Alexander Veytsman

about the author 
Alexander Veytsman

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To a Tyrant

He used to come here till he donned gold braid,
a good topcoat on, self-controlled, stoop-shouldered.
Arresting these cafe habitues
he started snuffing out world culture somewhat later
seemed sweet revenge (on Time, that is, not them)
for all the lack of cash, the sneers and insults,
the lousy coffee, boredom, and the battles
at vingt-et-un he lost time and again.

And Time has had to stomach that revenge.
The place is now quite crowded; bursts of laughter,
records boom out. But just before you sit
you seem to feel an urge to turn your head around.
Plastic and chrome are everywhere not right;
the pastries have an aftertaste of bromide.
Sometimes before the place shuts down hell enter
straight from a theater, anonymous, no fuss.

When he comes in, the lot of them stand up.
Some out of duty, the rest in unfeigned joy.
Limp-wristed, with a languid sweep of palm,
he gives the evening back its cozy feel.
He drinks his coffee better, nowadays
and bites a roll, while perching on his chair,
so tasty that the very dead would cry
Oh, yes! if only they could rise and be there.

                                                                        (translated by Alan Myers)

1. Introduction

To a Tyrant is one of the last poems that Joseph Brodsky composed in the Soviet Union. By most accounts, the poem was written in January 1972; hence, the poet was not yet aware that it was just a matter of months before the authorities would usher him out of the native country, a fact which does not qualify this work as an epitaph for the tyrannical state he was leaving behind. Rather, the poem is an exercise on the existing tyranny, which in 1972 was still of an on-going relevance for Brodsky.

Nevertheless, it would be a mistake to directly tie To a Tyrant to Brodskys milieu or even to a particular temporal space. While living under a tyrannical government in the early 1970s, Brodsky did not seek to confront it as directly and confrontationally, as Alexander Solzhenitsyn was doing in his prose writings. The poet was far more subtle, not allowing his literary objectives to metamorphose into political ones. His attitude toward the authorities was a-Soviet, rather than anti-Soviet, as he yearned to be independent from the politically charged literary processes, whether in support or against the communist regime. In that respect, his consciousness strove to be autonomous from his existence, as several years later he would delineate in the Less than One essay. This autonomy allowed him to depict a tyrant that lacks a country of origin or a traceable history. The poet is not bound by any particular example, though his century provides a wide array of choices. He leaves the reader in ambivalence, giving clues that are both illuminating and vague about the actual identity (or identities) of the tyrant in question. Hence, this is a tyrant for all seasons, with the generality of the article a being the ultimate proof for that interpretation. In this delineation of general characteristics, there is an implicit attempt to derive a common formula for all tyrants.

As we shall demonstrate in the present essay, Brodsky adopts this approach from W.H. Auden, who in 1939 wrote a six-line poem, titled Epitaph on a Tyrant. By initiating the dialogue with Auden a third of a century later, Brodsky depicts a tyrant with a greater specificity than was done by his predecessor. If the latter portrayed a tyrant that could have ruled in any year of Anno Domini, the former limits his hero to the twentieth century. Both poets strive to be generic, but Brodsky sees a narrower temporal space in 1972, though the passage of time would gradually and inevitably lead him to seek even greater specificity. In 1982, he would author a four-line-long Epitaph for a Tyrant, this time almost completely borrowing Audens title, but, unlike him, narrowing down his diction to one concrete man: Leonid I. Brezhnev.

The 1972 To a Tyrant poem, however, shall constitute the crux of our analysis. In this poem, Brodsky finds the optimal treatment for his nameless hero. Not too abstract, like Audens; not too specific, like the subsequent poem about Brezhnev: Brodskys tyrant is the prototype for what we define in the present essay as the predictable triple apparition effect. This concept, which unites tyrants in the context of time its past, present, and future tenses, is central to understanding Brodskys perception of tyranny. To a Tyrant lacks one concrete tense, which establishes the concept of time as malleable, only taking the reader further away from specificity.

In addition to focusing on broader themes, this essay also engages in a micro-analytic close reading of the poem. With twenty four lines at his disposal (which is relatively short by Brodskys volume standards), the poet applies his usual toolbox of iambic pentameter, enjambments, and noun abundance, among others, to generate the desired effects. From the technical standpoint, the present work is not about innovations in Brodskys own poetics; rather it is a manifestation of the nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita methods that were developed over a fifteen-year period and are now thrown at the dictions disposal. The diction, in turn, answers to a higher authority that of a voice, which in the present poem didactically judges and draws conclusions on the tyrant, much like Audens. The voice blends in with the relativity of time, making the predictable triple apparition effect yet more profound.

2. Predictable Triple Apparition

At this point, we will introduce the concept of predictable triple apparition in To a Tyrant. The main idea behind this concept is that, despite different geography and cultural differences, as well as temporal generational gaps, twentieth century tyrants exhibit strong similarities 1) in their socio-economic status before coming to power, 2) during the oppressive years of the actual leadership, and 3) in the quasi-unanimous assessment of posterity regarding the darkness of their accomplishments. This predictability in past, present, and future tenses distinguishes them from democratic and liberal rulers, who can have different histories of coming to power, who vary in successes of their rule, and who become subjects of divergent debates and arguments after their deaths. While the dictatorial course of action is often judged as unpredictable, it is ironic that the actual fate of tyrants across all three temporal domains is remarkably similar. This irony, though implicitly, plays out profoundly in Brodskys poem.

The first state of the predictable triple apparition phenomenon is the tyrants past. It is usually one of misery and inferiority, during which the grandeur of his future potential remains vastly underestimated. Furthermore, much was discussed in the academic literature about the tyrants battles with inner inhibitions, fostered by physical defects (low height or a sexual inadequacy), unrealized dreams (in painting or in poetry), and humble upbringing (in a family of a cobbler or a blacksmith). The tyrant often pursues his path to power in order to prove to the outside world that he is far from insignificance, in which others envision him. He is a Horatio Alger from-rags-to-riches kind of character, but on the political landscape.

