W.H. Auden and Joseph Brodsky: An Impossible Other

W.H. Auden and Joseph Brodsky: An Impossible Other


In an interview with Missy Daniel, Joseph Brodsky states that, “If a priest can’t take a stand for the Ten Commandments, at least a writer can.” When asked by Daniel to explain how a writer might “take a stand” for the first commandment —“Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself”—Brodsky imagines not his own earthly neighbors, but the heavenly neighbors of the deity from which the commandments have been sent. If heavenly neighbors are stars, then love must have the capacity to bridge the void of time and space; in Brodsky’s words, we must “love something that is very distant as [ourselves].”1

Born in Leningrad in 1940, Brodsky intimately knew the isolation implicit to living in an oppressive regime. This sense of solitude only deepened when he was expelled from the Soviet Union in 1972, separating him from his wife Marina Basmanova, his mother tongue, and a rich cultural milieu.2 It was W. H. Auden who helped Brodsky reach the United States, and, like Brodsky, he lived isolated from his cultural background. Unlike Brodsky’s forced expulsion, Auden’s move from the United Kingdom was born of a conscious attempt to remain porous to the fluctuations of the world, civic and social life, and language itself. Despite this deliberate cultural rootlessness, Auden’s romantic life abounded with an isolation not of his choosing; homosexuality was illegal in his native country, and Auden was openly gay and Catholic. 

In their poetics, Auden and Brodsky grapple with the rift between the solitary figure and his romantic and cultural underpinnings, exploring love’s ability (and inability) to span the most impossible of distances. In Auden’s “First Things First” and Brodsky’s “On Love,” the speakers wrestle with the limits of language, the demarcation of dreams, and the elapsing of time as they seek to bear witness to an absent and impossible other. The way these poems explore each poet’s relationship to the absent “you” helps us understand their respective commitments to the world: real and imagined.  

Joseph Brodsky’s “On Love” is composed of six quintains that move from present to past to future-tense. Through these shifts in tense, the poem enforces a strict sense of time: the first stanza rests in the present-tense, the next three stanzas are enjambed and in the past-tense, and the remaining two stanzas are enjambed and in the future-tense. Each shift in tense is marked by an end-stop period at the close of the stanza. The fault lines of the poem are direct; each fragment propels the reader through time, mirroring the speaker’s fruitless attempt to make a smooth linearity out of his dynamic interior struggle. The poem could very well be written in an unbroken chain of free-verse—the language is unrhymed and meandering—yet the stanza breaks create a vital visual rift that complements the stark breaks in time. 

Composed of five unrhymed quintains, the language of Auden’s “First Things First” maintains a similarly discursive quality. However, instead of the divisions in tense we see in “On Love,” “First Things First” shows its fault lines as the speaker flits freely between imagined environments, asking the reader to jump sporadically from one imagescape to the next. The rigidity in tense, consistent capitalization, and the way each stanza consists of one sentence bound by an end-stop period, marks a contrast to these free-flowing environments. The poem is not structured around demarcations in tense—the whole of the poem resides in the past-tense—but around each stanza composed as a self-contained space for the speaker’s meditation. The visual regularity instilled by consistent capitalization and end-stops is only seen in “On Love” through its stanza breaks—capitalization occurs strictly at the beginning of sentences and stanzas are not always end-stopped. What prompts this decisive contrast in form? What does Auden’s prolific imagescape and rigidity in form say about his speaker’s relationship to love and how does it differ from Brodsky’s? 

In his essay, “Making, Knowing, and Judging,” Auden details two types of imagination that are essential for the poetic act: the “Primary Imagination” and the “Secondary Imagination.” The Primary Imagination, he says, insists upon the sanctity of what the mind has encountered—a being of “overwhelming but undefinable importance”—and responds with the passion of awe.3 The Secondary Imagination keeps the Primary Imagination in check by taking an active rather than passive stance on this sacred being, instilling order within the turbulent mind. For Auden, the poet’s impulse is to write into the passive awe of the sacred while recognizing the symmetry, verbal contraptions, and structure necessary to contain this awe in verse. “First Things First” exemplifies this idea in the way it allows the speaker to explore the power of his conjured images while keeping him regulated through consistent use of past-tense, capitalization, and end-stops. This oscillation of chaos and order, indulgence and self-regulation, is mirrored in the poem’s imagery. 

