Poems with a Heroine
Anna Akhmatova had been in her youth one of the “Acmeist” poets, along with her husband Gumilev and Mandelstam. Acmeism was essentially a reaction against the symbolist movement in Russian poetry, a movement that tended, as such things do in Russia, to extremes, in this case extremes of uplift, mysticism, apocalypse. Acmeism by contrast was concerned with poetry as architecture, and poems as objects of weight and mass-produced as if in a workshop (the poets’ guild or workshop was one of the group’s other names for itself). The most important early influence on Akhmatova was her discovery of the poems of Innokenti Annensky, an expert translator and scholar of ancient Greek, who had written—they were published posthumously—a volume of verses called The Cypress Box. Her early poems are precise evocations of places, moments, loves, deceptive intensities of being, carved out with reticence and a kind of inner dignity.
It is significant that the Russian symbolist poets, notably Blok and Bryusov, hailed the revolution of 1917 in their whole consciousness. They were fascinated by the idea of such a thing. Their attitude was not unlike that of Yeats in “The Second Coming” and “Lapis Lazuli,” joyfully greeting the end of order and the coming of the “rough beast” in a spirit of “gaiety transfiguring all that dread.” Terror was merely an exciting and poetical idea to them, as the rough beast slouching toward Bethlehem was for Yeats. The Acmeists’ reaction was very different: they recognized facts and truths when they saw them. Pasternak in Dr. Zhivago refers to Blok’s line, “we children of Russia’s terrible years,” and he remarks dryly that those years really had been terrible for those who had been killed, bereaved, or imprisoned. The symbolic status of revolution was not the same thing as what actually occurred, and the Acmeists were only interested in what actually occurred.
Because of this common sense, as one has to call it, Akhmatova, like Mandelstam, can write about virtually anything. It is hard to think of any poetry in English, and certainly of none written in the last century, that has the range of hers, and the amazing power to rise to an occasion. Mandelstam said that great poetry was often a response to total disaster, and it is true that we may think of Milton, blind and at the mercy of his political enemies, setting out to write Paradise Lost. True in some heroic ages perhaps, but not much in our own, when poets in their sufferings have been more apt to lose themselves, like Pound muttering in his Cantos, or to say with Yeats: “I think it better that in times like these / A poet’s mouth be silent.” With her husband shot and her son imprisoned, Akhmatova wrote her poem Requiem between 1935 and 1940, telling of her experiences in the Yezhov terror. They were common experiences, as she emphasizes in the simple sentences of prose that preface the poem, describing how one day a woman in the great queue that stood permanently outside the prison recognized her and said in a whisper, ” ‘Can you describe this?’ And I said: ‘I can.’ “
She could. Rare indeed for a poet to rise like that to such a challenge. But the whole poem has about it the dignity of utter simplicity, without false modesty or any attempt at the common touch. She describes her experiences as if they happened to her only, like words in a gospel, the equivalent in art of what she called the severe and shapely spirit of Russian orthodoxy. In this spirit she concludes by saying that if her countrymen ever want to make a monument to her she would consent if they put it outside the prison gates where she had stood, and where the news she longed for never came through the door.
And may the melting snow drop like tears
From my motionless bronze eyelids,
And the prison pigeons coo above me
And the ships sail slowly down the Neva.
That is D.M. Thomas’s translation, from a rendering of Requiem and Poem Without a Hero published in 1976. In her new version from a selection of Akhmatova’s poems, Lyn Coffin attempts, and not without success, the flowing meter of the original.
Let from the lids of bronze, un- moving eyes
Snow melt and stream like the tears each human cries,
And let in the distance the prison pigeons coo,
While along the Neva, ships pass quietly through.
That has the movement but not the weight, or the calm simplicity. Thomas is better at giving an idea of that. As usual the problem is insoluble, but never mind: Coffin’s is a good try that deserves as much credit as the cautious versions, or more. In her long poem sequences Akhmatova uses meters of great robustness and subtlety in the Russian which when transposed into English can often sound all too like Shelley or Poe at their most ebullient. The strong accents and stresses of Russian have a variety and flexibility that iron out a regular beat that would otherwise dominate the more docile English syllables. The meter of Poem Without a Hero, for example, has an extraordinarily commanding and stately rhythm, reminiscent of the Dies Irae, which could be Englished with its rhyme scheme as follows (the section refers to the ponderous march of the twentieth century, “the real not the calendar one,” advancing on Petersburg like the stone effigy of the commander in Don Juan):
Thus up every street there came drumming, So past every porch it was com- ing, The shape finding its way in the gloom.
Gusts tore the placards off the pal- ings, Smoke spun a dance over the railings, And the lilac flowers smelt of the tomb.
