Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1146
Anna Akhmatova 1888–1966
(Pseudonym for Anna Andreyevna Gorenko) Russian poet, translator, and essayist.
The following entry presents an overview of Akhmatova's career. For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volumes 11, 25, and 64.
Anna Akhmatova spent a major part of her career not being able to publish her work in her own country, yet she refused to be silenced. By remaining one of the few artists who did not emigrate during the years of Stalinist oppression in Russia, and by having friends memorize her verse when committing it to paper would have been dangerous, she guaranteed herself and the Russian people a voice. As such she has become one of the most important artistic figures in twentieth-century literature.
Akhmatova was born Anna Andreyevna Gorenko in Kiev, Russia. Her father was a naval architect and moved the family to the Baltic in 1905. After her father and mother separated, the family settled in Tsarkoe Selo, just outside St. Petersburg. In 1910, Akhmatova married the poet Nikolai Gumilyov, who was at first reluctant for her to pursue poetry. When he saw her talent, however, he encouraged her, and together with poets such as Osip Mandelstam they began the Acmeist movement in Russian poetry. The movement was in opposition to the prevailing Symbolist poetry of the era. At the age of 22, she published her first volume Vecher (1912; Evening). Her middle-class father had asked her not to dishonor their family name with literary pursuits, so she published under the pseudonym Anna Akhmatova, the Tartar name of her maternal great-grandmother who had descended from Genghis Khan. She developed a cult following in the literary world of St. Petersburg with her second volume, Chetki (1914; Rosary), and she gained a brilliant reputation in russia where her poetry was widely read. In 1913 she left Gumilev and eventually married Vladimir Shileiko, an Orientalist, whom she divorced in 1921. The Revolution of October 1917 changed both Akhmatova's life and career. In 1921, her first husband Gumilyov was executed after being charged with involvement in a counter-revolutionary conspiracy. She did not emigrate like other artists, and in 1925, there was an unofficial ban on her work. During this period, Akhmatova continued to write poetry, often about the cruel acts being committed in the name of the Revolution and un-der the rule of Stalin. She memorized her verses and had friends memorize them, fearing arrest if a written copy were found. She married again at this time, to Nikolai Punin, a critic and historian, but this marriage also ended in separation. Many of her friends were arrested and died under Stalin's persecution, and she suffered another great loss in 1935 when her son, Lev Gumilyov, was arrested and subsequently spent fourteen years in prison and in exile in Siberia. The poems in her Rekviem (1964; Requiem) were inspired by her trips to visit her son in prison in Leningrad and express the sense of loss she felt by the separation. In 1939, Stalin allowed several of her poems to be published, but Akhmatova again fell out of government favor in 1946 when she was denounced by Andrey Zhadanov, Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party. Zhadanov began an ideological campaign against her work, calling it too personal to be relevant to a socialist society. She was expelled from the Union of Soviet Writers and ostracized from the Russian literary world for the next ten years. She was only readmitted to the Union after the death of Stalin. The ban on Akhmatova's work was not officially lifted until 1988, but interest in her work burgeoned anyway and by the 1960s Akhmatova was world famous. In 1964 she won the Etna-Taormina international poetry prize, and in 1965 she received an honorary doctorate from Oxford University.
A major influence on Akhmatova's work was her relationship to the Acmeists—writers who attempted to restore clarity to poetic language and who utilized the ordinary objects and events of daily life for their subject. Her poems explore her search for identity as a woman, a poet, and a Russian, as they delve into the complexities of human nature. In many of her early volumes the theme of love dominates along with attendant motifs of romantic meetings and separations, togetherness and solitude, and jealousy is often present. The poems in Evening paint a portrait of love as long periods of suffering broken up by rare moments of happiness and joy. In Rosary she deals with her feelings of guilt and loss over the breakup of her marriage with Gumilev. The poems in this collection contain many religious elements, expressing her strong belief in Christianity. With her third book, Belaya Staya (1917; The White Flock), Akhmatova turns to more civic-minded themes, including the foreshadowing of World War I in "July 1914." Requiem tells the story of a mother separated from her only son and was inspired by Akhmatova's own story and those of the thousands of other Russian women with whom she waited outside prison walls. This cycle of poems chronicles the era of Stalinism and the grief and horror suffered during these years. Poema Bez Geroya; Triptykh (1960; Poem Without a Hero; Triptych) chronicled her life before and after World War II. The poems described such personal events as love affairs and the suicide of a young cadet who was in love with Akhmatova's friend, but through these autobiographical accounts, she chronicled an epoch time period in world history. In this collection are many veiled statements and complex allusions that are much more opaque than her previous work.
Critics often discuss Akhmatova's work in its relation to the Acmeist movement. As with other Acmeists, reviewers find Akhmatova's work more straightforward than that of her Symbolist predecessors. Critics often discuss Akhmatova's literary debt to Russian poet Alexander Pushkin, including her unselfconscious impulses, use of allusions, and superb diction and rhythms. Stanley Kunitz states, "[Akhmatova's] poems exist in the purity and exactness of their diction, the authority of their tone, the subtlety of their rhythmic modulations, the integrity of their form." Reviewers praise Akhmatova's unique voice, many arguing that her verse is definitive. John Simon says, "I do see a poet with an original vision and a personal voice who manages to maintain her individual talent within the tradition." Many reviewers discuss the impact the Russian political climate had on Akhmatova's career and how it helped to infuse a civic element in her work. Many assert that she was the veritable voice of the Russian people during one of its most harrowing periods in history. More specifically, some critics claimed Akhmatova was the mouthpiece for subjugated Russian women and a true feminist leader before Feminism. Ervin C. Brody asserts, "A chronicler of the isolated and intimate psychological events of a woman's emotional and intellectual life as well as the political events in the Soviet Union, Anna Akhmatova is one of Russia's greatest poets and perhaps the greatest woman poet in the history of Western culture."
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Vecher [Evening] (poetry) 1912
Chetki [Rosary] (poetry) 1914
Belaya Staya [The White Flock] (poetry) 1917
Skrizhal: Sbornik [Ecstasy Collection] (poetry) 1918
U Samogo Morya [At the Very Edge of the Sea] (poetry) 1921
Podorozhnik [Plantain] (poetry) 1921
Anno Domini MCMXXI (poetry) 1921
Anno Domini (poetry) 1923
Stikhi [Poems] (poetry) 1940
Iz Shesti Knig [From Six Books] (poetry) 1940
Izbrannie Stikhi [Selected Poems] (poetry) 1943
Tashkentskie Stikhi [Tashkent Poems] (poetry) 1944
Koreiskaya Klassicheskaya Poeziya [Korean Classical Poetry; translator] (poetry) 1956
Stikhotvoreniya 1909–1957 [Poems 1909–1957] (poetry) 1958
Poema Bez Geroya; Triptykh [Poem without a Hero; Triptych] (poetry) 1960
Stikhotvoreniya 1909–1960 [Poems 1909–1960] (poetry) 1961
Collected Poems: 1912–1963 (poetry) 1963
Rekviem: Tsikl Stikhotvorenii [Requiem: A Cycle of Poems] (poetry) 1964
Beg Vremeni [Race of Time] (poetry) 1965
Golosa Poetov [Voices of the Poets; translator] (poetry) 1965
Lirika Drevnevo Egipta [Ancient Egyptian Lyrics; translator; with Vera Potapova] (poetry) 1965
Stikhotvoreniya 1909–1965 (poetry) 1965
Klassicheskya poeziya Vostoka [Classical Poetry of the East; translator] (poetry) 1969
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SOURCE: "On Translating Akhmatova," in his A Kind of Order, A Kind of Folly, Little, Brown and Company, 1935, pp. 39-46.
[In the following essay, Kunitz discusses the difficulty in translating Akhmatova's poetry from its original Russian.]
Pasternak was once rebuked by a pedant who came to his door bearing a long list of the poet's mistakes in translating Hamlet. The complaint was greeted with laughter and a shrug: "What difference does it make? Shakespeare and I—we're both geniuses, aren't we?" As if to justify his arrogance, Pasternak's Hamlet is today considered one of the glories of Russian literature. My Russian friend who passed the anecdote on to me was unable to recall the visiting critic's name.
The poet as translator lives with a paradox. His work must not read like a translation; conversely, it is not an exercise of the free imagination. One voice enjoins him: "Respect the text!" The other simultaneously pleads with him: "Make it new!" He resembles the citizen in Kafka's aphorism who is fettered to two chains, one attached to earth, the other to heaven. If he heads for earth, his heavenly chain throttles him; if he heads for heaven, his earthly chain pulls him back. And yet, as Kafka says, "All the possibilities are his, and he feels it; more, he actually refuses to account for the deadlock by an error in the original fettering." While academicians insist that poetry is untranslatable, poets continue to produce their translations—never in greater proliferation or diversity than now.
The easiest poets to translate are the odd and flashy ones, particularly those who revel in linguistic display. The translator of Akhmatova, like the translator of Pushkin, is presented with no idiosyncrasy of surface or of syntax to simplify his task. Her poems exist in the purity and exactness of their diction, the authority of their tone, the subtlety of their rhythmic modulations, the integrity of their form. These are inherent elements of the poetry itself, not to be confused with readily imitable "effects." The only way to translate Akhmatova is by writing well. A hard practice!
Akhmatova's early poems, like those of most young poets, tend to deal with the vagaries of love, breathtaking now and then for their dramatic point and reckless candor. It has been said that she derived not so much from other poets as from the great Russian novelists of the nineteenth century. She herself enters into her poems like a character in a work of fiction, or in a play. On New Year's Day, 1913, when she was twenty-three, she broke a poem open with an expostulation that the guardians of the State were later to use against her: "We're all drunkards here, and harlots: / how wretched we are together!" On the next New Year's Day she wrote, in bravura novelistic style:
"What do you want?" I asked.
"To be with you in hell," he said.
I laughed: "It's plain you mean
to have us both destroyed."
He lifted his thin hand
and lightly stroked the flowers:
"Tell me how men kiss you,
tell me how you kiss."
This was the period of her brilliant, if disastrous, first marriage, when husband and wife were the toast of the Bohemian set of St. Petersburg, he as Gumi-lev (Gumi-lion) and she as Gumi-lvitsa (Gumi-lioness). Her slender grace and aristocratic aquiline profile were as celebrated as her verses. Though in the post-Revolutionary years that followed she was to meet with terrible misfortunes; endure the indignities of poverty, official contempt, and silence; and suffer the death or exile of those dearest to her, she remained proud and spirited. Even in her last days, after her "rehabilitation"—sleazy bureaucratic euphemism!—she refused to wear the geriatric mask of complacence. In delirium she wrote:
Herewith I solemnly renounce my hoard
of earthly goods, whatever counts as chattel.
The genius and guardian angel of this place
has changed to an old tree-stump in the water.
Tragedy did not wither her: it crowned her with majesty. Her life, in Keats's phrase, became "a continual allegory," its strands interwoven with the story of a people. Indeed, her poems can be read in sequence as a twentieth-century Russian chronicle. The only way to arrange them is in chronological order, while attempting to cover the breadth of her themes and of her expressiveness, which ranges, in Andrei Sinyavsky's words, "from a barely audible whisper to fiery oratory, from modestly lowered eyes to thunder and lightning."
I wish I were a better linguist than I am, but in default of that aptitude I count myself lucky in my partnership with Max Hayward. Akhmatova herself translated with outside help from a number of languages, including Chinese, Korean, Ancient Egyptian, Bengali, Armenian, Georgian, and Yiddish. Translator-poets in the past have consulted linguists as a matter of course, without feeling the need for acknowledging the assistance they received. The modern tendency, reflecting the dynamics of our curiosity about other cultures, is to facilitate and formalize the collaboration between poet and scholar. Largely owing to such combinations of skills, all literatures, however minor or esoteric, are at the point of becoming world literature. If, on occasion, I have rather boldly rendered a line or a phrase, it has always been on aesthetic grounds, never because I felt that my information was unreliable. Intuition is a blessing, but it is better to combine it with clarity of understanding.
In certain quarters the "literal version" of a poem is held sacred, though the term is definitely a misnomer. As Arthur Waley noted: "There are seldom sentences that have word-to-word equivalents in another language. It becomes a question of choosing between various approximations." Translation is a sum of approximations, but not all approximations are equal. Russian word order, for example, says: "As if I my own sobs / out of another's hands were drinking." One has to rearrange the passage to make it sound idiomatic, and one may even have to sharpen the detail to make it work in English, but one is not at liberty to indulge in willful invention. The so-called literal version is already a radical reconstitution of the verbal ingredients of a poem into another linguistic system—at the expense of its secret life, its interconnecting psychic tissue, its complex harmonies.
Here is an early poem of Akhmatova's, written in the year following her marriage to the poet Gumilev—a very simple poem, perhaps the best kind to use for illustration. If you follow the original text word by word, this is how it reads:
He liked three things in the world:
at evening mass singing, white peacocks
and worn-out maps of America.
Didn't like it when cry children,
didn't like tea with raspberry jam,
and female hysterics.
But I was his wife.
Despite its modesty, the Russian text has its charm and its music, which the slavish transcription forfeits completely. Whatever liberties one takes in translation are determined by the effort to recreate the intrinsic virtues of the source:
Three things enchanted him:
white peacocks, evensong,
and faded maps of America.
He couldn't stand bawling brats,
or raspberry jam with his tea,
or womanish hysteria.
… And he was tied to me.
My deviations from the literal are for the sake of prosodic harmony, naturalness of diction, and brightness of tone. The poem in English is based on the irregular trimeters of the original, and it suggests the rhyming pattern without copying it exactly.
"Lot's Wife" is one of Akhmatova's most celebrated poems, often quoted by Russian poets and often imitated too. The theme seems to fascinate them, for fairly obvious reasons.
And the just man trailed God's shining agent,
over a black mountain, in his giant track,
while a restless voice kept harrying his woman:
"It's not too late, you can still look back
at the red towers of your native Sodom,
the square where once you sang, the spinning-shed,
at the empty windows set in the tall house
where sons and daughters blessed your marriage-bed."
A single glance: a sudden dart of pain
stitching her eyes before she made a sound …
Her body flaked into transparent salt,
and her swift legs rooted to the ground.
Who will grieve for this woman? Does she not seem
too insignificant for our concern?
Yet in my heart I never will deny her,
who suffered death because she chose to turn.
After Richard Wilbur and I discovered that we had been separately struggling with translations of "Lot's Wife," we compared our versions. Both of us acknowledged that it was the last stanza in particular that had given us a bad time. "Literally" it reads:
Who woman this weep for will?
Not least does she not seem of losses?
Only heart my never will forget
Woman who gave life for one single peep.
The sentiment is noble, but the sound in English is ridiculous. The problem each of us had faced was how to restore the dignity and style that had been lost in transit. Wilbur's fine translation concludes:
Who would waste tears upon her? Is she not
The least of our losses, this unhappy wife?
Yet in my heart she will not be forgot
Who, for a single glance, gave up her life.
Technically Wilbur's considerable achievement is to duplicate the original ABAB rhyme scheme (not, wife, forgot, life) without wrenching the sense, whereas I have only the second and fourth lines rhyming to suggest the contours of Akhmatova's measured quatrains. My impression, however, is that Wilbur has had to sacrifice, for the sake of his rhymes, more than they are worth. In a poem of his own I doubt that he would say, "Yet in my heart she will not be forgot / Who, for a single glance, gave up her life." Nobody speaks like that, but the constrictions of the pattern did not leave him sufficient room in which to naturalize his diction.
In one of my many discarded versions of the stanza I wrote:
Who will grieve for this woman? Does she not seem
the very least of losses in our book?
Yet in my heart I never will forget her,
who died in payment for a backward look.
Perhaps I felt that the force of "backward look" had already been dissipated in the first stanza, and perhaps my ear resisted the terminal clink of the rhyme, but I can see now that those abandoned lines have the advantage of greater fidelity to the text and ease of movement. I may have made the wrong choice. In any event, I doubt that I have finished tinkering with "Lot's Wife."
The object is to produce an analogous poem in English out of available signs and sounds, a new poem sprung from the matrix of the old, drenched in memories of its former existence, capable of reviving its singular pleasures. The Russian poet Nikolai Zabolotsky had another figure for the process. He said it was like building a new city out of the ruins of the old.
Akhmatova is usually described as a formal poet, but in her later years she wrote more and more freely. Some of her poems, particularly the dramatic lyrics that developed out of her histrionic temperament, are so classically joined that they cannot be translated effectively without a considerable reconstruction of their architecture; others are much more fluid in their making. To insist on a universally rigid duplication of metrical or rhyming patterns is arbitrary and pointless, at any rate, since the effects are embedded in the language of origin and are not mechanically transferable to another language. Instead of rhyme our ear is often better pleased by an instrumentation of off-rhyme, assonance, consonance, and other linkages. Prosody is not founded on law, but on the way we speak, the way we breathe. In this connection Osip Mandelstam's widow offers a pertinent commentary:
In the period when I lived with Akhmatova, I was able to watch her at work as well, but she was much less "open" about it than M., and I was not always even aware that she was "composing." She was, in general, much more withdrawn and reserved than M. and I was always struck by her self-control as a woman—it was almost a kind of asceticism. She did not even allow her lips to move, as M. did so openly, but rather, I think, pressed them tighter as she composed her poems, and her mouth became set in an even sadder way. M. once said to me before I had met Akhmatova—and repeated to me many times afterward—that looking at these lips you could hear her voice, that her poetry was made of it and was inseparable from it. Her contemporaries—he continued—who had heard this voice were richer than future generations who would not be able to hear it.
It may be some comfort to reflect that poets are not easily silenced, even in death. As Akhmatova herself wrote, towards the end, "On paths of air I seem to overhear / two friends, two voices, talking in their turn." Despite the passage of time, the ranks of listeners grow, and the names of Akhmatova and Pasternak and Mandelstam are familiar even on foreign tongues. Some of us are moved to record what we have heard, and to try to give it back in the language that we love.
Translation is usually regarded as a secondary act of creation. One has only to cite the King James Bible, Sir Thomas Malory's Morte d'Arthur, Chapman's Homer, Dryden's Aeneid, Fitzgerald's Rubáiyát, and for modern instances the poems of Pound and Waley, to demonstrate the fallacy of this view. Poets are attracted to translation because it is a way of paying their debt to the tradition, of restoring life to shades, of widening the company of their peers. It is also a means of self-renewal, of entering the skin and adventuring through the body of another's imagination. In the act of translation one becomes more like that other, and is fortified by that other's power.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 778
SOURCE: "Anna Akhmatova: 'Mother Courage' of Poetry," in Unesco Courier, Vol. 43, April, 1990, p. 48.
[In the following essay, Byelyakova provides an overview of Akhmatova's career.]
The life of Anna Akhmatova was a tragic one. Although she had her moments of glory she also experienced terrible humiliations.
She was born in 1889, and her youth coincided with an extraordinary literary flowering, the silver age of Russian poetry. Her first volume of verses, Vecher (Evening) was published in 1912. It was followed two years later by Chyotki (Rosary) which was reprinted eight times and made her name. The themes of most of her early poems are meetings and separations, love and solitude. Their style is rigorous, lucid, laconic.
Her poetry was read throughout Russia, and the critics predicted a brilliant future for this "Russian Sappho". She published regularly—Belaya staya (1917; The White Flock), Podorozhnik (1921; Plantain), and Anno Domini MCMXXI (1922).
Unlike many intellectuals in her circle, Akhmatova did not emigrate after the Revolution of October 1917. Yet in 1923 her work ceased to be published. The official view was that her lyrics were alien to the new generation of readers produced by the Revolution. Fame was followed by oblivion: for seventeen years her name vanished from literature.
Life had other trials in store for her. In 1921 her first husband, the poet Nikolay Gumilyov, was executed after being accused of taking part in a counter-revolutionary conspiracy. Her son, the orientalist Lev Gumilyov, was arrested in 1935 and eventually spent fourteen years in prison and exile in Siberia. Her third husband, the art historian Nikolay Punin, died in prison.
Yet Anna Akhmatova continued to write. The anguish she shared with thousands of other women who queued outside the prisons of Leningrad inspired the cycle Rekviem (1935–1940; Requiem), which tells the tragic story of a mother separated from her only son. She visited her friend the poet Osip Mandelstam, exiled in Voronezh, and wrote poems filled with foreboding about his imminent death. She denounced the illegal and arbitrary acts which were being committed in her country, and exposed the cruelty of Stalin and his entourage. Fearing arrest, she memorized her verses rather than write them down.
In 1940 several poems she had written before the Revolution were published. Later, patriotic lyrics she wrote during the war were published in several newspapers and magazines.
But in 1946 she became the main target of an ideological campaign launched against the artistic and literary intelligentsia by the Central Committee of the Communist Party, which passed a resolution condemning the literary reviews Zvezda ("The Star") and Leningrad for publishing her poetry, which was branded as "bourgeois and decadent", "devoid of an ideological message" and "alien to the Soviet people".
The entire printrun of her most recent collection of poems was destroyed and she was expelled from the Union of Soviet Writers. For ten years she was again ostracized. Not until the thaw which followed the death of Stalin was she reinstated in the Writers' Union and allowed to publish again. By now the interest in her poetry was immense.
In the 1960s Akhmatova became world famous. Her work was translated into English, French, German, Italian, Czech, Bulgarian and many other languages. Many articles, books and studies were published about her poetry. In 1964 she travelled to Italy where she was awarded the Etna-Taormina international poetry prize, and in the following year she received an honorary doctorate from Oxford University.
Anna Akhmatova died on 5 March 1966. As the years go by the interest in her work continues to grow. Her collections of poems are often reprinted, and unpublished works are coming to light, including some fine patriotic poems which were virtually unknown in the Soviet Union until recently. Rekviem, which had appeared in the West in the 1960s, was not published in the Soviet Union until 1987. In 1988, the Communist Party resolution against the reviews Leningrad and Zvezda was officially rescinded and in 1989 Zvezda devoted an entire issue to the centenary of Anna Akhmatova's birth.
The city of Leningrad, which played a major part in her life, was the centre of the centenary celebrations in June 1989. A memorial museum was opened on the Fontanka Embankment, where for over thirty years she had lived and composed some of her most tragic poems. Conferences were organized by the Russian Literature Institute of the USSR Academy of Sciences and the Leningrad Writers' Organization. At literary and musical evenings leading poets read her works and poems dedicated to her by contemporaries including Aleksandr Blok, Marina Tsvetayeva, Osip Mandelstam, and Boris Pasternak. Song cycles of her lyrics set to music by Prokofiev and Slonimsky were also performed.
The anniversary provided the opportunity to pay a fitting tribute to one of the greatest poets of the century.
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SOURCE: "Shards of Russian History," in Los Angeles Times Book Review, March 21, 1993, pp. 3, 9.
[In the following review, Reynolds discusses the world evoked by the essays in Akhmatova's My Half Century.]
On the morning of May 13, 1934, Anna Akhmatova and Nadezhda Mandelstam began to clean up the scattered books and papers left by the agents who had arrested Nadezhda's husband, the poet Osip Mandelstam, the night before. While some papers, including the incriminating poem about Stalin ("And every killing is a treat / for the broad-chested Ossete") had already been smuggled out by friends and visitors, one pile still lay by the door. "Don't touch it," said Akhmatova. Nadezhda, trusting the instincts of her friend, left the papers on the floor. "Ah," said the senior police agent, back for a surprise visit, "you still haven't tidied up."
This instinct for survival, what Nadezhda Mandelstam later called her "Russian powers of endurance," kept Akhmatova alive through some of the cruelest decades known to Russian writers. In 1921, her husband, the poet Nikolai Gumilyov, from whom she had been separated for three years, was arrested and executed. Her son Lev Gumilyov was arrested three times, exiled, and spent years of his life in prison for being her son. The great writers of the century, her friends, suffered and died under Stalin. The poet Marina Tsvetaeva hanged herself in 1941; Osip Mandelstam died en route to a labor camp in 1938. Akhmatova herself was "annihilated" in 1919, which meant that she could not publish; resurrected in 1939 by Stalin, only to be annihilated again in 1946 after several visits from Isaiah Berlin in 1945. She was expelled from the Union of Soviet Writers with the enduring epithet: "half nun, half harlot."
This resolution was not rescinded until 1988, when Akhmatova, dead for 22 years, was again rehabilitated, making available, for the first time, much of her prose; previously censored studies, essays, and sketches. Ardis Press, long a faithful friend of Russian literature, has now published the most complete collection of her prose in the volume My Half Century: Selected Prose.
This is not the relaxed, purgative activity that continental memoir-writing is supposed to be. She was, after all, a lifetime poet, telling Kornei Chukovsky in 1921: "I don't know how to write prose." She believed, as Emma Gershtein writes in the afterword, that "human memory works like a projector, illuminating individual moments, while leaving the rest in impenetrable darkness." What you get is a bit of a difficult read, sustained by curiosity about Akhmatova, and admiration for her. If there is any doubt in your mind about this, or you falter along the way, simply turn to her 1914 collection of poems entitled Rosary and consider this quote: "Today I see you," wrote Osip Mandelstam of Akhmatova in 1910, "a black angel in the snow, / and I cannot keep this secret to myself, / God's mark is upon you…."
While Akhmatova's notebooks contain partial outlines and plans for her memoirs, she did not live to complete them. She wrote that she modeled her effort, however, on the autobiographies of Pasternak (Safe Conduct, 1931) and Mandelstam (Noise of Time, 1922–23), both written in a certain fragmentary style. And fragments are appropriate memorials for lives lived in Russia in the 1920s, '30s and '40s, though Akhmatova describes the frustration of this style in a section called "Random Notes": "I notice that what I'm writing isn't quite right: I have almost ten subjects on two pages and everything is very inconsistent, as they like to put it nowadays."
Indeed, the voice throughout the fragments, many of which were written in the late 1950s and early 1960s, is an ornery old-lady voice. Like a real grande dame, Akhmatova repeats herself, tells stories in which she is admired by individuals and crowds, in which her beauty is mythologized, and in which her detractors are drawn and quartered with downright academic precision.
Writing her memoirs was also a historical burden. "I'm surrounded by the past and it is demanding something from me," she wrote in 1957. What it was demanding of her, it seems, was the need to clarify a period in Russia's literary history that was mercilessly and whimsically perverted by various regimes. Of course she sounds defensive! Of course she sounds petty! Who said what to whom in 1919 or 1945, random comments in journals could mean literal or figurative annihilation. Akhmatova labored, as Olga Carlisle writes in her memoir Under a New Sky …, to correct the misperception spread internationally by the Stalin regime that Russia's greatest poets (the ones they'd annihilated) had not been heard from because they had simply "lost their poetic voices in the twenties."
The first two sections of the book, "Pages from a Diary," and "My Half Century" are the most interesting. "Pages from a Diary" includes delightful memories from the author's childhood, and it is in these passages that she is able to abandon herself to the smells of St. Petersburg's staircases, or winters in Tsarskoe Selo, the northern town where she grew up, and whose most famous resident was none other than Pushkin. Born on June 11, 1889, Anna Gorenko took, as her literary name, the Tatar name of her maternal great-grandmother, a descendant of Genghis Khan: hence the resonant Anna Akhmatova.
And she was beautiful; angular, severe, with dark, deep-set eyes, a majestic manner and an ego for drama. But beautiful women, said Shakespeare's Cleopatra, "eat a crazy salad with their meat," and the flirtations, romance, and reshuffling that we associate with a bohemian lifestyle conspired with history to fragment Akhmatova's life and memories. She "gave in," as she put it, at age 21 to the young Symbolist poet Gumilyov, writing in 1907, "I swear by all that is holy to me that this unhappy man will be happy with me." They were married in 1910.
The Symbolists, led by Blok, were dying off, and a new faction, led by Gumilyov and the poet Gorodetsky, sprung up to reject the vagueness of Symbolism. They formed, in 1912, the Poet's Guild, and called themselves Acmeists, proclaiming the poetry of real experience. The most talented among them were Mandelstam, Gumilyov, and Akhmatova; a triumvirate that one detractor called "those Adams and that skinny Eve." They argued and danced and rejected the old at a cabaret in St. Petersburg called the Stray Dog, where, as Akhmatova wrote in her poem of January, 1913, "We are all carousers and loose women …"
These days did not last long.
Akhmatova tries, in "Pages," to set aright the misconceptions about Acmeism and Symbolism and her relationship to Gumilyov which dissolved in 1918 (the cover of one of her poetry collections apparently boasted that the author had been "divorced"!), but all this is done more clearly in Judith Hemschemeyer's preface to the second edition, recently out in paperback, of The Complete Poems of Anna Akhmatova. In these years, from 1912 to 1922, Akhmatova published five collections of poetry, and "Pages" also contains brief descriptions of their birth and passage through history.
After 1917, debates over Acmeism and Symbolism and evenings at the Stray Dog seem splendid indeed. The second section of My Half Century is composed of portraits of writers and friends, many captured by Akhmatova as they are overwhelmed and suffocated by the Revolution. The portraits of Modigliani ("He never spoke about anything mundane") and Mandelstam ("Who can show us the source of this divine new harmony, which we call the poetry of Osip Mandelstam?") are the most affectionate and readable. The others, of Tsvetaeva, Pasternak, etc., are punctuated with brief illuminations from Akhmatova's memory-projector.
Akhmatova died on March 5, 1966. It is clear that in her last years she wanted not only to correct impressions about her life and times but also to breathe again. The trouble for survivors is that they have survived. Akhmatova did not learn of Gumilyov's execution on Aug. 25, 1921, until a week after it had occurred. But on the night of Aug. 27 she wrote a poem called "Terror": "Terror, fingering things in the dark, / leads the moonbeam to an axe. / Behind the wall there's an ominous knock / What's there, a ghost, a thief, rats?… I press the smooth cross to my heart: / God, restore peace to my soul."
In this same year, far away, another group of literary friends got depressed, engaged in social quarrels: Virginia Woolf published To the Lighthouse. Leonard Woolf published Hunting the Highbrow. Akhmatova clutched a cross in her bed at night as her friends' lives were fragmented and scattered to the wind; then rearranged for international consumption. They learned strange skills like how to recognize an agent, and how to write under censorship. "I can't sing," she wrote in Poem Without a Hero, "In the midst of this horror." But sing she did.
Perhaps the most beautiful passage in My Half Century comes in "Pages from a Diary":
And if it was destined that poetry should flourish in the twentieth century, namely in my Homeland, I will be so bold as to say that I have always been a cheerful and trustworthy witness…. And I am certain that even now we do not truly know what a magical chorus of poets we possess, that the Russian language is young and supple, that we have only recently begun to write poetry, and that we love and believe in it.—1962
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4241
SOURCE: "Anna of All the Russias," in New York Review of Books, Vol. 40, No. 9, May 13, 1993, pp. 25-7.
[In the following review, Bayley presents an overview of Akhmatova's life and career in his discussion of three works concerning the poet: The Complete Poems of Anna Akhmatova, translated by Judith Hemschemeyer: Remembering Anna Akhmatova, by Anatoly Nayman; and In a Shattered Mirror: The Later Poetry of Anna Akhmatova, by Susan Amert.]
Poetry must somehow proclaim its authority. However mysteriously this comes about, its achievement can always be recognized; a great poem continues to assert its magisterial spell in the face of all the tyranny or indifference of passing events. When Yeats wrote in 1919, "The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity," he could not have known that before the end of the century, at a time when convictions of any sort were hard to come by, for both the good and the bad, his words would nonetheless have passed into the language, been stamped on the consciousness of daily speech.
