Joseph Brodsky’s “December 24, 1971”: An Analysis

In my last post, I mentioned that I’ve been working my way through a lot of large, sprawling books of late. But I neglected to mention the one that I’ve been reading for the longest time: Joseph Brodsky’s Collected Poems in English, 1972-1999. Brodsky, a Soviet-born poet who later settled in the United States and was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1987, is a poet with a dazzling command of the formal aspects of verse; his use of slant rhyme is particularly admired, and in my mind rivals that of Sylvia Plath’s in terms of its inventiveness.

But rather than dwelling on the poet’s technical mastery, which I am wont to do in these close readings, I’d instead like to look at Brodsky’s handling of subject matter. Brodsky wrote a number of Christmas poems during his career, and seeing that it’s December and all, I thought now would be a good time to look at one of them: “December 24, 1971,” which you can read over at the Poetry Foundation website.

The poem begins with a rather bold assertion: “When it’s Christmas we’re all of us magi.” As a universal claim, it’s an inherently arresting statement, but it’s also one that demands proof, and also clarification. What does it even mean to say that people are magi at Christmas? Certainly we’d want some sense of what the speaker is getting at before we sign onto their argument.

First of all, for anyone unfamiliar with Christian tradition: “the Magi” refers to a group of a nebulous figures who appear in the Gospel of Matthew’s account of the birth of Jesus. I say “nebulous” because there isn’t an agreed upon translation of the word magi: the King James Version refers to them as “wise men,” some more recent translations call them “astrologers,” and in more colloquial contexts they’re often described as “kings” (e.g., the popular carol “We Three Kings”). Whoever they are, in the Biblical story the magi, after following a star signaling the birth of a new king, bestow their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh upon the infant Christ.

From this story, we can draw out several connotations of the word “magi” that the speaker would likely wish to evoke. First, the magi are dignified people, either learned or regal (or possibly both). Second, the magi are gift-givers, and lavish ones at that: all three of their gifts were expensive commodities two thousand years ago. And third, the magi are travelers, leaving their homelands in pursuit of the wondrous and the miraculous. So: to what extent do we see those connotations in Brodsky’s poem?

Well, the gift-giving aspect is the easiest to see in those first few stanzas. The beginning of “December 24, 1971” is positively littered with material goods. Given the poem’s title, it’s not surprising to see the whole city seems caught up in last-minute Christmas shopping. People “[a]t the grocers’ [are] all slipping and pushing,” while elsewhere the crowds are “heavy-laden with parcels” (lines 2 and 5). Foodstuffs appear to be the most common purchases, as the air is filled with their various scents: “Reek of vodka and resin and cod, / orange mandarins, cinnamon, apples” (9-10). Perhaps vodka and cinnamon are the modern frankincense and myrrh. But despite all this commerce, one aspect of gift-giving doesn’t come up in the poem: the recipients. For all of us to be magi in the sense of gift-givers, we in fact need someone to bestow gifts upon. They are plenty people in the city, but as it it seems, few relationships: “[E]ach one [is] his own king, his own camel” (6).

The people of this poem don’t appear especially dignified, either. One gets the impression that this city’s streets are always on the verge of chaos. The speaker succinctly captures the mood of unchecked consumption when they say that “a tin of halvah, coffee-flavored, / is the cause of a human assault-wave” (3-4). Instead of refined, composed attire, they see “caps and neckties all twisted up sideways”(8). Even “the bearers of moderate gifts,” the people who one might think to be above the fray, “leap onto buses and jam all the doorways” (13-14). Christmastime in the city is no regal pilgrimage, but a struggle for survival.

In trying to figure out why Brodsky evokes the magi, by process of elimination, we’ve left ourselves with just the journey towards a new hope. So that’s the solution, right? Except the people of the city seem to be journeying without any purpose. The “[f]loods of faces” the speaker describes leave “no sign of a pathway / towards Bethlehem” (11-12). And even if that holy place of purpose were within sight, the people wouldn’t expect to find anything. When they get off the buses and enter the courtyards of their apartment buildings, “they know that there’s nothing inside there: / not a beast, not a crib, nor yet her, / round whose head gleams a nimbus of gold” (16-18). The whole Nativity is out of reach. There is little hope, but rather, as the fourth stanza begins with, “[e]mptiness” (19).

