The Word That Causes Death's Defeat: Poems of Memoryby Anna Akhmatova
Anna Akhmatova (1889–1966), one of twentieth-century Russia’s greatest poets, was viewed as a dangerous element by post-Revolution authorities. One of the few unrepentant poets to survive the Bolshevik revolution and subsequent Stalinist purges, she set for herself the artistic task of preserving the memory of pre-Revolutionary cultural heritage and of… See more details below
Anna Akhmatova (1889–1966), one of twentieth-century Russia’s greatest poets, was viewed as a dangerous element by post-Revolution authorities. One of the few unrepentant poets to survive the Bolshevik revolution and subsequent Stalinist purges, she set for herself the artistic task of preserving the memory of pre-Revolutionary cultural heritage and of those who had been silenced. This book presents Nancy K. Anderson’s superb translations of three of Akhmatova’s most important poems: Requiem, a commemoration of the victims of Stalin’s Terror; The Way of All the Earth, a work to which the poet returned repeatedly over the last quarter-century of her life and which combines Old Russian motifs with the modernist search for a lost past; and Poem Without a Hero, widely admired as the poet’s magnum opus.
Each poem is accompanied by extensive commentary. The complex and allusive Poem Without a Hero is also provided with an extensive critical commentary that draws on the poet’s manuscripts and private notebooks. Anderson offers relevant facts about the poet’s life and an overview of the political and cultural forces that shaped her work. The resulting volume enables English-language readers to gain a deeper level of understanding of Akhmatova’s poems and how and why they were created.
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The Word That Causes Death's DefeatPoems of Memory
Yale University PressCopyright © 2004 Yale University
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Chapter OneYouth and Early Fame, 1889-1916
SHE WAS NOT BORN ANNA AKHMATOVA. She came into the world on June 11, 1889, as Anna Andreyevna Gorenko, the daughter of a naval officer named Andrei Antonyevich Gorenko and his wife, Inna Erazmovna. When she was seventeen, it came to her father's attention that she was so unladylike as to aspire to recognition as a poet, and he warned her not to bring shame upon his name. She replied, "I don't need your name" and promptly disowned the entire masculine side of her lineage by choosing as her literary name the maiden name of her maternal grandmother, Akhmatova. It was not only a defiant act, but also a creative one. It is difficult to believe that "Anna Gorenko" would have captured the imagination in the same way as "Anna Akhmatova"-"a name that is a great sigh / Falling into a depth without name," as the other great female poet of her generation, Marina Tsvetayeva, wrote in admiration. One might say that the inspired self-naming of Anna Akhmatova was the first instance of the pattern that governed her life: the attempts of men in authority to silence her would rouse her Muse to yet more eloquently impassioned speech.
Akhmatova was born near Odessa, on the Black Sea, butwhen she was two years old her family moved to Tsarskoe Selo (now Pushkin), just a few miles from the capital, Saint Petersburg. Tsarskoe Selo (the tsar's village) was a small but grandiose town dominated by the Catherine Palace, built by Peter the Great's daughter Elizabeth as a Russian Baroque answer to Versailles. In later years, Akhmatova was to look back upon this vanished world in a set of sketches of her girlhood. Her recollections of Tsarskoe Selo themselves suggest the style of an earlier aristocratic era, when memoirists regarded public examination of their own feelings as inappropriate and preferred to concentrate on describing the characteristic details of the world around them: the view from Anna's bedroom window onto a side street overgrown with nettles and burdock, the train ride for outings to nearby Pavlovsk,and the scent of strawberries for sale in the station store. This classicist ethos of clear-eyed observation and self-restraint is a characteristic trait of all her poems, from the earliest to the last.