How much more has this authority come to exist in the great poetry of Russia, where it stamped its conviction on the secret speech of the martyrs and the persecuted? A moving photograph in the complete edition of Anna Akhmatova's poems, between the text and the notes, shows a tiny hand-made "notebook," formed of a few fragments of paper stitched together, with a poem of hers laboriously copied out in minute handwriting. This had been the treasured possession of a zek in one of the gulags, a talisman to strengthen him through years of suffering. Now that particular tyranny has gone, at least for the moment, and poetry of course remains, yet its authority in Russia is perhaps not quite what it was, its "bright name"—in Aleksandr Blok's phrase—not quite so potent. A famous sonnet of Shakespeare's has never enjoyed a moment of such rough magic as when the audience at a hall in Moscow shouted insistently for "Number 66," while Pasternak, with grudging permission from the Soviet authorities, was reading his translations. That sonnet contains the line: "And art made tongue-tied by authority," and goes on to speak of "captive good attending captain ill."
Of course art can always be used for propaganda purposes, and bad art too can sometimes enjoy in a political context the same potency as the good. But since the time of Pushkin Russian poetry at its best and most venerated has never achieved its force and its popularity by going directly against the state and the establishment. On the contrary: its power has always come from its detachment, its serene confidence in belonging, so to speak, to another and a better world. Not in every case is this true. Nekrasov, writing in the mid-nineteenth century, and in conformity in some degree with the famous critic Belinsky's theory of the social utility of art, is both an excellent poet and a propagandist for social and political reform. For that reason he was one of the few poets, other than the iconic Pushkin, to be thoroughly approved of by the Soviet authorities, who also encouraged another good poet, Mayakovsky, to be their poetic mascot and front man with the Muse. Unable to stand the strain of serving two masters, Mayakovsky committed suicide. Blok, who had earlier shown a wish to serve as a poet the new Bolshevik society, had already died in despair. His well-known poem "The Twelve," for all its undoubted magnificence and impact, in fact falls resoundingly between two stools: it is a poem of wholly personal and symbolic vision which nonetheless tries to be realistic and urgent about historic events and the Reds' seizure of power.
This point against Blok's vision of twelve uncouth Red Guardsmen wandering destructively through St. Petersburg under the leadership of Jesus Christ was made by Pasternak in Doctor Zhivago, which contrasts the grim reality of "Russia's terrible years" with Blok's poetically apocalyptic conception of them. Akhmatova, who did not at all care for Blok as a man although she admired some of his poetry, would certainly have agreed with Pasternak's view of the matter. For her, as for Pasternak, the poet indeed had a duty, but it was nothing to do with political principles, or with a regime. It was to stay where you were, in your own country, and write, as a poet, for your own people. For Russian poets to leave Russia and go into emigration was for them to forfeit the mysterious authority which they possessed. It is this knowledge and certainty which fill the four lines at the opening of Akhmatova's tragic poem-cycle Requiem, written in memory of the time under the Great Terror when she stood outside the prison in St. Petersburg (then Leningrad) where her son was confined, hoping, like innumerable others, to get a parcel through, or at least a word.
No, not under the vault of alien skies,
And not under the shelter of alien wings—
I was with my people then,
There, where my people, unfortunately, were.
That is Judith Hemschemeyer's translation, and her versions of Akhmatova's collected poems in the new single-volume Zephyr Press edition—it succeeds the bulky two-volume edition with Russian text and translation on facing pages published three years ago—is in general excellent: accurate, unpretentious, and in the same straightforward and simple key as the original. The usual difficulties and impossibilities remain of course; but Akhmatova was herself a translator, and like all the Russian Acmeist poets she was steeped in the texture and tradition of European and English poetry. She knew the difficulties, and would appreciate how the translator, who learned Russian because of her love for this poetry, has tried to overcome them.
Wendy Rosslyn gives the usual and more elegant version of that stanza's last line "Where my luckless people chanced to be" in her translation of Anatoly Nayman's sensitive and lively memoir of the poet. It is true that the drawback of the word "unfortunately" in English is that it is usually employed in a trivial context—"Unfortunately, she's got another appointment" or something of the sort. "Luckless" is a more obvious poetical word, more rare, more drastic. But it is just because of its commonplaceness that "unfortunately" seems to me to be right in this dire context: the Russian k neschastiu is not poetical either. According to Nayman, Akhmatova herself used to get impatient with worshipers of Requiem, and its tribute to the "blood and tears" of suffering humanity, pointing out that these are poems, and remain poems. She nonetheless singled out those four lines as the "one good passage," evidently separating the absolutely basic emotion in them from all the artifices of good poetry.
There is a difference, and a vital one, between the inevitable distance of any poetry from what is actually going on, and the deliberate cultivation of a "poetic world" by a Symbolist poet like Blok. Pushkin and Akhmatova are not in the least concerned to be "relevant" to human affairs and responsibilities—sometimes they are and sometimes they aren't—their poetry is in this sense quite unselfconscious, and therefore wholly separate and wholly individual. But it is equally natural that their poetry speaks with its own complete authority, not an assumed or a carefully constructed one.
In this context Nayman makes an unexpected and devastating point. "Strictly speaking, Requiem is the ideal embodiment of Soviet poetry that all the theorists describe." Its hero is the people, the narod, not the people as the regime wanted them to be, and was continually and hypocritically invoking, but the people as they actually were. By upbringing and temperament, and no doubt by conviction too. Akhmatova was instinctively a Christian. So was Pasternak. That is why they had to stay where they were. Not only their instinctive authority as poets depended on it, but their identification with Russia—its past and especially its faith. The great advantage of such a faith against all forms of political idealism, an advantage which would be comical if the human predicament did not make it so inherently tragical, is that it has no trouble in accepting things as they are. Politics and ideology always have to pretend that things could be different, and, in Soviet Russia, that they actually were different. Hence the fact that Soviet poetry, so far from identifying like Akhmatova with what was really going on, had no choice but to endorse the Big Lie and to identify with the narod as it was ideally supposed to be, not as it was.
Having said that it is necessary also to state—and Nayman too makes this clear—that Akhmatova, like many other poets of her time (like Yeats himself) could seem a tremendous show-off. Her fellow-poet Marina Tsvetaeva used sardonically to refer to her as "Anna of All the Russias." She was regal; she was a queen. Yet she was one absolutely by nature, as if a little girl, a giddy princess, had always known what grave responsibilities ineluctably awaited her, and met them when the moment came without protest or pretension. The showing off was done on her behalf by friends, critics, the hangers-on—devoted or merely sycophantic—which literature attracts, and particularly literature in the Soviet Union, with all the official flim-flam—poets' villages and "Houses of Creativity"—which sought to make the people venerate the chosen bards of the Soviet system as much as the system itself. Ironically all that state-culture worship was transferred by a sort of honorable reversal on the part of their devotees to Pasternak and to Akhmatova herself. They became rival icons to those of the Soviet regime, images of an older and truer faith.
The splendidly refreshing thing about Nayman's memoir—he is himself a poet and was her literary secretary in her old age, when even the post-Stalinist regime did not dare to persecute her more—is that although he reveres Akhmatova as a woman and a great poet his tales about her, and his sparkling critical intelligence about the background and setting of her poems, are not in the least reverential. He assumes her grandeur and her dignity as she assumed them herself; and his accounts of her life in Leningrad, in her small crumbling room on the Fontanka canal and later outside the town in the writers' village of Komarovo, have the homely fascination and humor of Boswell's recollections of Dr. Johnson. When Robert Frost came to Leningrad in the late Fifties a meeting was arranged by a well-known critic and authority on English literature. "Both their names figured in the list of candidates for the Nobel Prize, and the idea of bringing them together seemed an especially felicitous one to the bureaucrats …" The Eng. Lit. man was duly impressed—"how grand she was, and how sad she seemed," when she read Frost her poem "The Last Rose." "For some moments we were silent, still."
But Akhmatova later told Nayman with amusement that she had felt like a "Grandma" with a "Grandpa," and moreover that Frost had seriously wanted to know whether it might be profitable to manufacture pencils using the Komarovo pine trees. Entering into the spirit of the thing, she reminded him that anyone felling a tree in the park was fined 500 rubles; but the reader may suspect that Frost was acting the New England farmer, teasing her in his deadpan way and being more playful than either she or her secretary realized. She felt it unfitting and improper for a great poet to have such a "farming streak" in him. In fact two quite different attitudes to Art and the Artist—the Russian one and the American—were misunderstanding each other.
St. Petersburg, as it was in her youth and is now again after the Soviet years of being Leningrad, was at once Akhmatova's court and the kingdom of her poetry. She had been born Anna Gorenko, in far-off Kiev in the Ukraine, but her father being a naval architect the family had moved to the Baltic about the time in 1905 when the Japanese were sinking the Russian fleet at Tsushima. Her mother and father separated, and the family settled at Tsarskoe Selo—"Tsar's Village"—just outside St. Petersburg. She was already being courted by the promising young poet Nikolai Gumilev, who was to fight gallantly as an officer in the 1914 war and to be shot by the Bolsheviks for alleged monarchist conspiracy in 1921. Anna Gorenko was reluctant to marry him, but in the end she did, and they had a son, Lev, mostly looked after as a child by Anna's mother-in-law. Under the Soviet regime he was to be twice imprisoned for long periods for no other reason than that he bore his father's name. The anguish of his arrest and detention with innumerable other victims of the Terror in the Kresty Prison in Leningrad is the subject of Akhmatova's somber and magnificent Requiem.
When she showed signs of being a poet her father begged her not to dishonor the family name by using it in this frivolous context, so she called herself after a Tartar ancestor on her mother's side; the name is cognate with the oriental Achmet. Her husband, a difficult, moody man who disliked the routines of domesticity and only cared for "old maps and distant countries," thought it would be ridiculous for one poet to be married to another. Certainly this rare conjunction is not often a success, as was shown in the more recent case of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes; yet it is possible for one to inspire the other even as the marital relation deteriorates. Gumilev was a generous man who soon saw that his wife had real talent. On his return from travels in Abyssinia he asked her what she had been writing, and she showed him poems that had been inspired by another Russian poet to whose work he had introduced her. Innokenty Annensky was a withdrawn, scholarly man, who taught classics at the school of Tsarskoe Selo and who had produced a short book of poems called The Cypress Box. This had become her Bible, rather as the youthful Pushkin was never without his copy of the poems of the Frenchman Parny.
Gumilev congratulated her warmly on her new poems, and they were a great success when published in the spring of 1912 as her first collection, Evening. Her second collection, mostly of love poems, Rosary, made even more of a sensation two years later: she became something of a cult figure in the Petersburg literary world. By then her husband had formed round them the circle of poets known as Acmeists or Adamists, of whom Osrp Mandelstam was one. Their poetic philosophy was in a sense existential: a precision about things and moments, and a rejection of symbolism and the Ivory Tower.
From the sad majesty of Requiem Akhmatova was to look back on herself at this period as the "gay little sinner of Tsarskoe Selo." The events of those years—love affairs, separations, tragedies like the suicide of a young cadet, the lover of her friend Olga Sudeikina—were all to find their way into her strange masterpiece of poetic autobiography. Poem Without a Hero, which she wrote in the terrible years before and after the Second World War. Like The Waste Land it possesses the mysterious authority, that of Pushkin's tainstvenni pevets—the secret-bearing poet—to convey the apocalypse of a whole epoch in the words of a single intimacy. Its uniquely sonorous rhythm, which can only be very imperfectly suggested in English, brings into a liturgical unison past and future, the figures who haunt the threshold of the new century, "the real and not the calendar one," which began for her in 1914, and visitants of quite another kind, doubles from an endless masquerade.
Since childhood I have feared maskers;
It always seemed to me
That some superfluous shadow
With "neither face nor name"
Slipped in among them …
One of those who slipped into the poem as if by accident was also for her a predestined visitor.
The guest from the future!—Is it true
That he really will come to me,
Turning left at the bridge?
The visitor was Isaiah Berlin, an Oxford professor working in 1945 at the British Embassy, who came to her room over the bridge by the Fontanka canal. His wonderful account of the visit forms one of the introductory pieces to the Complete Poems, in which he imparts his sense of reverence and awe at meeting in these circumstances a poet who had become so tranquilly and effortlessly, and as if by natural ordination, a queen, even a goddess: one whose survival and secret life in silence and exile were known only to a few. A letter to Nayman observed that a friend had found an epigraph for her poetry.
But I stand on calamity's scaffold
As if enthroned 'midst the courtiers' homage.
And she accepted the homage without either modesty or vanity.
This matter-of-fact acceptance of herself as a vessel of divinity, one chosen to utter mysteries so vital to the human spirit, is often expressed in her poems ("They flow across the blank page / Like a pure stream in a ravine") and in her sense of her intense relation with unknown readers and listeners. Pasternak had the same kind of conviction of himself as poet-savior and redeemer, as in Doctor Zhivago and poems like "Gethsemane," but Pasternak did not have her sense of humor and her female down-to-carthness. Clearly she inspired a sense of fun in others, as well as reverence. Comedy was part of the magic.
Isaiah Berlin describes how he met her and was settling down for what turned out to be an all-night conversation, when they were disturbed by his name being shouted in the courtyard below.
It proved to be Randolph Churchill, the son of Winston, who was also on a visit to the British Embassy, and who when looking for Berlin and finding himself in surroundings that reminded him of his old Oxford college, had started hallooing for his colleague as he would once have done in the quad. This was at the beginning of the cold war, and Russian friends and well-wishers were stupefied by the risk and the possible scandal involved. Here clearly—in the eyes of the KGB—were two English spies come to conspire with the great Russian poet, and perhaps even whisk her away to London! The absurdity probably had no ill effects, but it was about this time that the literary establishment resolved once more to denounce Akhmatova for nonfulfillment of the Soviet poetic ideal, while her son was sent into a second term of exile.
Earnest pilgrims from abroad were later to be embarrassed by the squalor in which the distinguished old lady was compelled to live. Nayman recalls a young English university don who was working on the "folk sources" in her poetry. Akhmatova had a drawing of herself by Modigliani over the bed in her small room, and it was suggested he might like to look at it, but the invitation seemed to bother him. Later she said to her secretary with a laugh, "Over there they're not accustomed to seeing old ladies' beds. He looked dreadful when you dragged him to the edge of the abyss. They can't believe that we live like this. Nor can they understand how we write at all in these conditions." The husband of her old friend Punin's daughter, in whose flat she was living (Punin himself had died in a gulag), was a trial to her because of the way he attempted as "a devotee of beauty" to hold literary conversations. When Akhmatova with her secretary and the poet Brodsky was celebrating with some cognac the tenth anniversary of Stalin's death the husband appeared and began to ask her whether "one should not underestimate Voznesensky and Surkov"—both well-known poets during the Soviet regime. Akhmatova maintained a stony silence, but afterward remarked with a laugh about her literary landlord, "I value him highly. In his stead we might have a person who would admonish me with 'Mother, you've left the bathroom light on again.'"
Vivaciously translated, Nayman's memoir makes an ideal companion piece to the wealth of essays and photographs in the volume of collected poems, as it does to Amanda Haight's already classic biography of the poet.∗ Judith Hemschemeyer and her editor Roberta Reeder have done a superb job, and the latter has been able to include in this translation several poems and fragments discovered in Russia by the scholar M. M. Kralin, and authenticated by Nayman's knowledge of the poet in her last years. Shortly before she died she wrote a couple of final lines:
Necessity herself has finally submitted.
And has stepped pensively aside.
The delphic utterance might seem to link with that world of shadowy personifications, maskers, and memories in Poem Without a Hero, where the poet dryly observed. "There is no death—everyone knows that, / It's insipid to repeat it," taking as her sign the motto of Mary Queen of Scots—"In my end is my beginning"—which she had found in T. S. Eliot's Four Quartets.
In another poem she comments, "Without mystery there is no poetry," and she called one series "Secrets of the Craft." Susan Amert takes a further phrase of hers, "In a Shattered Mirror," as the title of an exceptionally learned and elegant study of the technicalities of Akhmatovan poetry, doing the job without any of the contemporary jargon and high-flown theory which the poet herself would have despised. For Akhmatova always maintained there was nothing upstage or recherché in what she wrote, none of the invented world of symbolism. Her mystery, like Pushkin's, was in clarity: in an openness which could appear baffling because it left so much unsaid. Her husband had long before remarked on this, and on the fact that as a poet she did not "invent herself": the point was later elaborated in a study of her poetics by the well-known critic V. Vinogradov.
Susan Amert begins her own book by making a comparison between the early fame of Pushkin and his "Byronic" poems, and the similar success enjoyed by Akhmatova's first two collections. It is a good point, because even Pushkin's friends were baffled by what they considered the homely oddity of his later masterpieces, like The Little House at Kolomna and The Bronze Horseman, while his enemies claimed he had ceased to be a poet. Though Akhmatova never lost her popularity her devotees were puzzled by the cryptic internal references in Poem Without a Hero, while the Soviet literary establishment scurrilously referred to her as the "nun and harlot" whose decadent and frivolous verses were unworthy of the good name of Russian poetry.
Certainly Poem Without a Hero is a gift to the critic and commentator, and Susan Amert's chapter on it is illuminating. As with The Bronze Horseman this great poema's authority makes its own kind of sense, and has its own impact on the individual reader. Akhmatova herself was a profound Pushkinist, and wrote some fine and subtle essays on his later poetry. Her tastes in the literature of her own country could be sharply arbitrary. She abominated Chekhov: Nayman thinks it was because his "gray" world reminded her too much of her own drab early days at Kiev as Anna Gorenko, before she became the Princess of Tsarskoe Selo. She was not keen on Tolstoy but adored Dostoevsky and reread him continually. She had an almost girlish attachment to Byron's poems; and Isaiah Berlin was a bit bewildered and embarrassed when at the beginning of their long colloquy together she recited to him from memory two cantos of Don Juan, in an English stressed so oddly that he could barely recognize it as such.
As her translator emphasizes, "Akhmatova lived in a home constructed not only of Russian literature but world literature." For the Acmeist movement of the early days, as Mandelstam had put it, universal culture was what mattered. And just as Pushkin's poetry seems to resolve itself in the end into a celestial form of fairy tale, coming at once from everywhere and nowhere, so Akhmatova's poems have the same clear, unwondering, unlocalized matter-of-factness about them. She was always sardonic about herself, and impersonally maternal about her creations. Sometimes she saw the muse as a wicked stepmother, drinking her blood "like that evil girl of my youth—love." There was nothing obviously "feminine" about her or her poems, and yet many of the most striking ones show an oblique but profound identity with female impulse—Cleopatra summoning her pride to suicide, Lot's wife giving her life for the sake of a last look back.
She was right also to stress that there was nothing hermeneutic about her poetry, nothing resembling the verbal mysteries of Mallarmé: her mysteries are in the open, as they are in legends. A famous early poem, "The Gray-Eyed King," later set to music by Prokofiev, is an inverted fairy story, with all that form's suggestive intensity, but full of the conviction—so somber in the later postrevolution poems—that magic does not work, that there is no happy ending. Only in the completion of a poem. The gray-eyed king is dead: the peasant mother looks into the eyes of the child she has secretly had by him.
∗ Anna Akhmatova: A Poetic Pilgrimage (Oxford University Press, 1976)
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1570
SOURCE: "Empress of Poets," in Times Literary Supplement, No. 4702, May 14, 1993, p. 26.
[In the following review, Franklin judges the quality of the discussion and presentation of Akhmatova's work in In a Shattered Mirror, by Susan Amert; My Half Century, edited by Ronald Meyer; and The Complete Poems, translated by Judith Hemschemeyer.]
Anna Akhmatova, empress of poets, died in 1966. She had grown up in Tsarskoe Selo, the Tsar's Village outside St Petersburg, where Pushkin had been to school. In 1911 in Paris, Modigliani drew her "in the attire of Egyptian queens". With Osip Mandelstam and her husband Nikolai Gumilev she was at the centre of the Guild of Poets professing the creed of Acmeism. Between 1912 and 1922 she published five books of poetry, "lyrical diaries" of precisely evoked fragments of experience, sharp memories of love and guilt and pain. More artists painted her and sculpted her, admirers flocked.
From 1925 she disappeared from public view. Nobody would print her. What good were her private insights and precious diction when there was Socialism to be built? During the war she was useful, but in 1946, Andrei Zhdanov, a secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party, denounced Akhmatova as "one of the standard-bearers of an empty, aristocratic, drawing-room poetry, which is totally alien to Soviet Literature". Zhdanov's last phrase was, of course, correct.
Her son was arrested, Gumilev had been executed, Mandelstam died in the camps. Akhmatova lived on the margins, migrating from friend's flat to friend's flat, carrying with her the one inviolable possession, her language, into which all was absorbed. She said of her poetry from the late 1930s: "my handwriting had changed and my voice sounded differently".
Akhmatova's "changed handwriting" has attracted many graphologists. In his memoir of his meetings with Akhmatova, Isaiah Berlin expressed concern that some of her later work may be smothered under the "tumulus of learned commentary inexorably rising over it". Susan Amert's admirable study, In a Shattered Mirror, shows that erudition can illuminate as well as suffocate.
The early Akhmatova communed with the Muse who "dictated Inferno to Dante". Mandelstam once called Acmeism "nostalgia for world culture", and Akhmatova's poems were allusive even when ostensibly direct. They were transparent at a distance but obscure in close-up; openly autobiographical, but notoriously hard to pin to any single event. In much of Akhmatova's later poetry, the inner complexity was brought to the surface. Short poems were combined into cycles, literary echoes merged with pointedly enigmatic semi-references. Here is an adventure-playground for sleuths and intertextualists, but for Akhmatova the multiple resonances were not a game but a mission. A capacious language could overcome time, which blotted out so much of the past and present. When she wrote, she and a very few trusted friends would silently commit the poem to memory and then destroy the writing. Poetry was the concentrated remembrance of words: her own words, words of past poets, words of the women at the prison gates (in Requiem: "I have woven a wide mantle / From their meagre, overheard words").
Akhmatova encouraged speculation, but discouraged conclusions. Of her most mysterious cycle, Poem Without a Hero, she wrote: "unexpected galleries open up, leading nowhere…. The shades pretend to be those who have cast them…. Everything doubles and trebles…. It is impossible to discern which is the voice and which the echo, which is the shadow of the other".
Sensibly, therefore, Amert does not try to be comprehensive, or to find any single key. Instead she offers selected close readings. She does have a central and plausible thesis—that Akhmatova increasingly meditated on the theme of the Poet rather than recording moments of the Poet's experience—but she does not force her material, and she makes generous use of the observations of other commentators. Indeed, her larger belief is in the "fundamental open-endedness and infinite allusiveness of the later poetry". Her role, then, which she plays with delicacy, is to enrich the experience of reading.
The poems in the late cycle, Sweetbriar in Blossom (1946–62), for example, frame both a love-story and a series of reproachful evocations on the theme of forgetfulness, the lover's forgetfulness of the poet. The lyrical persona slips in and out of overt and concealed associations with Dido and Aeneas, Keats's Isabella and Lorenzo, Pushkin's Lensky and Olga from Eugene Onegin, and of course, Beatrice and Dante, as well as several meetings and partings in Akhmatova's life. The aim is neither to produce a set of erudite footnotes nor to play theoretical games with intertextuality. Amert listens carefully, pursues the echoes to their sources, and arrives at a persuasive interpretation of these enigmatically interlinked fragments, in which "the imagery of death is in every instance counterbalanced by images of transcendence … of the poet's triumph over death, oblivion and betrayal through memory and poetry".
These are old-fashioned readings. Amert dismisses "modern-day sophists", and is happy to accept that there is nothing retrogressive in poetic retrospection, in "nostalgia for world culture". She lets Akhmatova set the agenda and the terms.
I suspect that Akhmatova would be rather less pleased at the way she is reflected in Ronald Meyer's volume of her [My Half Century:] Selected Prose. From a variety of mostly posthumous publications Meyer and a team of translators have put together what they reasonably claim to be "the most complete collection of Akhmatova's prose in any language": autobiographical fragments, memoirs of writers and artists, a set of articles on Pushkin, and about a hundred letters spanning the period from her schooldays in Kiev in 1906 right through to 1965.
In the preface to an edition of her poems, published in the year before she died. Akhmatova stated, with only the faintest motion of tongue towards cheek: "from the very beginning I knew everything about poetry—I never knew anything about prose". Curiously, her list of "three leviathans of the twentieth century" contains only prose-writers: Proust, Joyce and Kafka. But she herself never felt entirely comfortable in prose. She tried a few bits of short fiction, but destroyed them. In her later years she made quite copious autobiographical notes, but with the exception of one brief summary they remained as drafts. Meyer hints that the reason was censorship, but in most cases I doubt it. Akhmatova was well able to finish poems with no immediate prospect of publication. Her narrative cycles of poetry consisted of separate small jewels which reflected one another through their adjacent settings. In prose, the polish was more nervously applied. She lacked the magisterial assurance in her control of the rhythms, in the presence of the Muse at her shoulder.
By far the most resonant of the autobiographical pieces is, not surprisingly, the one which Akhmatova herself passed as finished: "Briefly about Myself", a series of lapidary factual statements in chronological sequence from 1889 to 1965, as taut as a poem. Elsewhere there is a fair amount of parochial polemic, as Akhmatova responded to what she felt were inaccurate accounts of the origins of Acmeism, or of the early influences on her poetry, or of the extent of her early popularity. There are glimpses of gold (the smell of damp leather in the Petersburg cabs; reciting Verlaine with Modigliani under a Parisian drizzle in 1911), but overall these drafts cannot compare with the best Russian memoirs of the period.
Akhmatova's articles on Pushkin, however, have a special status. All Russians suck in Pushkin with their mothers' milk; Russian writers seem to feel it their occasional duty to meditate publicly on Pushkin's genius (the most famous and fatuous specimen being Dostoevsky's speech at the Pushkin monument in 1880). When she chose, Akhmatova was as capable as any of treating Pushkin as a symbol (of the poet who in time defeated the anti-poets who in his time had destroyed him). But besides communing with Pushkin, Akhmatova also studied him, identified sources, puzzled over documents. She produced a detailed interpretation of the intrigues which led to Pushkin's fatal death in a duel. And her articles on Pushkin's debt to Benjamin Constant, and on his transformation of the Don Juan theme in The Stone Guest, have become classics in their field.
For reading Akhmatova's poetry, the non-Russianist now has an "expanded edition" of Judith Hemschemeyer's much-praised labour of massive devotion, The Complete Poems. The new edition is a single-volume paperback instead of a two-volume hardback. The parallel Russian texts have been omitted, as has Roberta Reeder's introductory biography of Akhmatova. Hemschemeyer has added translations of some seventy items which first appeared in Russian in 1990, and one spuriously attributed poem has been removed. Seventy pages are allocated to a "Photo Biography", the new paginations throughout will be bibliographically confusing.
The first edition of Hemschemeyer's translations was widely reviewed. Without wishing to dampen her well-earned applause, I hope that her achievement does not discourage others from producing new versions. Hemschemeyer comes close to emulating Akhmatova's precise and restrained diction, but—as she frankly admits in her preface—at the expense of musicality and resonance. Attempts to replicate Akhmatova in rhyme and metre have mostly resulted in wordy doggerel, but translators have to be optimists even if they cannot be perfectionists.
One editorial quibble. Akhmatova was a perfectionist. Much of the new material in Hemschemeyer's volume consists of draft fragments. Akhmatova is misrepresented if her deliberately finished poems are merged with her provisionally jotted verses, just as in Meyer's volume drafts mingle with complete pieces under the single label of "prose". Wherever possible, the distinctions should be more clearly signalled.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5083
SOURCE: "Axmatova's Civic Poem 'Stansy' and Its Pushkinian Antecedent," in Slavic and East European Journal, Vol. 37, No. 2, Summer, 1993, pp. 194-210.
[In the following essay, Ketchian traces many of the devices and allusions in Akhmatova's poem "Stansy" to Pushkin.]
The purpose of this paper is to analyze Axmatova's poem "Stansy" ("Stances"), first in terms of its obvious Pushkinian predecessor and then in terms of its structure and content. A look into the genre and the distinguishing specifics for each of the two poems involved will precede the discussion of Axmatova's "Stansy." It will be followed by an examination of the poem's evolution through textual variants as it bears on the present discussion. In spite of the obviously close thematic connection between Axmatova's Requiem 1935–1940 and her cycle "Cerepki" ("Shards"), that comparison must be relegated to a future investigation.
"Stansy" (stances or stanzas) is a challenging genre, or subgenre, of poetry to define and classify. In French literature stances were usually four-line strophes with unrepeated rhymes and an obligatory pause at the end of the fourth line. The genre's slight role in English literature can be judged by the fleeting mention given to it in the English-language encyclopedias. A case in point is The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, which states in the last paragraph of the entry on Stanza:
The term "s." is sometimes applied to independent poems of complex metrical pattern, such as the ballade, the sestina, and the sonnet (q.q.v.). Synonymous or analogous terms include the early English batch and stave (q.v.).
All this is of no help for the task at hand. Nor is The Poetic Dictionary by A. Kvjatkovskij (Poeticeskij slovar') more enlightening.
The most applicable entry is by Mixail L. Gasparov in Kratkaja literaturnaja ènciklopedija (Concise Literary Encyclopedia), where he posits the following characteristics for the Russian version of "stansy":
Once stances entered Russian poetry, of the enumerated features only those of genre remained: in Russian poetry of the end of the eighteenth century and the beginning of the nineteenth, the term stances was applied to works of elegiac lyrics (most often meditative, less frequently, love lyrics), usually composed in quatrains, most often in iambic tetrameter. The most famous is Pushkin's "Stansy" ("In the hope of glory and good …"). By the second half of the nineteenth century with the gradual disappearance of distinctions between the lyrical genres, the term "stances" was no longer used.
Reference is made here to the most famous piece in the genre, Puskin's "Stansy" ("V nadezde slavy i dobra"), which is one of three pieces to bear the Russian version of this word in the title (a fourth uses the French "Stances"). The pieces by Puskin include one of the first poems written by Puskin in the Lycée, the French-language "Stances" (1814) in five quatrains on the topic of "seize the moment" ("lovi mgnoven'e"); "Stances. From Voltaire" ("Stansy (Iz Vol'tera)") in nine quatrains on love ending early and logic taking its place; "Stances to Tolstoj" ("Stansy Tolstomu") in six quatrains on "lovi mgnoven'e"; and the one under investigation, "Stansy" ("V nadezde slavy i dobra"), the only Russian one with no explanation in its title. In this poem Puskin probably avoided explanation by giving it a title that in his verse was linked to light moments; his objective was ostensibly to veil its important reflective allusions. The famous poem "Brozu li ia vdol' ulic sumnyx" is called "Stansy" in Vremennik Puskinskoj komissii. Sbornik naucnyx trudov.
Although Gasparov states that use of the genre by Russian poets waned noticeably ("vyxodit iz upotreblenija") in the second half of the nineteenth century, yet Esenin, Annenskij, Severjanin, Sologub, Bal'mont, Gumilev and Mandel'stam have such pieces. Their "Stances," however, display few similarities to the two under investigation. What is more, Axmatova's "Stances," by being an obvious reflection of Puskin's, quietly refers to the general tenor of the master's poem, a fact that allows Axmatova to concentrate much into fewer lines. In many ways, moreover, Axmatova's poem constitutes a contemporary compressed echo of Puskin's text in terms of content and idea.
