Poetry must somehow proclaim its authority. However mysteriously this comes about, its achievement can always be recognized; a great poem continues to assert its magisterial spell in the face of all the tyranny or indifference of passing events. When Yeats wrote in 1919, “The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity,” he could not have known that before the end of the century, at a time when convictions of any sort were hard to come by, for both the good and the bad, his words would nonetheless have passed into the language, been stamped on the consciousness of daily speech.
How much more has this authority come to exist in the great poetry of Russia, where it stamped its conviction on the secret speech of the martyrs and the persecuted? A moving photograph in the complete edition of Anna Akhmatova’s poems, between the text and the notes, shows a tiny handmade “notebook,” formed of a few fragments of paper stitched together, with a poem of hers laboriously copied out in minute handwriting. This had been the treasured possession of a zek in one of the gulags, a talisman to strengthen him through years of suffering. Now that particular tyranny has gone, at least for the moment, and poetry of course remains; yet its authority in Russia is perhaps not quite what it was, its “bright name”—in Aleksandr Blok’s phrase—not quite so potent. A famous sonnet of Shakespeare’s has never enjoyed a moment of such rough magic as when the audience at a hall in Moscow shouted insistently for “Number 66,” while Pasternak, with grudging permission from the Soviet authorities, was reading his translations. That sonnet contains the line: “And art made tongue-tied by authority,” and goes on to speak of “captive good attending captain ill.”
Of course art can always be used for propaganda purposes, and bad art too can sometimes enjoy in a political context the same potency as the good. But since the time of Pushkin Russian poetry at its best and most venerated has never achieved its force and its popularity by going directly against the state and the establishment. On the contrary: its power has always come from its detachment, its serene confidence in belonging, so to speak, to another and a better world. Not in every case is this true. Nekrasov, writing in the mid-nineteenth century, and in conformity in some degree with the famous critic Belinsky’s theory of the social utility of art, is both an excellent poet and a propagandist for social and political reform. For that reason he was one of the few poets, other than the iconic Pushkin, to be thoroughly approved of by the Soviet authorities, who also encouraged another good poet, Mayakovsky, to be their poetic mascot and front man with the Muse. Unable to stand the strain of serving two masters, Mayakovsky committed suicide. Blok, who had earlier shown a wish to serve as a poet the new Bolshevik society, had already died in despair. His well-known poem “The Twelve,” for all its undoubted magnificence and impact, in fact falls resoundingly between two stools: it is a poem of wholly personal and symbolic vision which nonetheless tries to be realistic and urgent about historic events and the Reds’ seizure of power.
This point against Blok’s vision of twelve uncouth Red Guardsmen wandering destructively through St. Petersburg under the leadership of Jesus Christ was made by Pasternak in Doctor Zhivago, which contrasts the grim reality of “Russia’s terrible years” with Blok’s poetically apocalyptic conception of them. Akhmatova, who did not at all care for Blok as a man although she admired some of his poetry, would certainly have agreed with Pasternak’s view of the matter. For her, as for Pasternak, the poet indeed had a duty, but it was nothing to do with political principles, or with a regime. It was to stay where you were, in your own country, and write, as a poet, for your own people. For Russian poets to leave Russia and go into emigration was for them to forfeit the mysterious authority which they possessed. It is this knowledge and certainty which fill the four lines at the opening of Akhmatova’s tragic poem-cycle Requiem, written in memory of the time under the Great Terror when she stood outside the prison in St. Petersburg (then Leningrad) where her son was confined, hoping, like innumerable others, to get a parcel through, or at least a word.
No, not under the vault of alien skies,
And not under the shelter of alien wings—
I was with my people then,
There, where my people, unfortu- nately, were.
That is Judith Hemschemeyer’s translation, and her versions of Akhmatova’s collected poems in the new single-volume Zephyr Press edition—it succeeds the bulky two-volume edition with Russian text and translation on facing pages published three years ago—is in general excellent: accurate, unpretentious, and in the same straightforward and simple key as the original. The usual difficulties and impossibilities remain of course; but Akhmatova was herself a translator, and like all the Russian Acmeist poets she was steeped in the texture and tradition of European and English poetry. She knew the difficulties, and would appreciate how the translator, who learned Russian because of her love for this poetry, has tried to overcome them.
