Akhmatova, Anna (Vol. 25)
Anna Akhmatova 1888–1966
(Pseudonym of Anna Andreyevna Gorenko) Russian poet, translator, and essayist.
Akhmatova is often seen as Pasternak's successor in the Silver Age of Russian poetry and is generally considered the finest woman poet Russia has produced. Participating with the Acmeists in a reaction against symbolist poetry, she wrote in a concise and accessible style. Words are used logically, imagery is concrete. Hers is an intimate and authentic poetry, showing a love of nature, of Russia, and of love itself.
Akhmatova's early collections of poetry, notably, Vecher (Evening), Chotki (Rosary), and Belaya Staya (The White Flock) contain lyric self-portraits and intensely personal reflections on love and love's sorrows. They nevertheless grope towards the making of universally true statements and do so, in the opinion of many critics, with admirable success. Critics acclaim Akhmatova's ability to reach the general through her own experiences. Written in the clear and exacting style for which she is renowned, Akhmatova's early works are often seen as the chronicle of a passionate woman's movement from love through pain and bitterness to a restoration of faith in love and life.
Although Akhmatova continued to write, after the publication of her Anno Domini MCMXII in 1921, she did not publish another collection until her Iz shesti knig (From Six Books) appeared in 1940. In this period of silence, she suffered great personal tragedy. Akhmatova's first husband, the poet Nikolai Gumilev, was executed as a counterrevolutionary and their only son was sentenced to a prison camp. He was not finally released until after the death of Stalin. Akhmatova's work of this period reflects her anguish over these events and shows a more overt love of country than her earlier works. As war and revolution spread through Russia, Akhmatova wrote of both her own losses and those suffered by all Russian people.
Akhmatova was expelled from the Writer's Union in 1946 and her work was banned from publication until after Stalin's death. She nevertheless continued to record the terrors of his regime in her poetry and speaks compelling of them in the acclaimed poem cycle, Requiem. After Stalin's death Akhmatova was allowed to travel abroad. In 1965, she received an honorary doctorate from Oxford University. She was also elected to the governing board of the Writer's Union. Akhmatova worked up to her death and her works are still being translated.
(See also CLC, Vol. 11; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 17-20, Vols. 25-28, rev. ed. [obituary]; and Contemporary Authors Permanent Series, Vol. 1.)
Leonid I. Strakhovsky
[In Vecher, Akhmatova's first book of poems, she] speaks about simple earthly happiness and about simple intimate and personal sorrow. Love, love's parting, unrequited love, love's betrayal, clear and serene confidence in the lover, feelings of grief, of loneliness, of despair—all the things that everyone might feel and understand, though perhaps less deeply and personally than the poet—such are Akhmatova's themes, told with a remarkable frugality…. (p. 57)
[In Akhmatova's second book of poetry, Chyotki,] her themes remained the same…. Akhmatova was consistent in her femininity. (pp. 60-1)
[In Akhmatova's poetry there are] unexpected but convincing, illogical but fine psychological transitions from words of emotion to words of description, from the soul to nature, from feeling to fact. She assembles artistically the particulars of a given moment which are often unnoticeable to others; she notices everything anew so that her internal world is not merely framed by the external world, but they combine into one solid and organic wholeness of life…. She often compares the present with the past, and the recollections of her childhood create nostalgic moods…. (pp. 62-3)
Akhmatova is essentially an urban poet, primarily a poet of St. Petersburg…. Yet there is something foreboding in the way she speaks about the city of Peter: "Sumptuous, graniteclad city of glory and woe"; "dark...
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For many years Anna Akhmatova's poetry appeared to her contemporaries as if it had frozen within the restricted limits laid down by her first books: Evening, Rosary, White Flock…. It seemed that the poetess, submerged in the past, in the world of intimate reminiscences and in her own tradition of versification, would never tear herself away from the captivity of her beloved themes, familiar images, and established intonations. Even in the twenties critics had written that Anna Akhmatova was doomed to "repeat herself," and, unfortunately, such a view of her poetry is still current even today in her readers' minds.
