NOTES ON THE POEMS

 
N attempt will be made here to deal with the complicated textology of Akhmatova's poems. Such matters are exhaustively treated in the only full and scholarly edition of her work: Anna Akhmatova: Sochinenia, in two volumes, edited by G. P. Struve and B. A. Filippov (Inter-Language Literary Associates, second edition, revised and enlarged, 1967-1968). It should be noted that in the successive editions of her work, Akhmatova often added to earlier cycles poems that had in fact been published much later. "Reading Hamlet," for example, was first published in a Leningrad journal only in 1946 and was subsequently included in the cycle bearing the title of her first published volume, Evening (Vecher, 1912), to which it chronologically and thematically belongs.
 
From Evening. All except "Pushkin" and "To the Muse" refer to Nikolai Gumilev, whom Akhmatova first met as a schoolgirl in Tsarskoye Selo.
Mandelstam once pointed out that Akhmatova owes much to the tradition of the nineteenth-century Russian realist novel: a series of short lyrics, taken together, constitute a narrative, with snatches of dialogue, telling incidents or details. This is certainly the hallmark of her early manner, and is well illustrated here.
"Pushkin": Evariste Parny (1753-1814) was a French writer of neoclassical amatory verses.
"Heart's Memory of Sun . . .": "In the bleak sky the willow spreads / its bare-boned fan." Lines like this have led some critics to see Far Eastern influence via Art Nouveau in Akhmatova's early poetry (see, for example, the fascinating article by Alexis Rannit, "Anna Akhmatova Considered in the Context of Art Nouveau," in volume 2 of the Struve-Filippov edition). Whether or not there was influence, there was apparently some affinity. In 1956 she published a volume of translations of Korean classical poetry, to which she felt drawn because, as she said, "it is close to painting."
Evening exhibits occasional other mannerisms (such as the "ermine mantle" in the first poem) suggesting the influence of Mikhail Kuzmin, who wrote a preface to the volume when it first appeared. Such slightly coy traces of stylization are completely absent from Akhmatova's second volume, Rosary.
 
From Rosary (Cheiki, 1914).
"We're All Drunkards Here...": When it was first published in the journal Apollon in 1913, this poem was titled "Cabaret Artistique" (see Introduction, pp. 13-14).
 
From White Flock (Belaya stay a, 1917). Most of the poems in this volume were written during the years of the First World War and the early days of the Revolution.
"How Can You Look at the Neva? . . .: "the streets are stained with lurid fires, / bonfires of roses in the snow." This line, referring to the bonfires which were customarily lit in the streets of Petersburg during the winter to melt the snow, indicates that the poem was written months before the war.
"July 1914": Slepnevo was the country estate belonging to Akhmatova's mother-in-law, where she spent her summers after her marriage to Gumilev.
"All Has Been Taken Away . . .": "My body, cast into an unloved city." Akhmatova knew Sevastopol from her childhood days, when her family spent summer holidays there. In 1916 she separated from Gumilev (they were divorced two years later).
 
From Plantain (PodorozhniK), and Anno Domini, both published in 1921 (second edition in 1923). Most of the poems here were written during the period of the Revolution and Civil War.
"When in the Throes of Suicide. ..": In all the later Soviet editions of Akhmatova's work, the first four lines of this poem are omitted.
"Now Nobody Will Want to Listen to Songs...": In the latest Soviet edition of Akhmatova's poetry, The Flight of Time (Beg Vremeni, 1965), the date of this poem has been deliberately changed to "1916" by the editors, so that it does not appear to relate to the Revolution.
" Lot's Wife": One of three poems about women in the Old Testament (the other two were Rachel and Michal). This is one of the most celebrated and quoted of Akhmatova's poems.
 
