“Poetry is what gets lost in translation,” observed Robert Frost, and was only partly right. The thrust and sweep of epic poetry translates well enough: there is no dearth of decent translations of Homer, Virgil, Dante. Philosophical poetry also survives quite well: Eliot’s Four Quartets, for example, has been successfully rendered into a number of languages. Lyric poetry is the one that has the most to lose.
There is, obviously, the problem of rhyme. Unrhymed poetry fares much better in translation: Walt Whitman reads just about as well (or poorly) in French or German. Even as delicate an unrhymed lyric as Leopardi’s “L’infinito” has thrived in English. But rhyme is a killer. With elaborate rhyme schemes, tricky rhyming words, and short lines (dimeter, trimeter), the difficulty increases exponentially. Think of Byron’s Don Juan, or this, from Heine: “Sie sassen und tranken am Teetisch,/ Und sprachen von Liebe viel./ Die Herren, die waren ästhetisch,/ Die Damen von zartem Gefühl.” Verses 2 and 4, with their masculine rhymes, are no problem: “And talked about love and such” and “The ladies who felt so much.” But 1 and 3 are impossible: the splendid joke lies in rhyming, femininely at that, Teetisch and ästhetisch, “tea table” and “aesthetic.” Failing this, you’ve got nothing.
But there are poems untranslatable not because of their intricate rhyme scheme, rich rhymes, or fancy prosody. There exists something even more basic. In my doctoral dissertation, I quote from the journal of Jules Barbey d’Aurevilly for September 19, 1836: “[Maurice de] Guérin est venu. Causé de la poésie des langues, qui est toute autre chose que la poésie des poètes.” I commented: “Languages have their intrinsic poetry, a poetry they yield to the proper touch with gracious forthrightness.” This is the kind of objet trouvé that certain words or sequences of words offer up to the poet, as blocks of marble supposedly suggested to Michelangelo the figures he would hew from them.
Take the last lines of the beautiful “Járkálj csak, halálraitélt” (Keep walking, condemned man) by the great Hungarian poet Miklós Radnóti, which, after giving the contemporary poet various ways to live, concludes with “S oly keményen is, mint a sok/ sebtöl vérzo", nagy farkasok.” Literally: “And as toughly, too, as the from many/ wounds bleeding, great wolves.” (The Hungarian “s,” by the way, is our “sh.”) What is a translator to do, confronted with these darkly resonant sounds? Shoot the poem in the foot, or himself in the head? There is no way “great wolves” can render the mighty rumble of nagy farkasok. (Nagy, incidentally, is a monosyllable, not unlike our nudge.) This is the poésie des langues, the poetry inherent in the sounds of a language’s words, and it is this more than anything that makes a poet such as Anna Akhmatova virtually (virtually? totally!) untranslatable into English.
Consider the opening quatrain of a three-stanza poem of 1921, which the poet dedicated to her friend Natalya Rykova. The “literal” prose translation in Dimitri Obolenski’s Penguin Book of Russian Verse runs: “All has been looted, betrayed, sold; death’s black wing flickered [before us]; all is gnawed by hungry anguish—why then does a light shine for us?” Peter Norman’s translation reads: “Everything is ravaged, bartered, betrayed,/ The black wing of death has hovered nearby,/ Everything is gnawed through by hungry gloom,/ Why then did we feel so light of heart?” Stanley Kunitz manages to get one rhyme into his translation: “Everything is plundered, betrayed, sold,/ Death’s great black wing scrapes the air,/ Misery gnaws to the bone./ Why then do we not despair?” With all due respect, Kunitz would never have published such poetry under his own name. Finally, here is the version of Walter Arndt, one of our principal rhyming translators from the Russian: “All is looted, betrayed, past retrieving,/ Death’s black wing has been flickering near,/ All is racked with a ravenous grieving,/ How on earth did this splendor appear?”
This seems passable at first glance, but look now at the original: “Vsyo rashishchenyo, predano, prodano,/ Chernoy smyerti mel’kalo krilo,/ Vsyo golodnoy toskoyu izglodano,/ Otchega zhe nam stalo svetlo?” There is no way the sonorities of that very first line can be conveyed in English, especially the play on predano, prodano. And not even the supposedly literal version does justice to the simplicity of the last: “Why then did it become light for us?” with stalo and svetlo again creating an echo effect. Russian poetry is a poetry of sound effects par excellence, because Russian is a sonorous, declamatory language; this is what those latter-day stadium-filling poets—the Yevtushenkos, Voznesenskys, and Akhmadulinas—called “pop poets” by Akhmatova, were to exploit to her disgust.
“Mayakovsky, stop reading your verse. You sound like a Romanian orchestra.”
