Anna Akhmatova

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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

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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...

(This entire section contains 3404 words.)

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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 both unnecessary and misleading. (p. 84)

Akhmatova's cultural and historical imagery, which strikes her fellow-countrymen as extraordinarily "Russian," is not restricted to immediately recognizable national themes: the so-called "patriotic" poems about Russia in war or Revolution, the urban poetry with its peculiar blend of historical grandeur and lyrical emotion, or the relatively few poems which portray provincial Russia. Nor is this imagery represented principally by the motifs and devices borrowed from Russian folk poetry; her folk settings are always highly stylized and indicate poetic sophistication rather than some uncomplicated spiritual kinship with the Russian folk singer. While these elements in Akhmatova's poetry lend a specifically Russian flavor to many poems, it is the attitudes and roles frequently given the persona which suggest most effectively the older, submerged level of Russian culture.

Frequently, for example, the heroine who has been cast aside by her lover is given the role of a homeless wanderer. If … the love motif and the imagery of the house are inseparably intertwined, the symbol of homelessness is a potent one in Akhmatova's poetry. (pp. 84-5)

The image of the weeping woman in Akhmatova's poetry is not a simple device to create sympathy for the heroine; if this were the case, a kind of commiseration would be achieved at best—and at worst, embarrassment on the part of the reader. The homeless, destitute wanderer meekly resigned to her fate must be seen in terms of Old Russian attitudes if her reactions are to be understood.

In Old Russian society, a prime virtue was charity. Its innocently unsophisticated interpretation was pity for the unfortunate…. (pp. 85-6)

By using the convention of attitudes drawn from the Russian past, Akhmatova is permitted an extraordinary compression in her poetry. Within a single couplet, she can suggest love lost, consequent renunciation of the world, and the life of a pilgrim or anchorite: "And long since have my lips / Not kissed, but they prophesy."… (p. 86)

[The] pattern of love lost, meek acceptance, complete forgiveness, rejection of home and worldly possessions, and ultimately an aimless wandering forms the basis for many of Akhmatova's poems. (p. 87)

[The] suggestion of a nun is inescapable among all these images of self-denial, renunciation of the world, triumphant suffering and poverty, humility, and meek resignation. What is remarkable is that Akhmatova keeps the suggestion a suggestion; the heroine is never cast in the role of a nun. (p. 89)

[Akhmatova's] vocabulary is rich in Biblical and liturgical words: chasubles, icons, King David, angels and archangels, incense, St. Eudoxia, crucifix. (p. 94)

When unmistakably religious imagery is employed, and even when Akhmatova makes use of Old Russian images of martyrdom, humility, poverty, pilgrimage, and so forth, it is obvious that the poet is expressing something quite different from religious sentiment. (pp. 95-6)

The majority of religious references … suggest a Russian society of earlier days, permeated with Orthodox expressions and symbols. (p. 97)

The Old Russian flavor of the religiosity Akhmatova employs in her imagery is complemented by the frequent evocation of ancient folk superstitions, which along with Orthodoxy were part and parcel of the Old Russian culture. In many poems, there is the suggestion of the folk dvoeverie ("double belief," that is, in both religion and superstition)….

For the most part, like the superficial elements of religiosity, superstition is part of the cultural pattern which colors Akhmatova's verse. At times, however, an awareness of supernatural phenomena seems to spring from a deeper level. When the poet adopts the role of prophetess, the quality of real superstitious belief is felt. (p. 98)

If Akhmatova draws on peasant traditions for many images, it is not surprising that she should also draw on the lyric genre of Russian folk songs. In Russian folk tradition, the lyric song is exclusively the women's genre. Its subject matter is very close to Akhmatova's own: the cruel husband, the unfaithful lover, the abandoned girl or wife. (pp. 99-100)

Akhmatova, however, was not a folk mannerist; that is to say, she did not attempt to create "folk poetry." She borrowed a few fixed forms from the tradition, a number of settings, images, symbols, but ignored the rigidly fixed rules of the genre. In most cases, the sophisticated, experimental poet can be seen through the colorful but inevitable pattern of the folk lyric. Her Pesenka is typical; the folk flavor of the song is inescapable, yet scarcely any of the rules of composition for such songs are followed—notably the syntactical parallelisms, in which a line or couplet is drawn from nature and the succeeding one describes the heroine; more importantly, the highly personal ending is entirely atypical of the folk genre. (p. 100)

