Akhmatova, Anna: General Commentary
ANNA AKHMATOVA: GENERAL COMMENTARY
VASA D. MIHAILOVICH (ESSAY DATE WINTER 1969)
SOURCE: Mihailovich, Vasa D. "The Critical Reception of Anna Akhmatova." Papers on Language & Literature 5, no. 1 (winter 1969): 95-111.
In the following essay, Mihailovich provides an overview of criticism of Akhmatova's work, both within and outside of Russia.
The death of the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova in March 1966 marked the end of a long, illustrious, and eventful career. She appeared in the decade before the Russian Revolution and quickly became one of the leading poets of the time. The events after the Revolution forced her to silence for many years; she reappeared as a voice of Russian poetry during World War II, only to be silenced again at the end of the war. After Stalin's death, she spent the last decade of her life in full creativity, enjoying wide recognition. Now that her opus is finished, the study of her work will hopefully be freed from the shackles of a nonliterary, though understandably human concern. For the truth is that, perhaps because of the vagaries of her personal life, her work has received inadequate critical attention. There is no doubt that in the course of time the Akhmatoviana will be enriched with serious studies of various aspects of her delicate and at times complex poetic world. Until that is done, the existing scholarship on Akhmatova will serve as a guide and illumination. Meanwhile the need exists for a survey that constitutes an account of her publication, of the basic features of her life and work, and of the secondary literature, with some suggestions for future research.1
Anna Akhmatova—the pen name of Anna Andreevna Gorenko—was born near Odessa in 1889, the daughter of a naval officer. She began to write poetry when she was eleven, and her first poem was published in 1907. With her inaugural collection of poems, Evening (1912), she acquired a sudden and widespread fame, which was subsequently reenforced with every new book of verse. In the course of her long career she published fifteen books of poetry. Her publication can conveniently, though arbitrarily, be divided into three distinct periods: 1912-23, 1940-46, 1956-66 (with a few poems published in 1950). The interim periods are those of enforced silence. The first, 1923-40, came more or less as a result of a tacit admission on Akhmatova's part that the changed way of life in Russia was not compatible with her views. The second, 1946-56, was a direct result of a premeditated attack on her by the authorities with their policy of tightening the reins on artists and intellectuals after the war. Akhmatova kept busy all the time, however, writing more essays than poetry, and translating. Indeed, her overall achievement is a testimony to the human mind and spirit creating under the most adverse conditions.
With her first books—Evening (1912) and Rosary (1914)—Akhmatova became very popular, especially among women, intellectuals, and younger readers. Her popularity can be perhaps best explained by the remark of a Soviet critic that "The masterly chiseled poetry of Akhmatova is very poor in ideological content and in social problems raised therein." What struck the reader was a fresh note of a young woman's personal concern and of a genuine feeling of love. Coming on the heels of the Symbolist poets, who indulged in complex, mystical, overwrought ambiguities and self-adulation, Akhmatova's poetry was refreshing by its genuineness, simplicity, and clarity—all stemming from the newly formed literary movement of Acmeism. Together with Gumilyov, Mandelshtam, and other poets, Akhmatova endeavored to bring poetry from the lofty clouds of the symbolist Parnassus down to earth. Her unerring poetic touch, her ear for language and rhythm, and a boldness in revealing her innermost sentiments established her quickly as one of the leading poets of the younger generation. The first World War did not diminish her forcefulness and appeal; on the contrary, it lent to her overly private concerns a touch of maturity and a wider scope, as evidenced by her collection The White Flock. Never politically inclined, she saw in the war an evil that might eventually destroy the world in which she had been able to address herself to her own problems exclusively. When the end indeed came, she refused to accept it, in the belief that she would be able to continue her relatively sequestered life. But she also refused to emigrate, saying that it takes greater courage to stay behind and accept the blows of the fate than to flee into exile.
The effect of the Revolution on her life and creativity was not immediately evident. She published two more collections of poetry, Plantain (1921) and Anno Domini MCMXXI (1921), in which there was less of her intimate sentiments of love and more of a concern for the fate of her country. When her former husband, Gumilyov, was shot for alleged counterrevolutionary activities, Akhmatova as it were saw the writing on the wall. After an expanded edition of Anno Domini in 1923, she fell silent and ceased to exist for the public. She wrote some poetry but occupied herself mostly with literary studies, especially of Pushkin, and with translations from many languages—a career almost identical to that of Pasternak. This silence may have saved her life during the purges in the 1930's, for, like so many of her compatriots, she endured a veritable purgatory while trying to ascertain the fate of her only son, a highly promising scholar of Asian history, who was arrested on undisclosed charges and later sentenced to fifteen years of exile and slave labor.
Only the second World War brought a change to Akhmatova's dreary and dangerous life. Sensing the perils threatening her people, she, like many Soviet writers, contributed to the struggle against the foreign invader. An edition of her poems, From Six Books (1940), composed of her previous five collections and her latest poems, was published on the eve of the attack on Russia. As she had done during and after the Revolution, she once again sided with her people, silencing within herself her complaints and reservations. She spent the first several months of the war in besieged Leningrad and then was evacuated to Tashkent, where she stayed almost to the end of the war. In Tashkent, she was brought in contact with the other part of her ancestry, for her grandmother was a Tartar. Creatively, she used this occasion to declare the whole of Russia, indeed the whole world, her homeland, and to write some of her most beautiful descriptive poems. Also during this time, in 1943, a volume of her selected poetry was published in Moscow, an event leading readers to the natural conclusion that she had made peace with the regime she had been forced to tolerate for seventeen years.
As soon as the war was over, however, and the authorities found it necessary to resort to the old methods—totalitarian and repressive, though not so bloody as before—Akhmatova was among the first to be victimized. In his famous attack upon herself and upon the humorist Zoshchenko, the cultural tsar of the time, Zhdanov, rejected out of hand Akhmatova's poetry as un-Soviet and unsavory, calling her a half-harlot and half-nun (a reference to her verses in an early love poem). Ostensibly Zhdanov professed to be fearful of the "bad" influence of her poetry on Soviet youth; in reality, he needed scapegoats for the restoration of the repressive methods of the earlier era. Akhmatova fell silent once again, this time involuntarily, for a silence of a decade (1946-56) that lasted until after Stalin's death. There are indications that she tried to make amends by publishing a few accommodating poems in 1950; however, this kind of poetry was clearly not her métier. Only after the demise of Stalin and during a relatively more liberal atmosphere in the second half of the 1950's were her rights restored. In 1958 a slender selection of her poetry was published as a sign of rehabilitation, with an afterword by Surkov, one of the leading poets of the regime. Another small collection was published in 1961, and a rather extensive one, prepared by the poet herself, appeared in 1965, The Course of Time. Still another edition, including her prose works, was announced for late 1968. In the meantime, several editions of her works were published abroad: Selected Poems (New York, 1952), The Poem without aHero (New York, 1960 and 1962), Requiem (Munich, 1963), and the first volume of a compendious, two-volume edition of her collected works (1965).
Shortly before her death in 1966, Akhmatova finally received two richly deserved accolades for her work. Ironically, the recognition came from abroad in the forms of the prestigious Italian Etna Taormina Prize in 1964 and an honorary doctor's degree from Oxford University in 1965. On these two festive occasions she left Russia for the first time in half a century. More important, however, during the last decade of her life she wrote the most mature, sophisticated, complex, and, in the opinion of some critics, the best poetry of her career. Her venerable age and the trying experiences of her past brought her not only wisdom and maturity, but also peace with herself and with the world. At the end, she was at long last accepted officially as a Soviet poet. She died ravaged by long illness, yet preserving her dignity and independence to the very end, asking for (and being granted) a church funeral according to the Russian Orthodox rites. After her death she was eulogized as the last of the four great Russian poets after Blok, in addition to Pasternak, Mandelshtam, Tsvetaeva, and acclaimed by many as the finest woman poet in all Russian literature.
The problems, both scholarly and literary, of Akhmatova's poetry become more difficult as her oeuvre achieves completion. Her relatively "simple" poetry of her early days matured into a much more complex and meaning-laden poetry in her last two decades. The circumstances surrounding her creativity after the Revolution and during her silence of seventeen years make it difficult to find out the complete truth, admittedly. While the first of these difficulties can be solved simply by comparing her early and later poems, the second will most likely remain shrouded in mystery for some time Consequently it is helpful to treat the two major periods of her creativity separately.
Her early poetry is distinguished by several easily discernible characteristics. It is above all a love poetry. In many poems having love as their focal point Akhmatova presents love from a woman's point of view. The beloved is never fully revealed, and at times he seems to be almost secondary—only a stimulus or catalyst of woman's feelings. The poet expresses the whole spectrum of love. Her fervent passion is coupled with fidelity to her partner, but as her loyalty is professed time and again, a note of frustration and a fear of incompatibility and rejection become noticeable. The prospect of unrequited love is confirmed by betrayal and parting. The ensuing feeling of loneliness leads to despair and withdrawal. The feminine "I" of the poems seeks refuge, release, and salvation in religion, nature, and poetry. The refuge in religion is especially evident in Akhmatova's second collection of poetry, Rosary. It is a peculiar religious feeling at that, pervaded, like her sentiments of love, with a mood of melancholy and inexplicable sadness. In her third collection, The White Flock, a new theme joins those of love and religion: a presentiment of doom. Nourished by the horrors of war and revolution, this presentiment grows into a full-blown "tragical intonation," as one critic characterizes the nature of Akhmatova's poetry at that time. As the Revolution drags on, her mood turns bleaker and more hopeless. She seeks rapport with the events by writing poetry with political motifs, to no avail. The poems in Anno Domini clearly reveal Akhmatova's state of mind and emotions at this difficult time, as well as her awareness that an era had come to an end.
The basic features of Akhmatova's poetry expressed in her early poems have remained relatively the same throughout her career. She later added other characteristics and themes, but it is by those early features that she is best known. To be sure, there were other themes in addition to that of love, such as the themes of a poet and his muse, the intrinsic splendor of Russia, and the war. But they gained prominence only after Akhmatova's reappearance shortly before World War II. In many poems written during the second World War she extols the beauty of her land and the magnitude of the martyrdom and sacrifice of her people in throes of a ruthless enemy. Especially Leningrad, the city of her life and her dreams, receives her full attention. In addition, Asia, where she spent most of the war years, becomes the subject of her poetry at this time. Nevertheless she could not close her eyes before the Soviet reality, in which she was personally caught in a most tragic way. In a composite poem that is still unpublished in Russia, Requiem, she expresses her deep sorrow not only about her personal loss but also about the suffering to which her entire people was being subjected. This work is as close as she came to castigating publicly the regime in her country.
