Authors: Anna Akhmatova

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2017

Russian Symbolist poet

June 23, 1889

Bol'shoy Fontan, near Odessa, Ukraine, Russian Empire (now in Ukraine)

March 5, 1966

Domodedovo, near Moscow, Soviet Union (now in Russia)

Biography

Anna Akhmatova was born Anna Andreyevna Gorenko on the Black Sea coast not far from the port city of Odessa. Her father, a retired naval engineer, soon resettled the family in the town of Tsarskoe Selo, a suburb of St. Petersburg where the Imperial Summer Palace was located. Even though her parents’ household had virtually no books, Anna had read Charles Baudelaire and Paul Verlaine and had written her first poems by the age of thirteen.

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Around Christmas, 1903, Anna met another teenage poet, Nikolay Gumilyov, who fell passionately in love with her; for the next fifteen years his poetry was obsessed with her. For several years, Gumilyov entreated her to marry him; she finally did so in April, 1910. The union, however, was doomed by their incompatible temperaments: The restless Gumilyov regarded home as a prison and personal attachments as fetters; he traveled for months without Anna and became an inveterate womanizer. In 1918 the couple divorced.

Anna Akhmatova

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Library of Congress

In 1912 Akhmatova published her first poetry collection, Vecher (evening), dealing with a woman who is either unloved or has lost her lover—Gumilyov had spent most of 1911 in Africa without her. The style is laconic and conversational, with emotions expressed through gestures. In her second volume, Chetki (rosary), she accepts the loss of love and consoles herself with poetry. This text went into nine editions and started what was called an “Akhmatova School” among young Russian poets. Her third collection, Belaya staya (white flock), often contrasts friendship with sexual feelings, as in, “There is a sacred line in human intimacy / That love and passion cannot cross.” These first three works renounce mystical aims and instead dramatize a narrow range of intimate subjects in lucid, graphic, colloquial language.

After her separation from Gumilyov, Akhmatova was briefly married (1918-1921) to Vladmir Shileyko, a brilliant Assyriologist and minor poet. Shileyko was possessively jealous of her and refused to respect her work, sometimes burning her poems. Meanwhile, Gumilyov incurred the ill will of the Soviet regime by openly expounding monarchist views. In 1921 he was arrested, charged with counterrevolutionary activity, and shot.

In 1921 Akhmatova published the slim volume Podorozhnik (plantain), the contents of which were soon included in the much larger collection Anno Domini MCMXXI. These poems render not only private experiences but also stirring public events from the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 to the end of Russia’s civil war in 1922. Her response to them is largely negative; she views St. Petersburg as “a city of sorrow and anger” and compares her country, where homes are marked with crosses of death, with the Western world, where “the sun above keeps shining.” Her private poems picture a harsh husband who deprives the heroine of her freedom, detesting her smiles, prayers, and poems. The style is dry, terse, and aphoristic.

From 1923 to 1940 Akhmatova published no poetry, although she continued to write. The Communist Party’s Central Committee banned publication of her work for seventeen years, condemning it as “a bourgeois relic.” She held herself aloof from literary battles, choosing by her silence to join the “inner migration.” Her son, Lev Gumilyov, was arrested at the age of twenty in 1934, released, rearrested in 1937, permitted to join the army in 1941, once more arrested in 1949, and not freed again until 1956. Desperately seeking Lev’s freedom, Akhmatova tried to appease the authorities by writing a mediocre cycle of poems, “In Praise of Peace” (1950), that praised Joseph Stalin. Later, she requested that this text be omitted from her collected works.

During World War II, Akhmatova remained in Leningrad for much of its terrible siege and wrote some magnificent patriotic poems that were widely copied and recited. Nevertheless, she was singled out in 1946 for an official attack by the minister for cultural affairs, Andrey Zhdanov, as a decadent poet of mysticism and eroticism. She was expelled from the Union of Soviet Writers, and the galleys of a book she was about to publish were destroyed. This quarantine did not end until Stalin’s death in 1953.

Akhmatova spent her remaining years in poverty and poor health. In 1964, she bravely came to the defense of Joseph Brodsky, a brilliant young poet who had been her protégé. He had been sentenced to five years’ exile with compulsory labor for the crime of “parasitism.” Akhmatova mobilized so much support for Brodsky that the authorities permitted him to leave the country; he subsequently settled in the United States and won the Nobel Prize in Literature. In December, 1964, she was, at last, fully “rehabilitated” and permitted to travel to Italy, France, and England. Two years later, she died of a heart attack.

The magnificent cycle Requiem contains some of her most moving lyrics; it centers on her years of suffering as her son was imprisoned. In it she uses religious language to mark a progression of sorrows similar to Mary the Mother’s laments at the foot of the cross. Besides Requiem, Akhmatova’s greatest achievement is A Poem without a Hero, on which she labored for twenty-two years. It can be read as an autobiographical memoir, a reflection on the nature of time, a lament on human destiny, and a poetic fantasy featuring many references to Western writers. Its extraordinary verbal and formal beauty has caused some critics to consider it the richest Russian poem of the twentieth century.

Since Akhmatova's death in 1966, numerous collections of her poems and prose writings have been published in Russian. Her correspondence and diaries have also appeared in print, and some of her works have been translated into English, German, and French, making her better known outside the former Soviet Union as well.

