Anna Akhmatova discovered a lyre-shaped charm when she was a young child. As a result, her nanny predicted that little Anna would grow up to be a poet. When she decided to be a poet, Akhmatova’s father, Andrey, demanded that she choose a different surname so as not to tarnish the Gorenko family name. Akhmatova herself explains his concern, and her high-born family ancestry:
No one in my large family wrote poetry. But the first Russian woman poet, Anna Bunina, was the aunt of my grandfather Erasm Ivanovich Stogov. The Stogovs were modest landowners in the Mozhaisk region of the Moscow Province. They were moved here after the insurrection during the time of Posadnitsa Marfa. In Novgorod they had been a wealthier and more distinguished family. Khan Akhmat [was] my ancestor. [...] It was well known that this Akhmat was a descendant of Genghiz Khan. In the eighteenth century, one of the Akhmatov Princesses – Praskovia Yegorvna – married the rich and famous Simbirsk landowner Motovilov. Yegor Motovilov was my great-grandfather; his daughter, Anna Yegorovna, was my grandmother. She died when my mother was nine years old, and I was named in her honour.*
So, for a pen name, she chose the aristocratic name Akhmatova—the name of her great-grandmother, who had been “one of the Akhmatov princesses.” She then ventured into the life of, in her father’s words, a “decadent poetess.”
One spring years ago, I first discovered Akhmatova when I saw the beautiful Cubist painting, “Portrait of Anna Akhmatova,” by Russian artist Natan Altman. Clothed in a long royal blue dress, her legs crossed, Akhmatova bears her characteristic solemn expression in the painting. (She never smiles.) Her shoulders and arms are enveloped in a shawl the color of mustard; her face, with an “aquiline profile”; her neck and collarbone are pallid, nearly transluscent. She looks regally away from the observer, unbowed yet weary.
In the poem “A string of little beads at my neck,” she gives an accurate self-portrait:
In a broad muff I hide my hands,The eyes stare vacantly,
They never shed a tear.
And the face appears pale,
Against the lavender silk,My straight bangs
Almost reach my eyebrows.
Is my halting step,As if it were a raft beneath my feet,
Not these wooden parquet squares.
The breathing laboured and uneven,And over my heart tremble
The flowers of a non-existent meeting.
A grey-eyed beauty with a wistful solemn expression, Akhmatova was eleven years old when she began writing poetry. In Anna of All the Russias, biographer Elaine Feinstein states that by age sixteen, a deep melancholy pervaded Akhmatova’s personality. She published her first poem—entitled “On his hand there are many shiny rings”—one year later. Then, at age twenty-one, she married Nikolay Gumilyov, a fellow poet she knew from childhood. He had loved her with an unwavering love. Once she’d decided to accept Gumilyov’s marriage offer, she wrote in a letter to a friend, “I believe that it is my fate to be his wife. Whether or not I love him, I do not know, but it seems to me that I do.”
Eight years later, in 1918, they divorced. Two lines from her poem, “Departure,” might describe how Akhmatova felt in the months that preceded the divorce: “I cannot say if it is our love,/Or the day, that is ending.”
In search of love, she wed twice more—to men who did not truly understand or appreciate her. Or they may have loved her but not in a way she needed. “He loved three things, alive” is the first line of one visionary poem that hints at her predicament:
He loved three things, alive:
White peacocks, songs at eve,
And antique maps of America.
Hated when children cried,
And raspberry jam with tea,
And feminine hysteria.
…And he had married me.
It’s safely laid aside….
I won’t be penning jealous
Letters to your bride.
But be wise, take my advice:
Give her my poems to read,
Give her my photos beside –
Be kind to the newly-wed!
Many of the poems are self-revealing, yet understated. Akhmatova gives a woman’s perspective in a time of misogyny in Russia. A wife was basically a commodity: women were often reviled and abused. Incredibly, a Russian proverb was: “The more you beat your wife, the tastier the soup will be.”
Luckily, Akhmatova did not witness such brutality as a child. Several poems evoke sentiments from her sheltered childhood. She was “the wild girl” that jumped into the Black Sea with scant hesitation. The beautiful poem, At the Edge of the Sea, draws on this magical time in her life.
In Northern Elegies, Akhmatova describes her mother, Inna, with tenderness:
She had an uncommon name, white hands
And a kindness that has come down to me:Though it has been a useless inheritance
In this harsh life of mine.
At the bottom of her well of sorrow is, perhaps, that Akhmatova never actually raised her son, Lev. At her husband Nikolay’s insistence, Lev grew up with his grandmother and only saw his mother in summer.
Of Lev the child—beloved in absentia—she wrote:
Remember much about me, little one:I didn’t hold you, or even scold you,
Or take you to Communion.
The early poems are simple, brief, ethereal in nature. They describe real moments and loves in her life. I think of an Akhmatova poem, phrase or image long after I’ve read it. The image—of “raspberry jam with tea” or “lavender silk”—floats into my consciousness and stays with me.
The later poems are longer, more complex in imagery and ideas/ideology. They are the poems of a mature “poetess”; they evince masterful craftsmanship. Akhmatova wrote some of these later poems in hardship, during a turbulent era in Russia. In the months before the Bolsheviks came into power, women stood in ‘bread lines’ for hours, daily. In Requiem, she states that she “stood [in line] for three hundred hours”; and she refers to herself in an ironic situation:
They should have shown you, little teaser,Little favourite, friend of all,
Sylvan princess, happy charmer,What situation would be yours –
As three-hundredth in the line
You’d stand. . . .
Thus, these later poems transformed Akhmatova into the voice of “a hundred million people.”
That said, I ‘enjoy’ the shorter poems more—mostly because they are subtler, seem more personal and heartfelt, are infused with genuine emotion. These shorter poems reflect a “lyrical soul”—as Akhmatova’s friend described her; but they also make one reflect on one’s own life.
Five original volumes of poetry are the core of Akhmatova’s oeuvre: Evening (1912), Rosary (1914), White Flock (1917), Plantain (1921), and Anno Domini MCMXXI (1922). Each volume flung out into the world, like a blue frisbee. For this essay, I read Anna Akhmatova: Selected Poems Including Requiem, with poems compiled from each of the Russian poet’s major works; it is brilliantly translated by British scholar A.S. Kline and an excellent introduction to Akhmatova.
In an homage to artist Boris Anrep, the love of her life, Akhmatova laments aspects of her life and asks her lover to forgive her:
The evening light is broad and yellow
Tender, the April chill.
You are many years late,
Yet I am glad you are here.
Sit down now, close to me,And look with joyful eyes:
Here it is, the blue notebook,Filled with my childhood poems.
Rejoiced too little in the sun.Forgive, forgive that I mistook
Too many others for you.
Feinstein, Elaine. Anna of All the Russias (2007). http://www.elainefeinstein.com/Anna-Akhmatova.shtml
*“Biography Of Anna Akhmatova” (article). http://www.poemsclub.com/biography-of-anna-akhmatova.html#ixzz2cF759Quk
For the FREE ebook of Anna Akhmatova: Selected Poems Including Requiem (translated by scholar A.S. Kline), visit http://www.poetryintranslation.com/PITBR/Russian/Akhmatova.htm
For more info:
To view the painting “Portrait of Anna Akhmatova” by Natan Altman, visit http://www.auburn.edu/~mitrege/russian/art/altman-akhmatova.html
To view the art Akhmatova inspired, visit http://artoftherussias.wordpress.com/2012/05/04/akhmatova-in-art/