Joseph Brodsky. Elegyfor John Donne

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John Donne has sunk in sleep...All things beside

are sleeping too: walls, bed, and floor-all sleep.

The table, pictures, carpets, hooks and bolts,

clothes-closets, cupboards, candles, curtains-all

now sleep: the washbowl, bottle, tumbler, bread,

breadknife and china, crystal, pots and pans,

fresh linen, nightlamp, chests of drawers, a clock,

a mirror, stairway, doors. Night everywhere,

night in all things: in corners, in men's eyes,

in linen, in the papers on a desk,

in the wormed words of stale and sterile speech,

in logs and fire-tongs, in the blackened coals

of a dead fireplace-in each thing.

In undershirts, boots, stockings, shadows, shades,

behind the mirror, on the backs of chairs,

in bed and washbowl, on the crucifix,

in linen, in the broom beside the door,

in slippers. All these things have sunk in sleep.

Yes, all things sleep. The window. Snow beyond.

A roof-slope, whiter than a tablecloth,

the roof's high ridge. A neighborhood in snow,

carved to the quick by this sharp windowframe.

Arches and walls and windows-all asleep.

Wood paving-blocks, stone cobbles, gardens, grills.

No light will flare, no turning wheel will creak. . .

Chains, walled enclosures, ornaments, and curbs.

Doors with their rings, knobs, hooks are all asleep-

their locks and bars, their bolts and cunning keys.

One hears no whisper, rustle, thump, or thud.

Only the snow creaks. All men sleep. Dawn comes

not soon. All jails and locks have lapsed in sleep.

The iron weights in the fish-shop are asleep.

The carcasses of pigs sleep too. Backyards

and houses. Watch-dogs in their chains lie cold.

In cellars sleeping cats hold up their ears.

Mice sleep, and men. And London soundly sleeps.

A schooner nods at anchor. The salt sea

talks in its sleep with snows beneath her hull,

and melts into the distant sleeping sky.

John Donne has sunk in sleep, with him the sea.

Chalk cliffs now tower in sleep above the sand.

This Island sleeps, embraced by lonely dreams,

and every garden now is triple-barred.

The maples, pines, spruce, silver firs-all sleep.

On mountain slopes steep mountain-streams and paths

now sleep. Foxes and wolves. Bears in their dens.

The snowy drifts high at burrow-entrances.

All the birds sleep. Their songs are heard no more.

Nor is the crow's hoarse caw. 'Tis night. The owl's

dark, hollow laugh is silenced now.

The English countryside is still. Stars flame.

The mice are penitent. All creatures sleep.

The dead lie calmly in their graves and dream.

The living, in the oceans of their gowns,

sleep-each alone-within their beds. Or two

by two. Hills, woods, and rivers sleep. All birds

and beasts now sleep-nature alive and dead.

But still the snow spins white from the black sky.

There, high above men's heads, all are asleep.

The angels sleep. Saints-to their saintly shame-

have quite forgotten this our anxious world.

Dark Hell-fires sleep, and glorious Paradise.

No one goes forth from home at this bleak hour.

Even God has gone to sleep. Earth is estranged.

Eyes do not see, and ears perceive no sound.

The Devil sleeps. Harsh enmity has fallen

asleep with him on snowy English fields.

All horsemen sleep. And the Archangel, with

his trumpet. Horses, softly swaying, sleep.

And all the cherubim, in one great host

embracing, doze beneath St. Paul's high dome.

John Donne has sunk in sleep. His verses sleep.

His images, his rhymes, and his strong lines

fade out of view. Anxiety and sin,

alike grown slack, rest in his syllables.

And each verse whispers to its next of kin,

Move on a bit." But each stands so remote

from Heaven's Gates, so poor, so pure and dense,

that all seem one. All are asleep. The vault

austere of iambs soars in sleep. Like guards,

the trochees stand and nod to left and right.

The vision of Lethean waters sleeps.

The poet's fame sleeps soundly at its side.

All trials, all sufferings, are sunk in sleep.

And vices sleep. Good lies in Evil's arms.

The prophets sleep. The bleaching snow seeks out,

through endless space, the last unwhitened spot.

All things have lapsed in sleep. The swarms of books,

the streams of words, cloaked in oblivion's ice,

sleep soundly. Every speech, each speech's truth,

is sleeping. Linked chains, sleeping, scarcely clank.

All soundly sleep: the saints, the Devil, God.

Their wicked servants. Children. Friends. The snow

alone sifts, rustling, on the darkened roads.

And there are no more sounds in the whole world.


But hark! Do you not hear in the chill night

a sound of sobs, the whispered voice of fear?

There someone stands, disclosed to winter's blast,

and weeps. There someone stands in the dense gloom.

His voice is thin. His voice is needle-thin,

yet without thread. And he in solitude

swims through the falling snow-cloaked in cold mist-

that stitches night to dawn. The lofty dawn.