Wendy Rosslyn gives the usual and more elegant version of that stanza’s last line “Where my luckless people chanced to be” in her translation of Anatoly Nayman’s sensitive and lively memoir of the poet. It is true that the drawback of the word “unfortunately” in English is that it is usually employed in a trivial context—“Unfortunately, she’s got another appointment” or something of the sort. “Luckless” is a more obvious poetical word, more rare, more drastic. But it is just because of its commonplaceness that “unfortunately” seems to me to be right in this dire context: the Russian k neschastiu is not poetical either. According to Nayman, Akhmatova herself used to get impatient with worshipers of Requiem, and its tribute to the “blood and tears” of suffering humanity, pointing out that these are poems, and remain poems. She nonetheless singled out those four lines as the “one good passage,” evidently separating the absolutely basic emotion in them from all the artifices of good poetry.
There is a difference, and a vital one, between the inevitable distance of any poetry from what is actually going on, and the deliberate cultivation of a “poetic world” by a Symbolist poet like Blok. Pushkin and Akhmatova are not in the least concerned to be “relevant” to human affairs and responsibilities—sometimes they are and sometimes they aren’t—their poetry is in this sense quite unselfconscious, and therefore wholly separate and wholly individual. But it is equally natural that their poetry speaks with its own complete authority, not an assumed or a carefully constructed one.
In this context Nayman makes an unexpected and devastating point. “Strictly speaking, Requiem is the ideal embodiment of Soviet poetry that all the theorists describe.” Its hero is the people, the narod, not the people as the regime wanted them to be, and was continually and hypocritically invoking, but the people as they actually were. By upbringing and temperament, and no doubt by conviction too, Akhmatova was instinctively a Christian. So was Pasternak. That is why they had to stay where they were. Not only their instinctive authority as poets depended on it, but their identification with Russia—its past and especially its faith. The great advantage of such a faith against all forms of political idealism, an advantage which would be comical if the human predicament did not make it so inherently tragical, is that it has no trouble in accepting things as they are. Politics and ideology always have to pretend that things could be different, and, in Soviet Russia, that they actually were different. Hence the fact that Soviet poetry, so far from identifying like Akhmatova with what was really going on, had no choice but to endorse the Big Lie and to identify with the narod as it was ideally supposed to be, not as it was.
Having said that it is necessary also to state—and Nayman too makes this clear—that Akhmatova, like many other poets of her time (like Yeats himself) could seem a tremendous show-off. Her fellow-poet Marina Tsvetaeva used sardonically to refer to her as “Anna of All the Russias.” She was regal; she was a queen. Yet she was one absolutely by nature, as if a little girl, a giddy princess, had always known what grave responsibilities ineluctably awaited her, and met them when the moment came without protest or pretension. The showing off was done on her behalf by friends, critics, the hangers-on—devoted or merely sycophantic—which literature attracts, and particularly literature in the Soviet Union, with all the official flim-flam—poets’ villages and “Houses of Creativity”—which sought to make the people venerate the chosen bards of the Soviet system as much as the system itself. Ironically all that state-culture worship was transferred by a sort of honorable reversal on the part of their devotees to Pasternak and to Akhmatova herself. They became rival icons to those of the Soviet regime, images of an older and truer faith.
The splendidly refreshing thing about Nayman’s memoir—he is himself a poet and was her literary secretary in her old age, when even the post-Stalinist regime did not dare to persecute her more—is that although he reveres Akhmatova as a woman and a great poet his tales about her, and his sparkling critical intelligence about the background and setting of her poems, are not in the least reverential. He assumes her grandeur and her dignity as she assumed them herself; and his accounts of her life in Leningrad, in her small crumbling room on the Fontanka canal and later outside the town in the writers’ village of Komarovo, have the homely fascination and humor of Boswell’s recollections of Dr. Johnson. When Robert Frost came to Leningrad in the late Fifties a meeting was arranged by a well-known critic and authority on English literature. “Both their names figured in the list of candidates for the Nobel Prize, and the idea of bringing them together seemed an especially felicitous one to the bureaucrats…” The Eng. Lit. man was duly impressed—“how grand she was, and how sad she seemed,” when she read Frost her poem “The Last Rose.” “For some moments we were silent, still.”