It was the metrical movement, percussive and minatory, that first started itself in Akhmatova’s head, so she tells us, before any words came. In the Russian it sounds measured and relaxed, as calm as the stride of a great cat. The experts would say that the Akhmatovan line here consists of two anapests with an amphibrach, or two with an iamb, a combination so rare as to be virtually extinct, and certainly never found before on this scale. Annensky would no doubt have appreciated it, but it seems unlikely that akhmatova herself would or could have worked it out theoretically.
The most complex and enigmatic of her works, Poem Without a Hero (Poema bez geroia), combines the personal and the historical somewhat in the manner of The Waste Land, but a great deal more dramatically. It is a poem of expiation, both for the personal sins she felt she and her contemporaries in St. Petersburg were guilty of, and for the national sorrows and horrors in part expunged by the great struggle for liberation against the Germans. It is certainly an arcane poem—Akhmatova called it “a Chinese box with a triple base,” but its personal and literary allusions do not disturb its majestic liturgical flow. Even more than The Waste Land it is a poem that seems to call for explanations and yet does not really need them. It is essentially a voice poem, in the tradition that Pushkin stylized in the figure of the “Improvisatore” in “Egyptian Nights,” who denies any idea of how complex verse can suddenly come into his head, rhymed and in regular feet, so that it can be instantly declaimed. Like many Russian masterpieces, especially by Pushkin, of whom Akhmatova was a profound student and critic, her Poema has the form of an open secret, at once spontaneous and enigmatic.
“I hear certain absurd interpretations of Poem Without a Hero,” she writes in the foreword. “And I have been advised to make it clearer. This I decline to do. It contains no third, seventh or twentyninth thoughts. I shall neither explain nor change anything. What is written is written.” And not in her voice alone, or that of her muse. She wrote the poem at intervals over twenty years, committing it entirely to memory because she feared to write it down, and it ends with a dedication to “its first audience,” the fellow citizens who died in Leningrad during the siege. “Their voices I hear, and I remember them when I read my poem aloud, and for me this secret chorus has become a permanent justification of the work.”
This combination of unashamed individuality with a public voice is characteristic of the best Russian poetry since Pushkin, who drew a sharp distinction between himself as an ordinary, idle, and fashionable man about town, gambling with friends and running after women, and himself as the vehicle for an unknown and inexplicable inspiration, a voice that might speak with the accents of private friendship or of public authority. Akhmatova had something of the same dual persona: the dandy of Petersburg society, the arrogant beauty involved in bohemian intrigues at poets’ cafes like the Stray Dog, and at the same time the grave poetic voice of conscience and religious awe, the voice of Russia’s severe and disciplined spirit, silenced for a while by the anarchic envy and clamor of revolution, but speaking out in the fine series of poems dedicated to London at war (unprinted and unheard of, of course, while Soviet Russia was the ally of Nazi Germany), and in the sonorous poem “Courage,” a summons not to the Soviets but to her fellow Russians, which actually appeared in Pravda a few months after the German invasion.
She was a Russian Orthodox believer and a Russian patriot. Her poetry flowed from both kinds of faith, and as the opening lines of Requiem pronounce, she was deeply proud, too, of having remained in Russia while so many others of her class and kind had fled into emigration. The four lines are very simple, but their tone sets a notorious problem for the translator:
No foreign sky protected me,
no stranger’s wing shielded my face.
I stand as witness to the common lot,
survivor of that time, that place.
This attempt by Stanley Kunitz Americanizes the translation, and makes one realize how deep and subtle is the difference between “great simple verses” in the American tradition and in the Russian. The difference was even more marked when Robert Lowell reconstituted the lines in his own fashion.
I wasn’t under a new sky,
its birds were the old familiar birds.
They still spoke Russian. Misery
spoke familiar Russian words.
Those are wholly American words, and an American tone. Lyn Coffin is the best at getting some equivalent of the original’s weight and gravitas.
No, it wasn’t under a foreign heaven,
It wasn’t under the wing of a for- eign power,—
I was there among my countrymen,
I was where my people, unfor- tunately, were.
“Unfortunately” could have been an unfortunate word, but its complex English connotations in fact just provide the right note, stopping just this side of the ironic. “Unhappily” would have verged on the portentous.
With the war over the Soviet state returned to “normal.” In 1946 Akhmatova was denounced by the cultural commissar Andrei Zhdanov and expelled from the Union of Soviet Writers.
Akhmatova’s subject matter is…miserably limited: it is the poetry of an overwrought upper-class lady who frantically races back and forth between boudoir and chapel…. A nun or a whore—or rather both a nun and a whore who combines harlotry with prayer…. Akhmatova’s poetry is utterly remote from the people…. What can there be in common between this poetry and the interests of our people and state?