From Reed (Trostnik), the name which Akhmatova gave to a selection of poems published for the first time in 1940, though many had been written much earlier. With this volume she was allowed to break her long "silence" since 1924. Other poems, written during the years of the Second World War, were later added to Reed.
"The Muse": This is one of five poems that Akhmatova at various times addressed to the Muse. She read and could recite Dante in the original.
"Boris Pasternak": The Daryal Gorge runs through the Caucasus into Georgia, which Pasternak often visited in the thirties to see his friends, the poets Paolo Yashvili and Titsian Tabidze. (Both perished in the purges, a year after this poem was written.)
" Voronezh": Voronezh is a historical city situated on a tributary of the Don about three hundred miles to the south of Moscow. Peter the Great built a flotilla there for his conquest of Azov, near the mouth of the Don. The site of the battle of Kulikovo (1380), at which Dmitri Donskoi beat the Tatars, is not far away. Osip Mandelstam (the ". ." of the dedication) lived there in exile from 1934 to 1937. Akhmatova's visit to him in 1936, after which she wrote this poem, is described in Nadezhda Mandelstam's Hope Against Hope. The poem was originally published in 1940 without the last four lines, and was printed in full in the Soviet Union only in The Flight of Time.
 
"Imitation from the Armenian": This poem was published for the first time in the Soviet magazine Radio and Television, in 1966. The vagueness of the dating ("the ''") is no doubt intentional since, despite the "Armenian" disguise, the poem clearly refers to the arrest of Akhmatova's son, Lev Gumilev. It could thus have been written either in 1935 or in 1938.
 
"In Memory of . .": First published in Poetry Day (Den poezii), Leningrad, 1966. Mikhail Bulgakov (1891-1940), to whose memory the poem is addressed, was an outstanding novelist, satirist, and playwright, most of whose work was banned in the last years of his life, and after his death well into the post-Stalin era. A physician by training, he knew in advance that he was about to die i.e., he had "let the terrible stranger in." His most remarkable novel, The Master and Margarita, completed in the last year of his life, was not published in the Soviet Union till 1966.
 
"Requiem": The full text of this lament for the victims of Stalin's terror was first published abroad (in Munich, 1963). A few excerpts have been published in the Soviet Union, but without any indication that they belong to a larger whole. The three stanzas of section 7 were published as long ago as 1940 in the literary journal Zvezda (one of the two Leningrad journals closed on Party orders in 1946, after the denunciation of Akhmatova), but without the title, "The Sentence." The four lines of section 3 were published in a Moscow literary journal in 1966. The section entitled "Crucifixion" appeared in The Flight of Time in 1965. The various parts of the main text were written between 1935 and 1940, but the verse and prose prefaces were added in 1961 and 1957 respectively.
"Instead of a Preface": "Yezhov terror" (yezhovshchind), the name often given by Russians to the worst period of the purges (1937-1938) when Nikolai Yezhov, the Commissar of Internal Affairs, was ordered by Stalin to proceed to indiscriminate mass arrests. People waited outside the prisons in the hope of learning something about the fate of their relatives, or of getting a parcel to them.
"At dawn they came and took you away." As Akhmatova mentions in her memoir on Mandelstam, this line refers specifically to the arrest of Nikolai Punin in 1935, before the Yezhov terror began. By then, according to a reference in the second volume of Mrs. Mandelstam's memoirs, Punin was at liberty again, and appears not to have been rearrested, unlike Akhmatova's son.
"Peter's troopers": Streltsy, household troops founded by Ivan the Terrible. After their mutiny in 1698, they were crushed by Peter the Great's Scottish general, Patrick Gordon, and two thousand of them were put to death after torture. Their wives pleaded for them "under the Kremlin walls."
"With husband dead" refers to Nikolai Gumilev, shot in 1921. These four couplets are a good example of Akhmatova's occasional use of very simple rhythms and diction, close to those of folk poetry. Despite her high literary culture, she had a strong affinity to this style and was very fond, for example, of the verse of the nineteenth-century populist Nekrasov. It appealed to the deeply "peasant" side of her nature once noted by Mandelstam. The diction here expresses her sense of the universality of the national tragedy.
"Pushkin's town": Tsarskoye Selo in the original Russian.
"Under the glowering wall": The original here names the notorious Leningrad political prison Kresty (literally "Crosses," because of the shape of the internal layout), possibly with some intentional allusion to the literal meaning.
"To Death": "Where the blue hatband marches up the stairs": members of the internal security forces (NKVD) wear blue hatbands.
 
