Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2574
Anna Akhmatova’s poetry can conveniently be divided into three distinct periods: 1912 to 1923, 1940 to 1946, and 1956 to 1966 (with a few poems published in 1950). The interim periods were those of enforced silence. The first silence, from 1923 to 1940, came as a result of tacit admission on her part that the changed way of life in Russia was not fully acceptable to her. The second, from 1946 to 1956, was a direct result of the authorities’ intervention. Needless to say, Akhmatova kept busy by further refining her poetry, by writing essays, and by translating.
Vecher and Chetki
Akhmatova’s development as a poet can be traced from book to book. Her first books, Vecher and Chetki, impressed readers with the freshness of a young woman’s concern about her feelings of love. In almost all the poems having love as a focal point, Akhmatova presents love from a woman’s point of view, in a form resembling a diary. It is difficult to say whether the female voice in these poems belongs to the poet herself; probably it does, but in the last analysis it is immaterial. The beloved is almost always silent, never fully revealed or described, and at times he seems to be almost secondary—only a catalyst for the woman’s feelings. She is so entranced by his mere presence that, in her anguish, she draws her “left-hand glove upon [her] right.” The poet expresses the whole spectrum of love—from the playfulness of a young woman trying to dismay her partner (to prove that she, too, can wield some power over him) to moments of flaming passion.
To be sure, passion is presented implicitly, in the time-honored tradition of Russian literature, yet it is also vividly indicated in unique ways. As she says, “In human intimacy there is a secret boundary,/ Neither the experience of being in love nor passion can cross it/ Though the lips be joined together in awful silence/ And the heart break asunder with love.” Her fervent passion is coupled with fidelity to her partner, but as her loyalty is professed time and again, a note of frustration and a fear of incompatibility and rejection become noticeable. The prospect of unrequited love is confirmed by betrayal and parting. The ensuing feeling of loneliness leads to despair and withdrawal. The woman’s reaction shows a mixture of anger, defiance, even resignation: “Be accursed . . ./ But I swear by the garden of angels/ By the holy icon I swear,/ By the passionate frenzy of our nights,/ I will never go back to you!” (These lines, incidentally, prompted Zhdanov, in his merciless attack many years later, to call Akhmatova “a nun and a harlot.”) Thus, celebration, parting, and suffering receive equal play in Akhmatova’s approach to love, although the ultimate outcome is a markedly unhappy one. Her love poetry is a vivid testimony both to the glories and to the miseries of her gender.
The feminine “I” of the poems seeks refuge, release, and salvation in religion, nature, and poetry. The refuge in religion is especially evident in Chetki. The work has a peculiar religious tone, pervaded, like Akhmatova’s sentiments of love, with a mood of melancholy and inexplicable sadness. The persona seems to have found consolation for unhappiness in love when she says: “The King of Heaven has healed my/ Soul with the icy calm of love’s/ Absence.” Her prayers are mostly in the form of confession or intercession. It is easy to see, however, that they are used primarily to compensate for her feeling of loneliness and weariness of life. Thus, privations and misfortunes are closely tied to her religious feelings; sin and atonement are inseparable, and her passions of the flesh are tempered by spiritual fervor. Akhmatova’s poems with religious overtones have little in common with customary religious experience. They are also much more complex and psychologically laden than any of her other poetry.
Belaya staya and Anno Domini MCMXXI
In Akhmatova’s third collection, Belaya staya, a new theme joins those of love and religion: a presentiment of doom. Nourished by the horrors of war and revolution, this presentiment grows into a wake for a world on the verge of annihilation. As the revolution dragged on, Akhmatova’s mood turned bleaker and more hopeless. She sought rapport with the events by writing poetry with political motifs, but to no avail.
The poems in Anno Domini MCMXXI clearly reveal Akhmatova’s state of mind and emotions at this difficult time, as well as her awareness that an era had come to an end. “All is sold, all is lost, all is plundered,/ Death’s wing has flashed black on our sight,/ All’s gnawed bare with sore, want, and sick longing,” she laments in one poem. She refused to emigrate, however, knowing instinctively, as did Boris Pasternak many years later when he was threatened with expulsion from the Soviet Union, that for a poet to leave his or her native land is tantamount to a death worse than physical death. She did not hesitate to criticize those who had left their country in its worst hour: “Poor exile, you are like a prisoner/ To me, or one upon the bed/ Of sickness. Dark your road, O wanderer,/ Of wormwood smacks your alien bread.” These lines have been quoted often by Soviet critics for propaganda purposes, although Akhmatova wrote them sincerely, as a poet who could not tear herself away from her own land.
