Anna Akhmatova, 'Mother Courage' of Poetry

Article excerpt

ANNA AKHMATOVA

`MOTHER COURAGE' OF POETRY

THE life of Anna Akhmatova was a tragic one. Although she had her moments of glory she also experienced terrible humiliations.

She was born in 1889, and her youth coincided with an extraordinary literary flowering, the silver age of Russian poetry. Her first volume of verses, Vecher ("Evening") was published in 1912. It was followed two years later by Chyotki ("Rosary") which was reprinted eight times and made her name. The themes of most of her early poems are meetings and separations, love and solitude. Their style is rigorous, lucid, laconic.

Her poetry was read throughout Russia, and the critics predicted a brilliant future for this "Russian Sappho". She published regularly--Belaya staya (1917; "The White Flock"), Podorozhnik (1921; "Plantain"), and Anno Domini MCMXXI (1922).

Unlike many intellectuals in her circle, Akhmatova did not emigrate after the Revolution of October 1917. Yet in 1923 her work ceased to be published. The official view was that her lyrics were alien to the new generation of readers produced by the Revolution. Fame was followed by oblivion: for seventeen years her name vanished from literature.

Life had other trials in store for her. In 1921 her first husband, the poet Nikolay Gumilyov, was executed after being accused of taking part in a counter-revolutionary conspiracy. Her son, the orientalist Lev Gumilyov, was arrested in 1935 and eventually spent fourteen years in prison and exile in Siberia. Her third husband, the art historian Nikolay Punin, died in prison.

Yet Anna Akhmatova continued to write. The anguish she shared with thousands of other women who queued outside the prisons of Leningrad inspired the cycle Rekviem (1935-1940; "Requiem"), which tells the tragic story of a mother separated from her only son. She visited her friend the poet Osip Mandelstam, exiled in Voronezh, and wrote poems filled with foreboding about his imminent death. She denounced the illegal and arbitrary acts which were being committed in her country, and exposed the cruetly of Stalin and his entourage. Fearing arrest, she memorized her verses rather than write them down.

In 1940 several poems she had written before the Revolution were published. Later, patriotic lyrics she wrote during the war were published in several newspapers and magazines.

But in 1946 she became the main target of an ideological campaign launched against the artistic and literary intelligentsia by the Central Committee of the Communist Party, which passed a resolution condemning the literary reviews Zvezda ("The Star") and Leningrad for publishing her poetry, which was branded as "bourgeois and decadent", "devoid of an ideological message" and "alien to the Soviet people". …