Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2264
Article abstract: Akhmatova was one of the most acclaimed and revered poets of twentieth century Russia, struggling throughout her life to express with intimacy and insight the plight of a woman in an adversive society. For long periods she was forbidden to publish her works, but by the end of her life her constant poetic inspiration of others had earned for her the International Taormina Poetry Prize (Italy, 1964) and an honorary degree from the University of Oxford (England, 1965).
Anna Andreyevna Gorenko was born in a suburb of Odessa, in the czarist Ukraine, on June 23, 1889. Her father, Andrei Gorenko, was a naval officer who left the military soon after her birth to take a position as maritime engineer with the government. This position required him to move to Tsarskoe Selo (now Pushkin), a town near the capital city of St. Petersburg (now Leningrad) in which one of the czar’s palaces was located together with the residences of many of the nobles and highly placed government functionaries. This move well suited Anna’s mother, the aristocratic Inna Erazmovna (née Stogova), since her family, the Stogovs, claimed a noble heritage. She liked to socialize with the nobility, yet she took pride in her early associations with members of the “People’s Will” Party of radicals who had assassinated Czar Alexander II in 1881. This ambiguity of sympathies had the effect upon young Anna and her four siblings, Inna, Andrei, Iya, and Victor, of restraining them from political alignments throughout their lives.
Anna grew up in the privileged atmosphere of Tsarskoe Selo, attending school in the same town where the great poet Alexander Pushkin had once been a student. She was attracted to poetry and could recite both French and Russian verse from memory. She attended poetry readings at the home of Innokenty Annensky, an influential Symbolist poet, and began to write verse of her own in about 1904. Through her elder brother, she met the talented young poet Nikolai Gumilyov, who was immediately attracted to her. Anna’s slim figure and distinctive face, with its slightly humped Roman nose, gave her a prepossessive presence which later attracted the attention of artists. Gumilyov courted her persistently, sponsoring her into participation in the “Guild of Poets,” an organization seminal to the development of “Acmeism,” a philosophy of poetry which demanded communicative clarity and a sense of connection with the poetic heritage of Western Europe. In 1907, Gumilyov was the first to publish one of Anna’s poems in his journal Sirius. It was in this year also that Anna’s father’s extravagant life-style and his constant womanizing caused a separation in the Gorenko family. Anna went to Kiev with her mother, finishing her studies at the Fundukleevskaya Gymnaziya there and enrolling in the faculty of law at the Kiev College for Women. She soon withdrew from the study of law and moved back to St. Petersburg to study literature. It was at this time that she chose the pseudonym “Akhmatova,” the name of her maternal great-grandmother, a Tatar princess. She took a pseudonym at the request of her father that the Gorenko family not be embarrassed by her publication of poetry.
In 1910, Akhmatova married Gumilyov. For the next two years they traveled abroad, spending much of the time in Paris, where Akhmatova became friendly with the still unknown artist Amadeo Modigliani, who sketched her as a dancer and as an Egyptian queen. The marriage, however, soon foundered, with both Akhmatova and Gumilyov chafing under its traditional confinements. Gumilyov traveled on his own to Abyssinia to collect African folksongs, and Akhmatova returned to stay with her mother at a cousin’s estate in order to give birth to her son, Lev Nikolayevich Gumilyov, in October of 1912. In 1912 also, Akhmatova’s first collection of verse, Vecher (evening), appeared. The collection’s lyrics on a young woman’s realization of love and her expectation of grief brought Akhmatova both acclaim and popularity in a degree only to be envied by Gumilyov. The subsequent successes of Akhmatova’s collections—Chetki (1914; rosary) and Belaia staia (1917; white flock)—and her long poem, “U samogo morya” (1914; “By the Seashore,” 1969), only served to increase their estrangement. In 1914, Gumilyov joined the cavalry and went off to fight in World War I, where he was decorated for bravery. Akhmatova stayed with a succession of friends, leaving her son to be reared by Gumilyov’s widowed mother.
