Anna Akhmatova’s poetry can conveniently be divided into three distinct periods: 1912 to 1923, 1940 to 1946, and 1956 to 1966 (with a few poems published in 1950). The interim periods were those of enforced silence. The first silence, from 1923 to 1940, came as a result of tacit admission on her part that the changed way of life in Russia was not fully acceptable to her. The second, from 1946 to 1956, was a direct result of the authorities’ intervention. Needless to say, Akhmatova kept busy by further refining her poetry, by writing essays, and by translating.
Vecher and Chetki
Akhmatova’s development as a poet can be traced from book to book. Her first books, Vecher and Chetki, impressed readers with the freshness of a young woman’s concern about her feelings of love. In almost all the poems having love as a focal point, Akhmatova presents love from a woman’s point of view, in a form resembling a diary. It is difficult to say whether the female voice in these poems belongs to the poet herself; probably it does, but in the last analysis it is immaterial. The beloved is almost always silent, never fully revealed or described, and at times he seems to be almost secondary—only a catalyst for the woman’s feelings. She is so entranced by his mere presence that, in her anguish, she draws her “left-hand glove upon [her] right.” The poet expresses the whole spectrum of love—from the playfulness of a young woman trying to dismay her partner (to prove that she, too, can wield some power over him) to moments of flaming passion.
To be sure, passion is presented implicitly, in the time-honored tradition of Russian literature, yet it is also vividly indicated in unique ways. As she says, “In human intimacy there is a secret boundary,/ Neither the experience of being in love nor passion can cross it/ Though the lips be joined together in awful silence/ And the heart break asunder with love.” Her fervent passion is coupled with fidelity to her partner, but as her loyalty is professed time and again, a note of frustration and a fear of incompatibility and rejection become noticeable. The prospect of unrequited love is confirmed by betrayal and parting. The ensuing feeling of loneliness leads to despair and withdrawal. The woman’s reaction shows a mixture of anger, defiance, even resignation: “Be accursed . . ./ But I swear by the garden of angels/ By the holy icon I swear,/ By the passionate frenzy of our nights,/ I will never go back to you!” (These lines, incidentally, prompted Zhdanov, in his merciless attack many years later, to call Akhmatova “a nun and a harlot.”) Thus, celebration, parting, and suffering receive equal play in Akhmatova’s approach to love, although the ultimate outcome is a markedly unhappy one. Her love poetry is a vivid testimony both to the glories and to the miseries of her gender.
The feminine “I” of the poems seeks refuge, release, and salvation in religion, nature, and poetry. The refuge in religion is especially evident in Chetki. The work has a peculiar religious tone, pervaded, like Akhmatova’s sentiments of love, with a mood of melancholy and inexplicable sadness. The persona seems to have found consolation for unhappiness in love when she says: “The King of Heaven has healed my/ Soul with the icy calm of love’s/ Absence.” Her prayers are mostly in the form of confession or intercession. It is easy to see, however, that they are used primarily to compensate for her feeling of loneliness and weariness of life. Thus, privations and misfortunes are closely tied to her religious feelings; sin and atonement are inseparable, and her passions of the flesh are tempered by spiritual fervor. Akhmatova’s poems with religious overtones have little in common with customary religious experience. They are also much more complex and psychologically laden than any of her other poetry.
Belaya staya and Anno Domini MCMXXI
In Akhmatova’s third collection, Belaya staya, a new theme joins those of love and religion: a presentiment of doom. Nourished by the horrors of war and revolution, this presentiment grows into a wake for a world on the verge of annihilation. As the revolution dragged on, Akhmatova’s mood turned bleaker and more hopeless. She sought rapport with the events by writing poetry with political motifs, but to no avail.
The poems in Anno Domini MCMXXI clearly reveal Akhmatova’s state of mind and emotions at this difficult time, as well as her awareness that an era had come to an end. “All is sold, all is lost, all is plundered,/ Death’s wing has flashed black on our sight,/ All’s gnawed bare with sore, want, and sick longing,” she laments in one poem. She refused to emigrate, however, knowing instinctively, as did Boris Pasternak many years later when he was threatened with expulsion from the Soviet Union, that for a poet to leave his or her native land is tantamount to a death worse than physical death. She did not hesitate to criticize those who had left their country in its worst hour: “Poor exile, you are like a prisoner/ To me, or one upon the bed/ Of sickness. Dark your road, O wanderer,/ Of wormwood smacks your alien bread.” These lines have been quoted often by Soviet critics for propaganda purposes, although Akhmatova wrote them sincerely, as a poet who could not tear herself away from her own land.
War and love of country
In the poems in which Akhmatova grappled with the problems of present-day reality, a gradual shift from intimate love poetry toward more worldly themes can be seen. This shift can be considered as an overture to another kind of Akhmatova’s poetry. Tormented by the turbulent years of war and revolution, in which she made many personal sacrifices and witnessed many tragedies (the loss of friends, for example, including her former husband Nikolay Gumilyov), she was forced to face reality and to express her feelings and opinions about it. The silence imposed on her in 1923 only postponed further development in that direction.
When she was allowed to reappear shortly before World War II, Akhmatova wrote little in her old idiom. In many poems written during the war, she extols the beauty of her land and the magnitude of the...
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