Akhmatova's poetry in the last decade of her life shows a far greater maturity and the wisdom of old age. Her approach to her poetic themes is more epic and historical, with a vaster perspective. This mature poetry is also more psychological and philosophical. The best example perhaps is the long Poem Without a Hero, a panoramic view of the previous century as it pertains to the present. It is a subtle and at times a complex poem, which is very difficult to fathom without a proper key.
The stylistic aspect of Akhmatova's poetry is just as important as the thematic, if not even more so. She shows several peculiarly Akhmatovian features. Above all, there is the narrative tone that points to a definite affinity with prose. Connected with this is a dramatic quality, expressed either through inner monologue or dialogue, usually between love partners, but sometimes between the poet and her invisible conversant. The second striking feature is the brief lyric form, consisting mostly of three to four stanzas, rarely five to seven, and never over seven. Parallel to this brevity of form is a pronounced laconism: a few carefully selected details suffice to convey the entire picture. Akhmatova's economy of words, spare almost to the point of frugality, led her to the epigrammatic form and to fragmentation, understatement, and improvisation. As a result, her sentences are sometimes verbless and even without a subject. Another peculiarity is the concreteness of her word-images, especially with reference to space and time. She tells the reader exactly where and when, almost to the minute, the events in her poems take place. The colors are vividly and exactly given. She avoids metaphors; instead, she uses pointed, explanatory epithets. Finally, her intonation, never scrupulously measured or regulated, is that of a syncopated rhythm, approaching the rhythm of some forms of folk poetry.
Of the poets who have influenced her, Akhmatova herself admits indebtedness to Derzhavin, Pushkin, and Annenskii. The latter two can be said to have exerted the greatest influence on her, although traces of other poets' influence—Nekrasov, Blok, Kuzmin—can also be found.
In addition to poetry, Akhmatova wrote an unfinished play and many essays, these latter especially on Pushkin, her favorite poet. She also translated copiously poems from the Old Egyptian, Hindu, Armenian, Lithuanian, Yiddish, Chinese, Korean, French, Italian, Rumanian, Serbian, and perhaps other languages (most of these in collaboration with various native speakers, one assumes). Her two long absences from the public view, of seventeen and ten years, obviously were not inactive.
Although Akhmatova died only recently, the main body of her poetry has existed for nearly half a century. Yet to this day there is no definite study in depth of her work. To be sure, there are books using her poetry as a point of departure; there are also several scholarly articles, many reviews, and numberless references in various forms to her and her work. But most of these are unsystematic and sketchy. A few years ago there appeared a short, heavily slanted study of Akhmatova by a Soviet critic, A. Pavlovskii, and a second monograph by another Soviet critic, Efim Dobin, has been announced.
The attitude of the prerevolutionary critics toward Akhmatova's poetry differs from that of the critics after the Revolution. Similarly, in the Soviet period the critics looked upon the poet differently before and after Stalin's death. Outside the Soviet Union the critics, both Russian and foreign, differed sharply with Soviet critics in their evaluation of Akhmatova's contribution to Russian literature. All these differences and changes were brought about not so much by changes in Akhmatova's poetry, of which to be sure there were some, as by the different vantage points of, and changes in, the critics themselves. As is often the case with Soviet writers, their purely literary achievements were accepted or rejected for nonliterary reasons.
The prerevolutionary Russian critics—Akhmatova was hardly known outside Russia before the first World War—tended to look at her poetry primarily from a literary or purely formalist point of view. Of the many reviews of her poems, few are mentioned today or are worth reprinting. Nikolai Gumilyov, Akhmatova's husband and a leading poet himself, looked down on his wife's creations and both praised and criticized her poems: she was herself in them, yet she left much unsaid. He found the outstanding feature of her poetry in her style, singling out her unusual and delicate use of color—mostly yellow and gray. Another critic N. Nedobrogo, stressed the first word in "woman-poet," finding in Akhmatova's pronounced femininity the true charm of her poetry: "Throughout this man-made civilization of ours, love in poetry has spoken so much from the point of view of a man and so little from the point of view of a woman." The remarks of other critics follow more or less the same pattern, with fleeting references to her poems stressing the strong emotional appeal of her love lyrics but without any deeper analysis. Such an analysis was attempted by the critic Viktor Zhirmunskii, later a leading Formalist, in his essay on the Acmeist poets. Limiting himself almost exclusively to the stylistic aspects of Akhmatova's poetry, Zhirmunskii publicly recognized its formal traits for the first time: the incomplete rhyming and enjambment; the syncopated rhythm; the conversational and prose character of her poems (the "novel in verse"); the epigrammatic form; the frequent changes of mood; the preponderance of observed detail; the "objectivization"; the expression of the simple beauty of earthly happiness; and an inclination toward a classic discipline. Needless to say, Zhirmunskii thought highly of Akhmatova's first books of verse as a refreshing, genuine, and already accomplished contribution to contemporary Russian poetry suffering from the rigor mortis of Symbolism. Since Akhmatova's early poems are numbered by many among the best poetry she has ever written, Zhirmunskii's detailed albeit brief analysis of their stylistic qualities placed the scholarly consideration of her poetry on the right track.
The Revolution brought about not only a decisive split among Russian writers but also profound changes in the evaluation of the established writers. Akhmatova was tolerated in the first few years of the new era, although she was immediately attacked by inimical critics and even totally rejected by some. It was not until her disappearance from the literary scene that a settled verdict of the undesirability of her work was reached. Her prolonged silence made it unnecessary even to mention her in critical writings and literary polemics. For a while the émigré writers kept referring to her, obviously remembering nostalgically their shared prerevolutionary days, but they, too, soon ceased. An impressionistic critic, Iulii Aikhenval'd, described Akhmatova as a worldly nun living in a sinful capital, surrounded by outstanding persons. Thus her all too personal tone paradoxically becomes social, and her subjective approach turns into an objective one. The poet is "the latest flower of the noble Russian culture,…such a nembodiment of the past as is capable of consoling the present and of providing hope for the future." Aikhenval'd concludes prophetically that she belongs to the spiritual Russia of all times.
Other scholars who wrote about Akhmatova's poetry were the Formalists Boris Eikhenbaum and Viktor Vinogradov. Eikhenbaum, the leader of the Formalist school of critics, advanced many fine points, most of which are too technical to be dwelled upon here. Like Zhermunskii, for example, he pointed out the affinity of Akhmatova's poetry with the contemporary Russian realistic prose, noting that in her "lyrical novel" one could discern a story, composition, even characterization. Vinogradov, a peripheral Formalist, approached her poetry from a purely linguistic point of view, perceiving in it "semantic clusters"—a selection and grouping of words that give the best clue to Akhmatova's secluded poetic world. Zhirmunskii, Eikhenbaum, and Vinogradov were the first to treat Akhmatova's poetry systematically and expertly; and even though their approach is somewhat exclusive, many of their findings are still valid today and are often repeated.
Akhmatova's reappearance shortly before the second World War provoked no flurry of literary critiques: her long silence, caused by her basically un-Soviet attitude, was all too readily recalled. Her contribution to the body of war poetry was only a part of the common effort and as such deserved no special praise. And when Zhdanov roundly excoriated the poet in 1946, there ensued another period of silence on the part of both herself and the critics. Zhdanov's judgment of Akhmatova's poetry is typically insensitive: a nonliterary, strictly political, totalitarian approach. The greatest fault in her poetry he finds is its individualism. "The range of her poetry is limited to squalor—it is the poetry of a frenzied lady, dreaming between the boudoir and the chapel. Basic with her are amorous-erotic motifs, intertwined with motifs of sorrow, yearning, death, mysticism, a sense of doom. The feeling of being doomed—an understandable feeling for the social consciousness of a dying group; gloomy tones of a death-bed hopelessness, mystical experiences, coupled with eroticism.…Not exactly a nun, not exactly a harlot, but rather nun and harlot, with whom harlotry is mixed with prayer." Her poetry is remote from the people, reflecting as it does "the good old days" of the nobility. As such, she is totally alien to modern Soviet actuality and even dangerous for the upbringing of Soviet youth. This is so much cant, the stock fulminations of many a political hack. The real reason for Zhdanov's attack—a need for a scapegoat—I have already noted.
Only Stalin's death and a relative liberalization of the literary life afterwards brought Akhmatova back to public life and made feasible the publication of a number of writings about her. This second phase of the Soviet critical evaluation of her work was ushered in by the appearance of anthologies of her poetry in 1958 and 1961. In his afterword to the first anthology, A. Surkov, one of the leading "apparatus" men in the literary field, set the tone for a new policy toward Akhmatova when he declared she had entered the ranks of Soviet poets "as a mature writer, made wise by many years of hard living and hard thinking." This she had achieved "without stooping to any moral or artistic compromise." While praising the esthetic quality of her poetry, however, Surkov laments her unawareness of social problems before and after the Revolution: for many years she was unable to understand or accept the new Russia. This is the reason, Surkov explains with a straightface, why she busied herself with literary essays and translations between two World Wars, while at the same time leading a "complicated, even tragic" life.
The tragic fate of her country in the second World War thus brought Anna Akhmatova back into the mainstream of Soviet poetry. The 1960's have seen several articles and one book on her. A sympathetic view of her poetry was recently expressed by Lev Ozerov in his article "The Secrets of the Trade." After touching upon some of the commonplace aspects of her poetry, such as its laconic and conversational character as well as the influence of Pushkin and Annenskii, Ozerov turns his attention to a transformation he perceives in the mature Akhmatova. He calls the last two decades of her creativity "the most intensive and profound period," while the years between her first silence and reappearance in 1940 were "the years of the lull." The poet found her way out of isolation through her loyalty to the Russian land and people. Her later poetry is philosophically tinged, and her main interest is in the world and man in it. Her strikingly personal poems are now imbued with a generally human concern. Similarly, while she was earlier personally affected by the outside world, she now finds rapport with that world through her spiritual peace. This view of Ozerov, sincere though it may be, is typical of the efforts on the part of some Soviet critics to make amends and to change Akhmatova into a good Soviet poet, whose main concern came to be the welfare of society and the dream of a better future. The early Akhmatova is well-nigh forgotten, the purely literary quality of her poetry is secondary to her social posture. Her terrible ordeal under the Stalinist terror is glossed over in one short paragraph. And Requiem is not mentioned at all.