This idea is closely related to the interpretation of Alfred Adlers will for power thesis:

What does man want? What does every being want? To be powerful: therefore, what exactly affects us most? Weakness, inferiority. Pushed by its own thirst for power, the lower being passionately strives to improve, as it cannot bear the feeling of inferiority. Thus, in a huge psychic effort, stammering Demostene became an orator; a shortsighted person turns into a painter, and a paralyzed one into Stilicon or a Torstensson. If the strife is successful, inferiority is compensated for and overcome by psychic over-elevation. Inferiority turns into added value.

Brodsky carries forward this idea in the first strophe of To a Tyrant, depicting miseries from the tyrants past. As a magnanimous user of nouns, Brodsky applies them to the maximum in documenting tyrants history. On one hand, it is a laundry list of the tyrants potential causes and reasons for becoming a tyrant, a list that syntactically reminds of an Elegy for John Donne. This list could be as random, as the inner being of the tyrant itself.On another hand, the list could have a profound symbolic significance.

(lack of cash)

(sneers and insults)

(lousy coffee)


(battles at vingt-et-un)

The list of five is an indirect reminder of the five senses, all of which appear in the aforementioned items (sight ; touch ; taste and smell ; hearing ). The tyrant responds to his five senses by attempting to overcome the objects of humiliation: later, during the tyrannical years, he shall no longer experience any of the five objects, which is an implicit reminder that perhaps he experiences no senses or feelings at all.

The treatment of the above objects in the past tense is consistent with Brodskys diction in other poems, where some of these nouns are also symbolically associated with the past. Consider his usage of in On the Way to Skyros poem:

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                        ( , 1967)

Hence, if a man can return
to the crime scene, he cannot,
to the place, where he was humiliated.
And in this context Gods plans
and our feeling of humiliation
coincide with such precision
that behind us are left: the night,
the reeking animal, jubilant crowds,
houses, lights.

                        (On the Way to Skyros, 1967)

Similarly, there would be a conspicuous past tense in Brodskys usage of and in MCMXCIV:

, .

                        (MCMXCIV, 1994)

Whereas this was a time of poverty and of boredom,
when there was nothing to steal, still less to buy,
not to mention to offer somebody as a present.

                        (MCMXCIV, 1994)

The five objects in To a Tyrant are, of course, highly symbolic, and for each individual tyrant we could compile a similar list. What unites these items, however, with any other nouns is their transience in the tyrants state of mind. As the future ruler strives to exit from his pre-tyrannical years, he yearns to leave the listed items in the past tense. They are the unfortunate reminder of the unfortunate past, which the tyrant seeks to destroy along with any witnesses. It is with this determination that he enters the present tense of the predictable triple apparition.

The present tense within the scope of our defined concept constitutes an absolute necessity of cruelty, drawing its direct inspiration from Niccolo Machiavellis The Prince. The Florentine thinker, as is well known in the political science circles, placed the rational application of cruelty at the forefront of the rulers philosophy of governance:

I say that every prince ought to desire to be considered clement and not cruel. Nevertheless he ought to take care not to misuse this clemency. Cesare Borgia was considered cruel; notwithstanding, his cruelty reconciled the Romagna, unified it, and restored it to peace and loyalty. And if this be rightly considered, he will be seen to have been much more merciful than the Florentine people, who, to avoid a reputation for cruelty, permitted Pistoia to be destroyed. Therefore a prince, so long as he keeps his subjects united and loyal, ought not to mind the reproach of cruelty; because with a few examples he will be more merciful than those who, through too much mercy, allow disorders to arise, from which follow murders or robberies; for these are wont to injure the whole people, whilst those executions which originate with a prince offend the individual only.

More importantly, Machiavelli advocated the primacy of fear that subjects should feel toward the ruler, as opposed to that of love, implicitly suggesting that love could become the derivative of fear in the subjects, but not the other way around. In Brodskys world, the tyrant directly applies the Machiavellian postulate:

, .
- , - .

When he comes in, the lot of them stand up.
Some out of duty, the rest in unfeigned joy.

Brodskys attempt to create a generic tyrant is similar to Machiavellis intention to write a general rulebook for the tyrants of his day and beyond. Both recognize a plethora of common features in the ruling figures, which each then encapsulates into the literary expressive means of his own (Machiavelli into prose-focused maxims, buttressed by historical examples; Brodsky into a verse-oriented isolated spatial microcosm that approximates the entire state under the tyrants rule). Unlike Machiavelli, Brodsky does not seek to give advice: he simply observes the present tense. For him, the present tense is the fait accompli. It is immutable and at the same time interchangeable. If it has taken place under one tyrant, it can happen (with variations, of course) under a dozen more. His tyrant defies time periods or even time itself ( , / he overpowers time). Such is the inherent feature of the second state of the predictable triple apparition.

In describing the setting of the tyrannical present tense, Brodsky chooses three main themes, though he could certainly engage many others. As the reader grasps the meaning of those three, he could derive the others himself. The themes are: 1) destruction of the cafe habitues; 2) false sense of mirth in the cafe; 3) tyrants lonely state amidst sycophancy of survivors. All three are interlinked in the poem, as they would be in a tyrannical state. All three function in the context of frozen time, as the rules of the present tense dictate. All three are recyclable to another country, culture, or a generation.

First, the destruction of the cafe habitues represents a symbolic construct of tyranny, almost on the level of a textbook definition. The tyrant eliminates cafe habitues as the unwanted witnesses of his past. They are neither dissenters, nor his political antagonists. Their immediate and main guilt is in knowing him in the pre-tyrannical years. The tyrants choose not to possess a historical domain, where their human weaknesses (like the aforementioned five nouns from the first stanza) were known to others and where they used to be on the same level with their present vassals. If the tyrants past follows a pattern, his present is even more predictable in its goal to carry out a vendetta on that past which is to be consumed by time (And Time has had to stomach that revenge.)

