Anna Akhmatova 1888–1966
(Pseudonym of Anna Andreyevna Gorenko) Russian poet, translator, and essayist.
Akhmatova is often seen as Pasternak's successor in the Silver Age of Russian poetry and is generally considered the finest woman poet Russia has produced. Participating with the Acmeists in a reaction against symbolist poetry, she wrote in a concise and accessible style. Words are used logically, imagery is concrete. Hers is an intimate and authentic poetry, showing a love of nature, of Russia, and of love itself.
Akhmatova's early collections of poetry, notably, Vecher (Evening), Chotki (Rosary), and Belaya Staya (The White Flock) contain lyric self-portraits and intensely personal reflections on love and love's sorrows. They nevertheless grope towards the making of universally true statements and do so, in the opinion of many critics, with admirable success. Critics acclaim Akhmatova's ability to reach the general through her own experiences. Written in the clear and exacting style for which she is renowned, Akhmatova's early works are often seen as the chronicle of a passionate woman's movement from love through pain and bitterness to a restoration of faith in love and life.
Although Akhmatova continued to write, after the publication of her Anno Domini MCMXII in 1921, she did not publish another collection until her Iz shesti knig (From Six Books) appeared in 1940. In this period of silence, she suffered great personal tragedy. Akhmatova's first husband, the poet Nikolai Gumilev, was executed as a counterrevolutionary and their only son was sentenced to a prison camp. He was not finally released until after the death of Stalin. Akhmatova's work of this period reflects her anguish over these events and shows a more overt love of country than her earlier works. As war and revolution spread through Russia, Akhmatova wrote of both her own losses and those suffered by all Russian people.
Akhmatova was expelled from the Writer's Union in 1946 and her work was banned from publication until after Stalin's death. She nevertheless continued to record the terrors of his regime in her poetry and speaks compelling of them in the acclaimed poem cycle, Requiem. After Stalin's death Akhmatova was allowed to travel abroad. In 1965, she received an honorary doctorate from Oxford University. She was also elected to the governing board of the Writer's Union. Akhmatova worked up to her death and her works are still being translated.
(See also CLC, Vol. 11; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 17-20, Vols. 25-28, rev. ed. [obituary]; and Contemporary Authors Permanent Series, Vol. 1.)
[In Vecher, Akhmatova's first book of poems, she] speaks about simple earthly happiness and about simple intimate and personal sorrow. Love, love's parting, unrequited love, love's betrayal, clear and serene confidence in the lover, feelings of grief, of loneliness, of despair—all the things that everyone might feel and understand, though perhaps less deeply and personally than the poet—such are Akhmatova's themes, told with a remarkable frugality…. (p. 57)
[In Akhmatova's second book of poetry, Chyotki,] her themes remained the same…. Akhmatova was consistent in her femininity. (pp. 60-1)
[In Akhmatova's poetry there are] unexpected but convincing, illogical but fine psychological transitions from words of emotion to words of description, from the soul to nature, from feeling to fact. She assembles artistically the particulars of a given moment which are often unnoticeable to others; she notices everything anew so that her internal world is not merely framed by the external world, but they combine into one solid and organic wholeness of life…. She often compares the present with the past, and the recollections of her childhood create nostalgic moods…. (pp. 62-3)
Akhmatova is essentially an urban poet, primarily a poet of St. Petersburg…. Yet...
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there is something foreboding in the way she speaks about the city of Peter: "Sumptuous, graniteclad city of glory and woe"; "dark city by a terrifying river"; "the city loved by a bitter love." There are also other cities in Akhmatova's poetry and they are brighter, sunnier: "Hilly Pavlovsk," "brilliant Tsarskoye Selo," "golden Bakhchisarai."
All told, cities predominate in Akhmatova's poetry. It seems that man-made structures attract her more than nature's landscapes. (p. 64)
As [World War I] progressed, a strong religious feeling appears in Akhmatova's verse. She was always deeply religious with a strong, almost primitive, simple faith. And now that death was rampant in the wake of war … there was no other recourse than to turn to God for succour. At the first news of the war, Akhmatova, covering her face with her hands, implored God to kill her before the first battle, and exclaimed that the day of declaration of war has made everyone one hundred years older. And now, when she writes about the death of a loved one, she does not rebel at the cruel fate, but merely states that a new warrior has been added to God's own host. "Thy image, thy righteous sacrifice I shall cherish until my hour of death." (pp. 69-70)
It was not until 1917, after the first revolutionary rumble of that year had rolled over Russia, that Akhmatova published her next book, Belaya Staya…. Most of her themes remained the same as before, but her artistry had become more perfect…. [Her] themes are more fully carried out within the limits of a given poem…. (pp. 70-1)
On the whole, Belaya Staya, reflecting the years of war and revolution, reveal Akhmatova's "brittle voice" as somewhat subdued, having lost some of the sharpness of Chyotki, but mellowed by a religious fatalism so characteristic of a Russian woman.
Four years had passed since the publication of Belaya Staya. The turmoil of revolution and civil war was gone, but not forgotten. And then Akhmatova published [Podorozhnik (Buckthorn)]…. This pathetic little volume marks a turning point in Akhmatova's poetry. Although the theme of love still predominates, it has now a tragic note. It marks the end of the love of two poets, the end of Akhmatova's marriage to Gumilyov which had culminated in divorce in 1918, after which Gumilyov remarried. Although Akhmatova herself remarried in later years, her first love remained the stronger. (pp. 72-3)
In a way [Akhmatova's next book, Anno Domini MCMXXI is her] swan song, as it is the record of how a woman's love can turn to hate. Its pathos is really tragic and the poetess chose as its epigraph these utterly despairing words: Nec sine te, nec tecum vivere possum (Neither without you nor with you can I live). Hapless, tragic love, "love full of evil," marks most of the poems in this book. It is the outcry of a woman abandoned by her lover for another…. But her hate is only another form of her love, yet there is nothing now she can hope for and so she sighs: "Oh, life without tomorrow!"… Only in the last poem of this book does there appear a note of religious submissiveness, reminiscent of Akhmatova's war poems, which seems to indicate an exit out of the "accursed circle." (pp. 75-6)
Years went by, but Akhmatova's "brittle voice" remained silent. And then in 1940 there appeared a collection of her selected lyrics under the title Iz Shesti Knig …, which included an entire new section entitled Iva (The Willow)…. It was still the same Akhmatova, only one endowed with greater wisdom and mellowed by the years, by years of want and of suffering. Her voice was now reduced almost to a whisper and her eyes were dimmed as she looked at the present through the mirror of the past. But her mastery was still the same…. (p. 77)
On the whole [in Iz Shesti Knig] Akhmatova's emotions are more controlled now and the ideological content is deeper than before. She is more sure of herself and of her medium. But there is a note of nostalgia which appears here and there, as in a remarkable poem about Lot's wife, who "gave her life for one look." (p. 78)
During World War II, Anna Akhmatova's poetry appeared in the leading journals of the Soviet Union…. Of these poems, some (obviously written for the occasion) are almost trite…. On the other hand, there are some as remarkable as the best that Akhmatova has ever written. (pp. 79-80)
Anna Akhmatova—the poetess of tragic love—has stirred the hearts of readers of Russian poetry for thirty-five years and she is still writing, but again not publishing, because she encountered the wrath of the leaders of the Soviet Union. In a decree of the Central Committee of the All-Union Communist Party of Bolsheviks dated August 14, 1946, her poetry was condemned in the following words: "Akhmatova is a typical representative of empty poetry lacking in ideas and alien to our people. Her poems, permeated with the spirit of pessimism and decadence and expressing the tastes of old 'salon' poetry, which grew out of the position of burgeois-aristocratic aestheticism of 'art for art's sake' and which does not desire to keep in step with the people, do harm to the work of educating our youth and cannot be suffered in Soviet literature." This was followed by her expulsion from the Union of Soviet Writers on September 4, 1946. Although Akhmatova's voice has been silenced again, perhaps permanently, what she has said so far not only places her ahead of all living Russian poets, but assures for her a preëminent place in Russian poetry of all time as the greatest woman-poet the Russian nation has produced. (p. 82)
Leonid I. Strakhovsky, "Anna Akhmatova: Poetess of Tragic Love," in his Craftsmen of the World, Three Poets of Modern Russia: Gumilyov, Akhmatova, Mandelstam (copright © 1949, 1977 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College: excerpted by permission), Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1949 (and reprinted by Greenwood Press, Publishiers, 1969), pp. 53-82.
For many years Anna Akhmatova's poetry appeared to her contemporaries as if it had frozen within the restricted limits laid down by her first books: Evening, Rosary, White Flock…. It seemed that the poetess, submerged in the past, in the world of intimate reminiscences and in her own tradition of versification, would never tear herself away from the captivity of her beloved themes, familiar images, and established intonations. Even in the twenties critics had written that Anna Akhmatova was doomed to "repeat herself," and, unfortunately, such a view of her poetry is still current even today in her readers' minds.
If one turns, however, to the Akhmatova of today and reads carefully everything that she has produced during the last three decades, then extraordinary, at times decidedly new notes are perceptible, and unexpectedly bold developments and turns are noticeable in a lyrical view which was fully developed long ago and of which we are still quite conscious. (p. 72)
While not ceasing to be herself, Akhmatova rejects herself, or to state it more precisely, she casts off and broadens the established image of herself which classified her only as a poet of pre-revolutionary times who is locked within her narrow limits, in one unchanged river-bed. Her civic poetry of the thirties and of the war years, so full of tragic power and courage, testifies to this most of all. Akhmatova argues against those who would like to see in her only a "peripheral" phenomenon, alien to the life of her native country, indifferent to the fate of its people….
In her lyric poetry during the Second World War the idea of the unity of the poet and the citizen and the high pathos of struggle and sorrow rang out loud and clear. (p. 73)
[As indicated by her poem "Courage," written in 1942, the] very structure, the tonality itself is changed in Akhmatova's lyric poetry. We used to consider it soft, exquisite, womanly fragile, and we used to follow the play of details, of "microscopic trifles," of barely audible and scarcely perceptible modulations. Who would have believed that this "Muse of Tsarskoye Selo" could speak out so loudly, so powerfully, using colloquial language, and all this not about just anything, but about her Tsarskoye Selo, thrice celebrated in songs, which for a long time now has become the symbol of the exquisite poetry of the past? (pp. 73-4)
Unlike many of her literary colleagues and contemporaries, Akhmatova was reluctant to use abrupt stylistic shifts, radical changeovers, and was more inclined toward the traditional forms of poetry, toward classical exactness and clearness of language, and toward the harmonious language of [A. S.] Pushkin and [Yergeny Abramovich] Baratynsky. She still favors poetical reminiscences, which again and again perform the function of parallel mirrors, creating in her work a perspective in depth and thus bringing subjects remote from one another into closer relationship…. Names of literary importance, epigraphs, dedications, and gestures of good-bye to the past …, the settling of old accounts with herself and her memory: all this does not impede, but rather facilitates the task of evoking in a small section of poetical text the feeling of great spaciousness, of moving within it with great ease, of exchanging greetings with voices of other epochs and other spheres of existence. Owing to the breadth of her scope the entire world can become the mediator in the author's conversation with her imaginary interlocutor, and the fact that this exchange of thoughts is carried on in a low voice or happens silently no longer presents difficulties. Silence and calm in Akhmatova's poems usually speak not of the absence but rather of the presence of that which is all-embracing and magnificent. (pp. 74-5)
The new features of Akhmatova's latest lyric poetry force us to take a different view also of her literary autobiography and to reconsider certain traditional ideas about the early stages of her poetry. It is worthwhile to ask a question about her possibilities: is it possible that already in the initial "salon" period of her development there existed potentially and secretly those features which served at first only as a starting point and then later on came to fruition?
Akhmatova has always been the recognized master of the lyric self-portrait, a portrait which recreated the gestures and mimicry of the living face with such ease and clarity that it almost burst the frame of the poem like a relief…. [She] possesses the gift of compressing into the framework of a four-line poem man's fate with all the psychological complications and secrets of the inner life. (p. 75)
In addition to being filled with ideas and concrete subject matter Akhmatova's early poetry is frequently able to astonish us with the sweep of its intonation, with the power and energy of her voice, which also, as [Osip] Mandelshtam once wrote in a poem dedicated to her, "frees the depths of the soul."… In the most intimate spheres she possesses the art of the exalted, heroic and tragic, both in word and gesture. (pp. 75-6)
One could … feel the diapason of her lyric talent rather early in the poems which are permeated with the consciousness of patriotic duty and personal and communal responsibility for the fate of the motherland. Noteworthy in this respect is the poem by Akhmatova written in 1917 which sounded like a reproof to all who intended to leave a Russia caught in the conflagration of revolution. In those circumstances (notwithstanding the fact that contemporary life was presented by her mainly in dark colors) it was the very choice made by Akhmatova in favor of her beloved country that was important. This is why (according to K. I. Chukovsky) Alexander Blok, who loved this poem and memorized it, assigned to it such a programmatic significance. "Akhmatova is right," he said, "this is an unworthy way of talking. To run away from the Russian revolution is shameful." (p. 76)
From a barely perceptible whisper to flaming oratory, from shyly cast-down eyes to thunder and lightning—such is the range of her feeling and her voice. It may be that one has to look for the sources of that development which blossomed later on and gave Akhmatova's poetry the possibility of turning into a new riverbed—one which can accommodate between its shores both patriotic pathos, the calmness of high metaphysical contemplations, and the loud, many-voiced arguments of the living and the dead. (p. 77)
Andrei Sinyavsky, "The Unfettered Voice" (originally published under a different title in Novy mir, No. 6, 1964), in his For Freedom of Imagination, translated by Laslo Tikos and Murray Peppard (copyright © 1971 by Holt. Rinehart and Winston; reprinted by permission of Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Publishers), Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1971, pp. 72-7.
[Anna Akhmatova's Selected Poems] ranges from whispers to anguished screams, from personal happiness to the most acute personal distress. It is lyrical, modest, feminine, narrow in tone and form. The sensibility of many passages is admirable, and has encouraged scores of young "unofficial" poets in Russia, brought up to despise sensibility, nevertheless to give expression to their own.
In her youth Akhmatova was capable of turning out sentimental trash such as "The Grey-Eyed King": the triteness of this ballad is difficult to appreciate unless one actually hears the tum-tee-tee, tum-tee-tee of the original Russian; but the fact that it was set to even triter music by the émigré chansonnier Vertinsky, and sung at moments of boozy nostalgia in those countless Russian restaurants and cafés that abounded in at least three continents during the 1920s and 1930s, speaks for itself. At her worst, Anna Akhmatova was less good than any English-language poetess who is taken seriously anywhere today.
The historical events which took her away from the parks and beaches, poets' gatherings and lovers' quarrels of her early years and placed her in the queue of women waiting endlessly outside the gates of a Leningrad prison for news of husbands or sons also eliminated every trace of false sentiment from her writing. In Requiem (1935–1940), which describes this experience, she reached the peak of her powers. But the subject called for something at once simpler and more austere than Akhmatova the poetess seems to have been capable of. That is why, to this reader at least, the most moving lines in the whole volume are not in the poetry at all but in the short prose piece which prefaces Requiem….
The history of Akhmatova's generation of Russian poets is well known. Let us recite it once again. Gumilev was executed, Yessenin and Mayakovsky committed suicide. Osip Mandelshtam, the great stoic classicist—as unique among Jewish poets as Isaac Babel, the Jewish storyteller of genius, had been unique among the rough riders of the Red Cavalry—perished in a concentration camp. Marina Tsvetayeva hanged herself. Pasternak, the sources of his poetic inspiration poisoned and ultimately exhausted, turned to producing mediocre prose. It was the fact of her miraculous survival as a poet, not the inherent quality of her verse, that made it true to say in 1963 that Anna Akhmatova was then the greatest living Russian poet. Paradoxically, the finest poems in this volume are precisely those which lament the cruelties, the idiocies, which caused the deaths of other artists and ordinary human beings and made it possible for the title of "greatest living Russian poet" to be justly bestowed upon her at the end.
"Lyrics of Survival," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1969; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 3515, July 10, 1969, p. 751.
Akhmatova is a traditional poet, in the highest sense of the word….
Traditional verse more vividly than free verse emphasizes the banal, or the basic, in what is said. The contrast of traditional form to so-called contemporary content gives the work greater scale and tension. The principle is extremely simple: here is a normal person, with arms and legs, properly dressed, a tie and stickpin, but just look at the way he talks! Remember how the author of The Waste Land dressed, or imagine an automobile rushing straight toward you in your lane, and you will discover the function of the traditional verse line in Russian nineteenth-century poetry.
But Akhmatova is traditional in yet another respect. If an explosion takes place as a result of the contrast of form and content on paper, then what happens to the reader before whose eyes the poet himself stifles this explosion? Most of Akhmatova's poems are written with falling intonation toward the end, as if nothing special has happened. Whether she is calming herself or the reader is unimportant; what is important is the fact that she does this, and it is even more important to know why she does it. (p. 9)
One of the main characteristics of Russian poetry is its restraint. Russian poets (I am speaking of the best of them) never allow themselves hysterics on paper, pathological confessions, spilling ashes over their heads, curses aimed at the guilty, no matter what the character of the events which they become witness to, participants in, or, sometimes, victims of. Akhmatova was a profound believer, and therefore she understood that, more or less, no one is guilty. Or more precisely, that the guilty exist, but that they are also human beings, just like their victims. I think that she knew the ambivalence of consciousness characteristic of all Russians. As a rule ambivalence leads to one of three things: cynicism, wisdom, or complete paralysis, i.e., an inability to act. Akhmatova achieved wisdom. Therefore her verse is extremely simple, restrained, and at times, like all real wisdom, it sounds banal….
[Poems of Akhmatova] is a good book … [despite some translation flaws], and to a certain degree it does represent Akhmatova. Even if it is in profile which corresponds to the dust jacket, Akhmatova lived a long life and wrote much. The selection done for this book is a bit strange and one-sided. Akhmatova furiously opposed the tendency of many native and Western literary scholars to interpret her as a chamber poetess of the Teens or as a "fighter against the regime." She is an extremely profound and diverse poet. She is a lyric poet and a chronicler, but hers is the lyricism and chronicling of a person who "like a river, was reversed by the cruel epoch." Meditativeness and surrealism are characteristic of her, however it is the meditation not of a prophet sitting under a tree but of a person whose sufferings make her speak in a hoarse, almost disembodied voice; and her surrealism is not esthetic, but psychological, i.e., the madness of philosophy. The poetry is very musical, very rich phonetically, and the phonetics communicate a metaphysical reality to the information given in the text.
For all this she is an extremely restrained poet, almost simple. But her simplicity is like the "simplicity" of Robert Frost, to whom, in my opinion, she is extremely close stylistically in her "Northern Elegies."…
Akhmatova is still a very Russian poetess. Russian not in the sense of "baring the soul" or of a landscape with gold cupolas …, but in the psychological sense, in the depth of penetration into any character—whether a beloved or an executioner. This is a characteristic of Russian psychological prose, out of which Akhmatova came…. (p. 10)
Joseph Brodsky, "Translating Akhmatova," translated by Carl R. Proffer, in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1973 Nyrev, Inc.), Vol. XX, No. 13, August 9, 1973, pp. 9-11.
In Akhmatova's poems we are faced with three images of the poet: the one arising out of the facts of her biography; the one created by Russo-Soviet criticism of the poems; and the one she created of herself in her work. The third image emerges initially from many different versions of 'I'. Slowly, during the course of her life, the word and the person giving the word utterance ceased any longer to be divided, so that the voice of the person Akhmatova can be heard speaking to us directly through her poetry, without intermediary and with the awesome authority of complete integrity. But in the poems of her youth we find the poet searching for heroines who can reflect a part of her own personality and set it in a larger context, freeing her experience from the purely private.
The figure of the village woman, with her structured culture of Orthodox beliefs and her ritualistic way of life, was to provide at least a partial solution to this problem of how to enrich and deepen her poetry and relate it to the events shattering and recreating her country around her, while remaining true to their reflection in her own life. The use of this woman as one of her heroines was the beginning of that 'extension of personal feelings to a wider sphere' which her critics demanded—a process which culminated in her cycle 'Requiem', written during the Terror, when finally the loss of the son by the mother becomes the loss experienced by Mary at the foot of the Cross.
Looking at Akhmatova's early poetry, it is easy to fall into the confusion of seeing her as the village woman, beaten by her husband, or the pale sorrowing face, so like the Annenkov portrait in Anno Domini, examining itself in the mirror, or even the tall girl wearing a shawl, reciting her poetry as she was later to do in the poets' night club, the Wandering Dog. In fact she is all three of these. Those of her friends and admirers who left Russia in the twenties and who wished to crystallize her as the Akhmatova of the early love poems and those critics who took the religious village woman of Evening as an expression of the poet's values and her Christianity, misunderstood equally the sources from which Akhmatova's poetry springs. Forced by her very nature only to write of her own personal experience, she uses external 'props' in her attempt to reach the universal through the particular.
The circumstances of Akhmatova's life were to lead her over and over to consider why she wrote poetry and whether it was important to her. Little by little, her understanding of herself, of what she felt to be her role in the larger life of her nation, and her position as a poet among poets of the world, both past and present, made it possible for her to rise above the circumstances of her own life and of her day and age and to see the patterns behind the events, the links that, close up, seemed to be divisions. Then she was able to say that she looked down at everything 'as from a tower'…. But although this process of growth and integration was reflected from the start in her poetry, in Evening poetry is not yet seen as anything bringing a solution to the poet's problems. It will not, for instance, stop her heart breaking—on the contrary, death will stop her poetry. She describes herself as a cuckoo clock which sings when wound up. She sees nothing enviable in this: 'You know I can only wish an enemy such a fate'. (pp. 21-2)
[In] Rosary the poet is beginning to understand how to survive. (p. 30)
The past is losing its hold on her and soon she will be free. When her lover leaves her or she leaves him, life becomes empty but also bright. Poetry now has a positive role to play in this freedom from bondage, for what she writes at this time is 'happy' and if her lover knocks on the door she may not even hear. (p. 31)
[In White Flock] it is through the mouth of the village woman or pilgrim that Akhmatova is able to express her deepest feelings about [World War I]. She sees it as a wounding of the body of Christ and uses imagery related to that of early Russian folk poetry, showing sensitivity to the land as to something alive. When not making use of this persona, she approaches the subject with greater difficulty as if finding it almost impossible to express her grief and horror. Her first reaction is to cover her face with her hands and ask God to take her as a sacrifice, but this is not allowed. As a poet she has a duty to perform and God's command is that her memory, emptied of passion and song, become the 'terrible chronicle of news of the storm'…. (pp. 47-8)
Akhmatova, however, had not yet reached the stage where she could use her gift to inspire people and strengthen them, as she was able to do in the Second World War. Although it is wrong to say that she avoided mention of the war in her poems, her approach was, as always, a personal one. As for many of her countrymen, the reasons for the war did not seem to her clear-cut, but the result, the death of her contemporaries, was only too painfully clear. It is not surprising, therefore, to find that despite the war by far the greater number of poems in White Flock deal with what had up till now been the poet's central obsession, the theme of love. (pp. 50-1)
The poems in Plantain and Anno Domini cover the period from the end of the war on through the February and October revolutions and the civil war. To say, as her critics later did, that nothing about these great historic events can be found in Akhmatova's poetry is simply not true. Nor can it be held that her response to the revolution was entirely a pessimistic one. It was an honest one and she managed to keep it so by dealing, as always, only with her own experience. (p. 60)
A poem written in the summer of 1917, 'The river flows slowly along the valley' …, might seem at first to have absolutely no connection with what was happening. But noting the date, the words 'And we are living as they lived in Catherine's day / Going to church and waiting for the harvest' can be appreciated in their full irony. (p. 61)
In 'Requiem' Akhmatova no longer needed to use a heroine as a means of linking her own life with that of other women. It was enough to formulate her own private suffering. This voice coming out of the silence was sufficient, for little by little what was happening to the country was stripping off false values, until even the blindest person was forced to realize that 'only blood smells of blood'.
But for Akhmatova to give form to this suffering she had to live through it, and because it was that of a mother it inevitably led to an understanding of the archetype Mary. The poems of 'Requiem' trace the stations of her suffering to the foot of the Cross. Lev Gumilyov's arrest for little reason other than having had herself and Gumilyov as parents could again be laid to her failure as a mother. But most awe-inspiring in 'Requiem' is Akhmatova's understanding of the inevitability, almost necessity, that all this had to happen: that at the Crucifixion 'A choir of angels glorified that hour'…. While Mary Magdalene sobbed, 'No one dared to cast a glance to where the Mother, silent, stood alone.'
Mary the Mother is set in opposition to Mary Magdalene who has lost Christ and will only find Him again when He appears to her after His resurrection. The Mother's suffering is a reflection of that of Christ, who endures the Crucifixion to fulfil what He has been sent to do and whose suffering is not lessened but, if anything, heightened by understanding this necessity. He has no comforting illusions to place between Himself and the feeling of having been forsaken by God. And Mary, His mother, must watch Him, knowing that one cannot help anyone else, however great one's love, and that His suffering is necessary if God's purpose is to be fulfilled.
In this poem Akhmatova uses religious language to a very different purpose than years before at the time of the First World War. There is none of that feeling of suffocation that overcame her when she felt that to believe in the after life implied that it was wrong to grieve over death…. There is nothing gentle or comforting about this Mary. She is the other half of Christ: the woman who bore Him and who understands that the Crucifixion is the greatest moment in history. And as with the women of the Old Testament, Akhmatova is not observing Mary from outside. She is looking at the world through her eyes.
'Requiem' is not just a series of short poems strung together, but an organic unit documenting a precise progression through all the stages of suffering to this point and clearly set by the poet in the larger context of her life and work. The four-line poem with which it opens, written in 1961, is in a sense a triumphant vindication of a conviction Akhmatova had first formulated in 1917, that it was right and necessary for her to stay in Russia and die with her country if need be. (pp. 99-100)
The women to whom 'Requiem' was dedicated were drawn together by the fact that in their suffering they were completely alone. In the ten poems forming the main body of the cycle Akhmatova is no longer speaking about those others like herself who made up a multitude, but for them. She does this by speaking of that single woman, herself. Passing through that suffering she is at one with all other women forced to do the same. (pp. 101-02)
In the two poems of the 'Epilogue' Akhmatova turns from the depiction of the woman alone in sorrow who becomes universal by becoming one with Mary the Mother of Christ, to describe again the many Marys to whom she has dedicated these poems. The first poem is about what fear and suffering do to people…. This is now the other side of the coin. The understanding of the Cross produces, not a passive acceptance of horror, but rather the ability to look at it with both eyes open, full in the face. Here is no prayer for it all to be covered over with black cloth or, as long ago, with the Virgin's cloak. Nor is there any question of not understanding what has happened. The poet understands only too well. She can face up to it because she has taken suffering to its limit and so there is nothing to fear. Whereas Pushkin still prayed, 'Lord, don't let me lose my mind', Akhmatova no longer fears even madness. She has passed through it, surrendered herself to it, to learn, miraculously, that all the props to which she desperately clung for strength were not strength at all and that when they were gone and nothing more could be taken from her, she was stronger than she had ever realized was possible.
In the second poem of the 'Epilogue' her voice is stern…. (pp. 106-07)
Here remembering is not a consolation, something to cling to when all is lost, nor its opposite, the memory that must be killed so that one can go on living. It is the cry of fury from the woman whose husband is taken away at dawn: 'Not to forget!' Akhmatova consents to a monument only if it is to be an everlasting reminder of the horror, of the old woman's cry 'like a beast that was hurt'. And in a sense 'Requiem' is itself this monument. It is not raised to herself, the poet, but to the women who stood in the queues outside the prisons. If the suffering she and her contemporaries had been forced to live through were to be forgotten or glossed over that suffering might be repeated. Only by creating something more lasting than the short memory of man with his tendency to forget pain quickly, can Akhmatova carry out her vow not only not to forget but also: not to allow to be forgotten.
'Requiem' is a map of a journey leading through hell into the light and it is as accurate as any chart. The poet's position as map-maker, as formulator, is seen to be all-important, his responsibility to the word absolute. Only by speaking the truth can his words bring healing. Misuse of the word, the lie, the half-truth, the omission, are crimes against all those whose lives have been their only formulation and who rely on the artist with his peculiar gift of cutting across the barriers of time to reflect this in truth, so that what has been learnt can be passed on to later generations. Not to do this, to be silent, becomes a crime against humanity. (p. 108)
'The Way of all Earth', one of Akhmatova's few long poems, she referred to as the most avant-garde work she had written. Much shorter than the 'Poem without a Hero' and certainly much less complex, it is however so condensed in style that it seems longer than it actually is. In 'Requiem' Akhmatova expressed the fate of the suffering mother. In 'Poem without a Hero' she was to explore that of the poet of the 'True Twentieth Century'. In this poem, set between the two, she deals with her own fate as a poet and as a person and with the reasons for her existence. The answer here is not so much the 'I can' spoken to the woman outside the prison, as that acceptance of whatever life may bring of 'Already madness with its wing'. As then she had learnt that even when she had given up everything, all was not lost, so now she knows that she has come from somewhere else to this world of misery and trouble and that one day she will return 'home'.
This poem is not, however, about escape from life, but one which expresses faith in the most profound sense of the word. Strength here stems from the recognition that the poet has come from God and will one day return to Him, and that she must make her way through time to the place where there will be none. (p. 116)
Akhmatova's longest work, the beautiful but extremely difficult and complex 'Poem without a Hero', was written over a period of twenty-two years. She began it in Leningrad before the war, continued it in Tashkent and in postwar Leningrad and Moscow, and was not finally to admit that it was finished until 1962. It is a work written on so many levels and so rich in reference and quotation both to the poet's life and times and to the literature of western Europe that interpretation is difficult—the more so because of the piecemeal way in which it was published, so that many readings have been based on faulty or incomplete texts. (p. 148)
On the literal level the theme of the poem would certainly seem to be what time or history did to a specific group of people, mainly poets, the friends of Akhmatova's 'hot youth', people who include the person she was then and to whom she refers as her 'doubles'. But even to penetrate thus far we have actively to participate with the poet in recreating time past. (p. 151)
At no point does Akhmatova simply offer us material for our passive reception. The beauty of the words and the extraordinary power of the poem's rhythm force us to study its 'code': find out who the people actually were to whom it is dedicated, consider the significance of its many epigraphs, follow up its oblique references. (p. 152)
In the 'Poem without a Hero' Akhmatova seems to have gained conscious control over a world of symbol and allegory shared by all poets and in which they too play out their symbolic roles. Thus she becomes able to take their words and re-use them: sometimes it seems her poem could be taken as an answer to all those literary statements which have concerned her, while at other times, as she suggests, their voices seem to mingle with her own as her verse echoes theirs. But most important of all is the way in which she not only sees the friends of her youth as 'natural symbols'—much as Dante had seen his contemporaries in the Divina Commedia—but also as playing roles in an allegorical masque, linked with characters from fiction, mythology, history, and fairy tale until what she has created is a series of psychological types connecting literature, allegory, and symbol with life…. People become symbols and symbols become people. (pp. 156-57)
Having understood on one level that she and her contemporaries were playing out their roles on a stage set for the coming destruction of their world in 1914, as she probes deeper into the reason for it all Akhmatova comes to questions of fate, of guilt, and of the understanding of what is outside the normal structure of our lives. The criss-crossing of time, the mingling of dream and reality, which at first confuse, are seen to be an important device freeing us from the bonds of ordinary time and space. (p. 157)
Constantly we return to the same point: the role of the poet in the 'True Twentieth Century' and of Akhmatova in particular is self-vindicating. The poet-lawmaker, guiltless on one level, bearing the guilt of others on another, is the creator or tool of the thing that can overcome death, the Word. It is this that makes a poet's silence something shameful, what earns Akhmatova's departing shade a bunch of lilac from the hands of an unknown man in the future. It is as a poet that she conquers space and time, understands her contemporaries, shares the world of Dante, Byron, Pushkin, Cervantes, Oscar Wilde. Formulation is the bridge that crosses time and space and provides the entry into another world in which we walk usually unaware and where we are all living symbols 'manifesting forth a greater reality'.
If a poet can be said to have a philosophy then ['Poem without a Hero'] is Akhmatova's: it is the prism through which she looks forward and back…. The completion of a structure large enough to contain all her experience and knowledge allowed her to be at one again with those of her contemporaries from whom she had been estranged, it linked her with other poets through her use of their work in hers, and freed her from the necessity to try and formulate a further explanation of her life. In the 'Poem without a Hero' Akhmatova found that explanation, in an affirmation of the necessity both for things to be as they are and for them to change. In her mirror the 'True Twentieth Century' becomes not unendurable chaotic suffering, but a strange and beautiful, and yet cruel and horrible drama in which not to be able to play a role is seen as a tragedy. (pp. 158-59)
Amanda Haight, in her Anna Akhmatova: A Poetic Pilgrimage (© Oxford University Press 1976; reprinted by permission of Oxford University Press), Oxford University Press, London, 1976, 213 p.
