MIRRORS AND MASKS: THE LIFE AND POETIC WORKS OF ANNA AKHMATOVA
THE LIFE AND POETIC WORKS
OF ANNA AKHMATOVA
A POET'S LIFE CAN BE REFLECTED IN MANY MIRRORS. The life of Anna Akhmatova has been reflected in autobiographical notes, recorded conversations, letters and diaries of contemporaries, and criticism of her works. Yet she remains mysterious in many ways. She was discreet about the events in her personal life and restrained in expression. Though often inspired by real events or emotions, her poems may mask more than they reveal. Akhmatova warned against scrutinizing her lyrics for insight into her thoughts and feelings: "Lyric verse is the best armor, the best cover. You don't give yourself away.’ (1)
Akhmatova practiced her art under extraordinarily difficult conditions in one of the most complex epochs of Russian history. Despite the hardships she endured, Akhmatova never expressed self-pity: instead, she transformed personal pain and the tragedies of her nation into transcendent and immortal lyrics: "I never stopped writing poems. In them is my link with time, with the new life of my people. When I wrote them, I believed in the resounding rhythms reflected in the heroic history of my country. I am happy that I lived in these years and saw events which cannot be equalled.’ (2)
Early Years: 1889-1914
Akhmatova was born in a time of chaos and ferment. The revolution was slow in coming, but increasingly violent and radical political outbursts heralded its arrival. As the end of the Romanov dynasty and the twilight of Imperial Russia drew near, (3) Tsar Nicholas II, a notoriously weak and indecisive ruler, made frantic efforts to preserve the foundations of a crumbling monarchy.
She was born Anna Gorenko on 23 June 1889 (11 June, Old Style) (4) in Bolshoy Fontan on the Black Sea, near Odessa, in the Ukraine. Her father was Ukrainian (5) and her mother of Russian origin. Akhmatova's family moved north to the town of Pavlovsk and soon after to Tsarskoye Selo, near St. Petersburg, when she was eleven months old. She grew up there amidst elegant pavilions, allées lined with tall trees, and beautiful parks with replicas of ancient statues. She was deeply af-fected by the presence of Alexander Pushkin, the great Russian poet, who had attended the Tsar-skoye Selo lyceum for sons of the nobility.
As a child, Akhmatova heard the sounds of the Russian poet Nikolay Nekrasov, whose verses were full of sympathy for the plight of the lower classes. Her mother, who had been active in politics in her youth, recited his poems to her.' (6). Nekrasov's descriptions of the Russian landscape influ-enced Akhmatova's own poetry. His works presented Akhmatova with examples of Russian women of all classes who were oppressed, but who displayed a fortitude that Akhmatova later displayed in both her life and work.
By 1911, she was publishing under the name of Anna Akhmatova. Her pseudonym, Akhmatova, came from the family name of her maternal great-grandmother, and of the last Tatar princes from the Horde. (7) The impetus for the name change, according to Akhmatova, was her father. When he found out that she was writing poetry, he commanded her not to "bring shame upon [the family] name." (8).
In 1906, Akhmatova returned to Kiev to complete her last year of studies at the Fundukleyevskaya Gymnaziya. She joined the Faculty of Law at the Kiev College for Women in the autumn of 1907, but soon grew bored. At this time, her letters reflect her unhappy state, as she compares herself to Cassandra: "I have murdered my soul, and my eyes are created for tears, as Iolanthe says. Or do you remember Schiller's prophetic Cassandra? One facet of my soul adjoins the dark image of this prophetess, so great in her suffering. But I am far from greatness.’ (9)
In letters written between 1906 and 1907, Akhmatova reveals her ambivalence about the young poet, Nikolay Gumilyov, who was ardently pursuing her. They had met in 1903 while attending school. Valeriya Sreznevskaya describes him at this time, noting he was not very handsome and was somewhat wooden, arrogant and insecure; nonetheless, he had a certain elegance. (10)
Despite her professed indifference to him, Akhmatova married Gumilyov on 25 April 1910, in a church near Kiev, believing him to be her "destiny." Gumilyov was the first to publish Akhmatova's poems, in his journal “Sirius” in 1907. He himself had already published two collections of poems, “The Path of the Conquistadors”, and “Romantic flowers”, both heavily influenced by the French Symbolists. (11) In his poetry Gumilyov saw himself as a conquistador and in fact journeyed abroad in quest of the unknown; he made frequent trips to Africa, starting in 1907. (12)
The couple spent their honeymoon in Paris. In September 1910, Gumilyov left his young bride for another African expedition. While he was away, Akhmatova attended Professor Rayev's courses on the History of Literature. (13)
In the spring of 1911, Akhmatova spent several weeks in Paris alone, and formed a close friendship with the Italian painter Amedeo Modigliani. She and Gumilyov settled in Tsarskoye Selo in his family home and spent summers in Slepnyovo on his mother's estate in Tver province. However, Gumilyov's trips abroad and constant desire to seek adventure elsewhere dominated their marriage and helped destroy it.