Author Works Poetry: Vecher, 1912 Chetki, 1914 Belaya staya, 1917 Podorozhnik, 1921 Anno Domini MCMXXI, 1922, 1923 Iz shesti knig, 1940 Izbrannye stikhotvoreniia, 1943 Stikhotvoreniia, 1958, 1961 Poema bez geroya, 1960 (A Poem without a Hero, 1973) Rekviem, 1963 (Requiem, 1964) Beg vremeni, 1965 Sochineniya, 1965-1983 (3 volumes) Poems of A., 1973 Tale without a Hero, and Twenty-Two Poems by Anna Axmatova, 1973 Selected Poems, 1976 Requiem, and Poem without a Hero, 1976 You Will Hear Thunder, 1976 Anna Akhmatova: Poems, 1983 Lirika, 1989 The Complete Poems of Anna Akhmatova, 1990 (2 vol.; Roberta Reeder, editor) A Stranger to Heaven and Earth: Poems of Anna Akhmatova, 1993 Nonfiction: O Pushkine: Stat'i i zametki, 1977 My Half Century: Selected Prose, 1992 (Ronald Meyer, editor) The Akhmatova Journals, 1994 (pub. in Russian as Zapiski ob Anne Akhmatovoĭ) Translation: Klassicheskai︠a︡ poėzii︠a︡ Vostoka, 1969 Bibliography Akhmatova, Anna A. Poems. Translated by Lyn Coffin, with an introduction by Joseph Brodsky. New York: W. W. Norton, 1983. Selected, high-quality verse translations of Akhmatova’s poems, including several not found elsewhere. The insightful introduction by Brodsky lends the book biographical and critical significance. Akhmatova, Anna A. Poems of Akhmatova. Translated by Stanley Kunitz, with an introduction by Kunitz and Max Hayward. Boston: Little, Brown, 1973. A concise biographical sketch by Max Hayward, together with verse translations by Kunitz. A nice feature of this collection is that it pairs Akhmatova’s Russian versions with Kunitz’s translations on opposing pages. Akhmatova, Anna A. Selected Poems. Edited by Walter Arndt. Translated by Arndt, Robin Kemball, and Carl R. Proffer. Ann Arbor, Mich.: Ardis, 1976. This collection includes a fine article entitled “The Akhmatova Phenomenon” and a chronicle of Akhmatova’s life. The translations are especially well done and well explained by notes. Driver, Sam N. Anna Akhmatova. New York: Twayne, 1972. This is the first English biography, written six years after Akhmatova’s death. The first third of the book deals with biographical facts and the remainder with a thematic explanation of the poetry. It is a concise yet scholarly work, still serving as the best primary introduction to Akhmatova’s life. Feinstein, Elaine. Anna of All the Russians: The Life of Anna Akhmatov. New York: Knopf, 2006. The extensive details of this biography bring to life Akhmatov’s complex personality and grant readers insight to her poetry. Haight, Amanda. Anna Akhmatova: A Poetic Pilgrimage. London: Oxford University Press, 1976. A substantially more detailed biographical treatment of Akhmatova’s life by a Western scholar personally acquainted with Akhmatova. This work is a valuable resource for the specialist as well as the layperson. Ketchian, Sonia. The Poetry of Anna Akhmatova: A Conquest of Time and Space. Munich: Otto Sagner Verlag, 1986. A brilliant scholarly study of themes and method in Akhmatova’s poetry. Here too is the most complete inclusion and recapitulation of recent Akhmatova scholarship, both Soviet and Western. The work, however, would appeal primarily to literary scholars. Leiter, Sharon. Akhmatova’s Petersburg. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1983. A review of Akhmatova’s life in her beloved St. Petersburg and of political circumstances providing the material for, and leading to, her poetry inspired by St. Petersburg. The book also discusses Akhmatova’s vision of this city. Mandelstam, Nadezhda. Hope Against Hope: A Memoir. Translated by Max Hayward, with an introduction by Clarence Brown. New York: Atheneum, 1976. This memoir by Mandelstam’s widow includes many a glimpse into Akhmatova’s life as well and is especially valuable to those wishing to understand what a poet’s life was like in the Soviet Union of the Stalin era. Reeder, Roberta. Anna Akhmatova: Poet and Prophet. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1994. In the most extensive book in English on Akhmatova, Reeder discusses in scholarly fashion all facets of her life and work. Stressing the artistic aspects of her poems, the author also examines the political circumstances in which she had to live. A forty-six-page bibliography is particularly useful. Rosslyn, Wendy. The Prince, the Fool, and the Nunnery: The Religious Theme in the Early Poetry of Anna Akhmatova. Amersham, England: Avebury, 1984. An examination of the interplay of religion and love in Akhmatova’s early collections, this book also contains considerable biographical detail. Poems are included in both Russian and English translation. Venclova, Tomas. "Meetings with Anna Akhmatova." Interview by Ellen Hinsey. New England Review (10531297), vol. 34, no. 3/4, Jan. 2014, pp. 170–82. Literary Reference Center Plus, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=lkh&AN=94377240&site=lrc-plus. Accessed 7 Apr. 2017. An interview in which Venclova describes what he learned about Akhmatova's life and scholarship through a series of conversations with the poet. Verheul, Kees. The Theme of Time in the Poetry of Anna Axmatova. The Hague: Mouton, 1971. This was one of the first English scholarly monographs devoted to Akhmatova’s poetry and is still one of the most cited. The book is written for the specialist and includes many untranslated Russian citations. Wells, David N. Anna Akhmatova: Her Poetry. Oxford, England: Berg, 1996. Wells offers a succinct overview of Akhmatova’s life and poetry from the beginnings to her later works. His is a penetrating study, with many citations from her poetry in both Russian and English, stressing her main achievements.

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