Thus far, “December 24, 1971” has read like a remarkably somber Christmas poem, but that is perhaps to be expected. Brodsky wrote this poem during a period of great uncertainty in his life. As both an individualistic poet and a Jewish man, Brodsky had been persecuted by the Soviet authorities for almost a decade; he’d been sentenced to hard labor in the Arctic, institutionalized for fraudulently-diagnosed mental illness, and barred from traveling freely in his own country. By Christmas Eve in 1971, Brodsky was a candidate for exile from the Soviet Union. If the “magi” of his poem seem to wander aimlessly, it is only because Brodsky himself could not be sure where he’d be going, either.

Yet there was hope for Brodsky in 1972: his situation drew the sympathy of the Western literary establishment, and the poet W. H. Auden in particular helped to settle Brodsky in the United States. At the time of composition, the prospect of safety and security may have seemed distant. But the mere possibility of escape is a powerful hope, and it’s that hope which ultimately turns the poem:

Emptiness. But the mere thought of that
brings forth lights as if out of nowhere.
Herod reigns but the stronger he is,
the more sure, the more certain the wonder.
In the constancy of this relation
is the basic mechanics of Christmas. (19-24)

Particularly significant is the reference to Herod, the ruler in Matthew who, in response to the birth of Jesus, orders the execution of all male infants in Bethlehem. He is a tyrant, one whose authority must be fled. Mary and Joseph escape to Egypt with their child ahead of the massacre, and the magi, “being warned of God in a dream that they should not return to Herod…departed into their own country another way” (Matthew 2:12, King James Version). Even the magi must flee. When it’s Christmas we’re all of us refugees—but ones who know the new king has come.

Perhaps that is not much hope to cling onto, but in a world so hectic, so somber as the one presented in Brodsky’s poem, it’s more than enough to justify the festivities:

That's why they celebrate everywhere,
for its coming push tables together.
No demand for a star for a while,
but a sort of good will touched with grace,
can be seen in all men from afar,
and the shepherds have kindled their fires. (25-30)

According to the speaker, those celebrating Christmas don’t “demand…for a while” some ostentatious miracle à la the Star of Bethlehem, but instead seek—and more importantly, find—”a sort of good will touched with grace… / in all men”. That universal kindness and acceptance may in fact be crucial for the Christmas miracle, as the speaker later makes clear: “He who comes is a mystery: features / are not known beforehand, men’s hearts may / not be quick to distinguish the stranger” (34-36). Again, one can’t help but see the parallels to Brodsky’s own situation at the time.

I’ll close this analysis with a note on the weather. I haven’t mentioned it up to this point, but as the speaker comes closer to consolation, the weather becomes more wintry. “Snow is falling” during the sixth stanza (31), and in the final stanza the “drafts through the doorway disperse / the thick mist of the hours of darkness” (37-38). Normally, we might expect this turn in the weather to signal a darkening mood, but that’s not what we get. Instead, it signals a personal transformation, a closing epiphany:

...a shape in a shawl stands revealed,
both a newborn and Spirit that's Holy
in your self you discover; you stare
skyward, and it's right there:
                                                           a star. (39-43)

It’s a wonderfully unexpected way to set up the final sentiment, linking the Holy Spirit to the cold air blowing through a house. There is something terrifying about the Nativity story, with messages from otherworldly beings and the threat of state-sanctioned murder, and Brodsky, perhaps because he can approach the subject from a non-Christian perspective, is able to capture that reality so well. The fact that he can apply that story to his own state in life makes it all the more startling.


Thanks for reading! If you have a favorite poem for the holiday season, or want to shere your thoughts on Brodsky’s piece, then let me know in the comments. And if you liked this piece, then you may be happy to learn that I write a new close reading of a poem every month. You can start catching up on them with my previous installment in this series, on Emily Dickinson’s “[The Poets light but Lamps – ].”

Emily Dickinson’s “[The Poets light but Lamps –]”: An Analysis

Something that makes Emily Dickinson a poet worth revisiting is the sheer quantity of her output. In his 1998 edition of Dickinson’s complete poems, R. W. Franklin identified 1,789 different poems to include in the collection. Even if most of her poems are on the short side—the piece we’re going to look at today is only eight lines long—that is a vast amount of material for the reader to appreciate. Once one gets tired of “[Because I could not stop for Death –]” and “[I heard a Fly buzz – when I died –]” and all the other classroom staples, there’s still so much more of Dickinson’s work to discover. And the fact that so much of her poetry has survived for our enjoyment has some bearing on the poem I’d like to look at now.