And yet she, too, benefited from big public readings at various times in her life. For Russia is that rare country in which poetry is loved by the masses, a country where simple folk quote poetry at one another and discuss it as people here do a football game. Because they often declaim in huge auditoriums and stadiums, Russian poets have adopted a vatic mode of recitation: part hieratic, part histrionic, loud and singsongy. It was Mandelshtam who reproached one of the most stentorian perpetrators with, “Mayakovsky, stop reading your verse. You sound like a Romanian orchestra.” But the vatic mode is still with us, and even such a Westernized poet as Joseph Brodsky, Akhmatova’s dearest disciple and protégé, subscribes to it wholeheartedly. This vatic mode, in turn, battens on the “poetry of languages,” as the Acmeists, the group of poets to which Akhmatova belonged, certainly did. The Poets’ Guild, as the Acmeists called their splinter group from the Symbolists, believed, as Max Hayward puts it, that “language was like any other material, and in fashioning poetic artifacts from it, one had to take account of its natural qualities and limitations.”
Anna Andreyevna Gorenko was born in Odessa in 1889, but was moved as a tot to St. Petersburg, living mostly in Tsarskoye Selo, the delightful suburb whose most famous inhabitant had been Pushkin, to whom the future poet was to dedicate many searching critical-historical studies. Her father was a naval engineer; she was the third of five children. One brother was killed in the Revolution, another committed suicide; both beautiful sisters died of tuberculosis, from which only a thyroid condition saved Anna.
When Papa Gorenko bemoaned that the tomboyish girl would become a poet and thus besmirch the family name, the seventeen-year-old changed her name to Akhmatova, as having descended on her mother’s side from the Tartar ruler Akhmat, himself a descendant of Genghis Khan, and the last leader of the Golden Horde. As Joseph Brodsky writes in his essay “The Keening Muse” (1982), “the five open a’s of Anna Akhmatova had a hypnotic effect and put this name’s carrier finally at the top of Russian poetry.” In 1905, Anna’s parents divorced, and she finished the gymnasium first in Yevpatoria on the Black Sea, then in Kiev. A crush Anna had on a handsome student at St. Petersburg University remained unrequited. She herself quit her law studies and eventually yielded to the persistent and protracted wooing of the poet Nikolay Gumilyov (1886–1921), whom she married, lovelessly, in 1910. The marriage lasted three years, and produced Anna’s only child, Lyov.
It was a strange marriage, with infidelity on both sides, but also real love from Gumilyov. Nikolay at first dismissed his wife’s verse as insignificant, advising her to become a dancer instead. But upon his return from a lengthy trip to Africa, he was genuinely impressed by Anna’s new poems, and told her she must publish a volume. Soon Gumilyov, Akhmatova, and Osip Mandelshtam became the mainstays of a new movement that a hostile critic dubbed “Acmeist.” Gumilyov was executed in 1921 for his alleged part in a counterrevolutionary conspiracy, an affair that remains opaque; Mandelshtam died in the gulag in 1937. Akhmatova survived—often precariously—till 1966, and never renounced Acmeism, indeed becoming more Acmeist as she grew older. It was a poetry of the here and now, eschewing both the mysticism of the Symbolists and the radicalism (often, but not always, political) of the Futurists.
When Anna left Gumilyov after three years, it was because she had fallen in love with Vladimir Shileiko, an Orientalist of stature. Being married to him meant becoming his research assistant while also holding down a librarian’s job at the Agronomic Institute. Needless to say, this impeded her own writing. Nevertheless, her verse collections, Evening, Rosary, and White Flock, made the young Akhmatova one of the most popular poets of Russia, and this reputation was confirmed by Plantain (or Wayside Herb, the Russian word carries both meanings), and Anno Domini MCMXXI, to say nothing of such later masterpieces as Requiem and Poem Without a Hero.
“It was impossible not to notice her.”
What did she look like? There are many likenesses of her by various artists. Too bad that of Modigliani’s sixteen drawings (Anna and Amedeo had a touchingly innocent flirtation when she was honeymooning in Paris with Gumilyov) only one survives. The poet Georgy Adamovich writes: “When people recall her today, they sometimes say she was beautiful. She was not, but she was more than beautiful, better than beautiful. I have never seen a woman whose face and entire appearance—whose expressiveness, genuine unworldliness, and inexplicable sudden appeal—set her apart . . . among beautiful women anywhere. Later her appearance would acquire a hint of the tragic: Rachel in Phèdre, as Osip Mandelshtam put it. . . .” Or, to quote Ronald Meyer, “Virtually every account refers to the poet’s grandeur, regal bearing and stately demeanor. The adjective velichavaya (stately, majestic, regal) functions as a code word for Akhmatova.” And he quotes an eyewitness, a woman who saw her in 1910 in the poet Vyacheslav Ivanov’s literary salon: “Lithe, tall, and svelte, her head wrapped in a floral shawl. The aquiline nose, her dark hair with the short bangs in front and held in place in back with a large Spanish comb. The small, slender mouth that seldom laughed. Dark, stern eyes. [Others call them bright gray.] It was impossible not to notice her.”