[It is the single theme of love] which gives such an extraordinary unity to each of Akhmatova's volumes, and indeed, to the whole series of works published between 1912 and 1922. To Eykhenbaum, Akhmatova's poetry seemed "something like a long novel." The success of Akhmatova's extreme verbal economy depends in large part on the conventions she has gradually established in the "long novel"; many poems would be impossible to interpret fully without them. The unique motif, and the single point of view toward it, provide integration for countless disconnected secondary motifs, which may range widely from details of dress and interiors, through Russia's great cities, and endless open plains, through the history and culture of a people. (p. 102)

The sense of history is strong in Akhmatova. Not only do her fragile love lyrics evoke the great Russian past, but they are a kind of poetic chronicle of the cataclysmic events of the decade 1912–1922. If national reminiscence has become a major motif in Akhmatova's recent work, her poems of this fateful decade register directly her contemporary Edwardian world—and its total destruction. (p. 115)

Where historical and cultural impressions were in the early poems fused with the intensity of the lyrical moment, in later works the historical moment itself is often the source of the lyrical emotion. (p. 116)

The Seventh Book, representing the post-1940 period, shows many of the tendencies exhibited in one or the other of the long poems [Requiem or Poem Without a Hero]. The tendency to greater length is observed, for example in "Pre-History" (1945), which is one of Akhmatova's most successful later poems; and there is a trend toward length in the grouping of shorter poems into discreet cycles.

In the poems of greater length, too, there is a tendency to draw on the general, European cultural and literary traditions, rather than the almost strictly Russian associations characteristic of much of the earlier poetry. Together with this there is a greater intellectual weight than Akhmatova chose to give the early works. (p. 118)

In the sense of history and time, Poem Without a Hero is the most comprehensive, and any discussion of Akhmatova's later poetry must include some commentary on at least the nature of this remarkable work. It is a puzzling one…. It is a private poem, a laying to rest of old ghosts, an exorcism of present terrors, a catharsis. (p. 119)

Also puzzling is the very construction of the poem. "The Petersburg Tale" is a complete work in itself, and in itself, beautifully structured. The next two parts, however, seem to have only tangential relationships with it and with each other. (p. 120)

[What Akhmatova creates in Poem Without a Hero] is her sense of the time—the feeling of apprehension, impermanence and unreality. The "characters" are shades and shades of shades, masks, mirror images, portraits stepping from their frames, figures perhaps glimpsed in darkened windows. It is a shadow-play, a "hellish harlequinade," a "Hoffmaniana"—a Symbolist's, not an Acmeist's Petersburg. The ghosts of the past swarm unbidden before the poet and are finally laid to rest. The "Petersburg Tale" is ended. (p. 122)

The "Epilogue," or Part III, returns to Peter's city, this time in the present (1942), when Leningrad lay in ruins and Akhmatova was far away from it—evacuated during the siege to Tashkent. The "Epilogue" is dedicated "To My City," and begins with a farewell to it. As the Russian army fell back before the German offensive it seemed that all Russia was going into exile.

Although Akhmatova continued work on the Poem for another twenty years, it is at this indecisive historical moment that she fixed for the ending of the "Epilogue": an open point in time, with no finality such as the end of the war or the return to Leningrad. The sense is not of history past, but of time in an unending continuum. (pp. 124-25)

This suspension, rather than the finality of a different kind of conclusion, may be unsatisfying, but it suits Akhmatova's purpose in her new conception of time.

           As the future ripens in the past,            So does the past moulder in the future.

These lines, which are central to the Poem Without a Hero, might serve as an epigraph for a collection of the later poems, including the other major work undertaken in that same year of 1940: Requiem.

Unlike the Poem Without a Hero, Requiem is not a private poem. It is not so much a new experiment in Akhmatova's poetry as a culmination of a style perfected over the decades preceding; Akhmatova organizes her characteristic devices and techniques into an amazingly powerful statement which requires no elaboration or "explanation."

Neither is the Requiem a private poem in the sense that the subject, unlike that of the "Petersburg Tale," is immediately accessible to anyone with a knowledge of Russia's recent history—and all too well-known to those who lived in Russia during the late 1930's. The poem is, if not private, deeply personal: but Akhmatova is able to generalize her own shattering experience into an epic cry for her people. (p. 125)

[The] structural divisions in the poem are quite complex. There is the prose "In Place of an Introduction," a dedication, a poetic "Introduction," and then a series of ten lyrical poems, not directly related to one another, and employing a variety of styles and moods, but each representing a step in a progression which replaces the usual poetic narrative. The two epilogues follow, returning from the lyric to the epic stance of the "Dedication" and "Introduction."…

From the general and epic tone of the prefatory pieces, the first poem of the cycle shifts to the specific and individual, a short lyric with the distinctive marks of Akhmatova's style…. (p. 127)

After a complete emotional break in Akhmatova's poems, we have come to expect a quick return to calm. In the early lyrics, it is often the calm of resignation, or that brought on by force of will. In the later poetry, there is the suggestion of an unnatural calm, a calm that is not quite sane. It is as though the mind, to protect itself, loses touch with reality and its unbearable grief. The tendency in some early poems for the persona to stand aside and apparently observe herself as a separate person is even more marked in the later poetry. Here, the separation can become complete. (p. 129)

For the central poem in her long work, Akhmatova chooses restraint where one might expect a complete breakdown or histrionics….

