Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 491
The poem weaves among suggestions of romantic love, separation, and bittersweet remembrance while doing something else, perhaps something very dangerous in times of war and social upheaval. It dares to allude to czarist Russia, to the woman’s role in modern Russia (in 1914), and to religion in ways perhaps unflattering to temporal authority, critical of prejudice against women poets, and supportive of a power above man and his rulers. It develops three relationships at once: between the poet and her male acquaintance, between the poet and the setting itself, and between the poet as a Russian citizen and the political power structure. Much more than a graceful lyric recollecting a parting by two people, the poem constitutes a polemic, and its essential nature is ironic suggestion.
“We Met for the Last Time” may be read as a parable in which the city, St. Petersburg, is threatened by some kind of flood. Perhaps nature is angered by the way humans are behaving themselves. Part of the problem seems to be prevailing prejudice against women poets, expressed by the man. Rigid authority hovers in the background in the form of a czar’s palace and a fortress. The beginning of the third stanza hints that the Russian people, symbolized by the two friends, do not even own the air they breathe. The air is “like” a gift from God, not actually a gift. Perhaps the powers that be allow them to breathe it. In such social and political conditions as these, the poet can only sing “mad songs.”
The poem is also about the locale, the park, the buildings, and the nature in which God’s generosity is felt. God’s grandeur is placed above that of czars and prejudiced men. It celebrates, not the temporal powers but the heavenly ruler. Only a cursory understanding of the conditions in which Anna Akhmatova lived and wrote is necessary for one to sense political overtones in the poem. Her poetry was frequently denied publication and heavily censored when its publication was permitted, and when she received a standing ovation in Moscow at a poetry reading, she feared the authorities would think of her as a political threat. Meeting the American poet Robert Frost reminded her of her own inability to write and publish freely. A deceptively simple lyric speaks of frightened people, it records social prejudice, it alludes to symbols of czarist rule in a way that suggests subordination to the God of religious faith, and it appears to assert that in such circumstances, poets sing mad songs. Love lost does not drive the poet to make a romantic gesture, bemoan her fate, or cry out in self-pity. This poet looks about herself, feels a kinship with the “mad” Neva, hears a former acquaintance ridicule her very essence, glimpses the pompous forms of power, realizes that even the air is not theirs, and recognizes that only in making mad songs can the spirit find release.
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