In Franklin’s numbering, this is poem 930; if you prefer the older Johnson numbering system, it’s 883. Either way, this is a slightly lesser known entry in Dickinson’s bibliography: “[The Poets light but Lamps –].” Let’s give it a quick read-through before we start pulling it apart.

            [The Poets light but Lamps –]

            The Poets light but Lamps –
            Themselves – go out –
            The Wicks they stimulate
            If vital Light

            Inhere as do the Suns –
            Each Age a Lens
            Disseminating their
            Circumference –

If you know anything about Emily Dickinson, you’ll know that there were two big ideas that possessed her, that she returned to time and again in her poetry: death and immortality. We see both of those obsessions on display in this poem, as the speaker grapples with the question of how, or whether, art can endure when the ones who create that art are mortal beings. And, if you’ve been following my poem analyses for the past few months, this problem should be a familiar one.

Back in July, I covered Percy Bysshe Shelley’s sonnet “Ozymandias,” and I made much of how his poem complicates the traditional narrative of achieving immortality through art: the statue of the great king Ozymandias is a near-ruin, and the speaker’s account of the monument is filtered through multiple layers of hearsay. The reader is thus denied the consolation that comes from a poem such as Edmund Spenser’s “[One day I wrote her name upon the strand],” which promises that one may live forever through verse.

Like the speaker in Shelley’s poem, Dickinson’s speaker is not content with the easy comfort of that traditional poetic narrative, but I think her argument is more optimistic than the one we find in “Ozymandias.” One would not suspect as much, though, from reading the opening lines. We are told that “[t]he Poets light but Lamps” (line 1)—and as it turns out, a lamp is a complicated metaphor for poetry.

On the one hand, lamps are a source of illumination, of literal enlightenment, which is just what readers come to poetry to find. They even have some divine connotations, as seen in the Beatitudes: “Neither do men light a candle, and put it under a bushel, but on a candlestick; and it giveth light unto all that are in the house” (Matthew 5:15, King James Version). On the other hand, lamps are a fleeting source of illumination. True, they provide a more sustained source of light than an uncontained flash, or a stray spark from a flint. But candles are only so long, and fuel, when it burns, is spent. It would seem, that from the starting premise, the immortality of art is in doubt.

What’s not it doubt is the mortality of the poets, for “Themselves – go out” (line 2). To say that they “go out” is, I think, a surprisingly stark way of putting it. They are not “put out” or “snuffed out” by some external force. There is no dramatic, violent end to the poets’ lives, in the way that the statue of Ozymandias makes for a striking ruin. Nor, if there is no external force at work, is there any obvious way of preventing their demise. No, the lives of the poets simply cease when the last drops of life energy are used.

So, if the poets “go out” and their works are “but Lamps,” that is, if neither is immortal, then how can one say that Dickinson’s poem is optimistic? The key is that the speaker, after laying out these rather bleak premises, finds an unexpected continuation to the argument: “The Wicks they stimulate / If vital light // Inhere as do the Suns” (lines 3-5). Dickinson has set up a whole domain of images around the theme of illumination. On the one side, we have the temporary “Lamps” and “Wicks,” and now opposing them, we have “Suns.” At least relative to all human affairs, “the Suns” are an everlasting light source, and are themselves divine rather than being symbolic of it.

Perhaps your first response is to say that Dickinson’s speaker has just contradicted herself: the poets cannot both “light but Lamps” and have those “Wicks they stimulate” be like “the Suns.” But the speaker might respond that she is not stumbling into a contradiction, but is rather setting up a deliberate tension.

First, let’s take a look at that word “Inhere.” “Inhere” is the verb from which we derive the more common word “inherent,” a synonym of words like “intrinsic” or “essential.” Grammatically, “inhere” requires an adverbial complement: X does not “inhere,” but rather “inheres in Y.” Yet Dickinson’s poem does not present us with an obvious adverbial complement for the verb; Dickinson is never one for unambiguous syntax. We know that the wicks inhere “as do the Suns,” but that describes the manner in which they inhere, not what they inhere in.

