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 …