By using words like “overwrought” and “frantic” Zhdanov showed he had not the faintest conception of what her poetry—or any other, probably—was about. Remote from the people in a sense it certainly is, but the people did not seem aware of the fact. Her poems were immensely popular in samizaat, and the few official printings were instantly sold out. Perhaps the nun and the whore was the popular touch, as a symbolist like Yeats—oh so self-consciously—might have claimed. Yet the people who admired Akhmatova would not be likely to be interested in symbolist personas. Yeats or Blok might adopt the mask of libertine or sage, but Akhmatova, like Pushkin, was herself through and through, whether as woman or as poet.
Though she admired Blok, and perhaps briefly loved him, she regarded him as some sort of unstable demon, an actor in a seductive but dangerously wicked farce. She declared: “One does not ultimately behave like that,” and she says the same thing in the same tone to state tyranny, to the horrors of the Yezhovschina, to all the destructive manifestations of inhuman conceit. She knows that offense comes, but woe unto them by whom it cometh, whether from the frivolity of the individual or the wickedness of the state. Poem Without a Hero (the ironic reference is of course to the new “Soviet-style” heroes of official Soviet poetry) irritated some of Akhmatova’s own friends and well-wishers, as well as the Soviet officials, by resurrecting for guilt and expiation some of the old private St. Petersburg sins as if they were one with the new torments of Leningrad.
Lyn Coffin is probably wise not to attempt this poem, for her rhymed versions could not come near it, though they are frequently and rather unexpectedly effective when she renders in this way the shorter and earlier poems. Early Akhmatova often has a crisply matter-of-fact quality, which transposes well into an American idiom. Here is Coffin’s version of one of Akhmatova’s earliest poems, “While Reading Hamlet.”
A dust-covered patch to the right of the cemetery.
Beyond that, a river of unfolding blue.
“Get thee to a nunnery,” you said,
An idiot—It’s up to you.”
That’s the sort of thing princes always say,
But I won’t forget it as I grow older.
May your words keep flowing as centuries wear away,
Like an ermine mantle tossed over someone’s shoulder.
“But I won’t forget it as I grow older” hits just the right note, more so than Kunitz’s more sober and impersonal “but these are words that one remembers.” (Kunitz’s version, though, had the Russian on the other side of the page—an excellent arrangement—and the added advantage of an essay by Max Hayward, by far the best and most concise introduction to Akhmatova yet written for readers in English.)
Lyn Coffin succeeds again in the short, tart poem in which Akhmatova glances at her unhappy relations with her husband, the poet Gumilev. She married him in 1910, after many proposals by him, one of them accompanied by a suicide attempt. Although an original poet, an explorer, and a gallant soldier (after the war he was shot by the Bolsheviks for alleged conspiracy), Gumilev was clearly not an easy man to live with, and Akhmatova herself seems to have been quite innocent of all the ordinary domestic virtues.
They had one son who because of his name was arrested in the purges, and for whom his mother spent the hours of anguish outside the Leningrad jail which are commemorated in Requiem. Released to fight in the war, he was rearrested after it. Sadly, after his final release he became estranged from his mother. The son of the poet Tsvetaeva, who hanged herself in 1941, had done the same. Even in a situation of apocalypse the gap between life and art can often have the same dreadful old commonplaceness about it. Had it not been for revolution, tyranny, and violent death, Gumilev and Akhmatova would no doubt have quarreled, been jealous of each other’s loves and poems, and finally separated like any other writers anywhere. As it is the little poem written only months after her marriage has a terse clarity about it which includes, even if it does not foretell, the future. There is humor in it too, as well as sympathy and a kind of wry fellow-feeling.
The three things he loved most in life
Were white peacocks, music at mass,
And tattered maps of America.
He didn’t like kids who cried and he
Didn’t like raspberry jam with tea
Or womanish hysteria.
…And I was, like it or not, his wife.
Kunitz’s version has rival virtues, but ends, “And he was tied to me”—which leaves the relationship ambiguous. Lyn Coffin cleverly gets her rhyme on the first and last line even though she has to pad out the latter. The Russian states merely: “And I was his wife.”
There are some excellent versions too of the poems written during the first war and in the early days of the revolution, when Akhmatova was beginning, as it were, to rise to the occasion: “I hear the oriole’s voice,” “The Tale of the Black Ring,” “The Muse,” and the magnificent “Lot’s Wife,” which celebrates the woman who looked back at her old home in “red-towered Sodom,” and deliberately paid the price. “Dante,” a poem on the same theme, was memorably rendered by Kunitz. The poet sends Florence “a curse from hell / and in heaven could not forget her”: he refused to bow the knee to the town that was “perfidious, base, and irremediably home.” Lyn Coffin’s version weakens this somewhat, but her version of the almost equally memorable “Cleopatra” concludes well.
