The Poem

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1607

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.”

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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 from Greek mythology and Russian folklore, Hamlet, the Man in the Iron Mask, and the Prince of Darkness. Being able to see the past so clearly (she compares its vividness to Francisco de Goya’s painting) is more upsetting than consoling. She asks, “But by what necromancy/ Am I living and they dead?” The black art of communicating with the dead (necromancy) is less potent than the art of the poet, and she exercises her greater power when she writes that “As in the past the future is maturing,/ So the past is rotting in the future—/ A terrible carnival of dead leaves.”

The first part of the triptych ends with the poet back in the terrible present of 1941. Akhmatova, speaking through the poem, claims the right to be the “ancient Conscience” who lives to remember and speak of the death of the young lover. The persistence and power of the poem is validated in the emphatic capitalized words that conclude the first part: “what if, suddenly, the theme escapes/ and hammers on the window with its fists.”

Part 2, subtitled “Obverse,” is set in the same house in Leningrad on January 5, 1941. Akhmatova’s editor is displeased with her work: “It’s got to be simpler!/ You read, and when you’ve finished/ You still don’t know who’s in love/ With whom and whywho’s/ Author and who’s hero.” It may well be that these questions and others of the same sort that follow from the editor’s mouth are the very ones a contemporary reader might ask. Akhmatova’s ironic strategy is to allow the reader to hear the banal words from a contemptible Soviet party functionary. She is able to imply a critique not only of those who censor art from a political perspective but also of those who expect it to be nothing more than ordinary transparent communication.

The ongoing meditation of the section is broken into numbered stanzas. At stanza 10, Akhmatova includes several lines of ellipses. At stanza 12 there is only blank space. Following Alexander Pushkin, Akhmatova includes these absences to indicate the poetry that could not be written, the life that could not be lived in the historical turmoil of the Soviet Union. Unlike the “heroic” figures of English Romantic poets, Akhmatova cannot transcend history. She alludes to Percy Bysshe Shelley “dead on the shore” while Lord Byron “held the brand [which was Shelley’s incombustible heart], and/ All the world’s skylarks shattered/ The dome beneath eternity.” These lines refer to Shelley’s “Ode to a Skylark” and to “Adonais,” his elegy on the death of his young fellow poet John Keats. Akhmatova here conflates two powerful confirmations in English of the poetic imagination against the ravages of suffering and death. She does not possess, she says, “that English museI have no ancestry.” She refers to the thoughts of T. S. Eliot in Four Quartets (1943), spoken from a London under the threat of German invasion. Akhmatova endeavors both to connect with such an endangered traditional and personal past and to assert her specific and historic uniqueness.

“Epilogue” is part 3 of the poem, its final element. Akhmatova speaks from the point of view of, and on behalf of, the many exiles from the city of Leningrad. She is in Tashkent, but others who suffer exile, from New York to Siberia, feel with her that the “Bitter air of exile/ is like poisoned wine.” Leningrad itself is nearly abandoned and the “witness of all in the world,/ at dawn or twilight” is an old maple that both inhabits the external world and looks into the room where Akhmatova began the poem some time before the devastation. The maple not only sees but bears auditory witness. It is neither the “first nor the last dark/ Auditor of bright madness.” The sound it hears was the “red planetstreaking/ Through my still unbroken roof.” The red planet is Mars, named for the god of war, and represents the ideological “redness” of Soviet repression. The maple tree outside Akhmatova’s house registers both the foreign invasion by the Nazi army and the brutal domestic destruction of life and art by the Soviets. More significant than either its witnessing and auditing, its seeing and hearing the historical crisis, is the fact that the maple endures.

In the early part of the poem Akhmatova is “doubled” by the dancer Olga in her romantic entanglement with art and love. In this last part of the poem Akhmatova is doubled by an unnamed inhabitant of the gulag “In the dense taiga’s heart.” That the prisoner is nameless does not mean that he or she is depersonalized for the poet. On the contrary, the vivid personalities enduring terror and death in the subarctic forests, reduced to “a pile of camp-dust,” are individuals—her former husband, her son, and her friends, especially the poet Mandelstam. Her memory of these people is so intense that she virtually becomes them. She writes that as her “double goes to interrogation,/ With the two thugs sent by the Noseless Slut” the sound she hears answering the thugs is “The sound of my own voice.”

As the poem comes to an end, and as the poetic doubling that had begun as the romantic entanglements of youth (“Love, betrayal and passion”) is completed in the tragic entanglements of the historical present, “Where there’s no end to weeping/ The still fraternal graves,” Akhmatova is able to say, “my city is shrouded but standing.” The reader of “Poem Without a Hero” is left with the image of Akhmatova herself, looking down on the panoramic landscape of Russia from the window of the airplane that brings her back from exile to her city: “Knowing the calendar/ Of vengeance, having wrung her/ Hands, her dry eyes lowered, Russia/ Walked before me towards the east.”

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 325

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.

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