bypassing ILY and then feeding into the progeny again.

Since ILY’s structure casts long intertwining shadows in the poetic tradition, it can be envisaged as a strong intertextual prism — a cluster of thematic and formal features with a powerful capacity for selfreproduction. The mechanism of reproduction need not be specified: the intertextual affinities may be due to intentional or unwitting borrowing; to metrical or other formal constraints on vocabulary (of the “formulaic” type); or to other typological, generic, or expressive reasons. Be that as it may, the components that have coalesced into the ILY cluster tend to reappear in conjunction with one another.

For instance, Fet’s “To the Muse” (no. 48) clearly resembles ILY.

It features the iambic pentameter with alternating feminine and masculine rhymes; the motifs of ‘continuation,’ ‘negation,’ ‘deity’ (in the closure); the words trevozhen (disturbed) and drugikh (others) placed in rhyming positions; and the o-e-i shift in the rhyme scheme. Line 4 rings especially familiar: To revnost’iu ne nizhe is drugikh (But in my zeal I am inferior to no other[s]).

The striking similarities span the rhetoric of ‘exceptionality’ (the negation of ‘others’ in a two-line quip); vocabulary (to; revnost’; drug-); morphology (the instrumental of revnost’); phonetics and rhyming (the conflation of ILY’s clausulas of lines 6 and 8, rhyming in i).

The seemingly perfect match, however, is plagued by discrepancies at every juncture. Fet’s addressee is his Muse, not his beloved; his revnost’ is “zeal,” not “jealousy”; his to means “then at least,” not “now …. now. ..”; and the distich crowns the first stanza, not the poem.

The very mismatch seems to corroborate the self-reproductive power’ of the cluster, which can be said to assert itself against all odds, conjuring up such a line out of the thin — or rather, densely intertextual — air of the tradition.

What, then, is a ‘cluster’? It consists of all the major features of the original tested continuously against the corpus of the supposed progeny so that the cluster both defines the progeny and is redefined by it in a feedback cycle. This means that we are looking for poems that treat similar themes and/or are in the same meter and/or have similar rhyme schemes and/or use similar patterns and vocabulary. In themselves, such groups of features are mutually independent: love triangles can very well be treated in meters other than iambic pentameter, 7and the same goes for the rest of the co-occurrences. And yet the material yields quantitatively significant combinations of ILY’s features, variously grouped and represented in each poem, but on the whole producing a corpus that bears the original’s imprint in several respects.

The cluster approach as outlined above differs methodologically from the Taranovsky-Gasparov study of meters’ ‘semantic haloes.’ Rather than covering the evolution of a meter 8I focus on the progeny of one original but include the projections of (ideally) all aspects of its structure.

In addition to explicating the intuitive sense of a gravitational field exuded by ILY, the cluster approach seems tailored to the task at hand. By supplementing the unique original with a corpus of its cognates, one can create a picture that is both fuzzier and more revealing. As in folkloristic and paremiological studies, where no single version of a tale, myth, or proverb is in theory privileged over the others, what matters are the invariant categories underlying the variations. ILY’s progeny can be envisaged as an ongoing and recorded mythologizing/proverbializing process.

The overview of the cluster that follows will provide the set of structural options explored by the many poetic hands between Pushkin and Brodsky.

The Cluster: Thematic and Formal Characteristics

ILY’s famous thematic ambiguities (‘love/indifference,’ ‘hypothetical other/actual rival,’ ‘God as mere idiom/real deity,’ etc.) were kept in perfect balance. In the progeny, they developed in various directions that reflected the ideological predilections of the authors and their times. The thematic paradigm of ILY’s progeny comprises three major motifs: ‘love,’ ‘the world,’ and ‘discourse mode.’


Many poems treat the ‘other’ as a figment of rhetoric, dispensing with the triangle in favor of various unhappy pairings. But even such a binary relationship seems to disintegrate in two texts from circa 1890, which while harking back to romanticism pave the way to decadence: by Fet (no. 50), where the speaker deliberately postpones the consummation of a happy love, and by Briusov (no. 62), where the speaker declares his inability to love “anybody at all in the world.”

Some 1850s poems are as noncommittal about the existence of a specific ‘other’ as ILY 9whereas later on, explicit references to ‘multiple others’ appear.10 A few poems do spell out the triangle, varying and dramatizing it in additional ways; for example, by having a discarded lover become the successful rival’s best man at the wedding (Grigor’ev, no. 35). Some poems written after 1890 alter the original’s gender cast in “decadent” ways, featuring ‘two women and one man’ (e.g., Briusov, nos. 60, 61) or a veiled homosexual male triangle (Gippius, nos. 55, 59, with a subtle twist added by the real author’s female sex). Hidden homosexuality may also underlie those “regular” triangles where the more intense link is between persons of the same sex, as already broached by Lermontov and later recycled with a vengeance by Briusov.11 At the turn of the century, strictly homosexual pairing becomes possible, but even then (e.g., in Kuzmin’s 1907 poem no. 71), the reading has to rely on extratextual — biographical — information.

Another variable is the choice of the speaker, whose role in most cases is filled by the unhappy lover but sometimes by the smug rejecter, as in Briusov’s no. 62, featuring a pair, and in Gippius’s nos. 59 and 55, where, respectively, one or both of the two pretenders are rejected. Unusual perspectives also include sex-role reversals between the actual author and the speaker of the poem (male-to-fem, in Tiutchev’s no. 51, female-to-male in Gippius, with Akhmatova’s no. 74 forming an intermediate case);12 a detached third-person description of a couple (Fet, 1847); speech addressed by the sufferer a dog (Esenin, 1925); and speech from beyond the grave (Sluchevsky, no. 53; Blok, no. 67 [1913]; G. Ivanov, no. 81 [1921]).

Finally, in modernist times, the triangle has been expanded into quadrangle with ‘two others,’ as in Tsvetaeva (1915, 1924).


In ILY, the unhappy love is mediated by God: the speaker loses I beloved but finds himself on the good side of the divine forces and thus reconciled with life. The impact of the appeal to God, however, is weakened by its being a linguistic cliche.

Many descendants maintain Pushkin’s ambiguity, while others to God more literally. In a defiant twist, Lermontov (no. 25), address,, God rather than the cruel beloved, while Tsvetaeva’s speaker go him one better by identifying herself, in post-Nietzschean style, w God (no. 79: “God has been carved out of a slab/ And — smashed pieces”).

In the rest of the poems, mediation takes place without God, w is replaced by (or supplemented with) his surrogates or other representations of the world order: fate, life, nature, the world as such.

The gamut runs (chronologically) through “sunset,” “heavens,” “fate,” “I death, Creation,” “mother nature,” “great limitless intimacy,” “the whole universe,” “temple,” “spring,” “all-forgiving distance,” “worlds, luminaries “paradise,” “earth,” “silence in the church”, “hallelujah,” “air outside window,” “the helmsman,” “star.”

In fact, sometimes — beginning with Lermontov and later in Fet, Bal’mont, and Akhmatova — the relationship with ‘God / the world’ eclipses the issue of ‘love.’