Brodsky places this theme at the forefront of the poem. We learn of the on line 3, when we barely know anything of the main protagonist, the subject matter, or the setting. As the plot unravels in its before-and-after mode, the aforementioned arrests become a suspenseful, or better yet an inevitably enigmatic feature of the presented biographical sketch. We learn of the revenge, but are not given the details. This vagueness is common in the tyrannical state, where the actual arrest is often the last thing known about the subjects fate. The official trials and sentences are rare: people simply disappear. Mindful of this pattern, Brodsky carries the enigma throughout the entire body of the poem, bringing resolution only at the very end. / . The entire poem becomes like the time span of tyranny, at the end of which we learn what happened to its victims.

Second, Brodsky incorporates the false sense of mirth into the poem, most likely drawing on Joseph Stalins famous proclamation of mid 1930s that life became better, life became merrier. Stalins maxim is indicative of similar tyrannical states, during which the daily everyday life masks the nighttime horror. The place is now quite crowded; bursts of laughter, / records boom out. But something is not well hence, comes the warning from the narrator: But just before you sit / you seem to feel an urge to turn your head around. The false mirth fades away at the introduction of the sudden contrast. We find a similarly abrupt transition in the Anno Domini poem (1968), where Brodsky several years earlier depicted an engineered happiness under the rule of a mini-tyrant (Governor-general) in an imaginary province: - . / , , , / a; (In the lanes the people press and lark around. / A merry, idle, dirty, boisterous / throng crowds in the rear of the mansion.) only to be followed by a sudden: (The Governor-general is ill). Alas, the predictability of tyrannys present tense!

Third, the tyrant experiences loneliness, as he exists amidst homogeneous sycophants, who differ among themselves only in the degree of their flattery. The line Some out of duty, the rest in unfeigned joy delineates a slight distinction between them, much like the line , (The vassal trembles, the slave laughs) from A Sketch (1971), but in the end they are united in the choir-like necessity to laud their leader. The tyrant, on his side, is keenly aware of such feelings falsehood ( , was another favorite Stalins saying in private circles), as well as their transience. In the end, by destroying his own past, the tyrant subjects himself to the present tense of loneliness and impermanence.

This discussion of impermanence brings us to the final state of the predictable triple apparition: the post-tyrannical period. As we scrutinize the poem, however, we find no future tense. The reason for this conspicuous absence lies in the tenses redundancy. The narrator already knows that the only post-tyrannical future for the tyrant lies in his death and the harsh judgment that shall follow in its aftermath. The tyrant is likely to be ostracized almost to the point of anathema. Historians are often so similar in judging tyrants that their comments are rendered rather irrelevant: , , / ... (What does it matter what Suetonius / cum Tacitus still mutter, seeking causes / for your great cruelty), Brodsky would write years later in The Bust of Tiberias (1985). On the scale of predictability for all three tenses, the future tense would receive the highest marks. Hence, there is no need to delineate the implied. On Brodskys part, the future tenses implicit depiction constitutes almost a cinematographic technique, where the past and the present tenses are carefully structured to foreshadow the future that is never actually depicted.

Another reason for the hidden future tense in the poem lies in the battle that the tyrant wages with the days that follow his epoch. Every tyrant inherently tries to build a lasting nation or an empire that would outlive him for years to come. Hitler was making plans for a Thousand-year Reich; Stalin was building a better future that had no temporal limits. The tyrants ambitions, however, become the struggle of Sisyphus, as the everlasting socio-political dream that he is pursuing collapses soon after his death, if not immediately. Potentially aware, even if subconsciously, of this post-mortal collapse, the tyrant continuously chases the future tense, but invariably remains in the present, sitting in a chair with better coffee and a tasty roll.

The ability to take the triple apparition model and to apply it to a number of dictators, at least to the denizens of the twentieth century, justifies the adjective predictable. For Brodsky, as for any innovative poet, predictability was synonymous with cliche, which in turn represented an unacceptable modus vivendi. In that respect, his poem implicitly juxtaposes the role of the tyrant against that of the poet: unlike the creator or rhymes and images, the creator of torture chambers and prison camps functions within a domain of a far greater predictability. The poet cannot afford to repeat himself. The tyrant cannot afford not to. The poet seeks to be ahead of his times, thus creating verse that would place his language into an un-chartered territory, even though during his own age he might not be well understood. On the contrary, the tyrant must make sure that his methods and messages are actionable on his subjects in the present tense: he plans for a grandiose future, but at the same time requires from them an immediate and well-responsive attitude.

Brodsky himself spoke of this temporal conflict in his Uncommon Visage speech:

The philosophy of the state, its ethics - not to mention its aesthetics are always yesterday. Language and literature are always today, and often particularly in the case where a political system is orthodox they may even constitute tomorrow.

Encapsulating the concept of a predictable triple apparition is the function of time. In fact, Time (as Brodsky capitalizes it) is a personified hero in the poem, who both stands in opposition to the Tyrants intentions and concurrently exists at his mercy. Time is the ultimate representative of the Tyrants subjects, uniting both the eliminated cafe habitues and the remaining visitors. When the poet notes about Times acceptance of the tyrants vendetta, he hints at the ultimate impossibility to make any changes, at least in the present tense.

The present tense, as is evident from the discussion thus far, is the most prevalent one in the poem. But it does not stand isolated, as the tenses are consistently changing, a phenomenon indicative of Times perpetual activity. In the first strophe, the exposition underlines the past tense, but beginning with the third line, leaps into the future, while still preserving the past. Atemporal distance is created between the two periods, the before and after. The after here rather constitutes the present, effectively subdividing the poem into before and now.

The Tyrants goal is to dissociate himself from the past and to have the present pay for its depravities, as is suggested by the predictable triple apparition concept. As the poem progresses, the second strophe is entirely in the present tense, thus underscoring the importance of the ongoing status quo. That present tense then transitions into the third strophe, accelerating with a greater number of verbs and a changing rhyme pattern, as the poem approaches climactic resolution. When the actual climax does take place, the ending suddenly metamorphoses into the past subjunctive tense: if only they could rise and be there. Time makes its sudden final imprint. As Brodsky noted in one of his interviews:

. ߠ, - - . -, .

