Anna Akhmatova

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 953

Considered Russia's finest female poet, Akhmatova is known for her accessible style and concrete images. Her poems deal with personal issues of love and suffering, but are often interpreted as metaphors for the plight of the Russian people as a whole. Her work, considered subversive during the Stalinist era, was banned for many years. After Stalin's death in 1953, her reputation was gradually restored and she was able to resume publishing original verse.


Akhmatova was born Anna Andreevna Gorenko on June 11, 1889, near Odessa, on the coast of the Black Sea. Her father was a retired maritime engineer who moved his family to Tsarskoye Selo near St. Petersburg the year after Akhmatova was born. There she attended the classical school for girls where she was, by her own account, a less-than-dedicated student. She began writing poetry at the age of eleven after recovering from a mysterious illness that nearly proved fatal. In 1905, Akhmatova's parents separated and her mother took the children south to Evpatoria where Akhmatova continued her education with a tutor; the following year, she attended the Fundukleyev school in Kiev. Although she entered Law School at the University of Kiev, she found the subject of literature more interesting, and transferred to St. Petersburg, attending Rayev's Higher Historico-Literary Courses. On April 25, 1910, Akhmatova married the poet Nikolai Gumilyov, whom she had met as a student and who had published her first poem in his literary journal Sirius in 1907. The couple honeymooned in Paris and took up residence in Tsarskoe Selo, spending their summers in Slepnyovo. Their son, Lev, was born in 1912, the same year Akhmatova published her first volume of poetry, Vecher (Evening). The pair had little in common except their love of poetry, and the marriage was further strained by Gumilyov's frequent trips abroad and Akhmatova's increasing fame and success. In 1913, Gumilyov enlisted in the cavalry and the couple was separated for almost six years. They divorced in 1918 and both remarried soon afterward, Akhmatova to Vladimir Kazimirovich Shileyko, another poet to whom she remained married for only a short time.

After the October Revolution in 1917, Akhmatova withdrew from literary society and began working in the library of the Agronomy Institute. At this time, her poetry began attracting unfavorable attention from the government and the Communist Party. Gumilyov was executed for treason in 1921, and Akhmatova's work was unofficially banned in 1925. She published no original poetry for many years although she continued to write, translate verse, and research her literary hero, Alexander Pushkin, a subject that occupied her attention for twenty years. She produced several critical essays on Pushkin, but the book-length study she planned never materialized. The Stalin years were a period of isolation and silence for Akhmatova; she lost many literary friends and associates to the purges, and her son, Lev, was arrested and imprisoned several times. By 1941, Akhmatova was living in Leningrad, but managed to escape to Moscow during the siege. She spent most of the war in Tashkent, returning to Moscow and then to Leningrad in 1944. After Stalin's death in 1953, Akhmatova's standing as a major poet was reevaluated and restored over a period of several years. She was readmitted to the Union of Soviet Writers, from which she had earlier been expelled, and she resumed publication of her poetry, some of which she had committed to memory rather than risk producing a written record during the Stalin years. Two of her most acclaimed works, Poema Bez Geroya: Triptykh (1960; Poem without a Hero) and Rekviem: Tsikl Stikhotvorenii (1963; Requiem), were published during this second, very productive period of her career. Akhmatova lived to the age of 78. She died on March 5, 1966, and is buried in a small village near Leningrad.


Akhmatova's work is generally divided into two periods: the first associated with the love lyrics she produced in her youth, from the beginning of her publishing career until 1922, and the second associated with poems composed during and after her long period of silence. Her early work, published in the collections Evening, Chetki (1914; Rosary), and Belaya Staya (1917; The White Flock) were enormously popular among her contemporaries. She developed a cult following in St. Petersburg where young lovers committed her verse to memory and recited it to each other. The religious imagery that characterized her later work began to appear in these early volumes. Her reputation today is based on the two major works of her later period. The first, Requiem, is a collection of short poems that loosely form a narrative related to the Crucifixion, but more literally related to her personal suffering and, by extension, the suffering of her fellow citizens in the Soviet Union. The second, Poem without a Hero, was composed and revised over a twenty-year period and deals with the brutality of war and revolution.


Akhmatova's work is often considered part of the Acmeist movement, a reaction to the late-nineteenth-century Symbolist poetry that preceded it. Her work is praised for its concrete images and a style that is far more straightforward and accessible than that of the Symbolists. Scholars also consider the political nature of some of her work, which reflects the tumultuous events she experienced throughout her long life; they maintain that she acted as spokesperson for the Russian people during those years of war and civil unrest. Recently, feminist scholars have suggested that she was particularly able to articulate the suffering of the women of Russia and to serve as their leader during the most intense periods of hardship, such as the siege of Leningrad in 1941. Often cited is Akhmatova's radio address praising the women of Leningrad for their work in civil defense and care of the wounded and assuring the citizens that "a city which has bred women like these cannot be defeated."

Poem without a Hero

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7559


SOURCE: Rosslyn, Wendy. "Don Juan Feminised." In Symbolism and after: Essays on Russian Poetry in Honour of Georgette Donchin, edited by Arnold McMillin, pp. 102-21. London: Bristol Classical Press, 1992.

In the following excerpt, Rosslyn suggests that Akhmatova's Poem without a Hero is a reworking of the Don Juan legend with a female protagonist.

Traditionally the Don Juan legend focuses on a man who claims many female victims of his desires, and who is finally brought to justice by supernatural powers, usually in the form of a statue of a male rival. The legend is not at first sight open to re-telling with a female protagonist, but I wish to suggest that this is indeed what is done by Akhmatova in her Poema bez geroia ('Poem without a Hero', 1940-62).

It has become customary to think of Poema bez geroia as a reflection on wrongdoing, conscience, and retribution (in the context of the 1917 Revolution and its aftermath) and these are three concepts which also, of course, lie at the heart of the Don Juan legend: Don Juan's mis-spent life meets with retribution from the Commendatore's statue, and he is dragged down to hell. The purpose of this paper is, therefore, to look at Akhmatova's poem in the light of this legend and to suggest that one reading of the poem is as a narrative about 'love, unfaithfulness and passion'>1> and their moral implications. It will also be necessary to consider the gender changes which Akhmatova's re-telling involves. Akhmatova brings the Don Juan legend to mind by incorporating into her poem allusions to several previous tellings of the myth, and does so from the very outset. The title of the poem, 'Poem without a Hero', echoes the opening of Byron's Don Juan (1819-1824), where the narrator asserts:

I want a hero: an uncommon want,
When every year and month sends forth a new one,
Till, after cloying the gazettes with cant,
The age discovers he is not the true one:
Of such as these I should not care to vaunt,
I'll therefore take our ancient friend Don
We all have seen him, in the pantomime,
Sent to the devil somewhat ere his time.>2>

(Akhmatova let it be known, perhaps with a touch of braggadocio, that she had read Byron's poem, in English moreover, forty times.)>3> The epigraph to the poem as a whole, 'Di rider finirai / Pria dell'aurora', is taken from Da Ponte's libretto for Mozart's Don Giovanni (1787) and serves to pinpoint the core of the myth as far as the Poema is concerned, namely imminent retribution for frivolity and mockery before the dawn of a new day in which these attitudes have no place. Part 1 of the poem carries an epigraph, 'In my hot youth—when George the Third was king …', also taken from Byron's Don Juan. And in Part 2, 'Reshka', Akhmatova adds a note on the omitted stanzas which calls attention to Byron's Don Juan via a note of Pushkin's. Molière's Dom Juan ou Le Festin de Pierre (1665) is alluded to in the Poema in the reference to 'Meierkhol'd's little arabs' (meierkhol'dovye arapchata), the proscenium servants used by Meierkhol'd in his production of the play staged in Leningrad in 1910.>4> And Hoffmann's story Don Juan of 1813 has also left echoes in the text.>5> Pushkin's play based on the Don Juan legend, Kamennyi gost' ('The Stone Guest', 1830), is neither named nor quoted, but lies behind much of Akhmatova's reshaping of the myth in the Poema, as I hope to show. As is well known, Akhmatova was writing her essay on Pushkin's little tragedy at the same time as working on her own poem.>6> The poem also contains many allusions to Blok's poem 'Shagi Komandora' ('The Commendatore's Footsteps', 1910-12),>7> which Akhmatova felt to be particularly close to her own work when she was in Tashkent and writing the Poema.>8>

In the period round about 1913 which the Poema depicts, the Don Juan legend was alive and productive. Not only was Blok writing 'Shagi Komandora'. 1906 saw the 150th anniversary of Mozart's birth, and scenes from Don Giovanni were performed at the Mariinskii Theatre in Petersburg as part of the celebrations. It has also been suggested that the epigraph from Don Giovanni is connected with Akhmatova's contemporary and friend, the composer Artur Lur'e, who picked out these lines from the libretto in his article on Mozart's opera.>9> Pushkin's text also had a contemporary resonance inasmuch as Dargomyzhskii's Kamennyi gost', the libretto of which was based on Pushkin, was on the Petersburg stage in 1915 at the Teatr muzykal'noi dramy and in 1917 at the Mariinskii, the latter production being by Meierkhol'd.>10> Shaliapin, who, like Meierkhol'd, also figures in the Poema, was to have sung Leporello, but withdrew after irreconcilable differences with Meierkhol'd. Not for nothing, therefore, does Akhmatova dress one of the masked figures who visit the author in 1913 at the beginning of the poem as Don Juan.

Don Juan's character is, of course, analysed and presented in very different ways in the texts alluded to in the Poema, and the details of the plot vary accordingly. However, the protagonist in each is male. When Hoffmann turned the presentation of Don Juan in a new direction, showing him as a man with a god-like nature who strives towards the sublime, pursuing perfect beauty in the form of the ideal woman who will give him paradise on earth, a new emphasis was given to the last of Don Juan's victims, Donna Anna, who thus became the embodiment of female perfection and the potential saviour of Don Juan. This conception of female beauty was followed by Pushkin, and to a still greater degree by Blok. Akhmatova, however, firstly feminises Don Juan, and secondly rejects the idea of the saving power of female beauty.

Akhmatova's poem by no means constitutes a retelling of the legend with the traditional characters and plot; the foundation for her Don Juan scenario is the theme of wrongdoing followed by retribution. The wrongdoing is partly defined as 'sin' to be punished with 'holy revenge' (consonant with the theological interpretations of the legend)>11> and partly as shamelessness. The important passage is the one from the interlude 'Cherez ploshchadku' which, according to the poem, hovered around the lines

No bespechna, priana, besstydna
Maskaradnaia boltovnia …>12>

The passage begins by relating 'the chatter at the masquerade':

'Uveriaiu, eto ne novo …
Vy ditia, sin'or Kazanova …'
'Na Isaak'evskoi rovno v shest'…'
'Kak-nibud' pobredem po mraku,
My otsiuda eshche v "Sobaku".
'Vy otsiuda kuda?'—
'Bog vest'!'
Sancho Pansy i don Kikhoty
I, uvy, sodomskie Loty
Smertonosnyi probuiut sok,
Afrodity voznikli iz peny,
Shevel'nulis' v stekle Eleny,
I bezum'ia blizitsia srok.
I opiat' iz Fontannogo Grota,
Gde liubovnaia stonet dremota,
Cherez prizrachnye vorota
I mokhnatyi i ryzhii kto-to
Kozlonoguiu privolok.
Vsekh nariadnee i vsekh vyshe,
Khot' ne vidit ona i ne slyshit—
Ne klianet, ne molit, ne dyshit,
Golova Madame de Lamballe.
A smirennitsa i krasotka,
Ty, chto koz'iu pliashesh' chechetku,
Snova gulish' tomno i krotko:
'Que me veut mon Prince Carnaval?'

These stanzas are saturated with allusions to sexual promiscuity. Casanova, who requires no further amplification, is here partnered by a woman whose sexual experience allows her to consider him 'a child'. The righteous Lot is tempted. Aphrodite, the goddess of sensual love, is born; Helen, whose beauty was the cause of violence on a cataclysmic scale, looks at herself in the glass—or to be more precise, since Aphrodite and Helen appear in the plural, modern women begin acting out these roles. The grotto in the garden of the House on the Fontanka (the Sheremet'ev palace, where Akhmatova lived for many years) where love is said to lie sleeping, symbolises, on the contrary, the relationship between the actress Parasha Zhemchugova and her husband Count D. N. Sheremet'ev, whose devotion lasted even beyond her death in 1803, as his many inscriptions to her in the house and garden show. A plaque on a marble pedestal in the garden, for instance, reads:

Je crois son ombre attendrie
Errer autour de ce séjour,
J'approche—mais bientôt cette image chérie
Me rend à ma douleur en fuyant sans retour …>13>

Akhmatova notes in her essay on Pushkin's Kamennyi gost' that betrayal of the virtuous spouse after his or her death was in Pushkin's view an unforgivable sin (p. 163) and Sheremet'ev is in this respect a shining example of virtue. But in Akhmatova's poem love, as distinct from sex (liubov', as distinct from izmena and strast'), 'sleeps', and a contrast is established between this faithful couple and another—the ryzhii and kozlonogaia, who in the Romanov-Sats ballet Kozlonogie (The Fauns, 1912) participate in a triangle of relationships in a plot which, according to one opinion of the time, put L'Après-midi d'un faune in the shade as far as pornography was concerned.>14> At the end of the passage one of the heroines of the poem, a beautiful woman who is both the Petersburg actress who plays the faun and the author's double, asks languorously and submissively what her partner wants of her. Akhmatova implies that a prime factor in the wrong-doing for which retribution is to be exacted is sexual licence.

However, although the faults of a society in which Don Juan can flourish are far more narrowly identified than, for example, by Byron in his Don Juan, the poem is not merely a puritanical tirade against sexual promiscuity. The fault or sin diagnosed here is self-indulgent behaviour which has no accompanying sense of shame ('No bespechna, priana, besstydna / Maskaradnaia boltovnia …'). The author questions her double about her unfaithfulness, and, as is made apparent by the question which follows immediately after, receives no answer:

Zolotogo l' veka viden'e
Ili chernoe prestuplen'e
V groznom khaose davnikh dnei?
Mne otvet' khot' teper':
Ty kogda-to zhila v samom dele?

The actress, who plays the faun and is to be contrasted to Zhemchugova, is unable to say whether her behaviour is innocent or criminal because her conscience is atrophied. Satan is similarly defined as one 'who does not know what conscience means and why it exists', and it is lack of conscience which is the prime ground for condemnation in the poem.>15>

A second allegation made against the culture of 1913 is its predilection for assuming masks and playing roles; these signs of a shallow sophistication lead to a diminished sense of the integrity and uniqueness of the self:

I vse shepchut svoim dianam
Tverdo vyuchennyi urok …

and thus again to an inactive conscience. The contrast between play and conscience is established in Part 2 of the poem, 'Reshka', where the carnival atmosphere of 1913 does not survive the catastrophes brought by the True Twentieth Century (which for Akhmatova began in 1914), but religious anthems do:

Karnaval'noi polnoch'iu rimskoi
I ne pakhnet. Napev Kheruvimskoi
U zakrytykh dverei drozhit …

Akhmatova makes the same diagnosis as Nadezhda Mandel'shtam, who wrote that 'the legacy of the pre-revolutionary years was self-indulgence, loss of criteria, an incessant craving for happiness'.>16>

As in the legend, Akhmatova shows in her poem the retribution which this wrong-doing calls down upon itself. And she associates it with an almost apocalyptic event which will happen before dawn:

Zvuk orkestra, kak s togo sveta,
(Ten' chego-to mel'knula gde-to),
Ne predchuvstviem li rassveta
Po riadam probezhal oznob?


Ved' segodnia takaia noch',
Kogda nuzhno platit' po schetu …

Retribution will be brought about by a quasi-human power which is hardly susceptible to description in advance, but which is variously envisaged as gost' zazerkal'nyi and kto-to (Part 1, Chapter 1) or ten' (Part 1, Chapter 3). All these denote some humanoid phenomenon not unlike the statue in the legend. Akhmatova also shows the decisive moment which symbolises that wrong-doing as a crisis point in the interrelationships of three people, two of whom are rivals for the favours of the third.

However, having incorporated the Don Juan legend into her text, Akhmatova re-formulates it very radically. Firstly, the attributes which traditionally belong to Don Juan are not only given to the rival figure in this triangle, but are distributed more widely. The passage just quoted suggests, in fact, that sexual licence is a rather general mode of behaviour, the loose morality of the times against which the actress's infidelity to her admirer, the cornet of dragoons, must be seen. One hypostasis of Don Juan is the cornet's rival:

Na stene ego tverdyi profil'.
Gavriil ili Mefistofel'
Tvoi, krasavitsa, paladin?
Demon sam s ulybkoi Tamary,
No takie taiatsia chary
V etom strashnom dymnom litse:
Plot', pochti chto stavshaia dukhom,
I antichnyi lokon nad ukhom—
Vse—tainstvenno v prishletse.
Eto on v perepolnennom zale
Slal tu chernuiu rozu v bokale
Ili vse eto bylo snom?
S mertvym serdtsem i s mertvym vzorom
On li vstretilsia s Komandorom,
V tot probravshis' prokliatyi dom?

Like Pushkin's Don Guan, this figure hovers on the boundary between utter damnation and salvation and it is unclear whether at heart he is Gabriel or Mephistopheles. Much in this passage suggests that the prototype is Blok, who reads himself into the Don Juan role in his 'Shagi Komandora'. Indeed, Anna Lisa Crone argues that Akhmatova resorts to the Don Juan theme as an allegory for the events in Blok's life.>17> But Blok was for Akhmatova 'a monument to the beginning of the century', and elsewhere she said, 'Blok turned up in my poem "Triptych" [ie the three-part Poema] as an epoch-person '.>18> There is thus no need to restrict the identification of Don Juan exclusively to Blok, especially since when Akhmatova asks whether the cornet's rival is to be identified with Don Juan, she concludes with a question mark and provides no answer.

We therefore have grounds for considering other possible hypostases of Don Juan, and one of these is, I suggest, the author of the poem, who 'descends under the dark vaults', prepares supper for a guest, senses that her end is at hand,>19> and seems to see a mysterious and horrifying visitor who emerges from the grave, through the gravestone, knocks at the door, comes in, and beckons her, apparently to the place whence he has come. All this happens, moreover, at the moment when the author is challenging the supernatural powers (God, or fate) with a denial of their control over her, like the over-confident Don Juan:

Smerti net—eto vsem izvestno,
Povtoriat' eto stalo presno,
A chto est'—pust' rasskazhut mne.
Kto stuchitsia?
Ved' vsekh vpustili.
Eto gost' zazerkal'nyi? Ili
To, chto vdrug mel'knulo v okne …
Shutki l' mesiatsa molodogo,
Ili vpravdu tam kto-to snova
Mezhdu pechkoi i shkafom stoit?
Bleden lob, i glaza otkryty …
Znachit, khrupki mogil'nye plity,
Znachit, miagche voska granit …
Vzdor, vzdor, vzdor! Ot takogo vzdora
Ia sedoiu sdelaius' skoro
Ili stanu sovsem drugoi.
Chto ty manish' menia rukoiu?!
Za odnu minutu pokoia
Ia posmertnyi otdam pokoi.

In her discussion of Pushkin's Kamennyi gost' Akhmatova sets out the evidence for viewing Don Guan as Pushkin's self-portrait.>20> In this same passage she also observes that Pushkin gradually lost his readers, and the fact that she made the same observation of herself allows us to consider Akhmatova's assertion that Don Guan is Pushkin's self-portrait as an oblique indication that the equivalence of author and Don Juan applies equally to her own poem. We may see a parallel between Pushkin's Don Guan, who is within a hair's breadth of salvation, and the author's awareness of her own sinfulness and her fear and rejection of her past self:

S toi, kakoiu byla kogda-to
V ozherel'e chernykh agatov
Do doliny Iosafata,
Snova vstretit'sia ne khochu …

The author refers ironically in 'Reshka' to her earlier books of poems:

Nu, a kak zhe moglo sluchit'sia,
Chto vo vsem vinovata ia?
Ia—tishaishaia, ia—prostaia,
'Podorozhnik', 'Belaia staia'…
Opravdat'sia … no kak, druz'ia?

And in these books too we find her presenting herself as a Don Juan figure. The most direct statement is made in a poem of 1913, the year evoked in Poema bez geroia. As in the Poema, the setting for Don Juan-like behaviour in this poem is the Stray Dog cabaret in prerevolutionary Petersburg:

Vse my brazhniki zdes', bludnitsy,
Kak neveselo vmeste nam!
Na stenakh tsvety i ptitsy
Tomiatsia po oblakam.

Ty kurish' chernuiu trubku,
Tak stranen dymok nad nei.
Ia nadela uzkuiu iubku,
Chtob kazat'sia eshche stroinei.

