On Anna Akhmatova
by Jennifer Reeser
n St. John's Eve, June 23, 1889, in Bolshoy Fontan, 11th railroad stop near Odessa on the Black Sea coast of the Ukraine, Anna Andreevna Gorenko was given birth--the third of six children--by the Ukrainian Inna Erazmova Stogova, second wife to Russian retired naval engineer captain Andrey Gorenko.
Anna was so christened in honor of her maternal grandmother, Anna Yegorovna Motovilova, whose mother had been the Tatar princess Akhmatova, a descendant of Genghis Khan according to family legend.
When Anna was two years old, the Gorenkos moved to Tsarkoye Selo, south of St. Petersburg, Markedly introspective and melancholic by nature, given the nickname "wild girl," she was supplied by her family (one of the Russian intelligentsia) with a stern upbringing in the traditions of Russian Orthodox Christianity, an upbringing which included the requirements of confession, church attendance and the taking of Holy Sacraments. There, Anna would endure the childhood illnesses of measles and "maybe even the chickenpox, too" according to her memoirs.
Poetry did not figure largely in Akhmatova's family. As she herself wrote, one would search in vain among her relatives for another poet, with the exception of Anna Bunina, her grandfather's aunt and the first notable Russian poetess. Akhmatova's mother, however--a beautiful woman of whom Anna would always speak with love--on important days gave her a large volume containing the poems of Nikolay Nekrasov, a writer sympathetic towards the lower classes, celebrated by certain of the Russian intelligentsia.
Her childhood surroundings were austere--no efforts made to alleviate their starkness--with burdock and nettle-choked bedroom windows looking out onto a lane. Anna was by her own account "pagan," shocking the small girls of Streletsky Bay by going barefoot, without a hat, swimming during thunderstorms, diving into the open ocean and tanning herself till her skin peeled. But she would not languish in unrefinement. Her father (who had left the family in 1905) began to bring her along with him periodically to the opera. She was schooled in feminine etiquette and in the French language. By the age of thirteen, Anna had committed to memory the French writers Baudelaire, Verlaine and Gauthier.
Her practice as a poet had begun two years earlier, with juvenilia described by one peer as "vague and allusive," in a Symbolist style (O. A. Fedotova, 'Anya Gorenko,' in M. M. Kralin [ed.] Ob Anna Akhmatova , stikhi, esse, vospominaniya, Leningrad 1990, pg. 34) which Anna would later renounce for the newer school of Acmeism.
Akhmatova, an unwilling student by her own characterization, graduated from Fundukleevskaia Gymnasium in Kiev, next entering the Law School of the Higher Women's Courses in Kiev, where her favorite subjects were Latin and legal history; however, Anna's interest waned at the introduction of the "purely legal subjects."
In 1910, she married Nikolai Gumilyov, a poet and literature critic three years her senior who had pursued Anna for seven years, once describing her as having the appearance to him of a weary, despairing child. They spent a honeymoon in Paris--a Paris which Akhmatova would characterize as terrible and of Baudelaire. It was in these years that Akhmatova met the artist Amedeo Modigliani, who could not understand Akhmatova's poetry, but wrote to her throughout the winter of 1910, and made drawings of her at home, to give her later. Modigliani escorted Akhmatova to the Louvre's Egyptian section, making a drawing of her head in the costume of Egyptian dancers and queens. Having presented her with a total of sixteen pieces of art, he requested that she mount and hang them in her room in Tsarkoye Selo, where fifteen of them vanished during the initial years of the Revolution. Akhmatova kept Modigliani's one surviving portrait of her in her apartment on the Fontanka as late as 1945.
She gave readings in St. Petersburg at The Stray Dog, a cabaret which Akhmatova characterized as full of smoke, motley and ever mysterious. There, she was christened The Stray Dog's "black angel" by Osip Mandelstam, and was introduced to the poet Vladimir Mayakovsky.
In 1911, along with Sergei Gorodetsky, Gumilyov founded the Guild of Poets, a group whose membership included not only Akhmatova and Gumilyov, but also Osip Mandelstam. Akhmatova served as secretary to the group, which held meetings twice or three times a month from November to April of 1913. Together, Gumilyov and Akhmatova participated in their newly-formed school of Acmeism, a guild of poets who advocated a clear, precise approach to poetry, in contrast to the Symbolist style.
