Anna of All the Russias

John Bayley

  • Selected Poems by Anna Akhmatova, selected and translated by Stanley Kunitz and Max Hayward
    Harvill, 173 pp, £5.95, November 1989, ISBN 0 00 271041 2
  • The Complete Poems of Anna Akhmatova translated by Judith Hemschemeyer, edited by Roberta Reeder
    Zephyr, 1635 pp, £85.00, October 1990, ISBN 0 939010 13 5
  • The Garden: New and Selected Poetry and Prose by Bella Akhmadulina
    Boyars, 171 pp, £9.95, January 1991, ISBN 0 7145 2924 9

If he had been writing in Petersburg in 1910 or thereabouts Philip Larkin would probably have been an Acmeist. He would have been in protest, that is to say, against the portentousness of the Symbolists, like Blok and Bely, against their bogus pleasure in the idea of Apocalypse, and their bogus parade of the mysterious and the ‘unknowable’. In his essay ‘The Pleasure Principle’ Larkin observes that ‘it is sometimes useful to remind ourselves of the simpler aspects of things normally regarded as complicated,’ such as the writing of a poem. The poet becomes obsessed about his feeling for something: he constructs a verbal device that will reproduce this feeling ‘in anyone who cares to read it, anywhere, any time’. The third stage is the reader’s setting off the device successfully, without which ‘the poem can hardly be said to exist in a practical sense at all.’

Akhmatova would have dryly agreed with all that. Like her fellow Acmeists, Gumilev and Mandelstam, she took a down-to-earth view of the process, although none of them would have gone along with the English Movement’s stylised derision of high culture and classy ‘foreign muck’. For Mandelstam, Acmeism meant ‘the essentialising in poetry of world culture’, which included poetry about ice-cream and automobiles. Although they all took a different view of it, and indeed the term itself had first been coined as an insult by their Symbolist opponents, make it clear, hard and plain was what they all thought in their own ways, as Pound and the Modernists were also beginning to do. Mandelstam’s first collection was called Stone, Akhmatova’s, Evening.

Like Larkin, Akhmatova started by composing fairly commonplace and derivative verses. Gumilev patronised and advised her; but when in 1910 he was off hunting lions in Abyssinia she discovered a posthumous collection of poems by Innokenty Annensky, a Classical scholar and translator who had died the previous year. Reading The Cypress Box made her ‘oblivious to the world’. She found her voice, as Larkin may have found his through reading Hardy and knowing Kingsley Amis, and when Gumilev returned he was deeply impressed by what she had written. She had become a better poet than he, and though their marriage was ill-assorted and unhappy, and was to end in divorce during the war, there is no evidence that it foundered on Anthony Powell’s law that envy rather than jealousy is the enemy of wedlock. Gumilev, who was shot by the Bolsheviks in 1921, was a highly peculiar but a generous man. His wife, who remarried twice, was not an easy woman. She was naturally grand. Tsvetaeva, who admired the poetry, used to refer to her not without malice as ‘Anna Chrysostom of all the Russias’.

Like Pound and Eliot, indeed like Mandelstam too, Annensky refers with an offhand and – if the reader doesn’t know what he is talking about – cryptic precision to other texts and authors; and like Mandelstam and the Western poets, Akhmatova came to extend this practice to private reference and to events in her own life. One suspects she was not by nature a cryptic poet, however. Stateliness and simplicity, a clear metrical and rhyming pattern, are specifications in which she is most at home. This makes her very hard to translate: shapely incisive verse presents a much greater problem than meditative or irregular or free verse. Much of Mandelstam himself, as of Eliot or Ungaretti, could find some more or less harmonious equivalent in a foreign syntax, but it may in the end be preferable to render Akhmatova in a plain prose version. Stanley Kunitz and Max Hayward, however, are highly experienced translators, sympathetic alike to Russian and English requirements.

One of her most memorable poems, ‘Lot’s Wife’, four quatrains composed between 1922 and 1924, illustrates the virtues of her poetry: the way feeling is formed into a device which the reader sets off, and which continues to reverberate in his mind. I quote the first two and the last stanzas in Kunitz’s translation.

And the just man trailed God’s shining agent,
over a black mountain, in his giant track,
while a restless voice kept harrying his woman:
‘It’s not too late, you can still look back
at the red towers of your native Sodom,
the square where once you sang, the spinning-shed,

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