English: 1922 portrait of Anna Akhmatova by Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin. The painting is located in the State Russian Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Anna Akhmatova is the pseudonym of Anna Gorenko. Anna Gorenko was born into an upper-class family in Odessa, the Ukraine, on June 23 1889. Her father, Andrey Antonovich Gorenko, a naval engineer , and her mother, Inna Erazmovna Stogova, were both descended from the Russian nobility.
Akhmatova began writing verse at the age of 11 and at 21 became a member of the Acmeist group of poets, whose leader, Nikolay Gumilyov, she married in 1910 but divorced in 1918. The Acmeists rejected the esoteric vagueness and affectations of Symbolism and sought to replace them with “beautiful clarity,” compactness, simplicity, and perfection of form–all qualities in which Akhmatova excelled from the outset. Her first collections, Vecher (1912; “Evening”) and Chyotki (1914; “Rosary”), brought her fame. At this time, Akhmatova’s principal theme is love, mainly frustrated and tragic love, expressed with an intensely feminine accent and inflection entirely her own.
Later in her life she added to her main theme some civic, patriotic, and religious motifs but without sacrifice of personal intensity or artistic conscience. Her artistry and increasing control of her medium were particularly prominent in her next collections: Belaya staya (1917; “The White Flock”), Podorozhnik (1921; “Plantain”), and Anno Domini MCMXXI (1922).
Akhmatova lived through World War II, and the madness of a 900 day siege in the city of Leningrad. She married three times, divorcing twice, and losing the third to the horrors of a labor camp.
And that was what sadly came to define her life: horror. She watched as friends and family died, fled, or were executed – yet she remained. Her work was condemned by the government, but still she remained, choosing to remain as witness to the horrors around her. And her work changed with them. What was short and musical twisted into intricate and structured tragedies – like Requiem (1935–40), her tragic masterpiece about the Stalinist terror.
Akhmatova passed away on March 5, 1966 near Moscow, Russia. By then, the cultural “thaw” post Stalin’s death was in full effect and her works resurfaced. It was not until her death she became recognized as the greatest woman poet in Russian literature.
Akhmatova’s longest work, Poema bez geroya (“Poem Without a Hero”), on which she worked from 1940 to 1962, was not published in the Soviet Union until 1976. This difficult and complex work is a powerful lyric summation of Akhmatova’s philosophy and her own definitive statement on the meaning of her life and poetic achievement.
Poem without a Hero
By: Anna Akhmatova
I have lit my treasured candles,
one by one, to hallow this night.
With you, who do not come,
I wait the birth of the year.
the flame has drowned in crystal,
and the wine, like poison, burns
Old malice bites the air,
old ravings rave again,
though the hour has not yet struck.
Dread. Bottomless dread…
I am that shadow on the threshold
defending my remnant peace.
Let the gossip roll!
What to me are Hamlet’s garters,
or the whirlwind of Salome’s dance,
or the tread of the Man in the Iron Mask?
I am more iron than they.
Prince Charming, prince of the mockers —
compared with him the foulest of sinners
is grace incarnate…
That woman I once was,
in a black agate necklace,
I do not wish to meet again
till the Day of Judgement.
Are the last days near, perhaps?
I have forgotten your lessons,
prattlers and false prophets,
but you haven’t forgotten me.
As the future ripens in the past,
so the past rots in the future —
a terrible festival of dead leaves.
All the mirrors on the wall
show a man not yet appeared
who could not enter this white hall.
He is no better and no worse,
but he is free of Lethe’s curse:
his warm hand makes a human pledge.
Strayed from the future, can it be
that he will really come to me,
turning left from the bridge?
From childhood I have been afraid
of mummers. It always seemed
an extra shadow
without face or name
had slipped among them…
you are as old as the Mamre oak,
ancient interrogator of the moon,
whose feigned groans cannot take us in.
You write laws of iron.
Creature of special tastes,
you do not wait for gout and fame
to elevate you
to a luxurious jubilee chair,
but bear your triumph
over the flowering heather,
And you are guilty of nothing: neither of this,
that, nor anything..
what have poets, in any case, to do with sin?
They must dance before the Ark of the Covenant
or die! But what am I trying to say?
In the black sky no star is seen,
somewhere in ambush lurks the Angel of Death,
but the spices tongues of the masqueraders
are loose and shameless
“Make way for the hero!”
Ah yes. Displacing the tall one,
he will step forth now without fail
and sing to us about holy vengeance…
There is no death, each of us knows —
it’s banal to say.
I’ll leave it to others to explain.
Is this the visitor from the wrong side
of the mirror? Or the shape
that suddenly flitted past my window?
Is it the new moon playing tricks,
or is someone really standing there again
between the stove and the cupboard?
This means that gravestones are fragile
and granite is softer than wax.
Absurd, absurd, absurd! From such absurdity
I shall soon turn gray
or change into another person.
why do you beckon me with your hand?
For one moment of peace
I would give the peace of the tomb.
I will be the first to admit that this is one of the hardest poems I have ever read. The notion of a life’s work intimidates me, especially one like hers. The horror and tragedy she had lived through: going to bed each night and upon morning discovering who went missing in the dead of night.
Despite the tragedy enclosed within the body of the poem, it reads like a fairytale of sorts albeit a macabre version. I see a young maiden awaiting her prince charming: the wait and the expectation are quite tense.
The tone quickly sours as it turns out that Prince Charming is her worst nightmare. She is disgusted with herself and does not want to confront her weakness till Judgement Day. This maiden becomes forged of iron as all vestiges of softness are stripped away from her. There she makes her stand; immoveable, unflappable and ever watching.
They may think to mold her like wax and expect her to be supple and pliant yet her wax is not made that way. By comparison, they would have better luck shaping granite than her for she will endure.
Call to Action:
Akhamatova has given us an example of writing a poem that defines her. In prose or verse, can you write about what defines you in this moment, in this now.
Here is my attempt.
By: Meena Rose
Take away my dreams, I dare
You to alter my destiny;
A shackled future thrust upon me;
It will not matter, I will rise.
Weigh me down with your demands;
My plate is already full;
I will carry your burden even though
You should; no matter, I rise.
Hit me with your best shot;
Chances are high you won’t miss;
I fall, I crumble, I cry;
It does not matter, I rise.
Has history taught you nothing?
Perhaps you slept through class;
To stop me, I must accept defeat;
Never will I do this, I rise.
Hate me, mock me, betray me;
Break my faith in mankind;
You still will not put out
My flames, for I always rise.