Whose sobs are those? My angel, is it thou?

Dost thou await my coming, there alone

beneath the snow? Dost walk-without my love-

in darkness home? Dost thou cry in the gloom?

No answer.-Is it you, oh cherubim,

whose muted tears put me in mind

of some sepulchral choir? Have you resolved

to quit my sleeping church? Is it not you?"

No answer.-Is it thou, oh Paul? Thy voice

most certainly is coarsened by stern speech.

Hast thou not bowed thy grey head in the gloom

to weep?" But only silence makes reply.

Has not that Hand protected my dull eyes,

that Hand which looms up here and in all times?

Is it not thou, Lord? No, my thought runs wild.

And yet how lofty is the voice that weeps.

No answer. Silence.-Gabriel, hast thou

not blown thy trumpet to the roar of hounds?

But did I stand alone with open eyes

while horsemen saddled their swift steeds? Yet each

thing sleeps. Enveloped in huge gloom, the hounds

of Heaven race in packs. Oh Gabriel,

dost thou not sob, encompasséd about

by winter dark, alone, with thy great horn?"


No, it is I, thy soul, John Donne, who speaks.

I grieve alone upon the heights of Heaven,

because my labors did bring forth to life

feelings and thoughts as heavy as stark chains.

Bearing this burden, thou couldst yet fly up

past those dark sins and passions, mounting higher.

Thou wast a bird, thy people didst thou see

in every place, as thou didst soar above

their sloping roofs. And thou didst glimpse the seas,

and distant lands, and Hell-first in thy dreams,

then waking. Thou didst see a jewelled Heaven

set in the wretched frame of men's low lusts.

Thou sawest Life: thine Island was its twin.

And thou didst face the ocean at its shores.

The howling dark stood close at every hand.

And thou didst soar past God, and then drop back,

for this harsh burden would not let thee rise

to that high vantage point from which this world

seems naught but ribboned rivers and tall towers-

that point from which, to him who downward stares,

this dread Last Judgment seems no longer dread.

The radiance of that Country does not fade.

From thence all here seems a faint, fevered dream.

From thence our Lord is but a light that gleams,

through fog, in window of the farthest house.

The fields lie fallow, furrowed by no plow.

The years lie fallow, and the centuries.

Forests alone stand, like a steady wall.

Enormous rains batter the dripping grass.

The first woodcutter-he whose withered steed,

in panic fear of thickets, blundered thence-

will mount a pine to catch a sudden glimpse

of fires in his own valley, far away.

All things are distant. What is near is dim.

The level glance slides from a roof remote.

All here is bright. No din of baying hound

or tolling bell disturbs the silent air.

And, sensing that all things are far away,

he'll wheel his horse back quickly toward the woods.

And instantly, reins, sledge, night, his poor steed,

himself-will melt into a Scriptural dream.


But here I stand and weep. The road is gone.

I am condemned to live among these stones.

I cannot fly up in my body's flesh;

such flight at best will come to me through death

in the wet earth, when I've forgotten thee,

my world, forgotten thee once and for all.

I'll follow, in the torment of desire,

to stitch up this last parting with my flesh.

But hark! While here with weeping I disturb

thy rest, the busy snow whirls through the dark,

not melting, as it stitches up this hurt-

its needles flying back and forth, back, forth!

It is not I who sob. 'Tis thou, John Donne:

thou liest alone. Thy pans in cupboards sleep,

while snow builds drifts upon thy sleeping house-

while snow sifts down to earth from highest Heaven."


Like a wild bird, he sleeps in his cold nest,

his pure path and his thirst for purer life,

himself entrusting to that steady star

which now is closed in clouds. Like a wild bird,

his soul is pure, and his life's path on earth,

although it needs must wind through sin, is still

closer to nature than that tall crow's nest

which soars above the starlings' empty homes.

Like a wild bird, he too will wake at dawn;

but now he lies beneath a veil of white,

while snow and sleep stitch up the throbbing void

between his soul and his own dreaming flesh.

All things have sunk in sleep. But one last verse

awaits its end, baring its fangs to snarl

that earthly love is but a poet's duty,

while love celestial is an abbot's flesh.

Whatever millstone these swift waters turn

will grind the same coarse grain in this one world.

For though our life may be a thing to share,

who is there in this world to share our death?

Man's garment gapes with holes. It can be torn

by him who will, at this edge or at that.

It falls to shreds, and is made whole again.

Once more 'tis rent. And only the far sky,

in darkness, brings the healing needle home.

Sleep, John Donne, sleep. Sleep soundly, do not fret

thy soul. As for thy coat, 'tis torn; all limp

it hangs. But see, there from the clouds will shine

that star which made thy world endure till now.


translated and introduced by George L. Kline

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