Navsegda zabity okoshki.
Chto tam—izmoroz' ili groza?
Na glaza ostorozhnoi koshki
Pokhozhi tvoi glaza.

O, kak serdtse moe toskuet!
Ne smertnogo l' chasa zhdu?

A ta, chto seichas tantsuet,
Nepremenno budet v adu.

The seductive heroine exercises her sexual attraction in a relationship which is cold and calculating on both sides, and foresees that the fate of women like herself (vse my …) who are already spiritually dead is undoubtedly to go to hell. The revelry before the anticipated retribution is a direct reflection of the lines from Don Giovanni, 'Di rider finirai / Pria dell'aurora'. Moreover, the heroine of Akhmatova's early poems, who, fearing the intimacy of loving relationships, consistently subverts them and extricates herself from them, going on from one lover to the next in search of utterly elusive happiness, is also the victim of the psychology of a Don Juan.>21>

In the Poema the author has a double, and the latter, the actress, is also endowed with the characteristics of Don Juan. We see her at her marriage ceremony thinking of a past affair, and we see her scorn the feelings of her devoted admirer the cornet in favour of a rival. She is compared to Botticelli's Spring—which suggests that she is the embodiment of instinctive sexuality—and to a magnet, which attracts lovers inevitably and indiscriminately. She is thus presented as a symbol of sexuality acting almost on an animal level, as the comparison to a faun (kozlonogaia), half-goat and half-human confirms.

It can therefore be argued that in Poema bez geroia Akhmatova shows that the sins of Don Juan are the sins of a whole generation, in which women sin in the same ways and to no less an extent than men. This is to say that when Akhmatova feminises the Don Juan figure she does not allot Don Juan's attributes to women alone, but points out that they are, in potential at least, part of human nature in general, and are thus as often to be found in women as in men. This point had, of course, already been made by Byron, whose Don Juan is the seduced rather than the seducer. The prototype of this female Don Juan is to be found in Pushkin's Kamennyi gost', where Laura, an actress like the Columbine figure, lives for the sensual pleasures of the moment, has no moral principles, and transfers her affections effortlessly from one man to another; Don Karlos describes her way of life:

Ty moloda … i budesh' moloda
Eshche let piat' il' shest'. Vokrug tebia
Eshche let shest' oni tolpit'sia budut,
Tebia laskat', leleiat', i darit',
I serenadami nochnymi teshit',
I za tebia drug druga ubivat'
Na perekrestkakh noch'iu …

The recasting of Don Juan as a woman has radical repercussions on other aspects of the legend, as used in the Poema. Since women are reinterpreted in this way, there can be, and is, no Hoffmannesque female figure of saving virtue in this poem. Nor is any figure the equivalent of the Commendatore, the animated statue, who is the other embodiment of honour and fidelity in the legend.

At this point reference should be made to V. N. Toporov's discussion of the Don Juan legend in the poem, since Toporov discerns both a Donna Anna and a Commendatore in it. He identifies lines 130-60 of Chapter 1 in Part 1 of the poem as the 'carcass' of the legend, and sees this scene as an inverted imitation of the scene of the destruction of Don Juan:

… the criminal rendez-vous is interrupted by the arrival of the man who considers himself the husband … but the death of Don Juan at the hand of the Commendatore is transformed into the death of the man who takes on (even if only in part) the role of the Commendatore, thus turning the woman into his window. But Don Juan remains alive …>22>

It is, however, over narrow to restrict the reworking of the Don Juan legend in the poem to a mere thirty lines—passages reflecting the legend which fall outside this section have been mentioned above—and some other objections must also be made.

To Toporov's qualified assertion that the cornet plays the role of the Commendatore one may firstly point out that there is a real husband in the text, though the cornet would certainly like to supplant him. Secondly, that Akhmatova discarded the variant lines about the cornet which refer to him as 'honour's friend'. Thirdly, that Akhmatova sets up a parallel between the cornet and Evgenii from Pushkin's Mednyi vsadnik. Both hear the ringing of horses' hooves at their moment of crisis:

Veter, polnyi baltiiskoi soli,
Bal metelei na Marsovom Pole,
I nevidimykh zvon kopyt …
I bezmernaia v tom trevoga,
Komu zhit' ostalos' nemnogo
Kto lish' smerti prosit u boga
I kto budet navek zabyt.

Both lose their beloveds. Both are forgotten as soon as they die, except inasmuch as they figure in a poem recounting their fate. The fact that Evgenii is the victim of the animated statue suggests, therefore, that his correlative in Akhmatova's poem, the cornet, is not the equivalent of the Commendatore. Finally, the cornet is not presented as a character so virtuous that he can act as the means of vengeance for supernatural powers of good. The cornet's fidelity to the actress is viewed in the poem as a fault rather than a virtue. It is alleged that it would have been more worthy to weather the blow to his pride constituted by her unfaithfulness, and to live on to devote himself to other goals. This is to say that fidelity to the beloved is not conceived of as a good sufficient in itself—conscience, discrimination and responsibility are also required. In terms of the legend, the cornet fits better into the role of one of the helpless victims of Don Juan, since he is a victim of the actress whom I construe as one of the Don Juan equivalents. Just as Don Juan claims many female victims, their lives wrecked by seduction, she is likewise the cause of the cornet's suicide. Virtue is the property, as I have already suggested, of Zhemchugova, Sheremet'ev and bygone days; in the twentieth century it is characteristic only of The Poet:

I ni v chem ne povinen: ni v etom,
Ni v drugom i ni v tret'em …
Voobshche ne pristali grekhi.
Propliasat' pred Kovchegom Zaveta
Ili sginut'!…

Noting Akhmatova's observation that Pushkin's Don Guan is a poet, and bearing in mind the lines about The Poet in the Poema which have just been quoted here, Toporov turns to Akhmatova's poem 'Cherez 23 goda', which echoes these lines, and finds 'a correspondence (in this case no significance other than a formal-referential one should be given to this word) between Donna Anna in the Don Juan tragedy and the author, who bears the same name' (p. 38). He also adduces evidence for Blok's conception of Akhmatova as a Donna Anna figure.

Akhmatova's constant awareness of the associations surrounding her name make this a weighty argument. However, the question here is not what subtexts attach to the name 'Anna' but whether any person in Akhmatova's poem carries out the function played by Donna Anna. Hoffmann considers her to be:

… a divine woman, against whose pure soul the Devil has been powerless. All the machinations of hell could ruin her only on earth […] Suppose Anna had been destined by heaven to make Don Juan recognise the divine nature within him through love (which Satan skilfully used to ruin him) and to rescue him from the despair of his own striving.>23>

Pushkin views his Donna Anna in a similar light, causing Akhmatova to observe in her discussion of Kamennyi gost' that Donna Anna is the instrument of Don Guan's regeneration (p. 100). However, Akhmatova comments in a later revision of this article that while for Don Guan Dona Anna is an angel and his salvation, for Pushkin she is 'a very coquettish, curious and fainthearted woman, and a sanctimonious hypocrite'. Pushkin finds her unfaithfulness to her dead husband unforgivable (p. 163).

Toporov writes that Akhmatova follows Hoffmann in her conception of this figure in Poema bez geroia: 'before Akhmatova only Hoffmann in his Don Juan saw in the image of Anna in the traditional scheme the hypostasis of the potential saviour of Don Juan who comes (albeit too late) to save him with her love' (p. 175). But he does not explain this statement by reference to the poem and it is difficult to discern a female saviour in it. Although Blok's Donna Anna from 'Shagi Komandora' is mentioned in the poem, it is not asserted unequivocally that this is a characterisation of the lady of the house (the author's double) and thus of the author:

Over the bed there are three portraits of the lady of the house in some of her roles. On the right she is the Faun, in the centre Lady Confusion, on the left the portrait is in shadow. Some think it is Columbine, others that it is Donna Anna (from 'Shagi Komandora').>24>

However, if the essence of Donna Anna's function in the legend is to attempt to save Don Juan, and if Don Juan can be identified as the author of the poem, then it can be said that the latter looks for salvation to the poem itself, which does have something in common with Donna Anna, in both her Pushkinesque forms. In its personified form, the 'stoletniaia charovnitsa ', the Poema is certainly coquettish:

Kruzhevnoi roniaet platochek,
Tomno zhmuritsia iz-za strochek
I briullovskim manit plechom.

and it offers the author a kiss, just as Dona Anna kisses Don Guan:

My s toboi eshche popiruem,
I ia tsarskim moim potseluem
Zluiu polnoch' tvoiu nagrazhu.

Moreover, Akhmatova points out in her essay that when his death is at hand, Pushkin's Don Guan turns to Dona Anna, who occupies all his thoughts at this terrible moment (p. 100):

Ia gibnu—koncheno—o Dona Anna!

Similarly, in Chapter 3 of Part 1 of the Poema, when retribution in the form of the True Twentieth Century is approaching, the author too cries out:

A po naberezhnoi legendarnoi
Priblizhalsia ne kalendarnyi—
Nastoiashchii Dvadtsatyi Vek.
A teper' by domoi skoree
Kameronovoi galereei
Razve my ne vstretimsia vzgliadom
Nashikh prezhnikh iasnykh ochei?
Razve ty mne ne skazhesh' snova
I razgadku zhizni moei?

The fact that the passage is connected with N. V. Nedobrovo, and that the call is thus to a former love and not a present one, suggests that there is no character in the poem who functions as Donna Anna; but the fact that the appeal is for 'the word which conquers death' suggests that the poem itself is, potentially at least, able to save,>25> though we should not ignore the poem's demonic aspects, as described in 'Reshka'. We may, however, view the poem as a substitute for Donna Anna.

Akhmatova rejects Hoffmann's romantic conception of the saving power of woman, pure in soul and beautiful of face. Her poem illustrates the old truth first symbolised by Helen of Troy that female beauty can be the cause of catastrophe, no less than male Don Juanism, and shows that purity of soul, male or female, is not to be found in the world of the Poema—unless it be in The Poet. She is thus spared the necessity which befalls Hoffmann of making out a special case for Donna Anna's exceptional status to explain why she has fallen victim to Don Juan just like multitudes of purportedly lesser women before her. Hoffmann is obliged to divide Donna Anna into flesh and spirit and assert that hell has power only over the former, heaven avenging this corruption of her body by dragging Don Juan off to hell. In succumbing to Don Juan, Hoffmann argues, she succumbs to a supernatural power—the devil—which she cannot be expected to resist successfully, and though she loves Don Juan she does not hope for earthly happiness. The women in Akhmatova's poem both avoid this flesh-spirit divide and are morally responsible agents in control of their own fates, rather than the ground on which supernatural powers vie for superiority.

It may seem that, if there is no character in the poem who represents Donna Anna or the Commendatore, rather little is left of the Don Juan myth: all that remains is Don Juan himself or, as I interpret the poem, herself. However, just as Donna Anna has a substitute in the personified Poema, the Commendatore also has a substitute.>26> Akhmatova abandons the animated statue motif>27> but retains the function carried out by the traditional statue: punishment of sin in hell. The poem speaks of the retribution which comes to the Don Juan heroine in terms of going through hell:

Ty sprosi u moikh sovremennits:
Katorzhanok, stopiatnits, plennits—
I tebe porasskazhem my,
Kak v bespamiatnom zhili strakhe,
Kak rastili detei dlia plakhi,
Dlia zastenka i dlia tiur'my.

Posinelye stisnuv guby,
Obezumevshie Gekuby
I Kassandry iz Chukhlomy,
Zagremim my bezmolvnym khorom:
(My uvenchannye pozorom)
'Po tu storonu ada my'.

The substitute for the Commendatore is the history of the True Twentieth Century, which in Part 3 of the poem condemns the author (and by extension all the Don Juans in the poem) to lose her home, to see her city destroyed, to be disgraced and to be kept under tight political control. A double of hers perishes in a camp. It is because of the fact that in Akhmatova's reworking of the legend retribution comes in this world, and not in the next, that Don Juan remains alive: in the twentieth century he (or she) has no need to die in order to go through hell, and to pay the price of wrong-doing.

What then remains of the Don Juan legend in the Poema? The Commendatore and Dona Anna disappear as characters, their functions taken over by powers in the poem which are not of a human order. Don Juan's other victims, never amongst the chief protagonists, are likewise subsidiary characters here. Don Juan is virtually all that remains. But this is a more psychologically complex figure than previous Don Juans.

The 'I' of the Poema is, as I have argued, a Don Juan figure who pays for wrongdoing by being visited by a supernatural presence and who is punished in hell. But this Don Juan remains alive and is regenerated by this harrowing experience, so that the voice of the author looking back on her sinful youth is no longer that of the conscience-less Don Juan. It is no accident that the lines chosen for the epigraph from Byron's Don Juan ('In my hot youth—when George the Third was king') lead on to a passage which asserts the difference in viewpoint made by the passing of time:

' Non ego hoc ferrem calida juventa
Consule Planco ', Horace said, and so
Say I; by which quotation there is meant a
Hint that some six or seven good years ago
(Long ere I dreamt of dating from the Brenta)
I was most ready to return a blow,
And would not brook at all this sort of thing
In my hot youth—when George the Third was

But now at thirty years my hair is gray—
(I wonder what it will be like at forty?
I thought of a peruke the other day—)
My heart is not much greener; and, in short, I
Have squander'd my whole summer while 'twas
And feel no more the spirit to retort; I
Have spent my life, both interest and principal,
And deem not, what I deemed, my soul
invincible …

… No more—no more—Oh! never more, my heart,
Canst thou be my sole world, my universe!
Once all in all, but now a thing apart,
Thou canst not be my blessing or my curse:
The illusion's gone for ever, and thou art
Insensible, I trust, but none the worse,
And in thy stead I've got a deal of judgment,
Though heaven knows how it ever found a lodgment.>28>

There are reminiscences of several of these lines in Poema bez geroia. The money metaphor is echoed in Akhmatova's 'nuzhno platit' po schetu'. 'My blessing or my curse' has its parallel in 'Gavriil ili Mefistofel'. But most important of all is the contrast between heart, the preserve of youth, and the judgment which comes with maturity. This is also the contrast which holds in the Poema between the author's sinful younger self and the judgmental older self who looks back on 1913 from the viewpoint of 1940. To use the imagery of the epigraph from Don Giovanni, dawn brings sobriety after the night before and enables one to see more clearly than during the hours of darkness. Akhmatova's comment that in Kamennyi gost' 'Pushkin punishes himself, young, carefree and sinful as he was' (p. 108) is equally applicable to her stance in her own poem. One result of the identification of Don Juan with the author's 'I' is that we perceive Don Juan presented by him/herself and from the inside: we do not observe him from the outside as we do the character in Pushkin's play, or Byron's narrative poem, in which he is spoken of in the third person; we are thus made privy to the workings of his/her conscience.

If we return to the dramatis personae of the legend, we can perhaps call this older self-critical self the internal Commendatore, for it is the self which punishes the Don-Juanish impulses. As the author says, 'sebia kazniu'.>29> Punishment in the forms inflicted by twentieth-century history is willingly suffered, since the self has already acknowledged its justification and necessity, and has sentenced itself to purgative penance. Just as Akhmatova saw Kamennyi gost' as exposing the wounds of Pushkin's conscience (p. 104), her own poem is the salving of similar wounds. Finally, we should also bear in mind that the author of the Poema is one of those Poets who are described in it as the embodiment of innocence. In this sense the author's personality also embraces an internal Donna Anna: just as Donna Anna is a figure chosen 'by heaven' (in Hoffmann's phrase), Akhmatova likens the Poet to King David, chosen by God.>30> It is precisely because of the complexity of the authorial persona with its three aspects—Don Juan, Commendatore and Donna Anna—that the poem Akhmatova writes is both demonic and potentially a source of salvation.>31> And it is also because of the complexity of her persona that her double in the poem, the Petersburg actress, takes on the very assorted roles of the faun, Lady Confusion, and Columbine or Donna Anna.

The feminisation of the Don Juan image is of course one of the inversions which one would expect to find in a work pervaded by the notion of carnival. Commenting on Poema bez geroia as one of the manifestations of the carnival tradition, not only in respect of its imagery, V. V. Ivanov writes:

… it is impossible not to see in it that archetypal sense which Akhmatova herself attributed to these carnival symbols, when she emphasised in another of her poems that the impression of masquerade arises from the author's distancing in time […] The layering of various strata of carnival, which are directly connected with the atmosphere of the 1910s and arise from the point of view of the 'estranged' author distanced in time, makes the analysis of the role of the masks and of the 'chatter at the masquerade' particularly promising: behind the symbol being deciphered another mask may come to light which it will be possible to read only by contrasting the various time dimensions of the poem.>32>

That mask would seem to be Don Juan.

Poema bez geroia replays the Don Juan legend, but though the essence of the plot is retained, two of the central characters, Donna Anna and the Commendatore, are abandoned, substitutes of a nonhuman order being found for them. Of the original characters, only Don Juan remains, and he is translated into the feminine. But the characterisation of this Don Juan is very complex. He is neither the negative hero of most tellings of the myth, nor Hoffmann's exculpated positive hero. Not only is (s)he corrupted flesh and moral vacuity; (s)he is also moral principle and hence self-condemnation, and thereafter self-punishment too. The traditional characters of the Don Juan myth are internalised and, within one single character,>33> play out a drama in which the unthinking immorality of youth is severely condemned by maturity, which consciously accepts the retribution meted out to it, as a means of purgation and atonement. The author is thus a female Don Juan reformed.>34>


  1. Poema bez geroia, Part 3
  2. Canto I, stanza I. Byron's observations about regiments of heroes with feet of clay hymned by a duplicitous press apply neatly to Stalin's Soviet Union.
  3. L. K. Chukovskaia records her as saying in 1955: 'I have read the original 40 times—it is a bad, even ugly piece […] Byron was out to shock his readers and deliberately made the piece sound unharmonious. Moreover there are disgusting bedroom scenes in abundance […] The only good thing Byron has in it is one lyric digression.' See Zapiski o Anne Akhmatovoi (Paris, YMCA-Press, 1976-80), Vol. II, pp. 61-2.
  4. See my 'Theatre, theatricality and Akhmatova's Poema bez geroya', Essays in Poetics, Vol. XIII, 1988, No. 1, pp. 100-1.
  5. V. N. Toporov, Akhmatova i Blok, (Berkeley, Berkeley Slavic Specialties, 1981), p. 176.
  6. 'Kamennyi gost' Pushkina', in Anna Akhmatova, O Pushkine. Stat'i i zametki, compiled by E. G. Gershtein, (Leningrad, 1977), pp. 89-109 and 161-71.
  7. See Toporov, pp. 36-40.
  8. V. V. Ivanov, 'Struktura stikhotvoreniia Bloka "Shagi Komandora"', in Z. G. Mints (ed.), Tezisy I Vsesoiuznoi (III) konferentsii 'Tvorchestvo A. A. Bloka i russkaia kul'tura XX veka' (Tartu, 1975), p. 38.
  9. B. Kats and R. Timenchik, Anna Akhmatova i muzyka. Issledovatel'skie ocherki (Leningrad, 1989), p. 199.
  10. K. Rudnitskii (Rezhisser Meierkhol'd [Moscow, 1969], p. 196) notes the connection between this production of Kamennyi gost' and Meierkhol'd's Maskarad. Both conceive of life as a masquerade. It was possibly after the dress rehearsal of the latter that, Akhmatova says, the Poema first began 'to sound' within her (Anna Akhmatova, Sochineniia, Moscow, 1986, Vol. II, p. 221).
  11. Benois' Moscow production of 1915 saw the play as the struggle of the human soul with God and with other souls, which it conquers until at the last it is itself destroyed (see A. Gozenpud, Russkii opernyi teatr mezhdu dvukh revoliutsii 1905-1917, (Leningrad, 1975), p. 346.
  12. Compare Akhmatova's description of Pushkin's Don Guan as combining coldness and cruelty with 'detskaia bespechnost' ('Kamennyi gost' Pushkina', p. 95).
  13. See P. Bezsonov, Praskov'ia Ivanovna, grafinia Sheremet'eva. Eia narodnaia pesnia i rodnoe eia Kuskovo (Biograficheskii ocherk, s portretom) (Moscow, 1872), pp. 80-85.
  14. F. Lopukhov, Shest'desiat let v balete (Moscow, 1966), p. 182. On the ballet in connection with Poema bez geroia, see my 'Akhmatova's Poema bez geroia: ballet and poem' in The Speech of Unknown Eyes: Akhmatova's Readers on her Poetry, edited by Wendy Rosslyn, (Nottingham, Astra Press, 1990), pp. 55-72.
  15. See the monk's description of the hero: 'Razvratnym, bessovestnym, bezbozhnym Don Guanom', reinforced by Leporello's 'Bessovestnyi!' in Scene 1 of Pushkin's Kamennyi gost'.
  16. N. Mandelstam, Hope Abandoned, translated by Max Hayward, (New York, Atheneum, 1974), p. 437.
  17. Anna Lisa Crone, 'Blok as Don Juan in Axmatova's Poema bez geroja', Russian Language Journal, XXXV, Nos. 121-2, 1981, pp. 145-62.
  18. Quoted by Toporov, p. 20.
  19. Compare the lines 'Gibel' gde-to zdes', ochevindo' and 'Ne poslednie l' blizki sroki', the latter identified by Toporov as a quotation from Hoffmann's Don Juan, where it is addressed to Donna Anna (p. 176).
  20. On the autobiographical nature of Pushkin's Kamennyi gost' see also Henry Kucera, 'Puskin and Don Juan', in Morris Halle et al. (comp.), For Roman Jakobson (The Hague, Mouton, 1956), pp. 281-4.
  21. For a discussion of Akhmatova's early poems in this light, see my The Prince, the Fool and the Nunnery: the Religious Theme in the Early Poetry of Anna Akhmatova, (Amersham, Avebury, 1984).
  22. Toporov, p. 37.
  23. Quoted by Toporov, p. 175.
  24. Stage directions to Chapter 2 of Part 1. Italics added.
  25. See 'Nadpis' na poeme "Triptikh"', which refers to, and addresses, Poema bez geroia:

    Spasi zh menia, kak ia tebia spasala,
    I ne puskai v klokochushchuiu t'mu.