But Akhmatova later told Nayman with amusement that she had felt like a “Grandma” with a “Grandpa,” and moreover that Frost had seriously wanted to know whether it might be profitable to manufacture pencils using the Komarovo pine trees. Entering into the spirit of the thing, she reminded him that anyone felling a tree in the park was fined 500 rubles; but the reader may suspect that Frost was acting the New England farmer, teasing her in his deadpan way and being more playful than either she or her secretary realized. She felt it unfitting and improper for a great poet to have such a “farming streak” in him. In fact two quite different attitudes to Art and the Artist—the Russian one and the American—were misunderstanding each other.
St. Petersburg, as it was in her youth and is now again after the Soviet years of being Leningrad, was at once Akhmatova’s court and the kingdom of her poetry. She had been born Anna Gorenko, in far-off Kiev in the Ukraine, but her father being a naval architect the family had moved to the Baltic about the time in 1905 when the Japanese were sinking the Russian fleet at Tsushima. Her mother and father separated, and the family settled at Tsarskoe Selo—“Tsar’s Village”—just outside St. Petersburg. She was already being courted by the promising young poet Nikolai Gumilev, who was to fight gallantly as an officer in the 1914 war and to be shot by the Bolsheviks for alleged monarchist conspiracy in 1921. Anna Gorenko was reluctant to marry him, but in the end she did, and they had a son, Lev, mostly looked after as a child by Anna’s mother-in-law. Under the Soviet regime he was to be twice imprisoned for long periods for no other reason than that he bore his father’s name. The anguish of his arrest and detention with innumerable other victims of the Terror in the Kresty Prison in Leningrad is the subject of Akhmatova’s somber and magnificent Requiem.
When she showed signs of being a poet her father begged her not to dishonor the family name by using it in this frivolous context, so she called herself after a Tartar ancestor on her mother’s side; the name is cognate with the oriental Achmet. Her husband, a difficult, moody man who disliked the routines of domesticity and only cared for “old maps and distant countries,” thought it would be ridiculous for one poet to be married to another. Certainly this rare conjunction is not often a success, as was shown in the more recent case of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes; yet it is possible for one to inspire the other even as the marital relation deteriorates. Gumilev was a generous man who soon saw that his wife had real talent. On his return from travels in Abyssinia he asked her what she had been writing, and she showed him poems that had been inspired by another Russian poet to whose work he had introduced her. Innokenty Annensky was a withdrawn, scholarly man, who taught classics at the school of Tsarskoe Selo and who had produced a short book of poems called The Cypress Box. This had become her Bible, rather as the youthful Pushkin was never without his copy of the poems of the Frenchman Parny.
Gumilev congratulated her warmly on her new poems, and they were a great success when published in the spring of 1912 as her first collection, Evening. Her second collection, mostly of love poems, Rosary, made even more of a sensation two years later: she became something of a cult figure in the Petersburg literary world. By then her husband had formed round them the circle of poets known as Acmeists or Adamists, of whom Osip Mandelstam was one. Their poetic philosophy was in a sense existential: a precision about things and moments, and a rejection of symbolism and the Ivory Tower.
From the sad majesty of Requiem Akhmatova was to look back on herself at this period as the “gay little sinner of Tsarskoe Selo.” The events of those years—love affairs, separations, tragedies like the suicide of a young cadet, the lover of her friend Olga Sudeikina—were all to find their way into her strange masterpiece of poetic autobiography, Poem Without a Hero, which she wrote in the terrible years before and after the Second World War. Like The Waste Land it possesses the mysterious authority, that of Pushkin’s tainstvenni pevets—the secret-bearing poet—to convey the apocalypse of a whole epoch in the words of a single intimacy. Its uniquely sonorous rhythm, which can only be very imperfectly suggested in English, brings into a liturgical unison past and future, the figures who haunt the threshold of the new century, “the real and not the calendar one,” which began for her in 1914, and visitants of quite another kind, doubles from an endless masquerade.
