Akhmatova’s early lyrics are brief, immediate, and intimate—a sampler of love in its many and various stages, but usually lost or about to be lost as a sacrifice of freedom or self. Less declarations of love than examinations (or a postmortem) of it, they are a sober, clear-eyed, often ironic acknowledgment of its primacy in the speaker’s life. They owe as much to Russian nineteenth century psychological prose as they do to poetic tradition: From the former comes emotional subtlety; from the latter comes restraint, straightforward syntax, and classical meter. What distinguishes Akhmatova from her immediate predecessors, the Symbolists, is what she does not do. She avoids their mysticism, mythmaking, and exoticism; she eschews their much-touted “musicality” in favor of the intonations of everyday speech. Often her lyrics are monologues or dialogues with narration, and in a dozen or so lines, she manages to create the psychological complexity of an entire novel.
While using mainly classical meters, Akhmatova juxtaposes unexpected, seemingly random images—a physical gesture, detail, or impression defining a psychological or spiritual state, as in the oft-quoted “Song of the Last Meeting”:
Then helplessly my breast grew cold,But my steps were light.I pulled the glove for my left handOnto my right.
Her speaker is most often a woman, but she wears a variety of masks, from the mythological Cassandra to an Orthodox Christian villager reared in a tradition of meekness and resignation. Though Akhmatova may use the imagery and intonation of Russian folk song or belief, she avoids dialect or any imitation of a folk style. The “I” may be...
(The entire section is 746 words.)