By far the most serious evaluation of Akhmatova has been undertaken by A. I. Pavlovskii. In his book and an article on the poetess he, too, enumerates the well-known qualities of her work, the framework of her poetry, the influences on her, and her stand before and after the Revolution. Interestingly, he divides her creativity into three periods: 1910-17, 1917-41, and 1941-66. In the first period she wrote poems of personal love, as an Acmeist and under the influence of Pushkin and Annenskii. Her reserve and reticence disclose discord and instability, forcing her to seek salvation in religion, nature, and poetry. The second period is one of inner transformation and adjustment to the new society. She comes closer to the people and to her country; she has made peace with the world and thus has entered into Soviet poetry. Admittedly, the price she has had to pay is a "certain uniformity of her poems." From an extrovert "chamber" love poetry she turns inward seeking refuge in dreams and Freudian psychological interpretations. In the third period Akhmatova becomes truly a Soviet poet. She not only accepts the new reality, she views the distant past in retrospect and rejects much that had been near and dear to her. She turns to patriotic and political poetry. "I" becomes "We." She moves toward the epic, acquiring a much profounder sense of history than ever before. Her Pushkinian radiance, harmony, and wisdom are the tangible results of this beneficial transformation.
Such evaluation by Pavlovskii is very much in line with that of Ozerov and other Soviet critics. It is schematic, tendentious, and incomplete. His division into periods exemplifies these strictures. By choosing 1917 and 1941 as dividing points he wants to show how important these years were for Akhmatova. As a matter of truth, her poetry during and after the Revolution, until her silence in 1923, is little different from that before the Revolution. And she reappeared a year before the second World War began in Russia. Furthermore, the period of silence from 1923 to 1940 was simply a matter of involuntary passivity. Requiem, the proof of her inability to accept the Stalinist reality, was described by Pavlovskii only as a personal tragedy, "the confession of a suffering mother's heart." That Akhmatova finally made a truce with the Soviet reality is true, but nowhere did she extol the Soviet state; instead, she spoke only of Russia. Pavlovskii also gives too much weight to Akhmatova's "political" poems; they are considered by many to be her weakest. His book nevertheless makes a number of telling points. These concern primarily the literary aspects of Akhmatova's poetry, especially when it is considered within the context of Russian literature in general. Pavlovskii writes of these aspects in more detail than anyone after the Formalist critics and before Dobin. His extensive discussion of the complex Poem without a Hero is of special merit. In it he sees the synthesis of Akhmatova's most important themes and forms; he calls it a "poem of conscience." He also points out some omissions in the scholarship dealing with Akhmatova. Until a new study appears, Pavlovskii's book has to be considered the major work in Akhmatoviana, its many serious shortcomings notwithstanding.
Among other writings by Soviet critics and poets, short articles by Kornei Chukovskii, Andrei Siniavskii, Aleksei Surkov, and Aleksandr Tvardovskii should be mentioned. Chukovskii speaks mainly about the Poem without a Hero, finding its author "the master of historical painting," which is the essence of her entire poetry. Siniavskii complains about the entrenched fallacy that Akhmatova should be treated primarily as the author of her prerevolutionary poetry. There is a new Akhmatova (Siniavskii pointedly cites Requiem ), not only thematically but even in structure and tonality. Unlike other poets, she changes while striving toward the perfection of classic Russian poetry. What is needed is a revision of this and other clichés about Akhmatova. Siniavskii cites the example of her miniatures which, seemingly narrow and autobiographical, display a powerful art of the exalted, heroic, and tragic word and gesture. It is indeed unfortunate that Siniavskii has not written, thus far, more about Akhmatova, because he would probably be able to give a very competent and impartial assessment of her poetic art.
Both Surkov and Tvardovskii, in their necrologies after Akhmatova's death, in addition to repeating some well-known facts about her poetry, speak about her attitude toward the Soviet regime. Surkov repeats his argument that she became a Soviet poet shortly before and during World War II. Her ordeal of 1946, the year of Zhdanov's attack, Surkov dismisses lightly as "new trials." Tvardovskii recognizes Akhmatova's increasing popularity, although it has not reached the level of Maiakovskii's or even Blok's. He defends the limited scope of her poetry by evoking Chernishevskii's saying that people do not commit suicide because of world problems but because of problems in their hearts. Tvardovskii then touches upon a very sensitive nerve—the not-so-gallant treatment of the poet "at the well-known time." It is wrong to keep silent about those unjust and crude attacks on the poet, if for no other reason than because she withstood those attacks "with firmness and dignity that could not fail to earn respect for her." As for the attackers and their arguments, life has long since swept them away.
A more ambitious approach to Akhmatova's poetry was undertaken by another Soviet critic, Efim Dobin. In his articles he limits himself to the literary merits of her poetry, thus avoiding tendentiousness and the untenability of politically colored interpretations. There is not much new in his presentation, but he attempts a systematic study of Akhmatova's first decade and of Poem without a Hero and, moreover, illustrates his points with copious quotations from the poems; the only two such articles Dobin has published to date, they are undoubtedly chapters from a forthcoming book. If his announced book is based on the kind of examination displayed in his two articles, it should be the outstanding evaluation of her work, especially of its purely literary aspects.
The Akhmatova scholarship outside Russia has been limited to a few articles, and even they have been mostly of an informative character. The critics shortly after the Revolution were mostly Russian émigrés, who did not deal extensively with Akhmatova, probably because she, though never a sympathizer of the Bolsheviks, had nevertheless decided to remain in Russia. It was not until many years later that the critics abroad wrote about her, spurred by Zhdanov's merciless attack. Even then the critics were again mostly émigrés. Leonid Strakhovsky wrote several articles and devoted a chapter to Akhmatova in his book on three Acmeist poets. In all of them he speaks of her as a "poetess of tragic love." He notes her unexpected but convincing, illogical but fine psychological transitions from emotion to description, from the soul to nature, from feeling to fact. While recollecting the past, Akhmatova compares it with the present. She is essentially an urban poet, a poet of St. Petersburg and later of Leningrad. As the first Word War progressed, the poet developed a stronger religious feeling, although she had always possessed a religion of a strong, simple, almost primitive faith. For Strakhovsky, The White Flock reflects the war and the Revolution; The Plantain represents a turning point, when love begins to acquire a tragic note and the first political themes appear; and Anno Domini is Akhmatova's swan song, in which her love has turned to hate and has become "full of evil." Akhmatova reappeared in 1940 with greater wisdom, mellowed by years of want and suffering. It is unfortunate that Strakhovsky's articles are of necessity sketchy and that they are written before Akhmatova's latest works were fully known. Otherwise he might have been able to provide a more rounded picture of the poet as a needed balance to the one-sided Soviet presentation. Even so, Strakhovsky's writings are among the most serious, albeit incomplete, essays on Akhmatova.
Ihor Levitsky, in a brief article in Books Abroad, repeats many of Strakhovsky's arguments, adding a few of his own. He sees Akhmatova's entire opus as an epistolary novel about the love of a girl, who becomes a woman before our eyes, for an ever-present but usually silent partner. Akhmatova's best poems are the ones dealing with the poet's craft and with Leningrad, while the Poem Without a Hero is "an act of purgation prompted by a desperate inner need." One must take exception to Levitsky's views that the poet does not describe great achievements or heroic deeds, that hers is a limited subject matter, and that she almost never speaks directly of her feelings.
The two articles accompanying the two-volume edition of Akhmatova's works are of necessity informative and explanatory, especially Gleb Struve's introductory piece. He gives the main biographical details, lists her works, discusses her Acmeist past, and enlarges upon her enmity to Soviet authorities and theirs to her, as expressed especially in Requiem. Struve also laments the fact that there is no full-length study of her work, while listing briefly the existing ones. Boris Filippov somewhat impressionistically reflects upon Akhmatova's origin (Petrograd; it could not be Moscow!), her kinship with Pushkin and Dostoevsky, some features (all well known) of her poetry, her attractiveness for the reader of today, even in the Soviet Union, and her anti-Soviet poetry, in which he perceives the mood of the Judgment Day. Filippov considers one of her greatest contributions to be her musing upon the Russian idea of love, upon a new life that is not only birth but also resurrection, and upon immortality.
Of the few non-Russian critics abroad, Renato Poggioli sees as the main feature of her poetry love and passion, expressed from a feminine point of view as "fidelity to her man and her passion as well as to nature and life; above all, fidelity to the glories and miseries of her sex." In this respect she recalls Emily Dickinson. Akhmatova never describes her lovers, only hints at them through senses other than sight. And, despite of dreams of happiness, the sense of imminent misfortune is very much evident in the mood of her poems. Poggioli's brief but pertinent remarks, despite some factual inaccuracies (Akhmatova's birth place, the fate of her son), give a vivid picture of the poetess. Frank Thomas speaks of four great Russian poets of the last half century (Akhmatova, Pasternak, Mandelshtam, and Tsvetaeva) and their relationships. Thomas sees the three main characteristics of Akhmatova's poetry as classic austerity, lyrical intensity, and precise and concrete language. He also discerns the poet's search for the truth and her preoccupation with the basic facts of the human condition: bereavement, old age, separation, exile, poetic inspiration, death, and communion with her Muse. Like many other writings of similar scope, this article suffers from sketchiness and the habit of rephrasing the familiar statements and conclusions.
