Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

The Complete Poems of Anna Akhmatova is an enormous work comprising the more than seven hundred original poems that Akhmatova wrote in her lifetime, with translations by Judith Hemschemeyer on the facing pages. Volume 1 includes Akhmatova’s first five books: Vecher (1912; evening), Chetki (1914; rosary), Belaia staia (1917; white flock), Podorozhnik (1921; plantain), and Anno Domini MCMXXI (1922, 1923). Each book was a single composition in itself, thematically and structurally unified, and the translator and editor have preserved Akhmatova’s own divisions and the order within them. Volume 2 begins with two collections that Akhmatova was never able to publish as separate volumes: Reed and Seventh Book, which later (although thoroughly censored) were incorporated into other books. Then, in more or less chronological order, come uncollected poems from various years. These include “Requiem,” written between 1935 and 1940 in witness to Joseph Stalin’s purges, and “Poem Without a Hero,” written between 1940 and 1962 as a kind of memory of Akhmatova’s doomed generation. Volume 1 includes a translator’s introduction and a scholarly essay by the editor Roberta Reeder; volume 2 begins with essays by poet Anatoly Nayman, who collaborated with Akhmatova on translations and served as literary secretary in her later years, and by Isaiah Berlin, the British scholar and diplomat whose encounters with Akhmatova immediately after World War II were to have profound political and artistic consequences....

(The entire section is 643 words.)


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

The great literary tradition of nineteenth century Russian literature did not include women. Women’s voices were beginning to be heard when Akhmatova was first entering the literary world, but they had yet to be taken seriously. Anna Akhmatova was born Anna Gorenko, but when her father discovered that his seventeen-year-old daughter was writing poetry, he told her not to disgrace the family name. So she simply and undemonstratively chose another, one from her maternal line. This was no great sacrifice—more than one male writer in Russia used a pseudonym to keep his respectable family name out of a dubious profession—but for Akhmatova it was a harbinger of greater sacrifices to come. Her life seemed to consist of choices that offered loss on either hand.

As a woman, in her personal life she suffered because her gifts, her independent poetic sensibility itself, made ordinary family life hugely difficult; others’ attempts to make her give up poetry (and her own attempts as well) made life intolerable. As a poet in the Stalinist state, she suffered simply because she wrote. Poetry had marked her out, and as one of her biographers has written, she seemed “to have been chosen by fate to test all the intuitive and inherited values of her contemporaries.” Among those values was a belief in the power of the true word, which for a lyric poet comes only from a fidelity to a true self, not one mandated by theory or ideology. With the Russian Revolution and the repression, terror, and war that followed after, fate seemed to raise the stakes: Once poetry had been for her a source of both inner pain and inner strength; now, for four decades of her life, it would be the regime’s excuse for harassment and persecution—and her own chief means of spiritual survival.

If initially Akhmatova’s thematics—love, grief, loss, and reconciliation—were perceived as a strictly feminine vocabulary, as time went on and her poems were memorized and passed along in whispers, those thematics became the vocabulary for an entire nation. Her own unthinkable biography anticipated the biographies of thousands of ordinary citizens; her thinking, her poetry, gave them a means to grasp the unthinkable and to continue living within it.


(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Brodsky, Joseph. “The Keening Muse.” In Less than One. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1986. A brief, thoughtful essay by Russian poet and Nobel laureate Joseph Brodsky, who knew Akhmatova well in the last years of her life.

Choice. XXVII, July, 1990, p.1832. A review of the collection of poems.

The Denver Post. July29, 1990, p. DlO. A review of the collection of poems.

The Guardian Weekly CXLII, May 10, 1990, p.28. A review of the collection of poems.

Haight, Amanda. Anna Akhmatova: A Poetic Pilgrimage. New York: Oxford University Press, 1976. Although much more archival information about Akhmatova and her generation has become available since the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, Haight’s book is still a perceptive introduction to the poet’s life and work.

Heldt, Barbara. Terrible Perfection: Women and Russian Literature. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987. Heldt first looks at the image of women in Russian fiction and poetry and then discusses women writers. She devotes part of one chapter to Akhmatova and the image of the female self.

Hingley, Ronald. Nightingale Fever: Russian Poets in Revolution. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1981. Focusing on the cultural and historical context of their work, Hingley considers the lives of four contemporaries, Russia’s greatest twentieth century poets: Anna Akhmatova, Osip Mandelstam, Boris Pasternak, and Marina Tsvetayeva.

Library Journal. CXV; April 1, 1990, p. 118. A review of the collection of poems.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. March 18, 1990, p.3. A review of the collection of poems.

Naiman, Anatolii. Remembering Anna Akhmatova. Translated by Wendy Rosslyn. New York: Henry Holt, 1991. Both personal memoir and literary history, this book might well be titled “Listening to Akhmatova,” since that is what Naiman did. Both pupil and chronicler, he recalls her direct speech on poetry and life.

The New York Times Book Review. XCV; May 13, 1990, p.9. A review of the collection of poems.

Rosslyn, Wendy. The Prince, the Fool, and the Nunnery: The Religious Theme in the Early Poetry of Anna Akhmatova. Amersham, England: Avebury, 1984. Akhmatova’s other early themes—love, poetry, and time—have been extensively studied, but Rosslyn here concentrates on the “peculiar religiosity” of Akhmatova’s verse, which is a matter not of institution or ritual but of personal relationship.

St Louis Post-Dispatch. August 26, 1990, p. C5. A review of the collection of poems.

The Spectator. CCLXV; August 25, 1990, p.23. A review of the collection of poems.