By this time, Anna, at her father's counsel, had assumed the literary pen name of Akhmatova to avoid shaming the family, publishing her first collection, Evening, in 1912. Later that same year, Anna gave birth to the Gumilyovs' son, Lev. In 1914, she published her second collection, Rosary, which had a first edition print run of 1,100 copies, quickly sold out, and went into another edition the following year. (Akhmatova, My Half-Century, "Rosary," pg. 48). In 1917, a third book, White Flock, appeared. She met often with the poet Osip Mandelstam, a poet for whom her husband had deep appreciation, and for whom Anna herself had been a confidante through several of his love interests. The two went about in horse-drawn carriage rides to the Academy of Arts, where they both gave readings. However, early in 1918, Akhmatova claimed she suggested they see less of each other, to avoid gossip. She and Gumilyov divorced in 1918, and Anna married the Babylonian scholar Vladimir Shileiko.
The couple lived at first in a room in the House on the Fontanka, afterwards moving to rooms in the Marble Palace. Shileiko, very ill, would give dictation to Anna for hours on end. She said about this time that it was three years of hunger during which Vladimir could exist without anything but tea and cigarettes, and that, had she stayed with him any longer, she would have lost the ability to compose poetry, impossible as he was to endure. They parted in 1921.
In the fall of that year came the deaths of both Nikolai Gumilyov--arrested earlier, executed on allegations of conspiracy--and the Symbolist poet Alexander Blok, who had been close to Akhmatova. In 1922, Akhmatova wrote a libretto for Artur Lourié's The Russian Contemporary, a ballet based on Blok (Akhmatova, My Half-Century, "Akhmatova's Prose," Emma Gershtein, pg. 335). Akhmatova had, in fact, learned of her husband's prior arrest at the very funeral of Blok. (My Half Century, "Random Notes," pg. 35).
Her fifth book, Anno Domini MCMXXI, was published in 1922, the following year, after which her public standing declined. During the span of a few short years, her reputation went from that of a writer of the first rank, to the position of a pretty, petty love poet. Vladimir Mayakovsky spoke publicly of Akhmatova with her "indoor intimacy" as being a pointless, pathetic and comic anachronism. In 1924, Anna visited Kharkov and Moscow, where she gave a reading of her poem "A New Year's Ballad" at an evening organized by The Russian Contemporary. Following this, the Central Committee decided that her works were to be removed from circulation, though the resolution passed did not call for her arrest. She was not allowed to translate, and, after the Russian Revolution, left the Writers' Union.
Akhmatova would not be published again until 1939, when she was asked to assemble a manuscript of her selected works. The manuscript, entitled From Six Books, supposedly came by order of Josef Stalin, to publish her poetry. It was immediately nominated for the Stalin Prize by some of the era's most influential authors, though also banned by special decree of the Secretariat of the Central Committee, as being "ideologically harmful." (Volkov, The Magical Chorus, tr. Bouis, pg. 162)
In 1941, Akhmatova met twice with the Russian poetess Marina Tsvetaeva. Tsvetaeva had previously written poems in praise of Akhmatova's beauty, and the two had corresponded by mail. (Feinstein, Anna of All the Russias, pg. 182) During 1943 and 1944, she penned a play E nu ma Elish, ("When Up Above"). An interview was published in 1945, when she also conducted a dialogue with Oxford historian Isaiah Berlin. Her literary reputation seemed to enjoy a brief, renewed high. The Leningrad House of Scholars invited her to read, as did Moscow University. But on August 9th, 1946, the Writers' Union executive committee was called together (to a meeting which was boycotted by the writer Boris Pasternak, a member of the Union of Soviet Writers' board, as well as a friend of Akhmatova's). There, Stalin spokesman Andrey Zhdanov denounced Akhmatova, possibly as a result of the interviews with Berlin, to whom Stalin reputedly referred as a foreign spy. Famously, indelibly, Zhdanov labelled Akhmatova "half nun, half whore." Her Writers' Union ration card was revoked. Critics once again began to devalue her work, citing her as a poet of despair and decay. On November 6th, 1949, her son Lev Gumilyov was arrested and later released. Requiem and Poem Without A Hero, considered two of her greatest works, were published in the 1960's. Akhmatova died of a heart attack March 5, 1966 and was buried in Komorovskoe Cemetery.