Puskin's poem titled "Stansy," which opens with "V nadezde slavy i dobra," is the only one of the four poems relevant to the present comparison. This poem seems initially to have been created in Pskov in 1826 and completed upon the poet's release from exile the same year. His objective was to ameliorate the plight of the exiled Decembrists by drawing—with formidable artistic imagination—public and official attention to their treatment, by attempting to soften the attitudes of officials toward them, and, not least, by raising the spirits of the exiles. Moreover, in choosing this named genre with its inherent meditative qualities, Puskin brought to the fore his esthetic deliberations on the role of the aristocracy, on the powers entrusted to an autocrat, as well as on past and present, juxtaposing the new ruler with a great predecessor. Indeed, "the poeticized event is not just different from real experience but also more durable, and perhaps more valuable, as well." His [translated] poem reads:
In the hope of glory and good
I gaze ahead without fear:
The beginning of Peter's glorious days
Was marred by rebellions and executions.
But with truth he captivated hearts,
But with learning he tamed customs,
And from the rebellious Strelets
Before him Dolgorukij was distinguished.
With his autocratic hand
He boldly sowed enlightenment,
He did not scorn his native land:
He was aware of its destiny.
Now an academician, now a hero,
Now a navigator, now a carpenter,
He with his all-encompassing soul
On the throne was an eternal worker.
Take pride in the family resemblance;
In all be like your forebear:
Like him, indefatigable and firm,
And in memory, like him, forgiving.
The history and concept of this poem are treated extensively in D. D. Blagoj's study Tvorceskij put' Puskina: 1826–1830. An appeal to the newly enthroned Nicholas I, who in 1826 recalled Puskin from exile in Mixajlovskoe, it illumines the poet's conciliatory expectations and hope for the Decembrists' return under Nicholas' new rule. Puskin's esthetic embodiment of his wish and plan for the return of the Decembrists from Siberia was, regrettably, perceived by his circle more as a form of flattery and a retreat from his convictions. Hence his subsequent reply in verse in 1828, "Druz'jam" ("To My Friends"). Because Nicholas ostensibly fashioned himself after Peter I, Puskin (mostly in anticipation and hope) appears to have portrayed him as striving for the same objectives—a means of appeasing and guiding the tsar in the desired direction. While Puskin's speaker's respect for the tsar sounds rather genuine, Axmatova's attempted praise in the abhorred fifteen-poem cycle of 1950, "Slava miru" ("Glory to Peace"), sounds wooden and untypical of her poetry, almost as if the most recent recipient of the Stalin Prize had penned them. Thus, her frantic desire to secure the release from prison of her son Lev Gumilev (1912–1992), who after fighting valiantly in World War Two was arrested for the third time in 1949, was not translated into true art.
To be sure, literary aggrandizement of Peter has a long history. It was practiced in the West by Voltaire in his historical work Histoire de l'empire de Russie sous Pierre le Grand, as well as by most eighteenth-century Russian writers, including Feofan Prokopovic in "Sermon on the Interment of the Most Illustrious, Most Sovereign Peter the Great," Antiox Kantemir in his unfinished heroic epic "Petrida," Mixail Lomonosov in odes and especially in "Slovo poxval'noe Petru Velikomu" ("Eulogy on Peter the Great") and in the two cantos of the heroic epic "Petr Velikij" ("Peter the Great"; twenty-four cantos were planned), as well as by Gavriil Derzavin. A cursory reading of Puskin's "Zametki po russkoj istorii XVIII veka" ("Notes on Eighteenth Century Russian History") suggests admiration for Peter the Great as a great political and historical figure, but Sam Driver notes that "a close reading shows that in fact the poet equates the emperor with tyranny and inhuman despotism" and, what is more, Puskin was concerned about the welfare of the serfs and the nobility alike. Unlike Aleksandr Griboedov, Puskin disapproved of unlimited autocracy, even for Peter, hence the ambiguous depiction of the emperor in The Bronze Horseman and elsewhere. Puskin's "Stances," contends Blagoj, is a terse introduction to subsequent works by him connected with the theme of Peter, namely Arap Petra Velikogo (The Blackamoor of Peter the Great), Poltava, and Mednyi vsadnik (The Bronze Horseman). The example of merciful Peter the Pardoner was grounded in certain facts, among them his pardon of Prince Jakov Dolgorukij's audacities, which was sung by Derzavin in his ode "Vel'moza" ("The Grandee") and by Kondratij Ryleev (one of the executed Decembrists) in the poem "Grazdanskoe muzestvo" ("Civic Valor"). In contrast to the excerpt in "Notes on Eighteenth Century Russian History," Puskin in "Stances" mostly underscores Peter's positive traits and achievements, albeit a discordant note resounds in the mention of the Streltsy. Puskin's poetic speaker in "Stances," present through the personal pronoun in line two, fades out thereafter, which lends, as it were, a collective character to the plea. Acknowledging in stanza one the rebellions and executions at the onset of Peter's reign, Puskin then proceeds to highlight the Emperor's positive accomplishments which, to his mind, should be duplicated by Nicholas I, a bold implication for one only recently, and only tenuously, restored to favor. In stanza two the speaker points to a reconciliation between Peter and his subjects.
Stanzas three and four characterize Peter as the highest example of "tsar'-prosvetitel'" (an enlightened monarch)—much in the manner of Lomonosov in the two completed cantos of the epic "Peter the Great" and in his "Eulogy on Peter the Great." Blagoj notes parallels and analogies to virtually every word in Lomonosov—the leitmotif being the glorification of the "sage Teacher and Educator." Lexical echoes can also be observed, particularly in stanza four. Following Lomonosov's lead, Puskin further democratizes Peter. In doing so, his portrait comes close to that of a muzhik through descriptions of the emperor as "plotnik" (Lomonosov, in accordance with his own precepts of distinguishing three styles for appropriate topics, employs the higher-style word "stroitel" in the verse and the prosaic "plotnik" in his prose only) and "rabotnik" (Derzavin used this for the first time) in rhymed position for emphasis. Further, Puskin chooses the versatile word "sejal," which for all its lofty usage recalls also the practical meaning of a peasant sowing seeds in a field. Representing Peter as a reformer. Puskin calls on Nicholas for similar "mercy toward the fallen" ("milost' k padsim")—a plea that will be repeated in various forms to the end of his life. Yet Puskin refrains from spelling out his request in view of its being obvious to all concerned. In this poem Puskin remains hopeful of the realization of his objectives, a fact corroborated by what Blagoj terms "mazornyj jambiceskij stroj, kak u Lomonosova" ("an optimistic iambic arrangement like Lomonosov's"). Puskin's poem "Poslanie v Sibir'" ("Missive to Siberia"; beginning "Vo glubine sibirskix rud" ["In the bowels of Siberian mines"]) was commenced only a few days after the completion of "Stances" which, in turn, was written only nine days after "Poslanie k I. I. Puscinu" ("Epistle to I. I. Puscin"). Both "Missive to Siberia" and "Stances" were written in the same iambic tetrameter with alternate rhymes and the masculine rhymes placed first, in the odd lines. Indeed, all of Puskin's political lyrics of the second half of the 1820s will assume this form, with lexical echoing among the poems.
In following Puskin's lead for her poem's title, Axmatova alerts the reader to intertextuality without the overt imitation typical of a poem containing the word "imitation" in either the title or subtitle. Yet the indications of intertextuality are closer to the surface, and more easily recognized, than in cases where reference to subtexts does not exist. Axmatova's poem obviously takes Puskin's famous "Stances" as a touchstone and a point of reference, while placing it in her own tradition of balladic poems as well. I furnish here the Kralin-Axverdjan version of the [translated] poem as the one I find to be closest, at this level in scholarship, to Axmatova's finished version. Between lines, in fine print, are variant words and phrases from the other versions.
Moon of the Streltsy. Zamoskvorechye. Night.
Like the procession at Calvary pass the hours of Holy Week.
I am having a terrible nightmare. Can it really be that
No one, no one, no one can help me?
"It's not possible to live in the Kremlin,"
The Preobrazhensky trooper is right,
There the microbes of ancient atrocities still teem:
Boris's wild fear, the malice of all the Ivans,
And the Pretender's arrogance—instead of the people's rights.
1940, April. Moscow
Axmatova employs Puskin's device of juxtaposing the present ruler with Peter, leaving out the specifics. In her poem the dichotomy is based upon two points of division between the oppressors and the oppressed. First, the Moscow River separates the speaker in Zamoskvorec'e geographically from the other, ruling bank of the Kremlin—"tam." Historically, Zamoskvorec'e was the Streltsy Quarter of Moscow. The speaker seems to unite with the trampled people at the very end and together to stand in opposition to the tyrants. (Puskin attempts to bring Peter closer to the people lexically through "plotnik.") Second, the unmentioned but intimated victims of Stalin are equated to Peter's victims, the Streltsy, who enter the poem by means of the epithet attached to the moon. Allusion to Christ's Passion (and to Requiem) is achieved through "krestnyj xod" and "Strastnaja nedelja." This dimension adds a third element to the comparison, which then counterbalances the three names of tsars and, consequently, the three types of reign that Peter sought to escape. Here, as in her essays on Puskin, Axmatova explains herself through her investigation of his biography and works. She then creates a tacit portrait of Stalin through a montage of his predecessors in the Kremlin using some of Puskin's words, as will be pointed out below. And her speaker's plea for help is rather muted, where her fear is not.
That the portrait is readily recognizable became clear to the poet through Lidija Cukovskaja's reaction to the poem. The incident is recorded by Cukovskaja in her memoirs, Zapiski ob Anne Axmatovoj (Notes on Anna Axmatova), where she notes that Axmatova wanted to include this piece in a collection she was preparing for publication in June of 1956. Together the friends deleted it, however, for fear the portrait of Stalin was too obvious:
Anna Axmatova very much wanted to offer [for publication—S. K.] "Stances." I, obviously, also wanted to … At first all is quiet, elegiac, pensive, and then suddenly in moving to the second quatrain, a blow of violent force. I'm wrong: not "in moving" but without any transition whatsoever, like the lash of a whip: "One mustn't live in the Kremlin."
And in the last two lines—a complete and accurate portrait of Stalin:
Boris's wild fear and the malice of all the Ivans
And the Pretender's arrogance instead of the people's rights.
"What do you think, will everyone guess that it is his portrait or have you alone guessed it?" asked Anna Andreevna.
"I think, everyone will."
"In that case, we won't include it," decided Anna Andreevna.
"Only Khrushchev is allowed to assail Stalin."
In a footnote on this page Cukovskaja says: "I quote this poem not in the variant in which it was published in the collection In Memory of Anna Axmatova but in the one Axmatova intended to include in The Course of Time, no. 61." Strangely, the version is identical to the one in Pamjati Anny Axmatovoj with the substitution of "zverstva drevnego" for "drevnej jarosti" in Pamjati. Lidija Cukovskaja must have forgotten that she had access to more than one version, for in the summer of 1990 she was incredulous when I pointed out the discrepancies between the two versions she had published. She began reciting the poem by heart as in Zapiski, and I pointed out on my sheet with four versions how the other one varied. Because the piece was not published in Axmatova's lifetime, all the several existing versions compete for recognition as final and authoritative. The variant favored by Axmatova, in all likelihood, is the one published by M. Kralin and G. R. Axverdjan alike, quoted above, with the exception of the former's division of lines. The vocabulary is closer to the time of the Ivans, and the punctuation, with the quotation marks in line five, is preferable to that of the other variants. The division of what should be line five into two separate lines—into lines five and six—as opposed to all other variants, is less likely as Axmatova's final version, since to this reader the division not only disrupts the poem's structural unity with Puskin but also the more frequent stanzaic organization into quatrains for Russian poems titled "Stances." Thus, Cukovskaja's entry of June 1, 1956, shows that both Cukovskaja and Axmatova wanted to include "Stances" in the collection under preparation.
The two "Stances," iambic in meter and structured in quatrains, differ, however, in other formal aspects. Puskin's five quatrains are composed in a neutral, rather light and optimistic-sounding iambic tetrameter (his other two Russian "Stances" are likewise in iambic tetrameter) with alternating masculine and feminine rhymes, closing on the feminine rhymes. This pattern of rhymes, ending with feminine rhymes, softens the poem's manner and conveys to the reader the hope that informs the comparisons and didacticisms. Whether the hope is actual, feigned, or reserved is debatable. Puskin further commends Peter's ability to distinguish between the violent and unruly Streltsy ("bujnyj strelec") of 1698 and the aristocratic dissident Prince Jakov Dolgorukij. The peroration enforces Puskin's mounting unformulated appeal—a pardon for the aristocratic Decembrists, and, if the poem was commenced in Pskov, for the poet himself as well.
Axmatova's two quatrains of weighty and dignified iambic hexameter with enclosing rhymes—less common in Russian verse than rhyming couplets or alternate rhymes—begin and end with forceful, choppy masculine rhymes. While Axmatova obviously aligns her aristocratic son Lev Gumilev with Prince Dolgorukij, who was pardoned by the Emperor, her fear of execution for her son and for others translates Puskin's "bujnyj strelec" into "streleckaja luna," i.e., a moon overlooking nightmarish deaths, which further conflates with the yellow moon in Requiem and Innokentij Annenskij's frightening yellow moon. Depending on which of the published versions is taken as Axmatova's choice for a final version (Puskin has negligible variations in the Jubilee Edition), the poem appears to have a dual focus—an unspecified, fairly obvious poetic speaker who appears as the twice-repeated personal pronoun "mne" in stanza one, and the vague but recognizable image of Stalin, cleverly montaged from mention of the names and traits of previous occupants of the Kremlin. The fact that Peter moved out of the Kremlin attests, in the speaker's understanding, to his determination to break with the atrocities of the past. In the context of Puskin's poem. Axmatova's metonymical mention of Peter as Preobrazenec (it was the Preobrazenskij Regiment he belonged to) distances Peter's reign, which ultimately had positive results, from Stalin's mass Terror. Peter's necessary harshness for the country's eventual good is thus contrasted to Stalin's unwarranted atrocities. The speaker seems to be urging the current occupant to leave the Kremlin and to follow Peter's lead.
Axmatova's "Stances," published in four different Western imprints until 1989, after which it was included in Soviet collections of Axmatova's works, has five major variants, including the two noted by Cukovskaja. The van der Eng-Liedmeier version seems to be an earlier draft. It even lacks the title and year common to all other versions. The version in Cukovskaja's Zapiski and those of Kralin and Axverdjan are nearly identical, save for punctuation marks and some vocabulary distinctions: in line six "zdes'" "—"tam","Ivanov" and the added "i" ("and") for the rhythm as well as for historic color in line seven—"Ioannov," in line five "ne nado"—"ne mozno" and more information on the venue of creation (Moscow) and the time (April, which makes Strastnaja nedelja relevant to the time of writing) in Kralin and Axverdjan. I believe that the Kralin and Axverdjan version is the favored one, but that Axmatova wanted to present the Cukovskaja version, as slightly more innocuous, for publication.
Both poems have an equally interesting structure. Puskin's "Stansy" is built on a concept of two's, a structure that can covey a sense of rhetorical balance so long as Nicholas decides to be similar to Peter. Semantically juxtaposed are the two tsars; the poet and the Decembrists; the Strelets and the aristocrat Dolgorukij coupled with the aristocratic poetic speaker. The obvious morphological symmetry in lines one, four, thirteen, fourteen, and eighteen constitutes nothing out of the ordinary: "Slavy i dobra; mjatezi i kazni; akademik—geroj; moreplavatel'—plotnik neutomim i tverd." In proximity, however, to other expressions of doubling the structural symmetry, too, becomes apparent. Anaphorical pairings lend syntactic balance for both contrast and/or juxtaposition as needed. The correspondences are: V—Vo (lines 1, 18); No—No (lines 5, 6); I—I (lines 7, 20); To—To (lines 13, 14); On—On (lines 10, 12). Also similar are: Pred nim—Kak on (lines 8, 19; as being connected with a personal pronoun in the third person which refers to Peter); Nacalo—Na trone (lines 3, 16; not only due to similarity of the two initial sounds but because of contrast/juxtaposition in meaning within the context, since both "Nacalo slavnyx dnej" and "Na trone" refer to Peter's reign). Lines 2 and 4 begin with verbs: Gljazu—Mracili. Further, lines 9 and 17 open with adjectives referring to the royal family: Samoderzavnym—Semejnym. Finally, the third "on" pairs with an implied one: On—[On] Ne preziral (lines 11, 15). Puskin utilizes both sound instrumentation (as will be seen) and structure (morphology and syntax) to further augment his verbal art and to amplify the juxtaposition.
The structure of Axmatova's poem hinges on the pattern of balladic poems, which it follows, hence a sizable collection of epithets: seven in eight lines. In contrast to the traditional ballad, however, all verbs in the poem are in the present tense. The predominance of symbolism based on the number three touches several areas, unusual for the traditional ballad but in keeping with the symbolism of three for the balladic poem, as seen in the three nominative sentences in the very first lines. They provide the time of day twice (the moon, night), the venue (to be contrasted to the Kremlin—it is probably the home of Axmatova's close friend Nina Ol'sevskaja, located in Zamoskvorec'e) and the historical allusion: "Streleckaja luna. Zamoskvorec'e. Noc'." The visual impression of the locus is that of a film frame. In rhythm, sound, and meaning the words simulate the fear of the speaker's pounding heart, further enhanced in the difficult, slow movement of the clock's "krestnyj xod," or rather of the hours of "Strastnaja nedelja." The earlier, van der Eng-Liedmier version stressed ephemeral movement with less of the fear component: "kak legkij dym" ("like light smoke").
The speaker of the poem is difficult to determine. In all likelihood the poem begins with the poet-persona and then changes into the thoughts of the Kremlin despot as reflected through the speaker's mind in her dream (in the version with "zdes" in line six). Ostensibly, in the version with "tam" in line six, the speaker does not change. If the speaker is synchronic to the poet Axmatova and not living in the past, then the word "tam" of the dream could have transposed her not only to the Kremlin but to the past with a view of the future. The speaker, then, is having a nightmare and in a query with a tripartite reiterative subject she answers her own question through negated emphasis: "Neuzto v samom dele / Nikto, nikto, nikto ne mozet mne pomoc'?" Expecting the worst, the speaker opens the poem with a Streltsy moon as a symbol of torture and death, even when those Streltsy who remained loyal to Peter were exiled to Siberia and their entire property was confiscated. If Peter showed no mercy to the Streltsy, he did, however, pardon the aristocratic Prince Dolgorukij. Conversely, in the years of Stalinist Terror not even a glimmer of hope existed for the aristocratic Gumilev whose persecution was predicated mainly on the fact of his father's execution in 1921.
A jarring prosaism—a distant echo of Puskin's prosaisms—commences the montage of Stalin: "mikroby." The versions with "zverstva" rather than "jarosti drevnej" in line six fit in better here. Where Puskin piles up the various professions Peter engaged in while in Western Europe, Axmatova garners negative characteristics, one for each of the three different namesakes, Boris, Ioann, Samozvanec, to depict one unnamed person, thereby providing a portrait without a portrait, or a metonymical one. Those psychological microbes all begin with sibilants, which create a hissing congregation with other supporting words: for Puskin's "ja bez bojazni"—"strax," for his "nezloben"—"zloby," for Peter working as a common laborer—"spes'." Here Axmatova transfers Puskin's vocabulary to the negative semantic field. These words in Axmatova thus pick up the two "s's" in the poem's title and those in the name Iosif Vissarionovich Stalin. Indeed, in what I consider the ultimate version—"vsex Ioannov zloby"—the older form of the tsars' name begins with two of the same sounds as Iosif, and Axmatova could have changed it for publication from Ioannov to Ivanov in the version presented by Cukovskaja for purposes of camouflage. Moreover, the title "Stansy" contains the first three sounds of Stalin's surname and the opening word repeats the first two sounds: "Streleckaja." More repetition of these sounds comes later: "Strastnoj", "strasnyj." with a proliferation of hissing "s's" and "z's: "snitsja, strasnyj son." Also the word Samozvanec begins with an "s" and contains a "z." Through masterful alliteration Axmatova presents a veritable viper's nest in the Kremlin, which reverberates with hissing and the snake image in the Pretender's lines on Marinea Mnisek in Puskin's Boris Godunov. In "Stances" Puskin has a delicate network of alliterative "p" sounds for reinforcing Peter's name in Nicholas' mind. Indeed, all the words containing the "p" sound have, or are used in, a positive sense: "vpered, pravdoj, privlek, pred nim, prosvescen'e, ne preziral, prednaznacen'e, moreplavatel', plotnik, prascuru podoben, pamjat'ju." The impact of the alliterated "p" in augmenting Peter's positive image through sound instrumentation is quite effective here. Still, quietly undercutting the overtly glorified image of Peter are the sibilants that Axmatova likewise probably sensed before utilizing them to such advantage in her own poem. In Puskin the sibilants, already signalled in the title, lead from glory and fearlessness and sowing enlightenment to executions, Streltsy, and autocrats, seeming to bind together inextricably the autocrat, country and the Streltsy: samoderzavec, strana, strel'cy, etc. Stanza three has the highest concentration of sibilants (in seven words) with stanzas one and five close behind (five words each).
The only person who can help Axmatova's speaker is the occupant of the Kremlin, but whereas in her poem "Podrazanie armjanskomu" ("Imitation from the Armenian") the ewe's devoured son is beyond help and the mother merely faces the tyrant fearlessly, here, to the speaker's question whether it is true that no one can help her, the focus zooms in on the current man in the Kremlin. Where in real life Axmatova made a desperate appeal to Stalin for her son's life, the poetic speaker's desire for help in "Stances" remains an unarticulated wishful attitude shown through the change of focus to the Kremlin.
As in a film, one can visualize the speaker's longing eyes conveying the message. Moreover, there could be here an implied reference through the historical flashback to former occupants of the Kremlin, notably to Stalin's immediate predecessor, Lenin, who in 1921 had Axmatova's first husband, the poet Nikolaj Gumilev (1886–1921), shot, and an indication that she in fact expects no aid now. With mention of "Preobrazenec" Axmatova posits as the instructive ideal Peter I, who in 1703 founded St. Petersburg so as to be able to live away from the Kremlin. By mentioning Peter only metonymically, Axmatova achieves distance and alienation between Peter and the unmentioned and tabooed, as it were, Stalin to show that Peter's "necessary" harshness is not equivalent to Stalin's countless atrocities. Yet some ambivalence may be present here if one considers the fact that most of the tortures and executions of the Streltsy were carried out at Preobrazensk, with Peter present at times. In fact, Puskin's Boris Godunov shows an unnamed terror perpetrated by Boris Godunov and that he "interrogated" some victims personally. That the poem is connected to Requiem is seen in mention of the Streltsy and the implied victims, her son in particular ("I will howl under the Kremlin towers / Like the Streltsy wives"—"Budu ja, kak streleckie zenki, / Pod Kremlevskimi basnjami vyt'"), as well as the image of the moon (Ketchian, "Moon"). The biblical "Strastnaja nedelja" further corroborates links with Requiem, but also hints at the torturing of the Streltsy. Only the inhabitant of the Kremlin can put an end to the terror, a tacit echoing without explicit words of Puskin's own plea. But Stalin remained deaf to these appeals and he lacked the qualities that Puskin sought to bring forth in Nicholas.
A final link to Stalin can be traced through the fact that Axmatova's "Streleckaja luna" literally denotes the Sagittarius moon of the Archer and a southern constellation visible in late spring (Axmatova's poem is dated April) and summer. It is the ninth sign of the zodiac which the sun enters on November 22 through December 21. In astrology it carries ominous meaning. The question arises as to what Sagittarius moon can exist in April and in the North in Moscow, Again, Axmatova is coding information. It will be recalled that the last day of this sign is December 21 (Capricorn the goat begins on December 22) and Stalin was born on December 21 (new style) in Georgia (construed as the South in Russia), where the constellation is best visible. Thus Axmatova's brilliant, kaleidoscopic image of the Streltsy further intertwines with that' of Stalin.
To sum up, it can be noted that, following Puskin's lead, Axmatova expressed artistically, utilizing literary tradition and historical facts as reflected by him, that which was otherwise denied expression in those difficult times—and she moved in her own new direction. Toward this end, she used to advantage devices found in Puskin: allusions, rhetorical devices, structural balance and meaningful sound instrumentation. And in the best tradition of the Russian esthetic imagination she, like Puskin, drew her inspiration from Russia's troubled past and present.
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SOURCE: A review of My Half Century: Selected Prose, in World Literature Today, Vol. 67, No. 3, Summer, 1993, pp. 628-29.
[In the following review, Lamonte discusses the ghosts that haunt the pages of Akhmatova's My Half Century.]
In his preface to My Half Century, a splendid selection of the translated prose writings of Anna Akhmatova, Ronald Meyer, the editor of the volume, explains that the author never conceived of composing a chronicle of her life and times. Although, as Meyer points out, it is futile to imagine what the completed work might have been, a model could perhaps be sought in Pasternak and Mandelstam's "autobiographical fragments," as Safe Conduct and The Noise of Time were defined by their creators. In fact, this form of autobiography is characteristic of the postmodern esthetic, and even of "high modernism." For example, all of Ionesco's published diaries assume this loose, highly suggestive structure (Notes and Counter Notes: Writings on the Theatre, Fragments of a Journal, Present Past Past Present, Un homme en question, Antidotes, La quête intermittente). We no longer look for linearity in these accounts, but rather for revealing, allusive, if not elusive traces.
Since Akhmatova did not prepare a final version for publication, Meyer provides his own concise, helpful biographical sketch, in which he includes her in "the magnificent quartet of Russian poets" who were destroyed by the brutally repressive Soviet regime. Osip Mandelstam died on the way to a labor camp, Tsvetaeva hanged herself, and Pasternak was hounded into an early grave after the publication in Italy of Doctor Zhivago (1957) and his subsequent selection as the winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature (1958). As to Akhmatova, she was silenced by the August 1946 condemnation of the Central Committee (rescinded only in 1988). This list of victims is also the honor roll of the greatest and purest poetic voices of post-czarist Russia.
My Half Century begins with "Pages from a Diary." Born in Odessa in June 1889, the velichavaia (stately, regal) poet glories in the fact that her birth came in "the same year as Charlie Chaplin, Tolstoy's Kreutzer Sonata, and the Eiffel Tower." There is humor in this rapprochement between a modern monument, a literary masterpiece, and the greatest clown of our age. This, however, is followed by a reminder that, through her mother, she is a descendant of Genghis Khan. She grew up in Tsarskoe Selo, the czar's summer residence outside St. Petersburg, renamed Pushkin in 1937 in honor of its most illustrious resident. As Meyer declares, "the place held a special importance in her psychological geography." In her own journal the poet evokes the house they occupied, near the station, and which had been in the past a wayside inn. As a child, Akhmatova perused the dwelling's various aspects as she peeled off, layer by layer, the wallpaper in her yellow room until she reached "an unusually bright red." The room becomes a kind of palimpsest. Tsarskoe and nearby Pavlovsk were haunted by history and literature. The poet mentions "the specter of Nastasya Filippovna," the magnificent femme fatale of Dostoevsky's novel The Idiot. Looking at the photo in the book, one is struck by the resemblance between these women; Akhmatova could easily have acted the part of Nastasya Filippovna in one of the dramatizations of the novel.
Many ghosts haunt these pages: Nikolai Gumilev (1886–1921), Akhmatova's first husband, whom she met while he was still a student at the Tsarskoe Selo lycée; the symbolist poet Alexander Blok, whose portrait she sketches here; Amadeo Modigliani, who made sixteen drawings of her in Paris for her room in Tsarskoe (they vanished during the first years of the revolution); Osip Mandelstam, who described her in a poem as "a black angel"; Innokenty Annensky, considered by Akhmatova as the master of Gumilev, Mayakovsky, and Pasternak; Marina Tsvetaeva, who took her life in 1941. Akhmatova ponders: "It is frightening to think how Marina would have described these meetings … if she had remained alive and I had died on August 31, 1941." When she wrote these lines in 1959, Akhmatova must have felt that she had become the ghost of herself.
The ultimate ghost and teacher is Pushkin, the emblematic poet with whom Akhmatova identifies. She emulated his subtextual way of denouncing the autocratic czars. As Meyer states: "Writing in the 1930s, one of the bleakest decades in Russian history, Akhmatova is the first to identify the source of Pushkin's tale ['The Golden Cockerel'] as Washington Irving 'The Legend of the Arabian Astrologer.' Akhmatova, however, proceeds to interpret Pushkin's use of Irving's tale as a device for political satire, marshaling formidable evidence to prove that the fairy-tale Tsar is based on Nicholas I." She identifies with her predecessor when she speaks of the neglect and disdain he had to suffer. Still, she says, his haughty, stupid contemporaries are now forgotten, recorded by history only as people who somehow came into Pushkin's presence, however marginally. He stands at the center of his century. "People say: the Pushkin era, Pushkin's Petersburg…. In the palace halls where they danced and gossiped about the poet, his portraits now hang and his books are on view, while their pale shadows have been banished from there forever."
The essays, vignettes, and letters gathered in My Half Century reveal that Akhmatova grew increasingly fascinated with the genre of the memoir. She developed on her own a Proustian attitude toward memory, believing, as he did, that "the human memory works like a projector, illuminating individual moments, while leaving the rest in impenetrable darkness." This is not so different from Proust's privileging of involuntary memory over voluntary remembrance. Some small detail will suddenly recall the whole, re-creating a moment in the past or the essence of a human being. Also like Proust, she realized that the state of childhood is infinitely rich. As an adult one must therefore peel off the layers, just as Akhmatova peeled the wallpaper of her room in Tsarskoe Selo. One must concentrate on recalling a scent, a color, a sensation, a note of music. It is then that something begins to sing inside of one: a poem, a prose sketch, even an intellectual discovery.
From her work on Pushkin we realize that Akhmatova could have been an extraordinary scholar, but fortunately she was not only that. She was a passionate person, and so all she did was infused with feeling. She was luminous because, in her, intelligence went with kindness and kindness with intelligence. Without the combination of the two, each part is unusable. Akhmatova made herself wholly usable, even when a stupid, cruel regime tried to toss her onto the gar-bage heap. Like Pushkin's contemporaries, the tyrants will be remembered because they lived in the Akhmatova era.
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SOURCE: A review of The Complete Poems of Anna Akhmatova, in Slavic Review, Vol. 52, No. 3, Fall, 1993, pp. 642-43.
[In the following review, Ketchian praises that The Complete Poems of Anna Akhmatova is an important resource for lovers of Russian poetry, but complains that further editions need better editing to correct mistakes in translation.]
Judith Hemschemeyer's handsome two-volume verse translation of Anna Akhmatova's poetry with parallel Russian texts and a substantial biographical introduction, "Masks and Mirrors" by Roberta Reeder, was a milestone in 1990 for English-speaking enthusiasts of Russian literature and for admirers of Akhmatova in particular. It drew on the texts and notes of Anna Akhmatova, Stikhotvoreniia i poemy (1976) and also A. Akhmatova, Sochineniia (Vols. 1-2. 2nd ed., 1967–1968; vol. 3, 1983). Although the first edition was labeled as complete, it is only this new expanded edition that comes closer to being complete by adding some seventy new poems, mainly from the edition, Anna Akhmatova, Sochineniia v dvukh tomakh (1990). A fair number of decisions about texts, some arguable, have been influenced by this new imprint.
By omitting the Russian texts, this volume focuses on serving the English-speaking literary community. An indispensable link to the Russian poems is the "Index to Poems by Source"; the "Index of First Lines" includes titles of poems as well. Judith Hemschemeyer's preface is a reworked version of her previous preface, which begins with facts about Akhmatova, discusses the works and continues with the process of translating the present volume. Her careful explanation there of amphibrachs would lead a reader to believe that the book is geared toward high school students or persons with no preparation in poetry. The introduction by Anatolii Naiman is excellent as is the memoir by Sir Isaiah Berlin; the latter, however, veers the volume toward a miscellany; the chronology of Akhmatova's life from the first edition would have been more useful to the book's audience. The index of proper names has been modified to this edition without removing the telling words "covers both volumes." The brief bibliography has several extraneous listings, such as the out-of-print Life of Mayakovsky by Wiktor Worosylski but not the ground-breaking, out-of-print Anna Akhmatova by Sam Driver.
