Anna Akhmatova Akhmatova, Anna - Essay

Introduction

(Feminism in Literature)

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.

BIOGRAPHICAL INFORMATION

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.

MAJOR WORKS

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.

CRITICAL RECEPTION

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."

Principal Works

(Feminism in Literature)

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

Primary Sources

(Feminism in Literature)

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

Vasa D. Mihailovich (Essay Date Winter 1969)

(Feminism in Literature)

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...

(The entire section is 7462 words.)

Walter Arndt (Essay Date 1976)

(Feminism in Literature)

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...

(The entire section is 7937 words.)

Poem without a Hero

(Feminism in Literature)

WENDY ROSSLYN (ESSAY DATE 1992)

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...

(The entire section is 7559 words.)

Requiem

(Feminism in Literature)

BORIS KATZ (ESSAY DATE APRIL 1998)

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...

(The entire section is 5677 words.)

Further Reading

(Feminism in Literature)

Bibliographies

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.

Criticism

"Anna Akhmatova 1889-1989: For Akhmatova's Birth Centenary."...

(The entire section is 529 words.)