In "The Sentence," however, there is extreme understatement, a simple, workaday vocabulary and tone. It is not simply epic calm in the face of tragedy, or a kind of resignation and acceptance. The intensity of the moment is increased many times by the pathetic effort of the will to overcome a grief that borders on madness.

In the context of all Akhmatova's poetry up to this point, the poet's very own familiar devices and symbols, already perfected in less tragic days, lend an extraordinary pathos. The conversational tone, the stone imagery, the suggestion of clairvoyance, the peculiar use of bright/radiant, the pervasive symbol of the empty or abandoned house—all these things were once, after all, the stock-in-trade of the "gay little sinner of Tsarskoe Selo." Their reappearance here subtly compounds the emotional charge of this "restrained" lyric. (p. 131)

It is early in time for any attempt at a final assessment of Akhmatova's work, or for trying to define her place in the history of Russian poetry. Her influence—and example—continue as a productive force in the poetry of some of Russia's most outstanding young poets. Among them is a small group which was very close to Akhmatova during the last decade of her life. It is therefore quite possible that Akhmatova may one day be recognized not only for her own work, but also as a direct link between what has been called the "Silver Age" of Russian poetry and another flowering of Russian verse. (p. 133)

Sam N. Driver, in his Anna Akhmatova (copyright 1972 by Twayne Publishers, Inc.; reprinted with the permission of Twayne Publishers, A Division of G. K. Hall & Co., Boston), Twayne, 1972.

John Fuller

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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

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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 grandest sense without pretending to dignity, an equivalent in art of what she called the severe and shapely spirit of Russian orthodoxy….

The role of conscience in her poetry reminds us how unfamiliar such a possession is to most poets, whose natural tendency in the Nietzschean and modern era is to say that "such as I cast out remorse". She was deeply religious, and religion—as Dr Johnson noted—does not come over in poetry, but conscience, its precursor and attendant, can and does.

It figures largely, and strangely, in Poem Without a Hero, whose title itself suggests the collapse of a Nietzschean world in which men of action, or the hero as poet and seer, could play a part. Its denizens, including Blok, including the poet herself, are in one sense poor creatures, not the heroic figures into whom an intense vision of the past transmutes so many. For this is a poem about remorse, and about a past "in which the future is rotting".

Thus although it is arbitrary to attach a single life and its interior shaping, as Akhmatova does, to the ordeal of Russia in the revolution, to the years of terror and invasion, the theme of remorse—for one and for all—unites these things as they could not have been united in any artificial poem in which such events were directly lamented or celebrated….

Poem Without a Hero was more than twenty years in the writing, and appeared to the poet, during that time, as a recurrent and inescapable malady. On its smaller scale The Waste Land had the same characteristic of a visitation, painful to suffer, more painful to evade. And another phenomenon is significantly true of both poems: they derive their status from the reality of the fait accompli. Though critics may seek to demonstrate after the event their underlying "unity" and so forth, such poems only now seem so inevitable and so public because they made a total success of being so private and so arbitrary.

As might be expected of Akhmatova, however, Poem Without a Hero is extremely literal, as concerned with place and event as a Hardy poem, and closely connected to the poet's life in pre-war St Petersburg…. Her poetry at this time has an unstylized purity, sometimes simplistic, absorbed in what might be called the moral nature of things, and assuming its own kind of confidence from them. (p. 450)

Akhmatova calls [Poem Without a Hero] a C hinese box "with a triple base", and its numerological patterning is as complex as its references to real people, events, works of art. But it is essentially a voice poem, in that tradition which Pushkin stylized in the figure of the "Improvisatore" in Egyptian Nights, who denies any idea of how complex verse comes to him suddenly, rhymed and in regular feet, so that it can be instantly declaimed. Like so many Russian masterpieces the poem has the form of an open secret, at once spontaneous and enigmatic. (p. 451)

John Bayley, "Fury and Elegance," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1976; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), April 16, 1976, pp. 450-51.


Akhmatova, Anna


Akhmatova, Anna (Vol. 126)