Over one hundred pages of pictures, some rare, and facsimiles of original title pages, some using Reeder's verbal biography as long captions, overwhelm the intended reader of the poetry but are of interest to scholars and Akhmatova specialists. In fact, no other imprint, even Anna Akhmatova, Stikhi, perepiska, vospominaniia, ikonografiia (1977), contains so many pictures, some of which run counter to Akhmatova's practice of controlled moderation—pictures only of trees, a trial of workers, a prison camp, Tashkent, the title page of Annenskii's Cypress Chest.
Hemschemeyer's verse translations of the poems, written in collaboration with a bevy of persons providing literal translations, generally keep close to the originals semantically and syntactically. There are a number of excellent renditions ("Rachel," "The visit at night," "Under an oaken slab in the churchyard") and felicitous choices of words ("tawny hand"; "benighted"; "Sweet-smelling April spills"). For anyone conversant with Russian, a major drawback is the general lack of "physical" correspondence between the poems, which the translator addresses in her preface. While the reader missing the aesthetic impact of Akhmatova's meticulously chosen, sophisticated rhymes attributes their absence to current English verse practice, the abrupt departure from Akhmatova's superb rhythm is unsettling. For example, where Akhmatova presents delicately crafted trochaic lines of seven syllables in the poem "V kazhdykh sutkakh est' takoi," the English version "In every twenty-four hours there is one" offers highly uneven lines ranging from three to eleven syllables.
Moreover, the verse translations are marred by a number of errors. In addressing a sampling of these semantic inaccuracies, I allow for poetic license and minor inaccuracies. Errors occur when the translator confuses the short form adjective, used only predicatively in modern Russian, with the long form. The failure to distinguish between homonymic oblique cases of words leads to several instances of rhythmically correct "raven" (and in one case the unambiguous genitive plural form "voronov") being mistaken for "crow." In "Veet veter lebedinyi" ("The wind of swans is blowing") "chary" is not "goblets," in "Molius' okonnomu luchu" ("I pray to the sunbeam from the window") "khramina" is not a "temple," in "Tot avgust, kak zheltoe plamia" ("That August was like a yellow flame") "smotr" is not a "vista," and in "Otvet" ("The Reply") "Strastnaia nedelia" is Passion Week as indicated by the stress. Finally, in "Novogodniaia ballada" ("New Year's ballad") the entire tenor of the poem changes if the host is not dead; in fact, the first tacit ban on Akhmatova's work may not have occurred in 1925 if this were the case. For this volume's readership "Piter" in "Zdravstvui, Piter! Plokho, staryi" ("Hello, Peter. It's bad, old boy") requires annotation as St. Petersburg. Regretfully, this expanded edition, with few exceptions, has made almost no effort to correct mistakes in translation. A careful editing of this useful publication will long render it a dependable staple for lovers of Russian poetry and for scholars with little or no Russian.
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SOURCE: "Anna Akhmatova," in New Criterion, Vol. 12, No. 9, May, 1994, pp. 29-39.
[In the following essay, Simon analyzes what Lydia Chukovskaya's The Akhmatova Journals reveal about Anna Akhmatova, and he also points out what the book is lacking, including better footnotes and better translations of the poet's work.]
"Poetry is what gets lost in translation," observed Robert Frost, and was only partly right. The thrust and sweep of epic poetry translates well enough: there is no dearth of decent translations of Homer, Virgil, Dante. Philosophical poetry also survives quite well: Eliot's Four Quartets, for example, has been successfully rendered into a number of languages. Lyric poetry is the one that has the most to lose.
There is, obviously, the problem of rhyme. Unrhymed poetry fares much better in translation: Walt Whitman reads just about as well (or poorly) in French or German. Even as delicate an unrhymed lyric as Leopardi's "L'infinito" has thrived in English. But rhyme is a killer. With elaborate rhyme schemes, tricky rhyming words, and short lines (dimeter, trimeter), the difficulty increases exponentially. Think of Byron's Don Juan, or this, from Heine: "Sie sassen und tranken am Teetisch, / Und sprachen von Liebe viel. / Die Herren, die waren ästhetisch, / Die Damen von zartem Gefühl." Verses 2 and 4, with their masculine rhymes, are no problem: "And talked about love and such" and "The ladies who felt so much." But 1 and 3 are impossible: the splendid joke lies in rhyming, femininely at that, Teetisch and ästhetisch, "tea table" and "aesthetic." Failing this, you've got nothing.
But there are poems untranslatable not because of their intricate rhyme scheme, rich rhymes, or fancy prosody. There exists something even more basic. In my doctoral dissertation,1 I quote from the journal of Jules Barbey d'Aurevilly for September 19, 1836: "[Maurice de] Guérin est venu. Causé de la poésie des langues, qui est toute autre chose que la poésie des poètes." I commented: "Languages have their intrinsic poetry, a poetry they yield to the proper touch with gracious forthrightness." This is the kind of objet trouvé that certain words or sequences of words offer up to the poet, as blocks of marble supposedly suggested to Michelangelo the figures he would hew from them.
Take the last lines of the beautiful "Járkálj csak, halálraitélt" (Keep walking, condemned man) by the great Hungarian poet Miklós Radnóti, which, after giving the contemporary poet various ways to live, concludes with "S oly keményen is, mint a sok / sebtöl vérzö, nagy farkasok." Literally: "And as toughly, too, as the from many / wounds bleeding, great wolves." (The Hungarian "s," by the way, is our "sh.") What is a translator to do, confronted with these darkly resonant sounds? Shoot the poem in the foot, or himself in the head? There is no way "great wolves" can render the mighty rumble of nagy farkasok. (Nagy, incidentally, is a monosyllable, not unlike our nudge.) This is the poésie des langues, the poetry inherent in the sounds of a language's words, and it is this more than anything that makes a poet such as Anna Akhmatova virtually (virtually? totally!) untranslatable into English.
Consider the opening quatrain of a three-stanza poem of 1921, which the poet dedicated to her friend Natalya Rykova. The "literal" prose translation in Dimitri Obolenski's Penguin Book of Russian Verse runs: "All has been looted, betrayed, sold; death's black wing flickered [before us]; all is gnawed by hungry anguish—why then does a light shine for us?" Peter Norman's translation reads: "Everything is ravaged, bartered, betrayed, / The black wing of death has hovered nearby, / Everything is gnawed through by hungry gloom, / Why then did we feel so light of heart?" Stanley Kunitz manages to get one rhyme into his translation: "Everything is plundered, betrayed, sold, / Death's great black wing scrapes the air, / Misery gnaws to the bone. / Why then do we not despair?" With all due respect, Kunitz would never have published such poetry under his own name. Finally, here is the version of Walter Arndt, one of our principal rhyming translators from the Russian: "All is looted, betrayed, past retrieving, / Death's black wing has been flickering near, / All is racked with a ravenous grieving, / How on earth did this splendor appear?"
This seems passable at first glance, but look now at the original: "Vsyo rashishchenyo, predano, prodano, / Chernoy smyerti mel'kalo krilo, / Vsyo golodnoy toskoyu izglodano, / Otchega zhe nam stalo svetlo?" There is no way the sonorities of that very first line can be conveyed in English, especially the play on predano, prodano. And not even the supposedly literal version does justice to the simplicity of the last: "Why then did it become light for us?" with stalo and svetlo again creating an echo effect. Russian poetry is a poetry of sound effects par excellence, because Russian is a sonorous, declamatory language; this is what those latter-day stadium-filling poets—the Yevtushenkos, Voznesenskys, and Akhmadulinas—called "pop poets" by Akhmatova, were to exploit to her disgust.
And yet she, too, benefited from big public readings at various times in her life. For Russia is that rare country in which poetry is loved by the masses, a country where simple folk quote poetry at one another and discuss it as people here do a football game. Because they often declaim in huge auditoriums and stadiums, Russian poets have adopted a vatic mode of recitation: part hieratic, part histrionic, loud and singsongy. It was Mandelshtam who reproached one of the most stentorian perpetrators with, "Mayakovsky, stop reading your verse. You sound like a Romanian orchestra." But the vatic mode is still with us, and even such a Westernized poet as Joseph Brodsky, Akhmatova's dearest disciple and protégé, subscribes to it wholeheartedly. This vatic mode, in turn, battens on the "poetry of languages," as the Acmeists, the group of poets to which Akhmatova belonged, certainly did. The Poets' Guild, as the Acmeists called their splinter group from the Symbolists, believed, as Max Hayward puts it, that "language was like any other material, and in fashioning poetic artifacts from it, one had to take account of its natural qualities and limitations."2
Anna Andreyevna Gorenko was born in Odessa in 1889, but was moved as a tot to St. Petersburg, living mostly in Tsarskoye Selo, the delightful suburb whose most famous inhabitant had been Pushkin, to whom the future poet was to dedicate many searching critical-historical studies. Her father was a naval engineer; she was the third of five children. One brother was killed in the Revolution, another committed suicide; both beautiful sisters died of tuberculosis, from which only a thyroid condition saved Anna.
When Papa Gorenko bemoaned that the tomboyish girl would become a poet and thus besmirch the family name, the seventeen-year-old changed her name to Akhmatova, as having descended on her mother's side from the Tartar ruler Akhmat, himself a descendant of Genghis Khan, and the last leader of the Golden Horde. As Joseph Brodsky writes in his essay "The Keening Muse" (1982),3 "the five open a's of Anna Akhmatova had a hypnotic effect and put this name's carrier finally at the top of Russian poetry." In 1905, Anna's parents divorced, and she finished the gymnasium first in Yevpatoria on the Black Sea, then in Kiev. A crush Anna had on a handsome student at St. Petersburg University remained unrequited. She herself quit her law studies and eventually yielded to the persistent and protracted wooing of the poet Nikolay Gumilyov (1886–1921), whom she married, lovelessly, in 1910. The marriage lasted three years, and produced Anna's only child, Lyov.
It was a strange marriage, with infidelity on both sides, but also real love from Gumilyov. Nikolay at first dismissed his wife's verse as insignificant, advising her to become a dancer instead. But upon his return from a lengthy trip to Africa, he was genuinely impressed by Anna's new poems, and told her she must publish a volume. Soon Gumilyov, Akhmatova, and Osip Mandelshtam became the mainstays of a new movement that a hostile critic dubbed "Acmeist." Gumilyov was executed in 1921 for his alleged part in a counterrevolutionary conspiracy, an affair that remains opaque; Mandelshtam died in the gulag in 1937. Akhmatova survived—often precariously—till 1966, and never renounced Acmeism, indeed becoming more Acmeist as she grew older. It was a poetry of the here and now, eschewing both the mysticism of the Symbolists and the radicalism (often, but not always, political) of the Futurists.
When Anna left Gumilyov after three years, it was because she had fallen in love with Vladimir Shileiko, an Orientalist of stature. Being married to him meant becoming his research assistant while also holding down a librarian's job at the Agronomic Institute. Needless to say, this impeded her own writing. Nevertheless, her verse collections, Evening, Rosary, and White Flock, made the young Akhmatova one of the most popular poets of Russia, and this reputation was confirmed by Plantain (or Wayside Herb, the Russian word carries both meanings), and Anno Domini MCMXXI, to say nothing of such later masterpieces as Requiem and Poem Without a Hero.
What did she look like? There are many likenesses of her by various artists. Too bad that of Modigliani's sixteen drawings (Anna and Amedeo had a touchingly innocent flirtation when she was honeymooning in Paris with Gumilyov) only one survives. The poet Georgy Adamovich writes: "When people recall her today, they sometimes say she was beautiful. She was not, but she was more than beautiful, better than beautiful. I have never seen a woman whose face and entire appearance—whose expressiveness, genuine unworldliness, and inexplicable sudden appeal—set her apart … among beautiful women anywhere. Later her appearance would acquire a hint of the tragic: Rachel in Phèdre, as Osip Mandelshtam put it…." Or, to quote Ronald Meyer, "Virtually every account refers to the poet's grandeur, regal bearing and stately demeanor. The adjective velichavaya (stately, majestic, regal) functions as a code word for Akhmatova." And he quotes an eyewitness, a woman who saw her in 1910 in the poet Vyacheslav Ivanov's literary salon: "Lithe, tall, and svelte, her head wrapped in a floral shawl. The aquiline nose, her dark hair with the short bangs in front and held in place in back with a large Spanish comb. The small, slender mouth that seldom laughed. Dark, stern eyes. [Others call them bright gray.] It was impossible not to notice her."
"A fine, unpretentious woman" Pasternak called Akhmatova in a letter to his cousin Olga Freidenberg. Yet the unpretentious woman was justly proud of her looks, as when she told Natalya Roskina that "sculptors had no desire to sculpt her because she wasn't interesting to them: nature had already done it all." Her nose, by the way, was not aquiline but, even more imposingly, shaped like a big fleshy "S." And consider this tribute from the great satirist Yevgeny Zamyatin, commenting on Annenkov's painting: "The portrait of Akhmatova—or, to be more exact, the portrait of Akhmatova's eyebrows. Like clouds, they throw light and heavy shadows on the face, and in them, so many losses. They are like the key to a piece of music; the key is set, and you hear the speech of the eyes, the mourning hair, the black rosary on the combs."4
After the breakup with Shileiko (another three-year marriage) in 1921, Anna moved in with two Petersburg friends, the composer Artur Lurye (or Lourié) and the actress Olga Glebova-Sudeikina, a famous beauty. (A "sex-bomb," Nadezhda Mandelshtam contemptuously called her.) This may well have been a sexual ménage à trois; at any rate, it induced a creative outburst in Anna. Years later, her longest and most renowned work, Poem Without a Hero, was to take off from the 1913 suicide of Vladimir Knyazov, a young cadet whom Anna loved, but who loved and was rejected by Olga.
Her fame having peaked around 1921–22, Anna was due for a reaction. Blok died after a painful illness, and Gumilyov was executed for his alleged counterrevolutionary activities, both in 1921. Akhmatova's fifth volume, Anno Domini MCMXXI, appeared in 1922, after which she published no other book till 1940. Attacks on her multiplied, and there was a ban on publishing her. Lurye and Sudeikina emigrated to Paris and, like other friends, urged Anna to follow suit. She refused and, in one of her finest poems, explained why. Instead, she moved back in with Shileiko, from whom she was divorced, but who traveled much, and whose St. Bernard needed looking after.
The poet's health was precarious: tuberculosis plagued her, and, later, heart attacks. While convalescing in a pension in Tsarskoye Selo, she met again Nadezhda Mandelshtam, ten years her junior, with whom she was to be linked in lifelong friendship. She also met Nikolay Punin, the critic and historian, who was to become her third husband, though the marriage was never officially registered. Although she was to stay with him fifteen years ("fifteen granite centuries" she calls it in a poem), the marriage as such probably didn't last longer than the usual three years; but where else was she to go? This despite that a previous Punin wife and, later, a subsequent one inhabited the same house. And as with Shileiko, Anna became an amanuensis to Punin, helping him with translations and lectures. Arrogant and promiscuous, he treated her worse; yet when asked later on which husband she loved most, she implied that it was Punin.
After the Central Committee's unpublished but binding resolution that she was no longer to be printed, Akhmatova worked on her unsubsidized Pushkin studies and on translations, which were allowed her. The Thirties were dominated by Stalin and Yezhov's Great Terror. Anna was staying with the Mandelshtams in 1934 when Osip was first arrested; soon Punin and Lyov, Anna's son, were imprisoned too. They were released upon Akhmatova's petition to Stalin, who liked her poetry, which may eventually have saved her own life. Lyov was to be in and out of prison for much of his life; Mandelshtam, re-arrested, died in the gulag in 1937, as Punin did later on.
Between 1939 and the outbreak of World War II, Akhmatova's fortunes were low, indeed. The critic Korney Chukovsky noted that she didn't even have a warm coat, or, often, enough money for the streetcar. It was at this time that Chukovsky's daughter, the writer Lydia Chukovskaya, met Akhmatova and became her Boswell. She kept The Akhmatova Journals, three volumes in the original, of which we now have the first, 1938–41, as translated by Milena Michalski and Sylva Rubashova, with fifty-four poems—those mentioned in the text—Englished by Peter Norman.5
There is something very unsatisfying about having to read these journals on the installment plan. An important character such as Vladimir Garshin, a physician and professor of medicine, and at this time Anna's lover, will appear frequently in these pages, but a footnote on page 21, barely identifying him, concludes: "For more details on him, see Journals, vol. 2." Yet the reader should know more. When, like other artists in wartime, Anna was evacuated to Tashkent (whither she traveled clutching the precious manuscript of Shostakovich's Seventh Symphony), she conducted a loving correspondence with Garshin, although he wrote relatively infrequently, and then often about other women. Finally, however, he proposed marriage. Anna not only accepted but even agreed to his request to drop her own proud name and become merely Garshina. When she arrived in, as she put it, "the hungry and cold city of post-blockade Leningrad," Garshin met her at the station and chillingly asked where she wanted to be taken. She named the old Punin apartment. "He took me there, said goodbye at the entrance, and kissed my hand. We never saw each other again…. I know very well how relationships are ended, and thank God, I've done it myself a thousand times. But this was simply incomprehensible." Garshin, it turned out, was already married.
There are other problems with Chukovskaya's notes. When a new figure appears, a footnote directs you to an endnote. But it is often not the endnote you expect, which should be, let's say, number 19. Instead, you're directed to look ahead to, say, note 64, where this person is dealt with more extensively. Thus later, when you legitimately get to note 64, you find yourself rereading what you've already read. It is fortunate that the publisher, at the last minute, added a glossary, as it were annotating Chukovskaya's notes. But confusion thrives in other ways, too. The dramatis personae appear in three guises: with their full names, i.e., first name, patronymic, and last name; or, thereafter, first name and patronymic; or, often, nickname only—or diminutive of the nickname. So when on a given page a Nikolay Ivanovich (i.e., Khardziev, the poetry specialist and historian) jostles a Nikolay Nikolayevich (i.e., Punin), and then a Nikolay Stepanovich (i.e., Gumilyov) pops up, it's hard to keep them apart. When we next hear the nickname Kolya, it might take even a Russian reader a while to figure out which Nikolay is meant. Of course, it turns out to be yet another: Kolya Demidenko.
Still, one should not be put off. The Akhmatova Journals begins with a moving prologue in which Lydia Chukovskaya tells about how she lost her husband to the gulag; how she, too, might have lost her life but for a friend's warning phone call; and how her having a husband in the camps brought her closer to Akhmatova, who had a son there. The conversations she doesn't dare report in her journal are the many ones about these and other cherished prisoners; instead, there is much talk about writers and writing, and about the trivia of daily life. Especially poignant is the evocation of the way much of Akhmatova's poetry, unsafe to commit to paper, survived:
Anna Andreyevna,6 when visiting me, recited parts of "Requiem" … in a whisper, but at home in Fontanny House did not even dare to whisper it; suddenly, in mid-conversation, she would fall silent and, signaling to me with her eyes at the ceiling and walls, she would get a scrap of paper and a pencil; then she would loudly say something very mundane: "Would you like some tea?" or "You're very tanned," then she would cover the scrap in hurried handwriting and pass it to me. I would read the poems and, having memorized them, would hand them back to her in silence. "How early autumn came this year," Anna Andreyevna would say loudly and, striking a match, would burn the paper over an ashtray.
But already from the outset of the book, in its English translation, we see sloppiness creeping in. Thus the code name the women used for the secret police is given on one page as Pyotr Ivanich; on the next, as Pyotr Ivanovich. Or there'll be a comment such as "Paul was murdered in that room," without any explanation in footnote or endnote. Again, in May 1939, Anna tells us how much she admires Joyce's Ulysses, even though it's a mite too pornographic for her; she has read it four times. By October 1940, she tells of reading this "great and wonderful" book six times. Could she have read that difficult work two more times in seventeen months? Was she given to exaggeration? Did her mind wander? Chukovskaya doesn't say.
She walked lightly, this fifty-year-old woman who was often trailed by two secret policemen and who always carried her pocketbook and a shabby suitcase with her writings with her out of fear they might be secretly searched. But she was terrified of crossing wide streets, even when empty, and would cling anxiously to whoever accompanied her. Although she disliked Tolstoy, and mounts a splendid attack on Anna Karenina, she concedes that he could be marvelously zaum. (Zaum or zaumny yazik refers to transrational or metalogical discourse, as invented by Khlebnikov and the Futurists, a distant precursor of poésie concrète.) Anna herself preferred established languages, reading Dante in Italian and, after six months of mostly self-taught English, Shakespeare in the original. But for all the various languages she knew, Russian spelling and punctuation were beyond her; she even misspelled the name of her beloved Annensky, the only poet she admitted to being influenced by.
Anna thought poorly of men because there were few to be seen in the prison queues, and perhaps also because none of her husbands ever hung a picture of her over the table. She was unable to judge her own poems until they were old, which is why she avidly recited the new ones to friends, eager for their judgment as well as memorization. She lived in great poverty, often subsisting on potatoes and sauerkraut; sometimes there was no sugar for the tea she'd serve her guests. Here is a characteristic scene, as Anna and her friend, the actress Olga Visotskaya, decide to go queue up in front of the Procurator's office:
Anna Andreyevna insisted that Olga Nikolayevna should wear her autumn coat (Olga Nikolayevna only had her summer coat here), and she herself would wear her winter coat.
"It will be hard for you to stand in your winter coat," said Olga Nikolayevna. "Better for me to put on the winter coat, and you the autumn coat."
But Anna Andreyevna disagreed.
"No, I'll put on the winter coat. You won't be able to handle it. It's tricky. It hasn't had a single button on it for a long time now. And we won't manage to find new ones and sew them on. I know how to wear it even without buttons, whereas you don't. I'll wear the winter coat."
It is piquant to discover Akhmatova admitting to not understanding one of her own poems. She repeatedly declared that she wrote two kinds of poems: those that seemed to come from an external dictation and were easy to write, and those that she willed herself to write and were impossible. She considered Hemingway a great writer, although she hated the cruelty of his fishing. Vyacheslav V. Ivanov, in his "Meetings with Akhmatova," reports that she "approved of observations comparing her early poetry with the prose of Hemingway and describing it as 'novella-like.'" This ties in with something Mandelshtam wrote: "Akhmatova brought into the Russian lyric all the enormous complexity and wealth of the Russian novel … Akhmatova's origins lie completely within Russian prose, not poetry. She developed her poetic form, keen and original, with a backward glance at psychological prose."7 What it all seems to add up to is straight-forwardness, lucidity, and narrative progression, apparently considered more appropriate to prose.
Tom Sawyer, for Akhmatova, was "an immortal book. Like Don Quixote." A bold view in its way, but not unusual for her, who, for example, dared place the Epic of Gilgamesh above the Iliad. Some of her nonliterary ideas were even stranger: "For some reason, she had got into her head that the steps began right outside her apartment door, and I could not persuade her to cross the landing for anything." Poor Akhmatova! She could no longer even pronounce "sh" and "zh" clearly; some of her front teeth were broken. Nor could she, a pariah in the house of Punin, get a pass to the garden of the House of Entertaining Science (!), where they were all living: "He is someone, a professor, but what am I? Carrion."
Her most cherished poems could not be published; her earlier ones she no longer cared for, and couldn't understand why other people liked them. I myself am more than a little puzzled by her own and other people's judgments on her poetry. In one of her autobiographical sketches, Akhmatova writes that of her entire first book, Evening (1912), "I now truly like only the lines: 'Intoxicated by a voice / That sounds exactly like yours …'" With all allowances made for what gets lost in translation, it is impossible to understand what could make those two verses special. Even more mysterious, though, is the recollection of the poet Georgy Adamovich about the other great modern Russian poetess, Marina Tsvetayeva: "She [had] just read Akhmatova's 'Lullaby,' and praised it, saying that she would give everything she had written and would write in the future for a single line from that poem: 'I am a bad mother.'" Even if you allow for the context (a father is speaking), how can that line have such value? There is perhaps something even beyond the poetry that gets lost in translations from Akhmatova.
Amusingly, Anna discusses Pasternak's indifference to her work and goes on to comment with wonderful outspokenness: "Haven't you noticed that poets don't like the poetry of their contemporaries? A poet carries with him his own enormous world—why does he need someone else's poetry? When they're young, about 23 or 24, poets like the work of poets in their own group. Later though, they don't like anybody else's—only their own." Vyacheslav V. Ivanov confirms this: "Certainly Akhmatova was not inclined to listen to the praise of other literary figures of the first decade." Her attitude to Tsvetayeva was particularly ambivalent, even though Marina was much more generous: she called her rival "Anna Chrysostom of all the Russians," and her beautiful poem "To Anna Akhmatova" begins "O muza placha, prekrasneyshaya iz muz!" (O muse of weeping, loveliest of muses). This became a metonym for Akhmatova: Muse of Weeping—or, as Brodsky renders it, Keening Muse.8 Notice, again, the eloquent fanfare of prekrasneyshaya; how is an English translator to do justice to that?
Yet there were also times when the Russian language seemed to thwart Akhmatova. There is a droll page in the Journals where Anna agonizes to a couple of friends about something she had written: "One line has been vexing me all my life: 'Gde milomu muzhu detey rodila [Where she bore her dear husband children].' Do you hear: Mumu?! Can it be that neither of you, both such lovers of poetry, has noticed this mooing?" Whereupon she proceeds to recite Pushkin's "Monument" to her friends—only, as a footnote tells us, it wasn't that at all, but the epilogue to her own Requiem; she was trying to mislead those who, she claimed, were bugging her room. But the greater, metaphysical, risks of her profession haunted her most: "The word is much more difficult material than, for instance, paint. Think about it, really: for the poet works with the very same words that people use to invite each other to tea…."
What is the poetry of Anna Akhmatova really like? Here is how Chukovskaya sees it:
When you first apprehend it, it does not strike you by the novelty of its form as does, say, the poetry of Mayakovsky. You can hear Baratynsky and Tyutchev and Pushkin—sometimes, more rarely, Blok—in the movement of the poem, in its rhythms, in the fullness of the line, in the precision of the rhymes. At first it seems like a narrow path, going alongside the wide road of Russian classical poetry. Mayakovsky is deafeningly novel, but at the same time he is unfruitful, barren: he brought Russian poetry to the edge of an abyss…. Akhmatova's little path turns out to be a wide road in fact; her traditional style is purely external … within this she brings about earth-quakes and upheavals.
Frankly, in struggling with her poems in Russian—never mind the translations—I cannot find the earthquakes. But I do see a poet with an original vision and a personal voice who manages to maintain her individual talent within the tradition. No wonder she admired T. S. Eliot.
Strange where poets come from! As a child, Anna had no poetry surrounding her: "We didn't have any books in the house, not a single book. Only Nekrasov, a thick, bound volume. My mother used to let me read it on feast days and holidays. This book was a present to Mama from her first husband, who shot himself…. I have loved poetry ever since I was a child and I managed to get hold of it somehow. At the age of 13, I already knew Baudelaire, Voltaire and all the poètes maudits in French. I started to write poetry early but … before I had even written a line, all those around me were convinced that I would become a poetess."
If Chukovskaya were doing her job right, she would answer some troubling questions here. But she never mentions Nekrasov as one of the influences on Akhmatova's poetry—perhaps because he was greatly concerned with social issues, which Anna, until much later on, was not. But he was a loosener and modernizer of diction, someone from whom Anna may have learned things. The real question, though, is: How did the thirteen-year-old daughter of Russian bourgeois manage to get hold of Baudelaire? (That she knew French is, in Imperial Russia, believable.) And what of this quaint juxtaposition: Baudelaire, Voltaire? Is the sage there merely for the rhyme? As a lyric poet, he is known only for a few poems of love and friendship, and for some terse, biting epigrams. Could Anna's short poems in Rosary (or Beads) owe something to the latter? Or could something of the former have influenced the manner of the poetic teenager—say this, to Mme du Châtelet: "On meurt deux fois, je le vois bien: / Cesser d'aimer et d'être aimable, / C'est une mort insupportable; / Cesser de vivre, ce n'est rien"? But the most puzzling bit here is "all the poètes maudits." It seems impossible for Anna to have gotten hold of even Rimbaud in 1902, to say nothing of the lesser maudits. Lydia should have asked some important questions here, though, to be sure, they were interrupted by the entrance of an old woman—shades of Coleridge and the person from Porlock.
Akhmatova harbors some pretty radical ideas about poetry: "Only through contemporary art can one understand the art of the past. There is no other path. And when something new appears, do you know how a contemporary should feel? As if it is pure chance that it is not he who wrote it, as if … somebody had snatched it out of his hands." And what a country for poets, this Russia! As Lydia and a woman friend leave Anna's place, the following happens: "Tusya walked me right up to my house. On the way she recited Tyutchev's 'Spring' to me … which, until now, I hadn't given the attention it deserves; and then together we recited Baratynski's 'Autumn,' to which Shura [another friend] had introduced us…. I thought: This may be the best poem in Russian literature." None of these women was a poet; what they were is Russians.
From this derives Lydia's worshipful attitude toward Anna, which at times becomes cloying, as when the biographer comments on Anna's refusal to fight for a paid vacation owed to her, which the poet contemptuously rejects as "the communal scuffle." Comments Chukovskaya: "Oh, how grateful I am to her that she understands so well who she is, that in preserving the dignity of Russian literature, which she represents at some invisible tribunal, she never takes part in any communal scuffle!"
The poet's stoicism was indeed heroic, as the state treated her shabbily. "That's my life, my biography," she allows. "Who can renounce his own life?" Much later on, in 1954, she was to formulate it more nobly to Lydia's father, Korney: "I have been very famous and very notorious, and I know now that essentially it's just the same thing." And to Georgy Adamovich: "My lot was to suffer everything it's possible to suffer." So you believe it when Lydia reports, "Anna Andreyevna put the kettle on. We had tea without sugar, with a stale roll." Amid such misery, Anna would prodigally dispense insight: "[Vyacheslav Ivanov] was … an outstanding poet, but his poems were often bad. No, no, there is no contradiction here; one can be a remarkable poet, but write bad poems." Or: "The Modernists did a great thing for Russia…. They handed back the country in completely different shape from that in which they received it. They taught people to love poetry once again, even the technical standard of book publishing went up."
"I don't know any other country where … there is a greater need for [poetry] than here." She was right. In the large, cold, poor, and often lonely spaces of Russia, poetry came to fill a void. If (as it is said) sex was for the French the cinéma des pauvres, for average Russians it tended to be poetry. And, of course, gossip. There are delicious pages here of Akhmatova gossiping, for example, about the women in Blok's life, in the midst of which she digresses about Punin: "'But such an accumulation of wives'—once again, she tapped Nikolay Nikolayevich's wall lightly—'is utter nonsense.'" She mocks the pettiness of various literary circles, and concludes, "I am the only one who is indifferent to what people think of my poetry." (But here is Korney Chukovsky: "Akhmatova divided the world into two uneven parts: those who understand her poems and those who don't.")
