Born Anna Andreevna Gorenko on 11 June 1889 near Odessa, her father Andrei Gorenko was a maritime engineer. Her aristocratic mother Inna Stogova was a former member of the radical political group Narodnaya Volya (People's Will). The young Akhmatova knew French poets by heart as well as the Russians. She grew up in Tsarskoe Selo where she attended school, completing her final year at Fundukleevskaya gimnaziya in Kiev (1907). The same year she enrolled at the Faculty of Law at the Kiev College for Women, later withdrawing to study literature in St. Petersburg. In 1903 Akhmatova met the poet Nikolai Gumilyov whose persistent wooing led to their marriage in 1910. They travelled abroad in 1910 and 1911. In Paris Akhmatova became friendly with the yet unknown artist Modigliani who drew her as Egyptian queens and dancers. Together they visited the Louvre and recited French poetry.
Akhmatova's first poem appeared in 1907 in Gumilyov's journal Sinus. She participated in the Guild of Poets organized by Gumilyov and Gorodetsky. Soon it disassociated itself from the symbolists, giving birth to Acmeism, whose avowed principles were an emphasis on clarity, freshness, a return to earth and close ties with the literature and culture of Europe and of all ages. The symbolist Annensky was their acknowledged teacher. The popular Gumilyovs frequented the fashionable artistic cafe The Stray Dog.
The first collection of Akhmatova's verse, Evening (Vecher, 1912), appeared under the pseudonym Anna Akhmatova, taken from her Tatar great-grandmother. Hailed for its Acmeist clarity, conciseness, compressed style and precise details, the collection concurrently espoused the romantic concept of evening as a time of awakening for the sensitive young adult to life, love, and grief. Its miniature love lyrics manifested subtlety of style and message. The collection Rosary (Chetki, 1914) showed marked changes in the poet's voice, from wary expectation of betrayal to disillusionment with love coupled with the worldliness of a femme fatale. The lyrics generated numerous female epigones whom the poet deplored in her "Epigram":
taught women to speak ...
The long poem By the Very Sea (U samogo morya, 1915) synopsizes the two collections, bidding farewell to adolescent reveries and a pagan outlook on life. The persona, who spurned a fisherman's love in favor of an imaginary prince, encounters death and sorrow partly of her own doing. The White Flock (Belaya staya, 1917) presents poems on memories of lost love transformed into song in the crucible of grief. The persona evolves into a sybil whose "lips no longer kiss, but prophesy." Plantain (Podorozhnik, 1921) contains poems addressed to Boris Anrep in London as keepsakes designated for the journey to a foreign land. It concludes with Akhmatova's refusal to emigrate. In Anno Domini (1922) Akhmatova's wandering personas grow stronger and independent of their lover. Religious themes increase; there are some Biblical poems: "Lot's Wife."
Meanwhile, Gumilyov had made several trips abroad and volunteered for the cavalry in 1914. The birth of their son Lev in 1912 Failed to stabilize their marriage. In 1918 Akhmatova married Vladimir Shileiko, an Assyrologist, who tried to stop his wife's writing by burning her poems. Akhmatova grieved over Gumilyov's execution (1921) for alleged involvement in a counterrevolutionary plot. She sought solace from friends with common interests. Her friendship with the poet Osip Mandelshtam stands out. She divorced Shileiko in 1928.
After 1922 no new works of Akhmatova were published because her apolitical work was considered incompatible with the new order. Labeled an "internal emigre," she was given a meagre pension. Critics believed that her time had passed. Yet her verse continued to be cited by scholars of the Formalist school and admired by poetry lovers.
During her forced silence Akhmatova applied herself to the investigation of the life and works of Pushkin, producing some seminal articles published posthumously under the title On Pushkin (O Pushkine). She worked on The Reed (Trostnik, 1926-40) which contains poems on creation and features dedications to the poets Mandelshtam, Pasternak and Dante. From 1926 to 1940 Akhmatova lived with the art critic, Nikolai Punin. The mass arrests of the 1930s which included her son and Punin generated a dirge to human suffering, Requiem (1935-40), never published in the Soviet Union.
An edition of early works plus a new cycle. From Six Books (Iz shesti knig, 1940), was recalled after publication. The same year Akhmatova commenced the unique, cryptic, hauntingly beautiful Poem without a Hero (Poema bez geroya) which she perfected until her death. During the war she was evacuated to Tashkent. The Asian ambience, its color and motifs, found reflection in the cycle "From a Tashkent Notebook." A volume of her poetry, Izbrannoe, appeared in Tashkent in 1943.