Another God surrogate is ‘the art of poetry,’ which offers t speaker a metaliterary way out of his or her emotional plight. Fet a: Akhmatova are especially prominent in this respect.

Some poems omit ‘love’ altogether, notably Fet’s no. 44, which indeed can read as a triangle formed by ‘the poet,’ ‘the world’ (“night”), and ‘art’ (“song In others, ‘love’ blends with or is compensated for by poetry (e.g., Benediktov’s no. 26; Fet’s nos. 43, 47, 49; and Akhmatova’s nos. 72, 74). Sometimes, finally, the poet is involved with the muse (or readers) rather than an earthly person (Fet, no. 48; Akhmatova, nos. 76, 77). An extreme position is, as usual, enunciated by Briusov, the decadent experimenter (no. 62), who relishes life’s perverse defeat at the hands of art.

While ‘God’ offers a constructive mediation between love and rejection, the destructive path leads ultimately to ‘death,’ an option spelled out in many descendant poems. Pushing the resignation of ILY’s lyrical hero to its extreme, the speaker may anticipate death as proof, reminder, dramatization, revenge, or a way out of his or her thwarted love. Death may be imminent, relished as a threat, or even invited by the speaker; sometimes the beloved’s visit to the grave of the speaker is envisaged. In a triangle, the relative order of the (speaker’s) death and the appearance of the ‘other’ is relevant.

In a negative inversion of the ‘mediating world,’ death may equal reunion with the Universe or be omnipresent in the air.

The more pronounced cases are Gippius’s no. 54 (“Oh, my friend, it is pleasant to die”) and Pasternak’s no. 80 (“go on to others…. the air itself smells of death”). Fet, true to his metaliterary preoccupations, in his negative moments laments the loss not so much of love as of inspiration; Akhmatova (no. 76), on the contrary, wants to be completely forgotten by the public (i.e., to die a literary death). Among the more bizarre ‘death’ cases are Lermontov’s oft-quoted “Gratitude” (no. 25), where the speaker tauntingly asks God for death in what seems the closest approximation to suicide in our corpus (another is Pasternak’s no. 80), and Gippius’s “Do You Love?” (no. 55), where death befalls not the speaker but one of the two unloved lovers.


The subtle balance maintained in the original between various implicit modalities (‘positive,’ ‘resigned,’, ‘negative,’ etc.) can be either reproduced faithfully or tipped in various directions. Sometimes the outlook becomes negative or overlaps with invoking death. Other poems retain the negative pole as a mere rhetorical backdrop for a passionate affirmation of love and life. Finally, the balance may be given a ‘perverse’ twist.

Decadent attitudes become prevalent around the turn of the century, but they appear as early as in Benediktov’s somewhat aggressive, if otherwise gushing, no. 26 (“And, as revenge for rejection,/One day, to spite the ruthless [beloved]”) and in Lermontov’s 1840 sadomasochistic and sacrilegious invitation of death. Fet’s 1892 postponement of sexual consummation can be seen as transitional to Silver Age sensibility, which brings such flowers of evil as the enjoyment of dying in Gippius (no. 54); Briusov’s bigamous possessiveness (nos. 60, 61); Bal’mont’s triumphant vindictiveness (no. 63); Sologub’s elaborately decadent mixture of love, ennui, malice, resignation, and solipsism (no. 70); Kuzmin’s relishing of rejection (no. 71); and Tsvetaeva’s glorification of a mismatched quadrangle (no. 78).


Most poems in the corpus are in iambic pentameter, but they offer a picture of rhythmic diversity that follows the tendencies characteristic of the meter at large (the weakening of the caesura in the late nineteenth century [Gasparov 1984a: 229] and the changes in the relative strength of feet).

Stanzaic variation is also considerable. ILY’s alternation of masculine-feminine rhymes is not always preserved. Along with quatrains, we find sonnets, octaves, terza rima, various five-line strophes, irregular repetitions of rhymes, and irregular unrhymed verses.

In quatrains, “deviations” from ILY proliferate too.

Some poems use only masculine (m) rhymes, others only feminine (f), while Esenin (1924) admixes dactylic clausulas. Different types of rhyming are combined (e.g., enclosing and alternate [mfmf mffm], as in Akhmatova’s no. 74), and even the same type is varied within individual poems (as in Bunin’s no. 68, with its two different enclosing patterns [fmmf mffm]). As we draw closer to the exact rhyme scheme of ILY, we encounter poems where the order of alternation is reversed (to mfmf).

One strategic parameter concerns the original’s shift from the opening feminine to the concluding masculine clausula: f — – m. In this respect, many otherwise “deviational” sequences may still resemble ILY, observing either the feminine opening, the masculine closure, or, ideally, both.

Finally, an important feature is poem length, with the closest approximation of ILY being two-quatrain poems.


Introduced in Jakobson’s analysis of ILY, the concept of the ‘poetry of grammar’ proves highly relevant to its progeny. To list some of ILY’s most frequently echoed structural characteristics:

— The ‘relayed’ repetition of a leitmotif root (as in ILY’s 1. 1: “loved [you]: love still,” iconizing the idea of ‘continuation [of love]’) appears in the corpus with the same and other roots (e.g., “I breathe still … / I can breathe, but”).

— The dismissive gesture (“let it not”) is reproduced literally or varied through near synonyms and cognate phrases (“what for?”, “enough,” “so be it,” etc.) and other means.

— The parallel construction, usually ending the line (as in “speechlessly, hopelessly”), recurs frequently, filled with various parts of speech: adverbs, prepositional phrases, gerunds, negated nouns, infinitives, and adjectives of all kinds.

— The alternating pattern (“now …. now”) is varied lexically and grammatically: “now in anger, now in tears”; “The sounds will come alive — and die down again”; “I was full of love for both of you, / For you, and for her, and again and again for you.”

— The emphatic-comparative construction (“so [much], as [God grant]”) is represented by numerous linguistic variations and near synonyms: “Oh, what a . .. !”; “if only … ; “with the only one, with whom.”

— The figure of exceptionality is reproduced throughout the corpus, often with exaggeration: “no other. ..”; “only once”; “never “impossible without.”

— The infinitive-imperative-passive construction (“God grant to [you] to be”) appears in its entirety or in parts, with or without the original vocabulary (e.g., “as … it is only once given to the soul to love,” “impossible to permit me to love.”

— The ‘retreat’ of a key word from the final position was largely overlooked by Pushkin’s followers, with only three notable exceptions. 13

— The phonetic mimicking of the original involves mostly the clausulas, producing rhymes in –ozhet and –im and finales with one or more i syllables.

A poem’s vocabulary is defined by its full-meaning words (‘love,’ ‘extinguish,’ etc.), as well as its quasi-grammatical lexemes (‘perhaps,’ ‘anything’). These lexical parameters of the corpus are remarkably stable, sometimes varied by word derivation, forming groups like tomit’ (“to torment”), tomitel’nyi (“tormenting”, adj.), tomnyi (“languid”, lit. “tormentful”).