All her life Akhmatova remained a firm believer in Christianity, Russia being perhaps the premier country for practicing Christians among its artists and intellectuals. A tolerant woman, she was nevertheless repulsed by the homosexual excesses in Mikhail Kuzmin's poetry. She makes shrewd observations about Dostoyevsky: "These are all aspects of his soul…. In reality, there never was or will be anything like it." She evokes charmingly her youth as a nervy, unconventional tomboy, and sadly admits to her present discombobulation. I find it regrettable that she so dislikes Chekhov, whose plays, for her, "epitomize the disintegration of theater"; in both his plays and fiction "everybody's situation is hopeless." In Natalya Roskina's memoir, "Good-bye Again," Anna is even blunter: "He was shortsighted in his view of Russia. If one looks too closely, all one sees is cockroaches in the cabbage soup."
In her youth, we learn, Anna was seemingly double-jointed; people thought she should join the circus. (No wonder Gumilyov first suggested she become a dancer!) In maturity, it was her mind that became agile and keen, correctly perceiving, say, the influence of Joyce on Hemingway, Dos Passos, and the rest. She had no delusions about fame: "When you're standing in a courtyard, wet snow falling, queuing for herring, and there is such a pungent smell of herring that your shoes and coat reek of it for ten days, and someone behind you recites: 'On the dish the oysters in ice smelled of the sea, fresh and sharp …'—that is something else entirely [from her celebrity in Imperial Russia]. I was gripped with such a fury that I didn't even turn around." Yet this strong, proud woman couldn't finish reading Uncle Tom's Cabin: "I felt too sorry for the Negroes."
The Akhmatova Journals, Volume I ends with the 1941 wartime evacuation of Anna, Lydia, and other notables, first to Chistopol, then to Tashkent in Uzbekistan, in Central Asia. It was a difficult sojourn, and there is a fascinating episode (relegated to a footnote) where Chukovskaya gushes to Marina Tsvetayeva about how lucky it was for Akhmatova to have escaped at least Chistopol: "She would certainly have died there…. After all, she can't do anything for herself." Tsvetayeva interrupts: "And you think I can?" Soon after, the forty-nine-year-old Tsvetayeva hanged herself. Perhaps the last memorable quotation in this volume has Anna reading her beloved Lewis Carroll again in Tashkent and asking, "Don't you think we too are now through the looking glass?"
There is, of course, much more to even this relatively short first volume. But Peter Norman's translations of some Akhmatova poems are not it. Like all other such translations that I am aware of, they do not begin to convey a true poet. What to do? To reproduce some of her poems in Russian would be redundant for those who know the language, and useless for the rest of us. The best I can do is cite some evaluations of her work.
We have many good descriptions of her personality (I particularly like this from the generally odious Walter Arndt: "Young Roland on his way to the dark tower, crossed with a Beardsley Salome"), but few helpful ones of her verse. Zinaida Gippius (or Hippius), the leading poetess of the preceding generation, rated her and Pasternak highest among their generation.9 Sidney Monas called her "the supreme mistress of the verbal gesture, poetess of tragic love, who became, in her old age, the poetess, too, of endurance and survival."10 Aleksandr Blok carped at first: "She writes verses as if standing before a man and it is necessary to write as if standing before God." (Ironically, though, Akhmatova remarked to Vyacheslav V. Ivanov that "there was no humility in Blok's poetry, that humility could only be found in orthodoxy.") Later, Blok considered the truest poets to be Mayakovsky and Akhmatova, "whose muse he saw as 'ascetic' and 'monastic.'"11
This is a curious evaluation of someone known as a poet of love, but even more curious is that by Anna's close friend Nadezhda Mandelshtam: "Akhmatova was a poet not of love but of the repudiation of love for the sake of humanity." You might think that this refers to the change in Akhmatova's later poetry, but no: "This woman with a zest for life had rejected all earthly things since her early youth."12 The gap between such contradictory perceptions is perhaps bridged by Brodsky's view: "It is the finite's nostalgia for the infinite that accounts for the love theme in Akhmatova's verse, not the actual entanglements." Which, in turn, should be balanced against the point of Renato Poggioli in a book that Akhmatova, to be sure, disliked: "The muse of Anna Akhmatova is memory, a memory incredibly near in quality, if not in time, to the incidents she records from the exclusive viewpoint of her 'I.' [Or as Akhmatova put it contra Browning in her Pseudo-Memoirs: "I speak myself and for myself everything that is possible and that which is not."] Yet in what the poetess reports there is no afterthought or hindsight: one would say that she represents objectively a past which has only a subjective reality."13
For what may be the best overview, we must return to Brodsky's "The Keening Muse": "She was, essentially, a poet of human ties: cherished, strained, severed. She showed these evolutions first through the prism of the individual heart, then through the prism of history, such as it was. This is about as much as one gets in the way of optics anyway." But for the effect that Akhmatova had on other people, I go back to Chukovskaya's prologue, entitled "Instead of a Foreword": "Before my very eyes, Akhmatova's fate—something greater even than her own person—was chiseling out of this famous and neglected, strong and helpless woman a statute of grief, loneliness, pride, courage," Short of a reading of her poetry in the original, this will have to do.
And what lay ahead for Anna? It is absurd to summarize so much in a few words, but here goes. After even worse persecution in the Forties under Zhdanov14 than in the Thirties under Yezhov, expulsion from the Writers' Union and near-starvation (living off the kindness of friends), then ultimate reinstatement, increased economic comfort and various honors, even the power to protect and promulgate others in her profession. Finally trips abroad to receive a major literary, prize in Italy, and an honorary doctorate from Oxford—also reunion in Paris with long-lost friends and lovers. It came very late, and was not really enough. But it provides a mellowly bittersweet ending to a life of fantastic ups and downs.
1. The Prose Poem as a Genre in Nineteenth-Century European Literature, by John Simon (Garland Publishing, 1987), page 139.
2. From the very useful introduction to Poems of Akhmatova, selected, translated, and introduced by Stanley Kunitz with Max Hayward (Atlantic Monthly Press, 1973). For my purposes, the two most important collections of source material in English were Anna Akhmatova: My Half Century, Selected Prose, edited by Ronald Meyer (Ardis, 1992), and Anna Akhmatova and Her Circle, edited by Konstantin Polivanov and translated by Patricia Beriozkina (University of Arkansas Press, 1994).
3. Collected in Less Than One: Selected Essays, by Joseph Brodsky (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1986).
4. A Soviet Heretic: Essays by Yevgeny Zamyatin, edited and translated by Mirra Ginsburg (University of Chicago Press, 1974), page 90. The "rosary on the combs" refers to the little ornamental spheres on the diadem-like comb, and also alludes to the title of Akhmatova's second volume, Rosary.
5. The Akhmatova Journals, Volume I, 1938–41, by Lydia Chukovskaya; Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 310 pages.
6. I transliterate the patronymic as "Andreyevna" rather than "Andreevna," as do the translators of the book. Throughout my article, I have silently made such changes in an attempt to achieve consistency, which, even so, may well have eluded me.
7. In Mandelstam, by Clarence Brown (Cambridge University Press, 1978), page 97.
8. The poem is handsomely set to music in Shostakovich's Six Poems of Marina Tsvetayeva.
9. See Zinaida Hippius: An Intellectual Profile, by Temira Pachmuss (Southern Illinois University Press, 1970), page 381: "Although she admired Akhmatova's achievements in poetic expression, Hippius disagreed with her 'typically feminine approach to love,' devoid of all mystery and sublimation."
10. In his introduction to Selected Works of Nikolai S. Gumilev (State University of New York Press, 1972), page 17.
11. The Life of Aleksandr Blok, Vol. II, by Avril Pyman (Oxford University Press, 1980), pages 141 and 363.
12. For the quotations from Nadezhda Mandelshtam, see Polivanov, op. cit., pages 110 and 114.
13. In Poets of Russia, by Renato Poggioli (Harvard University Press, 1960), page 231.
14. The notorious cultural commissar Andrey Zhdanov proscribed Akhmatova in a lengthy execration boiling down to her being "half whore, half nun." In his crude way, Zhdanov was right: she was in fact half glorious love poet and half impassioned religious moralist.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6653
SOURCE: "The Poet in the Trenches: The Complete Poems of Anna Akhmatova," in Literary Review, Vol. 37, No. 4, Summer, 1994, pp. 689-704.
[In the following essay, Brody discusses the poems in The Complete Poems of Anna Akhmatova, and Akhmatova's place in Russian literature.]
Poetry not only occupies a central position in Russian society and plays a primordial role in the life of imagination, it is also a moral force. Russian poets have always been known for their assertion of the free spirit and opposition to tyranny both under the Tsars and the commissars. "When spiritual life is suppressed," Bella Akhmadulina, a contemporary Russian poet, told The Harvard Advocate, "people turn to the poet as confessor and priest. When a nation has Russia's difficulties, people seek something lofty, something spiritual" (Quoted by F. D. Reeve in Akhmadulina). In confrontations with the authorities, they fearlessly and consistently manned the intellectual trenches in the never-ending struggle for human rights, and that is why Russia respects and loves her poets.
Few—if any—countries can lay claim to such a distinguished literary tradition as Russia during the last seventy years. In a century riddled by poisonous ideologies and repugnant visions, Russia had been beaten into the ground morally, intellectually, and politically, yet aspirations to freedom and decency were not quite extinct and were nourished by a small group of heroic dissenters. In the shifting political landscape, Anna Akhmatova and her three great contemporaries—Pasternak, Mandelstam, and Tsvetaeva—gave a moving and insightful account of the polarization of society and the discordant intensity of life in the former Soviet Union. To them poetry appeared as a medium of social and spiritual redemption, and their idea of ultimately building a new society was essentially an aesthetic and even mystical process rather than a political one. They offered a basis for sanity and a moderate sort of salvation in a world full of suffering, cruelty, and chaos. It was felt at the time both inside and outside of the Soviet Union that if ever Russia were to be reborn, the poetry of these four great poets would have made a crucial contribution to this renaissance by upholding a national self-awareness that, without them, might have sunk into oblivion. Hence, the poems of Akhmatova and her three friends are essential readings for anyone who wants to understand how Russia succumbed to a brutal dictatorship and how it survived.
A chronicler of the isolated and intimate psychological events of a woman's emotional and intellectual life as well as the political events in the Soviet Union, Anna Akhmatova is one of Russia's greatest poets and perhaps the greatest woman poet in the history of Western culture. When she died in 1966, at the age of 77, the classical Russian literature—"the house that Pushkin built"—which began in the first decades of the nineteenth century, came to its end. She believed that poetry was written to convey the absolute values of people and society. This ideal required considerable courage to sustain in the atmosphere of the utilitarian aesthetics of the day.
In a radical break with the prevailing culture, Akhmatova began her literary career in 1911 as an Acmeist, a rebellious group of young poets fighting against the dominant Symbolists, and wishing to give Russian poetry a new direction. The two groups existed in a state of contention in their attitudes about poetry; it was, despite its inevitable tension, a healthy artistic confrontation concerning intellectual differences. The Acmeists felt that sense is more important than sound and insisted on clarity against the Symbolists' studied vagueness.
Akhmatova's personal life was marked by a long struggle against the domination of exploiting males and, although in the ensuing battle of genders, she occasionally did the dominating, too, in retrospect she can be seen as an early torchbearer for the women's liberation movement. For more than a decade she was the most admired woman in the literary circles, constantly invited to read her poetry before adoring audiences. She was, as Marc Slonim indicates, "one of the most widely read and truly beloved Russian poets. A generation of intellectuals memorized her lines and quoted them in their letters and diaries. She served as their sounding board; they found their own pains, laments and aspirations in her short poems."
Yet, soon the Revolution and Stalin's terror seared her life. Her first husband—the poet Gumilev—was executed, her second husband deported, her son repeatedly imprisoned; and she became routinely persecuted. The authorities banned her from publishing, detesting what she wrote. As they saw it, private yearnings, private joys, and private sorrows were decadent concerns that had no place in the literature of a socialist land. Yet, shattering conventions, she kept her self-respect intact and could not be silenced by fear or sorrow. Art became for her a means of relating morally to the society that she regarded as deeply wounded and indifferent to spiritual values. Her art aspired to a vision of the universe at the same time that it embraced freedom. For many years she had played the foil in the Soviet psychodrama. No matter how terrible her situation had become and how critical her personal traumas, her attachment to her native country was so profound that she refused to leave Russia, and continued to write even if it went unpublished. In her eyes, Russia was greater than her contemporary evils. As she said to Olga Carlisle. "My poetry is my link to our time. When I write, I live with the very pulse of Russian life." To her, the role of the poet was to remember and bear witness.
There was a breathing space in the terror during the Second World War, a significant easing of the ideological straitjacket that had paralyzed intellectual life, when she was able to publish and read her poetry in public. But Stalin changed only tactics for sheer political survival—not strategy—and after the war, she was ostracized again and her son arrested for the third time.
When Stalin died, a new era of tentative rehabilitation began and Akhmatova was invited to publish again. After Pasternak's death in 1960, she had become the sole surviving poet of prerevolutionary Russian literature. In 1964, she went to Italy to receive a high literary prize and next year to Oxford to be awarded an honorary degree. In her old age, she was haunted by the past and visited by the ghosts and legends of her youth, creating "mirrors and masks" (Reeder in AA, I, 21-183) for readers and scholars to study. The fusion of her life and poetry in an artistic unity represents a rich cultural heritage for students of art and politics. It reminds us of all the high hopes of the new revolutionary artistic climate that the Bolshevik Revolution initially inspired and of the tragic aftermath, in which in a catastrophic metamorphosis, all traces of such hope were doomed as a crime against the state. In Isaiah Berlin's words, "[Akhmatova's] entire life was what Herzen once described Russian literature as being: one continuous indictment of Russian reality" (AA II, 24).
Akhmatova is a lyrical poet, full of melancholy, tenderness, and a great feeling for nature. "Her poems had become classics of Russian literature in her own lifetime. At their best, their simplicity, the perfection of their form, the harmonious balance between sound and meaning can only be compared to Pushkin" (Carlisle, "Woman").
The poems express, above all, the sense of someone tirelessly and painfully searching for her identity, not just her identity as a poet, but also as a woman often ensnared in emotional tangles. They also deal with human nature, people's weaknesses, their hypocrisy, and lack of courage. Their expressiveness ranges, in Andrei Sinyavsky's words, "from a barest whisper to fiery eloquence, from downcast eyes to lightning and thunderbolts" (Akhmatova, Selected Poems 18).
The physical world played a major role in shaping her poetry, enabling her to reconstitute the body and texture of particular things. She acquired a precious sense of place and circumstances, and a concern for immediate surroundings. The natural world she creates is, at once, both vibrant and mute as if it were just about to stir again under some powerful impulse. These environmental forces unite with psychological motifs to play on her mind and emotions as her creative process is evolving.
Her poetry draws on many sources, often blending the classical tradition of Pushkin—precision, restraint, concreteness—with such popular elements as the multifaceted Russian folklore with its narrative surprises and symbolic imagery. Yet Mandelstam pointed out that Akhmatova's genesis is in the Russian prose of the nineteenth century. "There never would have been an Akhmatova without Tolstoy and Anna Karenina, Turgenev with Nest of Gentry and all of Dostoevsky" (157).
Because of the long official harassment, during which she could not publish, Akhmatova was not so well-known abroad as her famous contemporaries, and, until now, only a few selections of her poems came to light in the English-speaking countries.
Thus, it is most welcome news that finally a complete collection of her writings—all of her 725 poems, among them more than 200 poems and fragments never printed before—has been published by the Zephyr Press in an excellent translation by Judith Hemschemeyer, in two magnificent volumes in both Russian and English versions[, entitled The Complete Poems]. In addition, the scholarly apparatus includes the translator's preface, a lucid essay on the life and art of Akhmatova by Roberta Reeder, two short sketches by Anatoly Naiman, a young friend and disciple, "A Memoir" by Isaiah Berlin, describing his memorable visit to Akhmatova in 1945, and a veritable mass of useful notes. In its huge quantity of literary material, this edition is a staggering achievement.
To read this marvelous collection may prove irresistible to those who prize the long lost and almost irretrievable world of Russian poetry during and after the Revolution. What makes this publication special is not just its wealth of already familiar and new material, but the deep compassion of the editor and translator for Akhmatova and their passionate involvement in her art and life. While such an intellectual proximity may occasionally rob a translator of an essential detachment and objective distance, Hemschemeyer appears to have overcome the intellectual seduction without losing the freshness, immediacy, and directness of her approach.
"The poet as translator lives with a paradox," says Stanley Kunitz in the notes to his own translation of Poems of Akhmatova. "His work must not read like a translation; conversely, it is not an exercise of the free imagination. One voice enjoins him: 'Respect the text!' The other simultaneously pleads with him: 'Make it new!'" and concludes. "The only way to translate Akhmatova is by writing well. A hard practice!" The translator must also be warned that Akhmatova's words—as those of several other contemporary Russian poets—are not always "innocent" and, in addition to their surface meanings, often carry an extra baggage of veiled political and social implications. This hidden literary minefield might trip up the unwary translator, while in Russia people will immediately perceive the Aesopian ruse and decode the essential message.
Hemschemeyer obviously profited from the work of her predecessors and produced attractive and powerful English versions. It would perhaps be unfair to judge her poetic transplant by the high standard that such superb craftsmen as Kunitz, Walter Arndt (Anna Akhmatova, Selected Poems, Ardis), D. M. Thomas (Anna Akhmatova, Way Of All The Earth, Ohio University Press), and Ronald Hingley (Nightingale Fever, Russian Poets in Revolution, Knopf) established but, aside from a certain unevenness which is understandable in view of the huge amount of material, she has made felicitous poetic approximations.
Most of the delicate lyric poems of Akhmatova's first volume, Evening, are about aspects of love, personal and emotional, addressed to her present or previous lover or to herself. Her poetry is often one of musing to define the conflict in her own way and face bygone love's shocks and sorrows, such as unhappy encounters (I, 221), confusion (I, 221), suffering (I, 231), jealousy (I, 239, 253), silences (I, 243), desperation after a break (I, 243), yearning for love (I, 247), torment of love (I, 249), sleeplessness (I, 277), quarrels (I, 219, 281), and lack of communication (I, 223). The verses are occasionally suffused with intimations of anxiety (I, 273), doom (I, 239), and death (I, 225, 245). She misses her lover, but often finds differences (I, 261) and indifference (I, 263). Frequently she laments his (I, 263) or her own (I, 265) inability to respond. From time to time there is an uneasy truce between feckless, unlucky lovers who, even when they seem to connect, remain curiously estranged (I, 269, 283). The translator correctly observes: "Poem after poem … shows us two people bound together, grappling with their own and their beloved's emotion, struggling to get free and, once free, bewildered and empty" (I, 7). Memory often keeps alive the love that seemed to have died out (I, 257).
Is love a revelation or a catastrophe? There are only rare moments of true happiness and they alternate with long periods of bitterness. Most of the time it is the woman who suffers from indifference or betrayal. The beautiful nature—the sea and the forest—are often there to console her, but even its peace and calm is not quite satisfactory and we sense that it only momentarily stills her passion.
The theme she treats most originally is that of parting (I, 219, 223, 285), which she must have come across several times in her life. In "The Song Of The Last Meeting" (I, 225), even her customary restraint cannot mute the intensity of feeling when in her embarrassment she "pulled the glove for my left hand / Onto my right," as she was leaving him.
In the midst of these highly ambivalent sentiments, she remains attached to her land and people. In a village balled, she identifies herself with a simple peasant woman whose husband "whipped" her "with a woven belt" (I, 239). In a later poem, she speaks enviously of "the quiet, sunburnt peasant women" (I, 338) of the land, reminding us of Levin, Tolstoy's favorite protagonist in Anna Karenina, who only felt happy among the humble peasants in the peaceful Russian landscape. In one of his poems, "In Memory of Anna Akhmatova," Yevtushenko asked whether in this high priestess of the old intelligentsia there is a peasant woman. He sees two graves; in one lies Akhmatova, the "beauty, prized highly by a Russia" that had been, and in the other, a peasant woman, but "between them there is not frontier" (214-16). The two Russias—the intellectual and the peasant—are harmonized. Her second book—Rosary—gained her a firm place in the literary establishment of the period. While the cycle of love poems continues with its muted, delicate, and fragrant sentiments, this collection is mainly concerned with her anguish over her failed marriage with Gumilev, a growing sense of guilt, a certain awkward resignation, and a repentance for what had happened. She is simultaneously noble and naughty, a refined lady and a courtesan. Religious elements and spiritual zeal dominate many poems. She invokes Christian piety, searching for salvation. Although the male is often indifferent to her—when he touches her, his hand "almost not trembling" (I, 303) and in another, "How unlike a caress / The touch of those hands" (I, 305)—he also suffers, because she does not reciprocate his advances (I, 323, 325).
Her third book—White Flock—was published on the eve of the Bolshevik Revolution. An epic tone with classical severity is now added to the lyricism of her love poetry with her civic and war verses. This might have been her reaction to the criticism of her having been too private and solipsistic in her artistic expressions. She now wants to "bestow upon the world / Something more imperishable than love" (I, 379).
The First World War is foretold in "July 1914" when "It smells of burning," "the birds have not even sung today," and a one-legged stranger predicts that "fearful times are drawing near" with "famine, earthquake, widespread death" (I, 427), but she believes that "the enemy will not divide / our land" (I, 429). She is even willing to accept sickness, fever, and give up her child and lover in a poem "Prayer," just to have "the stormcloud over darkened Russia" become "a cloud of glorious rays" (I, 435).
All nature becomes a temple for God's glory, whose help is often invoked. "God is now constantly on her lips … One senses in these words, intonations and gestures a nun who makes the sign of the cross as she kisses … There is something Old Russian, ancient about her … The eternal Russian attraction to self-effacement, humility, martyrdom, meekness, poverty which had such an allure for Tyutchev, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky fascinates her also" (Chukovsky 33).
Plantain—her next volume of poetry—was published just after the Revolution. The most important poem of the collection is devoted to the war, revealing her deep patriotic spirit and rebuking those who wanted to flee the ravaged country at a time when, on the one hand, "The nation awaited its German guests," and, on the other, the guns of the Revolution began to thunder. She hears a voice: "Leave your deaf and sinful land," but she covers her ears, "So that my sorrowing spirit / Would not be stained by those shameful words" (I, 529-31). In a later collection, Anno Domini MCMXXI, she reaffirms her commitment to remain in Russia in her desperate hour. "I am not with those who abandoned their land … to me the exile is pitiful" (I, 547). There are three poems in the short cycle "Biblical Verses," of which "Lot's Wife" is the most striking. It shows the poet's admiration for those who dare to look back on what they love regardless of the consequences: "… my heart will never forget the one / Who gave her life for a single glance" (I, 569). The poem may reflect Akhmatova's skilled use of Aesopian language—a reference to mythology to express her own love of the past and its culture—in order to hide it from the censor. As Reeder points out, "… Akhmatova knew when she wrote the poem in 1924 how many simple things she took for granted in her past were lost forever in post-revolutionary Russia" (XX, I, 91). Yet, what she could not say openly in "Lot's Wife," she says in another poem dedicated to Petersburg (I, 607), lamenting the fate of "this city of splendid vistas" which resembles "a savage camp." But she is determined, even if she remains alone, to "preserve / Our sorrows and our joys" of the city. The reader must remember the special spiritual place Petersburg has in the heart of the Russian intellectuals as the cradle of literature, the city of Pushkin and Dostoevsky. The fall of the once mighty Romanov Empire is touched in her poem "Apparition" (I, 609) in which "the horses race" as "if sensing some pursuit" and "the tsar looks around strangely / With light, empty eyes" as if to bemoan the end of his rule.
Written much later—in 1936—and published in a collection, Reed, there is a poem, "Dante" (II, 117), which is similar in feeling to "Lot's Wife," but celebrates those who did not look back, that is, did not submit to the authorities. In her poem, Dante—who had been exiled from his native city Florence and when later permitted to return provided he publicly repent, refused—"Even after his death he did not return," but sent the city "curses" from hell and even in paradise "barefoot, in a hairshirt … he did not walk / Through his Florence …"
The most poignant poem in this group is "Voronezh" (II, 89), dedicated to Akhmatova's good friend, Mandelstam, who, like Dante, was also exiled, but without hope of returning. He died in one of Stalin's gulags in 1938. Akhmatova senses that he will not survive: "… in the room of the poet in disgrace, / Fear and the Muse keep watch by turns. / And the night comes on / That knows no dawn." Hemschemeyer's translation of the last line—in Russian "kotoraya ne vedaet rassveta"—is closer in meaning and sound to the original than either Thomas's "when there will be no sunrise" (63) or Kunitz's "which has no hope of dawn" (87).
There are literary works of certain periods which reveal the menace of history with particular force. In such a synthesis of art and history, certain deep-seated emotional motifs may generate an obsessive tendency of haunting the artist's imagination. Memory becomes a moral command.
A cycle of poems, entitled Requiem, is the outstanding poetic monument of the era. Hauntingly familiar about the political crossfire in cataloguing the anxieties and depredations of Stalin's despotism, the poems describe what it was to live in a society in which these atrocities were never far away, and in which the ideology behind them destroyed altogether the dignity of daily life. They express Akhmatova's feelings during the three hundred hours when she stood in heat and cold outside the prison walls awaiting news of her son. Both passionate and tender, the cycle is dedicated to the victims of the purges of the late thirties and their families, and records the ordeals endured by her and other women whose fathers, husbands, sons, and brothers were jailed, deported, or executed. The poems were never written down for fear of confiscation and punishment but memorized by herself and others. A cry against the inhumanity of the Soviet regime, Requiem reflects on the grief and sorrow of crushed lives, broken families, and the deep, enduring misery that seemed to settle in the very marrow of the streets in Leningrad when "… the ones who smiled / Were the dead, glad to be at rest," as Akhmatova grieves in the Prologue (II, 99).
Requiem is more a series of impressionistic sketches than a single long poem. Majestic, bitter, lamenting, the poems are written in classical form with her customary simplicity and intensity. There is no better or more sensitive account of those dramatic historical days. As a chronicle of the worst excesses of a modern police state and, at the same time, as a witness's testament to the enduring power of the individual conscience, this disturbing, enthralling, and extraordinarily moving work is a triumph of moral indignation. As a fascinating psychological document in its diagnosis of the collective illness of the social body, it crystallizes the pain of loss and betrayal of the era. While it is an acknowledgment of human failure, it also shows a flicker of hope that runs through the experience and "keeps singing from afar" (II, 97). Requiem cuts an iconoclastic swath through Soviet literature, stirs the heart, and opens the mind in its interaction between this woman-poet and her society. Rarely have the impoverished and powerless had such an eloquent advocate.
Akhmatova spent the first months of the Second World War in besieged Leningrad before she was evacuated to Tashkent. The war inspired her to write a cycle of poems—The Winds of War—calling upon the Russian people to fight against the invaders. The best war poem is "Courage," a festive, grave, and solemn acknowledgment of the seriousness of the situation—"We know what lies in balance at this moment"—and an assurance that "… courage will not desert us. / We're not frightened by a hail of lead," and a silent promise to continue the fight. Most touching is her forceful plea for the preservation of the Russian language—"the mighty Russian word!"—which she promises to "transmit" to "our grandchildren / Free and pure and rescued from captivity" (II, 185). The words were her magic kingdom and it was natural for her, as a writer, to protect them. She might have recalled Turgenev, who once said that in the days of doubt about his country, "you alone are my support and prop. Oh great, powerful, truthful, and free Russian language" (Quoted by Haight 125).
It is interesting to note that in 1940, at the time of the short-lived Hitler-Stalin pact. Akhmatova thought of Paris under German occupation and of London bombarded by the Luftwaffe, and recorded those momentous events in two poems. Ilya Ehrenburg recalls that Akhmatova read him her poem about the fall of Paris—"In the Fortieth Year"—and although she was not there, "the epoch floats to the surface like a corpse on the spring flood," adding, "What strikes me in this poem is not only the accurate perception of a scene Anna Akhmatova had not witnessed but also its foresight. I often see the past epoch now as 'a corpse on the spring flood.' I know it beyond error, but for the grandsons it is something like a ghost, a broken mooring or a capsized boat" (494). Ehrenburg later wrote a novel, The Fall of Paris, which he personally witnessed. In Hemschemeyer's version, the quote is "And afterwards it floats away / Like a corpse on a thawing river" (II, 173). Both "spring flood" and "thawing river" are close to the original. In the poem, "To the Londoners," (II, 175) she calls the bombardment "The twenty-fourth drama of Shakespeare," and as one of "the celebrants at this terrible feast," she "would rather read Hamlet, Caesar or Lear," and "be bearing the dove Juliet to her grave / Would rather peer in at Macbeth's windows," but this new drama she does not "have the strength to read."
Towards the end of the war, she became again the true voice of Russia for many, and her poetry reading in Leningrad was enthusiastically applauded by several thousand listeners. She hoped to be able to punish her poetry again and her essays on Pushkin, but in 1946 she was denounced by Andrey Zhdanov, Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party, and prevented from publishing. Her son was arrested for the third time and she, anticipating arrest, burned her papers, verses, and a play. At this time she wrote several poems under the title "Glory to Peace" praising Stalin with the idea of obtaining clemency for her son. These "forced confessions" have no literary value. As Max Hayward mentions, "The worst punishment Stalin inflicted on poets was not to kill and imprison them but make them praise him" (25).
Akhmatova's most complex work is Poem Without a Hero, a record of her literary life. It consists of a number of narrative episodes and lyric digressions in the past and present. Personal and historical destiny, private and public events, are organically linked. The present is illuminated by the past, as events flow from Stalinist Leningrad back to Tsarist Petersburg. Akhmatova succeeds in making the reader live within such vanished moments and to feel for a while that the past is as real and urgent as the present. In this journey of discovery and self-discovery she looks mostly backward, as if listening for echoes of the distant voices of the past and skillfully weaves present and past lives into direct, vivid communication.
The actual action begins in 1913, an age decadent and corrupt but also bright and colorful. The main event is a senseless, romantic suicide. This event shook the intellectual circle to which Akhmatova belonged and, in retrospect, she felt that everybody of that group, herself included, was guilty and should repent. She used this senseless death as a prelude to predict the horrors of the impending war and implied that the catastrophe that visited the land later was a parable for the sins of the world; indeed, it was a collective punishment. The portrayal of succeeding epochs is marked by images of devastation, suffering, and retribution involving both the innocent and the guilty. History's muse has been muffled, her poetic voice stilled, and her capacity to seize the imagination lost.
Poem Without a Hero is soul-searching poetry with a remarkable evocation of a life lived both on a daily level and in the mind, an authentic portrait of a troubled society—yet also—an implied testament to the ongoing vitality and greatness of an entire culture. It is an unforgettable account of human existence in one of the most crucial periods and places in world history. A vanished era is poetically resurrected.
There are many veiled and hidden allusions in the epigrammatic statements of this poem, presenting a labyrinth of complexities and ambiguities. According to Hingley, "the work's difficulties derive from the mystification deliberately cultivated" and "mirrors and boxes with hidden compartments" (244). To Berlin, who asked whether she would ever annotate the poem since the allusions might remain totally unintelligible for future readers. Akhmatova replied that when "those who knew the world about which she spoke were overtaken by senility or death, the poem would die too, it would be buried with her and her century … the past alone had significance for the poets …" (II, 41).
Poem Without a Hero can be regarded as a summary of Akhmatova's career and a poetic farewell. She made no secret, in her conversation with Berlin, that it was intended as a kind of final memorial to her life as a poet, and to the past of the city—Petersburg—which was part of her being (II, 29-30).