  26. Byron also contemplated a substitute for hell: 'I had not quite fixed whether to make him end in Hell, or in an unhappy marriage, not knowing which would be the severest. The Spanish tradition says Hell; but it is probably only an Allegory of the other state.' (Letter to his editor, quoted in Leo Weinstein, The Metamorphoses of Don Juan (Stanford, Stanford University Press, 1959), p. 81.
  27. On statues in Akhmatova's poetry see my paper 'Remodelling the statues at Tsarskoe Selo: Akhmatova's approach to the poetic tradition', read at the conference entitled 'A Sense of Place: Tsarskoe Selo and its Poets' held at Dartmouth College in October 1989 and to be published in the conference proceedings.
  28. Don Juan, Canto 1, stanzas 212-13, 215. Isaiah Berlin (Personal Impressions [London, Hogarth Press, 1980], pp. 193-4) writes of his visit to Akhmatova in 1945: '… she asked me whether I would like to hear her poetry: but before doing this, she said that she wished to recite two cantos from Byron's Don Juan to me, for they were relevant to what would follow. Even if I had known the poem well, I could not have told which cantos she had chosen, for although she read English, her pronunciation of it made it impossible to understand more than a word or two. She closed her eyes and spoke the lines from memory, with intense emotion […] Then she spoke her own poems from Anno Domini, White Flock, From Six Books […] She then recited the (at that time) still unfinished Poem without a Hero … […] Then she read the Requiem '. It seems unlikely that Akhmatova recited two cantos—rather, two stanzas. If so, these may be the first two quoted here.
  29. Compare Don Guan's 'Polno vam menia kaznit', / Khot' kazn' ia zasluzhil, byt' mozhet' (Kamennyi gost', Scene 4). Don Guan, though less self-critical, is prepared to admit his guilt, a sign of his gradual regeneration.
  30. Pushkin's Don Guan, also a poet, hovers on the threshold of regeneration in this life before damnation overtakes him.
  31. Goethe observed of Don Giovanni: 'Wie kann man sagen, Mozart habe seinen Don Juan komponiert! Komposition—als ob es ein Stück Kuchen oder Biskuit wäre, das man aus Eiern, Mehl and Zucker zusammenrührt!—Eine geistige Schöpfung ist es, das Einzelne wie das Ganze aus einem Geiste und Guss und von dem Hauche eines Lebens durchdrungen, wobei der Produzierende keineswegs versuchte und stückelte und nach Willkür verfuhr, sondern wobei der dämonische Geist seines Genies ihn in der Gewalt hatte, so dass er ausführen musste, was jener gebot.' (Quoted with minor corrections from Egon Wellesz, '"Don Giovanni" and the "dramma giocoso"', The Music Review, Vol. IV, 1943, p. 125). This could also be said of Poema bez geroia. See also T. V. Tsiv'ian, 'Two Hypostases of Poema bez geroia', in The Speech of Unknown Eyes: Akhmatova's Readers on her Poetry, pp. 113-20.
  32. Viach. Vs. Ivanov, 'K semioticheskoi teorii karnavala kak inversii dvoichnykh protivopostavlenii', in Trudy po znakovym sistemam, VIII (Uchenye zapiski Tartu. gos. universiteta, vyp. 411), 1977, 63-4.
  33. In her discussion of Kamennyi gost' Akhmatova writes: 'Pushkin's lyric richness allowed him to avoid the error which he noted in the dramas of Byron, who hands out "one of the constituent parts" of his personality to each of the characters, and thus fractures his creation into "a few shallow and insignificant people"' (p. 109). Akhmatova also avoids this error and, having divided the author's self into various doubles, invites the reader to gather the constituent parts together again to reconstitute the person of the author.
  34. I am grateful to Anatolii Naiman for his observations on an earlier draft of this paper, read at the Akhmatova Centenary Conference in Turin in December 1989.

Vasa D. Mihailovich (Essay Date Winter 1969)

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SOURCE: Mihailovich, Vasa D. "The Critical Reception of Anna Akhmatova." Papers on Language & Literature 5, no. 1 (winter 1969): 95-111.

In the following essay, Mihailovich provides an overview of criticism of Akhmatova's work, both within and outside of Russia.

The death of the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova in March 1966 marked the end of a long, illustrious, and eventful career. She appeared in the decade before the Russian Revolution and quickly became one of the leading poets of the time. The events after the Revolution forced her to silence for many years; she reappeared as a voice of Russian poetry during World War II, only to be silenced again at the end of the war. After Stalin's death, she spent the last decade of her life in full creativity, enjoying wide recognition. Now that her opus is finished, the study of her work will hopefully be freed from the shackles of a nonliterary, though understandably human concern. For the truth is that, perhaps because of the vagaries of her personal life, her work has received inadequate critical attention. There is no doubt that in the course of time the Akhmatoviana will be enriched with serious studies of various aspects of her delicate and at times complex poetic world. Until that is done, the existing scholarship on Akhmatova will serve as a guide and illumination. Meanwhile the need exists for a survey that constitutes an account of her publication, of the basic features of her life and work, and of the secondary literature, with some suggestions for future research.1

Anna Akhmatova—the pen name of Anna Andreevna Gorenko—was born near Odessa in 1889, the daughter of a naval officer. She began to write poetry when she was eleven, and her first poem was published in 1907. With her inaugural collection of poems, Evening (1912), she acquired a sudden and widespread fame, which was subsequently reenforced with every new book of verse. In the course of her long career she published fifteen books of poetry. Her publication can conveniently, though arbitrarily, be divided into three distinct periods: 1912-23, 1940-46, 1956-66 (with a few poems published in 1950). The interim periods are those of enforced silence. The first, 1923-40, came more or less as a result of a tacit admission on Akhmatova's part that the changed way of life in Russia was not compatible with her views. The second, 1946-56, was a direct result of a premeditated attack on her by the authorities with their policy of tightening the reins on artists and intellectuals after the war. Akhmatova kept busy all the time, however, writing more essays than poetry, and translating. Indeed, her overall achievement is a testimony to the human mind and spirit creating under the most adverse conditions.

With her first books—Evening (1912) and Rosary (1914)—Akhmatova became very popular, especially among women, intellectuals, and younger readers. Her popularity can be perhaps best explained by the remark of a Soviet critic that "The masterly chiseled poetry of Akhmatova is very poor in ideological content and in social problems raised therein." What struck the reader was a fresh note of a young woman's personal concern and of a genuine feeling of love. Coming on the heels of the Symbolist poets, who indulged in complex, mystical, overwrought ambiguities and self-adulation, Akhmatova's poetry was refreshing by its genuineness, simplicity, and clarity—all stemming from the newly formed literary movement of Acmeism. Together with Gumilyov, Mandelshtam, and other poets, Akhmatova endeavored to bring poetry from the lofty clouds of the symbolist Parnassus down to earth. Her unerring poetic touch, her ear for language and rhythm, and a boldness in revealing her innermost sentiments established her quickly as one of the leading poets of the younger generation. The first World War did not diminish her forcefulness and appeal; on the contrary, it lent to her overly private concerns a touch of maturity and a wider scope, as evidenced by her collection The White Flock. Never politically inclined, she saw in the war an evil that might eventually destroy the world in which she had been able to address herself to her own problems exclusively. When the end indeed came, she refused to accept it, in the belief that she would be able to continue her relatively sequestered life. But she also refused to emigrate, saying that it takes greater courage to stay behind and accept the blows of the fate than to flee into exile.

The effect of the Revolution on her life and creativity was not immediately evident. She published two more collections of poetry, Plantain (1921) and Anno Domini MCMXXI (1921), in which there was less of her intimate sentiments of love and more of a concern for the fate of her country. When her former husband, Gumilyov, was shot for alleged counterrevolutionary activities, Akhmatova as it were saw the writing on the wall. After an expanded edition of Anno Domini in 1923, she fell silent and ceased to exist for the public. She wrote some poetry but occupied herself mostly with literary studies, especially of Pushkin, and with translations from many languages—a career almost identical to that of Pasternak. This silence may have saved her life during the purges in the 1930's, for, like so many of her compatriots, she endured a veritable purgatory while trying to ascertain the fate of her only son, a highly promising scholar of Asian history, who was arrested on undisclosed charges and later sentenced to fifteen years of exile and slave labor.

Only the second World War brought a change to Akhmatova's dreary and dangerous life. Sensing the perils threatening her people, she, like many Soviet writers, contributed to the struggle against the foreign invader. An edition of her poems, From Six Books (1940), composed of her previous five collections and her latest poems, was published on the eve of the attack on Russia. As she had done during and after the Revolution, she once again sided with her people, silencing within herself her complaints and reservations. She spent the first several months of the war in besieged Leningrad and then was evacuated to Tashkent, where she stayed almost to the end of the war. In Tashkent, she was brought in contact with the other part of her ancestry, for her grandmother was a Tartar. Creatively, she used this occasion to declare the whole of Russia, indeed the whole world, her homeland, and to write some of her most beautiful descriptive poems. Also during this time, in 1943, a volume of her selected poetry was published in Moscow, an event leading readers to the natural conclusion that she had made peace with the regime she had been forced to tolerate for seventeen years.

As soon as the war was over, however, and the authorities found it necessary to resort to the old methods—totalitarian and repressive, though not so bloody as before—Akhmatova was among the first to be victimized. In his famous attack upon herself and upon the humorist Zoshchenko, the cultural tsar of the time, Zhdanov, rejected out of hand Akhmatova's poetry as un-Soviet and unsavory, calling her a half-harlot and half-nun (a reference to her verses in an early love poem). Ostensibly Zhdanov professed to be fearful of the "bad" influence of her poetry on Soviet youth; in reality, he needed scapegoats for the restoration of the repressive methods of the earlier era. Akhmatova fell silent once again, this time involuntarily, for a silence of a decade (1946-56) that lasted until after Stalin's death. There are indications that she tried to make amends by publishing a few accommodating poems in 1950; however, this kind of poetry was clearly not her métier. Only after the demise of Stalin and during a relatively more liberal atmosphere in the second half of the 1950's were her rights restored. In 1958 a slender selection of her poetry was published as a sign of rehabilitation, with an afterword by Surkov, one of the leading poets of the regime. Another small collection was published in 1961, and a rather extensive one, prepared by the poet herself, appeared in 1965, The Course of Time. Still another edition, including her prose works, was announced for late 1968. In the meantime, several editions of her works were published abroad: Selected Poems (New York, 1952), The Poem without aHero (New York, 1960 and 1962), Requiem (Munich, 1963), and the first volume of a compendious, two-volume edition of her collected works (1965).

Shortly before her death in 1966, Akhmatova finally received two richly deserved accolades for her work. Ironically, the recognition came from abroad in the forms of the prestigious Italian Etna Taormina Prize in 1964 and an honorary doctor's degree from Oxford University in 1965. On these two festive occasions she left Russia for the first time in half a century. More important, however, during the last decade of her life she wrote the most mature, sophisticated, complex, and, in the opinion of some critics, the best poetry of her career. Her venerable age and the trying experiences of her past brought her not only wisdom and maturity, but also peace with herself and with the world. At the end, she was at long last accepted officially as a Soviet poet. She died ravaged by long illness, yet preserving her dignity and independence to the very end, asking for (and being granted) a church funeral according to the Russian Orthodox rites. After her death she was eulogized as the last of the four great Russian poets after Blok, in addition to Pasternak, Mandelshtam, Tsvetaeva, and acclaimed by many as the finest woman poet in all Russian literature.

The problems, both scholarly and literary, of Akhmatova's poetry become more difficult as her oeuvre achieves completion. Her relatively "simple" poetry of her early days matured into a much more complex and meaning-laden poetry in her last two decades. The circumstances surrounding her creativity after the Revolution and during her silence of seventeen years make it difficult to find out the complete truth, admittedly. While the first of these difficulties can be solved simply by comparing her early and later poems, the second will most likely remain shrouded in mystery for some time Consequently it is helpful to treat the two major periods of her creativity separately.

Her early poetry is distinguished by several easily discernible characteristics. It is above all a love poetry. In many poems having love as their focal point Akhmatova presents love from a woman's point of view. The beloved is never fully revealed, and at times he seems to be almost secondary—only a stimulus or catalyst of woman's feelings. The poet expresses the whole spectrum of 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 feminine "I" of the poems seeks refuge, release, and salvation in religion, nature, and poetry. The refuge in religion is especially evident in Akhmatova's second collection of poetry, Rosary. It is a peculiar religious feeling at that, pervaded, like her sentiments of love, with a mood of melancholy and inexplicable sadness. In her third collection, The White Flock, 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 full-blown "tragical intonation," as one critic characterizes the nature of Akhmatova's poetry at that time. As the Revolution drags on, her mood turns bleaker and more hopeless. She seeks rapport with the events by writing poetry with political motifs, to no avail. The poems in Anno Domini 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.

The basic features of Akhmatova's poetry expressed in her early poems have remained relatively the same throughout her career. She later added other characteristics and themes, but it is by those early features that she is best known. To be sure, there were other themes in addition to that of love, such as the themes of a poet and his muse, the intrinsic splendor of Russia, and the war. But they gained prominence only after Akhmatova's reappearance shortly before World War II. In many poems written during the second World War she extols the beauty of her land and the magnitude of the martyrdom and sacrifice of her people in throes of a ruthless enemy. Especially Leningrad, the city of her life and her dreams, receives her full attention. In addition, Asia, where she spent most of the war years, becomes the subject of her poetry at this time. Nevertheless she could not close her eyes before the Soviet reality, in which she was personally caught in a most tragic way. In a composite poem that is still unpublished in Russia, Requiem, she expresses her deep sorrow not only about her personal loss but also about the suffering to which her entire people was being subjected. This work is as close as she came to castigating publicly the regime in her country.

Akhmatova's poetry in the last decade of her life shows a far greater maturity and the wisdom of old age. Her approach to her poetic themes is more epic and historical, with a vaster perspective. This mature poetry is also more psychological and philosophical. The best example perhaps is the long Poem Without a Hero, a panoramic view of the previous century as it pertains to the present. It is a subtle and at times a complex poem, which is very difficult to fathom without a proper key.

The stylistic aspect of Akhmatova's poetry is just as important as the thematic, if not even more so. She shows several peculiarly Akhmatovian features. Above all, there is the narrative tone that points to a definite affinity with prose. Connected with this is a dramatic quality, expressed either through inner monologue or dialogue, usually between love partners, but sometimes between the poet and her invisible conversant. The second striking feature is the brief lyric form, consisting mostly of three to four stanzas, rarely five to seven, and never over seven. Parallel to this brevity of form is a pronounced laconism: a few carefully selected details suffice to convey the 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 verbless and even without a subject. Another peculiarity is the concreteness of her word-images, especially with reference to space and time. She tells the reader exactly where and when, almost to the minute, the events in her poems take place. The colors are vividly and exactly given. She avoids metaphors; instead, she uses 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.

Of the poets who have influenced her, Akhmatova herself admits indebtedness to Derzhavin, Pushkin, and Annenskii. The latter two can be said to have exerted the greatest influence on her, although traces of other poets' influence—Nekrasov, Blok, Kuzmin—can also be found.

In addition to poetry, Akhmatova wrote an unfinished play and many essays, these latter especially on Pushkin, her favorite poet. She also translated copiously poems from the Old Egyptian, Hindu, Armenian, Lithuanian, Yiddish, Chinese, Korean, French, Italian, Rumanian, Serbian, and perhaps other languages (most of these in collaboration with various native speakers, one assumes). Her two long absences from the public view, of seventeen and ten years, obviously were not inactive.

Although Akhmatova died only recently, the main body of her poetry has existed for nearly half a century. Yet to this day there is no definite study in depth of her work. To be sure, there are books using her poetry as a point of departure; there are also several scholarly articles, many reviews, and numberless references in various forms to her and her work. But most of these are unsystematic and sketchy. A few years ago there appeared a short, heavily slanted study of Akhmatova by a Soviet critic, A. Pavlovskii, and a second monograph by another Soviet critic, Efim Dobin, has been announced.

The attitude of the prerevolutionary critics toward Akhmatova's poetry differs from that of the critics after the Revolution. Similarly, in the Soviet period the critics looked upon the poet differently before and after Stalin's death. Outside the Soviet Union the critics, both Russian and foreign, differed sharply with Soviet critics in their evaluation of Akhmatova's contribution to Russian literature. All these differences and changes were brought about not so much by changes in Akhmatova's poetry, of which to be sure there were some, as by the different vantage points of, and changes in, the critics themselves. As is often the case with Soviet writers, their purely literary achievements were accepted or rejected for nonliterary reasons.

The prerevolutionary Russian critics—Akhmatova was hardly known outside Russia before the first World War—tended to look at her poetry primarily from a literary or purely formalist point of view. Of the many reviews of her poems, few are mentioned today or are worth reprinting. Nikolai Gumilyov, Akhmatova's husband and a leading poet himself, looked down on his wife's creations and both praised and criticized her poems: she was herself in them, yet she left much unsaid. He found the outstanding feature of her poetry in her style, singling out her unusual and delicate use of color—mostly yellow and gray. Another critic N. Nedobrogo, stressed the first word in "woman-poet," finding in Akhmatova's pronounced femininity the true charm of her poetry: "Throughout this man-made civilization of ours, love in poetry has spoken so much from the point of view of a man and so little from the point of view of a woman." The remarks of other critics follow more or less the same pattern, with fleeting references to her poems stressing the strong emotional appeal of her love lyrics but without any deeper analysis. Such an analysis was attempted by the critic Viktor Zhirmunskii, later a leading Formalist, in his essay on the Acmeist poets. Limiting himself almost exclusively to the stylistic aspects of Akhmatova's poetry, Zhirmunskii publicly recognized its formal traits for the first time: the incomplete rhyming and enjambment; the syncopated rhythm; the conversational and prose character of her poems (the "novel in verse"); the epigrammatic form; the frequent changes of mood; the preponderance of observed detail; the "objectivization"; the expression of the simple beauty of earthly happiness; and an inclination toward a classic discipline. Needless to say, Zhirmunskii thought highly of Akhmatova's first books of verse as a refreshing, genuine, and already accomplished contribution to contemporary Russian poetry suffering from the rigor mortis of Symbolism. Since Akhmatova's early poems are numbered by many among the best poetry she has ever written, Zhirmunskii's detailed albeit brief analysis of their stylistic qualities placed the scholarly consideration of her poetry on the right track.

The Revolution brought about not only a decisive split among Russian writers but also profound changes in the evaluation of the established writers. Akhmatova was tolerated in the first few years of the new era, although she was immediately attacked by inimical critics and even totally rejected by some. It was not until her disappearance from the literary scene that a settled verdict of the undesirability of her work was reached. Her prolonged silence made it unnecessary even to mention her in critical writings and literary polemics. For a while the émigré writers kept referring to her, obviously remembering nostalgically their shared prerevolutionary days, but they, too, soon ceased. An impressionistic critic, Iulii Aikhenval'd, described Akhmatova as a worldly nun living in a sinful capital, surrounded by outstanding persons. Thus her all too personal tone paradoxically becomes social, and her subjective approach turns into an objective one. The poet is "the latest flower of the noble Russian culture,…such a nembodiment of the past as is capable of consoling the present and of providing hope for the future." Aikhenval'd concludes prophetically that she belongs to the spiritual Russia of all times.