"In 1940": The various parts of this cycle were all published at different times in the Soviet Union "At the Burial of an Epoch" in 1946, "To the Londoners" in 1943, "A Shadow" in 1960, "I Know, if Anyone Does" in 1944 and "But I Warn You" in 1945.
"A Shadow" refers to Salome Andronnikova, "the beauty of the year '13," who still lives in London. She is of Georgian origin. Mandelstam addressed a famous poem to her in 1916, in which he made a pun on her name, turning " Salome" into the Russian diminutive solominka, meaning literally "little straw." (There is an image in Mandelstam's poem about drinking through a straw.) The epigraph to "A Shadow" is from another poem by Mandelstam addressed to a certain Olga Vaksel, who emigrated to Norway in the twenties and committed suicide there. The last seven lines of "I Know, if Anyone Does" are evidently an exact description of the genesis of "Poem without a Hero."
 
"The Return": First published in 1945, this poem is about Akhmatova's return to Leningrad and Tsarskoye Selo from Tashkent, via Moscow, in 1944.
"This air was made. . . ." The original has "The air of Tsarskoye Selo" the name has been left out in translation here and elsewhere because of its phonetic awkwardness in English.
 
"This Cruel Age Has Deflected Me...": First published in 1964, this is the third in a series of four "Northern Elegies" which are to some extent thematically connected with "Poem without a Hero." The first of the "Elegies," entitled "Prehistory," is a brilliant evocation of the Russia of Dostoyevski ("the convict of Omsk") and a superbly ironical comment on the fate of those destined to be born, like Akhmatova's generation, around the time of his death: "The country was delirious and the convict of Omsk / Had understood it all and shown it up for what it was . . . / Just then we decided to be born / and, judging the time exactly right / if we were not to miss a single moment of spectacles / never seen before, we took our leave of non-being." Akhmatova here, as in "Poem without a Hero," expresses the wonderment of many of her contemporaries at having been born on the threshold of an era which was to witness "spectacles" of such unreality that it was impossible not to brood on the illusoriness of time itself and even the coordinates of one's own identity. There is nothing mystical about this: it was dictated by the stark actualities of "that time, that place," and the feeling Akhmatova so vividly conveys in the present poem was familiar to Dostoyevski, as it was to Kafka (whose work Akhmatova knew and appreciated).
 
"Your Lynx-Eyes, Asia . . .": First published in Navy Mir in 1965 and the last of a cycle of a dozen or so poems about Central Asia (mostly written in Tashkent during 1942-1944) to which Akhmatova subsequently gave the general title "The Moon at Its Zenith." These poems are marked by an awed sense of timelessness, even of deja vu, which is also one of the themes of "Poem without a Hero." She described Central Asia as "the motherland of motherlands," saying in one of the poems: " I have not been here for seven hundred years, / But nothing has changed . . . / God's grace flows in the same way / From irrefutable mountaintops." Another of these poems begins: "Have I become someone else / from what I was there, by the sea ? / Have my lips forgotten your taste, sorrow ? / In this old parched land / I am home again, / A Chinese wind sings in the haze, / And all is familiar."
Termez: a town on the Soviet-Afghan frontier.Poem
 
"March Elegy": Published in the year it was written, in a Moscow literary journal.
 
"Epigram": Written and published in 1960.
 
"There Are Four of Us___": The full text was first published in a New York Russian literary almanac, Vozdushnye puti (Paths of Air by coincidence the poem contains the same phrase, which is an allusion to the title of a story by Pasternak written in 1925). In this version it is entitled "There Are Four of Us " and has epigraphs from poems addressed to Akhmatova by all three poets alluded to in the text: Mandelstam, Pasternak, and Tsvetayeva. In the version published in The Flight of Time, the title is "Komarovo Sketches," and there is only one epigraph from Marina Tsvetayeva "O Muse of weeping," the first line of a poem to Akhmatova written in 1916.
Komarovo, to which the poem refers, is about fifty miles from Leningrad on the Karelian isthmus. During the last years of her life Akhmatova had a dacha there. It was given to her by the Union of Writers one of the rare favors bestowed on her after her "rehabilitation." She is buried there.
 