In the last ten years of her life, Akhmatova was contemplating the value of art she had practiced. In rediscovering life's simple miracles, she realized that her poetry was an act of survival. In composing her poems, her mind could leap, twist, adjust itself, and acquire philosophical dimensions involving fundamental issues in life. She knew that while art cannot completely change the future, it still can, in some essential way, lend to it a picture of its own time, and while art cannot fully eliminate our fears either, it also can, by dissecting and analyzing them in a poetic process, diminish their influence and perhaps even provide a temporary escape. She also knew that culture endows people's lives with meaning, although it cannot, finally, be explained but must be simply felt and experienced. Thus, she became convinced that, in a small way, she succeeded in proving the salutary power of art and of the aesthetic experience in a totalitarian age which was determined to eliminate it.
She now went back to her youth as she grew up in Tsarskoe Selo (II, 279) and had long walks in the Summer Garden in Petersburg (II, 283). In an attempt to repossess the broken links with the past, she wrote the lyric "Komarovo Sketches" also known as the "Four of Us" (II, 315), the only poem by any of the four great poet-contemporaries in which all the other three appear, including three epigraphs from the poems that they had dedicated to her. Now that Pasternak, Mandelstam, and Tsvetaeva were all gone, she felt that "We are all a little like guests in life / To live—is only habit." Although she was exhausted by a lifetime of fighting, she still loved beauty over everything else. In "The Last Rose" she wrote, "Lord! You see I am tired / Of living and dying and resurrection. / Take everything but grant that I may feel / The freshness of this crimson rose again" (II, 317).
Deming Brown reviews this period of Akhmatova's life: "In these last years Akhmatova wrote as the conscious representative of an epoch and her personal recollections were designed to embody the historical memory of a whole generation. The subjective impressions in her poetry were now endowed with a generalized cultural and civic intonation…. When most Soviet poets were developing 'modern,' 'contemporary' thematics, Akhmatova, in the words of Yevtushenko, 'returned from Leningrad to Petersburg.' But her own maturity and history itself had prevented her from sealing herself in a time capsule so that her poetry was never archaic and always had contemporary relevance" (26).
Much of her later poetry was not allowed to be printed and, had it not been recorded in memory, would have disappeared. In the end, however, what has disappeared is not her poetry, but astonishingly, the seemingly implacable Soviet system which had furnished much of her poetry's subject matter, and then imposed an awful silence. This is truly poetic justice of the first order.
The thousands who came to her funeral on March 10, 1966, were expressing the country's gratitude that she had preserved for them "the great Russian word" pure and intact as she had promised in her wartime poem "Courage." They realized that the corruption of the language, the twisting of words, would have inevitably led to the destruction of common sense and the perversion of thought. But it was not only the language that she had saved.
To a great extent, as a result of the cultural and spiritual labors of Akhmatova and her equally famous friends for the continuity of the free poetic tradition in Russia, the past decades have witnessed a transformation in the consciousness and political thought of the people. According to Andrei Sinyavsky "… with their nonconformism they [Pasternak, Mandelstam, Akhmatova, and Tsvetaeva] anticipated the dissidence and paved its way. It is not by chance that today they are the most widely read, most respected writers among the Soviet intelligentsia" (226-27). People learned from their poetry how they had been deceived. The appeal of ideology, the notion of having been led through the wilderness to some utopia, faded out. Over this period people have gradually lost their fear of the omnipotent state and acquired a taste for democracy. Finding the political atmosphere looser and less ominous, both dissidents and ordinary citizens were becoming a little bolder in challenging the authorities. In an intellectual autopsy when a new society is being painfully hammered out in Russia after breaking free from the stranglehold of totalitarianism, who can doubt that these four creative artists and their small liberal group of followers—who, against all odds, restored a mutilated folk memory, a culture that was "occupied territory, occupied by the bureaucrats" (Austin) and brought back the tradition of candor, sensitivity, and free thought in Russian literature—played a cardinal role in the ultimate victory of civilized values, laws of morality and common sense? D. M. Thomas asks: "Can it be by chance that the worst of times found the best of poets to wage war for eternal truth and human dignity?" (23).
There is a danger that now as the new Russia emerges, Akhmatova's poetry may seem less defiant and provocative, the pain muted, and the urgency lost. "The plight is not unfamiliar in cultures emerging from repression in which art often assumed the functions of a moral and political opposition," remarks Serge Schmemann. Yet, as an account of collective behavior in times of social upheavals and of the problem of individual comprehension and choice, her poetry remains vibrant and enduring. Every poem breathes the spirit that made her the authentic spokeswoman of living in truth, of the idea that it is not power that matters but values, reason, sincerity and tolerance: a rare combination of artistic skill and intellectual honesty. Although she has been dead for some twenty-eight years, she has so far confounded the rule that former reputations must fade and memories lose their luster. Her stubborn hostility toward fanaticism and her rejection of the false allure of apocalypse has a universal relevance. Not only Soviet intellectuals but freedom-loving people everywhere owe her a debt of gratitude for what she had written to define the never-changing basics of liberty. Thus, it is no wonder that, despite the relative fortunes of the glasnost and perestroika in Russia, she continues to be a unique aspiration for the younger poets and writers of the land, who, at her death, expressed their sorrow and kept celebrating her artistic achievements.
Yevtushenko asks himself "How could we weep?… Alive, / she was beyond belief. / How could she die?" In a reference to her admiration of Dostoevsky he states, "If Pushkin is our sun, surely she is / Our White Night." White Night is an early short story by Dostoevsky. He sees the future when "schoolboys, with their hands in fists, / pressing notebooks tight. / And schoolgirls, bearing in their satchels, / surely, notes and diaries …" continue to read and study Akhmatova (214).
Twenty-one years after her death, Andrei Voznesensky points to the great attraction Akhmatova's poems still retain for the contemporary reader: "A recent volume of her verses, published in an edition of 200,000 copies, was sold out immediately, and is now obtainable only on the black market." In a poem, "Book Boom," he writes, "Just try to buy Akhmatova. / Sold out. The booksellers say / Her black agate-colored tome / Is worth more than agate today." In an evident Schadenfreude he continues, "Those who once attacked her / —as if to atone for their curse— / stand, a reverent honor guard / for a single volume of her verse" (266).
In painting her poetic and physical portrait, Akhmadulina sees her when she was young "with golden eyes" looking—in a reference to her beloved Petersburg—"on two dawns … / on fire along the Neva," and when she became old "Like a heavy, gray-haired bell / with prophetic ear and long summons / she speaks with a voice or with ringing / sent out by star after star, / with her indescribable wattle / full of unearthly song." She envies her a "poor captive of hell or heaven" and would gladly give up "the delight of remaining days" for her poetic riches (141).
I can only regret that these three poems by Russia's outstanding contemporary poets were not included in the Zephyr edition. I also miss a contribution by Joseph Brodsky, one of Akhmatova's "orphans" (I, 129), although there are many references to him in the two volumes. He is, unquestionably, the most talented of her many disciples, strongly influenced by her attention and creative criticism. She thought he was the best among the young poets in Russia whom "she had brought up by hand" (Berlin II, 39). Having been inspired by Akhmatova, no doubt, helped him to win the Nobel prize. Czeslaw Milosz remarks that "Brodsky takes over where young Osip Mandelstam and young Anna Akhmatova were stopped."
Russia's unheroic leap into self-destruction reappears as a cautionary tale for all of us, a tale made only bearable by Akhmatova's fundamental compassion and belief in human decency. How she would have enjoyed to see her Peters-burg—the city of her great teachers Pushkin and Dostoevsky—shed its Leninist sobriquet and become Peter's city again! Although Russian publishing is still recovering from the combined shock of the disappearance of censorship, the gradual advent of market economy, the emergence of hidden tastes, forbidden themes, mysteries, adventures and pornography, and the intellectual atmosphere of the country is still cloudy as various contenders vie for power in an uncertain and often chaotic contemporary political climate, the lively reception of these two marvelous volumes of poetry is one sure sign of Akhmatova's staying power. She is the authentic touchstone of the second Russian Revolution—the revolution of the intellectuals. Let us hope that this time it will last.
Akhmadulina, Bella. The Garden: New and Selected Poetry and Prose. New York: Henry Holt, 1990.
Akhmatova, Anna. The Complete Poems. Judith Hemschemeyer, trans., Roberta Reeder, ed. Somerville, MA: Zephyr Press, 1992. [Referred to as AA I and II.]
――. Anna Akhmatova: Selected Poems. Richard McKane, trans. New York: Penguin Books, 1989.
Austin, Anthony. "For Moscow's Intellectuals, The Night Is Long and Cold." The New York Times Nov. 30, 1980.
Brown, Deming. Soviet Russian Literature Since Stalin. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1978.
Carlisle, Olga. Poets on Street Corners. New York: Random House, 1969.
――. "A Woman in Touch with Her Feelings." Vogue August, 1979.
Chukovsky, Korney, "Akhmatova and Mayakovsky" in Major Soviet Writers: Essays in Criticism. New York: Oxford University Press, 1973.
Ehrenburg, Ilya. Memoirs 1921–1941 New York: Grosset, 1964.
Haight, Amanda. Anna Akhmatova, a Poetic Pilgrimage. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.
Kunitz, Stanley and Max Hayward, trans. Poems of Akhmatova. Boston: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1973.
Mandelstam, Osip. The Complete Critical Prose and Letters. Ann Arbor: Ardis Publishers, 1990.
Milosz, Czeslaw. "A Struggle Against Suffocation." The New York Review of Books Aug. 14, 1980.
Schmemman, Serge. "Without Strictures of the Past, Soviet Literature Languishes." The New York Times Aug. 5, 1991.
Sinyavsky, Andrei. Soviet Civilization, A Cultural History. New York: Arcade Publishing, 1990.
Slonim, Marc. From Chekhov to the Revolution, Russian Literature 1900–1917. New York: Oxford University Press, 1962.
Thomas, D. M., trans., Anna Akhmatova, The Way of All the Earth. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1979.
Voznesensky, Andrei, Arrow in the Wall, Selected Poetry and Prose. New York: Henry Holt, 1987.
Yevtushenko, Yevgeny. The Collected Poems. New York: Henry Holt, 1991.
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SOURCE: "The Smallest Museum in Russia: Akhmatova Lived Here (and Lives Here Still)," in New York Times Book Review, January 1, 1995, p. 10.
[Russell is an author and writes for art and culture for the New York Times. In the following essay, he describes the museum in St. Petersburg dedicated to Akhmatova.]
The most moving of all the museums in Russia, right now, is also the smallest and the most unlikely. Niched with no fuss whatever in what was a communal apartment high in the annex of the former Sheremetyev Palace in St. Petersburg, it is devoted to a great Russian poet, Anna Akhmatova (1889–1966). A quiet and almost secret place, it has in it virtually no object of intrinsic value. Its installation is rudimentary. But it is her own room, with her belongings all around, nothing added or subtracted. The linden trees outside the window are the ones whose agitated shadows she remembered in times of trouble. How could her presence not be felt to an almost overwhelming degree?
From 1925 to 1952, it was the nearest thing to a permanent home she had. Here between 1935 and 1940 she composed Requiem, a sequence of poems from which posterity will know what it was to be in St. Petersburg during the Stalinist terror and to live in dread from day to day. And in this apartment she later wrote much of the long Poem Without a Hero, a phantasmagoric and often cryptic or coded autobiography into which people, places and incidents from her past come crowding.
During much of her life, the Soviet regime did everything in its power to disgrace and discredit Akhmatova and her work. One of her husbands was executed, another died in a prison camp, her only son was repeatedly arrested and then sent to the gulag. After she was expelled from the Union of Soviet Writers in 1946, her room was bugged. The K G B forced the domestic help to report on the company she kept. She was routinely tailed in the street. If she came back home after dark, cameras were trained on her and pictures were taken by the light of magnesium flares.
To find the strait little cabins that make up the museum, we must take the "tricky back staircase" that her friend Lidia Chukovskaya first climbed in 1938. "Each step was as deep as three," she writes in her published diaries. Once arrived, she was led through "a kitchen hung with washing on lines, its wetness slapping one's face."
Today that entrance is bright and clean and dry. And the museum begins with an aspect of Akhmatova that has nothing to do with her status as the conscience of a great city and the spokeswoman for wives, mothers and lovers suffering through the terror. The memorabilia give us an unforgettable notion of Akhmatova's life in St. Petersburg before and just after the Revolution. The pioneer travels of her first husband, Nikolai Gumilev, in Africa on behalf of the Academy of Sciences are mapped and recorded, as are his dandified good looks and his impact as a gifted young poet. Invitations, playbills and vintage photographs document the era in which Akhmatova was free to travel and to publish whatever she pleased. She was hugely admired. In 1911–12 she went to Paris, where every head turned as she walked by and where she made friends with Modigliani and watched an early season of Diaghilev's Ballets Russes. In the museum we get a sense of her living a high-styled life in a great cosmopolitan capital. We see country outings, uproarious evenings in the Stray Dog cabaret, snatched moments a deux and the comings and goings of a major dancer, Tamara Karsavina, a major poet, Aleksandr Blok and a major theater director, Vseyolod Meyerhold. Photographed in the likeness of a very young Hamlet, she would have bewitched Shakespeare himself.
Readers who know her for a famous passage or two from Requiem think of her primarily as an elegist of genius. But she never lost a gift for candor, concision and a conversational fluency in her poems. What other poet would sum herself up as "the most faithful mate of other women's husbands, / and of many the sorrowing widow"? In seven lines she could sum up a failed marriage with Attic finality
He loved three things in life
Evensong: white peacocks
And old maps of America.
He hated it when children cried.
He hated tea with raspberry jam
And women's hysterics
… And I was his wife
The whole of life was her subject. At 18, she delivered the essence of insomnia in two lines, "Both sides of the pillow / Are already hot." When she was in Paris in 1911 she wrote a short poem beginning, "It's so much fun when you're drunk / And your stories don't make sense."
It is easy to document the Akhmatova of later years in the museum because her room is so minutely re-created. And it is also impossible because there is no way to replicate the generational and matrimonial horror scene set up in 1925 when Akhmatova was taken by her third husband, the art historian Nikolai Punin, to live in the apartment with his former wife and daughter. What became a domestic inferno is now hushed and pristine. Vanished is the primeval phonograph that the neighbors cranked up and played by the hour. Nor does a taped docudrama picture the scene in which Nikolai Punin would glare at his family and say, "Too damn many people get to eat here!"
The place has been cleaned up, not prettied up. Looking at how she lived, we recall that she never learned to cook or sew. She could look very grand, if she wanted to. But often her clothes were torn, top to bottom, unminded for years. It was nothing to her to sleep in a coarse nightshirt under a thick blanket without a sheet. She was content if someone brought her for supper one boiled carrot, long gone cold. Eyeing her few belongings, we remember how the Punins "borrowed" her kettle and went out on the town, locking their door. We also remember how often she was left without, or perhaps did not think of, a knife, a fork or a spoon for guests.
If there are gaps in what we see, and in what she had, that is because this was a communal apartment in which people pilfered. Sometimes a soap dish vanished, sometimes a rare Egyptian brooch. (Modigliani's drawing of Akhmatova, done in Paris, is still there, but in reproduction.) Noting that there is no big desk, we remember how she said that most of what she wrote in the Soviet years was done while sitting on someone else's window ledge. Noting that there are no bookshelves and no books, we remember that she kept her Dante, Pushkin and Shakespeare out of sight in a Florentine chest or credenza.
Through her window, we look down on the garden; it was fenced off in her time. Punin had a key, but she did not. "How is that possible?" someone asked her. "A professor is always a professor," Akhmatova said "But what am I? Carrion."
The offhand use of that disconcerting noun should remind us that no one ever had a finer instinct for the unexpected word that leaves nothing more to be said. When that one word was "no," in relation to the Soviet regime, she never hedged. Her friend Nadezhda Mandelstam says in her memoir Hope Abandoned that "Akhmatova's strength lay in her refusal to accept the untruth of the times in which she lived. The manner in which she uttered her 'No' was a real feat of nonacceptance." After she had been married to Punin for 15 years, he brought a mistress to live in the apartment. Akhmatova lost no time. She said simply, "Let's exchange rooms." This was forthwith agreed to.
If there are no manuscripts in the museum, it is because it was so dangerous for her to keep them, she would invite one or two trusted friends to memorize her poems. Then she burned the manuscripts. While her little iron stove crackled ("peacefully and cozily," according to one witness), she sat and talked about the weather.
If there are no marks of esteem from colleagues abroad, it is because Akhmatova was not allowed to receive letters from them. It was a dangerous day for her when in 1945, she was visited by Isaiah Berlin, the Oxford philosopher and historian of ideas. He was only the second foreigner to whom she had spoken since World War I. His visit was undertaken in all innocence. In no way could it have been a threat to the Soviet regime. The many hours that the two spent talking together—he had perfect Russian—could have led to a friendship that would have done honor to our century. Yet what came of this visit, as of the following day, was a long period of heightened harassment of her.
It is therefore, in many ways, a racked and complicated presence that reigns over this museum. Akhmatova the goddess of mourning and the intransigent unbeliever in Soviet ways is a major component. But there was yet another Akhmatova—one who could describe herself in later life as "written by Kafka and acted by Chaplin." She could make her friends laugh till they fell off their chairs. When I met her in London in the 1960's, we were speaking about Shakespeare and she declared firmly that her favorite character was Falstaff—no high heroics for her. Nadezhda Mandelstam did not hand out superlatives easily, but she said of Akhmatova that she had never known "such a wonderful madcap woman, poet and friend."
The annex in which she lived is not at all like the ancestral Sheremetyev Palace to which it is attached. But Akhmatova did not fail to take note of the family motto, "Deus conservat omnia," which says that it is the role of God to preserve all things, without exception. In that context, God had a sworn enemy in the Soviet regime. But when we are all through with the Akhmatova museum, and with the feast of reading by or about her that is now available, we may well decide that in respect of Anna Akhmatova God did a very good job.
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SOURCE: "If Poet's Room Could Speak, It Would Tell of Grief," in New York Times, June 28, 1995, p. A4.
[In the following essay, Specter discusses the museum dedicated to Akhmatova.]
St. Petersburg, Russia—In the diffuse, almost endless light of summer, it is hard to regard this city as a place of suffering. Few people could gaze at the noble mansions and monuments and easily summon thoughts of despair.
In many ways St. Petersburg has, since its creation, always been the spiritual center of the country, the center of science, sophistication, culture and art. But for the last century culture has usually been at war with Russia. Pushkin died here in a foolish duel and Dostoyevsky was taken from the city in chains. Osip Mandelstam, Pushkin's heir, was destroyed by Stalin.
Somehow, though, the poet Anna Akhmatova survived. She lived through the revolution and the Nazi siege, through hunger and disgrace and the murder of her closest friends. She lived through the terror of Stalin, mostly alone in a small room that is now a sad, perpetually empty museum. She lived to tell about it all by carefully committing her poems to memory and then burning the paper they were written on. ("It was like a ritual," her friend the poet Lydiya Chukovskaya wrote. "Hands, matches, an ashtray. A ritual beautiful and bitter.")
Always grand in her restraint, lucid in the agony she was able to convey, Akhmatova was the bard of St. Petersburg. She managed to be everything the city has always been: elegant, expressive and laden with grief. She was, in her disciple Joseph Brodsky's unforgettable phrase, "the keening muse."
But the muse is not in demand these days. Even at the height of the tourist season there are not many visitors to the memorial rooms devoted to her in the Fountain House, a former palace that became a communal residence where she lived during Soviet times. More people visit Dostoyevsky's house in a month than have been to see Akhmatova's rooms this year, even though, in Russia, she is considered one of this century's finest poets.
"She is still loved," said the museum's director, Nina Popova. "But people just don't feel the need to come here. I don't understand it. Maybe the memories are still too strong. Maybe it's too painful for people to be reminded of something so close."
This is a country that cherishes literature like no other. But maybe life in Russia today is moving too fast to waste time on a woman who died 30 years ago and could well have lived in another world. Born in 1889 and raised near here in Tsarskoye Celo (Czar's Village), where Pushkin also once lived, she chose not to emigrate after the revolution. "I am not one of those who left the land to the mercy of its enemies," she wrote. "Their flattery leaves me cold, my songs are not for them to praise."
Her first husband, Nikolai Gumilev, was shot as a subversive in 1921. She was barred from publishing her poetry; she was with Mandelstam when he was arrested. Like most of her friends, he died in the camps.
All this is communicated in the few rooms in which she lived between the years 1922 and 1952. There are silhouettes of her friends, and carefully reworked drafts of some of her shorter poems. There are many drawings of her, for she was tall, lithe, dark and beautiful in an eternally exotic way.
She gained her early fame writing love poems, but history took her in a sharply different direction. She was at her most creative when Russia plunged into the darkest ravine (perhaps proving her friend Mandelstam's comment that great poetry is often a response to total disaster).
When the terror was at its worst, she lived in a single room with a tiny bed, a desk and four books (Pushkin, Shakespeare, Dante and the Bible). Linden trees—beautiful and often mentioned in her poetry—block most of the light even on the sunny days that are now upon the city. There was little heat and less food.
"The souls of all my dears have flown to the stars," she wrote in "The Return." "Thank God there's no one left for me to lose so I can cry."
There is surprisingly little of value or importance in her rooms. Some porcelain; a copy of the one Modigliani line drawing of her that survives (he drew 16); posters that tell the troubled story of modern Russian literature. "Akhmatova or Mayakovsky? Two Russias" was the bill for a lecture on Dec. 16, 1920, at the House of Artists here, when debates between opposing figures like a traditionalist and a futurist were still possible. There are a few short notes for Requiem, her great epic of suffering.
Requiem is Akhmatova's story but it is also Russia's. It takes place during the worst years of the purges, between 1935 and 1940, when she stood outside Leningrad's enormous stone prison day after day for 17 months, desperate for some word of her son's fate. Even then she was famous, and a woman, seeing the poet for the first time, timidly approached her. The exchange appears at the beginning of her long story of those terrible years:
One day somebody in the crowd identified me. Standing behind me was a woman, with lips blue from cold, who had, of course, never heard me called by name before. Now she started out of the torpor common to us all and asked me in a whisper (everyone whispered there):
"Can you describe this?"
And I said: "I can."
Then something like a smile passed fleetingly over what had once been her face.
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SOURCE: "The Death of the Book à la russe: The Acmeists Under Stalin," in Slavic Review, Vol. 55, No. 1, Spring, 1996, pp. 125-35.
[In the following essay, Cavanagh discusses how Akhmatova and fellow Acmeist Osip Mandel'shtam refused to be silenced by Stalinist oppression.]
In Of Grammatology (1967), Jacques Derrida apocalyptically proclaims what he calls "the death of the book," the death, that is, of the self-contained, organically unified, self-explanatory text. The postmodern age, he continues, has replaced the now defunct book with the notions of "writing" (écriture) and of a "text" that undermines or explodes any metaphorical bindings that might attempt to confine it within the safely "logocentric" limits of a single, self-sufficient volume. "The destruction of the book, as it is now underway in all domains" is a "necessary violence," Derrida claims; and the rhetorical violence with which he marks the unnatural death of the book finds its counterparts in the famous proclamations of Michel Foucault and Roland Barthes, whose respective essays "What is an Author" (1969) and "The Death of the Author" (1968) commemorate the passing of the autonomous, individual creators of the objects known in less enlightened ages as "books." "[The work] now attains the right to kill, to become the murderer of its author," Foucault announces, and his phrase—indeed, all the phrases I've cited—are bound to give the Slavist pause, not least because such metaphors have had, in recent Russian history, an uncomfortable habit of realizing themselves as they pass from theory into practice.1
"There are some countries where men kiss women's hands, and others where they only say 'I kiss your hand.' There are countries where Marxist theory is answered by Leninist practice, and where the madness of the brave, the martyr's stake, and the poet's Golgotha are not just figurative expressions." Roman Jakobson's observation dates from 1931; it is peculiarly apt, though, in the postmodern philosophical context in which Barthes, Foucault and Derrida operate. All three theorists developed their concepts in an environment in which men "only say 'I kiss your hand,'" in which, that is to say, the literal implications of "the death of the author" remain unactivated. They deal explicitly with the development of "literature," the "author" and the "book" in western, "bourgeois capitalist" civilization. The notion of the author, and the concept of the autonomous human subject that underlies it, are "the epitome and culmination of capitalist ideology," Barthes explains, and "the image of literature" in bourgeois culture is, as a consequence, "tyrannically centered on the author, his person, his life, his tastes, his passions."2
What happens, though, when an actual tyrant "tyrannically centers" his attention on the author's person, life and passions? I cannot enter here into all the many ways in which the development of Russian "literature as institution" diverges from its counterparts in the west.3 The student of Stalinist-era writing, though, is uneasily aware of the cultural specificity of Barthes', Derrida's and Foucault's dead authors and books. All the world's a text, these theorists proclaim; and within this textual kingdom, as Derrida says, "the 'literal' meaning of writing [is] metaphoricity itself."4 All three theorists are provocateurs or, as Allan Megill puts it, responsive or "reactive" thinkers who seek "to attack received ideas, to demolish previous platitudes."5 They are practitioners of what their great precursor Friedrich Nietzsche calls "the magic of the extreme."6 Their dead authors and books trace their lineage back to the God whose death Nietzsche celebrates in The Gay Science (1887), and, like Nietzsche, they require a bland backdrop, middle-of-the-road, middle-class, complacent, commonsensical, for their extreme pronouncements to have the desired effect. Like Nietzsche, they demand an audience "made up of us folks here—living in the 'ordinary' world, earning money, raising families, catching buses, experiencing pleasure/leisure of various sorts, and undergoing the vagaries of nature."7 That is to say, they require a context in which texts are not responsible for the actual deaths of their creators, in which novels may metaphorically bomb in the marketplace or die, in filmed form, at the box office, but are not literally destroyed by anxious writers in their quest for self-preservation or by a state determined to maintain absolute control over its master script of past and present alike. "The twentieth century has given us a most simple touchstone for reality: physical pain," Czeslaw Milosz comments; one might extend his thought and say that the true test of any literary theory must be a dead body.8 The dead authors and books of Barthes, Foucault and Derrida can retain their purely metaphorical status only in a society that has long since lost the habit of literally destroying writers and texts for their verbal crimes against the state. If the literal meaning, in other words, of phrases like "the death of the author" or "of the book" is the first meaning that comes to mind, as it does for the Slavist, it undermines the very core of these theorists' arguments; it undoes our capacity to conceive of language as mere metaphoricity or of the world as pure interpretation.
The "author" was born, Foucault remarks, "only when [he] became subject to punishment and to the extent that his discourse is considered transgressive … an action situated in a bipolar field of sacred and profane, lawful and unlawful, religious and blasphemous."9 This also describes exactly the kind of situation in which the real-life author (not the "author" in quotation marks) may be called upon to die for his or her transgressive verbal actions, and this is the sort of culture in which Osip Mandel'shtam (1891–1938) and Anna Akhmatova (1889–1966) found themselves living and writing during the period of so-called "high Stalinism," that is, from the early 1930s until the outbreak of World War II and the nazi assault on the Soviet Union. "If they"re killing people for poetry," Nadezhda Mandel'shtam recalls her husband saying during their years of exile in the 1930s, "that means they honor and esteem it, they fear it … that means poetry is power."10 What I want to turn to now are the singular poetics and forms of poetic power that Mandel'shtam and Akhmatova derive from writing in a society that paid poets the dubious compliment of taking their persons and their texts with the utmost seriousness.
In her memoirs, Nadezhda Mandel'shtam speaks of writing in the "pre-Gutenberg era" of Russian literature,11 and her phrase suggests the nature of the "death of the book" as it took shape in Stalinist Russia. By the early 1930s, both Akhmatova and Mandel'shtam had undergone what Akhmatova calls a "civic" or "civil" "death" (grazhdanskaia smert'—a more literal translation might read "death as a citizen").12 They became official non-persons, practitioners of a suspect genre, the lyric, and adherents of an outmoded, "pastist" poetic philosophy, acmeism. ("It does not make new poets of you to write about the philosophy of life of the Seventeenth Century into the language of the Acmeists," Trotskii had warned early on.13) Both writers were virtually barred from print. As literature and the arts were transformed into handmaidens of the state, only those writers willing to contribute to what Mandel'shtam calls "the book of Stalin" (stalinskaia kniga), the larger text of Soviet letters and life then being scripted by the master artist, Stalin himself, had access to the paper, printers and presses that would guarantee their works a public, "civic" life.14
Their poetry continued to live, however, a furtive, underground existence as it was written on scraps of paper and hidden, or circulated in manuscript among friends, or read aloud and hastily memorized. Such a situation would hardly seem conducive to the cultivation of the kind of poetic power Mandel'shtam celebrates in his remarks to his wife. Yet it is precisely at the time that the final nails were being driven into Mandel'shtam's and Akhmatova's civic coffins, the time of the First Congress of Soviet Writers (1934) and the official birth of socialist realism (1932), that Mandel'shtam pronounces his own social command (sotsial'nyi zakaz) for himself and his fellow acmeist. "Now we must write civic verse (Teper' stikhi dolzhny byt' grazhdanskimi)," Akhmatova recalls him announcing in 193315; and the ironies of his proclamation are manifold. In the first place, he and Akhmatova had been barred from public life precisely for their failure to write civic poetry, or at least the kind of civic poetry the regime required. They were considered lyric poets par excellence, famed or defamed as the composers of what Soviet critics called "chamber poetry."16 As such, they were entirely unwelcome in a state that demanded, with increasing insistence, only triumphal marches and collective hymns to accompany the nation's uninterrupted progress towards a glorious future. The dweller in what Mandel'shtam calls "the accidental, personal and catastrophic" realm of the lyric could claim no civil rights in a state dedicated to the eradication of all that is private, personal and unplanned.17 According to the new work plan for poetry, poets could speak for and to the people only by renouncing their lyric selves as they "dissolve in the official hymn," in Akhmatova's phrase.18
Under the Soviet regime, Boris Eikhenbaum notes, "the lyric 'I' became almost taboo."19 How could practitioners of a forbidden genre, non-citizens barred from public discourse, hope to speak for and to the larger audience that a truly "civic poet" requires? For Akhmatova and Mandel'shtam do indeed produce their most ambitious, audaciously "civic" poetry precisely at the height of Stalin's terror—I have in mind Mandel'shtam's great sequence of Verses on the Unknown Soldier (Stikhi o neizvestnom soldate, 1937) and Akhmatova's magnificent Requiem (Rekviem, 1935–1940). Mandel'shtam provides us with a tacit answer to this question by way of the example that he gave Akhmatova of genuine "civic" writing. He followed his social command—"Now we must write civic verse"—with a recitation that was, in effect, his declaration of a sui generis form of civil war (grazhdanskaia voina), that is, of war against the state on behalf of its citizenry. The poem he recited to Akhmatova was the famous "Stalin Epigram" (1933), a lyric published only posthumously that proved to be, nonetheless, his death warrant.
[Translation] We live without feeling the country under us. / Our speeches can't be heard ten steps away. / But whenever there's enough for half a chat— / Talk turns to the Kremlin mountaineer. / His fat fingers are plump as worms. / And his words are as sure as iron weights. / His mighty cockroach moustache laughs, / And his vast boot-tops gleam. / A mob of thin-necked chieftains surrounds him. / He toys with the favors of half-humans. / One whistles, another mews, a third whimpers. / He alone bangs and pokes. / He forges one decree after another, like horseshoes— / One gets it in the groin, another in the head, the brow, the eye. / Every execution is a treat / And the broad breast of the Ossetian.20
On hearing the "Stalin Epigram," Boris Pasternak reportedly exclaimed: "This is not a literary fact, but an act of suicide."21 It is actually a little of both; it exists on the boundaries between language as metaphor and language as action, and thus incidentally illustrates the problems of speaking, as Barthes and Derrida do, of language as innately, exclusively metaphorical. The poem itself concerns the possibilities, limits and dangers of different kinds of speech. Mandel'shtam contrasts the inaudible "half-conversations" of those who oppose or fear Stalin and the dehumanized mewing and whining of those who support him with the language of the "Great Leader" himself, who demonstrates the real-life consequences of his speech on the bodies of his subjects as he energetically forges new decrees: "One gets it in the groin, another in the head, the brow, the eye." The very energy and efficiency of Mandel'shtam's diction and syntax in these phrases enact the power of the language that he describes.