In the first stanza of the poem, the speaker is “woken” by the sounds of a “storm enjoying its storminess”; it is significant that the speaker does not arise of his own accord, and is instead startled into recognition of the contrast between his own bodily warmth and the “winter dark” of the outside world. Chaos and order is felt in the way the exterior environment breaks through to the speaker’s interior world, prompting him to “set to work” in the formation of “love-speech.” The speaker then calls his mind “half-asleep or half-sober”; the hyphens in these words allude to the speaker’s composite state of being—partly in his own imaginative world, partly in the tangible world of the storm’s “airy vowels and watery consonants.” When he goes on to “unscramble” the whistling ‘w’s of “woken,” “warmth,” and “winter” into “love-speech,” the hyphen reemerges. This hyphen goes hand-in-hand with the speaker’s first mention of love, priming the reader for the half-imaginative, half-tangible attempt in the second stanza to construe the sounds of the storm into a “love-speech” indicative of the “you.” 

To contrast the first stanza of “First Things First” and the first stanza of “On Love,” it is important to note that Brodsky’s speaker is not “woken” by the natural world, but wakes of his own volition. While Auden’s speaker remains in bed, “half-asleep or half-sober,” Brodsky’s speaker maintains agency over his body as he wanders to the window trying to “complete the fragment of a sentence spoken through / sleep.” Auden’s speaker, immobile and moved by exterior forces, is regulated by the poem’s stricter form, while Brodsky’s speaker, wandering freely towards the window, moves unfettered by the verse. Although Brodsky’s speaker “[wakes] up and wander[s] to / the window” while Auden’s speaker remains “in the arms of [his] own warmth,” both speakers grapple with their faith in language’s ability to provide, as Auden puts it, “a way of happening, a mouth.” Auden’s speaker “construes” the airy and watery sounds of the storm into words; Brodsky’s speaker looks to the lights on the street and “tries” to complete their fragmentary sentences—each attempting to interpret non-human processes (the sound of the storm, the blare of the light) into human speech. Auden’s speaker, awake in bed, uses this construed speech to conjure images of the “you” that span the next three stanzas until falling briefly back to sleep in the last, while Brodsky’s speaker, unable to complete fragments of sentences after they “diminished into darkness,” slips in and out of his dreams for the remainder of the poem. 

In considering Brodsky’s forced isolation from his wife and native country, one cannot help but imagine that a turn to the dream-world is Brodsky’s way of loving across uncrossable distances. In the poem, Brodsky employs frequent imagistic binaries that allude to the “many years” standing between the speaker and his beloved—moving the reader through strict demarcations in tense in a way that gives time weight, making it explicit and felt. Auden, however, is said by critic Richard Bozorth to have made “a social game out of the open secret” of his homosexuality, using poetry as a verbal “game of knowledge” played with the reader.4 Auden allows his speaker to indulge in imagining the “you” in various imagescapes, yet confines them to capitalized, end-stop verse (eventually negating these imaginings in the last stanza). Auden seems to play a “game of knowledge” with the reader as his speaker reconstructs images of the “you,” then puts the validity of these images under question with the final line of the poem: “Thousands have lived without love, not one without water.” 

The window separating the speaker’s fragmentary sentences from reaching clarity, the artificial light of the home at odds with the “real light” of the sun, the night “severed” by a “fence of days”: these dual images point to Brodsky’s speaker’s isolation from the world around him. The first stanza subverts light’s intrinsic ability to illuminate, as the speaker refers to the lights on the street as “pale omission points.” In isolation from his love, the concrete nature of the world is placed under question; light is no longer its traditional symbol of hope and freedom, but a harsh reminder of time, distance, and bodily separation. The lights on the street illuminate the speaker’s inability to speak to his “you”; the lightswitch in the home illuminates the physical divide between the “you”—pregnant and in repose—and the “I”—fumbling for his trousers. The “real light” of the sun illuminates the dream-world as the only space of connection. Throughout the poem, the speaker is governed by forces outside of his control; this is reflected in the poem’s form, as Brodsky allows the verse to meander uninhibited—if the real world is a place of forced separation, the poem is where thoughts are freed. 

