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,

at the empty windows set in the tall house
where sons and daughters blessed your marriage-bed’ ...

Who will grieve for this woman? Does she not seem
too insignificant for our concern?
Yet in my heart I never will deny her,
who suffered death because she chose to turn.

The last stanza has come over very felicitously; the verse movement faithful and the invented rhymes working well. Literally translated, the Russian ends:

Only my heart will never forget
The giving of life for a single look.

and this is naturally more terse, but also drives home the point, in conjunction with those unforgettable red towers, that for Lot’s wife the past was more important than the future. ‘The square where she sang, the court where she spun’, ‘the children she bore to a loving husband’ (were there sons? – we know there were two daughters), are what matter to her. The red towers of Sodom are like Housman’s blue remembered hills. But what matters to the reader is that the wife had not only the poet’s impulse but the woman’s: what she sought to make known to herself for the last time was not romance but everyday existence.

Having mentioned Housman it is worth recalling his own poem on the subject.

Half-way, for one commandment broken,
  The woman made her endless halt,
And she today, a glistering token,
  Stands in the wilderness of salt.
Behind the vats of judgment brewing
  Thundered, and thick the brimstone snowed;
He to the hill of his undoing
  Pursued his road.

No less of a little masterpiece in its way than Akhmatova’s poem, this was never published by Housman but came out posthumously in More Poems. Their treatment of the same topic demonstrates the complete openness of Akhmatova’s style, which always looks the reader straight in the eye. Ironically, because of censorship and the need for discretion, she uses in some of her later poetry what in Russian is called tainopis – ‘secret writing’ – and a characteristic effect results of extreme directness becoming baffling in itself.

This happens in her long poema, ‘Poem without a Hero’, an extended feat of commemoration which also has the quality of a dirge or requiem mass. It contrasts sharply with her other great poem cycle, Requiem, written between 1935 and 1940, which commemorates the Yezhovshchina, the period of arbitrary terror unleashed by the NKVD chief Yezhov on the orders of Stalin. Akhmatova’s son Lev was arrested, probably just because he bore his father’s name, and after being released to fight in the war was re-arrested after it. In the early days of his imprisonment in Leningrad his mother used to stand in an immense queue outside the prison wall by the Neva, to try to get news or a parcel to him, and there occurred the incident when another woman in the queue recognised her and whispered, ‘Can you describe this?’ to which she replied: ‘l can.’

This Biblical certainty is remarkably at odds with the variety of refined doubts and modest disclaimers voiced by poets in the West when confronted with the horrors of the age, or seeking to absorb them into the world of poetry. Symbolists like Blok, even Yeats, had the advantage here, in that they could substitute for real and actual terrors their own vision of apocalypse and doom. As Russian poets and critics have pointed out, there is no connection between Blok’s visionary poem ‘The Twelve’ and what was actually happening on the streets of Petersburg in 1917-18, in spite of the poem’s vivid affirmation of local colour and sound. Even Paul Celan, by far the greatest poet to confront the holocaust age, transforms its horrors by the sheer intensity and individuality of his skills, in poems like ‘Espenbaum’ and ‘Engführung’. Akhmatova’s success in Requiem is much simpler and in a sense less original: in feeling and stating the obvious she is invoking the words and rhythms of the Russian Church, and this seems to purge of all self-consciousness the fact that she is talking about herself, her predicament and anguish. At the crucifixion Mary Magdalen sobbed; John, the beloved disciple, stood ‘with face like stone’. ‘Nobody looked into the silent mother’s eyes, nobody dared.’ ‘Crucifixion’ comes just before the Epilogue, written in March 1940, in which the hours and the people outside the prison are remembered, and the poet records that she would accept from her country a commemorative monument, but only if it were placed outside the prison, where the ships sail along the Neva, and melting snow would flow down the bronze like tears.

Not to forget, always to record, is so vital that it must even overcome the solace in the idea of death. ‘Poem without a Hero’ records a different order of memory, not the communal one of ‘Requiem’, in which the poet fears that in dying she will lose what must never be lost: the sound of the black cars carrying victims going through the prison gate, and the wail of women outside it. In 1961 she added the celebrated Prologue.

By that time she was again in deep trouble. Thanks to Stalin’s culture minister Zhdanov, she had been forced to burn a lot of manuscripts, and carry in her head the long, slow-developing poema which had been conceived before the war. Akhmatova always remained convinced that the persecution she now suffered was a peculiarly honourable one, arising from the admiration increasingly accorded to her by Western intellectuals, and particularly from the visit she received in 1945 from Isaiah Berlin, ‘the guest from the future’, who was then working with Randolph Churchill for the British Foreign Office in Moscow. They talked for a whole night in her room in Leningrad near the Fontanka, and he took his place in the haunting, shifting carnival of the poem with its kaleidoscope of recent history and suffering, alongside the actors in a tragic incident that had taken place in 1913.

Emphasis and literalness are in some way exaggerated by the mystery, which the reader takes in as poetry. What in fact happened is well-known. A close friend of Akhmatova’s, Olga Sudeikina, was loved by a young officer cadet called Knyazev, who wrote her passionate poems, and shot himself in despair at her cold frivolity, and out of jealousy at her probable liaison with the poet Blok. Akhmatova and Gumilev used to recite their poems in company with other poets, including Mandelstam, at a café cabaret called The Stray Dog, where Sudeikina acted in charade dramas as Columbine or ‘the goat-legged nymph’. After the Revolution Sudeikina emigrated to Paris. Akhmatova felt great guilt through association about the suicide, and the world of decadence on the edge of the abyss which for her had produced it: moreover she herself appears to have been involved in a similar episode some years before with another young soldier, and with the same consequences. Neither suicide occurred in Petersburg, but they are projected together in the capital’s sinister and grandiose architectural dream, culminating in words which had actually been spoken by Mandelstam to Akhmatova, not long before his arrest.