Yet equally characteristic of Akhmatova is a thoroughly romantic strain of self-consciousness, a sense of herself as someone special, someone fated to live a consuming drama, whether personal or historical. This tendency also appears in reminiscences of her girlhood, where it is linked with the summers her family spent on the Black Sea. By Akhmatova's account, at the seacoast the proper young lady of Tsarskoe Selo revealed her true colors as a bold nonconformist who delighted in shocking respectable society. In an age when women decorously covered themselves while bathing by the shore, the young Anna Gorenko would run about sunburned and hatless, jump headlong into the sea and swim like a fish, wearing a thin dress with nothing on beneath. When an aunt rebuked the thirteen-year-old girl for such conduct, saying, "If I were your mama, I would cry all the time," she retorted, "It's better for both of us that you're not my mama." Such bohemianism was, of course, a fitting trait for a budding poet: at age thirteen, Akhmatova claimed, she had already read Charles-Pierre Baudelaire, Paul Verlaine, and all the poètes maudits in the original and had written her first poem two years before.
Akhmatova regarded herself as destined to be a poet, but she would have been the first to point out that one must learn to be a good poet. And during her childhood in the 1890s, Russian poetry was at a low point in its history. The average educated Russian had come to regard poetry as a frivolous aesthetic self-indulgence. The only book of poetry in the Gorenko household was a volume of Nikolai Nekrasov, a contemporary of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky whose poems were widely admired not for their strikingly innovative poetic language and forms, but for their socially conscious depictions of the hard life of the peasantry. Nevertheless, poetry was not completely lacking in defenders. The 1890s saw the rise of a new literary movement, which named itself Symbolism in homage to its French contemporaries, but which also drew inspiration from Edgar Allan Poe, Dostoyevsky, and the philosopher-mystic Vladimir Solovyov (who died in 1900). Symbolism was fascinated by the irrational, the extreme, the otherworldly. It saw the poet as the bearer of a hidden truth which could be expressed only indirectly, through symbols. The young poets who made up the movement undertook their chosen task with great enthusiasm, and by the turn of the twentieth century had produced a considerable amount of literary scandal and some good poems. It was in the midst of this literary ferment that the young Akhmatova found her own poetic voice. And she was brought into this artistic world by another young aspiring poet, who was also to become her husband-Nikolai Gumilyov.
Akhmatova and Gumilyov met on Christmas Eve, 1903, when the fourteen-year-old Anna and a girlfriend went out shopping for Christmas tree ornaments and ran into the seventeen-year-old Nikolai and his older brother. The girlfriend, who already knew "the Gumilyov boys," made the introductions and noticed that Anna seemed unimpressed. Gumilyov, however, apparently felt love at first sight, and the next few years of their relationship would be a dizzying set of variations on the old theme, "Much ado there was, God wot, / He would love and she would not." In the fall of 1904, Anna's older sister Inna married Sergei von Shtein. Every Thursday the young von Shteins invited friends for tea and conversation, and Gumilyov, an acquaintance of von Shtein, seized the occasion to meet Anna regularly. He also made it a point to cultivate the acquaintance of Anna's brother Andrei, two years her senior and one year Gumilyov's junior. At Easter 1905, Anna's refusal to take his courtship seriously drove Nikolai to despair. He attempted suicide, which frightened and angered Anna, and she broke off the relationship with him.
The year 1905 was a tumultuous one, both for the Gorenko family and for the country. The Russian government's expansionism in the Far East had brought it into conflict with Japan, which had its own imperialist agenda. In 1904, the Japanese declared war. The tsarist government, although caught off guard, was initially confident of European superiority to "Asiatics" and convinced that a victorious war would shore up its sagging domestic support. But Russia's Far Eastern military command was inept, and the supply lines across thousands of miles of Siberia were inadequate. In December 1904, the Russians surrendered the key fortress of Port Arthur in northern China. Instead of victory shoring up the regime, defeat was undermining it; and the number of troops stationed in Asia meant that fewer were available to put down uprisings in European Russia. On January 9, 1905, a group of unarmed Petersburg workers led by a priest undertook a march to the palace to present a petition of their grievances to the tsar. They were fired upon by mounted troops, and in the close quarters of the crowded street, casualties were heavy-ninety-two deaths, according to the official figures; several times that, according to unofficial ones. "Bloody Sunday," as the massacre came to be called, was the start of a series of labor strikes and peasant rebellions throughout the country. In May 1905, as the Russian Pacific Squadron sailed toward Vladivostok through the Strait of Tsushima, off the southern coast of Japan, it was attacked by the faster and more modern fleet of Admiral Heihachiro Togo and annihilated. The Gorenkos, as a naval family, felt the blow particularly painfully. More than fifty years later, Akhmatova would write, "January 9 and Tsushima were a shock that lasted my whole life, and since it was the first one, it was especially terrible." That summer, the world of Anna's childhood fell apart: her father left her mother for his mistress, and Inna Erazmovna took the children and moved to Eupatoria, in the Crimea. The lonely Anna, as she later recalled, "pined for Tsarskoe Selo and wrote a great number of incompetent poems."