Though Auden’s speaker lies awake conjuring images of the “you,” he is only able to do so in the “winter dark” with the shield of night upon him. Like Brodsky’s speaker, light stands as a “pale omission point”; in the last stanza the morning light negates Auden’s speaker’s imagination and redirects him to the tangible. This grappling between tangible and imaginary elements is present throughout the whole of the poem as dual imagery litter each conjured imagescape. In the second stanza, the speaker construes the sounds of the storm into praise that calls the “you” a “god-child of the Moon and the West Wind.” The hyphens within the first stanza re-emerge here to outline this composite view of the “you” as both something tangible (a child) and imagined (a god). Under the name of “god-child” we have two additional divisions: the real (the Moon) and the fictive (the West Wind—presumably an allusion to the Greek god Zephyrus or the Egyptian god Hutchai).5 This god-child is granted the “power to tame both real and imaginary monsters” and compared to an upland county that is “green on purpose” and “pure blue for luck.” 

The stanza abounds with juxtaposition as each real-imaginary binary tumbles the reader towards the harsh end-stop of the last line. The “game,” perhaps, is this push and pull that gives the speaker a space to build his imagescape, then decisively cuts him off. The play between real and imaginary is also made explicit in the fourth stanza of the poem as a “smirking devil” annoys the speaker in “beautiful English,” predicting a world where “every sacred location / Is a sand-buried site.” The last line of the stanza puts “gentle hearts” and “Hegelian Bishops” in juxtaposition—a real human organ and a false proper noun (Hegel identified God and man as inextricably linked, thus an authoritative bishop would not make sense under his spiritual philosophy).6 Through constant oscillation between the imagined and the tangible, Auden presents the problem of love; even when the “you” only exists in the imagined past, the speaker cannot help but try, through language, to bring them into the tangible present. 

While Auden’s speaker moves through a multitude of descriptions and positionings of the “you,” Brodsky’s speaker remains fixed in his imagistic vocabulary: light and dark, pregnancy and childbirth, speech and voicelessness. His dream-world concentrates on an interior, enclosed space where bodily union may be imagined: “There we are married, blest, we make once more / the two-backed beast.” Auden’s speaker conjures the “you” into scenes of the open, natural world, while Brodsky’s speaker, knowing that “darkness restores what light cannot repair,” remains with the “you” in the dark. Light deems the other “unattainable,” “voiceless,” and “negated,” while the dark remains fertile with pregnancy, “sons or daughters,” and the “two-backed” beast of sexual union. Auden’s speaker brings forth a variety of imaginative figures—a “god-child,” “the Moon and West Wind,” a “smirking devil,” “Hegelian Bishops”—yet Brodsky’s speaker’s only allusion to a figure that might belong outside of his shadow world is the “two-backed beast.” While the speaker can imagine caressing his beloved’s belly with a “heartened palm,” the consummation of physical intimacy—sexual union—can only be spoken of indirectly. The image of the “two-backed beast” is heightened when considering its position directly after the line: “For / darkness restores what light cannot repair.” The “for” makes the statement a declarative one—a clear turn from the recursive commas and sentences tentatively beginning with “and.” This “for” marks an understanding for the speaker: “restoration” implies total physical union, and is only possible in dreams. 