The social turmoil associated with the end of the war, the Russian Revolution of 1917, and the subsequent civil war effectively beheaded the country, with a great many intellectuals and people of established artistic reputations leaving to live and work elsewhere. Akhmatova, however, would not leave, even though her life became more difficult. In 1918, she divorced Gumilyov to marry Vladimir Shileiko, a scholar of Assyrian antiquity who opposed his wife’s poetic activities. Nevertheless, Akhmatova managed to publish the collection Podorozhnik (1921; plantain), giving therein her poetic refusal to emigrate. She visited frequently with other poets, including Osip Mandelstam, and she attended the funeral of Aleksandr Blok. In 1921 she grieved over the death of Gumilyov, who was executed by the Soviet Cheka for his alleged involvement in a counterrevolutionary plot. In the 1922 collection Anno Domini MCMXXI, a distinctly religious dimension is evident in Akhmatova’s lyric ponderings on love and human travail.
From 1922 until 1940, Akhmatova was unable to publish any new works of poetry. She was considered an “internal émigré” whose apolitical works were incompatible with the new criterion of social utility. She continued work on a collection she called Trostnik (1926-1940; the reed), dedicating poems to Mandelstam and to Boris Pasternak, and she wrote some scholarly articles on the life and works of Pushkin. The mass arrests of the 1930’s included many people close to Akhmatova. Mandelstam was arrested, released, and arrested again, finally to perish in the labor camps. Marina Tsvetayeva, another major poetess of modern Russia and a poetic admirer of Akhmatova, was arrested soon after returning from emigration and shortly after an emotional meeting with Akhmatova in Moscow. Akhmatova’s son Lev was arrested twice, the second time being released only to fight in World War II. Her companion since 1926 (she divorced Shileiko in 1928), art critic Nikolai Punin, was also arrested. Akhmatova’s response to all this suffering is contained in the monumental poetic dirge Rekviem (1963; Requiem, 1964), which was finished in 1940 but remained unpublished in the Soviet Union. In 1940 also, Akhmatova was allowed to prepare an edition of her early works entitled Iz shesti knig (from six books), but this edition was quickly withdrawn from publication. That same year she began work on her beautiful poetic opus Poema bez geroa (1960; A Poem Without a Hero, 1973), which she continued to perfect until her death.
World War II occasioned a relaxation of the governmental strictures on poetry, and Akhmatova, who was living in Leningrad during the early days of the terrible Nazi siege, was allowed to speak to her fellow Leningraders by radio, inspiring them with her poetry and her words of encouragement. In October of 1941, however, Akhmatova was evacuated, first to Moscow, and then to Tashkent, from which a collection of selected early verse was published in 1943. The publication of her poem “Muzhestvo” (“Courage,” 1976) in the Communist Party newspaper Pravda in 1942 had signaled her temporary return to governmental grace, and her poems were subsequently published in several journals. After the war, however, the Communist Party decided to reimpose the former controls on literature, choosing specifically to reorganize two journals, Zvezda and Leningrad, and to denounce Akhmatova and the humorist Mikhail Zoshchenko, who had been published in them. Akhmatova, termed “half-nun, half-harlot” by Stalinist stalwart Andrei Zhdanov, was subsequently expelled from the Soviet Writers Union. Akhmatova’s son Lev was arrested once more, only to be released in 1956 after Nikita S. Khrushchev’s denunciation of Joseph Stalin’s “cult of personality” and the associated “thaw” in the Soviet social and artistic climate. Akhmatova survived this period on a meager pension by selling translations of verse from several languages to others. Several volumes of these translations have since been published as separate imprints. One cycle of poems, V khvale mira (1950; in praise of peace), was ostensibly written in conformance to governmental canon to ease the plight of her son.
After 1958, Akhmatova was officially “rehabilitated.” An edition of her earlier poetry, supplemented by more recent works, was published under the title Beg vremeni (1965; the flight of time). A large new collection, Sed’maya kniga (1965; partial translation as The Seventh Book, 1976), containing poetic musings on poetry itself, on symbolism, and on death, as well as parts of A Poem Without a Hero, was also published. Approaching her seventies and ailing from a weakened heart, Akhmatova was recognized as the “grande dame” of Russian letters. She began to act as a mentor to others, protesting, for example, the internal exile of the young Joseph Brodsky, a future Nobel laureate. She met the famed American poet Robert Frost. In 1964, she traveled abroad to receive the Taormina Poetry Prize in Italy, and in 1965 she was awarded an honorary doctorate at the University of Oxford in England. Her death in March of 1966 deprived Russian literature of a great poet. Her body was flown from Moscow to Leningrad, where it lay in state, visited by hundreds, in the Nikolsky Cathedral. She is buried in the town of Komarovo.