The Sixth Sonnet as Parody: Brodsky Rereading Pushkin

In a spoof of a recurrent Pushkinian motif (see Jakobson 1975), Brodsky’s “Sonnets” are declarations of love addressed to a statue (Mary, Queen of Scots, in the Luxembourg Gardens in Paris). To identify the tenor of this spoofing stance — friendly? subversive? negative? ignoring? — we will now turn to the Sixth sonnet and observe Brodsky confronting the old master (cum progeny) face-to-face and line by line. The direct quotes are concentrated in lines 1 and 8-9, but the entire text is, of course, based on ILY, which Brodsky systematically exaggerates, vulgarizes, and deflates.

In plot, ‘love’ becomes both stronger and cruder, thanks to the emphasis on physiology (pain, fillings, bones). It is also inflated to the point of suicide, which itself is then deflated — bogged down with technical problems (weapons, temples) and considerations of prestige. Pushkin’s putative rival is pointedly pluralized, a variation we know from ILY’s progeny but which sounds like an innuendo in light of some other “Sonnets” (“The number of your lovers, Mary, went/ beyond the figure three, four, twent-/y-five”; Brodsky 1988: 19). The understated uniqueness of love is developed into a mock philosophical treatise, resurrecting ILY’s inconspicuous God to His full powers (a move rehearsed in the progeny), only to curtail them “according to Parmenides.” Pushkin’s trite and half-extinct flames are fanned into a “heat” capable of melting metal, viz. dental fillings. Brodsky also crudely mimics Pushkin’s final sublimation of libido by ostentatiously rechanneling it from breasts (“hips” in his own translation) to lips. But the feat is rendered meaningless since the object of passion is a sculpture (rather than a real woman) and its subject a purely literary ‘I,’ busy writing and deleting, rather than a hot-blooded lover. The splitting of the speaker’s persona is consistent with the original, while the ‘metaliterariness’ harks back to the branch of the progeny that promoted ‘art’ over ‘love’ and ‘God’; but the send-up is unmistakable.

Thematic exaggerations/deflations are accompanied by similar formal effects.

Brodsky blends archaic poeticisms (buduchi, sotvorit, sei, zhar, kosnut’sia, ust) with colloquial and even substandard forms (chert, na kuski, ne po-liudski, vdarit’ [instead of udarit’]).

Stylistic downshifting is emphasized by a series of synonymous transformations (dusha, “soul” — mozgi, “brains”; byt’ mozhet — vozmozhnotak iskrenno — a banal tak sil’no, etc.), culminating in the jarring minimal-pair substitution of the rhymed word beznadEzhno (early nineteenth-century pronunciation) with the current beznadЁzhno14

In generic terms too, the original is mockingly upgraded — turned into a sonnet, whose form is then vandalized by enjambments that violate every structural boundary of the octet and sestet, the quatrains, and the tercets 15

Brodsky also lays bare ILY’s main compositional principle — covert intensification of passion toward the end — by a feisty crescendo crowned with a brief exposure of breasts, a happy-ending kiss (albeit imaginary), and an exclamation mark.

Syntactically, the counterpoint of ‘passion’ and ‘restraint’ in ILY takes the form of a gradual expansion hampered by numerous reservations (“perhaps,” “not completely,” etc.) and burdened in the end with an accumulation of heavy constructions (“As God grant to you to be loved by another”; subordinate clause + complex object + complete passive phrase). But this shroud of restraint is punctured by a subtle anacoluthon: an imperative (dai, “grant”), inadmissible in a subordinate clause; also, the success of the difficult syntactic trick turns the very ‘heaviness’ into ‘dynamism.’

Brodsky easily outdoes Pushkin in sentence length and complexity. His last five lines are one sentence, featuring hypotaxis, gerund and infinitive constructions, and parenthetical expressions (“chtob …”; “buduchi . . . , zhazhdy kosnut’sia”; “po Parmenidu”; “‘biust’ zacherkivaiu“). As for adversative obstacles to passion, Brodsky increases their number and places them in strategic positions, including his flashy enjambments (“No slozhno I … NE drozh’, NO”; “NE po-liudski,” “NO NE dast … / NE sotvorit“). The final substitution of “lips” for “breasts” crudely bares the subtle ‘retreat’ of ‘love’ from ILY’s final rhyme and emblematizes Brodsky’s mock sublimation.

Along with exaggeration and deflation, Brodsky uses two other garbling techniques: ‘interruption’ and ‘compression.’

Both Pushkin quotes are promptly cut short: by a parenthesis in line 1, by an emphatic “but” in line 9.

The line and a half devoted to the second quote are crammed with lexical material from an entire ILY stanza: “I loved you” from lines 5, 7; “hopelessly” from line 5; “so” + parallel noun phrases from line 7; “as …”, etc. from line 8.

Also compressed is the rhyming material, which in ILY proceeds smoothly from ozh to emezh to im, with the dramatism of the final reinforced by the supporting (in drugim). Brodsky blends Pushkin’s ozhet and ezhno into ozhno (thus achieving a perfect fusion of mozhet and beznadEzhno in beznadЁzhno); he then alternates this clausula with gi, ki (in his mozgi, viski, etc.).

Having compressed Pushkin’s foursome of rhymes into a pair, he spreads it, thinly, over the octet. Thus he both adheres to ILY’s rhyming (like much of ILY’s progeny) and spoofs it.

The combined effect of all these distortions — compression, interruption, exaggeration, and deflation — is not unlike Mayakovsky’s condescending treatment of Pushkin (e.g., in “Iubileinoe” [19241, where Onegin’s “Letter to Tatiana” is misquoted).

Kak eto
u vas

govarivala Ol’ga?

Da ne Ol’ga!

Iz pis’ma

Onegina k Tat’iane:

— Deskat’,

muzh u vas


i staryi merin,

ia liubliu vas,

bud’te obiazatel’no moia,

ia seichas zhe,

utrom dotzhen byt’ uveren,

chto s vami dnem uvizhus’ ia.

What was it your Olga used to say?

Oops, not Olga! — it’s from Onegin’s letter to Tat’iana:

“Like, your husband is a fool and an old gelding,

I love you, please be sure to be mine,

I must right away, this very morning be certain

of seeing you during the day.”

And like Mayakovsky, Brodsky informs his rendition of Pushkin with his own personality. He has plenty of space for it too: the sonnet is a longer form; compression and interruption have made for additional room; and most interestingly, his distortions, rather than merely mocking the original, saturate the text with his favorite motifs. Let us therefore reread the sonnet in the context of the author’s oeuvre.

The Sixth Sonnet as a Brodsky Anthology


‘Pain’ as the curse of all living flesh and the obverse side of passion is a recurrent motif in Brodsky, and the brain is a typical locus of love’s sufferings:

Sravni s soboi ili primer’ na-glaz
liubov’ — i cherez bol’ — istomu….
No laska ta, chto daleko of ruk,
streliaet v mozg, kogda of verst opeshish’,
provornei ust: ved’ nebosvod razluk
nesokrushimei potolkov ubezhishch.