In general, the evaluation of Akhmatova in different periods and by different camps bears the partisan stamp of the periods or camps. While pre-revolutionary references to her are mainly concerned with her new, strong talent and have a relatively easy task because of the single theme of her poetry, later critiques differ sharply in their basic approach. The opponents of the regime tend to see in Akhmatova a victim and a martyr; the proponents of the regime at first reject her, then condescend to accept her into the family. But no matter how all these critics differ in their evaluation of Akhmatova's views or themes, they agree that she is a master of her craft and of the language and that she has decisively contributed to Russian literature. The prerevolutionary critics and those immediately following the Revolution (especially the Formalists) pay much more attention to her purely artistic qualities, while the later critics, both Soviets and émigrés, allow political considerations to govern their judgment and to overshadow their examination and presentation of her works as literary art. More recently, there are signs that such a politically oriented approach may be overcome, both in the Soviet Union and abroad; however, a much more substantial body of scholarship on Akhmatova must come into being to erase the prevalent bias toward the poet and her work.
It has become evident, I hope, that much fertile ground remains to be tilled by the critic and scholar of Akhmatova and her work. What is needed above all is a study in depth. The announced book by the Soviet critic Dobin may fill this gap. Even so, one view of the poet, even if complete, cannot help but be somewhat one-sided, especially when the widely disparate views on literary matters in the Soviet Union and abroad are taken into consideration. There is also a need for a detailed, and disciplined, study of specific aspects of Akhmatova's works: her prosody; the variety and unity of her themes; her world-view, especially in the late period; the nature of her love lyrics; her patriotic poetry; and her relationship to both the Tsarist and the Communist regimes. A scrupulously documented biography is also badly needed. Her prose works have been largely ignored, to be sure because most of those works have not been readily available so far. But once they become available, a study of her prose, especially of her spirited essays about Pushkin, should be undertaken. Her prolific translations from various languages should be indexed and commented upon. The problem of the influence of other poets on Akhmatova has been thus far limited to the mentioning of names. There exist very few studies of influences either on Akhmatova or by her on other poets. Even when there is no discernible influence, the relationships between herself and such writers as Gumilyov, Mandelshtam, and Maiakovskii, can be examined profitably.
Now that Akhmatova's life's journey has ended, the time has come to abandon the writing of cursory, general, merely informative articles about her and to embark upon more ambitious undertakings worthy of her stature. Admittedly, there are still many problems involved, particularly the problem of free access to the poet's manuscripts left behind. The Soviet critics have a decisive advantage in this respect, and it is they who must, and probably will, provide the most important future scholarship. The compulsion to discuss literary matters in a tendentious manner is diminishing among Soviet critics, especially among the younger ones. But even if they continue as in the past, the critics outside Russia will occupy themselves increasingly with Akhmatova's work as it becomes better known to the world and as she more securely gains her place in world literature, where she indeed belongs among a distinguished company.
1. Akhmatova's works have been published both in Russia and abroad. In Russia, her early poems comprise five volumes: Vecher [Evening] (St. Petersburg, 1912), Chetki [Rosary] (St. Petersburg, 1914), Belaia staia [White Flock] (Petrograd, 1917), Podorozhnik [Plantain] (Petrograd, 1921), Anno Domini MCMXXI (Petrograd, 1921; another edition, without the year number, was published in 1923). Iz shesti knig [From Six Books] (Leningrad, 1940), the first book after her seventeen-year absence, consists of five previous collections plus the sixth, Iva (Willow Tree), later entitled Trostnik (Reed). Several volumes, most of them of a slender size, of selected or collected poems were published subsequently, in 1943, 1958, 1961, and 1965, this last bearing the title Beg vremeni (The Course of Time). Her poetry is now republished in increasing volume, in anthologies, periodicals, and even newspapers. New editions of her works have been announced. Abroad, there have been two collections of poetry: Izbrannye stikhotvoreniia (New York, 1952) and Sochineniia in two volumes, of which only the first has appeared so far (Washington, D.C., 1965). In addition, Poema bez geroia [Poem without a Hero] (New York, 1960) appeared in the United States before it did in the Soviet Union, and Requiem (Munich, 1963) has yet to be published in Russia. At the time of going to press, there is no volume of Akhmatova's verse in English, but one has been announced by Washington Square Press for the near future.
The publication of secondary literature can be divided into three groups: as published in prerevolutionary Russia, in the Soviet Union, and abroad. Before the Revolution, there were relatively few critical studies of Akhmatova. Among the more important are Valerian Chudovskii, "Po povodu stikhov Anny Akhmatovoi," Apollon, No. 5 (1912); Nikolai Nedobrovo, "Anna Akhmatova," Russkaia mysl' (July 1915), pp. 59-60; Viktor Zhirmunskii, "Preodolevshie simvolizm," Russkaia mysl' (Dec. 1916), pp. 25-57. Of these, Zhirmunskii's study is by far the most important. Other references are either brief reviews or remarks within essays on Russian literature. After the Revolution, there were relatively few critical works before Akhmatova's silence in 1923: Iulii Aikhenval'd, "Anna Akhmatova," Siluety russkikh pisatelei (Berlin, 1922), pp. 279-93; Boris Eikhenbaum, "Anna Akhmatova," Opyt analiza (Petrograd, 1923), pp. 121-32; Viktor Vinogradov, "O simvolike Anny Akhmatovoi," Literaturnaia mysl ', I (Petrograd, 1922-23), 91-138; Leonid Grossman, "Anna Akhmatova," Bor'ba Za Stil' (Moskva, 1927), pp. 227-39. After this, there are no significant studies or references to Akhmatova until Zhdanov's "analysis" of her work in his speech, published (in English) as Andrei Zhdanov, "On the Errors of the Soviet Literary Journals Zvezda and Leningrad," Essays on Literature, Philosophy, and Music (New York, 1950), pp. 22-25. After the republication of Akhmatova's poetry there is a steadily increasing number of studies about her: Aleksei Surkov's afterword to her collection of poems (Moskva, 1958); Lev Ozerov, "Tainy remesla," Rabota poeta (Moskva, 1963), pp. 174-97; Kornei Chukovskii, "Chitaia Akhmatovu," Moskva, VII (1964), 200-03; Andrei Siniavskii, "Raskovannyi golos," Novyi mir, XL (1964), 174-76; A. Pavlovskii, Anna Akhmatova (Leningrad, 1966); Efim Dobin, "'Poema bez geroia' Anny Akhmatovoi," Voprosy literatury, X, 9 (1966), 63-79; Aleksei Surkov, "Poety ne umiraiut," Novyi mir, XLII (1966), 283-84; Aleksandr Tvardovskii, "Dostoinstvo talanta," Novyi mir, XLII, (1966), 285-88; Efim Dobin, "Poeziia Anny Akmatovoi," Russkaia literatura, IX (1966), 154-74; A. Pavlovskii, "Anna Akhmatova," Poety-savremenniki (Moskva, 1966), pp. 103-40. A book on Akhmatova by Efim Dobin has been announced as well as a chapter in the second edition of the official Istoriia russkoi sovetskoi literatury. The first edition (1958-61) of this multivolumed history of Soviet literature does not contain any significant reference to Akhmatova.
Of the writings on Akhmatova abroad, the following articles are worth mentioning: Konstantin Mochulskii, "Poeticheskoe tvorchestvo Anny Akhmatovoi," Russkaia mysl' (March-April 1921), 185-201; three articles by Leonid Strakhovsky: "Anna Akhmatova: The Sappho of Russia," The Russian Student, VI, 3 (1929); "Anna Akhmatova—Poetess of Tragic Love," American Slavic and East European Review, VI (1947), 1-18 (this article can also be found in his book Three Poets of Modern Russia: Craftsmen of the Word [Cambridge, 1949], pp. 53-82); and "Fet i Akhmatova," Novyi zhurnal, No. 49 (1957), 261-64. Further articles: Renato Poggioli, "Anna Akhmatova," The Poets of Russia (Cambridge, 1960), pp. 229-34; N. Tarasova, "Zhivaia sovest'," Grani, No. 56 (1964), 5-10; Georgii Adamovich, "Na poliakh 'Requiema' Anny Akhmatovoi," Mosty, XI (1964), 206-10; Ihor Levitsky, "The Poetry of Anna Akhmatova," Books Abroad, XXXIX (1965), 5-9; Gleb Struve, "Anna Akhmatova," Sochineniia, I (Washington, D.C., 1965), 5-15; Boris Filippov, "Anna Akhmatova," Sochineniia, I (1965), 17-31; Victor Frank, "Anna Akhmatova 1889-1966," Survey, No. 60 (1966), 93-101; Aleksandr Shmeman, "Anna Akhmatova," Novyi zhurnal, No. 83 (1966), 84-92; Anne Haight, "Anna Akhmatova's 'Poema bez geroia'," Slavonic and East European Review, XLV (1967), 474-96; and Helen Muchnic, "Three Inner Emigrés: Anna Akhmatova, Osip Mandelshtam, Nikolai Zabolotsky," Russian Review, XXVI (1967), 13-25. All these articles, except those by Poggioli, Frank, and Haight, were written by Russian émigrés.
Finally, of interest are also several interviews and visits with Anna Akhmatova: E. Osetrov, "Griadushchee, sozrevshee v proshedshem," Voprosy literatury, IX (1965), 183-89; Ruth Zernova, "A Visit to Anna Akhmatova," Soviet Literature, (Mar. 1965), pp. 148-50; Rita Rait-Kovaleva, "Vospominania ob Anne Akhmatove," Literaturnaia Armeniia, X (1966), and Alexander Werth, "Akhmatova: Tragic Queen Anna," Nation (Aug. 22, 1966), pp. 157-60.
WALTER ARNDT (ESSAY DATE 1976)
SOURCE: Arndt, Walter. "Introduction: I The Akhmatova Phenomenon and II Rendering the Whole Poem." In Anna Akhmatova: Selected Poems, edited and translated by Walter Arndt, pp. xiii-xxxii. Ann Arbor, Mich.: Ardis, 1976.
In the following introduction to Akhmatova's poetry, Arndt discusses the public reception of her work and her role in the Acmeist poetry movement.
I. The Akhmatova Phenomenon
Among the remaining witnesses of the 20th century's "remarkable decade" in Russian poetry, 1912-19221, many still speak with animation and awe of the change of air in poetry which was heralded by Evening, Anna Akhmatova's first volume of verse. It was placed beyond doubt two years later by her second, Rosary (or Beads, 1914): a delicate but decisive discharge of lyric directness, authenticity of feeling, palpability of image and phrase, for which "Acmeism" was from the start as poor a tag as any.
