(Poetry for Students)

“Midnight Verses” is a late poem by Anna Akhmatova, who is considered one of Russia’s most important poets of the twentieth century. Akhmatova came to fame immediately upon the publication of her first collection of poetry in 1912. She was recognized for her powerful and moving love poetry, which explained little, and instead relied on concrete imagery. Her literary career was disrupted by the Russian Revolution; soon after taking power, the government of the Soviet Union sought to suppress those writers it deemed to have a political viewpoint that did not support Communism. For years, Akhmatova could not publish her poetry. She did not even dare write it down, because writers were commonly sent to jail for things they had written. Until the death of Joseph Stalin in 1953, Akhmatova was virtually unheard of outside the Soviet Union.

With a thaw in the Soviet government’s policy, Akhmatova’s fame spread across the world in the 1950s and 1960s. She traveled to Italy and England to accept awards, and was twice a nominee for the Nobel Prize. The short poems comprising “Midnight Verses” were written over the years from 1963–1965, shortly before Akhmatova’s death. “Midnight Verses” was first published in her book The Flight of Time (1965). It is currently available in The Complete Poems of Anna Akhmatova (2002).


(Poetry for Students)

In Place of a Dedication
“Midnight Verses” begins with a brief introductory piece that establishes the mood of the poem’s speaker and puts readers in the mood for what is to follow. The first two lines concern the speaker’s relationship to vast stretches of nature. Visually, readers are shown open vistas of the ocean’s waves and entire forests, but not any individual person. In the second line, the relationship to the sky is an uneasy one: the sky is presented as being enamel, which gives a hard coating to cookware and pottery, while the speaker is said to be “sketched onto” it. The speaker is thus seen in the clear sky, but is not a part of the sky.

The last two lines of this introduction establish the emotional situation that the poem is to deal with: the difficulty of being separated from a lover, which is, though bad, still not as bad as a casual meeting with that person.

Elegy Before the Coming of Spring
The first stanza of this section introduces the poem’s overriding theme of death, using the imagery of snowfall, of silence, and of night. The intoxication of the second line indicates the illogical feeling watching the snow brings out in the speaker. In line three, the poem mentions Ophelia, who, in Shakespeare’s play Hamlet, is driven to suicide when Hamlet abruptly spurns her. By bringing her up, Akhmatova establishes a link between death and love.

The second stanza of this poem refers to the impending death of the speaker’s lover. The intimacy of love is captured by the phrase “the one who appeared only to me.” This lover, though, is not fully focused on the poem’s speaker, as death is spoken of as someone he is engaged to marry (“betrothed to”). The emotional distance between them is highlighted by the fact that he has already said goodbye, thereby ending their relationship, but still has remained with the speaker after their connection is severed.

First Warning
The speaker recalls how often death has played a role in her life, and how it has made her withdraw into herself. The first line of this section—“What is it to us”—poses a question that is never answered, raising the type of mystery that is characteristic of Akhmatova’s poetry. The best that she can do to address this mystery is to examine the things that she does not have to offer her lover. She is not a dream, a delight, or paradise (a reference to heaven, or the ultimate comfort upon death). The “wreath” referred to implies death by giving readers the visual image of the veins that surround the center of an eye. The speaker thus acknowledges her own aloofness from her lover, her inability to connect.

Through the Looking Glass
Death is again personified here, as it was in the first section, as the lover of the poet’s lover. In this case, it is given physical characteristics of youth and beauty that make it a formidable competitor. As a result, both people find that their lives revolve around their suppressed knowledge that death is nearby, never really mentioning it but becoming more and more...

(The entire section is 1277 words.)