The world does not surprise me. I think that within it there functions one sole law that of multiplication of evil. It seems that the time is destined for the same.

3. Themes / Diction / Poetics

As we consider various themes in To a Tyrant, the theme of gastronomy is the logical starting point, since within the Soviet raison detre food abundance and abundance of tyranny were the inversely proportional concepts. In the actual poem, this relationship is not specifically studied, but gastronomy does become one of the explanatory variables behind the tyrants formation.

In this light, let us analyze coffee, which not only serves the function of exposing the cafes setting, but also delineates tyrannical preferences in the before-and-after mode. The coffee is mentioned twice in the first and last strophes of the poem. On the phonetic level, is reminiscent of a a, despite different syllabic stresses. This association is too common for the Russian ear, and it is dubious that the poet was trying to generate much poetically with these sounds. The presence of the , which is not among the most common syllables in the Russian language, was probably more interesting for Brodsky as a phonetic link to (gold braid). By joining and , he was thus bringing the tyrant closer to the drink, which the latter consumes in different stages of his lifetime.

The concept of coffee is central to Brodskys universe. On the symbolic level, coffee represents darkness for him, with the black color often positioned as a contrast to the white one. In 1969, three years before our poem, Brodsky writes:



, .

. ...

                        ( , 1969-1970)

I was sitting in an empty ship bar,
drank my coffee

got into milk turned out to be chalk,
and the sole black item was
the coffee, while I drank.

One could not see the sea. In the whitening darkness

                        (It was a sail through mist, 1969-1970)

It is not enough for the poet to depict coffee as the sole black item ( ), but he also juxtaposes its color to milk () and chalk (), in order to depict the white-black contrast. This contrast is further emphasized via the oxymoronic whitening darkness ( ).

Or consider several lines from Merida, written three years after To a Tyrant, where the evening itself is personified as the coffee drinker.



                        ( ( ), 1975)

Following it with his eye
filled to the brim with doubt
if not reproach, evening

downs his cup to the lees

                        (Merida (Mexican Divertimento), 1975)

One could rather simplistically jump here to a conclusion that coffee is the drink of the tyrants, symbolizing the darkness of their leadership. However, coffee is consumed by everyone in Brodskys world, whether by a common man or by a tyrant. In the quoted poem above: I was sitting in an empty ship bar, / drank my coffee is similar to He drinks his coffee, better nowadays. In terms of semantics, no difference is drawn between Brodskys protagonist and the tyrant. The coffee is a regular commonplace drink, lacking the evil significance that the dark-colored substance would predictably convey.

Rather, the coffee in To a Tyrant so closely epitomizes everyday experiences that it becomes the symbol of secularism. Tyranny usually functions best in the secular setting, as tyrants cannot tolerate a higher spiritual authority. And the literature read is only appropriate, as we find from Mexican Divertimento: / (A man in specs / will sadly leaf through Marx in coffee bars). While drinks usually have a religious significance (nectar being the drink of gods in Greek mythology and the wine symbolizing Christs blood in Christianity), the coffee in Brodskys world also acquires a symbol of its own. It is as if the poet echoes J.S. Bach, who once upon a time inverted his proper religious symbiosis by composing a Coffee Cantata, a humorous secular exercise, during which a father is irritated by his daughters addiction to coffee. To this day, for a commoner, this drink symbolizes daily routine, whose banalities approximate still life.

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, ,
. ,


                        ( -2, 1982)

I am writing these lines, sitting outdoors, in winter,
on a white iron chair, in my shirtsleeves, a little drunk;
the lips move slowly enough to hinder
the vowels of the mother tongue,
and the coffee grows cold. And the blinding lagoon is lapping
at the shore as the dim human pupils bright penalty
for its wish to arrest a landscape quite happy
here without me.

                        (Venetian stanzas-2, 1982)

What matters in our poem is not the color of the coffee, but rather its quality. As we saw above, poor coffee was one of the five reasons for the tyrants ultimate revenge. We also know that the coffee shall undergo an improvement under his rule, which would allow him to fix one of the major downsides of the pre-tyrannical times. The poor quality of coffee was most likely tied not to the actual cafe, but to the tyrants poverty. When he reached a different status, the finances did not matter anymore, a development that led to a consumption of better coffee. In Brodskys poetry, the quality of coffee is thus a critical social variable, indicative not only of individuals financial situation, but also of the entire country status. For instance, the poets depiction of Mexico, which he accomplishes via a noun-abundant laundry list that is similar to that in To a Tyrant, has disparaging remarks both for the country and for its coffee:

- ,
, ,

                        ( ( ), 1975)

The chief exports here are marijuana,
non-ferrous metals, an average grade of coffee,
cigars that bear the proud name Corona,
and trinkets made by local arts and crafts.

                        (Encyclopedia Entry (Mexican Divertimento), 1975)

Given our poems temporal whirlwind, the quality of coffee is tied to a change in eras. As eras change, everything else changes in the vicinity from the form of government to individual liberties to household items. The coffee is thus reminiscent of the smallest possible unit of change, the so-called metaphysical atom. The presence of coffee is often juxtaposed with temporal changes in Brodskys works. Among examples are:

, ,


                        ( , 1971)

Retreating south before winters assault,
I sit in that cafe from which we two were
Exploded soundlessly into the future

                        (A second Christmas by the shore, 1971)

, ,
- .
, - -
, .

, ,
, ,

- ,

                        ( )

The most obvious presence of coffee in the temporal context Brodsky demonstrates in his play, The Democracy, during the culminating end of Act I:

, . : ?
, , . . ,, . - - .
, ?
. , .
, .,, . .
,,.- .
, . ? .
- , !
, , . . , ?
, .
, , ?
,. , - .  ...

This last line is uttered by Bazil Modestovich, the ruler of the province, which yet again emphasizes the tyrants longing for this drink.