The motif cluster ‘love-pain-brain’ often involves ‘separation,’ ‘mouth, lips,’ ‘bones,’ ‘temples,’ and ‘consolation by poetry,’ sometimes even with the same rhyme, linking “brain” and “temple”:

V moem mozgu
kakie-to kvadraty, daty,
tvoia ili moia k visku
prizhataia ladon’ …
unizhennyi razlukoi mozg
vozvysit’sia nevol’no khochet.

As for the pain’s “drilling,” it is based on a Russian idiom (sverliashchaia bol’), foreshadows the contemplated shooting, and echoes “the distant caress that shoots at the brain” in one of the cited examples.

Being “shattered into smithereens” represents ‘disintegration and ruin,’ also a recognizable Brodsky invariant. See “Chto-to vnutri, pokhozhe, sorvalos’, raskololos”‘; “v bestsvetnom pal’to, / ch’i zastezhki odni i spasali tebia of raspada.”


The idea of suicide, toyed with and rejected, is often associated in Brodsky with fear, mistakes, separation, blood, temples, teeth/ jaws: see “To li puliu v visok, slovno v mesto oshibki perstom“; and

No ne ishchu sebe perekladiny….
… delo, dolzhno byt’, v trusosti.
V straxe. V tekhnicheskoi akta trudnosti.
Eto vliian’e griadushchei trupnosti.

Despite complaints about technical problems with firearms, shooting too is often readily imagined; for example, in the mood of “a thirst to merge with God, as with the landscape” (note “God” and the formula “thirst” + infinitive).

Obsession with suicide/murder is a variation on the poet’s thoroughly physical anticipation of ‘imminent death and nothingness,’ as in

gangrene climbing up the thigh of the polar explorer; realization that one is doomed to feed one’s eyes to ravens; death crawling all over the map; shadow of a can’s silvery tin lying on the scales of a fish; envy of inanimate objects, unfamiliar with fear, even when they are on the brink of death; and so on.

Especially frequent is the motif of vividly imagined castration, which, in the “Sonnets” to a beheaded queen, naturally takes the form of ‘dreaded decapitation.’

Vo izbezhan’e rokovoi cherty,
ia peresek druguiu — gorizonta,
ch’e lezvie, Mari, ostrei nozha.
Nad etoi veshch’iu golovu derzha, …
gortan’ togo … blagodarit sud’bu.

Another variation on the same theme, in “Bobo’s Funeral,” combines several parallels to the Sixth sonnet:

Bobo mertva. Na kruglye glaza
vid gorizonta deistvuet, kak nozh, no
tebia, Bobo, Kiki ili Zaza
im [i.e., to the eyes] ne zameniat. Eto nevozmozhno.

Note the motifs of the uniqueness of life; the metaphorical yet physically very concrete deadly weapon; the part of the head about to be hurt; and practically the same compound, function word, punning rhyme: nozh, no-nevozmozhno (knife, but-impossible).

A salient detail of the would-be suicide is the hesitation between temples. Brodsky likes to weigh ‘alternative versions’ of behavior, life, worldview, and sometimes accompanies the idea with other motifs present in the Sixth sonnet. For example:

Chem eto bylo? …
Samoubiistvom? Razryvom serdtsa
v slishkom kholodnoi vode zaliva?
Zhizn’ pozvoliaet postavit’ ‘libo.’ ..
rizy Khrista il’ chalma Allakha …
v dva varianta Edema dveri
nastezh’ otkryty, smotria po vere

(“Pamiati T. B.”)

Note the probable suicide; alternative gods, Christ or Allah; the world according to a teaching; the metaliterary problem of word choice (“Life permits to put ‘either I … or]’ “).

LINES 9-11

The word dvazhdy, “twice,” is a Brodsky favorite; it can even be found rhyming with zhazhdy, “[of] thirst,” several times. One such occasion —

Bednost’ sikh strok — ot zhazhdy
Chto-to spriatat’, sberech’;
obernut’sia. No dvazhdy
V tu zhe postel’ ne lech’

— shares with the sonnet also the archaic form sikh ([of] these; stylistically similar to words like ‘thither’), a metapoetic discussion of “these very lines,” and the speaker’s unparalleled passion, substantiated by a reference to a Greek philosopher, this time Heraclitus, whose famous dictum (“Everything flows; one cannot step into the same water twice”) underlies “One is not to lie in the same bed twice.”

Invoking a philosophical authority, often in parentheses or dashes, is itself one of Brodsky’s invariants. The motif of ‘the world according to X’ — Aristotle, Archimedes, Cato (on Carthage), Malevich (“white on white”), and many others (see esp. “Letter in a Bottle”) — conveys, in a tone of intellectual banter, Brodsky’s profound relativism. Other ‘relativist’ motifs include alternative versions of Being, the dependence of one’s worldview on dreams and even individual dreamers, “depending on who dreams,” and the dubitability of the world “on a gloomy day.”

This relativism, however, is not absolute: Brodsky is certain of the ultimate reality of death, the void, Nothing, as well as the fleeting, unique quality of love, life, and all that is physical and doomed to perish. Time and again he varies the motifs of transience and loss.

The irretrievable loss of beloved places and women; the impossibility of reaching them by phone, to wake up together, even after death; the sad necessity “to unzip apart”; the absence of life on other planets; and so on. At the same time, he is obsessed with the idea of return, repetition, recapturing the moment — as a possibility, a dream, by a mental operation or in another dimension.

Only art, poetry, word, and pen are recapturable in Brodsky’s poetic universe.

‘Irretrievability of contacts’ and ‘world according to X’ often combine to produce references to Euclid, whose straight lines intersect at one point only, or never, if parallel (“Naschet parallel’nykh linii / vse okazalos’ pravdoi i v kost’ [!] odelos’). Sometimes the dream of a reunion prompts various non-Euclidean, and in particular Lobachevskian solutions.

Peremena imperii sviazana s gulom slov,
s vydeleniem sliuny v rezul’tate rechi,
s lobachevskoi summoi chuzhikh uglov,
s vozrastan’em ispodvol’ shansov vstrechi
parallel’nykh linii …
s zatverdevaiushchim pod orekh
I zdes’ pero
rvetsia povedat’ pro …

(“Lullaby of Cape Cod”)

As in the Sixth sonnet, the separation, dream of reunion, and ‘world according to X’ are associated here with the brain, saliva, hum of words, and the pen. In the sonnet, the role of Euclid = non-Lobachevsky is assumed by (non-)Parmenides = Heraclitus, according to whom, alas, nothing happens twice, which makes the passion all the more exceptional. The philosophical gloss is somewhat ambiguous, but this is in line with Brodsky’s mock intellectualizing and ‘alternativism.’

LINES 12-14

The linkage of passion, heat, blood, crackling, jaws (past’), bad teeth, and “obscene” breasts on the one hand and deliberations over the choice of word and rhyme on the other is also recurrent in Brodsky.

The decaying mouth and crackling bones appear in a fragment about the body’s disavowal of past passions:

The body repents its proclivities.
All these singing, weeping, and snarled activities.
As for my dental cave, its cavities
rival old Troy on a rainy day.
Joints cracking loud and breath like a sewer,
I foul the mirror. (1980: 63)

Rotten teeth, associated with love, separation, aging, brain, culture, and creativity, are almost an obsession; on one occasion “jaws” rhyme with “passion”; on another, with “part [of speech]” (past’-strast’-chast’ [rechi]).