Tomorrow they will chain her chil- dren. And yet
She has something left in the world to do—one more jest.
And the little black snake, as if a parting regret,
With an equable hand, she puts on her swarthy breast.
In these poems Akhmatova invokes historical precedents for her fate without any scrap of pretension. The meter, unfortunately, is a mere jingle compared to the Russian, but nothing can be done about that. What comes faintly through is the quality that Joseph Brodsky isolates in his preface to this translation—the true classic. “Nothing reveals a poet’s weaknesses like classic verse,” he says, “and that’s why it’s so universally dodged.” As a poet in the same tradition, he is the best possible perceiver of what gives Akhmatova’s verse its inner strength.
Continually we hear echoes of the true classic in her verse, but they are neither assumed nor something she is trying to conceal; they are deliberate. As Brodsky says, “She came fully equipped, and she never resembled anyone.” She did not have to make herself like Yeats: she knew what she was. She was Anna Akhmatova, not Anna Gorenko. Her father, a naval architect of aristocratic birth, told her to write poetry by all means, but not to “sully a good name” by publishing under it, so she adopted a name from the distant past of her mother’s family, a name which, as Brodsky points out, has a distinctly Tatar flavor. It went with her appearance—“five feet eleven, dark-haired, fair-skinned, with pale grey-green eyes like those of snow leopards, slim and incredibly lithe, she was for half a century sketched, painted, cast, carved and photographed by a multitude of artists starting with Amadeo Modigliani.” Bizarre, after this, that Brodsky compares her to Jane Austen (“…her syntax resembles English. From the very threshold of her career to its very end she was always perfectly clear and coherent”), but the point is an exceptionally shrewd one. Neither cared in the least about originality, or even about being an “artist”: they just were so. Akhmatova, according to Brodsky, disliked the very word “poet.”
She was as much identified with Petersburg as her source of inspiration as Jane Austen with her “three or four families” in an English village. Akhmatova’s Petersburg is a scholarly and imaginative study of her themes, her friends, and her poetry, in relation to the city that since its foundation by Peter the Great has exercised such a fascination over Russian poets and writers. Sharon Leiter quotes as one of her epigraphs a conversation with Akhmatova recorded by Lydia Chukovskaya in 1939, in which they agreed on the particular suitability of Petersburg as a setting for catastrophe. “This cold river, with heavy clouds always above it, these threatening sunsets, this operatic, frightful moon…. Black water with yellow gleams of light…. I can’t imagine how catastrophes look in Moscow; there they haven’t got all that….” Blok and Bely would have agreed with her, while the stories of Gogol and Dostoevsky, and his Crime and Punishment, had already sounded the same theme.
And yet the town, like Dante’s Florence, was “irremediably home.” For her, as for her contemporary Mandelstam, it was the home of the “blessed word.” There is a significant contrast here between the attitude of the two Acmeist poets to Petersburg (in my view Mandelstam’s prose memoir The Noise of Time is the best evocation of it) and that of Blok. For Blok it was a symbolist hell, a huis clos whose only exit is bloody apocalypse. A famous two-stanza poem of his describes the immobile night scene, “a street, a street-lamp, a drugstore,” with “no way out” in past or future. Akhmatova and Mandelstam let in all the light and air of story and legend (Acmeism for Mandelstam was “a nostalgia for world culture”) and about the town they are, in their curious way, both more affectionate and more homely. In her “To Osip Mandelstam” she writes a poem of marvelous classic serenity, whose lilt—unheard before—nonetheless echoes both Pushkin’s most famous lyrics and the nineteenth-century German lyrists who loved the Greeks.
There, where Eurydices circle,
Where the bull carries Europa over the waves;
There, where our shades rush past,
Above the Neva, above the Neva, above the Neva;
There, where the Neva splashes against the step,—
Is your pass to immortality.
The triumphant line—“And Nevoi, and Nevoi, and Nevoi“—with the accent on the last syllable of each phrase, conveys the dithyrambic movement, and Sharon Leiter’s text is greatly enriched by making all quotations bilingual.
As she points out, the word “pass,” propusk, is used by Mandelstam in his wonderful poem that begins, “We will meet again in Petersburg / As if we had buried the sun there….”
I don’t need a night pass,
I’m not afraid of sentries:
For the blessed meaningless word
We will pray in the Soviet night.
Though it was published in Pravda, as part of the official drive to mobilize the Soviet people’s morale, Akhmatova’s poem “Courage” also subtly undermined Soviet values by proclaiming that the struggle was to “keep you alive, great Russian word,” the same word that Mandelstam invokes and prays for in the night of Leningrad. As Sinyavsky saw, the poet’s word in Russia has an unambiguous authority that is the secular state’s mysterious rival. The poet in Russia is the custodian of the word, and leaves the last word to God.