The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Poem Without a Hero is subtitled “A Triptych.” Each of the three parts consists of a series of lyrics which together amount to about 750 lines. The poem was composed over a period from 1940 to 1962, in three Russian cities (Leningrad, Tashkent, and Moscow). The poet continually came back to the poem, revising and changing her work under conditions of war, personal danger, sickness, and severe government censorship during the darkest of the Stalinist years. The complicated fate of the poem—fragmentary, frequently revised, and with a complex and fugitive publication history—is a mirror of the unsettled circumstances of its composition. Indeed, in her foreword Anna Akhmatova herself reports that she had been advised by readers to make her poem “clearer.” She replies, “This I decline to do. It [Poem Without a Hero] contains no third, seventh, or twenty-ninth thoughts. I shall neither explain nor change anything. What is written is written.”

Poem Without a Hero is Anna Akhmatova’s protracted meditation on the fate of St. Petersburg/Leningrad, her beloved adopted city, a fate that is intricately bound up with the fate of herself and of those she loves and remembers. Many of the details of the life she shared with her compatriots are obscure to those not intimately familiar with that long vanished world, but the poet turns those intimate details into parables with which the contemporary reader of an English translation can identify.

The poem as a whole contrasts the creativity, youth, and passion of St. Petersburg (the city of Alexander Pushkin and many other Russian artists and poets) with the war-torn suffering of postrevolutionary Leningrad. The renamed “Leningrad” is a site of the silencing of poetry and of poets; it is the place where many of the heirs of the earlier cultural heritage, as well as the visionary promise of the Revolution, have been arrested and executed by the state. Although the poem has no “hero” in the conventional sense, the city itself, in both its romantic and its tragic incarnations (particularly as these qualities are embodied in the friends Akhmatova knew as a young woman), is the sustaining image of the heroic.

In the dedicatory poems that precede the first part of the poem proper, the unhappy love affair between two of Akhmatova’s friends—a young officer named Vasevolod Knyazev and a beautiful dancer named Olga Glebova-Sudeikina—becomes the background for Akhmatova’s exploration of her youthful aspirations at the St. Petersburg hangout for young artists named the Roving Dog. Akhmatova’s focus of attention is on the consequences that follow from the fact that the dragoon’s love for the lovely dancer was not returned. When he discovered her entertaining a rival, the officer shot himself and died outside her door. The death this young man chooses becomes entwined with the political, unchosen deaths of many of Akhmatova’s associates, including her husband and the poet Osip Mandelstam, both of whom perish in the hands of the state police.

The dedication and foreword, however, were written long after the crystallizing event that triggered the poem. One learns about that event in the first part, entitled “Nineteen Thirteen”: On New Year’s Eve, 1940, Akhmatova is packing to flee to the relative safety of Tashkent just as the German army is about to begin the siege of Leningrad. She is “visited by shadows from the year 1913, disguised as mummers.” At first she wishes to repel the masqueraders: “You’re wrong:/ This isn’t the Doge’s Palace./ It’s next door.” The revelers insist, however, and the poet ultimately welcomes them, saying, “It’s you I celebrate.”

The guests are more than costumed celebrants. They are the dramatization of the literary, spiritual, and personal experience that is now practically gone. They are Faust, Don Juan, John the Baptist, Dorian Gray, figures...

(The entire section is 1607 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

The conditions of censorship, betrayal, and imprisonment under which Akhmatova wrote and rewrote Poem Without a Hero are tangibly present in the form and technique of the poem. Critics point out her use of the characteristic Russian device known as tainopis, or secret writing: When a poet could not be named or quoted for reasons of censorship or discretion, lines from an officially permitted poet would be used instead as an ironic or secret reference to what the state had declared to be forbidden. Akhmatova said that this practice of tainopis enforced a subtlety on her poetry that would not otherwise have been possible.

The English-speaking reader of the Russian Poem Without a Hero is struck with the abundant presence—through direct quotation, indirect influence, and subtle allusion—of Romantic and modernist English poetry. Byron, Shelley, and Keats—the most conspicuously present—can be freely quoted and alluded to. Their association with freedom and the value of the individual is not seen to be threatening, although the work of contemporary Russian writers such as Mandelstam or Boris Pasternak would be. T. S. Eliot can express his sense of despair and recovery at the bombing and destruction of London when his counterparts (Akhmatova and her circle) in the Soviet Union could not do so in reacting to the siege of Leningrad.

Akhmatova employs “secret writing” not only in regard to English poets. Even classical Russian and other European poets and artists are enlisted in this subversive truth telling. Pushkin can speak of his sense of the endangerment of the city of St. Petersburg when Akhmatova cannot. Akhmatova can present Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart referring in Don Giovanni to the cruel and literally petrifying force of the Stalin-like “Commandatore” when no one in Soviet Russia would be allowed to make the same presentation. Russian-speaking readers of Akhmatova’s poem must feel that Poem Without a Hero is a sanctuary of the forbidden heritage and treasures of Russian literature.