"Poem without a Hero": The full text of "Poem without a Hero: A Triptych" was first published in the New York Russian literary almanac Vozdushnye puti in 1960, and although many extracts from it have appeared in the Soviet Union, it has still not been published there in its entirety. The present volume contains only the first chapter of the poem's Part One, which is called "The Year Nineteen Hundred and Thirteen: A Petersburg Tale." (We have also omitted the preface and three dedications in verse, including one to Knyazev and another to Glebova-Sudeikina.) The three further chapters of Part One continue with a detailed portrait of the "heroine," Olga Glebova-Sudeikina, a description of Petersburg in 1913, and a dramatic account of the young poet's suicide after he has seen Glebova-Sudeikina return home from a performance at the Stray Dog, accompanied by someone "without face or name." Part Two (which is preceded by an epigraph in English, "My future is in my past" said to have been the motto of Mary Queen of Scots) opens with a kind of scherzo in which there is a conversation with an imaginary editor in the Soviet present. He is disconcerted by the confusion of Part One: "You can't make out who's dead and who survived, / who the author is and who the hero, / or why today we need such / gossip about a poet and this swarm of ghosts." The author explains that she was not herself glad of "this infernal harlequinade" and would have preferred it to pass her by the visitation had come because "the devil made me rummage in a trunk." She hints at the connection between the ghosts of the past and the fate of her generation: "And we could tell you, / how we lived beside ourselves with fear, / how we reared our children for the executioner, / the torture chamber and the prison cell." Part Two ends with references to the nineteenth-century Romantics (Shelley and Byron among others). It was, the author claims though perhaps "erroneously," she cautions at the same time the "century-old enchantress" of the Romantic poem which had come to life in her vision of Petersburg in 1913. But here her Muse protests, denying all connection with "that English lady" and saying she has no ancestors at all. In a formal sense, despite the great number of literary echoes and allusions, this is indeed true of "Poem without a Hero." It represents a conscious attempt to go beyond the Romantic poem. For one thing, Akhmatova believed that nobody could in any case successfully follow in Pushkin's footsteps, and for another, her main purpose was to recall an era in which there were no more heroes, only pseudo-Romantic masqueraders; the hero-individualist of the nineteenth century had come to the end of the road and his epigones (unless, like Knyazev, they died young) would be offered up wholesale to the Moloch of war and revolution. The "real, not the calendar Twentieth Century" had no need of heroes. Blok had demonstrated the impasse in his work, particularly in "The Puppet Show" (1907), of which there are echoes in "Poem without a Hero." The usual escapewas into irony, mummery, or blind devotion to an authoritarian creed.
Part Three (the Epilogue) is a majestic finale in which the theme of Part One is placed in the perspective of more recent tribulations and of Russia's struggle for survival in 1942: "All that was said in Part One / about love, betrayal and passion, / verse in free flight has shaken from its wings." She mentions the Terror and the concentration camps, identifying herself with the victims: "Behind the barbed wire / in the very heart of the dense taiga, / ... my double goes to the interrogation." Alluding to her journey from Leningrad to Tashkent at the end of the terrible winter 1941-1942, she thinks in particular of her son, as the plane crosses the Urals: "And I saw that road, / over which so many went away, / over which they took my son." But at that moment, though the Soviet armies were everywhere in flight before the Germans, Russia was nevertheless gathering strength, getting ready to strike back along the same road. When Akhmatova finished the first draft of the "Poem" in Tashkent in August 1942, she did so in the somber conviction that if there was any hope of redemption, it could only be in Russia's victory over the evil threatening from without: "Away from what has turned to dust, / seized by fear of death, / yet sure of retribution's hour, / her tearless eyes cast down, / and wringing her hands, Russia / retreated there before me to the East. / But going out to meet herself, / unbowed into the carnage, / as though from a mirror before one's gaze, / like a hurricane from the Urals, from Altai, / true to her duty and young, / Russia marched forward to save Moscow."