This phenomenon ionized, as it were, the stale poetic medium left by Symbolism as it waned prematurely; and the qualities suggested above, if "Acmeist" they are, were evidently more patent in her work then, and more infectious, than was true for years of the other members of the brotherhood. They were temptation enough now—sixty years later—for trying to bring Akhmatova into English for the first time in the fullness of her form and feeling; for a dozen of her poems read in the original or in such largely form-true translations should demonstrate these properties more palpably than is ever contrived by circumlocutory forms of literary criticism practiced upon prosy travesties. As had happened in "her" city of Petersburg with the banished Pushkin's Ruslan and Liudmila in 1820, and in Poland two years later when Mickiewicz published his astonishing first collection and was exiled to Russia, the public sensed a change in the literary climate; the critics "pointed" and sniffed the air which had a new bite and sparkle to it.
Public response to Akhmatova, from the start until well into the Soviet era (cultural blight and official rancor smother the evidence), reached beyond the mutual admiration clubs of artists and the crushes of the black-taffeta-hairbow contingent from the high-schools—although both of these elements were strongly in evidence. In its intensity, its time profile, and its kinship with an earlier, simpler poetic tradition, her impact recalls Rilke's; for Rilke's songlike clarity about this same time was quietly ruining the cult of the sacerdotal symbolist-aesthete, Stefan George (neoromanticism with a Wagnerite streak in which infinite preciosity replaced Wagner's poshlost'). His poetry went on, of course, to attain an unexampled and irreversible transforming effect in the twenties and beyond, intoxicating each new generation through intervening lapses of taste and sundry fads of "free form." One is also reminded of the triumphal spread, in an outbreak of samizdat seemingly defying all technical given data, of the young Pushkin's wrathful odes and epigrams, and his brilliant ribaldry, among the literate of all ages and walks of life in the years between 1819 and 1824. At that, Akhmatova's appeal was not abetted by any of that spice of ideological mutiny and moral freethinking which had seasoned her idol Pushkin's shockers, including even the triply camouflaged Ruslan and Liudmila. Not only the older Symbolists, but even those poets of high distinction who were unconnected with or remote from the mode by this time, like Innokenty Annensky (†1909) and Alexander Blok (†1921), both revered by Akhmatova, were eclipsed before their time by the Acmeist constellation. Gumilev himself, Akhmatova's erstwhile schoolmate at Tsarskoe Selo gimnazija (where Annensky taught Greek), and first husband (1910-18), who had lent definition to the Acmeist label by distilling often highly perceptive aesthetic manifestos, lost custom. The exotic chic in verse he was then mining—generations after Flaubert, Baudelaire, and Sienkiewicz, but with a hemannerism which just scooped Hemingway—in a stylized East Africa, shocking-pink-in-tooth-and-claw, wilted all too soon. By the beginning of the War, although not unproductive as a poet, he was sliding into a sterile possessiveness toward the Acmeist movement as the other protagonists outgrew his definitions for it and, worse still, threatened to eclipse him for good. By 1920 he appears to have set himself up as a would-be Svengali of poetry for young girls of credulity and looks in the "sounding shell," his absurd studio workshop in the House of Arts for the teaching of verse-writing in four to six months.
Nor were any of the other poets of the Remarkable Decade who were Akhmatova's close coevals—Khlebnikov, Khodasevich, and her three cherished intimates in sensibility, Mandelstam, Pasternak, and Tsvetaeva2—taken to the public's heart with such a personal, almost romantic emotion, or recited and imitated with quite such devotional fervor between a cult and a crush. After Rosary was published, adding half a hundred "beads" to the similar-sized first collection, Marc Slonim and other contemporaries recollect that the young who read poetry knew hers by heart, her readings were mobbed, lovers used her verses as letters and to set the mood of their meetings and partings. Later, long after the faddish component of this outpouring had worn away, we hear—with an optional twinge of skepticism—that she was one of the very few poets truly read by factory workers and laboring women. Also, hard though this may be to credit at first, Akhmatova had virtually started a genre which had existed in the West since the high Middle Ages: she was the first Russian poet to create strings and cycles of love lyrics. Personal, unsymbolical, non-allegorical, these truly probed and obliquely reflected, almost without external detail, the whole emotional course of a relationship neither esoteric nor trite. The literary critic Leonid Grossman noted in his article "Struggle for Style" (1927) that Akhmatova had become the favorite poet of the generation whose youth fell into the turbulent second decade of our century.
Akhmatova's original and severe beauty—a contemporary aesthete's dream—and her subfuse art nouveau get-ups which, when seen against the foil of Gumilev, suggest a novice furloughed by a rather liberal College of Vestals into the charge of a cross-eyed ogre-professor, were at least a small element in her magic. There is one account, in particular, far from sinfully idolatrous by intent, drawn from the memory of a then fourteen-yearold eyewitness, of a program of benefit performances in 1915. After some singing and a suitably avantgardist stage happening by Meyerhold, Akhmatova followed Sologub and Blok in authors' readings of verse. Perhaps it is not fanciful to say that between the quizzical lines of description below one catches (as in the mental space between those extant pre-revolutionary snapshots, oils, sketches, and doodles by Altman, Kardovskaya, Modigliani, Annenkov which the bloated mask of her seventies cannot blot out) the strange look that can still alert the heart, as it were, touch a node of sensibility: Young Roland on his way to the dark tower, crossed with a Beardsley Salome; a young Tatar soothsayer; and an angular school-girl, surely not over thirteen, with her shyness turned inside out:
Akhmatova, in a white dress with a then fashionable Stuart collar, was slender, beautiful, black-haired, exquisite. She was then getting on for thirty3, her fame in full flower; the fame of her pauznik4, her bangs, her profile, her allure. "He will not be sending you any more letters,"5 she recited, arms crossed over her breast, slowly and tenderly, with that musical gravity which was so captivating in her.6
Over half a century later, a year after her death, the veteran writer, critic, and translator, Korney Chukovsky, a close contemporary of Akhmatova's, begins his long commemorative essay on Akhmatova as follows:
I had known Anna Andreevna Akhmatova since 1912, when at some literary evening she was brought up to me by her husband, the young poet Nikolai Stepanovich Gumilev. Thin as could be and gracefully built, resembling a shy fifteen-yearold, she took not a step away from her husband, who right there, upon our first acquaintance, called her his "pupil."
This was the time of her first verse and those unusual, unexpectedly clamorous triumphs. Two or three years passed, and in her eyes, her bearing, her manner with people there had come to the fore that chief mark of her personality—sublimity. Not hauteur, not self-importance, not arrogance, but precisely sublimity: a regal gait of superb dignity, an inviolable sense of respect toward herself and her high mission as a writer.
With every passing year this quality of sublimity became stronger in Akhmatova. She did not strain for this in any way, it emanated from her spontaneously. Over the entire half-century we knew each other I don't remember seeing on her face a single pleading, ingratiating, mean, or lachrymose smile. Gazing at her, one could not help recalling Nekrasov's lines: "There are women in Russian villages / With a quiet dignity of face, / With a fine strength in their movements, / With the gait, with the gaze of queens."
Even queuing up for petroleum or bread, even on a hard bench in a train, even in a tram-car in Tashkent, strangers sensed her "quiet dignity" and showed her special deference, although she conducted herself very simply and warmly toward everyone, without any condescension.
There was another trait in her which was remarkable. She was totally devoid of the acquisitive urge. She did not like to own things and did not try to, and parted with them with amazing ease. Like Gogol, Coleridge, and her close friend Mandelstam, she was a homeless rover and valued possessions so little that she was glad to free herself of them as of a weight. Even in her youth, the years of her brief "blossoming," she lived without cumbersome wardrobes and chests, at times even without a desk …
She did, of course, greatly treasure things of beauty and appreciated what they stood for. Antique candlesticks, oriental fabrics, engravings, ikons of old workmanship and the like now and then made their appearance in her modest life, only to vanish again after a few weeks … Even books, save for her greatest favorites, she would pass on to others after reading. Only Pushkin, the Bible, Shakespeare, and Dostoevsky were her perennial companions …7
Before Akhmatova was thirty, leading poets and critics such as Briusov, Blok, Zhirmunsky had examined her work. They sought to account for some elements of her impact largely in terms of prosodic and thematic innovations, perhaps without full awareness as yet of the peculiar interaction between her set of gifts and a sea change in poetic imagination and taste that was taking place in much of Europe. And there was every excuse for this neglect of context. Not only was the European scene in poetry and the visual arts pervaded by several disparate yet overlapping and interacting trends, but each of these tended to assume different forms and names in different sections of a cosmopolitan system of so many imperfectly inter-communicating national vessels. There was bound to exist a confusing, often misleading differential, especially among individual Russian poets, and between Russian poets and their critics, as to what particular blend of foreign traditions—avant-garde, current, and earlier, German, English, French, Italian, Polish—any one of them responded to and thought the other familiar with. Moreover, large poetic trends, schools, even fads, become clearly evident as such only in retrospect; in the contemporary view the personal poetic signature is as a rule writ larger.
The versatile prosody which Akhmatova developed, now stately, not lightfooted in ambiguous anapestic-dactylic beats, but seeming not just to simulate waves of natural speech, but to orchestrate emotion,8 came from a matrix which included Blok, Vyacheslav Ivanov, Annensky, and Gumilev. The repeated anapestic onrun or ascent which is Akhmatova's favorite line-launcher is hardly encountered outside of Russia in modern metrics and is rare even elsewhere in Russian prosody before the new century. It is startling particularly when the preceding line ends in a feminine rhyme, changing the listener's interlinear metric impression, his rhythmic "intake," to a "——" tattoo like the opening of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony; see, e.g., the end of line 1 with the start of line 2 in "When first my dark braids.…"After this flying run atthe start of each line the meter often brakes intermittently, grippingly, to a pensive, brooding, or baleful iamb as halting by contrast as a spondee; an analogous design blends dactyls with trochees. These devices simulate intermittent bursts of hurried resumption, rejoinder, addition, or afterthought: "oh, and then …"; "not to mention …"; "let me add …"; "and what's more", with an unusual suggestion of rich emotional energy and rhetorical invention in reserve. With each onrun the poem, as it were, begins afresh, statements are amplified and amended, the bearings change. The nonsequiturs between observed environs and an emotion not "produced" by them but coincident and subliminally harmonizing, with which Akhmatova so often operates, harmonize perfectly with the rushing spontaneity, the aptitude for associative short-circuits, of the springboard anapests of the first foot.
