Poetry Sunday: Lot's Wife

Today’s Poetry Sunday features Anna Akhmatova, one of the most famous and critically praised Russian poets of the twentieth century. Anna Ahkmatova was born Anna Andreyevna Gorenko in 1889; she started writing early in life, and took the surname of her grandmother after her father forbade her to sully his respectable name by publishing “decadent” poetry under it.

Akhmatova was a prominent poet of the Russian Acmeist movement, which rejected symbolism in favor of clarity and immediate, vivid imagery. Tragically, she had the misfortune to spend much of her life under Stalinism; she was married three times in her life and saw two of her husbands executed by that tyrannical regime for anti-Soviet activities. Akhmatova herself was banned from publication from 1925 to 1940 for suspected subversive imagery in her writing and for her relationships with official enemies of the state. Nevertheless, despite government repression, she remained a much-loved and unofficial symbol of Russian heritage. Her poetry continued to circulate underground, and later in her life she was grudgingly allowed by the Soviet government to resume publishing. However, her gripping and deeply poignant account of Stalinist terror, Requiem, was not published in her homeland until 1987, two years before the fall of the Berlin Wall.

I haven’t found much information about her religious affiliation, except for a few references which say she was a member of the Russian Orthodox church. Nevertheless, an unmistakable note of freethought sentiment is evident in today’s poem, which retells a famous story of the Old Testament from a viewpoint more sympathetic to the woman – an allegory, perhaps, of Akhmatova’s own turbulent life and her suffering in the face of what was taken from her. The translation given is by Richard Wilbur.

Lot’s Wife

The just man followed then his angel guide
Where he strode on the black highway, hulking and bright;
But a wild grief in his wife’s bosom cried,
Look back, it is not too late for a last sight!

Of the red towers of your native Sodom, the square
Where once you sang, the gardens you shall mourn,
And the tall house with empty windows where
You loved your husband and your babes were born.

She turned, and looking on the bitter view
Her eyes were welded shut by mortal pain;
Into transparent salt her body grew,
And her quick feet were rooted in the plain.

Who would waste tears upon her? Is she not
The least of our losses, this unhappy wife?
Yet in my heart she will not be forgot
Who, for a single glance, gave up her life.

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  • http://thegreenbelt.blogspot.com The Ridger

    Ah, Akhmatova. Thanks for sharing this.

  • K

    Yes the rhymie is very cute. Pain-plain. Wife-life.
    But all it does for me is smack me in the head with how stupid the original story is. I mean, suspend your disbelief and pretend a true-blue, honest-to-goodness magical being told you that if you turn around, you will die, WHY WOULD ANYONE TURN AROUND? To look at your old house? How lame is that? It’s utter nonsense. People who lose their houses always say, “It’s just stuff. It can be replaced. At least the important things, my family is safe.” No one is going to turn around. It doesn’t make any sense.
    Which leads to the second part of the dumb. If you’re a magical being, who the hell cares if someone looks back? Don’t you have other things to do with your time then to set up silly rules just to see if anyone is following them? Just for grins? Just to stroke your weak little ego? It doesn’t make sense.
    And why salt? Why not a statue of marble or gold or silver so everyone would want to come see it. Come see the foolish mortal who didn’t follow MY rules. It would last forever and people for the next thousand years would know that it’s my way or the highway. The statue could be moved to city square and parents could threaten willful children with the curse of the statue. But no, a pillar of salt. That should last what? A month? It doesn’t make sense.
    The bible is poorly written tripe and any little high school rhymie rhyme can only serve to emphasizes teh dumb.

  • http://elliptica.blogspot.com Lynet

    The Bible is myth and the theme of looking back turns up in other myths; it’s a powerful symbol, after all. I like this poem — even in translation, I find it swift and powerful, and it’s easy to see how the cry to be allowed to look back fits in with the communist regime which insisted that everything about the previous regime was evil and all changes dictated by the government ought ot be welcomed.

  • http://nesoo.wordpress.com/ Nes

    Yes, I don’t recall the details, but I seem to recall one Greek myth where the hero couldn’t look back as he was leaving Hades for some reason or another.