Akhmatova regarded the "Poem without a Hero" as the crowning work of her life, a final distillation of memory, historical insight, and personal emotion into a poetic statement about the destiny of Russia. It thus ranks with Pushkin's "Bronze Horseman" and Alexander Blok's "The Twelve" (furthermore, Akhmatova succeeded where Blok failed in his unfinished "Retribution").
Some of Akhmatova's surviving contemporaries, as she herself mentioned in a letter to a friend in 1955, were upset by Part One (which she evidently showed or read to some of them) because they felt she was "settling accounts" with the pre-Revolutionary decade and with people who could no longer defend themselves. She was aware that the "Poem" would be difficult, even incomprehensible, for anyone unfamiliar with certain " Petersburg events," but despite criticism on these grounds, she refused to make any concessions to the uninitiated. In the last years of her life, however, she divulged a few details in private conversation, and some of them were duly published first by Kornei Chukovski in the literary journal Moskva in 1964, and then by E. Dobin in his important book The Poetry of Anna Akhmatova (Leningrad, 1968). Even with the clues given here the "Poem" remains difficult. As Akhmatova says, commenting on it herself in Part Two, it is "a box with a triple bottom." However many times one may read it, one can always discover new associations or suddenly see new perspectives, as though everything were indeed reflected in the mirrors that figure so prominently in the work. There are so many literary echoes and the texture is so dense, that it is rather like a palimpsest (as she herself indicated), even though one can point to no dominating influence in what is beyond doubt the most strikingly original long poem to be written in Russia since the Revolution. Akhmatova may "borrow" motifs, as a great composer might (the construction of the "Poem" is, indeed, like that of a symphony, with three distinct movements and recurring themes), but this is essential to the subtle patterning of a work which conveys the spirit of a whole age.
Mrs. Mandelstam has called the "Poem" a "recherche du temps perdu" and the comparison is apt. The genesis of the "Poem" is remarkably similar to that of Proust's novel (and likewise contains an actual description of the incident which released memory). Though the resemblance is surely fortuitous, Akhmatova was aware of Proust and must have read him: in her memoir of Modigliani, she mentions him together with Kafka and Joyce as one of the three pillars on which "the Twentieth Century now rests."
As mentioned above in the note to Poem 34, the nature of time and identity is one of the major themes of the "Poem." It was something that much preoccupied Akhmatova in her last years as is shown by the choice of title for her last volume, The Flight of Time. Others have pointed out that the apocalyptical "There shall be no more time" could have been one of the texts for the "Poem": in many places, here and elsewhere in her work, she seems to question the apparent immutability of the division of time into past, present, and future. This explains her concern (as also in Poem 33, "This Cruel Age Has Deflected Me . . .") with what might have been with encounters that did not come about, with places she never visited. She is exercised by the irreversible "has-been-ness" of things, the irrevocability of what has happened. The mirror appears as a recurrent image in her poetry because it represents a "door" through which the past can reenter the present, or the present slip into the future.
The presence in the "Poem" of this element of speculation about time, not to mention the author's fascination with " doubles" and her deliberate blurring of fixed identity, has led some critics to see Akhmatova's later work as a regression from Acmeism back to Symbolism. In the second volume of her memoirs, Mrs. Mandelstam is inclined to believe there is truth in this, but the similarity is perhaps apparent rather than real. (What is more, Akhmatova herself once described her "Poem" as a "polemic" with Symbolism). Symbolism belonged to the era that preceded "the real, not the calendar Twentieth Century" and in its speculative aspect it was rooted, at the best, only in the imagination of its representatives. Akhmatova, on the other hand, was speaking not from imagination alone, but from the depth of unimaginable experience. The bemused uncertainty about time and identity which she communicates to the reader of " Poem without a Hero " is quite simply one of the everyday sensations born of such experience. Akhmatova joins Dostoyevski and Kafka in broadening the bounds of the contemporary imagination, helping it to take in the incredible realities of our epoch. What they only foreshadowed, she witnessed and described.