One of the central processes in The Democracy is that of gluttony. The characters have numerous discussions about food, which usually transition into acts of continuous consumption of various edible rarities. As Brodsky comments on the typical profile of a tyrant in his essay with an appropriate name, On Tyranny: his joys are mostly of a gastronomical fashion and a technological nature: an exquisite diet, foreign cigarettes, and foreign cars. Hence, the mention of (roll) is hardly out of place in our poem: like better coffee, the attainment of tasty food items is among the tyrants reasons for coming to power. These items were clearly objects of luxury for him in the pre-tyrannical past, something that he probably recreated for the ordinary denizens of his tyrannical present. Such recreation goes in conjunction with the revenge that Time has to stomach Therefore, one should not underestimate the importance of a . A small insignificant pastry is elevated to the level of sought-after ambrosia.

On a different level, the consumption of semantically amounts to the subjects destruction. Since contains the root , the Russian ear inevitably thinks of the (to crush, to destroy) expression, something that the tyrant inevitably does to an individual. In one of his later poems, Brodsky would state:

- ,
, , ...

                        ( , , , 1976)

Freedom is when you forget the spelling of the tyrant's name
and your mouth's saliva is sweeter than Persian Pie,
and though your brain is wrung tight as the horn of a ram

                        (Not that I am getting mad, rather fatigued after the summer, 1976)

In the present poem, his consumption of the pastry is much more subtle, though, upon closer examination, contains implicitly cannibalistic elements.

In addition to food items, the tyrants clothes play a central role in the poem. Within the first line and a half, the poet incorporates the contrast of the wardrobe as the opposition between the before and after states in the tyrants life: till he donned gold braid, / a good topcoat on. The gold braid is a piece of attire that is typically worn by military leaders, with the topcoat symbolizing civilian clothing, perhaps even of pecuniary financial means. Though the poem will proceed with similar before and after scenarios in the subsequent lines, this immediate introduction gives the reader a flavor of what to expect. In contrast to the poor coffee and better coffee contrast, which develops gradually across three strophes, this very contrast is poignant with the terseness and immediacy of peculiarly Russian .

The discussion of the wardrobe theme does not end at that. As the second stanza concludes, the tyrant enters the cafe incognito (translated into English as anonymous), which implies yet more clothing for his persona, this time the one that would disguise him. It could come in the form of a mask or as a special conspiratorial cloak. In the end, it does not matter. The incognito form is the inevitable middle state in the tyrants wardrobe: somewhere between his previous destitute state and the gold braid clothing. In other words, it is a state, in which he does not want to be seen.

It is possible that Brodskys clothing-oriented symbolism comes from Constantine Cavafy, whom by 1972 he has already discovered for himself. Specifically, one could recall the King Demetrius poem:

His Macedonian troops forsaking him,
and manifest their preference for Pyrrhus,
Demetrius the King (a great-souled man
he was) did not at all, so people said,
act like unto a King. For he then went
and took off the majestic dress he wore
took off the purple shoes; and hastily
slipped into plain attire, and stole away:
behaving as behaves a common player,
who, having played his part upon the stage,
changes his dress and leaves the theatre.

The poem details what happens to Demetrius when he is no longer king, subdued by Pyrrhus in the late 3rd century BC. The non-royal stature is synonymous with disrobing, or with lack of clothes altogether. As we infer about the low quality of the tyrants clothes in Brodskys poem, we could further infer the tyrants wistfulness to take them off, once he reaches his new stature. What unites Cavafys poem with that of Brodsky is the linkage of power to the change in wardrobe. Brodsky, however, reverses the metaphor of his predecessor: if king Demetrius transitions from majestic dress and purple shoes to plain attire, the tyrant metamorphoses from the (implied) plain attire to a gold braid.

Cavafys poem also positions Demetrius in the thespian light, which Brodsky does to his tyrant as well. Famous for his lack of metaphors and direct poetics, Cavafy likens the king to an actor who changes his dress and leaves the theatre. Brodskys tyrant, on his end, returns from a theater to the cafe. In both cases, the leaders rule is a mere performance. Hence, when the tyrant enters incognito, perhaps he is returning from the deeds of his own acting. The dreadful deeds. Brodskys theater may, for instance, refer to show purge trials that a tyrant is likely to engage in, wistful to take part in those performances himself. The difference between the theater he creates and the theater he envisions becomes negligent. We are reminded of Suetonius account of Emperor Nero: He put on the mask and sang tragedies representing gods and heroes and even heroines and goddesses, having the masks fashioned in the likeness of his own features or those of the women of whom he chanced to be enamoured. To mildly paraphrase Shakespeares Jacques, the tyrants entire tyrannical domain is a stage, where he plays every conceivable theatrical role from director and producer to lead actor and lighting specialist. Such is the tragic role of the tyrant: he has to be ubiquitous and omnipresent, with even a mild yield of power potentially leading to an overthrow attempt from his entourage. Or so he thinks.

The theatrical theme in Brodskys poem could at the same time be a theater inside a theater, or tolerated art within the dictatorial realm. The former assumes the form of anti-art, especially with the tyrant meticulously overseeing the repertoire.

The theatrical reference does not end with the last two lines of the second stanza. On the contrary, it is used as the main transition to the opening three words of the third and final stanza, which in turn set the tone for the poems conclusion. Lets trace this transition in Russian: , , / , . And immediately thereafter comes a phrase: . The present tense of the word (enters) has a professional connotation in the dramaturgical parlance, as it signals characters entering on stage. Therefore, we can think of the present cafe as a metaphor for the stage (i.e., tyrannical state), while serves its functionally thespian role.

In Brodskys later poems, this word would have a similar function:

In Twenty Sonnets to Mary, Queen of Scots, we have a Mozart-inspired eine kleine nachtmuzhik similarly entering the cafe, only to be a followed by a moon-oriented metaphor of the General Secretarys appearance:

. . .
, .