    Ahh, there it is: Orpheus and Eurydice. I guess it was his wife that he couldn’t look back at.

  • Jim Coufal

    I’m certainly not a poet of any note, but below is a poem from a period in my life as I made the transition from christian to agnostic to freethinker to atheist.

    Cognitive Dissonance

    Dear God,
    Whom I neither believe nor disbelieve in,
    Watch over my loved ones as they
    Carry on this day.

    Dear God, whom if you exist,
    I don’t believe interferes in earthly actions,
    Please protect all those
    Who I pray for each morning and night.

    Dear God,
    You who can’t be understood
    Because you are unfathomable,
    Yet have words put in your mouth each day,
    How do you account for the beauty of your creation?
    And the ugliness and evil that you allow to happen?
    But, of course, you are not accountable.

    Dear God,
    Who I neither believe nor disbelieve in,
    Why do I long for you?
    Why do I feel it necessary to pray?
    I am appalled by you,
    I love you.
    Dear God.

    J.E. Coufal
    August 31, 2003
    Unpublished copyright

  • Jennifer A. Burdoo

    Actually, I was always under the impression that she looked back out of spite/glee/satisfaction at seeing her neighbors die — ie a selfish motive, rather than a “I’m gonna miss this place” feeling or an accidental, “Oops, stumbled, head turned the wrong way!” moment. The former would make this a cautionary tale about arrogance, but I don’t recall the Bible actually SAYING that, and judging from all the other bloodthirstiness in the book, it’s easy to get the impression it was just God’s whim.

    You’d think a book written by a perfect being would be… better written. He had all eternity to edit the damn thing, right?

  • Gary F

    K is right, it doesn’t make sense that someone would disobey God if he had made it obvious to her that he existed. If the creator of the universe, who was actively destroying the city in which I had lived, had told me not to look back, you could be certain that I would make sure not to look back. I’d probably just stay focused on the path in front of me, constantly making sure I wouldn’t look behind me. But the Bible has several instances of people directly disobeying God. Adam and Eve are told not to eat the fruit, and what could be easier to do than avoid a fruit? But they go and eat it because a serpent tells them to. God brings his people out of Egypt, with many obvious miracles, including parting the Red Sea, and yet they build an idol to worship instead.

    Stories such as these are among the many problems I see with the Bible, and which make the case of the Christian harder to believe. Why would anyone behave in a way that goes against the will of a god who has made his existence obvious? Why should I follow the will of this god, when the best evidence for his existence is an unbelievable story?

  • yoyo

    I think it’s a very sad poem to me, an indictment of a cruel and stupid god. She looks back because the real world, her home, her friends, her history and her community is more important than an imaginary “hereafter” and a brutal jealous god punishes her for it.

  • yoyo

    I can understand where Lot’s wife (she doesnt even have a bloody name!) is an important image for a Russian who lived in her period. Recent history was not something you were allowed to look back at or mourn for. It was to be totally erased, or you were turned to salt (killed).

  • Ric

    Yoyo, you got it right. The story of Lot’s wife just goes to show that the Judeo-Christian god is a monster.

  • steve bowen

    Strange how the idiot who disobeys in these mysths is always a woman. Misogyny much!

  • heliobates

    K writes

    Yes the rhymie is very cute. Pain-plain. Wife-life. But all it does for me is smack me in the head with how stupid the original story is.

    Then you missed the point by several lightyears.

    I mean, suspend your disbelief and pretend a true-blue, honest-to-goodness magical being told you that if you turn around, you will die, WHY WOULD ANYONE TURN AROUND?

    From the poem:

    it is not too late for a last sight!

    Of the red towers of your native Sodom, the square
    Where once you sang, the gardens you shall mourn,
    And the tall house with empty windows where
    You loved your husband and your babes were born.

    K writes:

    The bible is poorly written tripe and any little high school rhymie rhyme can only serve to emphasizes teh dumb.

    This is not a “high school rhymie”. That you barely understand one its levels of meaning, or that realize you’re reading a translation, says nothing about the poem itself and everything about you as a reader.