War and love of country
In the poems in which Akhmatova grappled with the problems of present-day reality, a gradual shift from intimate love poetry toward more worldly themes can be seen. This shift can be considered as an overture to another kind of Akhmatova’s poetry. Tormented by the turbulent years of war and revolution, in which she made many personal sacrifices and witnessed many tragedies (the loss of friends, for example, including her former husband Nikolay Gumilyov), she was forced to face reality and to express her feelings and opinions about it. The silence imposed on her in 1923 only postponed further development in that direction.
When she was allowed to reappear shortly before World War II, Akhmatova wrote little in her old idiom. In many poems written during the war, she extols the beauty of her land and the magnitude of the martyrdom of her people under attack by a ruthless enemy. Leningrad, the city of her life and of her dreams, is especially the object of her affection. Tsarskoe Selo—a settlement near Leningrad, which was the residence of the czars; the town of young Alexander Pushkin; and the town of Akhmatova’s favorite poetry teacher Innokenty Annensky as well as of her own youth—remained vividly and forever etched in her memory, even when she saw it almost totally destroyed in the war.
Leningrad and Tsarskoe Selo were not the only places to which Akhmatova paid homage; indeed, all Russia was her home. Her attitude toward her country is typical of many Russian intellectuals, who, despite a thick veneer of cosmopolitanism, still harbor a childlike, sentimental, and sometimes irrational love for their country. From her earliest poems to her last, Akhmatova expressed the same feeling for Russia, a strange mixture of abstract love for her country, on one hand, and down-to-earth concern for its people, on the other. In the poem “Prayer,” for example, she prays to the Lord to take even her child and to destroy “the sweet power of song” that she possesses if it would help to change “the storm cloud over Russia . . . into a nimbus ablaze.”
This willingness to sacrifice what is dearest to her if it would benefit her country is no mere affectation—it is expressed with utmost sincerity and conviction. In a poem written almost thirty years later, “From an Airplane,” she again expresses her love for her country in no less sincere terms: “It is all mine—and nothing can divide us,/ It is my soul, it is my body, too.” Perhaps the most profound and meaningful testimony to her patriotism can be found in the poem “Native Land,” written in the last years of her life. For her, her country was “the mud on our gumboots, the grit in our teeth . . ./ And we mill, and we mix, and we crumble/ This innocent earth at our feet,/ But we rest in this earth at the roots of the flowers,/ Which is why we so readily say: It is ours!”
Akhmatova did not limit her gaze to European Russia, where she was reared and where she spent most of her life. Through her experiences in Tashkent, the city in which her ancestors had resided, she acquired a great admiration for, and understanding of, the Asian mind and soul. A mystical bond with Asia inspired her to write some of her most beautiful descriptive poems, such as “From the Oriental Notebook.”
Nevertheless, Akhmatova could not close her eyes to the Soviet reality, in which she was personally caught in a most tragic way. In a unified cycle of poems, Requiem, a masterpiece unpublished in the Soviet Union until 1987, she expresses her deep sorrow about not only her personal loss but also the suffering to which the Russian people were being subjected. Requiem was her closest approach to public castigation of the regime in her country. The tone for the entire work is set by the motto, which sadly admits that the circumstances are not those of a foreign country but, more personally, those of the poet’s own country and people. In a short foreword in prose, Akhmatova tells how during the horrible years of the purges she spent seventeen months waiting in line in front of a prison to discover the fate of her son. Another woman recognized her and whispered, “Can you describe this?” “Yes, I can,” Akhmatova replied.