Such metric novelty was much enhanced in its effect and removed from its origins by elements of tone and taste all Akhmatova's own, or most distinctively blended. These included a lightness and targetry of diction which owe much to Pushkin, who is often lovingly invoked: a fastidious economy, yet graceful languor of line learnt perhaps from the freshly rediscovered brushwork and lyric of Japan. In terms of feeling, the present collection contains touching examples of a tart girlish frivolity overlying, and suddenly giving way to, a brittle grace of emotion, exultant or desolate; notes, or better, verbal gestures of peasant piety and of an asceticism which in another might be suspect of neoromantic posturing à la early Rilke. But her austere mode of living and feeling imbued it with an authenticity which made critics call her the last poet of Orthodoxy and prompted the just-cited Chukovsky in the early twenties, with a thin sneer all too consonant with the vulgar official line of atheism, to affect surprise that she hadn't taken the veil yet. A further pervasive feature, which will perhaps be found exemplified in this anthology more strikingly than any other, is the offering of abrupt, brief, but evocative glimpses of nature or landscape, alternating with, and made subliminally relevant to, states of emotion.9
The flavor of young Akhmatova's initial appeal, both to the milieu of her first public and, one daresay, to some who first sample her early "songs" today, is distinctively Art Nouveau; but Art Nouveau, to say it at once, in the original sense of a revitalizing urge in aesthetics brought by the new century. Her economy of poetic line, the true ingenuousness of feeling, those clairvoyant moods of languor, grief, or caprice of a young poet were symptomatic of the great dismissal of rich, beautiful tushery (poetic Symbolism included) that was all around her. The term Art Nouveau must be understood in its contemporary connotations to do with liberation from the ornamental, lush, grossly literal which had long dominated the arts, impressionism and its triumph notwithstanding. In terms of this drive, early Art Nouveau and Akhmatova were of a kind. But Art Nouveau as painting and décor quickly calcified into Jugendstil, an arsenal of stale motifs, and became in a way part of what it had rebelled against, while most of the Acmeist poets remained consistent and creative. To feel the edge of the change they brought, I spend some little time below surveying the scene preceding them, choosing for illustration that domain of aesthetics which is most easily seen in the aggregate—the visual arts, and especially painting.
Whatever the differences in the timetables and itineraries of artistic trends between the Russian reader of 1912 and his present cultural heirs (who must be sought in the West, not the USSR), they share a long and continuing contact with the stuffy fluidum of epigonism, of stylization rather than style, decoration rather than creation, which smogged the second half of the nineteenth century. By way of the dry air roots of late Art Nouveau, this is enjoying a minor revival among the art-less young of all ages in Anglosaxony now. This was the Morris-down-to-Makart era, so valiantly launched, strange to think, by the high-minded back-to-Botticelli-and-home-weaving brigade, the apostles of "Thoughts towards Nature in Poetry, Literature, and the Arts"—thus the subtitle of the Pre-Raphaelite journal, The Germ (1850). Its tastes and manners, which one may roughly sum up as ultra-naturalist neoromanticism, inevitably had a good deal to do also with the impulses behind literary Symbolism; whence the rapid alienation from the latter on the part of the Acmeists, especially the clearest and simplest among their talents, Akhmatova.
What happened to that powerful artistic urge of the 1840s toward the genuine and natural, comparable in a way to the noble revulsion from plastic foods and fittings and predatory industrialism in our day? A remarkable galaxy of talents in craft work, design, painting, and literature somehow found itself beshrewed by a Zeitgeist close to Ivan Karamazov's clammy devil of genial mediocrity, and well exemplified, say, by the flax-topped flab of ululating Rhine maidens or the nervous innocence of the sub-deb of "September Morn." This middle-class dyspepsia of spirit and taste somehow contrived to turn revival, gifted imagination, innovation, renovation, and allusive decadence all into the same thing—Kitsch. It shows how "camp" speaks to "camp" that one of the art fads in the Campbell soup-tin years (the Novecento, so to speak) consisted in admiring "Tiffany" lamps and grandma gowns, and in imitating the artifacts of a previous morass of taste in all arts but music, where the change would have been for the better. There, surrounding Akhmatova's adolescence, was the insistent fluent mediocrity of decaying Morrisdom, the accomplished mimesis of Jugendstil art work with its perennial limp creepers, rambling roses, hyperthyroid maidens of tile or stained glass, draped in mysteriously agitated bedsheets and labeled Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter, which is still to be found in Vanderbilt lodges, some Canadian railway temples, and ex-Armenian cafés in the Levant. There, in fairylands forlorn, framed by unmistakable legends in uncial script, were colorful marvels for the Russian artists to see and translate into Scythian mish-mash and Church Slavonic calligraphy. There lolled, stalked, and pouted those beige innocents of the Pre-Raphaelites with their moot stares. There glossily emoted the self-conscious think and shudder pieces of neo-romantic painters of stark histrionic and decorative gifts, from Delacroix and Boecklin all the way past Ingres and the brilliant interlude of Impressionism, to such latterday story painters as J. W. Waterhouse and J. M. Strudwick (†1935!), Maurice Denis and Puvis de Chavannes; and in Germany the much more ambiguous Hans von Marees. The bottom is reached with Maxfield Parrish, that never missing link between Lord Leighton and N. C. Wyeth, whose epicene greenish couples, spending furloughs from the morgue on triple-glazed moonlit terraces, nicely combine the infantile with the degenerate and lead directly to Disney's Snow-White and the dominant mode of North-American fairy-tale illustrations (green jerk-lets in jerkins), Christian novelties, and garden dwarfery. In most "gift-stores" and pop posteries today the eye lights with a sour shock of recognition upon billowy cumuli, a ghostly peak over a lake, somber bosks, and one or two liverish nymphlings, not naked but "undraped," which means elaborately unconscious of their displaced, but presumably equally greenish genitalia. Poor Morris …
We are dealing, then, with a movement imitative in its conception—imitative of nature and, even more, of literature—which took thirty years to decline thoroughly (ca. 1870-1900) and then contaminated some strains of the Art Nouveau which undertook to bury it. The latter has since then been selectively stylized (ca. 1900-1920) and later dusted off during interludes of necrophilia. But searching for common elements one may find, first, a weakness for neo-romantic, that is thrice-decocted, chivalry; a cult of a synthetic naivete of feeling; feigned espousal of a boyish vision of the female, combining innocence with fatality: it is over a late, further vulgarized exemplar of this type of would-be sophisticated infantilism, by the way, that we were invited by H. Humbert to shake our heads in titillated revulsion in an auto-erotic grudge-thriller of the fifties. Next, perhaps, one should note a gradual movement of taste toward the epicene, tentative, elusive (but not allusive) in human figures, a late reaction against the rosy flab of Guido Reni, Tintoretto, and Rubens, and a preparation for a new nakedness where the child-like and asthenic would usurp the privileges of innocence—decadence, in a word. Thus taste is bred down from the virile if decorative angelfolk of Botticelli by and via the Burne-Joneses, Millais', and Rossettis to grovefuls of interchangeably willowy and violet-eyed princelings aged twelve and yet eighteen, too raspberry and swollen of lip quite to fit their dewy stares or the spindly grace of their fawnlike retreats. Besides these, or Maxfield Parrish, or even a less decadent epigone like Kay Nielsen, one should in fairness look also to an honest and technically accomplished piece of Nouveau Art contemporary to the young Akhmatova. Brilliant talents, as we noted, spent themselves in this magic maze of mannerisms—the last of them perhaps being the Arthur Rackham of the illustrations to Ondine or A Midsummer Night's Dream.
In terms and themes analogous to those of the later Pre-Raphaelites, the Russian painters and illustrators revived the legendary "Scythian," Varangian, and Kievan past; and the visual imagination of the Russian public may be presumed to have been very similarly conditioned by that neo-romantic and, by 1910, Art Nouveau and Mannerist habitat. One may pick one of Rackham's angular gracile maidens, haze Rackham's elaborations of detail—eyelash and grace-lock, tendril and rosebud, dew and rue—with a dash of the Slavic earthiness and self-irony, and arrive at a visual artifact very like one of Akhmatova's lyric mood sketches at 22, as these evidently struck some of her public: "outer and inner landscape with girl," as it were. The interdisciplinary resemblance in the case of Akhmatova is superficial and misleading, as has been suggested. It spreads by association from the girl-poet's personal image to the reception of her poetry. But the portrayal of Akhmatova in those pre-War years, pictorial and memoiristic, suggests forcibly that she herself was widely seen in terms of, first, Art Nouveau, later, briefly, expressionistic or cubist fancy. It was forty years since stricken damsels first came yearning forth from Morris's saga medley, The Earthly Paradise, since Swinburne sang those tainted beauties for Burne-Jones and Rossetti to paint, since the Gudruns, Genovefas or Iseults out of every child's book of legends and ballads had in Russia been replaced by similar Olgas, Yaroslavnas, Svetlanas, even Liudmillas—tragic-eyed penitents prodding their sheer damask hairshirts in two places from within as they stride some desert shore. They were presciently twitted by Pushkin in his Gabriiliada10, but a hundred years later they contain the clues to that early Akhmatova image—blending the morbidly vulnerable, sensuous, and austere—which precipitated out of paintings, poetry, and gossip.
