“The River of Time” or “What Gets Left of a Man”:A Comparative Study of Brodsky’s Approach to Time-Space in the Context of Russian and European Poetry

Ian E. Probstein, Touro College

In my paper I explore Brodsky’s seeming denial of time and history in favor of space that he finally revokes to observe Derzhavin’s “River of Time” and Tiutchev’s ‘Void’ and ‘Nothingness.’ I compare Brodsky’s “Urania” to Bararatynsky’s and Tuitchev’s poems as well to W.H. Auden’s “Homage to Clio.” I also use Brodsky’s lecture “Profile of Clio”, in which he misreads Auden and seems to reduce history to a linear-oriented destructive force, whose “only law is chance” (On Grief and Reason 134). I come to the conclusion that history for Brodsky is associated with murder and death. The theme of death and oblivion is also developed in Brodsky’s “The Fly," which I compare with Blake's poem bearing the same title, and in "Fin de Siècle," which I compare to Mandelstam's "January 1, 1924.” While Mandelstam’s desire is to unify present, past, and future, Brodsky separates eternity and Time, considering eternity to be only a part of time. Contrary to the Christian tradition, Brodsky interprets eternity as time present being absorbed by the past and the future, not as an extended and continuing present, an idea that goes back to St. Augustine, as was observed in the unpublished manuscript of S. Kuznetsov.

Absolute Time is associated for Brodsky with death. Brodsky is trying to look into Nothingness, thus continuing the tradition of Derzhavin, Tiutchev, and of the existential philosophy. In addition to Kierkegaard and Shestov mentioned by Polukhina, there is a certain affinity between Brodsky and Heidegger.

The only escape from oblivion for Brodsky is not “marble” that is also subjected to decay, as was expressed both in Brodsky’s play and in Akhamtova’s poem (“Rzhaveet zoloto, i istlevaet stal',/Kroshitsia mramor. K smerti vse gotovo”), but “Aere Perennius” — the title of Brodsky’s 1995 poem, in which, rewriting, or rather overwriting like a palimpsest, his own poem of 1962 (“Ia pamiatnik sebe vozdvig inoi”), he follows Horace, Derzhavin, Pushkin, Akhmatova in search of durability and immortality. Thus eternity for Brodsky means immortality.


Kuznetsov, Sergei. Iosif Brodsky: Popytka analiza. Unpublished. The author generously allowed Viktor Kullé to familiarize me with this manuscript.

Polukhina Valentina. Joseph Brodsky a Poet for Our Time. Cambridge: Cambridge UP: 1989. p.263-281.