Anna Akhmatova Akhmatova, Anna (Pseudonym of Anna Andreyevna Gorenko) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Akhmatova, Anna (Pseudonym of Anna Andreyevna Gorenko) 1889?–1966

Poet, translator, and essayist, Akhmatova is often seen as Pasternak's successor in the Silver Age of Russian poetry and is generally considered the finest woman poet Russia has produced. Participating with the Acmeists in a reaction against symbolist poetry, she wrote in a concise and accessible style. Words are used logically, imagery is concrete. Hers is an intimate and authentic poetry, showing a love of art, of nature, of Russia, and of love itself. Though intensely personal, it achieves a sense of universal statement through a wide range of moods. The darker side of Akhmatova's work reflects the struggle of Russia under siege, the unhappiness of the people, the suffering of her own family, the war. Akhmatova was expelled from the Writer's Union under Stalin's rule, and her work was considered subversive and banned from publication until after Stalin's death. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 19-20; obituary, Vols. 25-28; Contemporary Authors Permanent Series, Vol. 1.)

Sam N. Driver

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In [Akhmatova's] four collections after Rosary, the love theme remains dominant despite the cataclysm of war and revolution, and the total destruction of the world that [she] had known. If the tone of these volumes reflects the turmoil of the times and becomes less capricious and more austere, the focus remains inward, on a woman's ill-starred love. (p. 55)

It is interesting to note that even in Akhmatova's very earliest work (two poems from the first copy book), desertion and abandonment provide the setting. (p. 58)

In the later volumes, the motif of tragic love escapes over-sentimentality in its expression through an almost calm, epic resignation before suffering. In the earliest work, however, the persona is more often unreconciled to love's pain, and the lyrical statement lacks the indirection characteristic for more restrained works of the later period. (pp. 59-60)

It is the stance or point of view of the persona—somehow apart from herself, observing herself—which is most unusual. The peculiar stance permits an emotional distance, a degree of restraint and a certain objectivity in the expression of intense lyrical emotion. This device, with its shifts in grammatical person and the unusually infrequent use of the first person, is one of the principal reasons that Akhmatova's almost exclusive treatment of the difficult subject of love's pain avoids any impression of mawkishness. (pp. 62-3)

[Akhmatova uses this device in a variety of ways:] direct lyrical statement may be combined with the description of a dramatic scene in which the persona is a figure; the description of an interior may serve both to state the tema and to provide a setting in which the persona observes herself; in another setting, she may stand entirely apart. (p. 63)

To some extent, it is the sensitivity to furnishings and décor, and certainly the attention to details of feminine attire and coiffure which reminds us constantly that it is a woman who is speaking in Akhmatova's poetry. It would be mistaken, however, to interpret the prominence of such details simply as a preoccupation with traditionally feminine concerns. These necklaces and embroidery frames, painted chests and scarves are the materials from which Akhmatova's poems are constructed, and reflected the Acmeist love of concrete things. Akhmatova is highly selective in her choice of concrete objects, and items of dress and décor are two categories on which she typically draws. They occur so frequently that they present in themselves minor motifs. (pp. 63-4)

[It is in the] rapid focusing on concrete detail that Akhmatova's practice and Acmeist theory most effectively coincide. Given this focus, ordinary objects are "perceived anew," are evoked in their solidity, their texture, their mass. While they serve to communicate emotions which are often quite unrelated to them, they are not symbolic, but remain themselves, the Acmeist "things."

The most common household objects—although unusual ones in poetry, appear in extraordinary juxtapositions…. The poems are set for the most part within the house (and the garden wall the outermost limit); often there is a specific location within a particular room: entrance hall or bedroom, parlor or dining room. The effect of such settings is to create an atmosphere of intimacy, as well as to suggest a specific, concrete background for the brief and rapidly developed dramatic scenes. With the Acmeist fondness for the concrete, Akhmatova includes minor details of the rooms, and the physical setting is often fixed in time as well as place. All this is done with a maximum verbal economy. (p. 65)

Given the frequency of rooms and interiors in Akhmatova's poetry, it is perhaps not surprising that "house" should be one of the commonest words in her lexicon. There is a reflection here of the Acmeist fondness for architectonic imagery, but the house has a more complex function than merely providing concrete background. The house is also symbolic, on this level intimately related to the major motif. One of the aspects in which Akhmatova sees tragic love, for example, is as imprisonment; the house without love is a prison….