“A fine, unpretentious woman” Pasternak called Akhmatova in a letter to his cousin Olga Freidenberg. Yet the unpretentious woman was justly proud of her looks, as when she told Natalya Roskina that “sculptors had no desire to sculpt her because she wasn’t interesting to them: nature had already done it all.” Her nose, by the way, was not aquiline but, even more imposingly, shaped like a big fleshy “S.” And consider this tribute from the great satirist Yevgeny Zamyatin, commenting on Annenkov’s painting: “The portrait of Akhmatova—or, to be more exact, the portrait of Akhmatova’s eyebrows. Like clouds, they throw light and heavy shadows on the face, and in them, so many losses. They are like the key to a piece of music; the key is set, and you hear the speech of the eyes, the mourning hair, the black rosary on the combs.”
After the breakup with Shileiko (another three-year marriage) in 1921, Anna moved in with two Petersburg friends, the composer Artur Lurye (or Lourié) and the actress Olga Glebova-Sudeikina, a famous beauty. (A “sex-bomb,” Nadezhda Mandelshtam contemptuously called her.) This may well have been a sexual ménage à trois; at any rate, it induced a creative outburst in Anna. Years later, her longest and most renowned work, Poem Without a Hero, was to take off from the 1913 suicide of Vladimir Knyazov, a young cadet whom Anna loved, but who loved and was rejected by Olga.
Her fame having peaked around 1921–22, Anna was due for a reaction. Blok died after a painful illness, and Gumilyov was executed for his alleged counterrevolutionary activities, both in 1921. Akhmatova’s fifth volume, Anno Domini MCMXXI, appeared in 1922, after which she published no other book till 1940. Attacks on her multiplied, and there was a ban on publishing her. Lurye and Sudeikina emigrated to Paris and, like other friends, urged Anna to follow suit. She refused and, in one of her finest poems, explained why. Instead, she moved back in with Shileiko, from whom she was divorced, but who traveled much, and whose St. Bernard needed looking after.
The poet’s health was precarious: tuberculosis plagued her, and, later, heart attacks. While convalescing in a pension in Tsarskoye Selo, she met again Nadezhda Mandelshtam, ten years her junior, with whom she was to be linked in lifelong friendship. She also met Nikolay Punin, the critic and historian, who was to become her third husband, though the marriage was never officially registered. Although she was to stay with him fifteen years (“fifteen granite centuries” she calls it in a poem), the marriage as such probably didn’t last longer than the usual three years; but where else was she to go? This despite that a previous Punin wife and, later, a subsequent one inhabited the same house. And as with Shileiko, Anna became an amanuensis to Punin, helping him with translations and lectures. Arrogant and promiscuous, he treated her worse; yet when asked later on which husband she loved most, she implied that it was Punin.
After the Central Committee’s unpublished but binding resolution that she was no longer to be printed, Akhmatova worked on her unsubsidized Pushkin studies and on translations, which were allowed her. The Thirties were dominated by Stalin and Yezhov’s Great Terror. Anna was staying with the Mandelshtams in 1934 when Osip was first arrested; soon Punin and Lyov, Anna’s son, were imprisoned too. They were released upon Akhmatova’s petition to Stalin, who liked her poetry, which may eventually have saved her own life. Lyov was to be in and out of prison for much of his life; Mandelshtam, re-arrested, died in the gulag in 1937, as Punin did later on.
Between 1939 and the outbreak of World War II, Akhmatova’s fortunes were low, indeed. The critic Korney Chukovsky noted that she didn’t even have a warm coat, or, often, enough money for the streetcar. It was at this time that Chukovsky’s daughter, the writer Lydia Chukovskaya, met Akhmatova and became her Boswell. She kept The Akhmatova Journals, three volumes in the original, of which we now have the first, 1938–41, as translated by Milena Michalski and Sylva Rubashova, with fifty-four poems—those mentioned in the text—Englished by Peter Norman.
Anna was evacuated to Tashkent, clutching the precious manuscript of Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony.
There is something very unsatisfying about having to read these journals on the installment plan. An important character such as Vladimir Garshin, a physician and professor of medicine, and at this time Anna’s lover, will appear frequently in these pages, but a footnote on page 21, barely identifying him, concludes: “For more details on him, see Journals, vol. 2.” Yet the reader should know more. When, like other artists in wartime, Anna was evacuated to Tashkent (whither she traveled clutching the precious manuscript of Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony), she conducted a loving correspondence with Garshin, although he wrote relatively infrequently, and then often about other women. Finally, however, he proposed marriage. Anna not only accepted but even agreed to his request to drop her own proud name and become merely Garshina. When she arrived in, as she put it, “the hungry and cold city of post-blockade Leningrad,” Garshin met her at the station and chillingly asked where she wanted to be taken. She named the old Punin apartment. “He took me there, said goodbye at the entrance, and kissed my hand. We never saw each other again. . . . I know very well how relationships are ended, and thank God, I’ve done it myself a thousand times. But this was simply incomprehensible.” Garshin, it turned out, was already married.