In October 1905, as Tsar Nicholas II was preparing to issue the semi-constitution known as the October Manifesto, the twenty-year-old Nikolai Gumilyov published his first volume of poems, the proudly titled Path of the Conquistadors. He sent a copy to Andrei Gorenko, but even though many of the poems were dedicated to Anna, he did not dare to send her a copy. Contact between the two was renewed in the fall of 1906, when Anna wrote to Gumilyov, then in Paris studying literature at the Sorbonne. It is not clear what prompted her to break her long silence; perhaps she wanted to respond to Gumilyov's expressions of sympathy for the family following Inna von Shtein's death from tuberculosis in July 1906. In any event, Gumilyov promptly wrote back to the seventeen-year-old Anna with a marriage proposal. The letters that Akhmatova was writing at this time to her widowed brother-in-law Sergei, the member of her family circle in whom she most confided, show that she was deeply in love with another man who did not return her affection. Nevertheless, she accepted Gumilyov's proposal, and in February 1907 she wrote to von Shtein, "I am going to marry my childhood friend, Nikolai Stepanovich Gumilyov. He has loved me for 3 years now, and I believe that it is my fate to be his wife. Whether or not I love him, I do not know, but it seems to me that I do." In a second letter written four days later, she added, "I am poisoned for my whole life; bitter is the poison of unrequited love! Will I be able to begin to live again? Certainly not! But Gumilyov is my Fate, and I obediently submit to it. Don't condemn me, if you can. I swear to you, by all that is holy to me, that this unhappy man will be happy with me."
But in June 1907, when Gumilyov returned from Paris to see Anna, she again quarreled with him and made it clear to him that she was "not innocent" (to use the quaint expression of his biographer). He returned to Paris alone, and before the year was out he made two more suicide attempts. January 1908 saw the publication of his second book of poems, Romantic Flowers, with a dedication to Anna Andreyevna Gorenko. Back in Russia, he proposed again in April 1908 and was again refused. Searching for new experiences and inspirations, in September 1908 Gumilyov set off for Egypt, while the nineteen-year-old Akhmatova enrolled in prelaw in the Kiev Advanced Courses for Women. He returned to Crimea in the late spring of 1909, again proposed to Akhmatova, and was again refused. He asked her if she loved him, and she replied, "I don't love you, but I consider you an outstanding individual."
Certainly Gumilyov was outstandingly persistent, and he finally got his way. According to Akhmatova's recollections, she decided to marry him when she read a phrase in a letter he wrote to her in fall 1909, "I've come to understand that the only things in the world that interest me are those related to you." Given Gumilyov's many avowals, it is difficult to believe that one declaration more or less could have been so crucial. Perhaps his sheer insistence confirmed her previously expressed belief that he was her fate. In any event, at the end of November 1909, when Gumilyov was passing through Kiev en route to Africa, he again proposed to Akhmatova, and this time she said yes. He was so afraid she would not go through with the wedding that in February 1910, when he returned to Russia and she came to meet him at the station, he introduced her to several of his friends but did not mention that she was his fiancée. The wedding did take place, however, in Kiev on April 25, 1910, nine days after the publication of the groom's third book of poems, Pearl. Akhmatova's family regarded the marriage as doomed from the start and registered their disapproval by refusing to attend-an absence which offended the twenty-year-old bride but did not deter her. A week later, the young couple left for a honeymoon in Paris.