The theatrical raison detre of the verb would be abundantly present in The Lithuanian Nocturne, where the phantom, as a poorly veiled allusion to the one from The Communist Manifesto, makes a series of quasi-theatrical entrances:

, ,
. -.
"", .
, ,
, ,
, ,
. ,
- ,

Finally, the verb would later constitute the opening word to every stanza of Brodskys poem Performance (1987).

, .
, ,
... , ,
, .

From the technical standpoint, the poem does not fall out from the multitude of poems, written in iambic pentameter by Brodsky throughout the 1960s. It follows the ababcddc rhyme pattern in the first two stanzas, which reverses into the abbacdcd pattern in the final stanza. The poems masculine and feminine rhymes are exact in all cases, with the exception of the - pair. The poem incorporates a number of enjambments, but none of them are across stanzas. Overall, Brodskys poetical approach is highly traditional within the scope of his own poetics; what we see in the year 1972 is Brodsky applying the classical Brodsky. The overarching goal here is not to make the poem stand out technically: despite speaking in a judgmental voice, Brodsky attempts to be impassive in presenting the tyrant. It is as if he mimics the voice of an empirical historian, who intends to be coherent and orderly. The search for a unique technical form would have sent unnecessary signals about that historians message. The only exception to the rule is the deliberate change in the syllabic stress on incognito, serving to bring conspicuity to someone who seeks to remain unnoticed.

In To a Tyrant, Brodsky presides poetically over the course of watershed events that have possibly affected several generations. He would retain this role of an omniscient narrator a year later, in The Rotterdam Journal, a poem that technically bears a very strong resemblance to our text:


. . .
, .

. ,

, , .


. .
- .



, ,
. - .


                        ( , 1973)


A rain in Rotterdam. A Wednesday. Falling dusk.
Umbrella opened, I lift up the neck-band.
For four days straight they bombed the city barren,
and hence, the city ceased to be. Unlike
the humans, cities hardly seek a refuge
from rain under porches. Dwellings, streets
in times like these, choose to save the wits
and, as they fall, do not cry out for vengeance.


Noon in July. Its dripping from a waffle
onto a trouser. The childrens chorus lane.
New buildings rising massive and mundane.
Le Corbusier relates to die Luftwaffe
in heartfelt efforts of a changing brand
they both brought to looks of modern Europe.
What shall be wrathfully forgotten by the Cyclops,
the pencils shall deliver to the end.


Despite times healing power, ones stump,
the means and ends refusing to distinguish,
still aches. And cure, yet stronger, - soothes anguish.
The nighttime comes. Three decades left behind,
we drink the wine, amidst the stardoms flare,
in an apartment, twenty stories high -
at heights that were already conquered by
the ones who were propelled into the air.

                        (The Rotterdam Diary, 1973)

While it is not the goal of the present essay to conduct a comparative analysis of the two poems, there are several uniting elements that could be perfunctorily noted. Both poems are built with similar rhyme and meter. Both have twenty-four lines, confined to three stanzas. Both personify time and alternate across various tenses, an approach that opens a wide historical perspective. The historical events, in turn, are monumental, allowing the narrator to contemplate and comment on the scope of destruction. This contemplation is done while he engages in ordinary events, such as an observation of the rain or a wine consumption in an apartment setting, much like the tyrant who sips coffee or bites on a roll in the aforementioned cafe. However, the greatest similarity between the two poems comes on the compositional level.

The two poems follow the composition of the musical sonata, which usually consists of three parts: exposition, development, and recapitulation. The development continues the expositions original theme, adding new motifs, while the recapitulation echoes the expositions melody in a different key. In each poem, the first stanza in its entirety represents the exposition: the introduction of the tyrant and his battle with the past and the introduction of the Rotterdam setting, plagued by the bombing history. Then there is a lengthy development, which captures second stanzas, as well as parts of the third. In each case, the narrator describes the quasi-nature morte and serene surroundings, violated by implied hidden evil. Finally, the recapitulation brings us back to the topic raised in the first stanza: the destruction of cafe habitues in To a Tyrant and the bombing of the city in The Rotterdam Journal. In each poem, there is an extension (a different key) of the original theme, which gives the reader a new insight into what happened. This recapitulation is conveyed in both instances amidst an uneventful feast in seemingly untroubled surroundings:

- , ,
, ,
, " !"
, .



For a poet, who is as noun-oriented in his diction as Brodsky, To a Tyrant epitomizes his intent to place nouns at the forefront of poetic expression.

                  Noun         Verb         Adjective
Stanza 1           13             4                     4
Stanza 2           12             7                     1
Stanza 3           11             8                     2

One can see from the above chart that nouns, particularly when juxtaposed next to verbs and adjectives, clearly dominate in the present poem. Brodsky applies the abundance of this part of speech on several levels.

First, as noted earlier, he engages in his favorite task of listing objects: , , / , . In the third stanza he compiles a substantially smaller list of nouns (, ), which this time are accompanied by respective adjectives and verbs. Henceforth, the poets list functions by the process of diminution. The tyrant rids himself of the unpleasantness of his pre-tyrannical years, thus successfully reducing the number of nouns from five to two (from first to third stanza). It is as if he annihilates those previous nouns, for the ultimate route that the tyrant takes is that of destruction.

Second, Brodsky engages in this noun exuberance to depict them as tools, or from grammatical standpoint - objects, at the tyrants disposal. At times, there is a careful parallelism in their construction, as the third lines of first and third stanzas stand in parallel with one another in terms of the noun-line up: in the first stanza and in the third stanza. Both are representative of what the tyrant is doing to his subjects: the first case applying to those whom he destroyed (cafe habitues), the second one to those who survive (remaining visitors). The syntactical similarity also unites them in the domain of diction. and become synonymous in their purpose: the arrest is just as easily achieved, as the hands movement. Brodsky deliberately creates this parallelism, thus making the fate of the victims indistinguishable from the fate of the survivors.

Third, even the seemingly independent nouns bear indirect references to the tyrant. For instance, the juxtaposition of and in the second stanza create an implicit allusion to Gounods Faust: . / . The mention of vingt et un evokes a Parisian cafe atmosphere of Closerie des Lilas, where Lenin could have been easily playing this game of cards.