There are other problems with Chukovskaya’s notes. When a new figure appears, a footnote directs you to an endnote. But it is often not the endnote you expect, which should be, let’s say, number 19. Instead, you’re directed to look ahead to, say, note 64, where this person is dealt with more extensively. Thus later, when you legitimately get to note 64, you find yourself rereading what you’ve already read. It is fortunate that the publisher, at the last minute, added a glossary, as it were annotating Chukovskaya’s notes. But confusion thrives in other ways, too. The dramatis personae appear in three guises: with their full names, i.e., first name, patronymic, and last name; or, thereafter, first name and patronymic; or, often, nickname only—or diminutive of the nickname. So when on a given page a Nikolay Ivanovich (i.e., Khardziev, the poetry specialist and historian) jostles a Nikolay Nikolayevich (i.e., Punin), and then a Nikolay Stepanovich (i.e., Gumilyov) pops up, it’s hard to keep them apart. When we next hear the nickname Kolya, it might take even a Russian reader a while to figure out which Nikolay is meant. Of course, it turns out to be yet another: Kolya Demidenko.
Still, one should not be put off. The Akhmatova Journals begins with a moving prologue in which Lydia Chukovskaya tells about how she lost her husband to the gulag; how she, too, might have lost her life but for a friend’s warning phone call; and how her having a husband in the camps brought her closer to Akhmatova, who had a son there. The conversations she doesn’t dare report in her journal are the many ones about these and other cherished prisoners; instead, there is much talk about writers and writing, and about the trivia of daily life. Especially poignant is the evocation of the way much of Akhmatova’s poetry, unsafe to commit to paper, survived:
Anna Andreyevna, when visiting me, recited parts of “Requiem” . . . in a whisper, but at home in Fontanny House did not even dare to whisper it; suddenly, in mid-conversation, she would fall silent and, signaling to me with her eyes at the ceiling and walls, she would get a scrap of paper and a pencil; then she would loudly say something very mundane: “Would you like some tea?” or “You’re very tanned,” then she would cover the scrap in hurried handwriting and pass it to me. I would read the poems and, having memorized them, would hand them back to her in silence. “How early autumn came this year,” Anna Andreyevna would say loudly and, striking a match, would burn the paper over an ashtray.
But already from the outset of the book, in its English translation, we see sloppiness creeping in. Thus the code name the women used for the secret police is given on one page as Pyotr Ivanich; on the next, as Pyotr Ivanovich. Or there’ll be a comment such as “Paul was murdered in that room,” without any explanation in footnote or endnote. Again, in May 1939, Anna tells us how much she admires Joyce’s Ulysses, even though it’s a mite too pornographic for her; she has read it four times. By October 1940, she tells of reading this “great and wonderful” book six times. Could she have read that difficult work two more times in seventeen months? Was she given to exaggeration? Did her mind wander? Chukovskaya doesn’t say.
Tom Sawyer, for Akhmatova, was “an immortal book. Like Don Quixote.”
She walked lightly, this fifty-year-old woman who was often trailed by two secret policemen and who always carried her pocketbook and a shabby suitcase with her writings with her out of fear they might be secretly searched. But she was terrified of crossing wide streets, even when empty, and would cling anxiously to whoever accompanied her. Although she disliked Tolstoy, and mounts a splendid attack on Anna Karenina, she concedes that he could be marvelously zaum. (Zaum or zaumny yazik refers to transrational or metalogical discourse, as invented by Khlebnikov and the Futurists, a distant precursor of poésie concrète.) Anna herself preferred established languages, reading Dante in Italian and, after six months of mostly self-taught English, Shakespeare in the original. But for all the various languages she knew, Russian spelling and punctuation were beyond her; she even misspelled the name of her beloved Annensky, the only poet she admitted to being influenced by.
Anna thought poorly of men because there were few to be seen in the prison queues, and perhaps also because none of her husbands ever hung a picture of her over the table. She was unable to judge her own poems until they were old, which is why she avidly recited the new ones to friends, eager for their judgment as well as memorization. She lived in great poverty, often subsisting on potatoes and sauerkraut; sometimes there was no sugar for the tea she’d serve her guests. Here is a characteristic scene, as Anna and her friend, the actress Olga Visotskaya, decide to go queue up in front of the Procurator’s office:
Anna Andreyevna insisted that Olga Nikolayevna should wear her autumn coat (Olga Nikolayevna only had her summer coat here), and she herself would wear her winter coat.