Similar motifs underlie the ending of the Sixth sonnet. Although they do not surface in its rhymes, a closely related complex does: the khrust-biust-ust sequence (crackling-bust-lips).

The “lips”-“bust” (ust-biust) connection also recurs in Brodsky, indeed as a rhyming pair (e.g., in “Einem alten Architekten in Rom”), and other cognate associations appear elsewhere too, albeit without echoing the sonnet’s rhymes; for example, the telling equation of “genre” and “heat”: “zhanra (pravil’nei — zhara)” (“Mexican romancero”).

Of the two alternative rhymes to khrust-biust and ust, the former is suppressed in the sonnet, ostensibly out of decency. However, elsewhere Brodsky obviously relishes juicy talk and obscenities, often pretending to conceal them but actually parading them in a display of authorial power. Such speech gestures share with the Sixth sonnet the use of parenthetic syntax, metalinguistic use of words in quotes, and the hesitant choice of words, all of which help to set the speaker’s deliberateness in relief. For example

wriggling at night on the sheets
how is not specified at least
I puff up the pillow with a bellowing ‘you’


I am writing these lines, trying with my hand …
to outstrip by a second the ‘what the … ,’
which is ready to fly off my lips
any minute …

(“Lullaby of Cape Cod”)

A still closer approximation of the sonnet’s finale occurs in a poem (“Letter to General Z.”) where a rhyme is chosen and then discarded as death fails to materialize.

General! la vzial vas dlia rifmy k slovu
‘umiral,’ chto bylo so mnoiu, no
Bog do kontsa of zerna polovu
ne otdelil [did not separate my soul from my body],
i seichas ee [the rhyme] upotrebliat’-vran’ё.

(Note also the punning clausula in no, “but.”)

The existentialist gesture of gratuitous verbal power in response to the surrounding void resembles the defiant posturing of Mandelstam, for example, in the final couplet of “I Drink to the Military Asters” (1931): “I drink, but I have not yet imagined [ne pridumal], out of the two I choose one-/The merry Asti-Spumante or the wine of Chateau Neuf de Pape.”16Also somewhat Mandelstamian is Brodsky’s opting for lips, which emphasizes the presence of the author’s poetic persona, as do Mandelstam’s motifs of moving lips, lips smeared by emptiness, and the like. In other words, while the sonnet overtly features lips as the object of kisses, its intertextual halo (inside and outside Brodsky’s oeuvre) suggests the reinterpretation of lips as the organ of poetry.

Brodsky likes to close a poem with the image of speaking-versifying lips, to juxtapose the lips’ sexual and verbal functions,17 or to devise a double reading.

“When a book was slammed shut; and where once you sat/just two lips were remaining, like that vanished cat” (“Kellomiaki”). Here the ostensibly purely erotic lips involve manifold poetic connotations: the Cheshire cat from Alice in Wonderland; the transition from reading to lovemaking in Dante’s story of Paolo and Francesca (probably via Pasternak’s “Autumn” [“la dal raz”ekhat’sia”], Blok’s “She Came In” [Ona prishla s morozal, and Mayakovsky’s “so that you’d be just lips through and through” [“A Cloud in Trousers”]).

The verb kosnut’sia, “to touch,” used with the “lips,” also invites a dual interpretation. The direct meaning is “to touch [with one’s lips] the breasts [respectively, lips] of the addressee.” But it is the same word used in Pushkin’s textbook classics (“The Prophet,” “The Poet”) to describe the making of a poet-by a seraph or “divine verb” TOUCHING the poet’s lips (eyes, ears): “Moikh zenits [in another stanza: “ushei”] kosnulsia on [the seraph]”; “I on k ustam moim prinik” (“Prorok”); “No lish’ bozhestvennyi glagol /Do slukha chutkogo kosnetsia” (“Poet”). In fact, in another poem (“Razgovor s nebozhitelem,” an overt variation on “The Prophet”), Brodsky deliberately plays with that Pushkin verb.

He shifts it from the seraph to the budding prophet and contaminates it with the poem’s other pivotal verb: “to burn / sear [the hearts of people with the Word] “; “uzhe ni v kom / ne vidia mesta, koego glagolom / kosnut’sia mog by … / sliunoi kropia usta” (note the lips, saliva, and “not touching the [bodily] parts”).

Moreover, the word zhazhda, “thirst,” which governs the verb kosnut’sia in the sonnet, happens to be the same as the very first noun appearing in “The Prophet” — and in a pointedly “spiritual” sense too: “Dukhovnoi zhazhdoiu tomim.” And indeed “The Prophet”‘s opening line is another Brodsky favorite; compare, in another poem: “Snaiper, tomias’ of dukhovnoi zhazhdy, / to li prikaz, to li pis’mo zheny,/sidia na vetke, chitaet dvazhdy” (“Letter to General Z.”). This fragment, featuring the rhyme zhazhdy-dvazhdy, the ‘alternativist’ motif (“is it … — or …”), and the ILY root tom-, “languish, torment,” offers additional evidence for “The Prophet” ‘s intertextual pertinence to the Sixth sonnet.

All in all, the common denominator with the sonnet (‘heat-burn,’ ‘touch,’ ‘thirst,’ ‘lips’) seems sufficiently rich to warrant considering “The Prophet” its second major subtext. 18

Indeed, in Brodsky’s version of “The Prophet” (“Razgovor s nebozhitelem”), the protagonist too fails to die, and not unlike the result in the sonnet, death is overcome with the help of “lips” (“… i, szhav usta, / . . . / idesh’ na veshchi po vtoromu krugu, / soidia s kresta”). This, of course, is the prerogative of lips that speak rather than kiss or even of the poetic Word, which exists without the lips: “When around [you]-there are only bricks and rubble, / [but] no objects, only words. / But no lips. And chirping makes itself heard” (“Einem alten…”), as in Mandelstam’s famous “Perhaps the whisper was born before the lips” (“Vos’mistishiia”).

The substitution of lips versifying for lips kissing and kissed is quite natural in a metapoetic text and a universe where the word alone can survive the transitory moment and the engulfing void:

“Only the word is repeatable — by another word”; the “beads of words [scribbled by the polar explorer dying of gangrene] cover the snapshot of his spouse and thus supersede both of them”; similarly,

… there are no unfortunates,
no living and no dead.
All’s just a march of consonants
on crooked legs, instead….
True, the more the white’s covered
with the scatter of black,
the less the species cares
for its past, for its blank
future. And that they neighbor
just increases the speed
the pen picks up on the paper….
But as long as forgiveness
and print endure, we’re alive
(“Strophes, XI-XII, XVIII,”
Brodsky 1980: 140, 142)

Pushkin a la Brodsky


We have seen Brodsky spoof and rearrange Pushkin’s original and permeate the text with his own invariants. What kind of composition does this result in? As we recall, the principal change in the original plot consisted in making explicit the (mock) passionate declaration of love, which formed the new finale. The necessary space was afforded by the sonnet’s extra six lines and the liberties taken with ILY’s text by techniques of interrupting and garbling.