If one turns, however, to the Akhmatova of today and reads carefully everything that she has produced during the last three decades, then extraordinary, at times decidedly new notes are perceptible, and unexpectedly bold developments and turns are noticeable in a lyrical view which was fully developed long ago and of which we are still quite conscious. (p. 72)
While not ceasing to be herself, Akhmatova rejects herself, or to state it more precisely, she casts off and broadens the established image of herself which classified her only as a poet of pre-revolutionary times who is locked within her narrow limits, in one unchanged river-bed. Her civic poetry of the thirties and of the war years, so full of tragic power and courage, testifies to this most of all. Akhmatova argues against those who would...
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The Times Literary Supplement
[Anna Akhmatova's Selected Poems] ranges from whispers to anguished screams, from personal happiness to the most acute personal distress. It is lyrical, modest, feminine, narrow in tone and form. The sensibility of many passages is admirable, and has encouraged scores of young "unofficial" poets in Russia, brought up to despise sensibility, nevertheless to give expression to their own.
In her youth Akhmatova was capable of turning out sentimental trash such as "The Grey-Eyed King": the triteness of this ballad is difficult to appreciate unless one actually hears the tum-tee-tee, tum-tee-tee of the original Russian; but the fact that it was set to even triter music by the émigré chansonnier Vertinsky, and sung at moments of boozy nostalgia in those countless Russian restaurants and cafés that abounded in at least three continents during the 1920s and 1930s, speaks for itself. At her worst, Anna Akhmatova was less good than any English-language poetess who is taken seriously anywhere today.
The historical events which took her away from the parks and beaches, poets' gatherings and lovers' quarrels of her early years and placed her in the queue of women waiting endlessly outside the gates of a Leningrad prison for news of husbands or sons also eliminated every trace of false sentiment from her writing. In Requiem (1935–1940), which describes this experience, she reached the peak of her powers. But the...
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Akhmatova is a traditional poet, in the highest sense of the word….
Traditional verse more vividly than free verse emphasizes the banal, or the basic, in what is said. The contrast of traditional form to so-called contemporary content gives the work greater scale and tension. The principle is extremely simple: here is a normal person, with arms and legs, properly dressed, a tie and stickpin, but just look at the way he talks! Remember how the author of The Waste Land dressed, or imagine an automobile rushing straight toward you in your lane, and you will discover the function of the traditional verse line in Russian nineteenth-century poetry.
But Akhmatova is traditional in yet another respect. If an explosion takes place as a result of the contrast of form and content on paper, then what happens to the reader before whose eyes the poet himself stifles this explosion? Most of Akhmatova's poems are written with falling intonation toward the end, as if nothing special has happened. Whether she is calming herself or the reader is unimportant; what is important is the fact that she does this, and it is even more important to know why she does it. (p. 9)
One of the main characteristics of Russian poetry is its restraint. Russian poets (I am speaking of the best of them) never allow themselves hysterics on paper, pathological confessions, spilling ashes over their heads, curses aimed at the...
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In Akhmatova's poems we are faced with three images of the poet: the one arising out of the facts of her biography; the one created by Russo-Soviet criticism of the poems; and the one she created of herself in her work. The third image emerges initially from many different versions of 'I'. Slowly, during the course of her life, the word and the person giving the word utterance ceased any longer to be divided, so that the voice of the person Akhmatova can be heard speaking to us directly through her poetry, without intermediary and with the awesome authority of complete integrity. But in the poems of her youth we find the poet searching for heroines who can reflect a part of her own personality and set it in a larger context, freeing her experience from the purely private.