Millions of Russians know an Anna Akhmatova poem by heart, many of them committing their individual favorite to memory at a time when the poem’s publication was banned. Many Russian poets have imitated Akhmatova’s dirgelike recitation style. They admire her not only for the quality of her poetry but also for her lifelong advocacy of poetry as an enrichment of life, as a catalyst to sharing life’s most profound values with others. Her poetry was mature from its very beginnings and is often praised for its intimacy of expression and for its touching insights into the human condition. She was especially sensitive to the problems faced by women in society, and she consciously served as a role model for later numbers of feminist poets. Akhmatova was clearly apolitical in her achievements, appealing instead to the emotional bases of human existence, yet she remained loyal to her beloved Russian people through the sternest of its governmental trials of her. Recognizing her genius for expression of the deepest emotions and the loftiest thoughts, Akhmatova was ever true to her talent, persevering to transmit her gift to others despite the most constant and daunting of hardships. Her love lyrics and her poetic explorations of grief are regarded to be among the finest in any language. Translations of her verse and international scholarship concerning her verse and her life have ensured for her a prominent place in world literature.
Akhmatova, Anna A. Poems. Translated by Lyn Coffin, with an introduction by Joseph Brodsky. New York: W. W. Norton, 1983. Selected, high-quality verse translations of Akhmatova’s poems, including several not found elsewhere. The insightful introduction by Brodsky lends the book biographical and critical significance.
Akhmatova, Anna A. Poems of Akhmatova. Translated by Stanley Kunitz, with an introduction by Kunitz and Max Hayward. Boston: Little, Brown, 1973. A concise biographical sketch by Max Hayward, together with verse translations by Kunitz. A nice feature of this collection is that it pairs Akhmatova’s Russian versions with Kunitz’s translations on opposing pages.
Akhmatova, Anna A. Selected Poems. Edited by Walter Arndt. Translated by Arndt, Robin Kemball, and Carl R. Proffer. Ann Arbor, Mich.: Ardis, 1976. This collection includes a fine article entitled “The Akhmatova Phenomenon” and a chronicle of Akhmatova’s life. The translations are especially well done and well explained by notes.
Driver, Sam N. Anna Akhmatova. New York: Twayne, 1972. This is the first English biography, written six years after Akhmatova’s death. The first third of the book deals with biographical facts and the remainder with a thematic explanation of the poetry. It is a concise yet scholarly work, still serving as the best primary introduction to Akhmatova’s life.
Haight, Amanda. Anna Akhmatova: A Poetic Pilgrimage. London: Oxford University Press, 1976. A substantially more detailed biographical treatment of Akhmatova’s life by a Western scholar personally acquainted with Akhmatova. This work is a valuable resource for the specialist as well as the layperson.
Ketchian, Sonia. The Poetry of Anna Akhmatova: A Conquest of Time and Space. Munich: Otto Sagner Verlag, 1986. A brilliant scholarly study of themes and method in Akhmatova’s poetry. Here too is the most complete inclusion and recapitulation of recent Akhmatova scholarship, both Soviet and Western. The work, however, would appeal primarily to literary scholars.
Mandelstam, Nadezhda. Hope Against Hope: A Memoir. Translated by Max Hayward, with an introduction by Clarence Brown. New York: Atheneum, 1976. This memoir by Mandelstam’s widow includes many a glimpse into Akhmatova’s life as well and is especially valuable to those wishing to understand what a poet’s life was like in the Soviet Union of the Stalin era.
Rosslyn, Wendy. The Prince, the Fool, and the Nunnery: The Religious Theme in the Early Poetry of Anna Akhmatova. Amersham, England: Avebury, 1984. An examination of the interplay of religion and love in Akhmatova’s early collections, this book also contains considerable biographical detail. Poems are included in both Russian and English translation.
Verheul, Kees. The Theme of Time in the Poetry of Anna Axmatova. The Hague: Mouton, 1971. This was one of the first English scholarly monographs devoted to Akhmatova’s poetry and is still one of the most cited. The book is written for the specialist and includes many untranslated Russian citations.