I would be most tempted to say that “vital light” is part of the intended adverbial complement here, with the word “in” elided for the sake of the ballad meter. This reading has a certain appeal. To call light “vital” not only says that it’s important, but also that it’s life-sustaining (especially given the context of “the Suns”). If the works of the poets inhere in that light, then perhaps it doesn’t even matter if their work will never be immortal, for it will always be necessary. That would, in a sense, be its own kind of immortality.

I find this reading a little unsatisfying though, and that dissatisfaction hinges on one word: “If.” That word presents two potential problems for what I’ve suggested in the above paragraph. First, the more natural reading of lines 3-5 is something like, “If the Wicks they stimulate are vital light, then they inhere as do the Suns.” This reading still leaves the adverbial complement of “inhere” unclear. Second, the phrase “if vital light” is conditional; there is the logical possibility that the light may not actually be vital. But if the light’s vital nature is conditional, then how exactly can it be an essential or intrinsic feature of anything, whatever it’s supposed to inhere in?

The effect of lines 3-5 is to unsteady the poem, as well as the reader’s progress through it. The pat message suggested by lines 1-2, that poets and their work are both immortal, no longer seems tenable, at least so baldly stated. But the rebuttal that lines 3-5 appear to offer, that the poets’ works will always be life-sustaining, proves illusory, because the speaker presents that suggestion in conditional and ambiguous language. There are only three lines left in this poem, and we seem to be further from the answer than when the poem began.

Here’s my proposal for how to proceed. That whole business about finding the adverbial complement for “inhere”? That was a feint, an act of misdirection on the author’s part. In addition to poems about death and immortality, Dickinson was also fond of riddles, and a good riddle needs to temporarily lead the reader astray before they find the solution. In the case of this poem, the word “inhere” makes us consider inherent properties. We’re tempted to ask questions like, “What property of poetry might make it immortal?” or “What property of light might make it vital?” As it turns out, those questions are simply of the wrong sort.

Lines 6-8 are where the riddle makes it last-second, clarifying snap. Instead of thinking about an object’s inherent properties, we need to think about its relational properties. What matters is not what poetry or light is like, but what they are like in relation to something else: the observer, the audience. “Each Age,” the speaker tells us, is “a Lens / Disseminating their / Circumference.” In the same way that a lens will focus or disperse sunlight, “Each Age” (i.e., each generation of readers) will interpret the poets’ works in its own way. Something of the original intent may be lost through these interpretations, but the speaker’s use of the word “Disseminating” reminds us that something survives the process, too.

In the end, Dickinson’s poem is neither the celebratory ode to immortal art seen in the traditional narrative, nor is it the ominous counter-narrative that we find in “Ozymandias.” Rather, it’s an acknowledgment of the importance of poets’ readerships in preserving their work. To perhaps extend her metaphor beyond its purpose, the poets’ lamps may go out, but maybe the audience can replenish the oil. Dickinson’s own work, it’s fair to say, has survived in the exact same manner.


But what do you think? What are your thoughts on “[The Poets light but Lamps –]”? Do you have a favorite Dickinson poem that you wish got more attention? Either way, feel free to share in the comments!

Normally, there is where I’d link to another post of mind of that is tangentially related to what you just read, but in this case, I’ll just point you back to that analysis of “Ozymandias” that I linked above. I spent weeks thinking my way through that poem before I felt comfortable analyzing it, and the result is one of my favorite posts on this blog.

And as always: thanks for reading!

Walt Whitman’s “A Noiseless Patient Spider”: An Analysis

Walt WhitmanI’ve indirectly talked about Walt Whitman on this blog before, when I applied his introduction to the original, 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass to the 1938 film If I Were King. But I’ve never discussed any of his actual poetry. Much like John Dryden, the last poet whose work I analyzed, most of Whitman’s best-known poems are both long and dense. Think “Song of Myself” or “I Sing the Body Electric.” As such, he doesn’t lend himself to the casual blog treatment.

Still, I think it’s time I give this central figure in American verse his due. As such, let’s take a quick dive into one of his shorter gems, “A Noiseless Patient Spider.” The text is as follows:

A Noiseless Patient Spider

A noiseless patient spider,
I mark’d where on a little promontory it stood isolated,
Mark’d how to explore the vacant vast surrounding,
It launch’d forth filament, filament, filament, out of itself,
Ever unreeling them, ever tirelessly speeding them.