Akhmatova's earliest formative experiences with prosody were not of Pushkin and Lermontov, but of the writers Gavrila Derzhavin and his "disciple" Nikolay Nekrasov. Nekrasov, a poet admired for his poetic beauty by such writers as Fyodor Dostoevsky, is credited with introducing the dramatic monologue into Russian poetry, frequently using language in ternary meters. To quote Dmitri Tschizewskij, "Dactylic rhymes. . . and dactylic endings in unrhymed verse had occurred before, but were considered features of folk poetry." (The History of Nineteenth-Century Russian Literature Volume 2, pg. 104) Derzhavin, generally considered Russia's greatest 18th century poet, is best known for his odes, his audacious renderings of metaphysics into the concrete, and his making of the specific into the poetic. He is influential in a study of Akhmatova's poetry, also, as a vindicator of the individual personality, subordinating the state to the private person. (The Imperial Sublime: A Russian Poetics of Empire, Harsha Ram, pg. 107)
Although her early work may have adopted the esoteric, hazy manner of Symbolism (Fedotova, pg. 34) best typified by Alexander Blok, and though like her husband Gumilyov, as a girl she may have believed in Symbolism "like people believe in God" (Akhmatova, My Half-Century, "On the History of Acmeism," pg. 36), she came to endorse a philosophy of "beautiful clarity," emphasizing openness and accessibility. For Akhmatova, the goal of poems was to "attain that level of lucid clarity where they could be to everyone's liking." (Akhmatova, My Half-Century, "On Nadezhda Lvova's Poetry," pg. 256)
As an example, this poem, untitled, which I have translated into a form approximating Akhmatova's original, and which I use with gratitude to the FTM Agency in Moscow, for their authorization:
So, you imagined I would be the kind
it would be possible you could forget,
that I would throw myself, out of my mind,
beneath the hooves of a bay thoroughbred;
or beg some local sorceress for spoken
incantations over a water root,
and send it to you with a shocking token--
my cherished shawl, scented with perfume.
But curse you. Neither one cast of an eye
nor moan I touch to your damned soul, but swear
by the passion of our nights which used to burn,
by the garden of sacred seraphim, and by
the icon of stupendous power there,
I swear to you, I never will return.
July 1921, Petersburg
Quoting Leonid Strakhovsky, ". . . the preciseness and selection of words in their true, fundamental, and not transitory sense--a basic characteristic of the Acmeists--are early traits of her poetry. Perhaps more so than was the case of other Acmeists, hers is the 'language of objects'--an extraordinary and intimate language." (Craftsmen of the Word, Leonid I. Strakhovsky, Greenwood Press, pg. 58) In addition to this concreteness and her molding of imagery, Anna composed in new rhythms which Zhirmunsky likened to the music of Debussy. (Strakhovsky, pg. 58)
But though she composed in the traditional, formal elements of meter and rhyme, Akhmatova's was not a dogma of formalism. Indeed, hers was a belief that formal mastery was a strength which could not be shared by all poets, the "forcing" of which could actually undermine a writer's effect, as when, in a review of Lvova, she wrote, "I believe that Nadezhda Lvova undermined her delicate gifts by forcing herself to write rondeaus, ghazals and sonnets." (My Half-Century, pg. 256) "But anything that hinders the free development of the lyric feeling, that forces you to guess beforehand what should come as only a surprise, is very dangerous. . . "
She goes on to write that a woman's strength lies in her powers of simple, intimate expression. This mindset is crucial to an understanding of Akhmatova's appeal. The poet-critic N.V. Nedobrovo observed that one should see an emphasis on the "woman" in "woman-poet" in order to fully appreciate Akhmatova's work. (Strakhovsky, pg. 60) Thematically, she was a poet primarily of love, of elemental earthly pleasures, rather than of social angst or ideology.
I've learned to live in wise simplicity,
To look into the heavens and to pray,
And wear away this vain anxiety
With lengthy walks before the end of day.
When burdock vibrates in the valley, terse
And rustling, orange rowan berries bent
In clusters, I compose delighting verse
On perishable life, life excellent.
When I return, the downy cat will lick
my palm, purr sweetly. I will be aware
On the tower of the sawmill by the lake,
An iridescent fire is aflare.
Flying from the roof, the cry of storks
Will interrupt the hush occasionally,
And if you were to knock upon my door,
I may not even hear, it seems to me.
In its economic, epigrammatic quality (Akhmatova's work on the whole rarely exceeds a few stanzas per poem), her writing bears a commonality with the French classicists, containing intensive, tremendous concision able to convey volumes in a few words or lines:
"And I matured in peace checked by command,
In the nursery of the infant century. . . "
There is here also a deep divide, a "break" with the Symbolist and romantic schools of poetry.