She kept her promise by writing Requiem. Although much of it reflects the universal sorrow and despair of a mother on the verge of losing her son, it is the injustice of her suffering that most pains the poet. Using her personal sorrow to speak for all human beings who suffer unjustly, the poet created in Requiem a work of lasting value. Moreover, there is much encouragement to be gained from Requiem. The persona does not lose hope and courage. She perseveres, knowing that the victims are unjustly persecuted and that she is not alone in suffering. In the epilogue, she recalls the trying hours and the faces she has seen in those seventeen months; in her final words, she begs that her monument be erected in front of the prison where she has stood for “three hundred hours,” so that the thawing snow from the face of her monument will glide like tears. Even if overt references to the political terror are overlooked, Requiem is still one of the twentieth century’s most eloquent poetic testimonies to human tragedy.
Akhmatova’s poetry from the last decade of her life shows the greater maturity and wisdom of old age. Her approach to poetic themes is more epic and historical, with a deeper perspective. This mature poetry is also more philosophical and psychological. The best example is the autobiographical A Poem Without a Hero, a panoramic view of the previous century as it pertains to the present. It is a subtle and at times complex poem, difficult to fathom without a proper key.
In her last poems, Akhmatova speaks as if she has realized that her active role is over and that nothing else can hurt her. Her work at this time shows a mixture of sadness, resignation, relief, and even slight bewilderment as to what life really is after more than seven decades of coping with it: “The grim epoch diverted me/ As if I were a river./ I have been given a different life. In a new bed/ The river now flows, past the old one,/ And I cannot find my shores. . . .” She finds solace in her increasing loneliness, contemplating the past, trying to reevaluate it and to find the correct perspective on it. In one of her last poems, written slightly more than a year before her death, she speaks of the “Supreme Mystery.” It has been on her mind from the beginning, changing its face from period to period. In her early poetry, it was the mystery of the man-woman relationship. Later, it became the mystery of the man-to-man relationship, with the emphasis on the cruelty of man to man. In her last years, it became the mystery of the relationship of man to eternity, indeed, the mystery of the meaning of existence. Through such organic development, Akhmatova reached the pinnacle of her poetic power, the power found in Pasternak’s late poetry and in the work of other great poets of the century.
Form and style
The stylistic aspect of Akhmatova’s poetry is just as important as the thematic one, if not more so. She shows several peculiarly Akhmatovian features. Above all, there is the narrative tone that points to a definite affinity with prose. Formalist critic Viktor Zhirmunsky calls her entire oeuvre “a novel in verse.” It is this affinity that enables her to switch easily from emotion to description. Connected with this skill is a dramatic quality, expressed either through inner monologue or dialogue. The second striking feature is the brief lyric form, usually consisting of three to four stanzas, rarely five to seven, and never more than seven. (Later in her career, Akhmatova wrote many poems in free verse.) Parallel to the brevity of form is a pronounced laconism: A few carefully selected details suffice to convey an entire picture. Akhmatova’s economy of words, spare almost to the point of frugality, led her to the epigrammatic form and to fragmentation, understatement, and improvisation. As a result, her sentences are sometimes without a verb and even without a subject (that being quite possible in Russian). Another peculiarity is the concreteness of her images, especially with reference to space and time. She tells the reader exactly where and when, almost to the minute, the events in her poem take place. The colors are vividly and exactly given. She avoids metaphors, instead using pointed, explanatory epithets. Finally, her intonation, never scrupulously measured or regulated, is that of a syncopated rhythm, approaching the rhythm of some forms of folk poetry. Many of these stylistic features result from her adherence to the tenets of Acmeism, but many others are uniquely her own and are easily recognizable as such.
Of the poets who influenced her, Akhmatova herself admits indebtedness to Gavrila Derzhavin, Pushkin, and Annensky. The latter two can be said to have exerted the greatest influence on her, although traces of other poets’ influences—Nikolai Nekrasov, Aleksandr Blok, Mikhail Kuzmin—can be found. Even Fyodor Dostoevski, who never wrote poetry, is sometimes mentioned as a possible source of influence. As for her impact on other poets, Akhmatova’s influence, like that of her great contemporaries, Mandelstam, Pasternak, and Marina Tsvetayeva, is pervasive, elusive, impossible to measure. In her old age, she recognized the talent of Joseph Brodsky—then only twenty-two years old—and passed on her mantle, as Nadezhda Mandelstam has said, in a kind of poetic succession. Akhmatova, “Tragic Queen Anna,” as literary historian Alexander Werth calls her, is a poet without whom modern Russian literature is unthinkable and by whom world literature has been significantly enriched.