The various pat sobriquets for Akhmatova as a woman and a poet which originated then, like the "passionate nun," "the lithe gypsy," curiously miss her point. They seem less redolent of their elusive target than of those allegorical water-lily maidens of the emporium lobbies of 1912. But the 1915 portrait by O. della Voss-Kardovskaya of a seated young vestal, severely but elegantly gowned and posed, startlingly beautiful, calm, and fragile in full profile, does convey an inkling of the magnetism which helped to romanticize both her poems and her relations to them as a woman. Mandelstam in his contemporary collection Stone saw now Phaedra, now Rachel in that gracefully portentous feminine emblem. It may now be becoming clearer why a certain amount of over-simplified art history had to percolate into these scene-setting remarks; at the risk of some sense of strain or distortion when read in either the context of Russian poetry alone, or only in the context of European painting as usually treated. It has been my intuitive conviction that both the quality of Akhmatova's visual imagination and the quality of the response to her are best approached not through antecedent poetry—despite prosodic insights available there—but through the spirit of fin de siècle ornate and rhetorical painting. The innovations of the Jugendstil period in the arts, including Acmeism, were revolts against this accomplished but meretricious theater. Its emotional force of gesture and paysage is taken into Akhmatova's verse, but she purges it of sentimentality and pose; all intérieurs, with their fussy preciosity of feature, fabric, and furnishing, are swept away. She goes farther than that—toward a pure dialectic of the sentient intelligence, or eloquent emotion, in poetry. Unlike other creators of the new austerity and elegance (in the modern mathematical sense), she is rarely tempted to enter any of the premier fields of honor of older poetry—the sensual-functional beauty of man and woman, animal, carved stone, any and all of nature—for its own sake, in the way of, say, Rilke with his stunning "Panther," or "Roman Fountain." Akhmatova's "Statue in Tsarskoe Selo" along with all other apparent examples of such noble snapshooting are revealed to derive their raison d'être wholly from the self's independent emotion waiting in the wings—often until the last stanza or line. Her abruptness, in fact, her plain gaunt phrase of the later years and often obscure transitions, were consonant with the quasi-Japanese cult of the elliptic and oblique, poésie pure, which was a facet of the Art Nouveau sensibility. Aleksis Rannit has much to say about this in his fine introductory article to Volume II of the canonical Struve-Filippov edition of Akhmatova's works.
"Delusion I," one of her charming young-girlin-hammock poems, may serve to show both her affinity (or initial palatability) to Art Nouveau aesthetics, and some marked differences. Something in its mood, blended of effusiveness and languor, and in the hints of decorative sensual detail (dazzling dark-blue faience, limp morocco leather) makes manifest the nature of Akhmatova's unsought appeal to Jugendstil taste. But there is little posing or empty stylization in the whole of Evening, of which the four "Delusion" poems are part, and less in the later collections. This is single-stroke aquarelle sketching, fresh and swift, of delicate moods, especially vagrant states of mind drifting from small events of nature and environment to concurrent and subjectively related small events of the inner life, and back. The exact connection as a rule is logically obscure but emotionally convincing, in that it is precisely the concurrence of inner and outer events (both often in flux and the first frequently involving more than one persona) which give dual or multiple crescendos of tension to the poetic experience. In "Delusion" there is hardly any gap between perception and emotion, although it is somehow far in flavor from the simple exultation of Browning's "All's right with the world." In "As if through a straw," as often in that species of Akhmatova lyric that I would call "soul in landscape" poems, the stay-at-home emotion or thought takes a walk, as it were; an unhappy, one-sided relation of moral exploitation—"as through a straw you are drinking my soul, which tastes bitter yet goes to your head, I have no resistance left and have stopped valuing myself"—is suddenly aired. In the second stanza and the third, a step is taken into "normal" human milieu and unconcerned nature, for the sake of poetic foil, or respite perhaps, but not for a restoration of self, or pathetic fallacy; or its mirror image, a theatrical demonstration that there is no refuge in nature or the ordinary. The initial mood of dull despair persists, the poem has merely gained in empathetic force through an outdoors dimension. A different, less characteristic, inward-outward-inward turn of the poetic screen occurs in "All abject, these eyes …" There, in the "outward" stanza, the thematic association between the vernally fresh and unsteady breeze and the faraway gentleman who has the audacity to be other than sad is obtrusive; elsewhere such links are rare.
What kind of criticism, of commentary on the arts, is desirable today? For I am not saying that works of art are ineffable, that they cannot be described or paraphrased. They can be. What would criticism look like that would serve the work of art, not usurp its place?…The best criticism, and it is uncommon, is of this sort that dissolves considerations of content into those of form … Equally valuable would be acts of criticism that would supply a really accurate, sharp, loving description of the appearance of a work of art.11
II. Rendering the Whole Poem
A paradox has it that poetry seems to have a direct, incontrovertible, triumphantly convincing access to a truth which, when so reached, has been commonly called aesthetic. But it is a truth which poetry itself establishes by its mesmerism, and it is discernible and verifiable in no other way. A practical corollary, if paradoxes can have them, is that one is apt to accept in a successful stanza of verse elements of sentiment and modes of statement which one might not accept in prose. Why? Is it because one is more indulgent to verse ("poetry, God help us, must be a little daft," said Pushkin), pleading the restrictions placed on it by the "form" (there aren't any, since it comes about in and through its form), or because one simply takes it to be somehow less "serious," a performance which signifies nothing beyond itself? Or is it rather because the specific gravity of any utterance is higher in verse; provided the verse qualifies as such by having formal identity, even some degree of formal rigor? Its semantic charge is what it seems to "say" and then some: it says what it seems to "mean" in such a manner—elliptic, lucid, dim, portentous, memorable—that what seems manner declares itself directly as part of the semantic burden. What may be mistakenly thought of separately, as "the aesthetic effect," is of one body with whatever cognitive message the utterance might partially share with a prose statement; and the aggregate is more powerful than prose. Prose rhetoric operates in a kindred way, of course; its transitions toward poetry are probably gradual. But cumulatively they integrate into a quantum leap.
The poetic statement, then, is not just "more" moving, dense, striking, terse, beautiful, or whatever, but it is different in kind from any attempted cognitive reduction to prose. (Hence, by the way, the chilling absurdity of V. Nabokov's vivisection of Eugene Onegin—"yet each man kills the thing he loves"—with the scalpel of a lexicomaniacal literalism.) It is true in a sense that is both abstract and sensual; it may have truth even when what is misrepresented as its cognitive "base" in prose is perceived as untrue or trite. It convinces in its own aesthetic terms without having appeal to rational plausibility or proof. If, intellectually, the reader is irked, bored, or puzzled by an episode of the Divine Comedy or a passage in Faust II, he can be so on one level without detriment to their contextual rightness or their subliminal effect on him. The poet—naively speaking—may bore or puzzle in irrationally important, graceful, or gripping ways; and if a translation gravely fails to do the same it is useless. This is why prose texts which call themselves translations or even paraphrases of works of poetry are worse than useless; they are in effect hoaxes or swindles even when they, as is often the case, take in their own perpetrators.
Readers of Russian poetry, and sometimes the poets, have been embarrassed lately by a spate of imitation and Nachfühlerei by hopelessly monoglot bards of high or low estate, who were lured by a vague freemasonry of (mutually unintelligible) letters and an aura of intellectual chic that has been wafted about such as Voznesensky and Talleyrand-Evtushenko and, more regrettably, Brodsky and (posthumously) all the Acmeists. In our era this sort of humbug started, very mildly indeed, at the time of Louis MacNeice's BBC Faust and, via Auden perhaps, infected Lowell, Kunitz, and Bly, as well as some others with neither the language nor talent to sustain them. For the little matter of gaining access to the original verse, these poets have recourse to native Pythias or Cassandras of either sex who, all too often, their admonitions scorned, are thrown by the English Pegasus at the first ditch and depart to rend their garments in discreet seclusion. Nothing of value and kinship with the original (except perhaps to the imitator) has yet come out of such heteromorphous imitation. The case is worse with those nonchalant apostasies from rhymed metric art in favor of shapeless strings of gawky verbiage, unrelated to anything but that "contemporary idiom" which by opacity and "privacy" qualifies for the exequatur of the meterless fraternity.
A French structuralist critic some years ago in informal conversation mused about the function of literary criticism. Essentially it was, he submitted, to remove the barriers, linguistic and referential, between the writer and his audience; to add the necessary elucidating and equating discourse as economically as possible, and in a medium so congeneric and qualitatively equivalent to the work as to form in effect a true addition to it, part of its new extended substance … Then he interrupted himself and added, apparently somewhat to his own surprise, what may be reported as follows: "Of course, the sparest, most seamless, directly self-applying mode of criticism is translation—comprehensive translation. By which one means, translation of all salient aspects of form which of course embrace or constitute 'substance' or 'content,' along with all salient aspects of content, which of course include so-called 'form.' This species of criticism involves the least intermediacy, neglect, or accretion. It requires a Janus-like sensibility."
Even taking one's stand on somewhat narrower ground, one must insist that there is no other way, certainly no better way, of thoroughly knowing and decoding a poet foreign to others than by that taxing commitment to both tonal and verse-technical assimilation which is metric translation.
One longs to do this, I suspect, not so much in order to make the poet accessible as in order to test and taste him in more than one linguistic medium. In order to move him over one first has to know him rather intimately in his native medium. Exploring the poet's work at large, beyond the range of a particular translating assignment in hand, would seem to be an important preliminary.
What are the distinguishing marks of Akhmatova's handwriting in poetry—of the effective sweep of her pen and the graphics of her versification? These are intricate questions in themselves in relation to any poet of originality, but they take on a desperate edge only if one tries to verbalize them. The sensitive native soon takes these marks in; and the translator, if he has done his job, is thereby relieved of the supererogatory task of attempting the second best—generalizing and classifying by "critical" circumscription. His impulse is to naturalize the "foreign" verse. I insert this term despite its affected ring because "translate" in its colloquial blandness suppresses both the lure and the magicking labor of what some bring themselves to call "englishing," Verdeutschen, spolszczenie, etc. Akhmatova's register of emotions and moods, her rhythms and rhymes, and the interaction between these (which of course only exist with and by virtue of one another) have to be absorbed in the mediator's aesthetic matrix before the need for any actual lexical matching intrudes. There is no intention to suggest that the would-be recreator of Akhmatova's verse by an act of mystic absorption in her oeuvre attains a state of communication with her spirit and diction, whence he will speak with her tongue in another tongue. It is merely submitted that reading like this, with occasional pilot translation of tempting lines, is the best road short of metempsychosis to learning to say in English, in a given case later, what Akhmatova is saying, while also speaking as she does. It becomes easier to diagnose (or in Psychspeak, "intuit") the blend and the course of her emotions in a given passage or poem when one knows what she is able and apt to do, how cognate situations develop elsewhere; what her key words and her verbal mimicry are; how, for instance, she uses nature like a half-learnt idiom partially to encode her otherwise inexpressible inner processes; how she may later decode them by some new cipher and obtain an altered semantic freight with equivalent affective changes. One will then have encountered her generosities and engaging gaucheries, harshnesses and offhand surrenders, her hurt cynicism and proud flippancy, her numb withdrawals and arrogant flounces, her rare but terrible curses and guffaws. Only then does the single poem acquire the perspective of her entire personality as a poet.