The number of nouns is relatively stable in the poem, while the number of verbs oscillates toward expansion, or rather crescendo, as the poem proceeds from the first to the third stanza: from four to seven to eight. The poem gravitates from the past tense (, , , ) to the present tense (, , , , , ) to the future subjunctive ( , ). The action in the past tense is murky and formulaic, lacking concreteness. The action in the present tense, however, is refined with specific verbs, thus creating greater attention to detail. If in the first stanza the five objects of the tyrants humiliation are lumped together, in the second and third stanzas there is a determined specificity: , , . Each verb is assigned to a particular noun.

This existence in the present tense allows Brodsky to experiment with the genre of still life (nature morte). While the traditional rules of this genre are hardly obeyed here, the poem nonetheless creates a sense of circular predictability within a tyrannical state that in itself is like a frozen state of nature morte. It is implied that everything described in lines 9-24 repeats over and over again, as long as the tyrant is in power. The impassivity of the voice greatly amplifies this effect. There is no progress, no movement outside the contours of the described circle, no progression into the future tense. The age is the age of stagnation. The life is a predictable pattern. As Brodsky would write in his later essay: tyranny does just that: structure your life for you.

In the last line Brodsky suddenly introduces a new tense to the poem that of past subjunctive. This sudden grammatical turn is crucial, as it underlines a transition from secular to religious dynamics. The (had they) phraseology is common in the Russian language, having the function of introducing an alternative that is unlikely to occur. Aside from the historical domain, where its usage is a major faux pas, it has been also extensively applied in the religious context. Consider an excerpt from Vladimir Solovev:

, , , , , , ? !

Solovev was most likely echoing an excerpt from one of Christs own sermons:

"... , , , (, 16, 30-31)".

Brodskys language thus carefully echoes the New Testament tradition, but goes one step further. The theme of resurrection and, at the same time, its impossibility comes to the fore in the world that would have been Christian, had it not been for the tyrants presence. The world depicted takes place in what Brodsky himself liked to call a post-Christian era. The presence of Christ is irrelevant in this world, as any Christ-like resurrection. If in the poetics of Cavafy Christianity often battles paganism, in Brodskys poetics it is combating a forcefully imposed atheism.

On the pronoun level, the poem places a heavy emphasis on the he. The goal is to make the tyrant as detached from any concrete historical example as possible. The non-particular he takes out specificity from his character. At the same time, the poet relatively uniformly distributes the pronoun throughout the three stanzas: it can be found on lines 1, 5,16,17,21. The tyrant is omnipresent in the poem, as the unnamed Big Brother would be present in the much-analyzed Orwellian world.

Furthermore, the omnipresence of he stands in contrast to the sole usage of the pronoun them. The multitude of victims is lumped into the single them, as the pronoun he confidently marches on throughout the poem. Brodsky also applies an insightful rhyme, possible only with the Russian languages unique diction of pronouns. He rhymes (them) in line 5 with (him) in line 8. At the first glance, the rhyming of homonyms does not appear dexterous in modern poetics, especially on the pronoun level, but the objective in the present case is to demonstrate tyrants dominance over the victims, which the rhyming effect masterfully achieves in line 8.

The generality of the pronoun he in the poem continues the generic function of the article a in the title. The article immediately implies the authors intention to shun the concrete and disguise the identity of the actual tyrant. As Tomas Venclova notes in his diary from March 1972: I suspected that it was Vladimir Ilyich [Lenin] but Joseph said that the tyrant is an abstract ruler Brodskys decision to create such a ruler is the ultimate manifestation of the predictable triple apparition.

4. Auden

Upon close inter-textual examination, we identify a poem by W.H. Auden, Epitaph on a Tyrant, as a likely poetic starting point for Brodskys text. By 1972 the Russian poet was very well familiar with the poetry of his British predecessor. While the stylization is substantially less evident in the present poem than in Brodsky's On the Death of T.S. Eliot, there are inevitable similarities between the two works. Similarities as vehicles for continuation and expansion of what W.H. Auden tried to convey.

Epitaph on a Tyrant:

Perfection, of a kind, was what he was after,
And the poetry he invented was easy to understand;
He knew human folly like the back of his hand,
And was greatly interested in armies and fleets;
When he laughed, respectable senators burst with laughter,
And when he cried the little children died in the streets.

Closely following the genre of the epitaph, Auden presents six lines that could appropriately find a place on a tombstone. Each line is a thesis that could be expanded into a biographical chapter on a tyrant. Each line is separated by a comma or a semi-colon, as the poet attempts to underline six different themes about the tyrant's life. Auden's lines serve as a guiding background for Brodsky, who takes their generality and creates a composition, mildly reminiscent of a story. The subject matter in Brodskys poem is narrower in scope; yet, the poem also closely follows the track of a meticulous delineation of Audens themes. In fact, every two lines from Audens poem refer to a respective stanza in Brodskys poem.

We can start with Perfection, of a kind, was what he was after, / And the poetry he invented was easy to understand. Brodsky similarly begins with an item of perfection in his poem, depicting tyrants predilection in clothing for the military , which is a tidier piece of wardrobe than . On a more figurative level, the vengeance against time ( , / ) is also a perfection of a kind. The tyrant restores the temporal order to his liking. Perfection can take many forms, and Brodskys tyrant certainly achieves it by reversing his own poverty and humiliation into the brave new world that is envisioned and imagined by him. Audens second line, specifically - his reference to poetry, also finds reflection in Brodskys words / . As one possible interpretation for this phrase, we could say that by destroying the intricacies of the acmeist poetry (see footnote #24), his tyrant introduces the simplicities of the easily understandable canon of Socialist realism, a transition that took place within the first fifteen years of the Soviet state. At the same time, poetry in Audens world is yet another synonym for perfection. While it is a generic term in Audens diction, Brodsky orients it toward greater specificity in his verse.