The figure of the village woman, with her structured culture of Orthodox beliefs and her ritualistic way of life, was to provide at least a partial solution to this problem of how to enrich and deepen her poetry and relate it to the events shattering and recreating her country around her, while remaining true to their reflection in her own life. The use of this woman as one of her heroines was the beginning of that 'extension of personal feelings to a wider sphere' which her critics demanded—a process which culminated in her cycle 'Requiem', written during the Terror, when finally the loss of the son by the mother becomes the loss experienced by Mary at the foot of...
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D. M. Thomas
[Akhmatova's] incorruptibility as a person is closely linked to her most fundamental characteristic as a poet: fidelity to things as they are, to 'the clear, familiar, material world'. It was Mandelstam who pointed out that the roots of her poetry are in Russian prose fiction. It is a surprising truth, in view of the supreme musical quality of her verse; but she has the novelist's concern for tangible realities, events in place and time…. In all her life's work, her fusion with ordinary unbetrayable existence is so complete that only the word 'modest' can express it truthfully. When she tells us (In 1940), 'But I warn you, / I am living for the last time', the words unconsciously define her greatness: her total allegiance to the life she was in. She did not make poetry out of the quarrel with herself (in Yeats's phrase for the genesis of poetry). Her poetry seems rather to be a transparent medium through which life streams. (pp. 9-10)
In Akhmatova all the contraries fuse, in the same wonderful way that her genetic proneness to T. B. was controlled, she said, by the fact that she also suffered from Graves' disease, which holds T.B. in check. The contraries have no effect on her wholeness, but they give it a rich mysterious fluid life, resembling one of her favourite images, the willow. They help to give to her poetry a quality that John Bayley has noted [see CLC, Vol. 11], an 'unconsciousness', elegance and...
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Anna Akhmatova's personality was phenomenal. It was not given to any woman in Russian poetry before her to express herself with such convincing, lyrical power, to speak out so independently that her voice added once and for all a special—Akhmatovan—note to the art of the Russian poetic word. Akhmatova triumphed in competition with many poets of the early twentieth century who were then regarded as leading figures in poetry and who occupied the center of the stage. Akhmatova's word did not grow dull with the years. None of the accidents of circumstance in which that word was born deadened it, killed it with the flight of time, as occurs with some poets. Countess Rostopchina, Karolina Pavlova, Iuliia Zhadovskaia, and Mirra Lokhvitskaia—all the Russian women poets of the nineteenth century were no more than undergrowth among mighty trees, among the giants of Russian poetry. Akhmatova was the first woman to rise to the heights in the writing of lyrical poetry. "I taught women to speak," she said as far back as the '30s, with reference to the unprecedentedly headlong development of female poetic creativity, which began in our century and in which the influence and example of Akhmatova were a most important factor.
From the very outset the profoundly psychological character of Akhmatova's verse did not flow in the channel of Russian Symbolism and Acmeism. Despite the passionate and high evaluation of "The Cypress Casket" … by...
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[The] young Akhmatova shuns the obscurity so characteristic of avant-garde verse. When she published her first poems, Russian readers had long been accustomed to expect new poetry not to yield its secrets as easily as hers does. True, her lyrics normally convey no more than an elusive and vague impression of emotions that are themselves elusive and vague. But they are otherwise largely free from obscurity, their originality being that of startling simplicity. The language is straightforward, conversational—at times even prosaic. The mystery lies more in the poet's personality than in her way of expressing herself.
She writes without obtrusive stylistic devices, most lyrics consisting of three or four four-line stanzas, with regular metre often iambic, and with alternate rhyming lines. But this seeming lack of adventurousness conceals much elegant workman ship, and owes some of its success to surprise; it was not what readers had come to expect in an age when art often consisted less of concealing art than of flaunting artifice.
Despite her obsession with love Akhmatova is no erotic writer. (p. 24)
Though the reader [of Akhmatova] can indeed sense … "tumultuous passions," he is also conscious of the discipline and control with which the poet deploys them. The general tone is cool, and so the comparison with Sappho sometimes made … can be misleading. If Akhmatova is seized by convulsive...
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