I am having difficultly finding information on the poem "The Last Toast" by Anna Akhmatova. I would like to know the background on why she wrote this particular poem. Thank you!
Hi there! You asked about Anna Akhmatova and her poems, in particular, "The Last Toast." This particular poem is part of a piece of poetry named "Parting." "The Last Toast" seems to have been written in 1934.
Married to Nikolay Gumilev in 1910, Anna Akhmatova divorced her first husband at the height of her fame in 1918. She later remarried another poet named Shilejko. In time, she also divorced him and became a common-law wife to Nicolai Punin. Poems like "Requiem" and "The Last Toast" were written during the turbulent Stalinist regime years, in the 1930s. These years were brutal, horrific and devastating to Akhmatova. Her first husband, Gumilev, was shot along with sixty-one others for his role in an anti-Bolshevik rebellion in 1921. The first part of "Parting" talks about
Not weeks, not months- years
We spent parting.
And she tells him that he won't "be listening til dawn/ as the stream of evidence/ Of my perfect innocence flows on." Some historians say that she is referring to her husband here (their marriage and subsequent divorce), but others suggest that "The Last Toast," which is Part III of "Parting" is written in memory of her rumored lover, Osip Mandelstam, who was himself arrested by Stalin's government and sentenced to exile to Northern Ural with his wife, Nadezhda. While there, he attempted suicide. Nicolai Bukharin, a Bolshevik revolutionary, interceded on his behalf to Stalin. Now, he and his wife were free to choose their place of residence, provided that it was not near or in any of the big cities. They chose Voronezh. This was just a brief reprieve; Mandelstam was caught in the Stalinist purge of the literary establishment, and in 1938, was sentenced to hard labor in a correction camp near Vladivostok for "counter-revolutionary activities." He died there.
Although we don't have evidence that Mandelstam was Akhmatova's lover, they were both very close. At the very least, they were very good friends.
In "The Last Toast," Akhmatova drinks "to our ruined house/ To all life's evils too/ To the loneliness we shared." The last stanza is particularly poignant:
To the eyes, dead and cold,
To the lips, lying and treacherous,
To the age, cruel and coarse,
To the fact that God has not saved us.
We know this piece of poetry was written in 1934 as mentioned above. During this period, Akhmatova lost her first husband, Gumilev, to execution, her very good friend, Mandelstam, to death in a prison camp, and her own son, Lev, to prolonged imprisonment. She was hunted by the Russian government and her own common-law husband, Punin, was repeatedly imprisoned and died in the Gulag in 1953. The Gulag was a Soviet system of forced labor camps: 18 million died in those camps building railways, working in mining operations and toiling in the timber industry. Like "Requiem," "The Last Toast" was Akhmatova's effort to give voice to the millions who suffered horribly during the Stalinist reign of terror. The "eyes dead and cold" might have referred not just to Akhmatova's dead former husbands, but also the countless millions who shared the same fate. "The lips lying and treacherous" draw our attention to the lies many must have told in a vain attempt to escape execution, sometimes implicating family and friends in the process. Indeed, the "age is cruel and course," and worse still, the pitiful last line of "God has not saved us" echoes the now silent voices of millions of innocent dead, slaughtered in the frenzy of totalitarian hegemony.
Hope this helps! Thanks for an interesting question. Here are some links for further reading: