Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1910
The challenge of articulating in poetic form the human experience of young love, the pains of love, and the love of country is inherent in much of Akhmatova’s poetry. Her love for the Russian people, as shown in her collections Rekviem (1963; Requiem, 1964) and Poema bez geroya (1960; A Poem Without a Hero, 1973), made her one of the most admired figures of modern Russia. Most of all, it is her resilient, individualistic spirit that all readers embrace. Whether in the romantic persona in Belaya staya or in the melancholy persona of Chetki, Akhmatova gave her voice to the Russian people during a tragic period in their history.
Akhmatova uses concrete imagery to convey the themes of passionate, young love in her first collections. Unlike the Russian Symbolists of the early twentieth century, she sought to describe the experience of love using concrete, natural images, not religious, imaginary ones. The Acmeist literary movement, of which the poet was a part, dramatically influenced Akhmatova’s earlier works. The Acmeists insisted on clarity of expression. Akhmatova used objective, concrete things to convey strong emotions. For example, in one poem, the wind, given the human attribute of recklessness, conveys the poet’s emotional state to the reader: “And we observe the rites of our bitter meetings,/ When suddenly the reckless wind/ Breaks off a sentence just begun.”
In her later works, as Akhmatova faced the challenges of adulthood and as her country experienced the pains of World War I and a subsequent civil war, her poetry adopted a more mature voice, and her literary devices became infused with her individual style. From Anno Domini MCMXXI, the following illustrates her more experienced persona:
Seven days of love, seven terrible years of separation,War, revolution, a devastated home,Innocent blood on delicate hands,Over the rosy temple a gray strand.
The images of love and death became linked in her poetic vision as they were in her experience.
By 1922, Akhmatova’s political difficulties had become unrelenting and her poetry was banned from publication. Although she was officially denounced by the government, people continued to read her poetry, passing copies of her poems among themselves. In addition, Akhmatova continued to write, dramatizing her personal tragedies. Intensely personal, her poetic voice reveals itself without the objective distance of earlier poems. Her poetic voice resonates with the knowledge that she speaks for more than herself: “I somehow sense the groaning and the sorrows/ Of unrecognized, imprisoned voices.”
In addition to articulating the agonized voice of her people, Akhmatova sought to capture the essence of the art of writing poetry. In one poem she writes: “it carves, it shifts, it weaves,/ And slips through my hands alive.” The difficulties of writing, of holding on to the muse, become a source of inspiration.
Requiem announces the birth of a national poet, capable of giving voice to the horrors imposed on the Russian people by Stalin’s regime. In the preface of the work, she greets a woman who, like her, is standing outside a Leningrad prison waiting to hear the fate of a loved one. The woman asks the poet: “Can you describe this?” The poet answers: “Yes, I can.” Amanda Haight, who interviewed Akhmatova during the last few years of Akhmatova’s life, describes the poet as experiencing a personal resurrection in the final poems of Requiem. Further, she characterizes the poet as accepting her place in life and in history, no matter what the price. Accepting her suffering as part of her fate, the poet began to take stock of the past. The poetic voice is intensely personal yet dramatically universal. Akhmatova uses biblical allusions to accentuate the universality of her suffering. For example, in the poem “Crucifixion,” she describes the mother of Christ as the ultimate symbol of suffering. Ultimately, the brief epic describes the individual’s experience as it represents a moment in the history of a nation. The poet gives voice to not only a personal but also a national tragedy:
I remember them always and everywhere,And if they shut my tormented mouth,Through which a hundred million of my people cry,Let them remember me also. . . .
First published: “Smyatnie,” 1914 (collected in The Complete Poems of Anna Akhmatova, 1997)
Type of work: Poem
Describing a painful meeting between two former lovers, the poem dramatizes the melancholy acceptance of love forever lost.
“Confusion,” included in Akhmatova’s popular collection Chetki, captures the tone of the entire work, which focuses on the meetings and separations of lovers and former lovers. The poet describes the painful meeting as draining, yet necessary, because it provides closure for the relationship that has left her hanging on during “Ten years of cries and trepidation.” As she looks into her former lover’s face, she does not see in him the intense emotion that she feels. She sees only the “simple civility” reflected in his kiss of her hand. At the conclusion of the poem, her soul is both “empty and serene.”
The feeling of love’s being both painful and exhilarating permeates every line. Concrete imagery and physical descriptions represent the intense emotion felt by the poet. The lines “a mist clouds my eyes” and “with a kiss you brushed my hand” characterize these literary devices. This use of concrete imagery is common throughout most of her earlier works. Also representative of the poet’s craft is her dramatization of the moment. She sketches as if it were a painting in motion, the lyrical quality of her verse reflected in the lines: “And I can no longer fly,/ I who was winged from childhood.”