Adherence to the original, however loose, ends in line 9, as Brodsky cuts Pushkin short literally in midsentence by his “-but He won’t!” 19The sense of interruption is reinforced by the way the two concluding lines of the original (11. 8-9) are made to straddle the major boundary of the sonnet: beznadЁzhno is the last rhyme of the octet, ne dast, the opening rhyme of the sestet. But Pushkin’s loss is Brodsky’s gain. The obverse of this straddling is the effect of fusing the octet and sestet into a long-winded whole, thanks to lines 8-14 being based on a tightly knit borrowing from the original (“so … /As …”). 20

Thus Pushkin is gradually pushed aside so that Brodsky can have his say, giving free rein to his convoluted oratory. Syntactically, the poem is divided into a parodic section and a serious one. To be sure, the syntax is typically Brodskian throughout (with self-interruptions reminiscent of Tsvetaeva), but in the first nine lines it still observes the moderate sentence length of the original. A similar pattern is observable in the deployment of the sonnet’s vocabulary: toward the end, vulgarisms make room for the “high style”: k chertu, vdarit’, chert!, tak sil’no; and Bog, buduchi, sotvorit, po Parmenidu, sei zhar, kosnut’sia, ust. It is also in the sestet that Brodsky’s rhyming (after a parodic compression of Pushkin’s in the octet) comes into its own: -ast-, -azhdy, -ust. It uses new material and subtly links it to Pushkin’s (via –azhdy, which is reminiscent of -ozhet, -ezhno). The sestet rhymes narrow down dramatically from the open and voiced –azhdy to the voiceless and restrained — ‘sublimated’ — ust.

This final rhyme features the closed and gloomy uand the doubly voiceless st, a cluster twice repeated in the final line (kosnuT’Sia, biuST) and foreshadowed by the –st of the preceding rhyme dast-gorazd. This and another sestet rhyme, –azhdy, repeatedly oppose a widely open to the concluding u. The width and vocality even increase at first: from the masculine and voiceless -ast to the intensely voiced and open feminine -azhdy. Only after this maximum openness has been reached (in the penultimate line, which in addition has three stressed vowels), does the rhyming abruptly narrow to –ust. 21

However, even in adding on new rhymes and rhyming effects, Brodsky keeps, like many of ILY’s progeny, the overall f — — -m design of the original.

A clear compositional pattern emerges at the thematic level. One important series is the physical motifs, brazenly thrust into Pushkin’s (and ILY’s progeny’s) strictly incorporeal context, somewhat in the spirit of Nabokov’s “warts, warts, warts.”22 They come in two batches, replacing the two curtailed stanzas of the original. The first (“pain,” “drills,” “brains,” “shoot myself,” “weapon,” “temples,” “whack,” “trembling”), spread over five lines, harps on love’s sufferings. The second (“heat,” “blood,” “broad-boned crackling,” “fillings,” “jaws,” “thirst,” “touch,” “breasts,” “lips”), concentrated in the last three lines, stresses the uniqueness of love and therefore its triumph of sorts.

The ironic transition from complaints to a boastful tirade proceeds, against the common background of negative states (involving physiology and even technology — weapons, fillings), as follows: The negative states first center on the brain and temples (they are ‘cerebral’), then pass, via blood and bones, to the mouth, and finally evaporate through the lips in a poetic kiss/word. In the beginning, metal threatens the brain; in the end, passion melts the metal.

Another important series of Brodskian invariants consists of his ‘alternativist’ ideas; they too form a chain with a twist at the end. The chain begins with the alternative pair love-or-pain (derived from ILY’s “perhaps”) and continues with the Brodskian motifs of potential suicide, the choice of temple, the pair trembling-or-pensiveness, the plurality of possible worlds, created ‘according to X,’ the problem of ‘twiceness,’ and finally the options with rhymes and endings. In the end, however, love’s uniqueness and the deliberate authorial choices mark a turn from relativistic hesitation to a gratuitous — relativist—existentialist resolution.

This motif chain begins, quite appropriately, with the garbling of ILY’s first parenthetic expression: Brodsky’s relativism is indeed a distant offspring of Pushkin’s self-deprecation. In other words, the unceremonious cut-and-paste of the original does not aim either at parody for parody’s sake or a clean break with the tradition but an extension, extremist as it is, of Pushkinian principles.

The new images brought in by Brodsky form a characteristic triad. One series represents the undeniable physicality of existence, another the metaphysical void that surrounds, undermines, and threatens it. The two are contrapuntally superimposed at every juncture: cerebral pain combines physical suffering with alternativist philosophizing; love’s uniqueness links the widening of metaphysical horizons (which includes Parmenides, God, and Creation) with the ensuing concentration on bodily functions. Finally, in a dialectical synthesis, ‘lips’ combine the physicality of kissing with the gratuitousness and spirituality of poetry. The Sixth sonnet is an archetypal Brodsky poem, embodying a powerful passion at once carnal and rhetorical, miraculously upholding itself by its sheer energy — like the Mandelstamian (originally Flaubertian) period, which “lish’ na sobstvennoi tiage, / Zazhmurivshis’, derzhitsia Sam.”


The theme of perishable flesh and matter bordering on the incorporeal void and death has numerous variations in Brodsky:

— the encounter of the corporeal and incorporeal, form and formlessness, visibility and silence (the images of shadow, memory, butterfly, water assuming the shape of the container, white on white, darkness in the room enveloped by the darkness outside, and so on);

— scientific (often merely classroom) abstractions underlying and transcending physical reality (humans enclosed in space, space in time, and time in death and emptiness; the images of vector, triangle, wedge, subtraction, gravity, moon’s impact on tide, telephone wiring); and

— various detached perspectives (leaving rooms, relationships, life; point of view from another continent, future, nowhere; the genres of epistle, “in memoriam,” epitaph).

These motifs are variously interconnected, forming an overdetermined whole: one guise of incorporeality is scientific abstraction, in particular the concept of geometric enclosure; abstractions lead beyond reality and thus can naturalize the view from nowhere, permitting one to see life as silent, incorporeal. One recurrent motif is the image of anonymous passion suspended in the void-for instance, the beloved’s “Cheshire” lips and the subsequent programmatic lines (in “Kellomiaki”) that lead to a disquisition about “us” and “the here” as a wedge that protrudes but only so far:

It’s irrelevant now to remember your name, or mine…
… anonymity truly becomes us, fits,
as it does in the end all that’s alive, that dwells,
on this earth, till the aimless salvo of all one’s cells…
And our claim on that piece of land-
scape extended no farther than, should I say,
the woodshed’s sharp shadow, which, on a sunny day,
wedged a snowpile …
let’s agree that that wedge can be simply seen
as our common elbow, thrust outside.
(Brodsky 1988: 103-4)

Salvation from the enveloping void comes, as we recall, through its dialectical acceptance, in the form of the poetic word, “the march of consonants on their crooked legs.” The “beads of words” are consubstantial with the material world, the ghostly Great Nothing, and the authorial power. Having widened to an extreme the textbook Pushkinian gap between “the sounds [of poetry]” and “life” (Eugene Onegin, 1: 7), Brodsky is obsessed with producing their “mix:/ a dinosaur’s passions rendered / here in the Cyrillic marks” (“Strophes, XXI,” Brodsky 1980: 143).