[Akhmatova's] incorruptibility as a person is closely linked to her most fundamental characteristic as a poet: fidelity to things as they are, to 'the clear, familiar, material world'. It was Mandelstam who pointed out that the roots of her poetry are in Russian prose fiction. It is a surprising truth, in view of the supreme musical quality of her verse; but she has the novelist's concern for tangible realities, events in place and time…. In all her life's work, her fusion with ordinary unbetrayable existence is so complete that only the word 'modest' can express it truthfully. When she tells us (In 1940), 'But I warn you, / I am living for the last time', the words unconsciously define her greatness: her total allegiance to the life she was in. She did not make poetry out of the quarrel with herself (in Yeats's phrase for the genesis of poetry). Her poetry seems rather to be a transparent medium through which life streams. (pp. 9-10)
In Akhmatova all the contraries fuse, in the same wonderful way that her genetic proneness to T. B. was controlled, she said, by the fact that she also suffered from Graves' disease, which holds T.B. in check. The contraries have no effect on her wholeness, but they give it a rich mysterious fluid life, resembling one of her favourite images, the willow. They help to give to her poetry a quality that John Bayley has noted [see CLC, Vol. 11], an 'unconsciousness', elegance and sophistication joined with 'elemental force, utterance haunted and Delphic … and a cunning which is chétif, or, as the Russians say, zloi.'
Through her complex unity she was able to speak, not to a small élite, but to the Russian people with whom she so closely and proudly identified. Without condescension, with only a subtle change of style within the frontiers of what is Akhmatova, she was able to inspire them with such patriotic war-time poems as Courage. It is as though Eliot, in this country, suddenly found the voice of Kipling or Betjeman. The encompassing of the serious and the popular within one voice has become impossible in Western culture. Akhmatova was helped by the remarkable way in which twentieth-century Russian poetry has preserved its formal link with the poetry of the past. It has become modern without needing a revolution, and has kept its innocence. In Russian poetry one can still, so to speak, rhyme 'love' with 'dove'.
Akhmatova herself, with her great compeers, Mandelstam, Pasternak and Tsvetaeva, must be accounted largely responsible for the continuity of Russian poetic tradition. Together, they made it possible for the people to continue to draw strength from them. (pp. 11-12)
D. M. Thomas, in his introduction to Way of All the Earth by Anna Akhmatova, translated by D. M. Thomas (translation copyright © D. M. Thomas 1979; reprinted by permission of Ohio University Press, Athens), Ohio University Press, 1979, pp. 9-13.
Anna Akhmatova's personality was phenomenal. It was not given to any woman in Russian poetry before her to express herself with such convincing, lyrical power, to speak out so independently that her voice added once and for all a special—Akhmatovan—note to the art of the Russian poetic word. Akhmatova triumphed in competition with many poets of the early twentieth century who were then regarded as leading figures in poetry and who occupied the center of the stage. Akhmatova's word did not grow dull with the years. None of the accidents of circumstance in which that word was born deadened it, killed it with the flight of time, as occurs with some poets. Countess Rostopchina, Karolina Pavlova, Iuliia Zhadovskaia, and Mirra Lokhvitskaia—all the Russian women poets of the nineteenth century were no more than undergrowth among mighty trees, among the giants of Russian poetry. Akhmatova was the first woman to rise to the heights in the writing of lyrical poetry. "I taught women to speak," she said as far back as the '30s, with reference to the unprecedentedly headlong development of female poetic creativity, which began in our century and in which the influence and example of Akhmatova were a most important factor.
From the very outset the profoundly psychological character of Akhmatova's verse did not flow in the channel of Russian Symbolism and Acmeism. Despite the passionate and high evaluation of "The Cypress Casket" … by Akhmatova, traces of lessons learned from the poetry of Innokentii Annenskii are barely detectable in her work, which took shape in an entirely independent fashion. The influence of Alexander Blok was of a purely general nature. Of course, in Akhmatova's eyes he was the highest embodiment of poetry among her contemporaries and its leading figure, and his many-faceted strophes could not but feed her thoughts. But who would dare assert that Blok was a leader she followed in poetry?
The proposition that the roots of the psychological in Anna Akhmatova's poetry were to be found in Russian prose, the Russian novel of the previous century, arose, in its general outlines, as early as the 1920s. To this day that exceedingly complex process of interaction and transformation has not been fundamentally investigated by anyone, nor has it been refuted; but it would seem that only there can an explanation of the genesis of Akhmatova's poetry be found. This in no way does away with our responsibility to take a closer and more vigilant look at older Russian poetry. Russian poetry is full of every conceivable kind of anticipation of what followed, in the matter of style as well. We also underestimate the purely psychological saturation of older Russian poetry, which often manifested itself even among lesser, secondary practitioners. But when Academician Zhirmunskii propounded his thesis that the creativity of Anna Akhmatova was the connecting link, the bridge between the Russian classics of the nineteenth century and the new art, the art of the twentieth century, Russian classical poetry was not the last thing in his mind. Pushkin's harmony, compelling one to recall the art of the ancient Greeks, hangs over Akhmatova's best work, And in this one feels her deep adherence to the legacy of the classics. But some of the cells, some grains of Akhmatova's style, can also be found in secondary poets of the past. (pp. 43-4)
[Although influenced to some degree by the poetry of the century], Akhmatova would not have been a major poet if her work had not shown traces, manifestations, of the gains made by Russian art, particularly poetry, in our century. Above all, this is a new ability to master color, hues, the ability to describe an object sparingly but expressively, to render the plastic nature of things seen; and—in intimate unity with all this—there was a new, considerably greater burden of meaning in the word, its density, its lapidary polishing. In this respect Akhmatova was an outstanding master. She developed and kept her own style while living alongside powerful poetic personalities at a time when various "schools" of poetry existed and functioned. Her characteristic rhythms alone always make Akhmatova's poetry distinguishable, identifiable in the flood of poetry written at the beginning of the century. (pp. 44-5)
Anna Akhmatova lived a long life, and her work underwent considerable evolution. In her late years, as is not rare with poets, she condemned and did not like much that she had written in her youth. Faced with the enormous social cataclysms that developed, Anna Akhmatova tried to embody a view of history in her words. The awesome tread of history was combined in her late verse with lofty ethical demands, a real judgment of the past, evidence of which is her "Poem without a Hero."… The maximalism of spirit that had long since appeared in Akhmatova became a constant feature of her poetry. (pp. 45-6)
In the difficult years of World War II, and even somewhat earlier, active civic notes could be clearly heard in Akhmatova's poetry. In her "Courage" …, written in February 1942, which was pasted up as a poster on the house walls of besieged Leningrad, one heard, as it were, the soul of the people in its wrath, defending its right to life and freedom … This was the path traced by the poet from closed literary circles and esthetic artists' cafes to the many millions of Soviet readers, to the people as a whole.