Further exemplified in the poem is the poet’s reliance on the narrative form to provide movement. In addition, the fluidity of the poem illustrates that confusion is as much a part of life as are love and loss. The realization of this is demonstrated by the persona’s recognition that her soul is now serene for the first time in ten years after “all my sleepless nights.” Out of her confusion she has found an inner peace that would not have come if she had not loved and lost.
Amanda Haight, Akhmatova’s biographer, describes Chetki as representing a poet who is “beginning to know how to survive” lost love and abandonment. Haight concludes that finally poetry now plays a positive role in the poet’s life, allowing her a sense of freedom and individuality. In addition, Chetki marked the beginning of Akhmatova’s popularity as a poet and the maturation of her adult poetic voice.
First published: “Chernyy son,” 1922 (collected in The Complete Poems of Anna Akhmatova, 1997)
Type of work: Poem
In six parts, the poem chronicles the suffocating bondage of the relationship between a husband and wife.
From the collection Anno Domini MCMXXI, the poem “Dark Dream” unifies two of Akhmatova’s important themes: her strength and her individuality. Moreover, it laments not only a personal loss of love but also the conflict of ideal love with the realities of a husband and wife’s relationship.
The poet laments the slow death of the marriage bond. Although it is on “the edge of the stage” she struggles to hold on to it despite its exacting cruelty: “You forbid singing and smiling// As long as we don’t separate,/ Let everything else go!” The poet learns that the love is too painful; in part 3 she describes the love as blood, gushing “from my throat onto the bed.” The fourth part is all coldness and numbness. The lover is beyond feeling pain, beyond feeling love or passion, as exemplified in the following: “If necessary—kill me// Everything your way: let it be!” The concluding part is a rebirth of the persona’s strength as she tells her husband that she will not be submissive to him. “You’re out of your mind,” she chides, to think that she will submit to his will. Ultimately saying good-bye to her husband, she resolves that they are no longer bonded together, but she feels compassion for him “because you let this pilgrim into your home.”
The poet anguishes over the death of her marriage and laments its passing in stages. By the end of the narrative, she has let go of a part of herself, a form of death, and given birth to the artist once more, who loves singing and freedom. Moreover, she is one who no longer will submit to the “hangman” and his “prison.”
The poem ends with hope as the poet says good-bye to her husband and concludes that she now has peace and good fortune, as should he for having taken her in. The bitter tone of much of the poem is replaced with one of acceptance of the end of their relationship.
First published: Rekviem, 1963 (English translation, 1964)
Type of work: Poem
A series of poems, in the form of a short epic, tells of a suffering mother who longs to know the fate of her imprisoned son.
Requiem, never published in the Soviet Union, describes an intensely personal and national struggle for survival. The preface, dedication, two epilogues, and the intervening series of poems combine to form a brief epic about the grieving mother of a prisoner and her fellow sufferers who stand in the prison lines of Leningrad. Although never acknowledged, the first-person-narrator “I” leaves little doubt of the directly autobiographical nature of the poem.
The preface, “Dedication,” and “Prologue” provide the exposition for the work, establishing the historical scene and providing the introduction to the persona—a grieving mother longing to know the fate of her imprisoned son. In the preface the narrator answers, “Yes, I can,” to a woman’s inquiry about her ability to describe the awful terror of “where, unhappily, my people were.” She identifies the cars of the secret police as the dreaded symbols of death and despair, as carrying people, including her son, away at dawn.
The literary devices of her previous works form a multilayered journey into a terrifying time in human history. Akhmatova uses concrete imagery and symbolism, both universal and biblical, to convey the significance of the story she has to tell. For example, when she addresses death, she uses a series of similes to dramatize the various forms it may take: “like a bandit,” “like a typhus-germ,” or “like a fairy tale of your own invention.” (This last simile alludes to the imaginary crime that was often used to convict a political prisoner.) In addition, physical descriptions capture the terror of the time: “There I learned how faces fell apart/ How fear looks out from under the eyelids.”
In addition to imagery and symbolism, she utilizes biblical allusions to dramatize the stages of the mother’s suffering as they coincide with the stages of Mary’s suffering for Christ. Christ was taken away, wrongly convicted, then crucified in front of his mother. The persona’s son proceeds through the same steps. Moreover, as the poet becomes a symbol of Mary’s suffering, so does she represent her people’s suffering. Requiem speaks of not only one person, but a people, in torment.
Like an epic hero, the poet does not give in but lends courage to her people through her poetry: “I see, hear, touch/ all of you.” She, essentially, becomes them. In the final lines of the poem, she wishes to become a bronze monument placed in front of the Leningrad prisons, where she waited with millions like her.
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