One day in the autumn of 1968, in the tiny Siberian village of Korenskaya, some 300 miles from the Arctic Circle, the Russian poet Joseph Brodsky, who was twenty-four years old and had been sent to Korenskaya to serve a five-year term of internal exile for the crime of ‘parasitism’, picked up an anthology of English poetry and, intending to turn to the poems of T. S. Eliot, found himself reading instead W. H. Auden’s poem ‘In Memory of W. B. Yeats’, which includes the lines:

Time that is intolerant
Of the brave and innocent
And indifferent in a week
To a beautiful physique,

Worships language and forgives
Everyone by whom it lives;
Pardons cowardice, conceit,
Lays its honours at their feet.

Brodsky was thunderstruck. Another reader coming upon these lines might conclude that Auden was merely affirming, in diffident, lightly mocking diction, the ancient faith of the poet that in his poems he, as well as those about whom he writes, can live beyond death and survive the general ruin of time. Brodsky, however, detected in the word ‘worships’ a new note, a new thought. And that new thought set in motion in his mind a stream of further thoughts about time, language and other matters which has continued to flow down to this day. They lie at the core of his collection of critical and autobiographical essays, Less Than One. Brodsky was so astonished when he read Auden’s lines that at first, as he looked out of the small window of his shack at the familiar ‘muddy dirt road with a few stray chickens on it’, he doubted that he had correctly understood what he had read. ‘But for once the dictionary didn’t deceive me,’ he writes, in an essay on Auden. ‘Auden had indeed said that time (not the time) worships language.’

Cold Storage
Letters from Prison