For examples of the curious state of a poetic sensibility's being connected in parallel, living in a shunt circuit as it were, with the phenomenal world (with at best rare ironic innuendos at the pathetic fallacy), one may point to "Up the bare sky slim willowsprigs climb. / Fanning abreast, / My not becoming your wife that time / Maybe was best." In "It is fine here …", nature's apparent reminder of the past is cited wryly as a condition contrary to fact in two throw-away final lines, yet it taps a poignant emotion with admirable parsimony. In "All promised him to me …", it is not an anthropopathic sky, dream, wind, waterfalls, willow shoots, or dragonflies that promise fulfillment, but the keen feeling soul that delighted in them and divines the promises of another sensibility that may comprehend all these and complement the first. The "pathos" that embraces the disparate phenomena is the poet's, not nature's.
Lastly, in order to "carry her across" with understanding, one must "learn" Akhmatova as a human being, though that status is inseparable from that of the poet as "content" is from "form." One must, I suspect, fall in love with her, a thing I have found not just easy but unavoidable. That subspecies of the Eternally Feminine that is marked by absolute integrity, an all-or-nothing temperament, a fiercely exacting, slightly outré concept of love and loyalty, found one of its purest and most enchanting specimens in the young Akhmatova. Not a great deal of dependable detail is available of the chain of tempests, teapot ones and others, that must have been her carrière de coeur in that first adult decade from 1909 to 1919, if her verse is any guide. Nor do we have more than disjointed and often dubious testimony to the inwardness of her relationship with her intimates among people and places. Partial exceptions are those parts of her life as a poet and friend which were lived with the Mandelstams, and which are reflected in the electrostatic pages of Nadezhda Mandelstam's recent memoirs. But from her poems, in the most extraordinary way, we know it all: no dates, almost no names, yet, in a magic-lantern show of luminous mood sketches, exactly how it all was, and how if felt, and what is now left of it.
Poem after poem hints at how she was hurt and worn by her ever-eager, ever-rebounding perfectionism. Many may be classed as discharges between two poles, one—her cool, inviolable sense of her value as a poet, which contains, if not alone constitutes, her sense of self; the other—a romantic urge for surrender of personality which dwells in her non-poetic self as formed by the epoch's decadent-exalté, Wagner-Schmagner liebestödlich concept of Love. The latter may well be reinforced by this artist's urge to make the best, or most tragic, of anything offered by life in its bounty. The boundless expectations, the portentous semantic charge placed on Love, on the confused, vulnerable, now runically unfathomable, now repellently trivial twosomeness, is one of the few things that nature and Art Nouveau seem to have in common.
If the long historical sine curve of literary values and modes between emotionalism and quietism, between ornate and sober forms, which my Istanbul neighbor Erich Auerbach used to pursue was duly undulating in 1909, we can make out a long, flat wave of the histrionic-declamatory ridden by Gericault, David, and Delacroix, by Wagner and the Pre-Raphaelites and many others, which crested with the Symbolists and subsided in the mannered parsimony and wan eclecticism of Art Nouveau. It is perhaps somewhere on the downslope of this subsiding wave that the young Akhmatova is located, with her emotional make-up still on the melodramatizing Backfisch Isolde side, her lean Acmeist technique much farther down toward what one may call the Trough of the Future. Rilke's angelic solemnity about Love, purveyed with a truly angelic gift, is very much in the air, Stefan George, the French and Russian Symbolists are still rampant; Blok, who must have read all of these (while Akhmatova read him but also Proust, Eliot, and Joyce), until well into the new century cultivated the poetic vision of his multiform divinity, the Holy Wisdom conjured up by Solovyov, but turning now into a Helen or Aphrodite, now into a chastely shameless Artemis. In each garb it was Love all-significant, polymorphous, wild, wooly, and as overripe as anything by the Rossettis. One may suspect that in poetic forms, in the heat content of emotions, in the swing between exoticism and sobriety, the curves were changing direction between 1903, when Blok forsook poor Sophia, and 1909, when Akhmatova began to write. But for a long while—luckily perhaps—the tense readiness for consuming emotion persisted in Anna Andreevna; and like Eugene Onegin in V. 31, her partners do not seem to have been up to it. "Girls' tragico-hysteric vapors, their swoons and tears …" are unnerving enough when not cast into powerful poems. The betrayers retreat, abashed. The sacrificial exaltations, the frozen calms (Anna Andreevna in this mood reminds one a little of a Dying Swan who is very, very angry) spend themselves more and more in a fine irony, chill or ruefully tender. And strength takes the form of a devil-may-care pride, now solemn, now gamine, in her real self and in her habitat: the garden where the Muse walks.
- When Osip Mandelstam claimed for "Acmeism" in 1922 that it had returned moral power to Russian poetry, Akhmatova had published Evening (1912), Beads (1914), White Flock (1917), Wayside Herb (1921), and Anno Domini (1922); Nikolai Gumilev (who in retrospect may seem Acmeism's impresario and drummer rather than indispensable contributor) had published Pearls (1910), The Pyre (1918), and Pillar of Fire (1921); Osip Mandelstam, Stone (1913) and Tristia (1922); and Pasternak (somewhat more remote in this period from the preceding than later) was known in poetry mainly for A Twin in the Clouds (1914) and My Sister, Life (1922).
- In November 1961, Anna Akhmatova paid these the famous brief tribute, Nas chetvero, "We are four."
- Actually, 26 or 27. W.A.
- A current term for the metric line more often called dol'nik, a line of generally trisyllabic feet with three stress slots and variable anacrusis and coda. A variant of this, rhythmically suggesting two anapests combined now with an amphibrach (—/—), now an iambus, was so characteristic of Anna Akhmatova (especially in Poem without a Hero) as to be called the Akhmatova line by Kornei Chukovsky.
- See the poem "Consolation" of 1914, S-P I, 135.
- Berberova, Nina. Kursiv moi (München: Wilhelm Fink, 1972), 84. In the index of personages attached to this invaluable book, Anna Akhmatova's biographical note consists of five lines, mentioning her three marriages but not one of her works; followed by fifteen lines devoted to her third husband, Punin. Berberova's own entry lists thirteen of her works.
- Kornei Chukovsky, "Anna Akhmatova," in Sobranie soch. v 6 tomakh (M. 1967), 725-26 passim. Translated by Walter Arndt.
- N. V. Nedobrovo begins his sensitive essay of April 1914 (endorsed by Anna Akhmatova years later as the piece of criticism she considered closest to the mark), by analyzing the eight lines of "True tenderness there's no aping": "The language is simple and colloquial—perhaps nearly to the point where it ceases being poetry? But on rereading we notice that if people were to converse like this, it would be enough to exchange two or three quatrains to have exhausted the common run of human relationships and be left in a realm of silence …" After demonstrating interaction of metric and lexical values for a page or two, Nedobrovo continues: "Turning our attention to the poem's structure, we are inevitably persuaded again of the freedom and potency of Akhmatova's poetic language. An eight-line poem of two differently rhymed qua-trains here falls into three syntactic structures, the first taking up two lines, the second four, the third again two. Thus the second syntactic structure, closely linked by rhyme with the first and third, links the two (stanzaic quatrains) by its own (syntactic, not prosodic) unity, and this link is flexible, though strong. I remarked earlier, by way of the dramatic effect of introducing the second "No use," that the change of rhyme scheme and elsewhere is perceived by the reader and has powerful effect.…The device described, i.e., a complete syntactical structure bridging two rhyme schemes, so that sentences bend stanzas in the middle and finally round them off as stanzas do sentences, is extremely characteristic of Akhmatova; by this means she achieves a peculiar flexibility and subtlety of line, for lines so made take on a serpentine quality. At times Anna Akhmatova uses this device with the consummate ease of a virtuoso."
- In the fourth section of his article quoted above Nedobrovo makes some analytic remarks apposite here: "In the poems examined, the highly-strung intensity of the feelings and the unerring precision and clarity of their expression are overwhelming and need no laboring. Here lies Akhmatova's strength. What pleasure to find that, far from being irked by alleged inexpressibility in the poet's work, one reads turns of phrases which seem to have been taken straight from folk tradition.
For ages man has worn himself out struggling with the difficulty of expressing his inner life in words; yoked by silence, the spirit's growth is sluggish. There are poets who, like Hermes of old, teach man to speak, to release his inner force to work its will freely, and those who have hearts to feel will cherish their memory.
The emotional intensity in Akhmatova's diction at times generates such light and heat as to fuse man's inner world with the outer. Only when this happens do we find the outer world depicted in Akhmatova's verse; hence her pictures of that world are not soberly naturalistic, but stabbed with shafts of feeling as if seen with the eyes of a drowning man:
It grows light. And over the smithy
Oh, you couldn't once more be with me
Sad in my yoke.
Or the continuation of the poem about the pleading eyes:
I walk down the path—on its margin
Lie timbers in stacks of grey—
To fields a breeze is at large in
Like the spiring, uneven and gay.
Sometimes her lyrical intensity constrains Akhmatova to do no more than hint at the suffering which is seeking expression in nature; and yet through her description one senses the heartbeat of feeling:
In servitude you know I languish,
For leave to die I plead with God,
But always, to the edge of anguish,
I see the Tver-land's grudging sod.
A weathered well with hauling-crane,
Above it clouds, like vapor leaking,
Out in the fields the stile-gate creaking,
And heartache—in the fragrant grain.
Those unspectacular expanses
Where even winds dare not alarm,
And those evaluating glances
Of countrywomen tanned and calm.
That low-voiced wind, though, brings tears to one's eyes."
- Lines 13-16: "Sixteen of age, pliant of soul and modest, / Raven her brow, the maiden mounds below / Asway against the tautened linen bodice, / A love-some foot, her teeth a pearly row …"
- Susan Sontag, Against Interpretation and Other Essays (New York: 1969).