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.
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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