The next two lines in the Epitaph at a first glance do not have a direct correspondence to Brodskys second stanza, but upon closer scrutiny, are far from irrelevant. He knew human folly, like the back of his hand, and was greatly interested in the armies and fleets when Audens two lines are juxtaposed next to Brodskys second strophe, we see the composition of the former portrayed within the broader 8-line space of the latter. In fact, the entire discussion of the new cafe scene is the essence of human folly: , , / . Meanwhile, this quasi-theatrical portrayal indicates that there is someone who knows these human necessities like the back of his end. Someone who enters as incognito! Furthermore, the human folly can be exploited and directed toward creating and enhancing armies and fleets, implies Auden. The laughter and the music could easily metamorphose into wartime-related nickel and sodium bromide, implies Brodsky. One only needs to turn around and take a more scrupulous look. Once again, Brodsky achieves greater specificity, or takes us from Audens macro approach (armies and fleets) to the micro domain of elements and compounds.

The last two lines contain the most significant basis for juxtaposition with Brodskys third strophe, as in this comparison both poets achieve a relatively similar level of specificity. They depict two cohorts: those who survive and serve the monster, and those who are victimized and annihilated. Such depiction is achieved via an anthropological channel, as a cursory study of mankind (as seen and analyzed by the tyrant himself). For Auden, these cohorts are senators and children, respectively; for Brodsky the remaining cafe inhabitants and the old habitues, respectively. In both Audens and Brodskys worlds, the fate of the cohorts is the derivative of the tyrants state of mind. The whim and the mood of a single leader determine the cohort placement.

In both poems, semantics is elevated to the pinnacle of symmetrical balance:

In Audens:

tyrant laughs senators laugh; tyrant cries children die.

In Brodskys:

remaining café inhabitants stand up old café habitués do not rise up (resurrect).

Aside from the compositional aspects, it is important to recognize that Auden also creates a tyrant for all epochs. He could be a Roman Caesar, as there is a reference to senators. He could be a post-Renaissance enlightened despot and an admirer of Erasmus' In Praise of Folly. Or he could be a twentieth century dictator: the poem was written in 1939, when Europe had plenty of relevant examples. Such lack of specificity is ironic, since the actual epitaph genre implies concreteness. But despite a multifaceted portrait of the deceased figures milieu - from propaganda and warfare to flattery and destruction Audens tyrant lacks concreteness. Even more so, he lacks identity. Brodsky takes this generality as a base and gives it a flavor of greater specificity: his tyrant is definitely from the twentieth century domain, possibly even from its Eastern European environs, but a concrete name is not given. While both poets apply the general article a in the titles, Brodskys article is more specific. His tyrant, however, still remains unknown to the reader the incognito!

As we discussed earlier, this lack of specificity is a vital construct to the predictable triple apparition concept. It effectively underlines the interchangeability of one tyrant for another and renders the discussion of a specific tyrannical regime irrelevant. By discussing one unnamed tyrant, both Auden and Brodsky, though to a different degree, implicitly dismiss discussions of concrete personalities as uninteresting. Neither ever wrote a poem about a contemporary dictator, with any allusions being brief and taking place en passant. For Brodsky, who actually grew up in the totalitarian state, such position was particularly important, as he strove to be neither Soviet nor anti-Soviet, but rather a-Soviet. Whenever he had to refer to a Soviet dictator(s), he did so either facetiously, as in , or by cumulatively listing all tyrants together: Lenin was literate, Stalin was literate, so was Hitler; as for Mao Zedong, he even wrote verse.What all these men had in common, though, was that their hit list was longer than their reading list.

Epitaph is the most appropriate genre for judging the tyrant, since it gives flexibility to render judgment on the tyrants rule, as well as on his pre and post-tyrannical periods. Auden's poem specifically focuses on the actual rule, but inferences can be easily drawn about the other two periods as well. One does not need to infer them by scrutinizing the double entendres or the connotations of specific words, though such analysis is certainly possible. Instead, Auden (much like Brodsky three decades later) creates a convenient template, into which the reader could easily insert at least a dozen of emperors and dictators, a process which would immediately yield rather predictable pre-tyrannical formative years, and even more predictable post-tyrannical destructive aftermath.

On the structural level, Brodsky draws upon and develops further Auden's diction. The line " " relates to "He knew human folly like the back of his hand". While Auden applies a simile, his words represent a common expression in the English language and could be written in bland prose. Brodsky's line, in turn, lacks imagery, but is constructed poetically. Another example is in the "When he laughed / when he cried" lines, which bring us to the " " phrase.

Finally, by studying the parts of speech in Auden's poem, one could claim a potential influence on Brodsky in his minimal usage of adjectives and a maximum application of nouns. Out of fifty-five words in the poem, there are twelve nouns and only five adjectives. Auden is generous in his usage of pronouns he and his, since pronouns are helpful in veering the text away from specificity. Brodsky does just the same, with the actual reference to a tyrant being limited only to the title. Such economical approach toward the word tyrant is linked to the divine status that the dictatorial rulers create for themselves: after all, the divine name is not to be said in vain.

5. Brezhnev

In December 1982, a month after the death of Leonid I. Brezhnev, the General Secretary of the Soviet Union, Joseph Brodsky published in the New York Review of Books the following four lines:

Epitaph For a Tyrant

He could have killed more than he could have fed
but chose to do neither. By falling dead
he leaves a vacuum and the black Rolls-Royce
to one of the boys who will make the choice.

The epitaph, whose terseness and facetious diction make it sound more like an epigram, allowed Audens original work to come full circle through Brodskys poetry. The tyrant finally became concrete, with the article a achieving the greatest specificity possible. If To a Tyrant is a monumental continuation of Audens work, the 1982 Epitaph for a Tyrant is a post-scriptum not only to the poetic diptych on tyranny discussed in the present essay, but also to Brodskys literary and epistolary relationship with Leonid Brezhnev. This relationship, as well as the analysis of these four lines, could perhaps become our focus in another essay.

Copyright  Alexander Veytsman
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