Akhmatova is the grande dame of Russian poetry. And, though she was also a first-rate essayist, translator, and literary scholar, she is most known for her modernist verse — full of passion, drama, and a deep emotion.
Born of aristocratic roots, she took her pen name from a reported maternal ancestor — Khan Akhmat. He was the last Tatar chieftain to accept tribute from Russian rulers and assassinated in his tent in 1481. Akhmat belonged to the royal bloodline of Genghis Khan.
Akhmatova led a very bohemian life for her times — that too, in a Russia that was rapidly moving towards the 1917 revolution and the formation of the Soviet Union. Her standing in Russian literati and aristocracy had its ups and downs, including a long 15-year stretch when she was banned from publishing at all. Yet, through it all, she managed to turn out a profuse amount of writing, take various lovers, and travel across Russia, France and other parts of Europe.
Today, Akhmatova is most remembered for her ‘Requiem‘ — a narrative epic in ten poems that were both intricate and complex in their language, describing life under Stalinist terror. One of the most famous literary anecdotes out there is of how she came to writing it. In those troubled times during the late 1930s, her son, Lev, was arrested and imprisoned (as were many dissidents). For 17 months, she went often to visit him in Leningrad prison and plead on his behalf, standing in long lines outside the stone walls. Akhmatova described one particular such occasion as the inspiration for this work:
One day somebody in the crowd identified me. Standing behind me was a woman, with lips blue from cold, who had, of course, never heard me called by name before. Now she started out of the torpor common to us all and asked me in a whisper (everyone whispered there):
” ‘Can you describe this?’
And I said: ‘I can.’
Then something like a smile passed fleetingly over what had once been her face.
The single room that she lived in for 40 years, including during those years when everyone she knew was either being exiled, imprisoned, or killed, is an almost-forgotten shell of a museum today. In this room, she had taken to writing agonizing poetry about the hunger, disgrace, terror, pain of those years. And, as she had to purge rather than publish most of that work, she developed a ritual where she’d write a poem, commit it to memory, then burn it. Eventually, out of desperation for her son’s life, she also took to writing propagandistic and patriotic poems, praising Stalin and Communist Russia. But her half-hearted attempts here did not convince even Stalin himself.
Her unrelenting restraint and never-failing elegance of expression were matched only by her unwavering gaze deep into the bowels of humanity. Even so, she aimed to speak for all:
If a gag should blind my tortured mouth,
through which a hundred million people shout,
then let them pray for me, as I do pray
~ From Requiem (1940). Trans. Kunitz and Hayward
Yet, she has been muse and inspiration to many poets and writers who came after her. Joseph Brodsky famously called her “the keening muse” due to her mostly-tragic stance.
Today’s poem is her own reflection on the matter of muses. It begins with the typical Akhmatova tragic air. And it centers on a theme she was very partial to — that of the poet’s lot and trade in the world.
Within two lines, we get the immediate impression that this muse that the speaker is invoking is godlike in her omnipotence. Every desirable quality that the speaker possesses is of no importance before this particular muse.
The reference to the flute in hand, in the fourth line, tells us that the particular Muse is Euterpe. Of the Nine Muses in Greek mythology, Euterpe’s domain is the song and elegiac poetry. The instrument, by the way, is an ancient Greek one known as aulos.
In the second verse, the speaker describes how the Muse is haughty and imperial in her demeanor rather than a benevolent, graceful giver. An interesting take because it gives us some hints about Akhmatova’s conflicted relationship with her own writing.
Dante is referenced here and has shown up in another poem too as Akhmatova thought very highly of him. She considered him the prototypical poet in exile, longing for his native land. In her poem, Dante, she wrote:
Even after his death he did not return
to the city that nursed him.
Going away, this man did not look back.
To him I sing this song.
Torches, night, a last embrace,
outside in her streets the mob howling.
He sent her a curse from hell
and in heaven could not forget her.
But never, in a penitent’s shirt,
did he walk barefoot with lighted candle
through his beloved Florence,
perfidious, base, and irremediably home.
Back to this poem, though. Here, the poem’s speaker asks the Muse if she inspired Dante in the writing of his Inferno. The response is a terse-sounding “Yes”. Another interesting choice in the referencing of the Inferno versus some other work by Dante. This is the first part or cantica of his magnum opus, ‘The Divine Comedy‘. In it, he described his journey through hell after being lost in dark woods. The poet, Virgil, one of the many poets Dante referenced in the overall work, took on the role of guide and philosopher throughout the underworld journey. Every sin committed in that underworld was met with a punishment that was a form of poetic justice (e.g. fortune tellers required to walk backward so they could not see what was ahead of them — literally). Dante and Virgil eventually made it through hell and its many circles to reach the next level: Purgatory. That this poem’s speaker asks the tyrannical Muse who has appeared before her about the writing by Dante of this particular work indicates either that the speaker is attempting a similar work of such complexity and skill or that she considers her journey as a poet as that of Dante’s through Hell. Perhaps a bit of both, given Akhmatova’s own poetry and life.
In the end, the poem is, perhaps, a sad meditation on poetic fate — at least, as Akhmatova saw it, given her own circumstances. And it gives us, all at once, the poet’s complex, many-sided relationship with his or her art — one that demands a slavish, inescapable obeisance to an elusive, cruel Muse even as creative standards are at an impossibly high level. Yet, the reference to a great poet, who himself referenced other great poets as guides and inspiration, is a glimmer of hope because they all made it through hell and survived; they managed to secure the Muse’s favors somehow. And that’s enough to keep us creatives going even in the toughest of times, don’t you think?
All that I am hangs by a thread tonight
as I wait for her whom no one can command.
Whatever I cherish most–youth, freedom, glory–
fades before her who bears the flute in her hand.
And, look! She comes . . . she tosses back her veil,
staring me down, serene and pitiless.
“Are you the one,” I ask, “whom Dante heard dictate
the lines of his Inferno?” She answers: “Yes.”
~ Poems of Akhmatova, Anna Akhmatova. Translated by Stanley Kunitz with Max Hayward