The Sixth sonnet is crowned by just such a hybrid. The emblematic last line sums it all up:

hero and heroine; human body and stone statue; the object of carnal passion and the organ of poetry; happy-end kiss and literary editing; physical touching and inspirational reference to “The Prophet”; sublimation of passion a la Pushkin and closure on “Cheshire” lips; laying bare of Pushkin’s retreat from the prepared rhyme and display of authorial power over choice of words; parenthetic syntax and phonetic preparation of the final word, ust.

That epiphanic word is delivered after a remarkable break that sets it off and apart from the preceding text: syntactically and visually by the parenthetic dash, semantically by the deletion of the preceding object (breasts), phonetically by the interruption of the chain of u-s-t clusters with the different-sounding zacherkivaiu. As a result, ust is opposed — graphically in every sense — to the long-winded period it caps, a contrast that is underscored by the brevity of the monosyllabic word and the voicelessness and narrowness of its sounds. An intense and ironically stilted tirade dissolves in a barely audible short expiration, in accordance with the Brodskian principle that “Euclid notwithstanding, by tapering off to a cone/ the object acquires not zero, but Chronos.” This structural embodiment of the poet’s favorite ‘geometric enclosure in a void’ is also iconized phonetically: the only vowel in ust is not merely narrow; it is labial. The poem ends with the poet’s lips protruding conically into the surrounding void. A similar thematic, physical, and phonetic gesture crowns the “Sonnets” as a whole (with the punch sound u preserved even in the translation):

Vedia to zhizn’, kotoruiu vedu,
is blagodaren byvshim belosnezhnym
listam bumagi, svernutym v dudu.

Leading the life I lead, I am grateful to
the sheaf of previously snow-white leaves,
of paper, rolled for blowing through.

* * *

When all is said, de- and re-constructed, what kind of poem and poetry is this? Taking off from, and on, a classic of classics, it is rich in intertextual underpinnings, traditional and modern. Its treatment of Pushkin relies on an assortment of twentieth-century attitudes: Mayakovsky’s futuristic desacralization, Akhmatova’s stoic coping with the human condition, Tsvetaeva’s desperate passion and disrupted syntax, and Mandelstam’s defiant posturing. The resulting mixture of dinosaur’s passion with Cyrillics, however, is unmistakably Brodsky’s own. It is neither more cynical nor less sincere than Nabokov’s blending of pornography with romanticism in Lolita. The analysis of passion’s extremes, characteristic of this century (Proust’s Swann in Love or Limonov’s It’s Me, Eddie!), is hardly its monopoly; it goes back to Madame Bovary, Manon Lescaut, and as far as Catullus. What is new is the way the authors lay bare the literariness of their anatomy of “base” (animalistic, pathological, etc.) passions or even supplant it altogether with the anatomy of the poetic word.

That is exactly what Brodsky brings to Pushkin’s original: the pointedly metaliterary love for the Muse, who coincides not with the Beloved Woman but with the Beloved Medium, the Language (Brodsky 1990). A link between this metapoetic sensibility (typically Brodskian, inherited largely from Mandelstam) and ILY is provided by a similar, if less provocative, displacement of focus, from ‘love’ to ‘poetry’ in part of ILY’s progeny (Fet, Briusov, Akhmatova). Thus, both in this respect and in the anatomy of human nature (portrayal of passion through the prism of impassivity, splitting the speaker’s persona into a transient self and a divine poetic ‘I,’ lyrical digressions that “murder” the plot) Brodsky is ultramodern and yet true to the Pushkinian tradition — in its “lofty passion not to spare/ life for the sake of sounds” (one that Onegin, not being a poet, lacked).

His sonnet is, so to speak, Pushkin’s “la vas liubil” dedicated in all sincerity and tenderness by Humbert Humbertovich Mayakovsky to the portrait of Marilyn Stuart by Velasquez-Picasso-Warhol. To put it in more sober terms, while rereading parodically the Pushkin original (cum canon) and inscribing in it his own version of modernist sensibility, Brodsky pushes to an extreme, but in a sense does not exceed, the prescriptions of the progenitor.




I. PRECURSORS: V. A. Zhukovsky. 1. “Vospominanie” (1816). E. A. Baratynsky. 2. “K Aline” (1819). 3. “K … 0.” (“Primankoi … ,” 1821-1823). 4. “Razmolvka” (1823). 5. “Priznanie” (1824; 1835). 6. “Uverenie” (1829; 1835). A. A. Del’vig. 7. “Sonet” (“Zlatykh kudrei… ,” 1822). Joseph Delorme [Sainte-Beuve]. 8. “Premier Amour” (1829). 9-10. “A Madame. ..” [1, 2] (1829).

II. A. S. PUSHKIN: 11. “Liubov’ odna …” (1816). 12. “Zhelanie” (1816). 13. “Kniaziu A. M. Gorchakovu” (1817). 14. “V al’bom Sosnitskoi” (1817-20). 15. “Bakuninoi” (1817-20). 16. “Prostish’ li mne …” (1823). 17. “Vse koncheno …” (1824). 18. “Puskai uvenchannyi …” (1824). 19. “Zhelanie slavy” (1825). 20. “Schastliv, kto izbran…” (1828). 21. “la vas liubil …” (1829). 22. “K (“Net, net, ne dolzhen is .. ,” 1832).

III. LATE ROMANTICS: M. Iu. Lermontov. 23. “Smert’” (1830). 24. “K (“0, ne skryvai … ,” 1831). 25. “Blagodarnost’” ” (1840). V. G. Benediktov. 26. “Liubliu tebia” (1835). N. P. Ogarev. 27. “E. G. L[evashevoi]” (1839). 28. “Tebe is schast’ia …” (1841). 29. “A vy menia zabyli! ..” (1842). 30. “Kak chasto is…” (1842). 31. “A chasto ne khotel…” (1842). 32. la proezzhal…” (1843). 33-34. “Podrazhanie Pushkinu” [1, 2] (1842). Apollon Grigor’ev. 35. “Net, za tebia molit’sia …” (1842). 36-40. “Bor’ba” [3, 10-12, 15] (1857-58). A. A. Fet. 41. “la znal ee …” (1847). 42. “Eshche vesna …” (1850). 43. “Poslednii zvuk …” (1855). 44. “Eshche maiskaia noch’ …” (1857). 45. “Vchera ia shel …” (1858). 46. “Komu venets …” (1865). 47. “A. L. Brzheskoi” (1879). 48. “Muze” (1883). 49. “Khot’ schastie sud’boi …” (1890). 50. “Ne otnesi k kholodnomu…” (1892). F. I. Tiutchev. 51. “Ne govori: menia…” (1851). A. K. Tolstoy. 52. “Minula strast’…” (1858). K. S. Sluchevsky. 53. “Segodnia den’. ..”