In Petersburg, the flourishing literary scene was dominated by the Symbolists. (14) Practitioners of Symbolism, who viewed the poet as the bearer of a spiritual message rather than as a social re-former, began to interpret the impending revolution as an apocalyptic event that would purge Russia of all corruption and sin. Alexander Blok, a key Symbolist figure, was one of Akhmatova's greatest influences. Rather than a continuation of his work, hers was a conscious reaction against it; however, some of her poems show traces of Symbolism with its love of fantasy, costume, and the eighteenth century. Later in her career, Akhmatova paid homage to the importance of Symbolism: "The modernists did a great thing for Russia. They taught people to love verse again."(15)
Meanwhile Akhmatova was becoming a leading figure in the artistic world of Petersburg. She developed from a shy, young girl to a self-assured, regal woman in only a few years. Many poets and other members of the intelligentsia gathered in the apartment of Vyacheslav Ivanov, known as "The Tower." There, in the spring of 1911, Akhmatova first met another young poet, Osip Mandelstam.
Another site at which the various artistic and cultural currents converged, met, and clashed was the cellar cabaret, the Stray Dog, which opened on 31 December 1911. The central figure of the cabaret was actress, dancer and singer Olga Glebova-Sudeikina. Poets who recited at the cabaret included Akhmatova, Mikhail Kuzmin, Mandelstam, and Vladimir Mayakovsky, a member of the Futurist movement, which rejected all art of the past and embraced the age of Modernism and technology. Another frequent participant in the Stray Dog events was avant-garde composer Artur Lourie, who, inspired by the broad freedoms initially granted to artists, served as the first Soviet Commissar of Music. He had a brief affair with Akhmatova in 1913. (16)
In 1911, Gumilyov played a leading role in forming the Poets' Guild, following his break with Ivanov. (17) Six of its members — Gumilyov, Akhmatova, Gorodetsky, Mandelstam, Vladimir Narbut, and Mikhail Zenkevich— founded Acmeism, a movement that rejected the mysticism and ornate style of Symbolism. By the time Akhmatova published her first collection, “Evening”, in 1912, the Symbolist movement was in crisis. In a pivotal article called "Overcoming Symbolism" (1916), critic Viktor Zhirmunsky asserted that Akhmatova, Gumilyov and Mandelstam had transcended the Symbolist aesthetic.
Akhmatova published forty-six poems in “Evening”. The 300 copies sold out quickly. Mikhail Kuzmin, who wrote the preface, went so far as to assert that the appearance of “Evening” marked a dramatic turn in Russian poetry. (18) The eminent writer and critic Korney Chukovsky observed that the youth of two or three generations fell in love to the accompaniment of Akhmatova's poetry. (19)
“Evening” concentrates on the many facets of love, from awakening hope to joyful fulfillment, from disillusionment to the last embers of a dying relationship. Her verse is distinguished by its sparseness and its restraint, in sharp contrast to the more extravagant Symbolist verse.