Since childhood I have feared maskers;
It always seemed to me
That some superfluous shadow
With “neither face nor name”
Slipped in among them…
One of those who slipped into the poem as if by accident was also for her a predestined visitor.
The guest from the future!—Is it true
That he really will come to me,
Turning left at the bridge?
The visitor was Isaiah Berlin, an Oxford professor working in 1945 at the British Embassy, who came to her room over the bridge by the Fontanka canal. His wonderful account of the visit forms one of the introductory pieces to the Complete Poems, in which he imparts his sense of reverence and awe at meeting in these circumstances a poet who had become so tranquilly and effortlessly, and as if by natural ordination, a queen, even a goddess: one whose survival and secret life in silence and exile were known only to a few. A letter to Nayman observed that a friend had found an epigraph for her poetry.
But I stand on calamity’s scaffold
As if enthroned ‘midst the cour- tiers’ homage.
And she accepted the homage without either modesty or vanity.
This matter-of-fact acceptance of herself as a vessel of divinity, one chosen to utter mysteries so vital to the human spirit, is often expressed in her poems (“They flow across the blank page/Like a pure stream in a ravine”) and in her sense of her intense relation with unknown readers and listeners. Pasternak had the same kind of conviction of himself as poet-savior and redeemer, as in Doctor Zhivago and poems like “Gethsemane,” but Pasternak did not have her sense of humor and her female down-to-earthness. Clearly she inspired a sense of fun in others, as well as reverence. Comedy was part of the magic.
Isaiah Berlin describes how he met her and was settling down for what turned out to be an all-night conversation, when they were disturbed by his name being shouted in the courtyard below.
It proved to be Randolph Churchill, the son of Winston, who was also on a visit to the British Embassy, and who when looking for Berlin and finding himself in surroundings that reminded him of his old Oxford college, had started hallooing for his colleague as he would once have done in the quad. This was at the beginning of the cold war, and Russian friends and well-wishers were stupefied by the risk and the possible scandal involved. Here clearly—in the eyes of the KGB—were two English spies come to conspire with the great Russian poet, and perhaps even whisk her away to London! The absurdity probably had no ill effects, but it was about this time that the literary establishment resolved once more to denounce Akhmatova for nonfulfillment of the Soviet poetic ideal, while her son was sent into a second term of exile.
Earnest pilgrims from abroad were later to be embarrassed by the squalor in which the distinguished old lady was compelled to live. Nayman recalls a young English university don who was working on the “folk sources” in her poetry. Akhmatova had a drawing of herself by Modigliani over the bed in her small room, and it was suggested he might like to look at it, but the invitation seemed to bother him. Later she said to her secretary with a laugh, “Over there they’re not accustomed to seeing old ladies’ beds. He looked dreadful when you dragged him to the edge of the abyss. They can’t believe that we live like this. Nor can they understand how we write at all in these conditions.” The husband of her old friend Punin’s daughter, in whose flat she was living (Punin himself had died in a gulag), was a trial to her because of the way he attempted as “a devotee of beauty” to hold literary conversations. When Akhmatova with her secretary and the poet Brodsky was celebrating with some cognac the tenth anniversary of Stalin’s death the husband appeared and began to ask her whether “one should not underestimate Voznesensky and Surkov”—both well-known poets during the Soviet regime. Akhmatova maintained a stony silence, but afterward remarked with a laugh about her literary landlord, “I value him highly. In his stead we might have a person who would admonish me with ‘Mother, you’ve left the bathroom light on again.’ “
Vivaciously translated, Nayman’s memoir makes an ideal companion piece to the wealth of essays and photographs in the volume of collected poems, as it does to Amanda Haight’s already classic biography of the poet.* Judith Hemschemeyer and her editor Roberta Reeder have done a superb job, and the latter has been able to include in this translation several poems and fragments discovered in Russia by the scholar M. M. Kralin, and authenticated by Nayman’s knowledge of the poet in her last years. Shortly before she died she wrote a couple of final lines:
Necessity herself has finally sub- mitted.