“It will be hard for you to stand in your winter coat,” said Olga Nikolayevna. “Better for me to put on the winter coat, and you the autumn coat.”
But Anna Andreyevna disagreed.
“No, I’ll put on the winter coat. You won’t be able to handle it. It’s tricky. It hasn’t had a single button on it for a long time now. And we won’t manage to find new ones and sew them on. I know how to wear it even without buttons, whereas you don’t. I’ll wear the winter coat.”
It is piquant to discover Akhmatova admitting to not understanding one of her own poems. She repeatedly declared that she wrote two kinds of poems: those that seemed to come from an external dictation and were easy to write, and those that she willed herself to write and were impossible. She considered Hemingway a great writer, although she hated the cruelty of his fishing. Vyacheslav V. Ivanov, in his “Meetings with Akhmatova,” reports that she “approved of observations comparing her early poetry with the prose of Hemingway and describing it as ‘novella-like.’” This ties in with something Mandelshtam wrote: “Akhmatova brought into the Russian lyric all the enormous complexity and wealth of the Russian novel . . . Akhmatova’s origins lie completely within Russian prose, not poetry. She developed her poetic form, keen and original, with a backward glance at psychological prose.” What it all seems to add up to is straightforwardness, lucidity, and narrative progression, apparently considered more appropriate to prose.
Tom Sawyer, for Akhmatova, was “an immortal book. Like Don Quixote.” A bold view in its way, but not unusual for her, who, for example, dared place the Epic of Gilgamesh above the Iliad. Some of her nonliterary ideas were even stranger: “For some reason, she had got into her head that the steps began right outside her apartment door, and I could not persuade her to cross the landing for anything.” Poor Akhmatova! She could no longer even pronounce “sh” and “zh” clearly; some of her front teeth were broken. Nor could she, a pariah in the house of Punin, get a pass to the garden of the House of Entertaining Science (!), where they were all living: “He is someone, a professor, but what am I? Carrion.”
Her most cherished poems could not be published; her earlier ones she no longer cared for, and couldn’t understand why other people liked them. I myself am more than a little puzzled by her own and other people’s judgments on her poetry. In one of her autobiographical sketches, Akhmatova writes that of her entire first book, Evening (1912), “I now truly like only the lines: ‘Intoxicated by a voice/ That sounds exactly like yours . . .’” With all allowances made for what gets lost in translation, it is impossible to understand what could make those two verses special. Even more mysterious, though, is the recollection of the poet Georgy Adamovich about the other great modern Russian poetess, Marina Tsvetayeva: “She [had] just read Akhmatova’s ‘Lullaby,’ and praised it, saying that she would give everything she had written and would write in the future for a single line from that poem: ‘I am a bad mother.’” Even if you allow for the context (a father is speaking), how can that line have such value? There is perhaps something even beyond the poetry that gets lost in translations from Akhmatova.
This became a metonym for Akhmatova: Muse of Weeping.
Amusingly, Anna discusses Pasternak’s indifference to her work and goes on to comment with wonderful outspokenness: “Haven’t you noticed that poets don’t like the poetry of their contemporaries? A poet carries with him his own enormous world—why does he need someone else’s poetry? When they’re young, about 23 or 24, poets like the work of poets in their own group. Later though, they don’t like anybody else’s—only their own.” Vyacheslav V. Ivanov confirms this: “Certainly Akhmatova was not inclined to listen to the praise of other literary figures of the first decade.” Her attitude to Tsvetayeva was particularly ambivalent, even though Marina was much more generous: she called her rival “Anna Chrysostom of all the Russians,” and her beautiful poem “To Anna Akhmatova” begins “O muza placha, prekrasneyshaya iz muz!” (O muse of weeping, loveliest of muses). This became a metonym for Akhmatova: Muse of Weeping—or, as Brodsky renders it, Keening Muse.Notice, again, the eloquent fanfare of prekrasneyshaya; how is an English translator to do justice to that?
Yet there were also times when the Russian language seemed to thwart Akhmatova. There is a droll page in the Journals where Anna agonizes to a couple of friends about something she had written: “One line has been vexing me all my life: ‘Gde milomu muzhu detey rodila [Where she bore her dear husband children].’ Do you hear: Mu-mu?! Can it be that neither of you, both such lovers of poetry, has noticed this mooing?” Whereupon she proceeds to recite Pushkin’s “Monument” to her friends—only, as a footnote tells us, it wasn’t that at all, but the epilogue to her own Requiem; she was trying to mislead those who, she claimed, were bugging her room. But the greater, metaphysical, risks of her profession haunted her most: “The word is much more difficult material than, for instance, paint. Think about it, really: for the poet works with the very same words that people use to invite each other to tea. . . .”