Other scholars who wrote about Akhmatova's poetry were the Formalists Boris Eikhenbaum and Viktor Vinogradov. Eikhenbaum, the leader of the Formalist school of critics, advanced many fine points, most of which are too technical to be dwelled upon here. Like Zhermunskii, for example, he pointed out the affinity of Akhmatova's poetry with the contemporary Russian realistic prose, noting that in her "lyrical novel" one could discern a story, composition, even characterization. Vinogradov, a peripheral Formalist, approached her poetry from a purely linguistic point of view, perceiving in it "semantic clusters"—a selection and grouping of words that give the best clue to Akhmatova's secluded poetic world. Zhirmunskii, Eikhenbaum, and Vinogradov were the first to treat Akhmatova's poetry systematically and expertly; and even though their approach is somewhat exclusive, many of their findings are still valid today and are often repeated.

Akhmatova's reappearance shortly before the second World War provoked no flurry of literary critiques: her long silence, caused by her basically un-Soviet attitude, was all too readily recalled. Her contribution to the body of war poetry was only a part of the common effort and as such deserved no special praise. And when Zhdanov roundly excoriated the poet in 1946, there ensued another period of silence on the part of both herself and the critics. Zhdanov's judgment of Akhmatova's poetry is typically insensitive: a nonliterary, strictly political, totalitarian approach. The greatest fault in her poetry he finds is its individualism. "The range of her poetry is limited to squalor—it is the poetry of a frenzied lady, dreaming between the boudoir and the chapel. Basic with her are amorous-erotic motifs, intertwined with motifs of sorrow, yearning, death, mysticism, a sense of doom. The feeling of being doomed—an understandable feeling for the social consciousness of a dying group; gloomy tones of a death-bed hopelessness, mystical experiences, coupled with eroticism.…Not exactly a nun, not exactly a harlot, but rather nun and harlot, with whom harlotry is mixed with prayer." Her poetry is remote from the people, reflecting as it does "the good old days" of the nobility. As such, she is totally alien to modern Soviet actuality and even dangerous for the upbringing of Soviet youth. This is so much cant, the stock fulminations of many a political hack. The real reason for Zhdanov's attack—a need for a scapegoat—I have already noted.

Only Stalin's death and a relative liberalization of the literary life afterwards brought Akhmatova back to public life and made feasible the publication of a number of writings about her. This second phase of the Soviet critical evaluation of her work was ushered in by the appearance of anthologies of her poetry in 1958 and 1961. In his afterword to the first anthology, A. Surkov, one of the leading "apparatus" men in the literary field, set the tone for a new policy toward Akhmatova when he declared she had entered the ranks of Soviet poets "as a mature writer, made wise by many years of hard living and hard thinking." This she had achieved "without stooping to any moral or artistic compromise." While praising the esthetic quality of her poetry, however, Surkov laments her unawareness of social problems before and after the Revolution: for many years she was unable to understand or accept the new Russia. This is the reason, Surkov explains with a straightface, why she busied herself with literary essays and translations between two World Wars, while at the same time leading a "complicated, even tragic" life.

The tragic fate of her country in the second World War thus brought Anna Akhmatova back into the mainstream of Soviet poetry. The 1960's have seen several articles and one book on her. A sympathetic view of her poetry was recently expressed by Lev Ozerov in his article "The Secrets of the Trade." After touching upon some of the commonplace aspects of her poetry, such as its laconic and conversational character as well as the influence of Pushkin and Annenskii, Ozerov turns his attention to a transformation he perceives in the mature Akhmatova. He calls the last two decades of her creativity "the most intensive and profound period," while the years between her first silence and reappearance in 1940 were "the years of the lull." The poet found her way out of isolation through her loyalty to the Russian land and people. Her later poetry is philosophically tinged, and her main interest is in the world and man in it. Her strikingly personal poems are now imbued with a generally human concern. Similarly, while she was earlier personally affected by the outside world, she now finds rapport with that world through her spiritual peace. This view of Ozerov, sincere though it may be, is typical of the efforts on the part of some Soviet critics to make amends and to change Akhmatova into a good Soviet poet, whose main concern came to be the welfare of society and the dream of a better future. The early Akhmatova is well-nigh forgotten, the purely literary quality of her poetry is secondary to her social posture. Her terrible ordeal under the Stalinist terror is glossed over in one short paragraph. And Requiem is not mentioned at all.

By far the most serious evaluation of Akhmatova has been undertaken by A. I. Pavlovskii. In his book and an article on the poetess he, too, enumerates the well-known qualities of her work, the framework of her poetry, the influences on her, and her stand before and after the Revolution. Interestingly, he divides her creativity into three periods: 1910-17, 1917-41, and 1941-66. In the first period she wrote poems of personal love, as an Acmeist and under the influence of Pushkin and Annenskii. Her reserve and reticence disclose discord and instability, forcing her to seek salvation in religion, nature, and poetry. The second period is one of inner transformation and adjustment to the new society. She comes closer to the people and to her country; she has made peace with the world and thus has entered into Soviet poetry. Admittedly, the price she has had to pay is a "certain uniformity of her poems." From an extrovert "chamber" love poetry she turns inward seeking refuge in dreams and Freudian psychological interpretations. In the third period Akhmatova becomes truly a Soviet poet. She not only accepts the new reality, she views the distant past in retrospect and rejects much that had been near and dear to her. She turns to patriotic and political poetry. "I" becomes "We." She moves toward the epic, acquiring a much profounder sense of history than ever before. Her Pushkinian radiance, harmony, and wisdom are the tangible results of this beneficial transformation.

Such evaluation by Pavlovskii is very much in line with that of Ozerov and other Soviet critics. It is schematic, tendentious, and incomplete. His division into periods exemplifies these strictures. By choosing 1917 and 1941 as dividing points he wants to show how important these years were for Akhmatova. As a matter of truth, her poetry during and after the Revolution, until her silence in 1923, is little different from that before the Revolution. And she reappeared a year before the second World War began in Russia. Furthermore, the period of silence from 1923 to 1940 was simply a matter of involuntary passivity. Requiem, the proof of her inability to accept the Stalinist reality, was described by Pavlovskii only as a personal tragedy, "the confession of a suffering mother's heart." That Akhmatova finally made a truce with the Soviet reality is true, but nowhere did she extol the Soviet state; instead, she spoke only of Russia. Pavlovskii also gives too much weight to Akhmatova's "political" poems; they are considered by many to be her weakest. His book nevertheless makes a number of telling points. These concern primarily the literary aspects of Akhmatova's poetry, especially when it is considered within the context of Russian literature in general. Pavlovskii writes of these aspects in more detail than anyone after the Formalist critics and before Dobin. His extensive discussion of the complex Poem without a Hero is of special merit. In it he sees the synthesis of Akhmatova's most important themes and forms; he calls it a "poem of conscience." He also points out some omissions in the scholarship dealing with Akhmatova. Until a new study appears, Pavlovskii's book has to be considered the major work in Akhmatoviana, its many serious shortcomings notwithstanding.

Among other writings by Soviet critics and poets, short articles by Kornei Chukovskii, Andrei Siniavskii, Aleksei Surkov, and Aleksandr Tvardovskii should be mentioned. Chukovskii speaks mainly about the Poem without a Hero, finding its author "the master of historical painting," which is the essence of her entire poetry. Siniavskii complains about the entrenched fallacy that Akhmatova should be treated primarily as the author of her prerevolutionary poetry. There is a new Akhmatova (Siniavskii pointedly cites Requiem), not only thematically but even in structure and tonality. Unlike other poets, she changes while striving toward the perfection of classic Russian poetry. What is needed is a revision of this and other clichés about Akhmatova. Siniavskii cites the example of her miniatures which, seemingly narrow and autobiographical, display a powerful art of the exalted, heroic, and tragic word and gesture. It is indeed unfortunate that Siniavskii has not written, thus far, more about Akhmatova, because he would probably be able to give a very competent and impartial assessment of her poetic art.

Both Surkov and Tvardovskii, in their necrologies after Akhmatova's death, in addition to repeating some well-known facts about her poetry, speak about her attitude toward the Soviet regime. Surkov repeats his argument that she became a Soviet poet shortly before and during World War II. Her ordeal of 1946, the year of Zhdanov's attack, Surkov dismisses lightly as "new trials." Tvardovskii recognizes Akhmatova's increasing popularity, although it has not reached the level of Maiakovskii's or even Blok's. He defends the limited scope of her poetry by evoking Chernishevskii's saying that people do not commit suicide because of world problems but because of problems in their hearts. Tvardovskii then touches upon a very sensitive nerve—the not-so-gallant treatment of the poet "at the well-known time." It is wrong to keep silent about those unjust and crude attacks on the poet, if for no other reason than because she withstood those attacks "with firmness and dignity that could not fail to earn respect for her." As for the attackers and their arguments, life has long since swept them away.

A more ambitious approach to Akhmatova's poetry was undertaken by another Soviet critic, Efim Dobin. In his articles he limits himself to the literary merits of her poetry, thus avoiding tendentiousness and the untenability of politically colored interpretations. There is not much new in his presentation, but he attempts a systematic study of Akhmatova's first decade and of Poem without a Hero and, moreover, illustrates his points with copious quotations from the poems; the only two such articles Dobin has published to date, they are undoubtedly chapters from a forthcoming book. If his announced book is based on the kind of examination displayed in his two articles, it should be the outstanding evaluation of her work, especially of its purely literary aspects.

The Akhmatova scholarship outside Russia has been limited to a few articles, and even they have been mostly of an informative character. The critics shortly after the Revolution were mostly Russian émigrés, who did not deal extensively with Akhmatova, probably because she, though never a sympathizer of the Bolsheviks, had nevertheless decided to remain in Russia. It was not until many years later that the critics abroad wrote about her, spurred by Zhdanov's merciless attack. Even then the critics were again mostly émigrés. Leonid Strakhovsky wrote several articles and devoted a chapter to Akhmatova in his book on three Acmeist poets. In all of them he speaks of her as a "poetess of tragic love." He notes her unexpected but convincing, illogical but fine psychological transitions from emotion to description, from the soul to nature, from feeling to fact. While recollecting the past, Akhmatova compares it with the present. She is essentially an urban poet, a poet of St. Petersburg and later of Leningrad. As the first Word War progressed, the poet developed a stronger religious feeling, although she had always possessed a religion of a strong, simple, almost primitive faith. For Strakhovsky, The White Flock reflects the war and the Revolution; The Plantain represents a turning point, when love begins to acquire a tragic note and the first political themes appear; and Anno Domini is Akhmatova's swan song, in which her love has turned to hate and has become "full of evil." Akhmatova reappeared in 1940 with greater wisdom, mellowed by years of want and suffering. It is unfortunate that Strakhovsky's articles are of necessity sketchy and that they are written before Akhmatova's latest works were fully known. Otherwise he might have been able to provide a more rounded picture of the poet as a needed balance to the one-sided Soviet presentation. Even so, Strakhovsky's writings are among the most serious, albeit incomplete, essays on Akhmatova.

Ihor Levitsky, in a brief article in Books Abroad, repeats many of Strakhovsky's arguments, adding a few of his own. He sees Akhmatova's entire opus as an epistolary novel about the love of a girl, who becomes a woman before our eyes, for an ever-present but usually silent partner. Akhmatova's best poems are the ones dealing with the poet's craft and with Leningrad, while the Poem Without a Hero is "an act of purgation prompted by a desperate inner need." One must take exception to Levitsky's views that the poet does not describe great achievements or heroic deeds, that hers is a limited subject matter, and that she almost never speaks directly of her feelings.

The two articles accompanying the two-volume edition of Akhmatova's works are of necessity informative and explanatory, especially Gleb Struve's introductory piece. He gives the main biographical details, lists her works, discusses her Acmeist past, and enlarges upon her enmity to Soviet authorities and theirs to her, as expressed especially in Requiem. Struve also laments the fact that there is no full-length study of her work, while listing briefly the existing ones. Boris Filippov somewhat impressionistically reflects upon Akhmatova's origin (Petrograd; it could not be Moscow!), her kinship with Pushkin and Dostoevsky, some features (all well known) of her poetry, her attractiveness for the reader of today, even in the Soviet Union, and her anti-Soviet poetry, in which he perceives the mood of the Judgment Day. Filippov considers one of her greatest contributions to be her musing upon the Russian idea of love, upon a new life that is not only birth but also resurrection, and upon immortality.

Of the few non-Russian critics abroad, Renato Poggioli sees as the main feature of her poetry love and passion, expressed from a feminine point of view as "fidelity to her man and her passion as well as to nature and life; above all, fidelity to the glories and miseries of her sex." In this respect she recalls Emily Dickinson. Akhmatova never describes her lovers, only hints at them through senses other than sight. And, despite of dreams of happiness, the sense of imminent misfortune is very much evident in the mood of her poems. Poggioli's brief but pertinent remarks, despite some factual inaccuracies (Akhmatova's birth place, the fate of her son), give a vivid picture of the poetess. Frank Thomas speaks of four great Russian poets of the last half century (Akhmatova, Pasternak, Mandelshtam, and Tsvetaeva) and their relationships. Thomas sees the three main characteristics of Akhmatova's poetry as classic austerity, lyrical intensity, and precise and concrete language. He also discerns the poet's search for the truth and her preoccupation with the basic facts of the human condition: bereavement, old age, separation, exile, poetic inspiration, death, and communion with her Muse. Like many other writings of similar scope, this article suffers from sketchiness and the habit of rephrasing the familiar statements and conclusions.

In general, the evaluation of Akhmatova in different periods and by different camps bears the partisan stamp of the periods or camps. While pre-revolutionary references to her are mainly concerned with her new, strong talent and have a relatively easy task because of the single theme of her poetry, later critiques differ sharply in their basic approach. The opponents of the regime tend to see in Akhmatova a victim and a martyr; the proponents of the regime at first reject her, then condescend to accept her into the family. But no matter how all these critics differ in their evaluation of Akhmatova's views or themes, they agree that she is a master of her craft and of the language and that she has decisively contributed to Russian literature. The prerevolutionary critics and those immediately following the Revolution (especially the Formalists) pay much more attention to her purely artistic qualities, while the later critics, both Soviets and émigrés, allow political considerations to govern their judgment and to overshadow their examination and presentation of her works as literary art. More recently, there are signs that such a politically oriented approach may be overcome, both in the Soviet Union and abroad; however, a much more substantial body of scholarship on Akhmatova must come into being to erase the prevalent bias toward the poet and her work.

It has become evident, I hope, that much fertile ground remains to be tilled by the critic and scholar of Akhmatova and her work. What is needed above all is a study in depth. The announced book by the Soviet critic Dobin may fill this gap. Even so, one view of the poet, even if complete, cannot help but be somewhat one-sided, especially when the widely disparate views on literary matters in the Soviet Union and abroad are taken into consideration. There is also a need for a detailed, and disciplined, study of specific aspects of Akhmatova's works: her prosody; the variety and unity of her themes; her world-view, especially in the late period; the nature of her love lyrics; her patriotic poetry; and her relationship to both the Tsarist and the Communist regimes. A scrupulously documented biography is also badly needed. Her prose works have been largely ignored, to be sure because most of those works have not been readily available so far. But once they become available, a study of her prose, especially of her spirited essays about Pushkin, should be undertaken. Her prolific translations from various languages should be indexed and commented upon. The problem of the influence of other poets on Akhmatova has been thus far limited to the mentioning of names. There exist very few studies of influences either on Akhmatova or by her on other poets. Even when there is no discernible influence, the relationships between herself and such writers as Gumilyov, Mandelshtam, and Maiakovskii, can be examined profitably.

Now that Akhmatova's life's journey has ended, the time has come to abandon the writing of cursory, general, merely informative articles about her and to embark upon more ambitious undertakings worthy of her stature. Admittedly, there are still many problems involved, particularly the problem of free access to the poet's manuscripts left behind. The Soviet critics have a decisive advantage in this respect, and it is they who must, and probably will, provide the most important future scholarship. The compulsion to discuss literary matters in a tendentious manner is diminishing among Soviet critics, especially among the younger ones. But even if they continue as in the past, the critics outside Russia will occupy themselves increasingly with Akhmatova's work as it becomes better known to the world and as she more securely gains her place in world literature, where she indeed belongs among a distinguished company.


1. Akhmatova's works have been published both in Russia and abroad. In Russia, her early poems comprise five volumes: Vecher [Evening] (St. Petersburg, 1912), Chetki [Rosary] (St. Petersburg, 1914), Belaia staia [White Flock] (Petrograd, 1917), Podorozhnik [Plantain] (Petrograd, 1921), Anno Domini MCMXXI (Petrograd, 1921; another edition, without the year number, was published in 1923). Iz shesti knig [From Six Books] (Leningrad, 1940), the first book after her seventeen-year absence, consists of five previous collections plus the sixth, Iva (Willow Tree), later entitled Trostnik (Reed). Several volumes, most of them of a slender size, of selected or collected poems were published subsequently, in 1943, 1958, 1961, and 1965, this last bearing the title Beg vremeni (The Course of Time). Her poetry is now republished in increasing volume, in anthologies, periodicals, and even newspapers. New editions of her works have been announced. Abroad, there have been two collections of poetry: Izbrannye stikhotvoreniia (New York, 1952) and Sochineniia in two volumes, of which only the first has appeared so far (Washington, D.C., 1965). In addition, Poema bez geroia [Poem without a Hero] (New York, 1960) appeared in the United States before it did in the Soviet Union, and Requiem (Munich, 1963) has yet to be published in Russia. At the time of going to press, there is no volume of Akhmatova's verse in English, but one has been announced by Washington Square Press for the near future.

The publication of secondary literature can be divided into three groups: as published in prerevolutionary Russia, in the Soviet Union, and abroad. Before the Revolution, there were relatively few critical studies of Akhmatova. Among the more important are Valerian Chudovskii, "Po povodu stikhov Anny Akhmatovoi," Apollon, No. 5 (1912); Nikolai Nedobrovo, "Anna Akhmatova," Russkaia mysl' (July 1915), pp. 59-60; Viktor Zhirmunskii, "Preodolevshie simvolizm," Russkaia mysl' (Dec. 1916), pp. 25-57. Of these, Zhirmunskii's study is by far the most important. Other references are either brief reviews or remarks within essays on Russian literature. After the Revolution, there were relatively few critical works before Akhmatova's silence in 1923: Iulii Aikhenval'd, "Anna Akhmatova," Siluety russkikh pisatelei (Berlin, 1922), pp. 279-93; Boris Eikhenbaum, "Anna Akhmatova," Opyt analiza (Petrograd, 1923), pp. 121-32; Viktor Vinogradov, "O simvolike Anny Akhmatovoi," Literaturnaia mysl ', I (Petrograd, 1922-23), 91-138; Leonid Grossman, "Anna Akhmatova," Bor'ba Za Stil' (Moskva, 1927), pp. 227-39. After this, there are no significant studies or references to Akhmatova until Zhdanov's "analysis" of her work in his speech, published (in English) as Andrei Zhdanov, "On the Errors of the Soviet Literary Journals Zvezda and Leningrad," Essays on Literature, Philosophy, and Music (New York, 1950), pp. 22-25. After the republication of Akhmatova's poetry there is a steadily increasing number of studies about her: Aleksei Surkov's afterword to her collection of poems (Moskva, 1958); Lev Ozerov, "Tainy remesla," Rabota poeta (Moskva, 1963), pp. 174-97; Kornei Chukovskii, "Chitaia Akhmatovu," Moskva, VII (1964), 200-03; Andrei Siniavskii, "Raskovannyi golos," Novyi mir, XL (1964), 174-76; A. Pavlovskii, Anna Akhmatova (Leningrad, 1966); Efim Dobin, "'Poema bez geroia' Anny Akhmatovoi," Voprosy literatury, X, 9 (1966), 63-79; Aleksei Surkov, "Poety ne umiraiut," Novyi mir, XLII (1966), 283-84; Aleksandr Tvardovskii, "Dostoinstvo talanta," Novyi mir, XLII, (1966), 285-88; Efim Dobin, "Poeziia Anny Akmatovoi," Russkaia literatura, IX (1966), 154-74; A. Pavlovskii, "Anna Akhmatova," Poety-savremenniki (Moskva, 1966), pp. 103-40. A book on Akhmatova by Efim Dobin has been announced as well as a chapter in the second edition of the official Istoriia russkoi sovetskoi literatury. The first edition (1958-61) of this multivolumed history of Soviet literature does not contain any significant reference to Akhmatova.

