Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Twentieth century literature has been shaped by certain recurrent themes, one of which is the theme of time. “White Night” is one of a small number of Akhmatova’s earliest poems in which the workings of time relationships—the possibilities of the past, present, and future converging like chemical elements in constantly changing hybrid combinations with unpredictable properties—as the basis of human experience are explored as an important corollary to the theme of tragic love. In her later poems, written after 1940, the theme of time consciousness takes center stage, and other leitmotifs become supporting players, merely different aspects of Akhmatova’s main obsession with time.

“White Night” weaves an awareness of time throughout the strains of its melancholy song. Temporal time is shown in the betrayal of the heroine through her separation from her lover, and in the symbolism associated with images such as candles and fields. The past intrudes in the world of memory, in the missing lover’s reflected existence playing in the heroine’s mind, and in the point of time of the poem: sunset, a vivid reminder of the passing day. It is the anxiety caused by this intrusion, fused with the heroine’s vision of hearing her lover’s voice signaling his hoped-for return, that feeds her loneliness.

The primary theme of the poem, the theme that is expressed by the messages of time in “White Night” and is common to all the poems in Vecher, is the emotional dimensions of love. Akhmatova was a Russian Orthodox Christian, whose philosophy was rooted in “Judeo-Christian values” and who saw art and culture as part of God’s hand in the world. Acmeism was, in essence, a religious approach to poetry, in which even ordinary, everyday occurrences had metaphysical significance: The Acmeist’s responsibility was to fuse the finite and the infinite, not to escape into spiritual transcendence (the Symbolists’ purpose), but to build beauty out of natural materials as a means of revelation. For Akhmatova, love was the conduit.