Native land: how much those words meant to this Russian poet grown gray and wise with the years, who held herself with great dignity, preserving to her very death the alertness in her light green eyes! Her talent did not age. Each new poem was fresh and bore a poetic discovery. In the phrase of Nikolai Rylenkov, her "will to self-resurrection" and profound awareness of the mission of the poet responsible to her native country and people, her humanism, were the soil that fed the marvelous creativity of Akhmatova for almost an entire half-century. The "Fountain House" in the city on the Neva, where she lived for many years, singing its granite embankments, awaits a memorial plaque in her honor. Her name is written in enduring letters in the chronicle of Russian literature. One need not doubt that Anna Akhmatova's poetry will always be needed. (p. 46)
Nikolai Bannikov, "On Anna Akhmatova: On the Ninetieth Anniversary of Her Birth" (originally published as "Ob Anne Akhmatovoi: K 90-letiiu so dnia rozhdeniia," in Literaturnaia Rossiia, June 22, 1979), in Soviet Studies in Literature (translation © 1980 by M. E. Sharpe, Inc., Armonk, NY 10504), Vol. XVI, No. 1, Winter, 1979–80, pp. 42-6.
[The] young Akhmatova shuns the obscurity so characteristic of avant-garde verse. When she published her first poems, Russian readers had long been accustomed to expect new poetry not to yield its secrets as easily as hers does. True, her lyrics normally convey no more than an elusive and vague impression of emotions that are themselves elusive and vague. But they are otherwise largely free from obscurity, their originality being that of startling simplicity. The language is straightforward, conversational—at times even prosaic. The mystery lies more in the poet's personality than in her way of expressing herself.
She writes without obtrusive stylistic devices, most lyrics consisting of three or four four-line stanzas, with regular metre often iambic, and with alternate rhyming lines. But this seeming lack of adventurousness conceals much elegant workman ship, and owes some of its success to surprise; it was not what readers had come to expect in an age when art often consisted less of concealing art than of flaunting artifice.
Despite her obsession with love Akhmatova is no erotic writer. (p. 24)
Though the reader [of Akhmatova] can indeed sense … "tumultuous passions," he is also conscious of the discipline and control with which the poet deploys them. The general tone is cool, and so the comparison with Sappho sometimes made … can be misleading. If Akhmatova is seized by convulsive trembling, if she is paler than grass, nigh unto death with frozen tongue and fire flickering under her skin (to quote a few Sapphic images), she manages to convey those experiences in a more clinical, less vibrant spirit than does the bard of Lesbos. (p. 25)
The early Akhmatova did not offer, as was claimed by Aleksandra Kollontay (a leading early Bolshevik and famous apostle of free love) "an entire volume of the female soul." Still less was she—at least in her earlier years—"concerned with the necessity of giving voice to the woman's point of view"…. It is hard to see Akhmatova as a typical woman or a typical anything. She did not regard herself as the mouthpiece of collective womanhood, natural though this impression may be in view of her status as the first Russian woman writer to attain such prominence. She expressed a woman's point of view, but for the woman's point of view her readers had to wait for Requiem, written many years later. She was not an apostle of feminism, however justifiably that cause had been preached in Russia since the mid-nineteenth century, being perhaps too self-possessed to feel that she needed to assert herself, either "as a woman" or in any other capacity. Nor was she the kind of mean spirit that chiefly sees itself as the representative of a social or sexual category. But her self-possession was combined with great vulnerability: here is a leading paradox among the many that lend her fascination.
Vulnerable or not, Akhmatova displays control and inner strength in her writing from the beginning. This claim is not contradicted by the tragic, pessimistic, gloomy sentiments that she often voices. They are not the wailings of self-pity. They are rather a dispassionate adverse diagnosis of the human condition offered by one free from illusions who believes in her need and capacity for a great love that (she knows, even as she craves for it) can never be anything but transitory and disappointing. Hers is an unruffled appraisal of a complex situation, not a cry of pain. (pp. 25-6)
Ronald Hingley, "Torture by Happiness," in his Nightingale Fever: Russian Poets in Revolution (copyright © 1981 by Ronald Hingley; reprinted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.; in Canada by Weidenfield (Publishers) Limited), Knopf, 1981, (and reprinted by Weidenfield and Nicolson, 1982), pp. 18-44.∗