Notes on the Sonnets to Mary Queen of Scots

  • Peter France


‘Non angli, sed angeli’, said a punning Pope centuries ago. Brodsky begins his sonnet sequence with an equally bad, but less complimentary pun: ‘skoty’/Scots. The first line sets a tone — flippant, conversational, vulgar. As for the pun, the significant thing is surely the distance it establishes. The English language (Brodsky’s adopted language) is heard with Russian ears, which detect new resonances in it, much as those often extraterritorial writers Beckett and Nabokov find a new strangeness in their imposed or self-imposed second languages. In this sequence, written in 1974 some two years after Brodsky left for America, a feeling of distance is always present, openly or covertly: distance between words and feelings, between past and present, between individual and society, between the poet and his native land. The separation of exile is regularly likened to the execution of the queen.


Traditional Poetry Colloquial Expression Rhyme Scheme Romantic Fiction Craft Shop 
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  1. 1.
    Iosif Brodskiy, Chast’ rechi, (Ann Arbor, Michigan: Ardis, 1977), p. 51.Google Scholar
  2. 3.
    See A. Zholkovskiy, ‘“Ya vas lyubil” Brodskogo: interteksty, invarianty, tematika i struktura’, in Poetika Brodskogo, L.V. Losev (ed.) (Tenafly, New Jersey: Hermitage, 1986), pp. 38–62.Google Scholar
  3. 5.
    Joseph Brodsky, ‘To Please a Shadow’, in Less than One (Penguin, 1987), pp. 357–83 (p. 363).Google Scholar
  4. 9.
    For a contrary view by an eminent French poet, see Yves Bonnefoy, ‘On the Translation of Form in Poetry’, World Literature Today (A Literary Quarterly of the University of Oklahoma), 1979, pp. 374–80.Google Scholar
  5. 10.
    See, however, Brodsky’s To Urania (New York and London, 1988) for a revised translation of the sonnets by the poet and myself, in which he has managed to bring the English closer to the formal qualities of the original, and in particular the rhyme. I am most grateful to him for his permission to print my own version here as a part of my commentary on his writing.Google Scholar

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© Palgrave Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited 1990

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  • Peter France

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