Just as the speaker cannot “complete / the fragment of a sentence spoken through / sleep,” his beloved, even in dreams, is not able to use her voice. She lies in repose, waiting calmly until the speaker returns. Even when she appears in the future-tense, “worn out and thin,” the speaker describes that there had been “things in between,” yet still she is without speech of her own. While the “real light” keeps her voiceless, it is also the speaker that keeps her voiceless, as she exists only as a figment of his own dream-world. Perhaps this is Brodsky’s speaker truly “love[ing] something very distant as himself”; if something is too distant, it can only exist as part of one’s imagination. 

Since Brodsky’s speaker may only commune with his “you” in dreams, there is a marked silence that permeates the poem. As in a dream, where the most minute of gestures are laden with meaning, the poem’s images speak beyond themselves and take the place of words. Contrasting this is Auden’s speaker, who centralizes both the act of listening and of speaking the “you” into being. The speaker’s listening to the storm in the first stanza does not prove fruitless as it does with Brodsky’s speaker, instead launching him into a “tongue” of praise that, through “kenning” and “likening” the “you” with various identifiers, tries to make the “you” present. In the third stanza, the speaker exists with the “you” in “peculiar silence,” yet is only made aware of the peculiarity of this silence through sound—a sneeze “heard a mile off.” In the fourth stanza too, the “smirking devil” wields “beautiful English,” annoying the speaker with his brandishing of language. If the poem is a “game,” then the rules may not merely be shown; they must be spoken and enacted. 

The attempt to use language to conjure the “you” is relinquished in the last stanza when Auden’s speaker sleeps “till a morning that would not say / How much it believed of what [he] said the storm had said.” Upon re-awakening, the order of the Secondary Imagination is ignited, and morning stands as a “pale omission point,” negating the “you” and returning to the phrase “first things first” to establish the vitality of a full water tank after a dry, “leonine” summer. This is done “quietly” through the use of a colon; no longer is the speaker “construing,” “kenning,” or “likening” images, this last line is stated as a plain declaration. While one may live without regaining a lost “you”—someone who was “so once, so valuable, so very now”—it is impossible to live without water rushing through the body. Auden’s speaker is forced to oscillate between his imaginative desires and tangible physical necessities, as his meandering thoughts are filtered through the poem’s verse.

Sleep, for Auden’s speaker, cleanses him of words and grounds him in a tangible reality. The speaker welcomes the reprieve from his own musings and is “grateful” for the morning light’s negation of the “you.” Just as each self-contained stanza tosses the speaker into a new imagescape, sleep has the power to either turn the storm into a speaking agent, or resituate it as a practical object. For Brodsky’s speaker, however, once he has recognized that “darkness restores what light cannot repair,” his resentment of light only deepens. In the last stanza, he refers to days as fences that bar the “you” from sight. The light has turned from a “pale omission point”—an absence—to a “fence” that “bars” the “you”—a violent physical impediment. For Auden’s speaker, speech is not enough to bring the “you” into presence, and he recognizes the futility of remaining in this imaginative world in the last line of the poem; for Brodsky’s speaker, his obligation is not to the “real light” of reality, but to the “you” who exists only in the imaginative dream-world in which he conjures her. Auden’s speaker is plagued by ambivalence towards the “you”; he passionately desires love and reconciliation, while remaining painfully aware of the implications of retreating into an internal world that bears no weight upon the “real” one. Both Auden and Brodsky’s figures are solitary ones: Auden’s speaker reinforces his commitment to the tangible world, Brodsky’s speaker reinforces his commitment to an imagined one.

  1. Missy Daniel and Joseph Brodsky, “Interview with Joseph Brodsky,” The Threepenny Review, no. 43 (1990).
  2. Sidney Monas and Joseph Brodsky, “Words Devouring Things: The Poetry of Joseph Brodsky,” World Literature Today, vol. 57, no. 2 (1983).
  3. W.H. Auden, Making, Knowing and Judging. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1956).
  4. Richard R. Bozworth, Auden’s Games of Knowledge: Poetry and the Meanings of Homosexuality (New York: Columbia University Press, 2012).
  5. D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson, “The Greek Winds,” The Classical Review, vol. 32, no. 3-4 (1918).
  6. Paul Redding, “Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Stanford University, 2020.
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