Of the writings on Akhmatova abroad, the following articles are worth mentioning: Konstantin Mochulskii, "Poeticheskoe tvorchestvo Anny Akhmatovoi," Russkaia mysl' (March-April 1921), 185-201; three articles by Leonid Strakhovsky: "Anna Akhmatova: The Sappho of Russia," The Russian Student, VI, 3 (1929); "Anna Akhmatova—Poetess of Tragic Love," American Slavic and East European Review, VI (1947), 1-18 (this article can also be found in his book Three Poets of Modern Russia: Craftsmen of the Word [Cambridge, 1949], pp. 53-82); and "Fet i Akhmatova," Novyi zhurnal, No. 49 (1957), 261-64. Further articles: Renato Poggioli, "Anna Akhmatova," The Poets of Russia (Cambridge, 1960), pp. 229-34; N. Tarasova, "Zhivaia sovest'," Grani, No. 56 (1964), 5-10; Georgii Adamovich, "Na poliakh 'Requiema' Anny Akhmatovoi," Mosty, XI (1964), 206-10; Ihor Levitsky, "The Poetry of Anna Akhmatova," Books Abroad, XXXIX (1965), 5-9; Gleb Struve, "Anna Akhmatova," Sochineniia, I (Washington, D.C., 1965), 5-15; Boris Filippov, "Anna Akhmatova," Sochineniia, I (1965), 17-31; Victor Frank, "Anna Akhmatova 1889-1966," Survey, No. 60 (1966), 93-101; Aleksandr Shmeman, "Anna Akhmatova," Novyi zhurnal, No. 83 (1966), 84-92; Anne Haight, "Anna Akhmatova's 'Poema bez geroia'," Slavonic and East European Review, XLV (1967), 474-96; and Helen Muchnic, "Three Inner Emigrés: Anna Akhmatova, Osip Mandelshtam, Nikolai Zabolotsky," Russian Review, XXVI (1967), 13-25. All these articles, except those by Poggioli, Frank, and Haight, were written by Russian émigrés.

Finally, of interest are also several interviews and visits with Anna Akhmatova: E. Osetrov, "Griadushchee, sozrevshee v proshedshem," Voprosy literatury, IX (1965), 183-89; Ruth Zernova, "A Visit to Anna Akhmatova," Soviet Literature, (Mar. 1965), pp. 148-50; Rita Rait-Kovaleva, "Vospominania ob Anne Akhmatove," Literaturnaia Armeniia, X (1966), and Alexander Werth, "Akhmatova: Tragic Queen Anna," Nation (Aug. 22, 1966), pp. 157-60.

Walter Arndt (Essay Date 1976)

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SOURCE: Arndt, Walter. "Introduction: I The Akhmatova Phenomenon and II Rendering the Whole Poem." In Anna Akhmatova: Selected Poems, edited and translated by Walter Arndt, pp. xiii-xxxii. Ann Arbor, Mich.: Ardis, 1976.

In the following introduction to Akhmatova's poetry, Arndt discusses the public reception of her work and her role in the Acmeist poetry movement.

I. The Akhmatova Phenomenon

Among the remaining witnesses of the 20th century's "remarkable decade" in Russian poetry, 1912-19221, many still speak with animation and awe of the change of air in poetry which was heralded by Evening, Anna Akhmatova's first volume of verse. It was placed beyond doubt two years later by her second, Rosary (or Beads, 1914): a delicate but decisive discharge of lyric directness, authenticity of feeling, palpability of image and phrase, for which "Acmeism" was from the start as poor a tag as any.

This phenomenon ionized, as it were, the stale poetic medium left by Symbolism as it waned prematurely; and the qualities suggested above, if "Acmeist" they are, were evidently more patent in her work then, and more infectious, than was true for years of the other members of the brotherhood. They were temptation enough now—sixty years later—for trying to bring Akhmatova into English for the first time in the fullness of her form and feeling; for a dozen of her poems read in the original or in such largely form-true translations should demonstrate these properties more palpably than is ever contrived by circumlocutory forms of literary criticism practiced upon prosy travesties. As had happened in "her" city of Petersburg with the banished Pushkin's Ruslan and Liudmila in 1820, and in Poland two years later when Mickiewicz published his astonishing first collection and was exiled to Russia, the public sensed a change in the literary climate; the critics "pointed" and sniffed the air which had a new bite and sparkle to it.

Public response to Akhmatova, from the start until well into the Soviet era (cultural blight and official rancor smother the evidence), reached beyond the mutual admiration clubs of artists and the crushes of the black-taffeta-hairbow contingent from the high-schools—although both of these elements were strongly in evidence. In its intensity, its time profile, and its kinship with an earlier, simpler poetic tradition, her impact recalls Rilke's; for Rilke's songlike clarity about this same time was quietly ruining the cult of the sacerdotal symbolist-aesthete, Stefan George (neoromanticism with a Wagnerite streak in which infinite preciosity replaced Wagner's poshlost'). His poetry went on, of course, to attain an unexampled and irreversible transforming effect in the twenties and beyond, intoxicating each new generation through intervening lapses of taste and sundry fads of "free form." One is also reminded of the triumphal spread, in an outbreak of samizdat seemingly defying all technical given data, of the young Pushkin's wrathful odes and epigrams, and his brilliant ribaldry, among the literate of all ages and walks of life in the years between 1819 and 1824. At that, Akhmatova's appeal was not abetted by any of that spice of ideological mutiny and moral freethinking which had seasoned her idol Pushkin's shockers, including even the triply camouflaged Ruslan and Liudmila. Not only the older Symbolists, but even those poets of high distinction who were unconnected with or remote from the mode by this time, like Innokenty Annensky (†1909) and Alexander Blok (†1921), both revered by Akhmatova, were eclipsed before their time by the Acmeist constellation. Gumilev himself, Akhmatova's erstwhile schoolmate at Tsarskoe Selo gimnazija (where Annensky taught Greek), and first husband (1910-18), who had lent definition to the Acmeist label by distilling often highly perceptive aesthetic manifestos, lost custom. The exotic chic in verse he was then mining—generations after Flaubert, Baudelaire, and Sienkiewicz, but with a hemannerism which just scooped Hemingway—in a stylized East Africa, shocking-pink-in-tooth-and-claw, wilted all too soon. By the beginning of the War, although not unproductive as a poet, he was sliding into a sterile possessiveness toward the Acmeist movement as the other protagonists outgrew his definitions for it and, worse still, threatened to eclipse him for good. By 1920 he appears to have set himself up as a would-be Svengali of poetry for young girls of credulity and looks in the "sounding shell," his absurd studio workshop in the House of Arts for the teaching of verse-writing in four to six months.

Nor were any of the other poets of the Remarkable Decade who were Akhmatova's close coevals—Khlebnikov, Khodasevich, and her three cherished intimates in sensibility, Mandelstam, Pasternak, and Tsvetaeva2—taken to the public's heart with such a personal, almost romantic emotion, or recited and imitated with quite such devotional fervor between a cult and a crush. After Rosary was published, adding half a hundred "beads" to the similar-sized first collection, Marc Slonim and other contemporaries recollect that the young who read poetry knew hers by heart, her readings were mobbed, lovers used her verses as letters and to set the mood of their meetings and partings. Later, long after the faddish component of this outpouring had worn away, we hear—with an optional twinge of skepticism—that she was one of the very few poets truly read by factory workers and laboring women. Also, hard though this may be to credit at first, Akhmatova had virtually started a genre which had existed in the West since the high Middle Ages: she was the first Russian poet to create strings and cycles of love lyrics. Personal, unsymbolical, non-allegorical, these truly probed and obliquely reflected, almost without external detail, the whole emotional course of a relationship neither esoteric nor trite. The literary critic Leonid Grossman noted in his article "Struggle for Style" (1927) that Akhmatova had become the favorite poet of the generation whose youth fell into the turbulent second decade of our century.

Akhmatova's original and severe beauty—a contemporary aesthete's dream—and her subfuse art nouveau get-ups which, when seen against the foil of Gumilev, suggest a novice furloughed by a rather liberal College of Vestals into the charge of a cross-eyed ogre-professor, were at least a small element in her magic. There is one account, in particular, far from sinfully idolatrous by intent, drawn from the memory of a then fourteen-yearold eyewitness, of a program of benefit performances in 1915. After some singing and a suitably avantgardist stage happening by Meyerhold, Akhmatova followed Sologub and Blok in authors' readings of verse. Perhaps it is not fanciful to say that between the quizzical lines of description below one catches (as in the mental space between those extant pre-revolutionary snapshots, oils, sketches, and doodles by Altman, Kardovskaya, Modigliani, Annenkov which the bloated mask of her seventies cannot blot out) the strange look that can still alert the heart, as it were, touch a node of sensibility: Young Roland on his way to the dark tower, crossed with a Beardsley Salome; a young Tatar soothsayer; and an angular school-girl, surely not over thirteen, with her shyness turned inside out:

Akhmatova, in a white dress with a then fashionable Stuart collar, was slender, beautiful, black-haired, exquisite. She was then getting on for thirty3, her fame in full flower; the fame of her pauznik4, her bangs, her profile, her allure. "He will not be sending you any more letters,"5 she recited, arms crossed over her breast, slowly and tenderly, with that musical gravity which was so captivating in her.6

Over half a century later, a year after her death, the veteran writer, critic, and translator, Korney Chukovsky, a close contemporary of Akhmatova's, begins his long commemorative essay on Akhmatova as follows:

I had known Anna Andreevna Akhmatova since 1912, when at some literary evening she was brought up to me by her husband, the young poet Nikolai Stepanovich Gumilev. Thin as could be and gracefully built, resembling a shy fifteen-yearold, she took not a step away from her husband, who right there, upon our first acquaintance, called her his "pupil."

This was the time of her first verse and those unusual, unexpectedly clamorous triumphs. Two or three years passed, and in her eyes, her bearing, her manner with people there had come to the fore that chief mark of her personality—sublimity. Not hauteur, not self-importance, not arrogance, but precisely sublimity: a regal gait of superb dignity, an inviolable sense of respect toward herself and her high mission as a writer.

With every passing year this quality of sublimity became stronger in Akhmatova. She did not strain for this in any way, it emanated from her spontaneously. Over the entire half-century we knew each other I don't remember seeing on her face a single pleading, ingratiating, mean, or lachrymose smile. Gazing at her, one could not help recalling Nekrasov's lines: "There are women in Russian villages / With a quiet dignity of face, / With a fine strength in their movements, / With the gait, with the gaze of queens."

Even queuing up for petroleum or bread, even on a hard bench in a train, even in a tram-car in Tashkent, strangers sensed her "quiet dignity" and showed her special deference, although she conducted herself very simply and warmly toward everyone, without any condescension.

There was another trait in her which was remarkable. She was totally devoid of the acquisitive urge. She did not like to own things and did not try to, and parted with them with amazing ease. Like Gogol, Coleridge, and her close friend Mandelstam, she was a homeless rover and valued possessions so little that she was glad to free herself of them as of a weight. Even in her youth, the years of her brief "blossoming," she lived without cumbersome wardrobes and chests, at times even without a desk …

She did, of course, greatly treasure things of beauty and appreciated what they stood for. Antique candlesticks, oriental fabrics, engravings, ikons of old workmanship and the like now and then made their appearance in her modest life, only to vanish again after a few weeks … Even books, save for her greatest favorites, she would pass on to others after reading. Only Pushkin, the Bible, Shakespeare, and Dostoevsky were her perennial companions …7

Before Akhmatova was thirty, leading poets and critics such as Briusov, Blok, Zhirmunsky had examined her work. They sought to account for some elements of her impact largely in terms of prosodic and thematic innovations, perhaps without full awareness as yet of the peculiar interaction between her set of gifts and a sea change in poetic imagination and taste that was taking place in much of Europe. And there was every excuse for this neglect of context. Not only was the European scene in poetry and the visual arts pervaded by several disparate yet overlapping and interacting trends, but each of these tended to assume different forms and names in different sections of a cosmopolitan system of so many imperfectly inter-communicating national vessels. There was bound to exist a confusing, often misleading differential, especially among individual Russian poets, and between Russian poets and their critics, as to what particular blend of foreign traditions—avant-garde, current, and earlier, German, English, French, Italian, Polish—any one of them responded to and thought the other familiar with. Moreover, large poetic trends, schools, even fads, become clearly evident as such only in retrospect; in the contemporary view the personal poetic signature is as a rule writ larger.

The versatile prosody which Akhmatova developed, now stately, not lightfooted in ambiguous anapestic-dactylic beats, but seeming not just to simulate waves of natural speech, but to orchestrate emotion,8 came from a matrix which included Blok, Vyacheslav Ivanov, Annensky, and Gumilev. The repeated anapestic onrun or ascent which is Akhmatova's favorite line-launcher is hardly encountered outside of Russia in modern metrics and is rare even elsewhere in Russian prosody before the new century. It is startling particularly when the preceding line ends in a feminine rhyme, changing the listener's interlinear metric impression, his rhythmic "intake," to a "——" tattoo like the opening of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony; see, e.g., the end of line 1 with the start of line 2 in "When first my dark braids.…"After this flying run atthe start of each line the meter often brakes intermittently, grippingly, to a pensive, brooding, or baleful iamb as halting by contrast as a spondee; an analogous design blends dactyls with trochees. These devices simulate intermittent bursts of hurried resumption, rejoinder, addition, or afterthought: "oh, and then …"; "not to mention …"; "let me add …"; "and what's more", with an unusual suggestion of rich emotional energy and rhetorical invention in reserve. With each onrun the poem, as it were, begins afresh, statements are amplified and amended, the bearings change. The nonsequiturs between observed environs and an emotion not "produced" by them but coincident and subliminally harmonizing, with which Akhmatova so often operates, harmonize perfectly with the rushing spontaneity, the aptitude for associative short-circuits, of the springboard anapests of the first foot.

Such metric novelty was much enhanced in its effect and removed from its origins by elements of tone and taste all Akhmatova's own, or most distinctively blended. These included a lightness and targetry of diction which owe much to Pushkin, who is often lovingly invoked: a fastidious economy, yet graceful languor of line learnt perhaps from the freshly rediscovered brushwork and lyric of Japan. In terms of feeling, the present collection contains touching examples of a tart girlish frivolity overlying, and suddenly giving way to, a brittle grace of emotion, exultant or desolate; notes, or better, verbal gestures of peasant piety and of an asceticism which in another might be suspect of neoromantic posturing à la early Rilke. But her austere mode of living and feeling imbued it with an authenticity which made critics call her the last poet of Orthodoxy and prompted the just-cited Chukovsky in the early twenties, with a thin sneer all too consonant with the vulgar official line of atheism, to affect surprise that she hadn't taken the veil yet. A further pervasive feature, which will perhaps be found exemplified in this anthology more strikingly than any other, is the offering of abrupt, brief, but evocative glimpses of nature or landscape, alternating with, and made subliminally relevant to, states of emotion.9

The flavor of young Akhmatova's initial appeal, both to the milieu of her first public and, one daresay, to some who first sample her early "songs" today, is distinctively Art Nouveau; but Art Nouveau, to say it at once, in the original sense of a revitalizing urge in aesthetics brought by the new century. Her economy of poetic line, the true ingenuousness of feeling, those clairvoyant moods of languor, grief, or caprice of a young poet were symptomatic of the great dismissal of rich, beautiful tushery (poetic Symbolism included) that was all around her. The term Art Nouveau must be understood in its contemporary connotations to do with liberation from the ornamental, lush, grossly literal which had long dominated the arts, impressionism and its triumph notwithstanding. In terms of this drive, early Art Nouveau and Akhmatova were of a kind. But Art Nouveau as painting and décor quickly calcified into Jugendstil, an arsenal of stale motifs, and became in a way part of what it had rebelled against, while most of the Acmeist poets remained consistent and creative. To feel the edge of the change they brought, I spend some little time below surveying the scene preceding them, choosing for illustration that domain of aesthetics which is most easily seen in the aggregate—the visual arts, and especially painting.

Whatever the differences in the timetables and itineraries of artistic trends between the Russian reader of 1912 and his present cultural heirs (who must be sought in the West, not the USSR), they share a long and continuing contact with the stuffy fluidum of epigonism, of stylization rather than style, decoration rather than creation, which smogged the second half of the nineteenth century. By way of the dry air roots of late Art Nouveau, this is enjoying a minor revival among the art-less young of all ages in Anglosaxony now. This was the Morris-down-to-Makart era, so valiantly launched, strange to think, by the high-minded back-to-Botticelli-and-home-weaving brigade, the apostles of "Thoughts towards Nature in Poetry, Literature, and the Arts"—thus the subtitle of the Pre-Raphaelite journal, The Germ (1850). Its tastes and manners, which one may roughly sum up as ultra-naturalist neoromanticism, inevitably had a good deal to do also with the impulses behind literary Symbolism; whence the rapid alienation from the latter on the part of the Acmeists, especially the clearest and simplest among their talents, Akhmatova.

What happened to that powerful artistic urge of the 1840s toward the genuine and natural, comparable in a way to the noble revulsion from plastic foods and fittings and predatory industrialism in our day? A remarkable galaxy of talents in craft work, design, painting, and literature somehow found itself beshrewed by a Zeitgeist close to Ivan Karamazov's clammy devil of genial mediocrity, and well exemplified, say, by the flax-topped flab of ululating Rhine maidens or the nervous innocence of the sub-deb of "September Morn." This middle-class dyspepsia of spirit and taste somehow contrived to turn revival, gifted imagination, innovation, renovation, and allusive decadence all into the same thing—Kitsch. It shows how "camp" speaks to "camp" that one of the art fads in the Campbell soup-tin years (the Novecento, so to speak) consisted in admiring "Tiffany" lamps and grandma gowns, and in imitating the artifacts of a previous morass of taste in all arts but music, where the change would have been for the better. There, surrounding Akhmatova's adolescence, was the insistent fluent mediocrity of decaying Morrisdom, the accomplished mimesis of Jugendstil art work with its perennial limp creepers, rambling roses, hyperthyroid maidens of tile or stained glass, draped in mysteriously agitated bedsheets and labeled Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter, which is still to be found in Vanderbilt lodges, some Canadian railway temples, and ex-Armenian cafés in the Levant. There, in fairylands forlorn, framed by unmistakable legends in uncial script, were colorful marvels for the Russian artists to see and translate into Scythian mish-mash and Church Slavonic calligraphy. There lolled, stalked, and pouted those beige innocents of the Pre-Raphaelites with their moot stares. There glossily emoted the self-conscious think and shudder pieces of neo-romantic painters of stark histrionic and decorative gifts, from Delacroix and Boecklin all the way past Ingres and the brilliant interlude of Impressionism, to such latterday story painters as J. W. Waterhouse and J. M. Strudwick (†1935!), Maurice Denis and Puvis de Chavannes; and in Germany the much more ambiguous Hans von Marees. The bottom is reached with Maxfield Parrish, that never missing link between Lord Leighton and N. C. Wyeth, whose epicene greenish couples, spending furloughs from the morgue on triple-glazed moonlit terraces, nicely combine the infantile with the degenerate and lead directly to Disney's Snow-White and the dominant mode of North-American fairy-tale illustrations (green jerk-lets in jerkins), Christian novelties, and garden dwarfery. In most "gift-stores" and pop posteries today the eye lights with a sour shock of recognition upon billowy cumuli, a ghostly peak over a lake, somber bosks, and one or two liverish nymphlings, not naked but "undraped," which means elaborately unconscious of their displaced, but presumably equally greenish genitalia. Poor Morris …

We are dealing, then, with a movement imitative in its conception—imitative of nature and, even more, of literature—which took thirty years to decline thoroughly (ca. 1870-1900) and then contaminated some strains of the Art Nouveau which undertook to bury it. The latter has since then been selectively stylized (ca. 1900-1920) and later dusted off during interludes of necrophilia. But searching for common elements one may find, first, a weakness for neo-romantic, that is thrice-decocted, chivalry; a cult of a synthetic naivete of feeling; feigned espousal of a boyish vision of the female, combining innocence with fatality: it is over a late, further vulgarized exemplar of this type of would-be sophisticated infantilism, by the way, that we were invited by H. Humbert to shake our heads in titillated revulsion in an auto-erotic grudge-thriller of the fifties. Next, perhaps, one should note a gradual movement of taste toward the epicene, tentative, elusive (but not allusive) in human figures, a late reaction against the rosy flab of Guido Reni, Tintoretto, and Rubens, and a preparation for a new nakedness where the child-like and asthenic would usurp the privileges of innocence—decadence, in a word. Thus taste is bred down from the virile if decorative angelfolk of Botticelli by and via the Burne-Joneses, Millais', and Rossettis to grovefuls of interchangeably willowy and violet-eyed princelings aged twelve and yet eighteen, too raspberry and swollen of lip quite to fit their dewy stares or the spindly grace of their fawnlike retreats. Besides these, or Maxfield Parrish, or even a less decadent epigone like Kay Nielsen, one should in fairness look also to an honest and technically accomplished piece of Nouveau Art contemporary to the young Akhmatova. Brilliant talents, as we noted, spent themselves in this magic maze of mannerisms—the last of them perhaps being the Arthur Rackham of the illustrations to Ondine or A Midsummer Night's Dream.

