Staryi Baran and His Golden Fleece: The Linguistic Depiction of Multi-Layered Reality in Brodsky’s “Twenty Sonnets to Mary Queen of Scots”

Nina A. Tyurina, Northwestern University

The author’s unique intonation is probably one of the most arresting qualities of Brodsky’s poetry. Basing its argument on a close reading of Brodsky’s “Twenty Sonnets to Mary Queen of Scots,” this paper attempts to show that the poet’s unique tone is conceived by a multiplicity of closely interwoven voices, originating from different layers of reality familiar to the poet. This multiplicity shaped an individual who feels equally comfortable in monstrous hypocrisy of the Soviet state, in the high-culture of the Old World and in the sky-scrappers of the booming New World, in the realm of history of Renaissance Scotland and in its artistic reflections. Implanted within one personality, these strikingly different layers of reality produce the effect of a poetic explosion, imparting multi-layered richness to every aspect of the Sonnets. Thus, a self-deprecating staryi baran (old goat), used in Sonnet 1 as the speaker’s self-description, gradually reveals his potential as the carrier of a Golden Fleece, a historical figure, and an artistic depiction, as do other personas and personalities of the sequence.

This paper argues that the peculiar multi-layered richness of the “Twenty Sonnets” is achieved through close juxtaposition of various layers of speech, which reflect various planes of reality. Brought into proximity, the elements belonging to different linguistic and cultural realities generate a sort of a linguistic and cultural lightning, which illuminates each of the involved layers. The paper examines the way in which the effect of proximity is achieved with the help of the classical sonnet form, untraditional rhyming schemes, organization of the sonnets into a sequence, as well as by such linguistic techniques as bi-lingual puns, idioms, and cross-cultural metaphors.