And has stepped pensively aside.
The delphic utterance might seem to link with that world of shadowy personifications, maskers, and memories in Poem Without a Hero, where the poet dryly observed, “There is no death—everyone knows that, / It’s insipid to repeat it,” taking as her sign the motto of Mary Queen of Scots—“In my end is my beginning”—which she had found in T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets.
In another poem she comments, “Without mystery there is no poetry,” and she called one series “Secrets of the Craft.” Susan Amert takes a further phrase of hers, “In a Shattered Mirror,” as the title of an exceptionally learned and elegant study of the technicalities of Akhmatovan poetry, doing the job without any of the contemporary jargon and high-flown theory which the poet herself would have despised. For Akhmatova always maintained there was nothing upstage or recherché in what she wrote, none of the invented world of symbolism. Her mystery, like Pushkin’s, was in clarity: in an openness which could appear baffling because it left so much unsaid. Her husband had long before remarked on this, and on the fact that as a poet she did not “invent herself”: the point was later elaborated in a study of her poetics by the well-known critic V. Vinogradov.
Susan Amert begins her own book by making a comparison between the early fame of Pushkin and his “Byronic” poems, and the similar success enjoyed by Akhmatova’s first two collections. It is a good point, because even Pushkin’s friends were baffled by what they considered the homely oddity of his later masterpieces, like The Little House at Kolomna and The Bronze Horseman, while his enemies claimed he had ceased to be a poet. Though Akhmatova never lost her popularity her devotees were puzzled by the cryptic internal references in Poem Without a Hero, while the Soviet literary establishment scurrilously referred to her as the “nun and harlot” whose decadent and frivolous verses were unworthy of the good name of Russian poetry.
Certainly Poem Without a Hero is a gift to the critic and commentator, and Susan Amert’s chapter on it is illuminating. As with The Bronze Horseman this great poema’s authority makes its own kind of sense, and has its own impact on the individual reader. Akhmatova herself was a profound Pushkinist, and wrote some fine and subtle essays on his later poetry. Her tastes in the literature of her own country could be sharply arbitrary. She abominated Chekhov: Nayman thinks it was because his “gray” world reminded her too much of her own drab early days at Kiev as Anna Gorenko, before she became the Princess of Tsarskoe Selo. She was not keen on Tolstoy but adored Dostoevsky and reread him continually. She had an almost girlish attachment to Byron’s poems; and Isaiah Berlin was a bit bewildered and embarrassed when at the beginning of their long colloquy together she recited to him from memory two cantos of Don Juan, in an English stressed so oddly that he could barely recognize it as such.
As her translator emphasizes, “Akhmatova lived in a home constructed not only of Russian literature but world literature.” For the Acmeist movement of the early days, as Mandelstam had put it, universal culture was what mattered. And just as Pushkin’s poetry seems to resolve itself in the end into a celestial form of fairy tale, coming at once from everywhere and nowhere, so Akhmatova’s poems have the same clear, unwondering, unlocalized matter-of-factness about them. She was always sardonic about herself, and impersonally maternal about her creations. Sometimes she saw the muse as a wicked step-mother, drinking her blood “like that evil girl of my youth—love.” There was nothing obviously “feminine” about her or her poems, and yet many of the most striking ones show an oblique but profound identity with female impulse—Cleopatra summoning her pride to suicide, Lot’s wife giving her life for the sake of a last look back.
She was right also to stress that there was nothing hermeneutic about her poetry, nothing resembling the verbal mysteries of Mallarmé: her mysteries are in the open, as they are in legends. A famous early poem, “The Gray-Eyed King,” later set to music by Prokofiev, is an inverted fairy story, with all that form’s suggestive intensity, but full of the conviction—so somber in the later postrevolution poems—that magic does not work, that there is no happy ending. Only in the completion of a poem. The grayeyed king is dead: the peasant mother looks into the eyes of the child she has secretly had by him.
May 13, 1993