In terms and themes analogous to those of the later Pre-Raphaelites, the Russian painters and illustrators revived the legendary "Scythian," Varangian, and Kievan past; and the visual imagination of the Russian public may be presumed to have been very similarly conditioned by that neo-romantic and, by 1910, Art Nouveau and Mannerist habitat. One may pick one of Rackham's angular gracile maidens, haze Rackham's elaborations of detail—eyelash and grace-lock, tendril and rosebud, dew and rue—with a dash of the Slavic earthiness and self-irony, and arrive at a visual artifact very like one of Akhmatova's lyric mood sketches at 22, as these evidently struck some of her public: "outer and inner landscape with girl," as it were. The interdisciplinary resemblance in the case of Akhmatova is superficial and misleading, as has been suggested. It spreads by association from the girl-poet's personal image to the reception of her poetry. But the portrayal of Akhmatova in those pre-War years, pictorial and memoiristic, suggests forcibly that she herself was widely seen in terms of, first, Art Nouveau, later, briefly, expressionistic or cubist fancy. It was forty years since stricken damsels first came yearning forth from Morris's saga medley, The Earthly Paradise, since Swinburne sang those tainted beauties for Burne-Jones and Rossetti to paint, since the Gudruns, Genovefas or Iseults out of every child's book of legends and ballads had in Russia been replaced by similar Olgas, Yaroslavnas, Svetlanas, even Liudmillas—tragic-eyed penitents prodding their sheer damask hairshirts in two places from within as they stride some desert shore. They were presciently twitted by Pushkin in his Gabriiliada10, but a hundred years later they contain the clues to that early Akhmatova image—blending the morbidly vulnerable, sensuous, and austere—which precipitated out of paintings, poetry, and gossip.

The various pat sobriquets for Akhmatova as a woman and a poet which originated then, like the "passionate nun," "the lithe gypsy," curiously miss her point. They seem less redolent of their elusive target than of those allegorical water-lily maidens of the emporium lobbies of 1912. But the 1915 portrait by O. della Voss-Kardovskaya of a seated young vestal, severely but elegantly gowned and posed, startlingly beautiful, calm, and fragile in full profile, does convey an inkling of the magnetism which helped to romanticize both her poems and her relations to them as a woman. Mandelstam in his contemporary collection Stone saw now Phaedra, now Rachel in that gracefully portentous feminine emblem. It may now be becoming clearer why a certain amount of over-simplified art history had to percolate into these scene-setting remarks; at the risk of some sense of strain or distortion when read in either the context of Russian poetry alone, or only in the context of European painting as usually treated. It has been my intuitive conviction that both the quality of Akhmatova's visual imagination and the quality of the response to her are best approached not through antecedent poetry—despite prosodic insights available there—but through the spirit of fin de siècle ornate and rhetorical painting. The innovations of the Jugendstil period in the arts, including Acmeism, were revolts against this accomplished but meretricious theater. Its emotional force of gesture and paysage is taken into Akhmatova's verse, but she purges it of sentimentality and pose; all intérieurs, with their fussy preciosity of feature, fabric, and furnishing, are swept away. She goes farther than that—toward a pure dialectic of the sentient intelligence, or eloquent emotion, in poetry. Unlike other creators of the new austerity and elegance (in the modern mathematical sense), she is rarely tempted to enter any of the premier fields of honor of older poetry—the sensual-functional beauty of man and woman, animal, carved stone, any and all of nature—for its own sake, in the way of, say, Rilke with his stunning "Panther," or "Roman Fountain." Akhmatova's "Statue in Tsarskoe Selo" along with all other apparent examples of such noble snapshooting are revealed to derive their raison d'être wholly from the self's independent emotion waiting in the wings—often until the last stanza or line. Her abruptness, in fact, her plain gaunt phrase of the later years and often obscure transitions, were consonant with the quasi-Japanese cult of the elliptic and oblique, poésie pure, which was a facet of the Art Nouveau sensibility. Aleksis Rannit has much to say about this in his fine introductory article to Volume II of the canonical Struve-Filippov edition of Akhmatova's works.

"Delusion I," one of her charming young-girlin-hammock poems, may serve to show both her affinity (or initial palatability) to Art Nouveau aesthetics, and some marked differences. Something in its mood, blended of effusiveness and languor, and in the hints of decorative sensual detail (dazzling dark-blue faience, limp morocco leather) makes manifest the nature of Akhmatova's unsought appeal to Jugendstil taste. But there is little posing or empty stylization in the whole of Evening, of which the four "Delusion" poems are part, and less in the later collections. This is single-stroke aquarelle sketching, fresh and swift, of delicate moods, especially vagrant states of mind drifting from small events of nature and environment to concurrent and subjectively related small events of the inner life, and back. The exact connection as a rule is logically obscure but emotionally convincing, in that it is precisely the concurrence of inner and outer events (both often in flux and the first frequently involving more than one persona) which give dual or multiple crescendos of tension to the poetic experience. In "Delusion" there is hardly any gap between perception and emotion, although it is somehow far in flavor from the simple exultation of Browning's "All's right with the world." In "As if through a straw," as often in that species of Akhmatova lyric that I would call "soul in landscape" poems, the stay-at-home emotion or thought takes a walk, as it were; an unhappy, one-sided relation of moral exploitation—"as through a straw you are drinking my soul, which tastes bitter yet goes to your head, I have no resistance left and have stopped valuing myself"—is suddenly aired. In the second stanza and the third, a step is taken into "normal" human milieu and unconcerned nature, for the sake of poetic foil, or respite perhaps, but not for a restoration of self, or pathetic fallacy; or its mirror image, a theatrical demonstration that there is no refuge in nature or the ordinary. The initial mood of dull despair persists, the poem has merely gained in empathetic force through an outdoors dimension. A different, less characteristic, inward-outward-inward turn of the poetic screen occurs in "All abject, these eyes …" There, in the "outward" stanza, the thematic association between the vernally fresh and unsteady breeze and the faraway gentleman who has the audacity to be other than sad is obtrusive; elsewhere such links are rare.

What kind of criticism, of commentary on the arts, is desirable today? For I am not saying that works of art are ineffable, that they cannot be described or paraphrased. They can be. What would criticism look like that would serve the work of art, not usurp its place?…The best criticism, and it is uncommon, is of this sort that dissolves considerations of content into those of form … Equally valuable would be acts of criticism that would supply a really accurate, sharp, loving description of the appearance of a work of art.11

II. Rendering the Whole Poem

A paradox has it that poetry seems to have a direct, incontrovertible, triumphantly convincing access to a truth which, when so reached, has been commonly called aesthetic. But it is a truth which poetry itself establishes by its mesmerism, and it is discernible and verifiable in no other way. A practical corollary, if paradoxes can have them, is that one is apt to accept in a successful stanza of verse elements of sentiment and modes of statement which one might not accept in prose. Why? Is it because one is more indulgent to verse ("poetry, God help us, must be a little daft," said Pushkin), pleading the restrictions placed on it by the "form" (there aren't any, since it comes about in and through its form), or because one simply takes it to be somehow less "serious," a performance which signifies nothing beyond itself? Or is it rather because the specific gravity of any utterance is higher in verse; provided the verse qualifies as such by having formal identity, even some degree of formal rigor? Its semantic charge is what it seems to "say" and then some: it says what it seems to "mean" in such a manner—elliptic, lucid, dim, portentous, memorable—that what seems manner declares itself directly as part of the semantic burden. What may be mistakenly thought of separately, as "the aesthetic effect," is of one body with whatever cognitive message the utterance might partially share with a prose statement; and the aggregate is more powerful than prose. Prose rhetoric operates in a kindred way, of course; its transitions toward poetry are probably gradual. But cumulatively they integrate into a quantum leap.

The poetic statement, then, is not just "more" moving, dense, striking, terse, beautiful, or whatever, but it is different in kind from any attempted cognitive reduction to prose. (Hence, by the way, the chilling absurdity of V. Nabokov's vivisection of Eugene Onegin—"yet each man kills the thing he loves"—with the scalpel of a lexicomaniacal literalism.) It is true in a sense that is both abstract and sensual; it may have truth even when what is misrepresented as its cognitive "base" in prose is perceived as untrue or trite. It convinces in its own aesthetic terms without having appeal to rational plausibility or proof. If, intellectually, the reader is irked, bored, or puzzled by an episode of the Divine Comedy or a passage in Faust II, he can be so on one level without detriment to their contextual rightness or their subliminal effect on him. The poet—naively speaking—may bore or puzzle in irrationally important, graceful, or gripping ways; and if a translation gravely fails to do the same it is useless. This is why prose texts which call themselves translations or even paraphrases of works of poetry are worse than useless; they are in effect hoaxes or swindles even when they, as is often the case, take in their own perpetrators.

Readers of Russian poetry, and sometimes the poets, have been embarrassed lately by a spate of imitation and Nachfühlerei by hopelessly monoglot bards of high or low estate, who were lured by a vague freemasonry of (mutually unintelligible) letters and an aura of intellectual chic that has been wafted about such as Voznesensky and Talleyrand-Evtushenko and, more regrettably, Brodsky and (posthumously) all the Acmeists. In our era this sort of humbug started, very mildly indeed, at the time of Louis MacNeice's BBC Faust and, via Auden perhaps, infected Lowell, Kunitz, and Bly, as well as some others with neither the language nor talent to sustain them. For the little matter of gaining access to the original verse, these poets have recourse to native Pythias or Cassandras of either sex who, all too often, their admonitions scorned, are thrown by the English Pegasus at the first ditch and depart to rend their garments in discreet seclusion. Nothing of value and kinship with the original (except perhaps to the imitator) has yet come out of such heteromorphous imitation. The case is worse with those nonchalant apostasies from rhymed metric art in favor of shapeless strings of gawky verbiage, unrelated to anything but that "contemporary idiom" which by opacity and "privacy" qualifies for the exequatur of the meterless fraternity.

A French structuralist critic some years ago in informal conversation mused about the function of literary criticism. Essentially it was, he submitted, to remove the barriers, linguistic and referential, between the writer and his audience; to add the necessary elucidating and equating discourse as economically as possible, and in a medium so congeneric and qualitatively equivalent to the work as to form in effect a true addition to it, part of its new extended substance … Then he interrupted himself and added, apparently somewhat to his own surprise, what may be reported as follows: "Of course, the sparest, most seamless, directly self-applying mode of criticism is translation—comprehensive translation. By which one means, translation of all salient aspects of form which of course embrace or constitute 'substance' or 'content,' along with all salient aspects of content, which of course include so-called 'form.' This species of criticism involves the least intermediacy, neglect, or accretion. It requires a Janus-like sensibility."

Even taking one's stand on somewhat narrower ground, one must insist that there is no other way, certainly no better way, of thoroughly knowing and decoding a poet foreign to others than by that taxing commitment to both tonal and verse-technical assimilation which is metric translation.

One longs to do this, I suspect, not so much in order to make the poet accessible as in order to test and taste him in more than one linguistic medium. In order to move him over one first has to know him rather intimately in his native medium. Exploring the poet's work at large, beyond the range of a particular translating assignment in hand, would seem to be an important preliminary.

What are the distinguishing marks of Akhmatova's handwriting in poetry—of the effective sweep of her pen and the graphics of her versification? These are intricate questions in themselves in relation to any poet of originality, but they take on a desperate edge only if one tries to verbalize them. The sensitive native soon takes these marks in; and the translator, if he has done his job, is thereby relieved of the supererogatory task of attempting the second best—generalizing and classifying by "critical" circumscription. His impulse is to naturalize the "foreign" verse. I insert this term despite its affected ring because "translate" in its colloquial blandness suppresses both the lure and the magicking labor of what some bring themselves to call "englishing," Verdeutschen, spolszczenie, etc. Akhmatova's register of emotions and moods, her rhythms and rhymes, and the interaction between these (which of course only exist with and by virtue of one another) have to be absorbed in the mediator's aesthetic matrix before the need for any actual lexical matching intrudes. There is no intention to suggest that the would-be recreator of Akhmatova's verse by an act of mystic absorption in her oeuvre attains a state of communication with her spirit and diction, whence he will speak with her tongue in another tongue. It is merely submitted that reading like this, with occasional pilot translation of tempting lines, is the best road short of metempsychosis to learning to say in English, in a given case later, what Akhmatova is saying, while also speaking as she does. It becomes easier to diagnose (or in Psychspeak, "intuit") the blend and the course of her emotions in a given passage or poem when one knows what she is able and apt to do, how cognate situations develop elsewhere; what her key words and her verbal mimicry are; how, for instance, she uses nature like a half-learnt idiom partially to encode her otherwise inexpressible inner processes; how she may later decode them by some new cipher and obtain an altered semantic freight with equivalent affective changes. One will then have encountered her generosities and engaging gaucheries, harshnesses and offhand surrenders, her hurt cynicism and proud flippancy, her numb withdrawals and arrogant flounces, her rare but terrible curses and guffaws. Only then does the single poem acquire the perspective of her entire personality as a poet.

For examples of the curious state of a poetic sensibility's being connected in parallel, living in a shunt circuit as it were, with the phenomenal world (with at best rare ironic innuendos at the pathetic fallacy), one may point to "Up the bare sky slim willowsprigs climb. / Fanning abreast, / My not becoming your wife that time / Maybe was best." In "It is fine here …", nature's apparent reminder of the past is cited wryly as a condition contrary to fact in two throw-away final lines, yet it taps a poignant emotion with admirable parsimony. In "All promised him to me …", it is not an anthropopathic sky, dream, wind, waterfalls, willow shoots, or dragonflies that promise fulfillment, but the keen feeling soul that delighted in them and divines the promises of another sensibility that may comprehend all these and complement the first. The "pathos" that embraces the disparate phenomena is the poet's, not nature's.

Lastly, in order to "carry her across" with understanding, one must "learn" Akhmatova as a human being, though that status is inseparable from that of the poet as "content" is from "form." One must, I suspect, fall in love with her, a thing I have found not just easy but unavoidable. That subspecies of the Eternally Feminine that is marked by absolute integrity, an all-or-nothing temperament, a fiercely exacting, slightly outré concept of love and loyalty, found one of its purest and most enchanting specimens in the young Akhmatova. Not a great deal of dependable detail is available of the chain of tempests, teapot ones and others, that must have been her carrière de coeur in that first adult decade from 1909 to 1919, if her verse is any guide. Nor do we have more than disjointed and often dubious testimony to the inwardness of her relationship with her intimates among people and places. Partial exceptions are those parts of her life as a poet and friend which were lived with the Mandelstams, and which are reflected in the electrostatic pages of Nadezhda Mandelstam's recent memoirs. But from her poems, in the most extraordinary way, we know it all: no dates, almost no names, yet, in a magic-lantern show of luminous mood sketches, exactly how it all was, and how if felt, and what is now left of it.

Poem after poem hints at how she was hurt and worn by her ever-eager, ever-rebounding perfectionism. Many may be classed as discharges between two poles, one—her cool, inviolable sense of her value as a poet, which contains, if not alone constitutes, her sense of self; the other—a romantic urge for surrender of personality which dwells in her non-poetic self as formed by the epoch's decadent-exalté, Wagner-Schmagner liebestödlich concept of Love. The latter may well be reinforced by this artist's urge to make the best, or most tragic, of anything offered by life in its bounty. The boundless expectations, the portentous semantic charge placed on Love, on the confused, vulnerable, now runically unfathomable, now repellently trivial twosomeness, is one of the few things that nature and Art Nouveau seem to have in common.

If the long historical sine curve of literary values and modes between emotionalism and quietism, between ornate and sober forms, which my Istanbul neighbor Erich Auerbach used to pursue was duly undulating in 1909, we can make out a long, flat wave of the histrionic-declamatory ridden by Gericault, David, and Delacroix, by Wagner and the Pre-Raphaelites and many others, which crested with the Symbolists and subsided in the mannered parsimony and wan eclecticism of Art Nouveau. It is perhaps somewhere on the downslope of this subsiding wave that the young Akhmatova is located, with her emotional make-up still on the melodramatizing Backfisch Isolde side, her lean Acmeist technique much farther down toward what one may call the Trough of the Future. Rilke's angelic solemnity about Love, purveyed with a truly angelic gift, is very much in the air, Stefan George, the French and Russian Symbolists are still rampant; Blok, who must have read all of these (while Akhmatova read him but also Proust, Eliot, and Joyce), until well into the new century cultivated the poetic vision of his multiform divinity, the Holy Wisdom conjured up by Solovyov, but turning now into a Helen or Aphrodite, now into a chastely shameless Artemis. In each garb it was Love all-significant, polymorphous, wild, wooly, and as overripe as anything by the Rossettis. One may suspect that in poetic forms, in the heat content of emotions, in the swing between exoticism and sobriety, the curves were changing direction between 1903, when Blok forsook poor Sophia, and 1909, when Akhmatova began to write. But for a long while—luckily perhaps—the tense readiness for consuming emotion persisted in Anna Andreevna; and like Eugene Onegin in V. 31, her partners do not seem to have been up to it. "Girls' tragico-hysteric vapors, their swoons and tears …" are unnerving enough when not cast into powerful poems. The betrayers retreat, abashed. The sacrificial exaltations, the frozen calms (Anna Andreevna in this mood reminds one a little of a Dying Swan who is very, very angry) spend themselves more and more in a fine irony, chill or ruefully tender. And strength takes the form of a devil-may-care pride, now solemn, now gamine, in her real self and in her habitat: the garden where the Muse walks.


  1. When Osip Mandelstam claimed for "Acmeism" in 1922 that it had returned moral power to Russian poetry, Akhmatova had published Evening (1912), Beads (1914), White Flock (1917), Wayside Herb (1921), and Anno Domini (1922); Nikolai Gumilev (who in retrospect may seem Acmeism's impresario and drummer rather than indispensable contributor) had published Pearls (1910), The Pyre (1918), and Pillar of Fire (1921); Osip Mandelstam, Stone (1913) and Tristia (1922); and Pasternak (somewhat more remote in this period from the preceding than later) was known in poetry mainly for A Twin in the Clouds (1914) and My Sister, Life (1922).
  2. In November 1961, Anna Akhmatova paid these the famous brief tribute, Nas chetvero, "We are four."
  3. Actually, 26 or 27. W.A.
  4. A current term for the metric line more often called dol'nik, a line of generally trisyllabic feet with three stress slots and variable anacrusis and coda. A variant of this, rhythmically suggesting two anapests combined now with an amphibrach (—/—), now an iambus, was so characteristic of Anna Akhmatova (especially in Poem without a Hero) as to be called the Akhmatova line by Kornei Chukovsky.
  5. See the poem "Consolation" of 1914, S-P I, 135.
  6. Berberova, Nina. Kursiv moi (München: Wilhelm Fink, 1972), 84. In the index of personages attached to this invaluable book, Anna Akhmatova's biographical note consists of five lines, mentioning her three marriages but not one of her works; followed by fifteen lines devoted to her third husband, Punin. Berberova's own entry lists thirteen of her works.
  7. Kornei Chukovsky, "Anna Akhmatova," in Sobranie soch. v 6 tomakh (M. 1967), 725-26 passim. Translated by Walter Arndt.
  8. N. V. Nedobrovo begins his sensitive essay of April 1914 (endorsed by Anna Akhmatova years later as the piece of criticism she considered closest to the mark), by analyzing the eight lines of "True tenderness there's no aping": "The language is simple and colloquial—perhaps nearly to the point where it ceases being poetry? But on rereading we notice that if people were to converse like this, it would be enough to exchange two or three quatrains to have exhausted the common run of human relationships and be left in a realm of silence …" After demonstrating interaction of metric and lexical values for a page or two, Nedobrovo continues: "Turning our attention to the poem's structure, we are inevitably persuaded again of the freedom and potency of Akhmatova's poetic language. An eight-line poem of two differently rhymed qua-trains here falls into three syntactic structures, the first taking up two lines, the second four, the third again two. Thus the second syntactic structure, closely linked by rhyme with the first and third, links the two (stanzaic quatrains) by its own (syntactic, not prosodic) unity, and this link is flexible, though strong. I remarked earlier, by way of the dramatic effect of introducing the second "No use," that the change of rhyme scheme and elsewhere is perceived by the reader and has powerful effect.…The device described, i.e., a complete syntactical structure bridging two rhyme schemes, so that sentences bend stanzas in the middle and finally round them off as stanzas do sentences, is extremely characteristic of Akhmatova; by this means she achieves a peculiar flexibility and subtlety of line, for lines so made take on a serpentine quality. At times Anna Akhmatova uses this device with the consummate ease of a virtuoso."
  9. In the fourth section of his article quoted above Nedobrovo makes some analytic remarks apposite here: "In the poems examined, the highly-strung intensity of the feelings and the unerring precision and clarity of their expression are overwhelming and need no laboring. Here lies Akhmatova's strength. What pleasure to find that, far from being irked by alleged inexpressibility in the poet's work, one reads turns of phrases which seem to have been taken straight from folk tradition.