IV. SYMBOLISTS: Zinaida Gippius. 54. “Otrada” (1889). 55. “Ty liubish’?” (1896). 56. “Ia bol’she ne mogu . ..” (1918). 57. “Zhara” (1938). 58. “Byt’ mozhet” (1938). 59. “Ia dolzhen i mogu…” (1943). V. Ia Briusov. 60-61. “Osennii den’” [7, 9] (1894). 62. “Vstrecha posle razluki” (1895). K. D. Bal’mont. 63. “Don-Zhuan” [3] (1897). A. A. Blok. 64. “Otrocheskie stikhi” [5] (1898). 65. “Ty daleka …” (1901). 66. “0 doblestiakh …” (1908). 67. “0, net! ne raskolduesh’ …” (1913). I. A. Bunin. 68. “Spokoinyi vzor. …” (1901). 1. F. Annenskii. 69. “Sredi mirov” (1901). Fedor Sologub. 70. “Liubliu tebia, tvoi milyi smekh liubliu…”

V. POST-SYMBOLISTS: M. A. Kuzmin. 71. “0, byt’ pokinutym …” (1907). A. A. Akhmatova. 72. “Tvoi belyi dom . ..” (1913). 73. “A ty teper’. . “ (1917). 74. “Skazal, chto u menia . ..” (1921). 75. “Zemnoi otradoi . (1921). 76. “Mnogim” (1922). 77. “Boris Pasternak” (1936). M. I. Tsvetaeva. 78. “Mne nravitsia …” (1915). 79. “Popytka revnosti” (1924). B. L. Pasternak. 80. “Razryv” [91 (“Roial’ drozhashchii … ,” 1918). Georgii Ivanov. 81. “Pesnia Medory” (1921). S. A. Esenin. 82. “Pis’mo k zhenshchine” (1924). 83. “Sobake Kachalova” (1925). 1. A. Brodskii. 84. “Dvadtsat’ sonetov …” (6] (1974). 85. “Niotkuda s liubov’iu …” (1975).



(with Peter France; Brodsky 1988: 20)

I loved you. And my love of you (it seems
it’s only pain) still stabs me through the brain.
The whole thing’s shattered into smithereens.
I tried to shoot myself — using a gun
5 is not so simple. And the temples: which one,
the right or left? Reflection, not the twitching,
kept me from acting. Jesus, what a mess!
I loved you with such strength, such hopelessness!
May God send you in others — not a chance!
10 He, capable of many things at once,
won’t — citing Parmenides — reinspire
the bloodstream fire, the bone-crushing creeps,
which melt the lead in fillings with desire
to touch — “your hips,” I must delete — your lips.


1 In what follows, quotations from Brodsky are either in the original, in Brodsky’s own translation (1988: 20, see Appendix to this chapter), or in my interlinear.

2 Further discussion of ILY’s structure is based on that article and on Zholkovsky 1984a: 179-94.

3 On such splits in ILY and in Pushkin in general as manifestations of the ‘passion/impassivity’

opposition, see Zholkovsky 1984a: 188-89.

4 See nos. 12-20, especially 13 (“suffered alone, loved in speechlessness”); 16 (“now tender, now melancholy … , do not torment me . . , so tender . . . , so flaming . . . , so sincere”); 17 (“I will not pursue you with my longing … you will be loved by many”); 19 (“You will not, do tell me, love another [woman] as me? … I … tormented by desire,” with “tormented” [tomim] in the rhyme); 20 (speechlessness, flames of love, jealousy, a humble gesture, and acceptance of love for another — all within one quatrain).

5 For this observation, I am indebted to Professor Thomas Shaw.

6 Cf. Ogarev’s “I was jealous, whilst I do not dare/Tell you how I love and how I suffer” (no. 29) with Pushkin’s “You do not know, how strongly I love, /You do not know how hard I suffer” (no. 16).

7 Indeed, quite a few of ILY’s forerunners, and descendants, are in iambic or trochaic tetrameters or hexameters or in heterosyllabic verses.

8 See M. Gasparov 1976; 1979; 1982; 1983; 1984a.

9 E.g. nos. 40 (“Oh, fall in love, if you can, again”); 52 (“even without jealousy … there remained the same old love”).

10. Nos. 69 (“I languish [tomlius’ !] with others”); 80 (“go on to others”); 74 (“[he] said that I had no rivals”). But ‘[many] others’ appear as early as Pushkin’s no. 17 and Baratynsky’s nos. 3, 6.

11. See, resp., nos. 24 (“And I love him!”), and 60 (“you [a woman] caressed your [female] rival with love”). Such triangles can be interpreted in Freudian or ‘mimetic desire’ terms (see resp. [Rancour-] Laferriere 1978a: 48-77; Girard 1965: 1-52, Paperno 1994, Matich 1994).

12. There a female author/speaker reports the speech of the male partner (Pratt 1989).

13. See Tiutchev’, no. 51, where the verb ‘to live’ relinquishes in the end the final position it occupied in an earlier stanza (“… zhivu is-/ … / … zhit’ uzh ne mogu”); Briusov’s no. 62 (“… ne liubliu ia, / … liubit’ is ne mogu!”); and Akhmatova’s no. 76, where the effect is traceable on the phonetic and grammatical level: “… liubit’ / … / … zabytoi byt’.”

14. Blending techniques also yield such high-low hybrids as gorazd, “capable,’ which sounds archaic in the context of buduchi and colloquial, in the context of na mnogoe.

15. The rhyming itself freely combines enclosing and alternating patterns (AbbAbAbAccDeDe), a scheme already used by Pushkin, e.g., in “Madonna.” Some other “Sonnets” take much greater liberties.

16. On Brodsky’s existentialism, see Kreps 1980: 195-98; on the Mandelstam poem, Zholkovsky 1986a.

17. See, resp.: “ryba rvanoi guboiu / tshchetno dergaet slovo”; “… razomknut’ usta / liubye. Otyskat’ chernila / i vziat’ pero”; “Tam est’ mesta, gde pripadal ustami / tozhe k ustam i perom k listam.”

18. The interplay may also involve Pasternak’s variation on “Prorok” (“Mchalis’ zvezdy..”).

19. Note the correspondence between this interruptive signifier and the negative signified (‘God will NOT grant’). This spectacular interruption is first foreshadowed in line 1, where the Pushkin quote runs into a parenthesis, in an exaggeration of Pushkin’s “braking” of passion by syntactic stops.

20. A sweeping “overflow” from octet to sestet is frequent in the “Sonnets.” In the Sixth, it is prepared by the run-ons between the quatrains (“slozhno / s oruzhiem”) and between lines 6 and 7 (“ne drozh’, no/ zadumchivost’ “).

21. Brodsky, who likes comparing life to language, consistently sees the Russian u as narrow and opposed to the broad a: “na ploshchadiAkh, kak ‘proshchAi,’ shirokikh, / v ulitsakh uzkikh, kak zvuk ‘liubliu’ “; “i ulitsa vdaleke suzhaetsia v bukvu ‘u’.”

22Bend Sinister; the pun is naturalized by Nabokov’s hero’s being a German Shakespearean scholar.