The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 577

“White Night” is a short poem of twelve lines in three four-line stanzas. The title, an oxymoron, seems to bear little upon the drama of the narrative, but can be explained symbolically in terms of “white,” often associated in Anna Akhmatova’s writing with winter snow, which brings with it a meaning of loss of memory or death, and “night,” a reference point to both time, another of Akhmatova’s recurrent themes, and the oncoming fall of night for the speaker. “White Night,” then, would be a time of loss, of a remembrance of a reality fading into the darkness imposed by time’s unstoppable march.

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The poem, which begins with “I,” does not simply share a personal experience with the reader. “You” is introduced in the third line of the first stanza, along with the speaker’s speculations about how the person the “you” represents feels. The continuing presence of both “I” and “you” affects the poem’s interaction with the reader, making it appear that the reader is eavesdropping on an intimate dialogue between an abandoned lover and the one who has done the abandoning.

The collection of poems in which “White Night” first appeared is recognized as novel-like in its structure—a series of scenes that together tell a story—and is also considered to be indirectly connected with biographical episodes in Akhmatova’s life; thus the spurned lover is identified both as a woman, in keeping with the other poems in Vecher (evening), the book of poems in which it was first published, and as Akhmatova’s lyrical ego. During most of 1911, she was separated from her husband, Nikolay Gumilyov; shortly after their 1910 marriage (which was strained from its inception and ended in divorce), he decided to visit Africa for an extended period.

The poem’s stage is furnished with props constructed from the speaker’s emotional state. She is caught between hope, shown in her refusal to lock the door, and despair, shown in her refusal to light the candles, since doing so would signify that everything is normal. Her exhaustion is emphasized in her own admission of tiredness, but so is her depression, which is implied by her inability to face her aloneness in the penultimate testing ground: bed.

She has been watching the light disappear, and the details of the landscape outside melt into the dusk, a parallel to the disappearance of her lover’s features, both in the lack of his bodily presence and in the fading of his memory over time. All of this serves to feed her self-pity, to rob her of faith in life’s overall goodness.

Complications arise in the poem’s action in the complexity of the confessional phrase “I’ve got drunk on your voice in the doorway.” Is the woman wallowing in pity, giddy with a false joy based on desperate wishful thinking, or could she actually be intoxicated from literally drowning her sorrows in strong drink? The poem leaves room for all three interpretations in the first stanza’s tension between despair and hope, as well as in its reference to tiredness, which is often used euphemistically to describe a drunken condition.

It is the woman’s last declaration, however, her final reflection on her own foolish optimism, that defines the poem’s tone. The reader can almost see the woman shaking her head in self-reproach over her own part in her current misery—a first step toward reconciliation with circumstance.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 542

While Akhmatova’s Russian poems are written in strict meters and exact rhymes, it is her straightforward narrative and logic steeped in elegant aestheticism that distinguish her style and place her in the stream of Acmeism (a movement that arose in 1912 in response to the crises of Symbolism, of which she was a leading exponent) along with other Acmeists such as Osip Mandelstam. Her work is especially noted for its synthesis of the serious and the popular. “White Night” demonstrates this blending even in translation. The moment of absolute blackness that accompanies the sense of being forsaken in love is communicated by means of casual language—contractions such as “haven’t” and “don’t,” and clichés such as “all is lost” and “life is a cursed hell”—in a setting softened by the presence of unlit candles and fields fading in the soft hues of sunset, so that the melodramatic potential of the theme is thoughtfully kept in check.

Almost every word of the poem can be explored through myriad perspectives. The door left unlocked can be a symbol of possible reconciliation as well as a means by which the past (symbolized by the missing lover) can find its way into a future moment. The candles left unlit are objects that define the lodging as primitive, but they also can be a symbol for the wounded heroine’s refusal to face a painful truth, a romantic notion proved false.

“Don’t care” following “don’t know” adds a note of self-pity that is important to the poem’s tone, and “tired” does not allow “strength” to be merely a physical disability, especially since it is at the poinit of having “to decide to go to bed” (emphasis added) that the woman is frozen by her forlornness.

“Fields,” “sunset,” and “pine-needles” are additional examples of words laden with symbolic possibilities. Earth, the harvest cycle, and the freedom associated with wide open spaces are all suggested by “fields.” “Sunset” brings with it the heavens, and the daily cycle of night and day, which by implication suggests an ending. Those “pine-needles” draw together complicated connections. Pine, an evergreen, can symbolize the realm of the eternal. Individual needles, however, as part of the natural cycle, turn brown and fall, making way for new growth.

An eclectic collection of details is another Akhmatova trademark. In the first sentence of the poem, which extends into the second stanza by means of enjambment, she gathers three images: the unlocked door, the unlit candle, and the unused bed. This series of negative images, which is further reinforced by the two negatives contained in the opening sentence, is associated with the missing lover. Another pattern of twos and threes, which are common in Akhmatova poems, occurs in the repetition of “don’t” in line 3 of the first stanza, together with the grouping of “to decide to go” and “to bed” in line 1 of the second stanza.

The structure of the poem is itself a collection of threes that can be classified in a typical Akhmatova arrangement of major-major-minor. Of the three sentences that make up the poem, the first two are complex and the last is simple. Such attention to syntax demonstrates the careful crafting that underlies Akhmatova’s poetry.

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