    For ages man has worn himself out struggling with the difficulty of expressing his inner life in words; yoked by silence, the spirit's growth is sluggish. There are poets who, like Hermes of old, teach man to speak, to release his inner force to work its will freely, and those who have hearts to feel will cherish their memory.

    The emotional intensity in Akhmatova's diction at times generates such light and heat as to fuse man's inner world with the outer. Only when this happens do we find the outer world depicted in Akhmatova's verse; hence her pictures of that world are not soberly naturalistic, but stabbed with shafts of feeling as if seen with the eyes of a drowning man:

    It grows light. And over the smithy
    Rises smoke
    Oh, you couldn't once more be with me
    Sad in my yoke.

    Or the continuation of the poem about the pleading eyes:

    I walk down the path—on its margin
    Lie timbers in stacks of grey—
    To fields a breeze is at large in
    Like the spiring, uneven and gay.

    Sometimes her lyrical intensity constrains Akhmatova to do no more than hint at the suffering which is seeking expression in nature; and yet through her description one senses the heartbeat of feeling:

    In servitude you know I languish,
    For leave to die I plead with God,
    But always, to the edge of anguish,
    I see the Tver-land's grudging sod.

    A weathered well with hauling-crane,
    Above it clouds, like vapor leaking,
    Out in the fields the stile-gate creaking,
    And heartache—in the fragrant grain.

    Those unspectacular expanses
    Where even winds dare not alarm,
    And those evaluating glances
    Of countrywomen tanned and calm.

    That low-voiced wind, though, brings tears to one's eyes."

  10. Lines 13-16: "Sixteen of age, pliant of soul and modest, / Raven her brow, the maiden mounds below / Asway against the tautened linen bodice, / A love-some foot, her teeth a pearly row …"
  11. Susan Sontag, Against Interpretation and Other Essays (New York: 1969).

Principal Works

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Vecher [Evening] (poetry) 1912

Chetki [Rosary] (poetry) 1914

Belaya Staya [The White Flock] (poetry) 1917

Anno Domini MCMXXI (poetry) 1921

Podorozhnik [Plantain] (poetry) 1921

U Samovo Morya (poetry) 1921

Anno Domini (poetry) 1923

Forty-Seven Love Songs (poetry) 1927

Iz Shesti Knig (poetry) 1940

Izbrannie Stikhi (poetry) 1943

Tashkentskie Stikhi (poetry) 1944

Stikhotvoreniia, 1909-1957 (poetry) 1958

Poema Bez Geroya: Triptykh [Poem without a Hero] (poetry) 1960

Stikhi, 1909-1960 (poetry) 1961

Collected Poems: 1912-1963 (poetry) 1963

Rekviem: Tsikl Stikhotvorenii [Requiem] (poetry) 1963

Poeziya (poetry) 1964

Beg Vremeni (poetry) 1965

Stikhotvoreniia, 1909-1965 (poetry) 1965

Sochineniia. 2 vols. (poetry) 1965, 1968

Selected Poems (poetry) 1969

Way of All the Earth (poetry) 1979

Anna Akhmatova: Poems (poetry) 1983

Sochineniia v dvukh tomakh. 2 vols. (poetry) 1986

Poems (poetry) 1988

Severnye elegii: stikhotvoreniia, poety, o poetakh (poetry) 1989

The Complete Poems of Anna Akhmatova. 2 vols. (poetry) 1990


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SOURCE: Katz, Boris. “To What Extent Is Requiem a Requiem? Unheard Female Voices in Anna Akhmatova’s Requiem.” Russian Review 57 (April 1998): 253-63.

In the following essay, Katz maintains that Akhmatova’s poem Requiem is not a true requiem but should more properly be considered a Russian version of the medieval poem Stabat Mater.

Some cry up Haydn, some Mozart,
Just as the whim bites. For my part,
I do not care a farthing candle
For either of them, nor for Handel.
Cannot a man live free and easy,
Without admiring Pergolesi?

—Charles Lamb, “Free Thoughts on Several
Eminent Composers” (1830)

It is obvious that not every poet would share Charles Lamb’s attitude toward music in general, and toward “several eminent composers” in particular. Anna Akhmatova certainly would not. There is no need to cite a great deal of evidence; it is sufficient to recall one passage from the memoirs of Anatoly Naiman, a Russian poet who was close to Akhmatova in her later years. The passage presents a good picture of Akhmatova’s diverse and selective preferences in the world of music:

At the head of the truckle-bed was a low table with an electric record player: either I had hired it locally or someone had brought it from town. She listened to music frequently and for long periods; she listened to various kinds of music, but sometimes she would be especially interested in a particular piece or pieces for a certain time. In the summer of 1963 it was the Beethoven’s sonatas, in the autumn—Vivaldi; in the summer of 1964— Shostakovich’s Eighth Quartet, in the spring of 1963—Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater, and in the summer and autumn—Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea and, especially often, Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, the British recording with Schwartzkopf. She liked listening to Beethoven’s Bagatelles, much of Chopin (played by Sofronitskii), The Four Seasonsand other Vivaldi’s concertos, and also Bach, Mozart, Haydn, and Handel. As we know, Vivaldi’s Adagio appears in Midnight Verses: “We shall meet again in music, in Vivaldi’s bold Adagio.” One day she asked me to find some music on the radio for a change. I began moving the needle along the dial and observed aloud that it was all light music. Akhmatova replied, “Who needs that?” “Ah, here’s some opera.” “Operas aren’t always bad.” “When aren’t they bad?” “When they’re Khovanshchina, or Kitezh Town.1

But since some require evidence to be convinced, one interesting bit of it belongs to Akhmatova herself and is expressed in her poetry— specifically, in the poem with the significant title

A Poet:


Here we have an authorial confession of a great importance, for one of the distinctive features of Akhmatova’s poetry (especially that of the late period) is the abundance of so-called subtexts.3 Akhmatova’s poetry of the late period is literally woven from threads connecting a poem with numerous other texts, often of a very different nature. Such texts may be facts of biography, history, art, and so forth. Literary subtexts, of course, play the most essential part. “In the later period,” Susan Amert noted, “the role of literary quotations and references takes on pivotal importance: the identification and interpretation of literary references becomes crucial to an understanding of Akhmatova’s poetry, which speaks through such echoes and allusions.”4 That is why intertextual approaches to Akhmatova’s poetry have been so widely adopted. Immersion into what Akhmatova herself called “the subtextual depth” seems to be one of the most adequate methods for analyzing her works.

In this regard, at least two points should be emphasized. The first is Akhmatova’s well-known, frequent use of the device of concealment. The line from the Poem without a Hero , «У шкaтyлки ж Tpойноe дно», could serve as a motto for studies on Akhmatova’s way of referring to different subtexts. One of them may conceal another, the latter may conceal yet another, and so on. A different motto for the same kind of research could be borrowed from the early Akhmatova poem Pesnia poslednei vstrechi, « я нa пpaByю pyкy нaдeлa / пepчaткy c лeΒой pyки», for Akhmatova rarely uses any sources directly.5 Usually, she intentionally fuses and transforms them into something new and—quite often—hardly commensurate to the original. That is why it is not easy to recognize Akhmatova’s subtexts.

The second point to be emphasized is the most important for these considerations. “The box with a triple bottom” of Akhmatova’s poetry conceals not only different literary sources but also musical ones. Akhmatova scholars often neglect these musical sources (especially if they are inclined to share Charles Lamb’s attitude toward music). But the stanzas from A Poet cited above point to the existence of musical subtexts in Akhmatova’s verse, at the same time that they underline their transformation and complex encoding. This being the case, Akhmatova’s musical subtexts may be divided into two categories: “heard” and “unheard” melodies. My terms are taken from John Keats’ lines from the Ode on a Grecian Urn (1820): “Heard melodies are sweet, / But those unheard are sweeter.”6 By “heard melodies” I mean those musical subtexts which are disclosed to the reader by the author herself; by “unheard melodies,” those which the author either vaguely hints at or entirely conceals. Three examples will make my division clear. In the first “Dedication” from the Poem without a Hero we read:


Undoubtedly, the piece by Chopin serves as an audible (as though heard by inner ear) musical accompaniment to these lines. Here we have, so to speak, the heard melody.

The poem The Call (Zov , from the cycle Polnochnye stikhi), meanwhile, places us in quite another situation: «B котоpyю-то из Cонaт / тeбя я cпpячy оCтоpожно …»8 To whose sonata did Akhmatova refer? The answer may be found in the previous variants of the poem, and in Akhmatova’s drafts. In an early variant of The Call , the first line reads: «И B пpeдпоCлeднeй из Cонaт». This version does not make the reference absolutely clear, but it tells us that the poem deals with a certain musical piece. The reader does not know which piece it is, but the author does. Fortunately, in Akhmatova’s drafts one can find the discarded motto to this poem, “Arioso Dolente. Beethoven. Op. 110,” so we now know that Akhmatova had in mind the lamenting melody from the finale of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 31, which is indeed the composer’s penultimate sonata.

In this way, Akhmatova transformed the “heard melody” into an “unheard” one. Without touching upon all the reasons for this transformation, let us remember that “unheard melodies are sweeter.”9

The third example presents the first lines from a poem written in 1914: «Beчepний зBoн y cтeн мoнacтьIpя / Кaк нeкий блaгoBecт caмoй пpиpoдьI».10 Here we have a telling example of a combination of both types of musical subtexts within one line, or, to put it another way, a combination of heard and unheard melodies. The heard one is the melody of the ringing church bells directly mentioned in the text.

At the same time, the first two words refer to the famous Russian romance which eventually became a folk song. The initial words of the song (as well as its title) are the same: “Vechernii zvon.” Incidentally, the text of the song is a translation of a poem by Thomas Moore (1779-1852) entitled Those Evening Bells, made by the Russian poet Ivan Kozlov, who wrote in the beginning of the nineteenth century. This translation had been set to music several times during the nineteenth century, although the most popular melody belongs to an unknown composer. This melody is well known in Russia and, beyond any doubt, it was known to Akhmatova. Thus her poem imperceptibly evokes two “melodies” at one and the same time: the “heard” sounding of the church bells and the “unheard melody” of the old Russian song.

Turning to the problem of musical subtexts in Akhmatova’s Requiem , one might suppose that the very title of the poem points to the musical setting of the Latin text that is used in Roman Catholic liturgy. The first composer to come to mind as a potential reference is, of course, Mozart, for it is his Requiem that became one of the most famous examples of the genre. Considering Akhmatova’s lifelong admiration for Mozart’s music one could easily conclude that the identity of the main musical subtext for her Requiem is established. The problem cannot be solved so easily, however, because “the box has a triple bottom.” First of all let us note that the only explicit statement by Akhmatova on musical subtexts in her Requiem is found among her notes on Poem without a Hero: “Next to it [this poem] … so motley and saturated with music, went [my] funereal Requiem , which can only be accompanied by Silence and occasional, distant strokes of funeral bells.”11 If these words refer in any way to musical compositions, it may be to those of one of the greatest Russian composers—Modest Mussorgsky, for the funeral bells sounding behind the stage are among the distinctive features of his bestknown operas, Boris Godunov and Khovanshchina.

In the first, funeral bells resound in one of the opera’s most impressive scenes, when the dying Tsar Boris exclaims, «ЗBон! ПoгpeбaльньIй зBон!» But the use of the funeral bells in Khovanshchina is perhaps even more striking, for here we have precisely the combination of Silence and the distant, sparse tolling of funeral bells. I have in mind the scene from Act 4, when the stroke of a bell breaks a terrifying silence and announces the beginning of the mass execution.

As many readers know, Khovanshchina deals with certain historical events at the end of the seventeenth century in Russia. The climax of Act 4 represents the tragic result of the Strel’tsy mutiny of 1698, which Peter I severely suppressed. Many rebels were executed on Red Square in Moscow just at the Kremlin walls. In his opera Mussorgsky presents (not without some deviations from history) the beginning of the execution, and—what is of special importance for our subject— he includes in this scene a choir of female voices. This choir is one of the most impressive musical episodes of the opera. The wives of the doomed victims are crying and wailing. According to Mussorgsky’s realistic principles, this musical fragment is more akin to the real wailing of womenfolk than to traditional operatic female choirs.

Remembering that just before this choir the funeral bells ring out in the silence, it is not so difficult to discover the unheard music implied in the last lines of the first poem from Akhmatova’s Requiem: «Бyдy я, кaк Cтpeлeцкиe жeнки, / пoдкpeмлeBcкими бaшнями BьIть».12 And this “unheard melody” is quite definite: it is the abundantly chromatic music of the Choir of Strel’tsy Wives.

It seems that Khovanshchina (incidentally, one of Akhmatova’s favorite operas) provided more than one melody as musical subtext for Requiem . The only heroine of the opera, Marfa, stands on the stage in silence listening to the funeral bells. Marfa is a strong, determined woman, extremely (almost fanatically) religious, yet also a passionate lover. She is absolutely fearless, scorns any danger, and in the end burns herself for the sake of the true faith. Moreover, she has the gift of prophesy and is able to predict the future.

This character had a historical prototype in seventeenth-century Russia. The resistance to the innovations being introduced by Peter the Great and his predecessors was supported to a great degree by the Old Believers. There was one woman among their leaders—the noblewoman Morozova, who was sentenced to exile, imprisonment, and eventually to death. In several poems Akhmatova explicitly identified herself with Morozova.13 So it comes as no surprise that Akhmatova may well have identified herself with the character of Mussorgsky’s opera—with the Morozova-type character Marfa.

One of the most striking episodes involving Marfa is the scene in Act 2 where she foretells the sad destiny that is awaiting the hero in spite of his current prosperity:


The echoes of this aria, Gadanie Marfy, may be heard at the beginning of the Epilogue in Akhmatova’s Requiem:


But Marfa’s aria seems to be even closer to the Requiem ’s Poem 4, which also deals with the prophesy, with the foretelling of a prosperous life turned disastrous:


Besides the obvious similarities («гopючих cлeзaх» and «cлeзoю Гоpячeю») it is remarkable that Akhmatova uses «пoкaзaть» (to show) instead of the seemingly more suitable «paccкaзaть» (to tell). The point is, Mussorgsky’s Marfa does not merely foretell the future in her aria, she shows it, because this future became visible to her in water. Gadanie Marfy, then, might well serve as the musical subtext to Poem 4, and if this is the case, the sad and gloomy melody sung by a low female voice constitutes its “unheard counterpoint.”

This poem also offers one of the most telling examples of Akhmatova’s subtextual technique, for in it we see how the different subtexts are combined and how they intersected in her verse. The phrases «цapcкoceльcкoй Beceлoй гpeшницe» and «пoд Кpecтaми бyдeшь cтoять» deserve special attention. “Kresty” is the name of the Petersburg prison where many victims of Stalin’s terror, including the poet’s son, were held. The word “kresty” means “the crosses,” hence the expression «cтoять пoд Кpecтaми» means more than “to stand near a prison.” It has the second meaning of “to stand by the cross.” Here it is not difficult to recall the Gospel according to St. John (19:25): “Now there stood by the cross of Jesus his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Cleophas, and Mary Magdalene.” Mary Magdalene is traditionally identified with the woman characterized in the Gospel according to St. Luke (7:37) as “a woman in the city, who was a sinner.”

It seems, then, that the female sinner of Tsarskoe selo who stands by the Crosses in Akhmatova’s Requiem , and the female sinner of the city who stood by the cross of Jesus, have much in common. She who stood by Jesus was forgiven by Him, as is mentioned in the Latin text of the Requiem service (in Recordare): “Qui Mariam absolvisti [It was You to Mary pardon gave].”

Hence, in Poem 4 from Akhmatova’s Requiem cycle one may see at least two “hidden” faces belonging to one and the same heroine: she is Marfa from Mussorgsky’s opera and she is Mary Magdalene from the New Testament and from the canonical text of the Roman Catholic Requiem. Having established this, it is easy to see why precisely these two very different characters became united: there are two sisters in the New Testament who knew Jesus—Mary and Martha (or Marfa in Russian). However, it seems that our heroine has one more “hidden” face, and perhaps this is the most important one.

Before uncovering this third face, let us note that Akhmatova’s text does not contain very many references to the text of the Latin Requiem. In addition to the “sinner of the city” one could point to only one more detail: «Этo бьIлo, кoгдayльIбaлcя / Toлькo мepтBьIй, cпoкoйcтBию paд».17 The words «MepтBьIй» and «cпoкoйcтBию» in these initial lines of Vstuplenie obviously echo the initial words of the Latin prayer: “Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine! [Eternal rest grant to them [the dead], O Lord]!” This complicates matters, however. The Requiem Mass prays for peace for the dead. Akhmatova’s Requiem asserts that the dead are happy because they already have been granted peace. They are even smiling, in contrast to those still among the living. Indeed, Akhmatova’s poem begins as something like an Anti-Requiem, and it continues in the same direction, contradicting the traditional contents of the Requiem Mass.

Many readers noticed the contradiction between the real biographical events reflected in Akhmatova’s poem, on the one hand, and its title on the other. Let us briefly recall these events. In 1935, Akhmatova’s husband, Nikolai Punin, and Akhmatova’s son by her first marriage, Lev Gumilev, were arrested. Akhmatova did her best to save them: she appealed to Stalin personally («Кидaлacь B нoгИ пaлaчy»), as a result of which both Punin and Gumilev were soon released. These events inspired Akhmatova’s writing some short poems which were eventually turned into the Requiem cycle. In 1938, Gumilev was re-arrested and imprisoned in Leningrad. He was sentenced to death, but in August 1939 his sentence was commuted and he was deported from Leningrad, first to a camp, and then into exile. Later he was released, again re-arrested, and finally freed in 1956. Punin was re-arrested in 1949 and died in prison camp in 1953. It is worth stressing that Requiem as a cycle of poems was completed in a first version in 1940, while both Gumilev and Punin were alive, though the former was still in prison.

The traditional Requiem, however, is a Mass for the Dead (Missa pro defunctis). The implication, therefore, seems to be that when Akhmatova was crafting her Requiem she bore in mind not only her own loved ones, but all the victims of Stalin’s terror. Still, there are only two more lines (in Poem 4) actually dealing with the dead, or, strictly speaking, with those who are almost dead, or dying: «Ини зByкa—a cкoлькo тaм / HeпoBинньIх жизнeй кoнчaeтcя …»18 Are there too few lines about the dead for the genre, then? Is it not strange, in a cycle of poems entitled Requiem , to speak about living (albeit doomed) persons, rather than dead ones?

In view of the numerous discrepancies between Akhmatova’s text and that of the Catholic Mass for the Dead (there also are no equivalents to, say, the Dies Irae, Tuba mirum, Rex tremendae, Sanctus, Benedictus, Agnus Dei, Lux aeterna, and to other important parts of the Requiem Mass), let us put the crucial question: Is Akhmatova’s Requiem a requiem at all? Did the Requiem Mass serve as both a verbal and musical subtext for Akhmatova’s poem?

It seems to me that the answer must be no. The title Requiem , in my opinion, illustrates Akhmatova’s typical manner of hiding one source under the name of another one, for it was another Catholic prayer that served as verbal and musical subtext for Akhmatova’s Requiem. We can easily disclose this subtext, for Akhmatova explicitly points to it in the second part of Poem 10, Raspiatie (Crucifixion):


The italicized words reproduce almost exactly the initial words of the famous medieval devotional poem about the Virgin Mary’s vigil by Christ’s Cross—Stabat Mater (“Stabat Mater dolorosa [A grief-striken Mother was standing]”). This text goes back to the thirteenth century and is still sung in the Roman Catholic rites at the Feast of the Seven Sorrows of the Virgin Mary. It was also set to music by many composers (Palestrina, Pergolesi, Haydn, Rossini, Verdi, and Dvorzak, among others) in numerous oratories with the same title.

Indeed, it was not only Mary Magdalene, who stood by the Cross: Mary, the mother of Christ, stood there as well. Her suffering is the main subject of Stabat Mater, and it is a mother’s suffering that is the main subject of Akhmatova’s Requiem . Let us add to this, that the traditional Requiem does not include a description of the Crucifixion, while Stabat Mater does, and with many touching details.