Akhmatova's work can be profoundly intuitive, noteworthy for its segu? from literal, straightforward description through subtle psychological means into the language of feeling. She is emotional, passionate, and "decisive" to a degree verging on the judicial:
I drink to the house beyond repair,
To the evil of my lifetime, to
The isolation that we share,
I also drink to you;
To lips betraying me with lies,
To the world, severe and grave,
To the deadly coldness of the eyes,
To God, Who did not save.
"The Final Toast"
June 27, 1934
A standard sonnet of Akhmatova's, composed in a ten-syllable line pattern, with rhyme scheme abbaccdeedefef, first in the original Cyrillic Russian, followed by my transliteration, and translation:
И дряхлый пук дерев.
А я росла в узорной тишине,
В прохладной детской молодого века.
И не был мил мне голос человека,
А голос ветра был понятен мне.
Я лопухи любила и крапиву,
Но больше всех серебряную иву.
И, благодарная, она жила
Со мной всю жизнь, плакучими ветвями
Бессонницу овеивала снами.
И — странно! — я ее пережила.
Там пень торчит, чужими голосами
Другие ивы что-то говорят
Под нашими, под теми небесами.
И я молчу... Как будто умер брат.
18 января 1940
"E dryachly pook derev."
Ah ya rosla v oozornoi tishinyeh,
V prochladnoi dyetskoi molodogo veka.
E nyeh bil mil mnyeh golos cheloveka,
Ah golos vetra bil ponyahten mnyeh.
Ya lopoochi liubeela e krapivoo.
No bolshyeh vsyech syerbryanyu ivoo.
E, blagodarnayah, ona zhilah
So mnoy vsyoo zhizn, plakoochimi vetvyami
Bessonnitsyoo oveivala snami.
E--stranno!--ya yehyeh perezhila.
Tahm pyen torchit, chuzhimi golosami
Drugiyeh evi shto-to govaryaht
Pod nashimi, pod temi nebesami.
E ya molchoo. . . kak boodto oomyer braht.
. . . and a decrepit bunch of trees.
Yet I matured in peace checked by command,
In the nursery of the infant century,
And the voice of man was never dear to me,
But the breeze's voice--that I could understand.
The burdock and the nettle I esteemed,
But the silver willow tree I loved the best.
Its weeping limbs and boughs fanned my unrest
With reverie and dreams, obligingly,
Through my entire lifetime, like a vein.
And there the remnants of its trunk remain,
I have outlived it now--and by surprise!
The foreign willows speak amongst each other
Underneath our, underneath those skies,
And I am hushed, as if I'd lost a brother.
If, as seen above, Akhmatova and the Acmeists stood in contrast to Symbolism and the Romantics in terms of actual usage and linguistic "taste," they had in common with these schools inspiration which was deeply personal--unlike Classicism. Therefore, Akhmatova's poetry could be unique and varied as her own individual experience. Distinctive, too, was her narrative style. Mandelstam observed, "Akhmatova brought to the Russian lyric the whole enormous complexity and richness of the Russian novel of the nineteenth century. There would be no Akhmatova had there not been Tolstoy with Anna Karenina, Turgenev with A Nest of Gentlefolk, all of Dostoevsky, and part of Leskov. Akhmatova's genesis lies entirely in Russian prose, not in poetry. She evolved her sharp, original poetic form, looking back on psychological prose." (Russian Writers: Notes and Essays, Helen Muchnic, Random House 1971, pg. 65-66)
Indeed, her poems are consistently, deeply personal, soulful, skirting the "confessional" while miraculously managing to transcend the tastelessness associated with that mode. She becomes Tsvetaeva's Muse of Mourning through collapsed love, sorrow and reticence--even renunciation. And while in the totality of her work, she has been referred to as the "Russian Yeats," in this respect of renouncing, and by retaining her profound reverential dignity, she bears an aspect not wholly dissimilar to that of the English Christina Rossetti, whose death preceded Akhmatova's birth by five years. Anna's respect, though, comes with a decidedly saucier, less orthodox independence: "I submit to God's will alone!"
However consistently hers is the work of an original, singular author, though, throughout the corpus of it we see a mutating and maturing sensibility remaining immutable in that essential self: constant in integrity, eternal through timeliness. "For me, poetry is a link with time," she admitted, and as Emma Gershtein is quoted, (Anna Akhmatova and Her Circle, Konstantin Polivanov, tr. Beriozkina, Univ. of Ark., pg. 139), "I know through . . . experience of Anna Andreyevna's ability to arrive in time."