What is the poetry of Anna Akhmatova really like? Here is how Chukovskaya sees it:
When you first apprehend it, it does not strike you by the novelty of its form as does, say, the poetry of Mayakovsky. You can hear Baratynsky and Tyutchev and Pushkin—sometimes, more rarely, Blok—in the movement of the poem, in its rhythms, in the fullness of the line, in the precision of the rhymes. At first it seems like a narrow path, going alongside the wide road of Russian classical poetry. Mayakovsky is deafeningly novel, but at the same time he is unfruitful, barren: he brought Russian poetry to the edge of an abyss. . . . Akhmatova’s little path turns out to be a wide road in fact; her traditional style is purely external . . . within this she brings about earthquakes and upheavals.
Frankly, in struggling with her poems in Russian—never mind the translations—I cannot find the earthquakes. But I do see a poet with an original vision and a personal voice who manages to maintain her individual talent within the tradition. No wonder she admired T. S. Eliot.
Strange where poets come from! As a child, Anna had no poetry surrounding her: “We didn’t have any books in the house, not a single book. Only Nekrasov, a thick, bound volume. My mother used to let me read it on feast days and holidays. This book was a present to Mama from her first husband, who shot himself. . . . I have loved poetry ever since I was a child and I managed to get hold of it somehow. At the age of 13, I already knew Baudelaire, Voltaire and all the poètes maudits in French. I started to write poetry early but . . . before I had even written a line, all those around me were convinced that I would become a poetess.”
How did the thirteen-year-old daughter of Russian bourgeois manage to get hold of Baudelaire?
If Chukovskaya were doing her job right, she would answer some troubling questions here. But she never mentions Nekrasov as one of the influences on Akhmatova’s poetry—perhaps because he was greatly concerned with social issues, which Anna, until much later on, was not. But he was a loosener and modernizer of diction, someone from whom Anna may have learned things. The real question, though, is: How did the thirteen-year-old daughter of Russian bourgeois manage to get hold of Baudelaire? (That she knew French is, in Imperial Russia, believable.) And what of this quaint juxtaposition: Baudelaire, Voltaire? Is the sage there merely for the rhyme? As a lyric poet, he is known only for a few poems of love and friendship, and for some terse, biting epigrams. Could Anna’s short poems in Rosary (or Beads) owe something to the latter? Or could something of the former have influenced the manner of the poetic teenager—say this, to Mme du Châtelet: “On meurt deux fois, je le vois bien:/ Cesser d’aimer et d’être aimable,/ C’est une mort insupportable;/ Cesser de vivre, ce n’est rien”? But the most puzzling bit here is “all the poètes maudits.” It seems impossible for Anna to have gotten hold of even Rimbaud in 1902, to say nothing of the lesser maudits. Lydia should have asked some important questions here, though, to be sure, they were interrupted by the entrance of an old woman—shades of Coleridge and the person from Porlock.
Akhmatova harbors some pretty radical ideas about poetry: “Only through contemporary art can one understand the art of the past. There is no other path. And when something new appears, do you know how a contemporary should feel? As if it is pure chance that it is not he who wrote it, as if . . . somebody had snatched it out of his hands.” And what a country for poets, this Russia! As Lydia and a woman friend leave Anna’s place, the following happens: “Tusya walked me right up to my house. On the way she recited Tyutchev’s ‘Spring’ to me . . . which, until now, I hadn’t given the attention it deserves; and then together we recited Baratynski’s ‘Autumn,’ to which Shura [another friend] had introduced us. . . . I thought: This may be the best poem in Russian literature.” None of these women was a poet; what they were is Russians.
From this derives Lydia’s worshipful attitude toward Anna, which at times becomes cloying, as when the biographer comments on Anna’s refusal to fight for a paid vacation owed to her, which the poet contemptuously rejects as “the communal scuffle.” Comments Chukovskaya: “Oh, how grateful I am to her that she understands so well who she is, that in preserving the dignity of Russian literature, which she represents at some invisible tribunal, she never takes part in any communal scuffle!”
“Who can renounce his own life?”
The poet’s stoicism was indeed heroic, as the state treated her shabbily. “That’s my life, my biography,” she allows. “Who can renounce his own life?” Much later on, in 1954, she was to formulate it more nobly to Lydia’s father, Korney: “I have been very famous and very notorious, and I know now that essentially it’s just the same thing.” And to Georgy Adamovich: “My lot was to suffer everything it’s possible to suffer.” So you believe it when Lydia reports, “Anna Andreyevna put the kettle on. We had tea without sugar, with a stale roll.” Amid such misery, Anna would prodigally dispense insight: “[Vyacheslav Ivanov] was . . . an outstanding poet, but his poems were often bad. No, no, there is no contradiction here; one can be a remarkable poet, but write bad poems.” Or: “The Modernists did a great thing for Russia. . . . They handed back the country in completely different shape from that in which they received it. They taught people to love poetry once again, even the technical standard of book publishing went up.”