Comparing Akhmatova’s Requiem with Stabat Mater, several parallelisms of different kinds become apparent. Touching upon the lexical ones, let us note the key words common to both texts: “mother,” “son,” “to stand,” “death,” “tears,” “suffering,” and “to weep.” The word “cross” may be found in Akhmatova’s text not only as the name of the prison: the cross appears to be a symbolic instrument of execution of the son. Without quoting from Raspiatie again, let us note the last two lines from Poem 6, addressed directly to the son: «O твoeм кpecтe вьIcoкoм / И o cмepти гoвopят».20 Some of Akhmatova’s metaphors may be understood as transformed metaphors from Stabat Mater. For example, the sword that pierced the Virgin Mary’s grieving, anguished, and lamenting heart (“Cujus animam gementem / Contristatam et dolentem / Pertransivit gladius”) seems to be turned into the “stone word” that fell upon the “still-livingbreast” in Akhmatova’s Requiem: «И yпaлoкaмeннoe cлoвo / Ha мoю eщe жиByю гpyдь».21

The suffering of the afflicted Mother of an only Son (“O quam tristis et afflicta / Fuit illa benedicta / Mater Unigeneti”) as well as the appeal for compassion to the loving mother grieving for her Son (“Quis non posset contristari / Piam matrem contemplari / Dolentem cum Filio?”) appear to be condensed in Akhmatova’s lines dealing with the ill and lonely woman:


The motif of “Mater Unigeneti” may well have been especially moving for Akhmatova. Certainly in some poems which are close to Requiem , but not included in the cycle, the motif of “an only Son” occurs rather often: «Paзлyчили c eдинcтBeн-ньIм cьIнoм», (“Vse ushli, i nikto ne vernulsia”),23 «Paзлyчeннoй c eдинcтвeнньIм cьIнoм», «мнe oн— eдинcтвeнньIй cьIн» (“Cherepki”).24

One more example of Akhmatova’s compressing several images of Stabat Mater in her own poems may be shown by comparing the words “Inflammatus at accensus” (“Inflamed and burning”) and “Cruce hac inebriari” (“intoxicated by his Cross”) with the words from Poem 9: «И пoит oгнeнньIм винoм». The notion of “inflamation,” “intoxication,” and “burning” are condensed here in one line.

It is, of course, inappropriate to claim direct structural and metrical influence exerted by the medieval verses of Stabat Mater, with its three-line stanzas (trochaic tetrameter with the dactylic foot to conclude the third line) upon Akhmatova’s cycle, with its diverse and changeable meters and stanzas. Nonetheless, it is noteworthy that three consecutive poems from Requiem (4, 5, and 6) provide us with examples of parallelisms. Thus the lines from Poem 4, «Taм тюpeмньIй тoпoль Кa-чaeтcя» and «нeпoBинньIх жизнeй кoнчaeтcя», are the only two lines in the whole cycle to have a dactylic foot in their ends. Poem 5 gives the only example of three-line structures united in one sixline stanza:


Finally, Poem 6 is the only one written in trochaic tetrameter. The sequence of two rhyming lines coincides almost exactly with a similar pattern in Stabat Mater.

Perhaps all this is not pure coincidence. In any case, the juxtaposition of the concluding sections of Akhmatova’s Requiem with Stabat Mater is certainly fruitful. The last stanza of Stabat Mater reads: “Quando corpus morietur, / Fac ut animae donetur / Paradisi gloria [When my body dies / Let my soul be granted the glory of Heaven].” The end of Requiem is also strongly marked by references to a time when the author of Requiem will be no more: «И ecли кoгдa-нибyдь в этoй cтpaнe / BoздBигнyть зaдyмaют пaмятник мнe … »26

Yet Requiem —in contrast to Stabat Mater— deals with the dream of glory on Earth, not heavenly glory. It is a dream of a posthumous monument which would represent not only the poet’s magnificence but first of all the mother’s suffering. This monument of the poet’s dreams must be erected on the same place where the mother from Akhmatova’s Requiem “was standing for three hundred hours” («Здecь, гдe cтoялa я тpиcтa чacoв»), namely, “by the Crosses”—(«пoд Кpecтaми»). Thus Akhmatova once more identified herself with the Mother of God while at the same time stressing the special aspect of such an identification: a destiny of a mother who is doomed to see her only son being unjustly imprisoned, sentenced, tormented, and executed.

Thus, ultimately, it is not a requiem that Akhmatova wrote, in spite of the title Requiem . Rather, it is a very Russian, even very Soviet, and, of course, very Akhmatovian version of Stabat Mater.

In Akhmatova’s opinion, Solzhenitsyn was wrong when in a conversation with the poet (as recorded by one of her friends), he said: “It was a national tragedy, but you made it only the tragedy of a mother and son.” According to the same source, Akhmatova “repeated these words with her usual shrug of the shoulders, and a slight grimace.”27

Indeed, another writer (an émigré who belonged to Akhmatova’s generation) seems to have had a better understanding of Requiem when he called it a “lament, a female, motherly, lament, not only for herself but also for all those who are suffering, for all wives, mothers, brides, and in general for all those who are being crucified.”28 Nevertheless, Solzhenitsyn’s judgment contains a grain of truth. Akhmatova’s Requiem , although it presents, of course, the tragedy of the entire nation, does so through the prism of her personal tragedy, of a mother watching her tormented and dying son.

This fact explains why precisely Stabat Mater— the best exemplification of such a Mother-Son tragedy in European literature—may be considered the hidden subtext of Akhmatova’s Requiem . Akhmatova’s knowledge of Latin is beyond any doubt. Her acquaintance with medieval Catholic prayers might have its origin in her close contacts (in the mid-1910s and early twenties) with Arthur Lourie (1892-1966), the avant-garde composer who, after his conversion to Catholicism, wrote several liturgical compositions on the texts of medieval Latin prayers. One of them—Salve Regina—is mentioned (rather enigmatically) in Akhmatova’s long poem Putem vseia zemli, written the same year in which Akhmatova completed her Requiem , 1940.29

Akhmatova may have had several reasons for hiding the subtext Stabat Mater in “the box with a triple bottom” (and the very deepest one at that). For one thing, we know that Akhmatova, for both political and personal reasons, would carefully conceal everything that could shed light on her relationship with Arthur Lourie. For another, Stabat Mater was too closely connected with Catholic liturgy and had no equivalents among the Orthodox prayers. Moreover, “requiem” was a term that (at least in Russian culture) had lost, to a certain degree, both its religious and Catholic flavor and turned into something neutral enough to be applied to secular memorial works of art. Finally, if I may say it again, “unheard melodies are sweeter.”

With respect to the melodies which Akhmatova’s Requiem may have secretly implied, this issue is fairly easy to resolve. One of the most famous musical settings of Stabat Mater is the oratorio composed by Giovanni Batista Pergolesi (probably in 1739). Anatoly Naiman, as we remember, mentions this oratorio among Akhmatova’s favorite musical pieces. It seems to be particularly important that Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater (in contrast to Mozart’s Requiem , which usually is performed by a mixed choir with orchestra) is to be sung only by female voices—by two female singers (Soprano and Alto) accompanied by strings and harpsichord. This feminine-sounding image, so to speak, strengthens, in my opinion, the resemblance between Pergolesi’s oratorio and Akhmatova’s poem.

So, Lamb’s ironic question, “Cannot a man live free and easy, / Without admiring Pergolesi?” may be answered: Perhaps men can, but women cannot. At least one of them could not.


1. Anatoly Naiman, Remembering Anna Akhmatova, trans. Wendy Rosslyn (New York, 1991), 147. Both operas mentioned by Akhmatova were written by Russian composers—Khovanshchina by Modest Mussorgsky, and The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh and the Maiden Fevronia by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov.

2. Anna Akhmatova, Posle vsego (Moscow, 1989), 145. Unless otherwise noted, all further citations of Akhmatova’s texts are from this excellent edition, which combines Akhmatova’s works with numerous valuable materials for Akhmatova studies and comprises five books published simultaneously by the Moscow Pedagogical Institute in 1989 (compilers and commentators R. Timenchik, K. Polivanov, and V. Morderer). Unfortunately, the edition lacks any general title and none of the books (Desiatye gody, Poema bez geroia, Rekviem, Posle vsego, and Fotobiografiia) has a number. Therefore, all further references mention the title of each book and the page number.

3. By “subtext” I mean, following Kirill Taranovskii and Omry Ronen, the source of a literary citation or allusion.

4. Susan Amert, In a Shattered Mirror: The Later Poetry of Anna Akhmatova (Stanford, 1992), 14.

5. Desiatye gody, 57.

6. These lines were used as the motto to the only (posthumous) collection of the poems by Vsevolod Kniazev (Stikhi [St. Petersburg, 1914]) who was to become the prototype for “dragunskii kornet” in Akhmatova’s Poem without a Hero. For more details see Roman Timenchik, “Zametki o ‘Poeme bez geroja,’” in Akhmatova, Poema bez geroia, 4-9.

7. Poema bez geroia, 33.

8. Posle vsego, 188.

9. For elucidation of links between Beethoven’s Sonata, op. 110 and Akhmatova’s poem The Call see B. Kats and R. Timenchik, Anna Akhmatova i muzyka (Leningrad, 1989), 148-52.

10. Anna Akhmatova, Stikhotvoreniia i poemy (Leningrad, 1977), 280.

11. Poema bez geroia, 62.

12. Rekviem, 304.

13. «Mнe c MopoзoBoю клacть пoклoньI …» (Posledniaia roza, 1962), «O, ecли бьI Bдpyт oткинyтьcя / B кaкoй-тo ceмнaдцaтьIй Beк … C бoяpьIнeю MopoзoBoй / CлaдимьIй мeдoк пoпиBaть … Кaкoй cyмacшeдший CypикoB / Moй пocлeдний нaпишeт пyть?» (Ia znaiu, s mesta ne sdvinut’ sia …, 1939 [?]). Judith Hemschemeyer comments on the last lines: “A picture of the Boyarynya Morozova by Vasily Surikov (1848-1916) depicts her on a sleigh, in chains, being taken into exile. According to Nadezhda Mandelstam in Hope against Hope … the last two lines of this poem originated in a remark made by Punin to Akhmatova in the Tretyakov Gallery: ‘Now let’s go and see how they’ll take you to your execution.’” See The Complete Poems of Anna Akhmatova, trans. Judith Hemschemeyer, vol. 2 (Somerville, MA, 1990), 784. Perhaps it is worth adding that another famous picture by V. I. Surikov depicts the execution of Strel’tsy (Utro Streletskoi kazni).

14. M. Mussorgskii, Khovanshchina: Narodnaia muzykal’ naia drama (Moscow, 1932), 140-42.

15. Rekviem, 311.

16. Ibid., 306.

17. Ibid., 304.

18. Ibid., 306.

19. Ibid., 310 (emphasis added).

20. Ibid., 307.

21. Ibid.

22. Ibid., 304.

23. Ibid., 293.

24. Ibid., 282.

25. Ibid., 306.

26. Ibid., 312.

27. Natalia Roskina, “Good-by Again,” in Anna Akhmatova and Her Circle, comp. Konstantin Polivanov, trans. Patricia Beriozkina (Fayetteville, AR, 1994), 193.

28. Boris Zaitsev, “Dni,” Russkaia mysl’ (Paris), 7 January 1964, cited in Akhmatova, Rekviem, 299.

29. Posle vsego, 120. For more details about this reference to Lourie’s Salve Regina, as well as about Lourie himself (he emigrated in 1922) and his influence upon Akhmatova’s life and works, see Kats and Timenchik, Anna Akhmatova i muzyka, 147, 31-36, 170-72; and Poema bez geroia, 338-51.

Further Reading


Driver, Sam N. “Akhmatova: A Selected, Annotated Bibliography.” Russian Literature Triquarterly 1 (1971): 432-34.

Brief annotated listing of criticism on Akhmatova’s works.

Terry, Garth M. Anna Akhmatova in English: A Bibliography 1889-1966–1989. Nottingham, Eng.: Astra Press, 1989.

Comprehensive bibliography of Akhmatova’s works, both literary and non-literary, and criticism on her writings.


“Anna Akhmatova 1889-1989: For Akhmatova’s Birth Centenary.” Soviet Literature, no. 6 (1989).

Entire issue devoted to Akhmatova, including selections from her writings, reminiscences on her life, and essays on her work.

Amert, Susan. In a Shattered Mirror: The Later Poetry of Anna Akhmatova. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1992.

Discussion of Akhmatova’s post-1935 poetry and the political, philosophical, and religious concerns it reflects.

Dalos, György Andrea Dunai. The Guest from the Future: Anna Akhmatova and Isaiah Berlin, translated by Antony Wood. London: John Murray, 1998.

Account of the relationship between Akhmatova and Berlin and its effect on her writing.

Driver, Sam N. Anna Akhmatova. Boston: Twayne, 1972.

Comprehensive study of Akhmatova’s life and works.

Feinstein, Elaine. “Poetry and Conscience: Russian Women Poets of the Twentieth Century.” In Women Writing and Writing about Women, edited by Mary Jacobus, pp. 133-58. London: Croom Helm, 1979.

Comparative treatment of the poetry of Akhmatova, Tsvetayeva, and their contemporaries.

Gamburg, Haim. “The Biblical Protagonists in the Verse of Anna Axmatova: An Expression of Feminine Identification.” Russian Language Journal 31, no. 109 (spring 1977): 125-34.

Examines Akhmatova’s sympathetic treatment of Biblical heroines in her poetry.

Gasparov, M. L. “The Evolution of Akhmatova’s Verse.” In Anna Akhmatova 1889-1989, edited by Sonia I. Ketchian, pp. 68-74. Oakland, Calif.: Berkeley Slavic Specialties, 1993.

Comparison of Akhmatova’s early verse from the period 1909 to 1922 to her poetry written after 1923.

Ozerov, Lev. “Touches to Akhmatova’s Portrait.” Soviet Literature, no. 6 (June 1989): 155-63.

Provides discussion of thematic and stylistic features of Akhmatova’s poetry.

Pratt, Sarah. “The Obverse of Self: Gender Shifts in Poems by Tjutcev and Axmatova.” In Russian Literature and Psychoanalysis, edited by Daniel Rancour-Laferriere, pp. 225-44. Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 1989.

Compares shifts in gender in Akhmatova’s “Distant Voice” cycle with a poetic cycle by Tjutcev.

Rosslyn, Wendy. “Gender in Translation: Lowell and Cixous Rewriting Akhmatova.” In Gender and Sexuality in Russian Civilisation, edited by Peter I. Barta, pp. 71-86. London: Routledge, 2001.

Examination of the gendered differences in two translations of Akhmatova’s Requiem, one by Robert Lowell, the other by Hélène Cixous.

Tomei, Christine D. “Mirra Loxvickaja and Anna Axmatova: Influence in the Evolution of the Modern Female Lyric Voice.” In Critical Essays on the Prose and Poetry of Modern Slavic Women, edited by Nina A. Efimov, Christine D. Tomei, and Richard L. Chapple, pp. 135-60. Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellen Press, 1998.

Traces the sudden emergence, at the beginning of the twentieth century, of two major female poets, Akhmatova and Mirra Loxvickaja.


Additional coverage of Akhmatova’s life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Contemporary Authors, Vols. 19-20, 25-28R; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 35; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 11, 25, 64, 126; DISCovering Authors 3.0; DISCovering Authors Modules: Poets; Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, Ed. 3; European Writers, Vol. 10; Literature Resource Center; Major 20th-Century Writers, Eds. 1, 2; Poetry Criticism, Vols. 2, 55; Poetry for Students, Vol. 18; and Reference Guide to World Literature, Eds. 2, 3.

Primary Sources

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 346

SOURCE: Akhmatova, Anna. "A Talk on Leningrad Radio in Late September 1941." Soviet Literature, no. 6 (June 1989): 25.

In the following transcript of her radio address to the women of Leningrad, broadcast in September 1941, Akhmatova praises the mothers, wives, and sisters of the city for their strength and courage during the German siege.

Dear fellow-citizens, mothers, wives and sisters of Leningrad:

For more than a month now the enemy has been threatening to overrun our city and inflict upon it mortal wounds. The enemy threatens the city of Peter the Great, the city of Lenin, the city of Pushkin, Dostoevsky and Blok—our city, with its great tradition of culture and labour—with death and disgrace. Like all Leningraders, I am horror-struck at the thought that our city, my city, may be trampled into the dirt. My entire life has been linked with Leningrad—it was in Leningrad that I became a poet, Leningrad is the very air that my verses breathe …

At this moment, like all of you, I cling to the unshakeable faith that Leningrad shall never belong to the fascists. And I feel my faith strengthened when I see the women of Leningrad defending their city with simple courage and maintaining its normal human life …

Our descendants will pay honour to every mother who lived during this Patriotic War, but their gaze will be drawn as by a magnet to the women of Leningrad, who stood on the roofs as the bombs fell, holding their hooks and tongs, ready to defend the city against the threat of fire; the women of the Leningrad civil-defence corps, who went to the help of the wounded while the ruined buildings blazed around them …

No, a city which has bred women like these cannot be defeated. We Leningraders may be suffering hardship and danger, but we know that the entire country and everyone in it is with us. We sense their alarm at our plight, their love, their efforts to help and support us. We thank them and we promise always to stand firm and never to lose heart …

September 1941

Further Reading

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 529


Driver, Sam N. "Akhmatova: A Selected, Annotated Bibliography." Russian Literature Triquarterly 1 (1971): 432-34.

Brief annotated listing of criticism on Akhmatova's works.

Terry, Garth M. Anna Akhmatova in English: A Bibliography 1889-1966-1989. Nottingham, Eng.: Astra Press, 1989.

Comprehensive bibliography of Akhmatova's works, both literary and non-literary, and criticism on her writings.


"Anna Akhmatova 1889-1989: For Akhmatova's Birth Centenary." Soviet Literature, no. 6 (1989).

Entire issue devoted to Akhmatova, including selections from her writings, reminiscences on her life, and essays on her work.

Amert, Susan. In a Shattered Mirror: The Later Poetry of Anna Akhmatova. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1992.

Discussion of Akhmatova's post-1935 poetry and the political, philosophical, and religious concerns it reflects.

Dalos, György Andrea Dunai. The Guest from the Future:

Anna Akhmatova and Isaiah Berlin, translated by Antony Wood. London: John Murray, 1998.

Account of the relationship between Akhmatova and Berlin and its effect on her writing.

Driver, Sam N. Anna Akhmatova. Boston: Twayne, 1972.

Comprehensive study of Akhmatova's life and works.

Feinstein, Elaine. "Poetry and Conscience: Russian Women Poets of the Twentieth Century." In Women Writing and Writing about Women, edited by Mary Jacobus, pp. 133-58. London: Croom Helm, 1979.

Comparative treatment of the poetry of Akhmatova, Tsvetayeva, and their contemporaries.

Gamburg, Haim. "The Biblical Protagonists in the Verse of Anna Axmatova: An Expression of Feminine Identification." Russian Language Journal 31, no. 109 (spring 1977): 125-34.

Examines Akhmatova's sympathetic treatment of Biblical heroines in her poetry.

Gasparov, M. L. "The Evolution of Akhmatova's Verse." In Anna Akhmatova 1889-1989, edited by Sonia I. Ketchian, pp. 68-74. Oakland, Calif.: Berkeley Slavic Specialties, 1993.

Comparison of Akhmatova's early verse from the period 1909 to 1922 to her poetry written after 1923.

Ozerov, Lev. "Touches to Akhmatova's Portrait." Soviet Literature, no. 6 (June 1989): 155-63.

Provides discussion of thematic and stylistic features of Akhmatova's poetry.

Pratt, Sarah. "The Obverse of Self: Gender Shifts in Poems by Tjutcev and Axmatova." In Russian Literature and Psychoanalysis, edited by Daniel Rancour-Laferriere, pp. 225-44. Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 1989.

Compares shifts in gender in Akhmatova's "Distant Voice" cycle with a poetic cycle by Tjutcev.

Rosslyn, Wendy. "Gender in Translation: Lowell and Cixous Rewriting Akhmatova." In Gender and Sexuality in Russian Civilisation, edited by Peter I. Barta, pp. 71-86. London: Routledge, 2001.

Examination of the gendered differences in two translations of Akhmatova's Requiem, one by Robert Lowell, the other by Hélène Cixous.

Tomei, Christine D. "Mirra Loxvickaja and Anna Axmatova: Influence in the Evolution of the Modern Female Lyric Voice." In Critical Essays on the Prose and Poetry of Modern Slavic Women, edited by Nina A. Efimov, Christine D. Tomei, and Richard L. Chapple, pp. 135-60. Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellen Press, 1998.

Traces the sudden emergence, at the beginning of the twentieth century, of two major female poets, Akhmatova and Mirra Loxvickaja.


Additional coverage of Akhmatova's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Contemporary Authors, Vols. 19-20, 25-28R; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 35; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 11, 25, 64, 126; DISCovering Authors 3.0; DISCovering Authors Modules: Poets; Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, Ed. 3; European Writers, Vol. 10; Literature Resource Center; Major 20th-Century Writers, Eds. 1, 2; Poetry Criticism, Vols. 2, 55; Poetry for Students, Vol. 18; and Reference Guide to World Literature, Eds. 2, 3.

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Anna Akhmatova World Literature Analysis


Akhmatova, Anna (Pseudonym of Anna Andreyevna Gorenko)