  • http://elliptica.blogspot.com Lynet

    Strange how the idiot who disobeys in these mysths is always a woman. Misogyny much!

    Steve, for completeness’ sake, I have to point out that it was Orpheus who looked back at Euridice, not the other way around.

    However, the standard version of the story explains that it was all her fault because she nagged him into it.

  • steve bowen

    However, the standard version of the story explains that it was all her fault because she nagged him into it.

    Now that I can believe :)

  • Elian

    I find it amazing when people mock God for allowing so much evil in the world and at the same time mock him for destroying it.
    One might suggest that a person would gain at least a basic understanding of what one so vehemently criticizes, at least of the story itself. Why was Lot in Sodom? Why did God destroy it? Just prior to this part of the story, (it is part of a larger story), Abraham and his nephew, Lot, had to separate because their stuff was just too much for them to live in the same area. Lot chose to live in the valley of Sodom because it looked best to him. Apparently, however, they did not live on the plain for long but quickly settled in Sodom itself, a city known for its wickedness. Lot would have been destroyed with the city except for Abraham’s pleading with God to allow Lot and his family to get out. When the messengers of God showed up to bring Lot out, his neighbors demanded that Lot put them out of his house so that they could rape them. Lot, to show how noble a man he had become, offered to let them rape his two daughters instead. The messengers allowed neither.
    The fate of Lot’s wife was not due to some uncontrollable anger from God. He had given them a clear choice, they could be destroyed with Sodom or they could follow him out. They had previously chosen the wickedness of Sodom. God was giving them a second chance. She looked back not to say good-by but because she wanted to go back there. Lot’s wife chose her own fate.
    If you demand that God rid the earth of evil and the suffering that results from it, by all means, step to the front of the line.
    As to the great surprise that anyone would directly disobey God’s command and chose their own destruction, perhaps we need to examine our own practices.

  • http://elliptica.blogspot.com Lynet

    Although I disagree with you, Elian, I have to thank you for illuminating the poem further. You’re right — in the poem above, at least, and perhaps also in the Bible story, Lot’s wife looks back in affection. This is the crime that the Soviets killed people for; this is also the crime that your interpretation of the story attributes to Lot’s wife.

    However, God is supposed to be omnipotent. Is destroying people really the only way he has of preventing them from doing evil? Leaving aside the thorny question of whether God could create humans who would always freely choose to do good, the simple fact is that, in the story as written, it’s hard to imagine that Lot’s wife is completely beyond rehabilitation. She was leaving, after all, even if she did look back.

    Lot, to show how noble a man he had become, offered to let them rape his two daughters instead.

    Your tongue is in your cheek when you say that, right?

  • http://www.huntsville.org Cynthia Harmon

    Look back Lot’s Wife
    Be repulsed
    Brimstone Tears melt pillars of salt

    Daughters offered to sodimize
    Necessary flight from Zoarh
    AND THERE WAS MORE

    Look back Lot’s Wife & be repulsed
    Crystalized understanding leads to DIVORCE

    DIVORCE the archetype has been missed by man. Perhaps only a woman who has had to turn & face her reality and has had to take the consequences of her actions can read the story in a new way. Her society divorces/leaves her behind & she in turn divorces them due to her awakening to the truth of her circumstance. Ask the wife of an abuser, alcoholic, workaholic, etc. who has had to face societies concept of Boys Will Be Boys. She should be able to relate.

  • joe quinton

    There does seem a lot of misogyny in the passage, and in the comments. Akhmatova brings out the feminine feelings that Lot’s wife had. We all know what they might be – they were as evident 2000 years ago as now. As Akhmatova points out the wife is not named, she is a thing. Akhmatova makes her a human being with feelings that she expresses at the risk of her life. Whatever spiritual/mythic dimensions the bible has it is based on the writings of actual men. That women were not “humans” back then is no more than we see now. The above accusation that the wife “nagged” her husband to escape is a perfect example. We should be thankful for Akhmatova’s explication of the whole story.


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