“I don’t know any other country where . . . there is a greater need for [poetry] than here.” She was right. In the large, cold, poor, and often lonely spaces of Russia, poetry came to fill a void. If (as it is said) sex was for the French the cinéma des pauvres, for average Russians it tended to be poetry. And, of course, gossip. There are delicious pages here of Akhmatova gossiping, for example, about the women in Blok’s life, in the midst of which she digresses about Punin: “‘But such an accumulation of wives’—once again, she tapped Nikolay Nikolayevich’s wall lightly—‘is utter nonsense.’” She mocks the pettiness of various literary circles, and concludes, “I am the only one who is indifferent to what people think of my poetry.” (But here is Korney Chukovsky: “Akhmatova divided the world into two uneven parts: those who understand her poems and those who don’t.”)
All her life Akhmatova remained a firm believer in Christianity, Russia being perhaps the premier country for practicing Christians among its artists and intellectuals. A tolerant woman, she was nevertheless repulsed by the homosexual excesses in Mikhail Kuzmin’s poetry. She makes shrewd observations about Dostoyevsky: “These are all aspects of his soul. . . . In reality, there never was or will be anything like it.” She evokes charmingly her youth as a nervy, unconventional tomboy, and sadly admits to her present discombobulation. I find it regrettable that she so dislikes Chekhov, whose plays, for her, “epitomize the disintegration of theater”; in both his plays and fiction “everybody’s situation is hopeless.” In Natalya Roskina’s memoir, “Good-bye Again,” Anna is even blunter: “He was shortsighted in his view of Russia. If one looks too closely, all one sees is cockroaches in the cabbage soup.”
In her youth, we learn, Anna was seemingly double-jointed; people thought she should join the circus. (No wonder Gumilyov first suggested she become a dancer!) In maturity, it was her mind that became agile and keen, correctly perceiving, say, the influence of Joyce on Hemingway, Dos Passos, and the rest. She had no delusions about fame: “When you’re standing in a courtyard, wet snow falling, queuing for herring, and there is such a pungent smell of herring that your shoes and coat reek of it for ten days, and someone behind you recites: ‘On the dish the oysters in ice smelled of the sea, fresh and sharp . . .’—that is something else entirely [from her celebrity in Imperial Russia]. I was gripped with such a fury that I didn’t even turn around.” Yet this strong, proud woman couldn’t finish reading Uncle Tom’s Cabin: “I felt too sorry for the Negroes.”
The Akhmatova Journals, Volume I ends with the 1941 wartime evacuation of Anna, Lydia, and other notables, first to Chistopol, then to Tashkent in Uzbekistan, in Central Asia. It was a difficult sojourn, and there is a fascinating episode (relegated to a footnote) where Chukovskaya gushes to Marina Tsvetayeva about how lucky it was for Akhmatova to have escaped at least Chistopol: “She would certainly have died there. . . . After all, she can’t do anything for herself.” Tsvetayeva interrupts: “And you think I can?” Soon after, the forty-nine-year-old Tsvetayeva hanged herself. Perhaps the last memorable quotation in this volume has Anna reading her beloved Lewis Carroll again in Tashkent and asking, “Don’t you think we too are now through the looking glass?”
There is, of course, much more to even this relatively short first volume. But Peter Norman’s translations of some Akhmatova poems are not it. Like all other such translations that I am aware of, they do not begin to convey a true poet. What to do? To reproduce some of her poems in Russian would be redundant for those who know the language, and useless for the rest of us. The best I can do is cite some evaluations of her work.
We have many good descriptions of her personality (I particularly like this from the generally odious Walter Arndt: “Young Roland on his way to the dark tower, crossed with a Beardsley Salome”), but few helpful ones of her verse. Zinaida Gippius (or Hippius), the leading poetess of the preceding generation, rated her and Pasternak highest among their generation. Sidney Monas called her “the supreme mistress of the verbal gesture, poetess of tragic love, who became, in her old age, the poetess, too, of endurance and survival.” Aleksandr Blok carped at first: “She writes verses as if standing before a man and it is necessary to write as if standing before God.” (Ironically, though, Akhmatova remarked to Vyacheslav V. Ivanov that “there was no humility in Blok’s poetry, that humility could only be found in orthodoxy.”) Later, Blok considered the truest poets to be Mayakovsky and Akhmatova, “whose muse he saw as ‘ascetic’ and ‘monastic.’”
“I speak myself and for myself everything that is possible and that which is not.”