And you O my soul where you stand,
Surrounded, detached, in measureless oceans of space,
Ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing, seeking the spheres to connect them,
Till the bridge you will need be form’d, till the ductile anchor hold,
Till the gossamer thread you fling catch somewhere, O my soul.

“A Noiseless Patient Spider” provides us with a perfect example of what’s called an emblem structure. A poem using an emblem structure builds an argument in two parts. In the first part, the speaker describes an object in some detail; in the second part, they reflect on the meaning, the significance, of that object. What starts out like a still life soon becomes a metaphor.

Now, unlike the octave-sestet structure of a Petrarchan sonnet, say, there’s no rule dictating where the shift in an emblematic poem will occur. However, in the case of Whitman’s poem, the two parts of the argument are very easy to spot. The first stanza gives us the description of the object (a spider spinning its web), and the second stanza gives us the speaker’s reflection on the object (how his soul is like the spider). The first lines of each stanza even act as signposts, introducing the subject of each stanza so the reader can track the speaker’s thought progression.

So how is the soul like the spider? Let’s look at how Whitman presents the spider. Before the creature even appears in the body of the poem, we learn that our subject is both “noiseless” and “patient,” which is a calming pair of adjectives, and though accurate, perhaps not the first things we think of when we hear “spider.” In the second line, the speaker gives us the spider’s situation: “on a little promontory it stood isolated.” There’s our starting premise: a spider, all alone, sitting calmly on the ledge.

From here, though, things start moving. Line 3 presents us with a syntactical ambiguity. “Mark’d how to explore the vacant vast surrounding” is parallel to the previous line, so we instinctively make the speaker the agent of everything in the phrase. In this case, that would mean the speaker is considering “how to explore the vacant vast surrounding.” But the subsequent line clarifies the agent here is the spider, not the speaker. The spider “launch’d forth filament” with goal of confronting the emptiness before it.

Whitman has put the still life into literal motion, and if line 5 is any indication, it’s a perpetual motion at that: “[e]ver unreeling…ever tirelessly speeding.” It’s also a motion the spider itself generates, for it launches the filament “out of itself.” Here we have all the material needed for a metaphor. All Whitman needs to do is to make the target of that metaphor explicit.

Indeed, the parallels between the first stanza spider and the second stanza soul are extensive. The “measureless oceans of space” that the speaker’s soul is “[s]urrounded, detached” within recall the “vacant vast surrounding” that the spider faced, as does “ceaselessly” bring us back to “tirelessly”: neither being’s efforts will end anytime soon. And of course, the soul’s actions are those of the spider as well. Just as the spider spews out its silk, the soul is always “musing, venturing, throwing, seeking the spheres to connect them.” The soul’s efforts are even likened to the spider’s material: it shoots out a “ductile anchor,” a “gossamer thread.” Just what the soul is seeking to achieve may be nebulous—and what great metaphysical mystery isn’t?—but we at least have a sense of what the soul’s actions are like. And that’s probably more than we could say going in.

Something else I’d highlight is how Whitman’s musicality perfectly reflects the actions of both the spider and the soul. Now, Whitman is of course famous as a pioneer in free verse, but free verse doesn’t reject meter, merely the rigidity of fixed forms. It embraces the flexibility of everyday speech while still elevating it to the level of verse.

Specifically, the first stanzas’s use of falling rhythms, of trochees (a stressed syllable followed by an unstressed syllable) and dactyls (a stressed syllable followed by two unstressed syllables), embodies how the spider must reach out into the unknown emptiness before it. The repetition of “filament,” of the spider’s instrument of exploration, is the most overt instance of this: “filament, | filament, | filament, | out of it | self.” But it continues into the subsequent line: “Ever un | reeling them, | ever | tire | lessly | speeding them.” The switch to trochees is a nice touch here, tightening the rhythm right at that most determined phrase: “ever tirelessly.”

As an exercise, you might go through the second stanza of the poem, and see if Whitman uses the same musical underscoring for the soul as he does for the spider. If so, then we have a consistent “pattern” (however unpatterned it actually is) for soundplay in the poem. If it’s different, what does that change tell us about how Whitman sees the soul in comparison to the spider?

What are your thoughts on “A Noiseless Patient Spider”? Feel free to share your opinions and analyses, or to suggest more classic poems to give this sort of treatment to, in the comments.