"Here's one who comes as Faust": this and the following four lines contain references to stage performances or books which were popular in the few years before the Revolution. "John the Baptist" and "Salome's Dance" allude to Richard Strauss's opera (1905, based on Oscar Wilde's Salome) and a ballet by Fokine. "Dapertutto" was the commedia dell'arte pen name of Vsevolod Meyerhold which he used while editor of the literary and theatrical journal Love of Three Apples (1914-1916), to which both Akhmatova and Blok contributed. "Don Juan" (Meyerhold staged Moliere's version of it in 1910) is a major theme in the "Poem." The epigraph to the whole work is from Da Ponte's libretto to Mozart's opera ("di rider finirai pria dell'aurora") and it is likely that the very concept of the "Poem" owes something to Pushkin's version of the legend, "The Stone Guest" (1830), which also opens with an epigraph from Mozart's Don Giovanni. There is a striking essay by Akhmatova on Pushkin's poem in which she points out its "confessional nature" (hence, she suggests, his unwillingness to publish it). He had chosen this theme of vengeance on the philanderer for its relevance to his own life, treating it in terms of sin and retribution. This essay of Akhmatova's concludes with a remark about Pushkin which applies in equal measure to herself: "Responding to 'every sound,' Pushkin absorbed the experience of the whole of his generation."
"The Nordic Glahn" is a character in Knut Hamsun's Pan (1894) who, like Knyazev, commits suicide.
"Goatlegged nymph": the reference is to Glebova-Sudeikina, the "heroine" of the "Poem." In late 1912 she danced in a ballet called The Fauns (music by Ilia Sats). There is a contemporary photograph showing Glebova-Sudeikina in the costume of a faun, with goat's horns.
"they seek, cocoon of souls": The translation here takes a slight liberty with the original in order to render a phonetic detail by which Akhmatova set such store that she added a special note on it at the end of the "Poem": "The three 'k's betray the author's confusion."
"But look! there's one who hides his tail...": Read inconjunction with further references in Part Two of the "Poem," this unflattering passage must be taken to apply to Mikhail Kuzmin.
"Till the Day of Judgment": the original refers to "the valley of Jehoshaphat," which Akhmatova annotates as "the presumed place of the Day of Judgment."
"A sound of steps of those not here . . .": Akhmatova mentioned to several people in her later years that the image of the "visitor from the future" was inspired by an actual visitor from the West who came to see her not long after the war. It evidently struck her as providential and, given the circumstances of her life, was almost literally "from the future," as surely as the other "visitors" in the "Poem" were from the past. The extraordinary precision of detail shows how utterly real the visit was: in order to reach her apartment in a wing of the former Sheremetiyev palace, it would be necessary to turn left from a bridge over the Fontanka.
"an extra shadow / without face or name /. . . you come in the gaudy stripes / of a painted milepost": this passage is about Blok. There is no obvious explanation of why Blok appears among the mummers dressed in this way. The striped milepost (versta) was a feature of the Russian landscape, and it has been suggested that there is here an association with Pushkin's poem "The Demons" (1830), in which at one moment, lost in a snowstorm, the poet mistakes a milepost for one of the demons that appear to be swirling around him. Since Blok's "demonic" nature is stressed here and elsewhere in "Poem without a Hero," not to mention that he was the author of a cycle of poems called " Snow Masks," Akhmatova may well have had in mind Pushkin's demon appearing as a milepost through the blizzard.
"the Mamre oak": See Genesis xiv: 13, 24, etc.
"I am ready for death": In her memoir on Mandelstam, Akhmatova recalls that as she was walking with him along a Moscow street one day in February 1934 (about three months before his arrest), he said these words to her. The fact that she puts them in the mouth of Knyazev in "Poem without a Hero" is a good example of the deliberate blurring of identity mentioned earlier. Similarly, the image of Glebova-Sudeikina to some extent merges with her own, and with that of Salome Andronnikova (the very same words "elegant and tall" are used of Glebova-Sudeikina in "Poem without a Hero" as of Salome Andronnikova in "In 1940").
"or is someone really standing there again / between the stove and cupboard ? ": B. A. Filippov has pointed out that these lines are clearly inspired by the description of Kirillov in Dostoyevski's Possessed, after he had hanged himself: "In the corner formed by the wall and the cupboard, Kirillov was standing and standing in a terribly strange manner."
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