Mandel'shtam counters this form of language as action with his own verbal deed, the poem itself, and he authorizes the collective "we" he requires for his civic verse precisely by way of his linguistic feat. He proclaims vo ves' golos, at the top of his voice, what the Russian people think but dare not say aloud: "But whenever there's enough for half a chat— / Talk turns to the Kremlin mountaineer." Unlike the leader who reserves the powers of speech for himself alone—"He alone bangs and pokes" with his words like "iron weights"—Mandel'shtam derives his verbal authority and force from the multitudes whose innermost thoughts and fears he articulates.
I have been speaking of the "Stalin Epigram" as a form of action, a deed, and I do not mean the terms metaphorically. Mandel'shtam was prepared to take the real-life consequences of his verbal deed—"I'm ready for death," Akhmatova recalls him saying22—and the poem precipitated his first arrest, in 1934, which was followed by three years of internal exile, a second arrest in 1937 and finally his death early in 1938 in a transit camp en route to the gulag. Indeed, according to auditors who witnessed his clandestine recitations of the "Stalin Epigram," Mandel'shtam appeared to be staging performance-provocations intended to reach the ears of his epigram's subject: he recited the poem to selected groups of friends and acquaintances, some of whom were almost guaranteed to pass it on to the authorities. The poem in fact existed only in oral form, in performance—Mandel'shtam himself transcribed it for the first time only at his police interrogation in 1934—and it was as oral performance that it precipitated his arrest.23
This is, I think, not accidental. In the epigram, Mandel'shtam describes the ominous power of Stalin's spoken words. Through his performance of the epigram, Mandel'shtam demonstrates the equal force of the poet's speech. The poet's voice, condemned to "civic death" in the private domain, may seem inaudible—but it travels far further than "ten steps away." It bypasses the whole elaborate state apparatus designed for the control and repression of the written word to reach the ears of the leader himself, who is compelled to countermand it by his own verbal action in the form of the orders that led to Mandel'shtam's arrest and exile. The "Stalin Epigram," as poem and provocation, thus paradoxically becomes Mandel'shtam's most direct testimony to the power and efficacy of the spoken poetic word.24
In Derridian philosophy, western civilization revolves around a misguided, illusory opposition between "fallen," artificial written language and untainted, "natural" speech. We find a similar dichotomy at work in Mandel'shtam's late poetics—and yet, once again, the context in which Mandel'shtam lived and worked gives this opposition a very different coloration than it assumes in Derridian thought. "Writing and speech are incommensurate," Mandel'shtam insists in "Conversation about Dante" (1933), and in "Fourth Prose" (1930) he leaves little doubt about where his own preferences lie. "I have no manuscripts, no notebooks, no archives," he proclaims. "I have no handwriting, for I never write. I alone in Russia work with my voice, while all around me consummate swine are writing." There is an element of truth in Mandel'shtam's characteristic hyperbole: he did indeed compose aloud and on his feet, and he and his wife worked to transcribe his lyrics only after they had been completely composed in the poet's mind and voice.25
For the Mandel'shtam of "Fourth Prose" and the revealingly titled "Conversation," however, the idea of a corrupt and fallen written language is based not on western cultural mythologies but on Soviet reality. When all agencies of printing, reproduction and distribution lie in the hands of the government, any author "who first obtains permission and then writes" becomes involved in an act of collaboration with the state whose blessing he has received. He composes his work on what Mandel'shtam calls in one poem "watermarked police stationery" and his "authorized" writings thus take their place in a continuum that begins with state-sponsored poetry and ends with the state's most ominous decrees: "Crude animal fear hammers on the typewriters, crude animal fear proofreads the Chinese gibberish on sheets of toilet paper, scribbles denunciations, strikes those who are down, demands the death penalty for prisoners."26
In such a society, only unauthorized speech or, more specifically, oral poetry, can speak a language free of complicity in the state's atrocities; only the poet who works "from the voice" can hope to challenge the state's monopoly on written language. "They have sullied the most pure Word, / They have trampled the sacred Word (glagol)," Akhmatova writes in a lyric of the period, and western logocentric mythologies are not what is at stake here, as Akhmatova's own poetry makes clear.27 In the prose text that opens Requiem, Akhmatova derives the authority to compose her tribute to the purges' victims not from any official source but from an unauthorized, oral communiqué from an anonymous fellow sufferer:
[Translation] In the terrible years of the Ezhov terror, I spent seventeen months in the prison lines of Leningrad. Once somebody "identified" me. Then a blue-lipped woman standing behind me, who had of course, never heard my name, came to from the torpor characteristic of us all and asked me in a whisper [everyone spoke in whispers there], "But can you describe this?" And I said, "I can."
Then something like a smile slipped across what had once been her face.28
As in Mandel'shtam's "Stalin Epigram," the poet justifies her civic, collective "we" by virtue of her ability to articulate aloud what other suffering Russians only whisper.
Akhmatova is like Mandel'shtam, too, in her emphasis, here and elsewhere, on the face and mouth that articulate what Mandel'shtam calls "sounds forbidden for Russian lips." "A human, hot, contorted mouth / Is outraged and says 'No,'" Mandel'shtam writes in one fragmentary late poem; and in their late writings both Akhmatova and Mandel'shtam insistently call attention to the mouths, lips and tongues that firmly root speech in the body that may be called upon to account for its verbal crimes against the state. Mandel'shtam makes these lips the basis for a defiant "underground" poetics in the opening lines of one late poem. "Yes, I lie in the earth moving my lips, / But every schoolchild will learn what I say," he announces defiantly from the grave to which he has been confined following his "civic funeral."29
Oral poetry is not the only genre that Mandel'shtam and Akhmatova practice in their efforts to avoid signing their names to "Stalin's book," the massive, monstrous, collective text being spun out by the state apparatus with the assistance of the obedient tribe of hired scribes whom Mandel'shtam denounces in "Fourth Prose." Mandel'shtam and Akhmatova were effectively barred from print throughout the 1930s. They could have no hope of seeing their own names and poems printed in anything remotely resembling a conventional book, and the written form that their poems took were handwritten copies scrawled on scraps of paper or laboriously transcribed by hand into unprepossessing school copybooks (I'm thinking now, of course, of Mandel'shtam's "Moscow" and "Voronezh Notebooks"). "It is more honorable to be learned by heart, to be secretly, furtively recopied, to be not a book, but a copybook in one's own lifetime," Maksimilian Voloshin had written shortly after the revolution, and his words proved to be prophetic.30 Mandel'shtam follows Voloshin's lead as he makes a virtue of necessity by turning humble, unpublished scraps of paper into a crucial genre of the underground poet. In the "Conversation about Dante," Mandel'shtam inverts the apparent order of things as he condemns "official paper" to oblivion and assigns true permanence only to the rough drafts (chernoviki) that cannot be captured on official paper and made to serve official purposes. "Rough drafts," he insists, "are never destroyed … The safety of the rough draft is the statute assuring preservation of the power behind the literary work."31 It is a theory made to order for poets denied access to official paper of any sort, and Akhmatova provides testimony to its efficacy and force in the first dedication to her Poem without A Hero (Poema bez geroia, 1940–1966). "Since I didn't have enough paper, / I'm writing on your rough draft (A tak kak mne bumagi ne khvatilo, / Ia na tvoem pishu chernovike)," Akhmatova explains, and the rough draft she has in mind can only be a page taken from one of Mandel'shtam's perpetually unfinished notebooks.32 She thus bears witness to the power of the unprinted word and to the indestructibility of the rough draft that has already outlived its less fortunate, more perishable creator.
Akhmatova creates a telling variant on this poetics of the incorruptible rough draft in her late work. "Manuscripts don't burn," Mikhail Bulgakov proclaims in a famous phrase.33 In Akhmatova's late poetics of the unofficial text, however, manuscripts do burn, and poems do perish—and this is precisely what guarantees their integrity and, finally, their immortality. In her Stalin-era writings, Akhmatova cultivates the genre of the "burnt notebook" and its subsidiary, the "poems written for the ashtray," and the phrases' meanings are both literal and metaphorical.34 She was in fact forced to burn her private archives more than once, in the hopes of keeping illicit writings out of official hands. Some of the burned texts vanished for good—but others survived, either in her own memory or in the memories and copybooks of friends.
This literal death and resurrection of the poetic text gives rise to the metaphor that enables Akhmatova, the banned, forbidden lyric poet, to take on Stalin himself as she forges her own collective, civic voice to speak for the masses who have been either figuratively or literally obliterated by Stalinist collective rhetoric. The lyric poem can fall victim to Stalinist oppression just as the lyric poet can, and their voices are suppressed for the same reason: they speak for the realm of the personal, the private and the individual that the regime was bent upon destroying. The poem and the poet become arch-victims, then, the best, most fitting representatives of the millions of victims, both living and dead, whose private, individual selves the state had done its best to efface in the name of the collective.
For both Akhmatova and Mandel'shtam, their civic authority is underwritten by their very perishability and the perishability of their works. It is precisely because the poets and their poems are subject to literal, physical death that they are authorized to speak for the dead and dying victims of a nation under siege by its own rulers. In their greatest "civic" poems, Mandel'shtam and Akhmatova are thus able to turn Stalinist rhetoric on its head, as the artificial collective imposed from above meets its match in the genuinely communal voice that rise from below, through the throat of the poet prematurely consigned to civic burial. Thus in "The Verses on the Unknown Soldier," Mandel'shtam employs the militaristic rhetoric of the five-year plans, with their class warfare, enemies of the people, saboteurs, provocateurs and wreckers, to orchestrate a mutiny among the common foot-soldiers who have fallen prey to their generalissimo's grandiose plans. And, as Susan Amert has shown in her wonderful recent study of Akhmatova's late poetry, Akhmatova in her Requiem counters the state's inflated rhetoric of the "motherland" with her own "song of the motherland" woven from the wails of the wives and mothers left behind by Stalin's victims.35 "I renounce neither the living or the dead," Mandel'shtam announced shortly before his own death36—and in their civic poetry Mandel'shtam and Akhmatova speak for both the living and the dead by virtue of their faith in the lasting powers of dead authors and dead books.
1. Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology, trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976), 8, 18; Michel Foucault, "What is an Author," in Language, Countermemory, Practice: Selected Essays and Interviews, ed. Donald F. Bouchard, trans. Donald F. Bouchard, Sherry Simon (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1977), 113-39, esp. 117; Roland Barthes, "The Death of the Author," in Image—Music—Text, ed. and trans. Stephen Heath (New York: Hill and Wang, 1977), 142-43.
2. Roman Jakobson, "On a Generation That Squandered Its Poets," trans. Edward J. Brown, in Victor Erlich, ed., Twentieth-Century Russian Literary Criticism (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1975), 164; Barthes, "The Death of the Author," 143.
For a provocative discussion of the notion of the "death of the author" in modern French and Russian poetry, see Svetlana Boym, Death in Quotation Marks: Cultural Myths of the Modern Poet (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1991).
3. This issue has been ably addressed by other Slavists, both in Russia and the west; one might note here the work of William Mills Todd III, among American Slavists. Among scholars who have followed the lead of Iurii Lotmann and Lydia Ginzburg, one might mention, inter alia, Boris Gasparov, Irina Paperno and Aleksandr Zholkovsky, practitioners of a semiotics of culture that might be called the Russian answer to new historicism.
4. Of Grammatology, 15.
5. Allan Megill, Prophets of Extremity: Nietzsche, Heidegger, Foucault, Derrida (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985), 340, 347.
6. The Will to Power, ed. Walter Kaufmann, trans. Walter Kaufmann, R. G. Hollingdale (New York: Vintage Books, 1968), 396.
7. Megill, Prophets, 351.
8. The Witness of Poetry (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1983), 66.
9. "What is an Author," 124. For an incisive discussion of the limits of Foucault's theory on Stalinist soil, see Beth Holmgren, Women's Works in Stalin's Time: On Lidiia Chukovskaia and Nadezhda Mandelstam (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993), 7-9.
10. Vospominaniia: kniga pervaia, 3rd ed. (Paris: YMCA Press, 1982), 178. Elsewhere in the same volume, Nadezhda Mandel'shtam recalls her husband's reproach: "Why are you complaining?… Only here do they really respect poetry—they kill because of it. More people die for poetry here than anywhere else" (167). It is easy to mythologize the situations in extremis in which poets are called upon to die for their verse. Whether poetry should ideally be a matter of life and death is a vexed question, to say the least; the fact remains that in certain circumstances, the poetic word has consequences that far outreach the limits of postmodern écriture.
11. Vospominaniia: kniga pervaia, 200.
12. "Believe me, I've had it up to here / With the triumphs of a civic death," Akhmatova complains in one late lyric ("Torzhestvami grazhdanskoi smerti," Sochineniia, v. 3, 502). She explains the nature of her premature burial and "posthumous existence" in her essay on Georgii Ivanov's Peterburgskie zimy (1961): "They stopped publishing me altogether from 1925 to 1939 … I was witness to my civic death for the first time then. I was thirty-five years old …" ("On Petersburg Winters," in Anna Akhmatova, My Half Century: Selected Prose, ed. Ronald Meyer (Ann Arbor; Ardis, 1992), 57.
13. Leon Trotskii, Literature and Revolution, trans. Rose Strunsky (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1960), 171.
14. Mandel'shtam refers to "Stalin's book" in his last lyrwritten in Moscow before his final arrest. The phrase itself is taken from his chilling "Stanzas" (Stansy), written in July 1937, as printed in Osip Mandel'shtam, Sochineniia v dvukh tomakh, ed. P. M. Nerler (Moscow: Khudozhestvennaia literatura, 1990), v. 1, 316-17. On Stalin as the master artist who fulfills avant-garde dreams of fusing life and art, see Andrei Sinyavsky, Soviet Civilization: A Cultural History, trans. Joanne Turnbull (New York: Little, Brown, 1990), 93-113; and Boris Groys, The Total Art of Stalinism: Avant-Garde, Aesthetic Dictatorship, and Beyond, trans. Charles Rougle (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992).
15. Anna Akhmatova, "Mandel'shtam (Listki iz dnevnika)," Sochineniia, ed. Boris Filipoff and G. P. Struve (vs. 1-2, Washington, DC: Interlanguage Library Associates, 1967–1968, v. 3, Paris: YMCA Press, 1983), 2: 181.
16. Quoted in Anatoly Naiman, Remembering Anna Akhmatova, trans. Wendy Rosslyn (New York: Henry Holt, 1991), 128.
17. Osip Mandel'shtam, "Literary Moscow: The Birth of Plot," The Complete Critical Prose and Letters, ed. Jane Gary Harris, trans. Jane Gary Harris, Constance Link (Ann Arbor: Ardis, 1979), 152. All further translations of Mandel'shtam's prose will be taken, with slight modifications, from this edition.
18. "Poema bez geroia," Sochineniia, 2; 125.
19. "O Mandel'shtame," Den' poezii 1967 (Leningrad, 1967), 167. Eikhenbaum's notes on Mandel'shtam were never completed; although they were written in 1933, they were published for the first time only several decades later.
20. Osip Mandel'shtam, Sobranie sochinenii, ed. G. P. Struve, B. A. Filipoff (vs. 1-3, Washington, DC: Interlanguage Library Associates, 1967–1971, v. 4; Paris: YMCA Press, 1981), 1:202.
21. Quoted in Lazar Fleishman, Boris Pasternak: The Poet and His Politics (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1990), 176.
22. "Mandel'shtam," Sochineniia, 2: 179.
23. On Mandel'shtam's recitations of the epigram, see E. Polianovskii, "Smert' Osipa Mandel'shtama I," Izvestiia (23-28 May 1992); and Nadezhda Mandel'shtam, Vospominaniia: kniga pervaia, esp. 88, 96-98 165-70. According to both sources, Mandel'shtam's interrogator at the Liubianka Prison denounced the poem as a "provocation" and a "terrorist act."
24. In his notebooks of 1931–1932, Mandel'shtam recognizes the real-life implications of certain kinds of speech: "Only in government decrees, in military orders, in judicial verdicts, in notarial acts and in such documents as the last Will and Testament does the verb [or "word"—the modern Russian for "verb" coincides with the Old Russian term for "word," glagol] live a full life" (Complete Critical Prose, 469). By treating his "Stalin Epigram" as a de facto Will and Testament, Mandel'shtam could thus compete with the verdicts and decrees whose "full lives" threatened to deprive him and other Russians of their own more vulnerable lives.
25. Complete Critical Prose, 438, 317.
26. Complete Critical Prose, 316-17, 314; Sobranie sochinenii, 1: 157-158.
27. "Vse ushli i nikto ne vernulsia," Sochineniia, 3: 72.
28. Sochineniia, 1: 361; translation taken from Susan Amert, In a Shattered Mirror: The Later Poetry of Anna Akhmatova (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1992), 32.
29. "Journey to Armenia" (1933), Complete Critical Prose, 372. Sobranie sochinenii, 1: 170, 214, 169. On the role of articulation in Akhmatova's late poetry, see Amert, In a Shattered Mirror, 32-34.
30. Andrei Sinyavsky quotes Voloshin in Soviet Civilization, 233.
31. Complete Critical Prose, 415-16.
32. "Poema bez geroia," Sochineniia, 2: 101.
33. Bulgakov's phrase is taken from The Master and Margarita (Master i Margarita, 1940).
34. "And now I'm writing, just as before, without corrections / My verses in a burnt notebook," Akhmatova notes in a poem of 1956 ("Son," Sochineniia, 1: 291). I am indebted to Amert's discussions of Akhmatova's "burnt notebooks" and "poems written for the ashtray" in In a Shattered Mirror, 143-51.
35. Amert demonstrates that Akhmatova's poem is engaged in a complex, revisionary dialogue with one of the most popular Stalinist-era hymns, "Song of the Motherland" (Pesn' o rodine) (In a Shattered Mirror, 30-59).
36. Akhmatova quotes Mandel'shtam in her recollections of the poet (Sochineniia, 2: 185).
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 9188
SOURCE: "Anna Akhmatova: The Stalin Years," in New England Review, Vol. 18, No. 1, Winter, 1997, pp. 105-20.
[In the following essay, Reeder analyzes Akhmatova's poetry from the years of Stalinist oppression.]
… But there is no power more formidable, more terrible in the world, than the poets' prophetic word.
For a long time now Anna Akhmatova has been known in her own country as one of the most gifted Russian poets of the twentieth century. Yet in the West she is still relatively unknown.
For many the only poems by Akhmatova that have been read and recited have been the love poems which she wrote as a young Russian aristocrat at the turn of the century. These poems have always attracted large numbers of enthusiasts, for Akhmatova was able to capture and convey the vast range of evolving emotions experienced in a love affair—from the first thrill of meeting, to a deepening love contending with hatred, and eventually to violent destructive passion or total indifference. But others before her had turned to these themes. What made Akhmatova so revolutionary in 1912, when her first collection, Evening, was published, was the particular manner in which she conveyed these emotions. She was writing against the background of the Symbolist movement, and her poetry marks a radical break with the erudite, ornate style and the mystical representation of love so typical of poets like Alexander Blok and Andrey Bely. Her lyrics are composed of short fragments of simple speech that do not form a logical coherent pattern. Instead, they reflect the way we actually think—the links between the images are emotional, and simple everyday objects are charged with psychological associations. Like Alexander Pushkin, who was her model in many ways, Akhmatova was intent on conveying worlds of meaning through precise details.
What is less well understood, however, is that Akhmatova was not only a poet but a prophet. While throughout her life her style remained essentially the same (except in certain works like Poems Without a Hero or her verse dramas), over the years themes of political and historical consequence as well as philosophical themes begin to play an increasingly important role in her writings.
Akhmatova often complained about being immured, "walled in," by critics, into a conception of her enterprise which was limited to the very early period of her career. There was good reason for this: except for a trusted few, no one knew of her poems against the Stalinist Terror. These works certainly were not allowed to be published in the Soviet Union, and only certain examples—a noted one being her famous cycle entitled Requiem—were published in the West during her lifetime. Yet many consider these poems to be her greatest. They convey the profound horror as well as the numbness of the average Soviet citizen in response to the vast number of arrests, trials, exiles and deaths of so many innocent sufferers.
Akhmatova could have left Russia after the revolution, as so many of her friends did, but she chose to stay, and in the process took on the burden of speech on behalf of her people. As the poet says in her poem "To the Many," written in 1922:
I—am your voice, the warmth of your breath,
I—am the reflection of your face,
The future trembling of futile wings,
I am with you to the end, in any case.
In fact, Akhmatova's poetic response to the pressure of historical events began before the revolution. Although until that time her poetry was largely apolitical, when World War I broke out in 1914 she had been moved to write a few extremely powerful poems confronting that development. While her husband, the poet Nicholas Gumilyov, insisted on combining patriotism with a conscious Nietzschean stance of the male seeking situations of utmost danger to prove his Superman status, Akhmatova reacted with a sense of dread and foreboding to the outbreak of the war. In her memoirs, she observes that the real twentieth century began in 1914 when war broke out, for the war brought not only devastation, but revolution and ultimate ruin to the Russian land. The name of the city Petersburg, with its Germanic associations, was altered to Petrograd, a Slavic term, and the name itself became a metonymic symbol for the transformation in the consciousness of the Russian people of its conception of itself and its relation to its sometimes friendly but often hostile neighbor. Of this first year of the war, Akhmatova writes:
At the beginning of May the Petersburg season began to fade, and everyone left. This time they left Petersburg forever. We returned not to Petersburg but to Petrograd. We fell from the 19th into the 20th century. Everything became different, beginning with the appearance of the city.
Akhmatova interpreted the war as a spiritual event. She viewed it as a portent of things to come, as God's way of showing His displeasure with the Russian people. As she grew older, she became increasingly convinced of this, and later expressed the belief that war and revolution came to Russia as retribution for the indifference shown by the intelligentsia and upper classes toward the suffering of the common people.
The war began on July 19th. Russian Old Calendar (thirteen days behind our calendar). Written the next day, one of Akhmatova's most striking poems about the war is the first in the cycle entitled "July 1914." Unlike the religious imagery in the poems in her earlier collection Rosary, where sacred symbolism was often employed to convey a sense of intense passion, here as in the ancient Russian chronicles, religious imagery serves to elevate the historical immediacies of the war to a more philosophical level. In earlier periods the Russian chroniclers would not only relate facts but interpret historical events (such as the incursion of the Mongols) allegorically, as a punishment of the Russian people for their sins. In this poem the themes of retribution and forgiveness through divine intercession are central. Akhmatova remains secure in her belief that Russia would be compelled to live through a terrible period, but that in the end the Madonna would protect them all, spreading her mantle over them as she had in earlier times, playing the ancient role of Woman as Intercessor between the human and the divine, and bringing forgiveness. This image refers here specifically to an Eastern Orthodox holiday, Pokrov or "Intercession," based on the belief that in the tenth century the Madonna appeared in a vision to St. Andrew the Holy Fool at a church in Constantinople and extended her veil over the people as a symbol of her protection. In the poem it is not the poet who acts as prophet, but a one-legged stranger:
It smells of burning. For four weeks
The dry peat bog has been burning.
The birds have not even sung today,
And the aspen has stopped quaking.
The sun has become God's displeasure,
Rain has not sprinkled the fields since Easter.
A one-legged stranger came along
And all alone in the courtyard said:
"Fearful times are drawing near. Soon
Fresh graves will be everywhere.
There will be famine, earthquakes, widespread death,
And the eclipse of the sun and the moon.
But the enemy will not divide
Our land at will, for himself:
The Mother of God will spread her white mantle
Over this enormous grief."
By 1916 patriotic fervor had been replaced by despair in the minds of most Russians, including Akhmatova. Her poem "In Memoriam, July 19, 1914," written in 1916, depicts the poet as a vessel of God Himself, and now she has evolved from a singer of love songs to a prophet of doom:
We aged a hundred years, and this
Happened in a single hour:
The short summer had already died,
The body of the ploughed plains soaked.
Suddenly the quiet road burst into color,
A lament flew up, ringing, silver …
Covering my face, I implored God
Before the first battle to strike me dead.
Like a burden henceforth unnecessary,
The shadows of passion and songs vanished from my memory.
The Most High ordered it—emptied—
To become a grim book of calamity.
In a poem written in 1915, the poet again takes on the mantel of the prophet:
No, tsarevitch, I am not the one
You want me to be,
And no longer do my lips
During the course of the war the evolution of Akhmatova from a poet of personal themes to a prophet of historical events was noted by the critic Sergey Rafalovich: "Akhmatova has developed into a great poet…. She has not changed the former thread or broken it, she has remained herself, but she has matured. Before, they said hers was a narrow circle but great…. She has broadened her range to include more universal themes, but has not perceived them on a lofty scale, but the same scale of themes from ordinary, everyday life."
In February, 1917, the year of revolutions, the country as a whole rose up against the Tsar—workers, merchants, aristocrats. A Provisional Government was declared, but the war continued. Another authority arose parallel to the government—the soviets, or councils of workers and soldiers, which wielded enormous power over the masses. When the Revolution began on February 25, Akhmatova was spending the morning at the dressmaker's, oblivious to what was occurring. When she attempted to go home to the other side of the Neva River, the driver nervously replied that it was too dangerous to go over, so Akhmatova roamed the city alone. She saw the revolutionary manifestoes, the troops, and the fires set by the tsarist secret police in an attempt to keep the masses off the streets. What she captured in recollection, in "Apparition," written in 1919, was the Tsar's inability to comprehend what was happening and why:
The round, hanging lanterns,
Lit early, are squeaking,
Ever more festively, ever brighter,
The flying snowflakes glitter.
And quickening their steady gait,
As if sensing some pursuit,
Through the softly falling snow
Under a dark blue net, the horses race.
And the gilded footman
Stands motionless behind the sleigh,
and the tsar looks around strangely
With light, empty eyes.
Akhmatova spent the summer of 1917 away from the city, on her husband's estate in the province of Tver. But the overall atmosphere of horror and doom hanging over the land continues to assert itself in an evocative poem:
And all day, terrified by its own moans,
The crowd churns in agonized grief,
And across the river, on funeral banners.
Sinister skulls laugh.
And this is why I sang and dreamed,
They have ripped my heart in half,
As after a burst of shots, it became still,
And in the courtyards, death patrols.
Akhmatova was back in Petrograd when the Bolsheviks began the October Revolution. The only record we have of her immediate reaction is a recollection by her intimate friend Boris Anrep, who was saying farewell to her in January, 1918, on his way to London: "For some time we spoke about the meaning of the revolution," he writes. "She was excited and said we must expect more changes in our lives. The same thing's going to happen that occurred in France during the Revolution, but maybe even worse." Her prophecies were beginning to prove true. In verses written in 1917, the poet grieves that her latest poem, which would have been free in the past to take flight, now begs for a hearing:
Now no one will listen to songs.
The prophesied days have begun.
Latest poem of mine, the world has lost its wonder,
Don't break my heart, don't ring out.
A while ago, free as a swallow,
You accomplished your morning flight,
But now you've become a hungry beggar,
Knocking in vain at strangers' gates.
Despite the devastation and chaos around her, Akhmatova remained in Russia, at the same time as many of her friends fled. Her reaction to their flight from the homeland figures in her memorable poem titled "When in suicidal anguish," written in 1918. Though the speaker is tempted by the voice calling her to leave her suffering country, she remains, not realizing that the horrors she now faces are small in comparison to those that she and her companions will have to endure in the future. The first few lines may refer to the treaty in which the Bolsheviks capitulated to the Germans, ending their role in the war. (These lines of the poem were not published in Russia until recently.)
When in suicidal anguish
The nation awaited its German guests,
And the stern spirit of Byzantium
Had fled from the Russian Church,
When the capital by the Neva,
Forgetting her greatness,
Like a drunken prostitute
Did not know who would take her next,
A voice came to me. It called out comfortingly.
It said, "Come here,
Leave your deaf and sinful land,
Leave Russia forever,
I will wash the blood from your hands,
Root out the black shame from your heart,
With a new name I will conceal
The pain of defeats and injuries."
But calmly and indifferently,
I covered my ears with my hands,
So that my sorrowing spirit
Would not be stained by those shameful words.
The brutal Civil War began in 1918 and lasted three years. No one thought the Bolsheviks would remain in power for long, but by 1919 Akhmatova was beginning to feel the sense of overwhelming dread that permeated the capital.
And confined to this savage capital,
We have forgotten forever
The lakes, the steppes, the towns,
And the dawns of our great native land.
Day and night in the bloody circle
A brutal languor overcomes us …
No one wants to help us
Because we stayed home,
Because, loving our city
And not winged freedom,
We preserved for ourselves
Its palaces, its fire and water.
A different time is drawing near,
The wind of death already chills the heart,
But the holy city of Peter
Will be our unintended monument.
When her husband Gumilyov returned from the war, Akhmatova asked for a divorce. Their marriage had disinte-grated long before, but they had remained friends. After the revolution, Gumilyov had become an important figure in the world of art, helping writers get food and clothing, organizing poetry readings for the masses, and establishing literary circles and workshops for the intelligentsia where he trained new poets and new appreciators of the written word. In August, 1921, however, Gumilyov was arrested on the ostensible charge of involvement in a counterrevolutionary plot. No one thought events would move so quickly—some tried to help, but their efforts were in vain. A possible reason for the arrest of Gumilyov and others was that the Bolsheviks were reacting to the Kronstadt Rebellion that had taken place during the previous March, and that they needed to demonstrate vividly what could happen to those who might have any ideas about resisting the regime. On August 25th, at the age of thirty-five, Nikolay Gumilyov was executed.
Gumilyov's death was shattering to Akhmatova: she felt somehow responsible for it, and she grieved for many years. Her horror was conveyed in a moving poem, "Terror, fingering things in the dark," dated August 27, 1921. In it she personifies the abstract feeling of terror, which leads "the moonbeam to an ax." It would be better, she says, to be executed by rifle or to be hanged on the scaffold than to have to endure the prolonged fear of imminent death, or the pain of someone you love dying. This is a theme that will be developed in Akhmatova's poems about the Stalinist terror—the sense that it is not the actual physical event of exile or execution that is most unendurable, but the anxiety of waiting, waiting for the knock on the door to take you to prison, to the camps, to your death:
Terror, fingering things in the dark,
Leads the moonbeam to an ax.
Behind the wall there's an ominous knock—
What's there, a ghost, a thief, rats?
In the sweltering kitchen, water drips,
Counting the rickety floorboards.
Someone with a glossy black beard
Flashes by the attic window—
And becomes still. How cunning he is and evil,
He hid the matches and blew out the candle.
How much better would be the gleam of the barrels
Of rifles leveled at my breast.
Better, in the grassy square,
To be flattened on the raw wood scaffold
And, amid cries of joy and moans,
Pour out my life's blood there.
I press the smooth cross to my heart:
Go, restore peace to my soul.
The odor of decay, sickeningly sweet,
Rises from the clammy sheets.
Never does Akhmatova mention the revolution directly; her attention remains centered on its effects on the life around her. One poem, "Everything has been plundered …," bears a distinct resemblance to Alexander Blok's famous poem "The Twelve," in which despite the pervasiveness of looting, rape, and rout there is an intuitive feeling that this stage of great suffering will lead inevitably to a glorious dawn—symbolized in Blok's work by Christ and in Akhmatova's by "the miraculous," which is drawing near.