This is a curious evaluation of someone known as a poet of love, but even more curious is that by Anna’s close friend Nadezhda Mandelshtam: “Akhmatova was a poet not of love but of the repudiation of love for the sake of humanity.” You might think that this refers to the change in Akhmatova’s later poetry, but no: “This woman with a zest for life had rejected all earthly things since her early youth.” The gap between such contradictory perceptions is perhaps bridged by Brodsky’s view: “It is the finite’s nostalgia for the infinite that accounts for the love theme in Akhmatova’s verse, not the actual entanglements.” Which, in turn, should be balanced against the point of Renato Poggioli in a book that Akhmatova, to be sure, disliked: “The muse of Anna Akhmatova is memory, a memory incredibly near in quality, if not in time, to the incidents she records from the exclusive viewpoint of her ‘I.’ [Or as Akhmatova put it contra Browning in her Pseudo-Memoirs: “I speak myself and for myself everything that is possible and that which is not.”] Yet in what the poetess reports there is no afterthought or hindsight: one would say that she represents objectively a past which has only a subjective reality.”`
For what may be the best overview, we must return to Brodsky’s “The Keening Muse”: “She was, essentially, a poet of human ties: cherished, strained, severed. She showed these evolutions first through the prism of the individual heart, then through the prism of history, such as it was. This is about as much as one gets in the way of optics anyway.” But for the effect that Akhmatova had on other people, I go back to Chukovskaya’s prologue, entitled “Instead of a Foreword”: “Before my very eyes, Akhmatova’s fate—something greater even than her own person—was chiseling out of this famous and neglected, strong and helpless woman a statue of grief, loneliness, pride, courage.” Short of a reading of her In Poets of Russia, by Renato Poggioli (Harvard University Press, 1960), page 231. poetry in the original, this will have to do.
And what lay ahead for Anna? It is absurd to summarize so much in a few words, but here goes. After even worse persecution in the Forties under Zhdanov than in the Thirties under Yezhov, expulsion from the Writers’ Union and near-starvation (living off the kindness of friends), then ultimate reinstatement, increased economic comfort and various honors, even the power to protect and promulgate others in her profession. Finally trips abroad to receive a major literary prize in Italy, and an honorary doctorate from Oxford—also reunion in Paris with long-lost friends and lovers. It came very late, and was not really enough. But it provides a mellowly bittersweet ending to a life of fantastic ups and downs. The notorious cultural commissar Andrey Zhdanov proscribed Akhmatova in a lengthy execration boiling down to her being “half whore, half nun.” In his crude way, Zhdanov was right: she was in fact half glorious love poet and half impassioned religious moralist.
- The Prose Poem as a Genre in Nineteenth-century European Literature, by John Simon (Garland Publishing, 1987), page 139.
- From the very useful introduction to Poems of Akhmatova, selected, translated, and introduced by Stanley Kunitz with Max Hayward (Atlantic Monthly Press, 1973). For my purposes, the two most important collections of source material in English were Anna Akhmatova: My Half Century, Selected Prose, edited by Ronald Meyer (Ardis, 1992), and Anna Akhmatova and Her Circle, edited by Konstantin Polivanov and translated by Patricia Beriozkina (University of Arkansas Press, 1994).
- Collected in Less Than One: Selected Essays, by Joseph Brodsky (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1986).
- A Soviet Heretic: Essays by Yevgeny Zamyatin, edited and translated by Mirra Ginsburg (University of Chicago Press, 1974), page 90. The “rosary on the combs” refers to the little ornamental spheres on the diadem-like comb, and also alludes to the title of Akhmatova’s second volume, Rosary.
- The Akhmatova Journals, VolumeI, 1938–41, by Lydia Chukovskaya; Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 310 pages, $27.50.
- I transliterate the patronymic as “Andreyevna” rather than “Andreevna,” as do the translators of the book. Throughout my article, I have silently made such changes in an attempt to achieve consistency, which, even so, may well have eluded me.
- In Mandelstam, by Clarence Brown (Cambridge University Press, 1978), page 97.
- The poem is handsomely set to music in Shostakovich’s Six Poems of Marina Tsvetayeva.
- See Zinaida Hippius: An Intellectual Profile, by Temira Pachmuss (Southern Illinois University Press, 1970), page 381: “Although she admired Akhmatova’s achievements in poetic expression, Hippius disagreed with her ‘typically feminine approach to love,’ devoid of all mystery and sublimation.”
- In his introduction to Selected Works of Nikolai S. Gumilev (State University of New York Press, 1972), page 17.
- The Life of Aleksandr Blok, Vol. II, by Avril Pyman (Oxford University Press, 1980), pages 141 and 363.
- For the quotations from Nadezhda Mandelshtam, see Polivanov, op. cit., pages 110 and 114.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 12 Number 9, on page 29
Copyright © 2021 The New Criterion | www.newcriterion.com