If the major motif is often represented by the tema of imprisonment, it is much more frequently conceived in terms of abandonment. Quite often, the motif is stated through imagery of the house. The abandoned house signifies the abandoned heart…. (p. 66)

Although contemporary concerns did not ordinarily penetrate the intimate world of Akhmatova's lyrics, the threat to her homeland struck deep into her poetic consciousness; she produced a small number of highly moving poems concerning Russia during World War I, and later, in revolution. (p. 70)

The austere, solemn poetic person of the war poems, and those which forcefully reject the emigration …, are not typical for the war period…. National themes are secondary to the love motif; sometimes … they are congruent…. (p. 73)

In Akhmatova's poetry, one is constantly reminded of the city [Petersburg] she calls "the murkiest of capitals." Fragmentary views of the city seem to register involuntarily in the mind of the preoccupied poetic person….

Akhmatova's attitude toward the city is, on the one hand, traditional: the mystique of the city permeates her poems, and grandeur past and present is frequently evoked. On the other hand, the attitude is familiar and proprietary. (p. 75)

While there are some points for comparison between Akhmatova and the Symbolist poets with regard to urban themes, there is a fundamental difference in attitudes. Where the city is secondary to the dominant motif of love in Akhmatova's poetry, it is often the poetic subject for the Symbolists. If the city is illusory in Symbolist poetry, it is concrete in Akhmatova's. For the Symbolists, the city is sinister and otherworldly, but Akhmatova approaches it with fondness and familiarity. The ugliness of modernity holds a morbid attraction for the Symbolists; Akhmatova prefers to see Petersburg's historical beauty. (p. 76)

It is the old Petersburg, the familiar Petersburg, the Petersburg of history which captures the imagination of the poet, not the modernity of the contemporary metropolis which so intrigued, in different ways, the Symbolists and the Futurists….

Akhmatova is extremely receptive to the Petersburg mystique, to the great literary tradition and the rich and colorful cultural history of the city. Unlike the Symbolists, however, she does not proceed from mystique to mystery. Her direction is opposite, toward the simplicity and clarity of concrete images. While the grandeur and magnificence—and the malevolence—are deeply sensed, Akhmatova's predominant attitude is a familiar one, even proprietary. It is "my" city; "our" city. (p. 77)

Not only in the quick impressions of the cities of Russia does Akhmatova capture—often in one expressive and picturesque epithet—the feeling of her country, but also by the briefest suggestion she can convey the limitless expanse of rural Russia. (p. 82)

Akhmatova draws upon [the] earlier, richly colorful level of culture for much of her thematic material and imagery…. [A] constant backward glance toward Russia's cultural and historical past is necessary to the interpretation of many poems. (p. 83)

[There] are many personae in Akhmatova's poems…. Some seem almost identifiable with the poet herself, while others can be quite remote from the real person. It is true that an important and most interesting persona is the one in whom "there flows a drop of Novgorod blood, like a piece of ice in frothy wine,"… and whose attitudes are fixed in the patterns of a rich cultural inheritance. It is nevertheless also true that the persona may appear as a fashionable lady in a feathered hat riding through the Bois de Boulogne, as a literary figure from the Bohemian world of pre-Revolutionary Petersburg; or as a provincial girl daydreaming in a hammock. She may be haughty or humble, forgiving or malicious, austere or frivolous—and to attempt to reconcile the many poetic persons is...

(The entire section is 3404 words.)

John Fuller

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The 'I' of [Akhmatova's] poems is without egotism, though autobiography is her natural medium. How can we fail to be moved by the story of the victimisation, silence and persistence of a poet who loved her country but not the revolution? Her work survives on memory ('Flaubert, insomnia, the smell of lilacs') as Eliot's does, and it is a poetry of that social class. Indeed, Acmeism has clear affinities with Imagism. But unlike H. D., Akhmatova's perspective is stoical and humanistic. She too appeals for the preservation of her language, but in her case it is so that it may be 'fit for the songs of our children's children, / pure on their tongues, and free'. She too writes of the London blitz, but typically evokes not Karnak but Shakespearean tragedy. (pp. 230-31)

John Fuller, in New Statesman (© 1974 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), February 15, 1974.

John Bayley

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Akhmatova was a very unselfconscious poet in many ways; she had qualities of elemental force, utterance haunted and Delphic; yet these went together with elegance and sophistication, even a certain kind of mirror-gazing and a cunning which is chétif, or, as the Russians say zloi. She is not in the least like Blake or Eliot, and yet those are the English poets—different as they are—who offer some sort of parallel with her finest work. The incongruity in coupling such names shows how exceptional is her own poetic being….

Strangely enough she has as a poet more in common with what are—in a degraded form—Soviet ideals: restraint, correctness, propriety. Her poetry is dignified in...

(The entire section is 643 words.)