It was Akhmatova's first trip outside Russia, but, like any educated pre-Revolutionary Russian, she was fluent in French and had been brought up on French culture. Gumilyov, who knew the city well, proudly escorted his bride to museums, exhibitions, and cafes. Years later she recalled her strolls through the city: "The construction of the new boulevards on the living body of Paris (as described by Zola) had not yet been completely finished (Boulevard Raspail). Werner, a friend of Edison's, pointed out two tables in the Taverne de Panthéon and said: 'And those are your Social Democrats-the Bolsheviks sit here, the Mensheviks over there.'"
There were other compatriots in Paris, however, who interested Akhmatova much more than political exiles, for this was the period of the first great triumphs of Sergei Diaghilev's Ballets Russes. Diaghilev represented in dance and opera the same discontent with art dominated by social consciousness that in literature had given rise to Symbolism. Realism had been the artistic keynote of the preceding generation; the new generation regarded ordinary life as drab and prized theatricality as an escape from it. Guided by this love of theatricality and Richard Wagner's doctrine of the Gesamtkunstwerk, or "unified work of art," Diaghilev and his collaborators achieved some of their greatest successes in the fields of opera and ballet. In 1908, Diaghilev arranged for the first complete performance of Modest Moussorgsky's Boris Godunov (in the Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov arrangement) to be staged at the Paris Opéra, with Fyodor Chaliapin singing the title part. The set designs were by Alexander Benois and Alexander Golovin, both painters of note in their own right, and the costumes were the work of Ivan Bilibin, a specialist in folk art. Chaliapin instantly became the world's most famous basso, and the production won rave reviews. Success, for Diaghilev, was only an incentive to aim higher. Starting in 1909, he brought the Ballets Russes to the West for a series of tours, first in Paris and then through the capitals of Europe. For the first time the West saw the dancing of Vaslav Nijinsky, Tamara Karsavina, and Anna Pavlova, and these now-legendary dancers were brilliantly supported by the contributions of Michel Fokine as choreographer and Benois and Leon Bakst as stage designers. In 1910, the Ballets Russes staged a new work based on a Russian folktale, with music composed by an unknown twenty-six-year-old: the Paris premiere of Igor Stravinsky's Firebird made him an overnight celebrity. Continuing in the vein of Russian popular tradition, Stravinsky turned to the characters of the puppet theater presented at country fairs and during the festivities of Maslenitsa (the Russian pre-Lenten carnival). The result was the ballet Petrouchka, which had its premiere in Paris in 1911 with Nijinsky in the title role; it was to become Nijinsky's favorite part.
After a month in Paris, Akhmatova and Gumilyov returned to Petersburg. On their way back, they found themselves in the same train compartment with an acquaintance, the poet and critic Sergei Makovsky, with whom they enthusiastically shared their impressions of Diaghilev's operas and ballets. Makovsky was strongly impressed by his female companion, not merely as the "wife of the poet," but as a person in her own right: "Everything about the appearance of the Akhmatova of that time-tall, thin, quiet, very pale, with a sorrowful crease to her mouth and satiny bangs on her forehead (the fashion in Paris)-was attractive and evoked a feeling half of touched curiosity, half of pity." His description suggests Akhmatova's self-evaluation some fifty years later: "In 1910, when people met the twenty-year-old wife of N. Gumilyov, pale, dark-haired, very slender and graceful, with beautiful hands and a Bourbon profile, it never crossed their minds that this person already had behind her a vast and painful experience of life, that the poems of 1910-11 were not a beginning, but a continuation."
Excerpted from The Word That Causes Death's Defeat Copyright © 2004 by Yale University. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
Nancy K. Anderson is an independent scholar. She is a highly regarded translator of Russian poetry, including Yale University Press’s translation of Alexander Pushkin’s Little Tragedies, and has taught courses in Russian, Tolstoy, and Dostoevsky at Yale University.
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