These poems are not necessarily autobiographical self-portraits. The poet takes on a broad range of personas, from a peasant woman beaten by her husband to an elegant member of the upper class; in rare instances, there is a male speaker. In September 1912, soon after “Evening’s publication, Akhmatova gave birth to a son, Lev Gumilyov; nevertheless, there were indications that both Akhmatova and Gumilyov were growing disillusioned with their marriage. (20) There are conflicting accounts about Akhmatova’s attitude toward motherhood: Sreznevskaya claims that the birth made Akhmatova feel confined," while Pavel Luknitsky attests to her having had strong maternal instincts which began to dissipate only after Gumilyov's family took the child, against Akhmatova's wishes." (22)
Akhmatova’s second volume of poetry, “Rosary”, was published in 1914. Many poems make allusion to places in St. Petersburg" and Tsarskoye Selo closely associated with her life. Others speak of love: unrequited love, a theme she had introduced in “Evening”; disappointment in love as the price paid for the poet's lyrical gifts; and passionate, earthly love juxtaposed with religious motifs. This led critic Boris Eikhenbaum to call Akhmatova "half-nun, half-harlot," a phrase that would later be picked up and used maliciously against her by the Soviet authorities. Other critics argue that these poems show her suffering to be not merely egocentric and personal but also distinctly Christian in character.
The "True Twentieth Century” Begins: 1914-1922
The outbreak of the first World War in the summer of 1914 moved Russia closer to the brink. The Germans attacked in August (19 July, Old Style), and Tsar Nicholas II assumed the role of commander-in-chief, leaving the capital in the hands of his reactionary wife Alexandra and thus, indirectly, in those of her mentor, Rasputin. The Russians suffered greater casualties than the armed forces of any other country involved in the struggle as Russian weapons were inferior, ammunition was in short supply, and vehicles often broke down. Those who remained at home endured food and fuel shortages and rampant inflation.
Akhmatova spent that summer at Slepnyovo; it was one of the last peaceful periods she would have in her life. Gumilyov enlisted immediately, hoping to prove his love for his homeland, and also to realize the role of the conquistador heroes of his own works.
In 1915, Akhmatova wrote her first great poema (long poem), entitled At the Edge of the Sea (Zh. 646). Amanda Haight interprets it as an elegy to childhood brought to an end by contact with death. (24) The work, according to Zhirmunsky, is not a departure from her lyric poetry, but reflects "the maturation of the youthful poetic consciousness, the awakening of love and grief." (25)
Akhmatova's third collection of poetry, White Flock, appeared in 1917, with many of the poems written during the war. Her most famous war poems are under the general title "July 1914." In her poetry Akhmatova, like Blok, was beginning to capture the pervasive sense of doom that characterized Russia at that time.
Akhmatova's poems also reflected the growing disintegration of her marriage, as did Gumilyov's; in one of her poems, "Ah! It's you again ... " (Zh. 121), the speaker confesses to adultery, and asks forgiveness from her stern, unyielding husband. One man that she may have been involved with was Nikolay Nedobrovo, an expressive and refined young critic recognized by many as an arbiter of artistic taste. In 1915, he published the first major article on her works, predicting her future greatness and setting her apart from sentimental female poets of the time. (26)
Nedobrovo introduced Akhmatova to his friend, Boris Anrep, an artist who was posted in England during the war. He soon became a central figure in Akhmatova's life, winning her affection in a way Nedobrovo had been unable to do. (27)
Anrep visited Akhmatova when he came back on brief trips to Russia, and she devoted many of her most beautiful love poems to him. He made his final departure for England in 1917. In various works written throughout her life, Akhmatova recalled the torment she felt upon his departure. She would meet him again, near the end of her life, when she stopped in Paris on her way home from receiving an honorary degree at Oxford. (28)
In 1917, power was rapidly slipping out of the Tsar's hands. In February the Tsar was deposed and a new government was born; but another authority arose at the same time — the Soviets, or councils of workers and soldiers. The competing governing bodies issued conflicting orders, compounding the chaos. In July, Alexander Kerensky became Prime Minister, but his leadership grew weaker as that of the Soviets strengthened. Finally, on 25 October 1917, the Winter Palace — where the Provisional government conferred— was stormed, and the government was usurped by the Bolsheviks. The capital was moved to Moscow. Despite the fact that a peace treaty was signed with Germany in March, fighting did not end for Russia. For three years the Bolsheviks waged a bloody civil war against counter-revolutionary forces.
Akhmatova, who lived in Petersburg, had difficulties adjusting to the harshness of the post-revolutionary years, notwithstanding her anticipation of the social and political trauma that would accompany the Revolution.
In 1918, upon Gumilyov's return from Europe, Akhmatova asked for a divorce. The couple's relationship had been strained for some time and their bond was further attenuated by Gumilyov's various infidelities, which began early in the marriage and were known to Akhmatova. He was shaken by her desire to leave him and had difficulty granting her the divorce. (29)