Everything has been plundered, betrayed, sold out,
The wing of black death has flashed,
Everything has been devoured by starving anguish,
Why, then, is it so bright?
The fantastic woods near the town
Waft the scent of cherry blossoms by day,
At night new constellations shine
In the transparent depth of the skies of July—
And how near the miraculous draws
To the dirty, tumbledown huts …
No one, no one knows what it is,
But for centuries we have longed for it.
A new society was indeed created in this new Soviet Union, but it was constructed on the basis of a totalitarian state in which the happiness of the many was to be determined and controlled by the few. In this new order, the role of artists and intellectuals was to be a painful one, as became increasingly clear when, in 1922, over a hundred intellectuals, including the philosopher Nicholas Berdyaev, were arrested and exiled. The poet Osip Mandelstam quickly grasped what the new role of the poet was to be in this society: "He [the modern poet] sings of ideas, systems of knowledge and state theories, just as his predecessors sang of nightingales and roses." But Akhmatova did not wish to express in rhyme the accepted theories of the state; as a result, by 1925 she was no longer published and was considered irrelevant. In 1922 the poet Vladimir Mayakovsky, the mighty Futurist and poet laureate of the Soviet State, who before the revolution had often declaimed Akhmatova's love poems, rang the death knell for her verse:
The chamber intimacy of Anna Akhmatova, the mystical verses of Vyacheslav Ivanov and his Hellenic motifs—what meaning do they have for our harsh, iron age? Of course, as literary milestones, as the last born child of a collapsing structure, they find their place on the pages of literary history; but for us, for our epoch—these are insignificant, pathetic, and laughable anachronisms.
Poets now had to make a choice—to accommodate themselves to the new regime, or to remain consciously on the periphery. Akhmatova chose the latter. She signals this in an unpublished poem of 1921, in which she recalls the ancient name of Russia—the land of Rus:
A light beer had been brewed,
On the table a steaming goose …
The tsar and the nobles are recalled
By festive Rus—
Strong language, facetious remarks,
From one—a risqué joke,
From the other—drunken tears.
And fueled by revelry and wine,
The noisy speeches fly …
The smart ones have decided:
Our job—stay out of the way.
Although on the periphery, in her unpublished works Akhmatova was unambiguous in her negative attitude toward the aftermath of the revolution:
Here the most beautiful girls fight
For the honor of marrying executioners.
Here they torture the righteous at night
And wear down the untamable with hunger.
In the same year in which those lines were written, 1924, Akhmatova produced one of her most famous poems, "Lot's Wife." Turning to biblical imagery, she takes on the persona of a woman looking back—on the realistic level, to the familiar locales of her native city. But these specific places become metonymic symbols for "the past" that must be let go if one is to make peace with the future, no matter how terrifying it may be. Although Akhmatova's generation at first thought a return to the former way of life might be possible, by 1924 both the émigrés and those remaining in Russia felt compelled to admit that the Bolsheviks were probably going to remain in power indefinitely—perhaps forever—and each individual had to find a way of coming to terms with this recognition.
Lot's wife looked back from behind him and became a pillar of salt.
—Book of Genesis
And the righteous man followed the envoy of God,
Huge and bright, over the black mountain.
But anguish spoke loudly to his wife:
It is not too late, you can still gaze
At the red towers of your native Sodom,
At the square where you sang, at the courtyard where you spun,
At the empty windows of the tall house
Where you bore children to your beloved husband.
She glanced, and, paralyzed by deadly pain,
Her eyes no longer saw anything;
And her body became transparent salt
And her quick feet were rooted to the spot.
Who will weep for this woman?
Isn't her death the least significant?
But my heart will never forget the one
Who gave her life for a single glance.
The suicide of the poet Sergey Yesenin on December 27, 1925, was a shock to Akhmatova, though she had never really liked him as a person or a poet. Of peasant origin, Yesenin hoped one day Russia would become a land of agricultural communes, all committed to sharing the fruits of the earth. But the Social Revolutionaries, who wanted to make this dream come true, lost to the Bolsheviks, who saw the future of the Soviet Union in terms of accelerating industrial progress. Yesenin died a broken, drunken man. In spite of all her criticism of him, however, Akhmatova was upset when she learned the circumstances of his death: "He lived horribly and died horribly," she observed. "How fragile the peasants are when they are unsuccessful in their contact with civilization—each year another poet dies…. It is horrible when a poet dies." Although it cannot be proven conclusively, it is possible that her poem, "It would be so easy to abandon this life," written about the death of a poet in 1925, refers specifically to Yesenin:
It would be so easy to abandon this life,
To burn down painlessly and unaware,
But it is not given to the Russian poet
To die a death so pure.
A bullet more reliably throws open
Heaven's boundaries to the soul in flight,
Or hoarse terror with a shaggy paw can,
As if from a sponge, squeeze out the heart's life.
After her brief time together with Vladimir Shileiko, an Assyriologist whom she married in 1918 and from whom she separated in 1921, Akhmatova eventually went to live with her lover Nicholas Punin, a famous avant-garde art critic and professor, along with his wife and daughter in a wing of the Sheremetyev Palace. During this time, she began writing less poetry and turned instead to a study of the works of the poet whose example remained central to her own ambitions. Alexander Pushkin. In his work and life she saw parallels to her own situation and to that of other contemporary poets persecuted by the State.
By 1930, in any case, it was becoming increasingly difficult for anyone to publish at all. Stalin was now firmly in power and his control of society extended to the arts. In August 1929 there was a concerted attack against the writers Boris Pilnyak and Yevgeny Zamyatin. The condemnation of their work marked a clear turning point in the relationship between the intelligentsia and the state. Henceforth the Stalinist line would become harder, and any trace of criticism of the state would be forbidden. The increasing storm of abuse against Mayakovsky led to his suicide on April 14, 1930. During this period of collectivization, many Party members lost their jobs for showing leniency toward the peasants. The year 1933 saw another vast purge. Stalin's Terror had begun, but the majority of the population were still unaware of the extent to which it would touch their everyday lives. Nadezhda Mandelstam attempts to explain the feeling at this moment:
There had been a time when, terrified of chaos, we had all prayed for a strong system, for a powerful hand that would stem the angry human river overflowing its banks. This fear of chaos was perhaps the most permanent of our feelings…. What we wanted was for the course of history to be made smooth…. This longing prepared us, psychologically, for the appearance of the Wise Leaders who would tell us where we were going. And once they were there, we no longer ventured to act without their guidance…. In our blindness we ourselves struggled to impose unanimity—because in every difference of opinion, we saw the beginnings of new anarchy and chaos…. So we went on, nursing a sense of our own inadequacy, until the moment came for each of us to discover from bitter experience how precarious was his own state of grace.
In this situation in the early thirties, Akhmatova began translating Macbeth, but in the end she only succeeded in working on Act I, Scene iii, the famous witches' scene. She must have seen parallels between the murders committed by Macbeth and his wife to gain power and what was occurring in the Soviet Union; Lady Macbeth, the "Scottish queen," appears in Akhmatova's famous poem written in 1933 evoking the blood spilled by the Bolsheviks:
Wild honey smells like freedom,
Dust—like a ray of sun.
Like violets—a young maid's mouth,
And gold—like nothing.
The flowers of the mignonette smell like water,
And like an apple—love.
But we learned once and for all
That blood only smells like blood …
And in vain the vice-regent of Rome
Washed his hands before all the people,
Urged on by the ominous shouts of the rabble;
And the Scottish queen
In vain washed the spattered red drops
From her slender palms
In the stifling gloom of the king's home….
One of the first victims of the Stalinist Terror was Osip Mandelstam, who had been her dear and intimate friend from before the Revolution. Akhmatova later called the early 1930s "the vegetarian years," meaning that this would come to be seen as a relatively harmless period in comparison to the "meat-eating" years that followed, but when visiting the Mandelstams in Moscow, she felt that "in spite of the fact that the time was comparatively vegetarian, the shadow of doom lay on this house." She recalls a walk she took with Mandelstam along Prechistenka Street in February, 1934. "We turned onto Gogol Boulevard and Osip said, 'I'm ready for death.'" But when he was finally arrested for the poem in which he portrays Stalin with "cockroach whiskers" and "fingers as fat as worms," the effect on this gentle, sensitive poet was a progressive descent into madness. The secret police came for him when Akhmatova was visiting the Mandelstams in May, 1934. He and his wife were sent away to Voronezh, where in February, 1936, Akhmatova went to visit them.
When her poem reflecting this visit was first published in 1940, the last four lines were omitted. At first glance, the poem seems to be a poetic guided tour of Voronezh, mentioning not only the landscape and townscape, but alluding to the monuments and historical occurrences associated with the place—the statue of Peter the Great, who built his fleet here, and the Battle of Kulikovo, a landmark event in Russian history, which was fought nearby in 1380 (in that encounter, the Grand Prince Dmitry Donskoy defeated the Tatars after many years of domination). As the poem progresses, the mood shifts. At first the images evoke winter stillness, lack of life—crows, ice, a faded dome; but then a sound breaks the stillness—there is a roaring in the poplars, compared in a simile to the sounds of a happy event, to cups clashing together at a wedding feast toasting the joy of the poet and her companions. After the expectation created by this simile—the sense that more happy events are to follow—suddenly in the last four lines anxiety is palpably personified, as in Akhmatova's poem on the death of Gumilyov, "Terror, fingering things in the dark." In the room of the poet in "Voronezh," Fear and the Muse keep watch together:
And the whole town is encased in ice,
Trees, walls, snow, as if under glass.
Timidly, I walk on crystals,
Gaily painted sleds skid.
And over the Peter of Voronezh—crows,
Poplar trees, and the dome, light green,
Faded, dulled, in sunny haze,
And the Battle of Kulikovo blows from the slopes
Of the mighty, victorious land.
And the poplars, like cups clashed together,
As if our joy were toasted by
A thousand guests at a wedding feast.
But in the room of the poet in disgrace,
Fear and the Muse keep watch by turns.
And the night comes on
That knows no dawn.
Before Mandelstam's death, Nadezhda had experienced what thousands of other women in the Soviet Union endured during those years—hours of standing in endless lines in front of prison windows, waiting for a glimpse of those they loved. Now it was Akhmatova's turn to stand in line. Her son Lev had been arrested in the past and released, but this time, after arresting him on March 10, 1938, he had been tortured. He was sent first to the Leningrad Kresty Prison and condemned to be shot, but then the feared head of the NKVD, Yezhov, was removed, and the beating of prisoners ceased for a time, Lev's sentence was commuted to five years, and he was sent to Siberia. During the period of waiting, Lydia Zhukova, a member of the intelligentsia, had stood in one of those long lines in front of the prison. She remembers seeing Akhmatova. "Wearing something long, dark, and heavy," she recalled, "she appeared to me like a phantom from the past, and it never entered my mind that this old-fashioned lady in an ancient coat and hat would still write so many more brilliant new poems."
Indeed, Akhmatova had begun to throw herself into her work with new energy. Her "mute" period was over, as the impressions of many years of quiet suffering finally rose to the surface. When her creative powers returned, Akhmatova wrote the cycle of poems about the Great Terror that was to capture the attention of the world, Requiem (1935–1940). That this work is characterized by a portrayal of intense suffering did not signify, however, that Akhmatova had lost her faith and arrived at unrelieved despair. Inherent in the works of great Russian writers like Dostoyevsky is the Russian Orthodox belief that suffering is at all times an essential aspect of life, a means by which one's faith is continually tested Never in any of Akhmatova's writings or conversations with trusted friends did she admit to doubt or lack of faith in the mysterious and often incomprehensible ways of a divine Creator.
A short prose piece, entitled "Instead of a Preface," introduces this memorable cycle:
In the terrible years of the Yezhov terror, I spent seventeen months in the prison lines of Leningrad. Once, someone "recognized" me. Then a woman with bluish lips standing behind me, who, of course, had never heard me called by name before, woke up from the stupor to which everyone had succumbed and whispered in my ear: "Can you describe this?" And I answered: "Yes, I can." Then something that looked like a smile passed over what had once been her face.
In this great work Akhmatova fulfills her destiny as the voice of her people, taking on the persona of the Mourner in the Russian village, and of the Madonna. This poetic cycle is both universal and specifically Russian in its symbolic implications. On the universal level it depicts the suffering of women in general who, like the Madonna, must stand on the side and witness helplessly the suffering of those who are compelled to meet an incomprehensible destiny. In such circumstances, the woman can only provide comfort and prayer so that the pain and agony may be alleviated somehow. But there are specific Russian references here as well. In the first verse of the cycle the poet compares herself to a peasant woman performing the ancient Russian ritual of vynos—the carrying out of the dead from the house to the vehicle that will take the body to the cemetery. Instead of a dead body, however, this time it is a live prisoner, someone beloved. Another specifically Russian cultural allusion is to the icons, the sacred images painted on wood to which the Orthodox pray, and the icon shelf, placed in a special corner of the house where meals and rituals take place. At the end of this work, the poem's speaker compares herself to the wives of the Streltsy or Archers, the military corps employed by Peter the Great's sister Sophia, whom they supported in her unsuccessful fight for the throne and who were subsequently executed. Their wives grieved for them under the Kremlin towers, and the event was immortalized in the nineteenth century in a well-known painting by Vasily Súrikov. Through this comparison with women caught up in a famous historical event, the poet elevates the actual situation in which she finds herself, transforming the immediate event into one of universal significance:
They led you away at dawn.
I followed you, like a mourner.
In the dark front room the children were crying,
By the icon shelf the candle was dying,
On your lips was the icon's chill.
The deathly sweat on your brow … Unforgettable!—
I will be like the wives of the Streltsy,
Howling under the Kremlin towers.
In another poem not included in Requiem, a poem written in 1939. Akhmatova compares her speaker to another Súrikov painting, one depicting the Boyarina Morozova, a seventeenth-century noblewoman in a sleigh, in chains, being taken into exile for her rebellion against the reforms being introduced into the Orthodox church. The poem also alludes to Viy, the chief of gnomes, whose eyelids reach to the ground (the Gogol story "Viy" contains such a creature):
I know I can't move from this place.
Because of the weight of the eyelids of Viy.
Oh, if only I could suddenly throw myself back
Into some sort of seventeenth century.
On Trinity Eve to stand in church
With a fragrant branch of birch,
To drink of sweet mead
With the Princess Morozova.
And then at twilight in the sleigh,
To sink in the dingy snow.
What mad Súrikov
Will paint my last journey?
In some of the poems in Requiem, there are allusions to Tsarskoye Selo, the lovely area near Petersburg where Akhmatova grew up. The town is represented by the poet as symbolic of the womb-like existence of the upper classes before the revolution, a time when they attempted to shut themselves off from the sufferings of the people; reflecting on this milieu, the speaker comes to regard her earlier self as a "gay little sinner":
You should have been shown, you mocker,
Minion of all your friends,
Gay little sinner of Tsarskoye Selo,
What would happen in your life—
How three-hundredth in line, with a parcel,
You would stand by the Kresty prison,
Your fiery tears
Burning through the New Year's ice.
Over there the prison poplar bends,
And there's no sound—and over there how many
Innocent lives are ending now….
Other less-known poems written at this time express Akhmatova's pervasive sense of terror and grief. In the simple but powerful quatrain, "And I am not at all a prophet," for example, the simple image of prison keys brings into focus a network of ominous associations linked with the Stalinist terror—associations centered on arrest, exile, and death. Here the poet disowns her claim to be a prophet:
And I am not at all a prophet,
My life is pure as a stream.
I simply don't feel like singing
To the sound of prison keys.
In another unpublished work, "Imitation from the Armenian," Akhmatova pretends merely to be presenting a variation on a theme, reworking a poem by someone else. But the theme of the original (a poem by the Armenian poet H. Tumanjan) has been chosen with great care, and its theme coincides with that of other poems by Akhmatova written during the Terror. Here once again, the vulnerable female, in this case an innocent ewe, witnesses the slaughter of a loved one:
I will appear in your dreams as a black ewe.
On withered, unsteady legs
I will approach you, begin to bleat, to howl:
"Padishah, have you supped daintily?
You hold the universe, like a bead,
You are cherished by Allah's radiant will …
And was he tasty, my little son?
Did he please you, please your children?"
One of Akhmatova's most powerful responses to the Terror is her poem "Stanzas" (written in 1940 but not published in the Soviet Union until 1989), in which she indirectly addresses Stalin himself. She enumerates infamous figures in Russian history who have lived in the Kremlin and implies that the leader now in residence there is living up to and even surpassing his predecessors in the enormity of his cruelty. The poem addresses a "Streltsy" or "Archer" moon—which might refer to late winter (associated the astrological sign Sagittarius the Archer), or to the Streltsy corps rebellion against Peter the Great mentioned earlier, or to both. There are allusions here to tsars like Boris Godunov, the various Ivans, and Dmitry, the Pretender to the Russian throne at the beginning of the seventeenth century who, in attempting to capture Russia with the aid of the Catholic Poles, had alienated the Russian people:
Archer Moon. Beyond the Moscow River. Night.
Like a religious procession the hours of Holy Week go by.
I had a terrible dream. Is it possible
That no one, no one, no one can help me?
You had better not live in the Kremlin, the Preobrazhensky Guard was right;
The germs of the ancient frenzy are still swarming here:
Boris Godunov's wild fear, and all the Ivans' evil spite,
And the Pretender's arrogance—instead of the people's rights.
In another unpublished poem. "Why did you poison the water?" (1935), the poet complains that instead of being rewarded for staying in her motherland, she is being punished by having her freedom taken away:
Why did you poison the water
And mix dirt with my bread?
Why did you turn the last freedom
Into a den of thieves?
Because I didn't jeer
At the bitter death of friends?
Because I remained true
To my sorrowing motherland?
So be it. Without hangman and scaffold
A poet cannot exist in the world.
Our lot is to wear the hair shirt,
To walk with a candle and to wail.
The implications of the hair shirt and walking with a candle as penance become clearer in Akhmatova's poem on Dante. While Pushkin turned to the Roman poet Ovid as the archetype of the poet in exile, Akhmatova turned to Dante, whom she and Mandelstam were both reading in the thirties. Like the Pushkin poem on Ovid, Akhmatova's work is a thinly disguised reflection on the dignity a poet must retain no matter what external conditions are tormenting him—whether it be the political regime of fourteenth-century Florence or that of twentieth-century Leningrad. After being forced to leave Florence in 1302, Dante was offered the possibility of returning under condition of a humiliating public repentance, which he rejected. He refused to walk "with a lighted candle" in a ritual of repentance:
Il mio bel San Giovanni
Even after his death he did not return
To his ancient Florence.
To the one who, leaving, did not look back,
To him I sing this song.
A torch, the night, the last embrace,
Beyond the threshold, the wild wail of fate.
From hell he sent her curses
And in paradise he could not forget her—
But barefoot, in a hairshirt.
With a lighted candle he did not walk
Through his Florence—his beloved,
Perfidious, base, longed for….
One of those who had gone into voluntary exile abroad after the revolution was Marina Tsevtayeva. She and Akhmatova had never met, but in the 1910s Tsvetayeva had written a series of adoring poems to Akhmatova, calling her the "Muse of Lament." She had spent many years in Prague and Paris, but in 1937 her husband, Sergey Efron, was implicated in the murder of a Western official by the Soviet secret police and fled to the Soviet Union. Two years later Tsvetayeva and her son followed, joining Efron and her daughter, who had returned earlier. The regime turned on the family, arresting her husband and daughter. Tsvetayeva herself continued to live on a meager sum from a job as a translator which Pasternak had obtained for her. She asked a friend of Akhmatova's to arrange for a meeting between them. The meeting took place in 1940; in March of that year. Akhmatova had written a poem to Tsvetayeva, but she did not read it to her. There is an allusion in the poem to the Marinka Tower—the Kremlin tower in the town of Kolomna near Moscow, a town where Akhmatova sometimes spent the summer during the nineteen-thirties. According to legend, this tower was the site of the incarceration of Marina Mnishek, who had the same first name as Tsvetayeva. She was the aristocratic Polish wife of Dmitry, the seventeenth-century Pretender to the Russian throne:
My white-handed one, dark princess.
Invisible, double, jester,
You who are hiding in the depths of the bushes,
The one crouching in a starling house,
The one flitting on the crosses of the dead.
The one crying from the Marinka Tower:
"I have come home today,
Native fields, cherish me
Because of what happened to me.
The abyss swallowed my loved ones,
The family home has been plundered."
We are together today, Marina,
Walking through the midnight capital,
And behind us there are millions like us,
And never was a procession more hushed,
Accompanied by funeral bells
And the wild Moscow moans
Of a snowstorm erasing all traces of us.
No one knows what the two poets discussed at their meeting—two women so very different in their attitudes toward life and their conceptions of poetry: one a product of the muted elegance of Petersburg, expressing her emotion through verse distinguished by restraint, and the other reflecting the noisy bustle of Moscow, declaring her feelings in writings charged with raw emotion. Not having read Akhmatova's unpublished poems from the nineteen-twenties and thirties, Tsvetayeva assumed that Akhmatova had remained fixed in the style and themes of her early period, and in her diary she was critical of Akhmatova's verse. They met behind the closed door of Akhmatova's room in the apartment of the poet's friend Nina Olshanskaya. Later on, during the war, Tsvetayeva was evacuated and ended up in Yelabuga, a town near Kazan, where she could find no work. On the afternoon of August 31, 1941, she was found hanging from a hook inside the entrance of her hut.
Along with many other artistic figures such as Shostakovich, Akhmatova herself was evacuated during the war to Central Asia, where she lived for several years in Tashkent. On the way there she learned about Tsvetayeva's suicide. In "Over Asia—the mists of spring," written on June 24, 1942, Akhmatova included the following lines alluding to her sense of the predicament they shared:
I've earned this gray crown,
And my cheeks, scorched by the sun,
Frighten people with their swarthiness.
But the end of my pride is near:
Like that other one—Marina the sufferer,
I will have to drink of emptiness.
As arrest after arrest intruded on the lives of those around her, around 1940 Akhmatova wrote that she wished emphatically to cast a vote in favor of something positive—not something extraordinary, merely a return to an ordinary situation in which a door could once again be seen as nothing more than a door:
And here, in defiance of the fact
That death is staring me in the eye—
Because of your words
I am voting for:
For a door to become a door,
A lock—a lock once more,
For this morose beast within my breast
To become a heart. But the thing is,
That we are all fated to learn
What it means not to sleep for three years,
What it means to find out in the morning
About those who have died in the night.
At the end of the nineteen-forties, when the situation was unchanged, Akhmatova wrote "The Glass Doorbell," in which the glass doorbell performs a function similar to that of the lock as a focus of terror:
The glass doorbell
Is today really the date?
Stop at the door,
Wait a little longer,
Don't touch me,
For God's sake!
In keeping with this persisting sense of anxiety, on August 14, 1946, the Central Committee of the Communist Party passed a Resolution condemning the journals Zvezda and Leningrad for publishing the works of Akhmatova and Zoshchenko. As Churchill was to observe, the iron curtain had been rung down earlier that year by Stalin, and the Resolution was a symbolic act confirming this. A few weeks later, on September 4th, Akhmatova and Zoshchenko were expelled from the Union of Writers. In his speech that evening to the Leningrad branch of the Union, Andrey Zhdanov, Secretary of the Central Committee, said: "What positive contribution can Akhmatova's work make to our young people? It can only sow despondency, spiritual depression, pessimism, and the desire to walk away from the questions of public life." After her expulsion, and for many years thereafter, Akhmatova retained a few loyal friends, including Pasternak, who helped her and supported her both spiritually and financially; but most of the people she had known avoided her. She expresses her profound state of alienation in her poem "Prologue," written sometime in the nineteen-fifties, in which she presents herself as a leper:
Not with the lyre of someone in love
Do I try to captivate people—
A leper's rattle
Sings in my hand.
You will have ample time to exclaim
And curse and howl.
I will teach all the "courageous ones"
To shy away from me.
I didn't look for any return,
And glory I didn't expect,
I have lived for thirty years
Under the wing of death.
Akhmatova's son Lev also suffered from the effects of the Resolution. Released from the camps to fight in the war, he had taken part in the capture of Berlin. He was allowed to return to Leningrad after the war had ended, but was arrested again in November, 1949, and sentenced to ten years in a camp in Siberia. It was around this time that Akhmatova wrote a series of short poems as part of a cycle entitled "Shards"—as if to suggest that the individual poems were like fragments of an ancient vessel. She begins the cycle with an epigraph, a phrase taken (and misquoted slightly) from Joyce's Ulysses: "You cannot leave your mother an orphan." In the brief quatrain serving as the second poem of the cycle, Akhmatova contrasts the various verbal definitions that may be applied to a single person—in this case, in the biographical subtext, Lev Gumilyov. For the regime he bears the signifier "rebel," but for Akhmatova he is designated by another, more personal, name:
How well he's succeeded, this fierce debater,
All the way to the Yenisey plains …
To you he's a vagabond, rebel, conspirator—
To me he is—an only son.
The West knew little of Akhmatova's life or her works written during the nineteen-forties and fifties. Many thought she had stopped writing verse altogether. By not allowing her to be published for so long—except for a book in 1940 that was immediately confiscated and some poems which were permitted to appear during the war—Stalin had condemned Akhmatova to silence, at least to Western readers. She expresses her sense of this choking silence in part V of "Shards," in which, without mentioning him directly, she compares Stalin to a butcher who had hung her (like Marina Tsvetayeva) "on a bloody hook":
You raised me up, like a slain beast
On a bloody hook,
So that sniggering, and not believing,
Foreigners wandered in
And wrote in their respectable papers
That my incomparable gift had died out,
That I had been a poet among poets,
But my thirteenth hour had struck.
Akhmatova's lament for her imprisoned son is heard at the end of one of her greatest works, Poem without a Hero. It is a long narrative poem, in a style more reminiscent of the complex opaqueness and erudite allusions of the Symbolists at the beginning of the century than representative of Akhmatova's characteristically direct assertions seizing on metonymic symbols from everyday life. In this work the poet looks back to the period before World War I, to the year 1913, when she and her friends had hidden in the cellars of cabarets, devoting themselves to a life of pleasure while the common people suffered. The Epilogue takes place on a white night of June 24, 1942, with Leningrad left in ruins. The text is chanted in the voice of the author—seven thousand kilometers away from the scene, in evacuation in Tashkent. In this Epilogue, Akhmatova's son is depicted as her double, and death takes the form of a Noseless Slut:
And from behind barbed wire,
In the very heart of the taiga—
I don't know which year—
Having become a heap of "camp dust,"
Having become a terrifying fairy tale,
My double goes to the interrogation.
And then he returns from the interrogation,
With the two emissaries from the Noseless Slut
Assigned to stand guard over him.
And even from here I can hear—
Isn't it miraculous!—
The sound of my own voice:
I paid for you in cash.
For exactly ten years I lived under the gun,
Glancing neither to the left nor to the right.
And after me came rustling ill repute.
There are several stanzas thought to be conceived for possible inclusion in Poem Without a Hero but not included in the text. In one of these the poet identifies herself and other women suffering during the Stalinist Terror with the ancient heroines of Troy—Hecuba, queen of Troy, who looked on helplessly as her dear son, the hero Hektor, died, and the Trojan princess Cassandra, who was condemned to know the future but whose fate it was to have her prophecies ignored:
Sealing our bluish lips,
And Cassandras from Chukloma,
We roar in silent chorus
(We, crowned with disgrace):
"We are already on the other side of hell"….
But finally, on March 5, 1953, an event occurred that changed the life of Akhmatova and millions of others in the Soviet Union: Joseph Stalin died. Not long afterward, in a closed session of the Twentieth Party Congress that took place in February, 1956, the new First Secretary of the Communist Party, Nikita Khrushchev, denounced Stalin as a cruel, blood-thirsty tyrant. The "Thaw" had begun. While the Thaw certainly did not fulfill all the hopes of the intelligentsia or the people at large, it did at least mean that the harshest aspects of the reign of Terror were ended, and there was a perceptible loosening of the iron rule of the former regime. Lev Gumilyov, Akhmatova's son, was released in May, 1956, and her own works went into circulation again, though it was not until 1958 that a whole collection of her writings would appear.
In 1957, unsure when—or whether—her works would engage a wide audience again, Akhmatova wrote the poem "They will forget?—How astonishing!" It was her equivalent of Horace's "Exegi monumentum"—a poem imitated by Pushkin—in which the poet asserts that while he may be persecuted and unappreciated in his own time, his spiritual legacy, in the form of his works, will be eternal. In this poem Akhmatova turns to an ancient mythical image of death followed by certain rebirth—the image of the phoenix, symbolic of the everlasting nature of verse:
They will forget?—How astonishing!
They forgot me a hundred times,
A hundred times I lay in the grave,
Where, perhaps, I am today.
But the Muse, both deaf and blind,
Rotted in the ground, like grain,
Only, like the phoenix from the ashes,
To rise into the blue ether again.
Although Akhmatova spent the last years of her life under the somewhat looser regime of Khrushchev, she never stopped writing about his feared predecessor, and sometime around 1962 she addressed a poem "To the Defenders of Stalin." These defenders are placed in a long historical line of those who supported the despots, who tormented the innocent:
There are those who shouted: "Release
Barabbas for us on this feast,"
Those who ordered Socrates to drink poison
In the bare, narrow prison.
They are the ones who should pour this drink
Into their own innocently slandering mouths,
Those sweet lovers of torture,
Experts in the manufacture of orphans.
A decade earlier, in 1950, hoping to please Stalin so that he would free her son, Akhmatova had written a cycle of poems, "In Praise of Peace," simple poems with a clear message praising the victory of Russia in the war. Despite this effort on her part, her son remained a prisoner in the camps. These poems in this group were written in the officially-sanctioned style of Socialist Realism, and they include the kinds of trite phrases found in hundreds of poems produced during the Stalinist period. The poem entitled "In the Pioneer Camp," for instance, ends with the lines: "… There the children marched by with their banners / And the Motherland herself, admiring them. / Inclined her invisible brow toward them." In a poem called "No, we didn't suffer together in vain," written later (in 1961, five years before her death), Akhmatova seems implicitly to refer to this uncomfortable episode in her life. And yet in her own eyes, throughout this grim period when she felt compelled to make some compromises, she retained her inner freedom even as she outwardly groveled before the "bloody puppet-executioner." She had chosen to stay in her country—and she suffered for it, in many ways; but in the end she affirmed her decision to share this appalling epoch with her own people:
No, we didn't suffer together in vain,
Without hopes of even drawing a breath.
We took an oath, we voted—
And quietly followed our path.
Not in vain did I remain pure,
Like a candle before the Lord,
Groveling with you at the feet
Of the bloody puppet-executioner.
No, not under the vault of alien skies
And not under the shelter of alien wings—
I was with my people then,
There, where my people, unfortunately, were.
Last Updated on February 7, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 140
Amert, Susan. "Akhmatova's 'Song of the Motherland': Rereading the Opening Texts of Rekviem." Slavic Review 49, No. 3 (Fall 1990): 374-89.
Provides a close analysis of the first two sections of Akhmatova's Rekviem and discusses how the poet has put herself in the tradition of Dante and Pushkin.
Cook, Albert. "The Modified Modernism of Anna Akhmatova." In his Soundings: On Shakespeare, Modern Poetry, Plato, and Other Subjects, pp. 81-95. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1991.
Analyzes how Akhmatova's poetry differs from the modernism of her contemporaries and asserts that it owes more to the style of Pushkin.
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