The trimetric movement of ‘Poem without a Hero’ is extraordinary, sonorous and compelling, seeming to enact the advance of the 20th century – ‘the real not the calendar one’ – as it slouches towards the frozen capital to be born. Akhmatova said that this rhythm ‘got itself into her head’, and it may have been adapted, consciously or unconsciously, from a poema by Kuzmin published in 1929 called The trout breaks the ice, which also alludes to the suicide of Knyazev. Although The trout breaks the ice has a structure and atmosphere rather similar to that of Akhmatova’s poem, Akhmatova felt that Kuzmin’s attitude to the past was frivolous and merely gossipy. She told Lydia Chukovskaya that ‘we took everything seriously,’ but that in Kuzmin’s hands the past became a toy to be played with, and that he ‘could not endure me’. None the less they had been friends in 1913, and Kuzmin had written a preface for her first collection. But if Akhmatova’s poem has no hero it does in a sense have a villain, a Prince of Darkness Cagliostro, who was the hero of a novel by Kuzmin. Fairly or unfairly he came to represent for Akhmatova the decadence and evil in Russia’s silver age, and in its literature. Kuzmin had also been the lover of Knyazev, who left him for his doomed affair with Sudeikina.

A poema based on and inspired by another in some ways similar poem is not unique in the history of Russian literature. Pushkin’s masterpiece, ‘The Bronze Horseman’, was conceived as a kind of riposte to the satire on St Petersburg in Forefathers’ Eve, by Pushkin’s acquaintance the great Polish poet Adam Mickiewicz. Akhmatova may also have had the urge to celebrate the immortality of the old capital, to which she felt she belonged, her reflection a part of its canals and her steps in its stones. ‘We shall meet again in Petersburg,’ Mandelstam had written in another poem. Akhmatova’s poem proclaims that ‘My future is in my past’ – a motif she found in the Four Quartets. In ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’ Eliot refers to parts of a poet’s work in which ‘dead poets, his ancestors, assert their immortality most vigorously’, and she observes in her poem that she may be accused of plagiarism. It is Pushkin above all who is present in her work, and in her essays on him she refers to his art of tainopis – an art that can underlie his clarity and transparency. Akhmatova was particularly fascinated by his little play, The Stone Guest, in which she felt he was revealing his own life and undercover love affairs in his picture of Don Juan, and his wife in Donna Anna. Her desire was to put herself by means of a comparable technique into the poem which had gestated over so long a period, and a friend remarked that she divided people into those who understood what was happening in her poem and those who didn’t.

It is difficult to praise too highly the way in which the Complete Poems have been produced and edited. Not only is it bilingual on each page, with an effective and imaginative translation, but it contains many previously uncollected lyrics, a long introduction with pictures of the poet, her friends, places in St Petersburg that she celebrated, memoirs by Isaiah Berlin and Anatoly Naiman, and comprehensive notes and bibliography. The work is a labour of love, worthy of the great Akhmatova scholar Amanda Haight, to whose memory it is dedicated, and who rightly praised the quality and accuracy of Judith Hemschemeyer’s translations.

Bella Akhmadulina, a still comparatively young Soviet poet, identifies strongly with Akhmatova’s outlook and personality. ‘The Photograph’ and ‘Anna Akhmatova’ celebrate this slightly ambiguous hero-worship. ‘Anna Akhmatova’ is in six-line stanzas carefully rhymed. Notwithstanding this sort of continuity, there seems an essential lack of strong involuntary character in this poetry, as in that of Evtushenko, to whom Akhmadulina was once married. She has remarked that she could hardly remember their marriage, a failure of memory which would not have commended itself to Akhmatova, for whom the poet was the most important guardian of the past – his own and his country’s. But although she said gracious things about them, Akhmatova seems to have despised the new generation of poets, of whom Evtushenko and Vosnesensky were the best-known representatives. She found them vulgar and superficial, as the old so often find the young today.

In the case of Akhmadulina such a stricture would hardly be fair. Her own life may be a throwaway matter where her poems are concerned, but she has a vivid sense of her forebears, expressed in the prose piece ‘Babushka’, and a deep if conventional kinship with previous Russian writers. Her poem on Mandelstam is moving – she imagines the poet, who was fond of pastries and sweet things, in the haven of one of her own nightmares, where she could feed these things to him, and weep. Yet it is also a bit prescriptive, for such homage is common now in Soviet poetry, and goes in some degree with its exploitation of the marvellous gift for being recited possessed by the Russian language. There is an agreeable irony in the fact that Pushkin, whose love poetry and narrative poetry is supremely recitable, was in fact exceedingly inept at reading it – all his friends said so. Akhmadulina reads her poems, like other present-day poets in Russia, to vast popular audiences, reciting them, as she says, by heart, and as if they did not belong to her. Excellent in a way – although the Soviet poets, and their audiences, tend to overdo these things. Pushkin himself, with his usual tongue-in-cheek smile, invents in ‘Egyptian Nights’ a wandering Italian improvisatore, who can compose electrifying trochaics on any subject the audience may suggest. It happens that Akhmadulina’s paternal grandfather was an itinerant Italian musician, as she recalls in ‘Babushka’. She has herself a talent for narrative poems, like ‘A Fairy Tale about Rain’, which carries a friends-of-the-earth message.