The wartime relaxation of controls on her publications ended with the decision of the Central Committee concerning the journals Zvezda and Leningrad which unleashed attacks on Akhmatova and Zoshchenko, resulting in their expulsion from the Union of Soviet Writers without the right to publish. As a means of support and appearing in print Akhmatova began to translate from numerous languages. Six volumes have appeared as separate imprints. Despite her success, Akhmatova complained that for a poet translating was comparable to devouring one's own brains.
The "Thaw" brought the release from prison of Lev and the gradual lifting of the ban on Akhmatova's publications. An edition of her poetry, with recent works, The Course of Time (Beg vremeni), appeared under her supervision in 1958. It introduced her largest collection The Seventh Book (Sed'maya kniga), emphasizing new themes--literary craft, war, death and symbolism--as well as part of her Poem without a Hero. The ailing poet became the acknowledged grande dame of Russian letters. Young poets gathered around her. She met the American poet Robert Frost. International recognition brought the Taormina Prize for Poetry in Italy (1964) and the awarding of an honorary degree from Oxford University (1965). With Akhmatova's demise Russian literature lost a great poet.
Akhmatova's legacy consists primarily of verse incorporated in seven collections and several poemas; there are also some memoirs, mostly unpublished, literary criticism, translations of verse and of some prose. Her creative career falls into three periods: the early period - 1910-1922; the period of forced silence - 1922-1940; the late period - 1940-1966. Granted that during the early period Akhmatova was associated with the Acmeists and her work served as an example for their tenets, symbolist and romantic influences were not totally excluded from her classical verse. Mainly, the early lyrics develop the dominant love theme and ensuing chagrin in brief, superbly crafted pieces. In terms of artistic perfection there was no immature Akhmatova. The poems are presented in ego form by numerous female personas who seem like different parts of the poet. The story unfolds without a sequential pattern of verbs; the narration instead advances through switches in focus from dialog to objects and to nature which convey compositely the emotional state of the persona. In Acmeist poetics, concrete objects and interior details further the story when emotion prevents proper expression. Indeed, the poems present in miniature dramatic form the high moment following the end of love. Despite an illusory air of exactness, the speaker's rendition remains vague where the personal circumstances concerning the two principals is concerned--rather as in Greek tragedy where, due to the familiarity of the story, the dramatist could concentrate on details and nuances. Given a plot and psychology, elements of the Russian novel surface. Typical examples are "Song of the Last Meeting" and "The Gray-Eyed King." The early collections evince hints of a personal poetic diary of the poet's personas, some of whom are victims of love: "I saw my friend to the front door" (Provodila druga do perednei), "Confusion" (Smyatenie), while others,-wayward, capricious, naively destructive, or femme fatale-- inflict pain on the lover: "The boy said to me: 'How painful it is!"' (Mal'chik skazal mne: Kak eto bol'no!). The speaker often addresses a male beloved, quoting his reply or that of nature to compensate for his silence.
In some poems Akhmatova draws upon folklore through the characters of her speakers, language, imagery, composition, and details, bringing her work close to the women's lament in the Russian folk tradition, with overlapping subject matter: a cruel husband, unfaithful lover, abandoned women. Still, the poems are never imitative-tradition is used to produce greater impact. Always restrained and discreet, Akhmatova was the first Russian poet to present a woman's perception of love, be it longing for a virile youth: "The Fisherman" (Rybak), or a woman's attitude to an unresponsive male, "Don't you love me, don't you want to look?/Oh, how handsome you are, damned one!"
Certain syntactic features, such as the preponderance of lines beginning with the conjunctions "and" or "but," imparts to Akhmatova's verses the simplicity of the monumental style of Old Russian, which the poet buttresses through the use of religious motifs and objects. In the Old Russian ambience lie the roots of the wandering persona who renounces the world following lost love: "To My Sister" (Moei sestre). She is, however, not a nun, the hackneyed sobriquet of "half-nun, half-harlot" notwithstanding, which certain critics attributed likewise to Akhmatova the person.
Akhmatova's religious motifs are often laced with superstition and vestiges of paganism such as the willow, tree of water nymphs. Akhmatova's love lyrics, then, earned acclaim through their accessible beauty of content and form as well as for the novelty of a feminine voice expressing women's emotions. Scholars found subtle devices and honed imagery in these simple poems. The later poetry adds themes of poetic creation, readership, war, and death, along with longer lyric forms, sometimes achieved through cyclization, all contributing to a wider thematic scope and deepened content. Akhmatova's late hermetic works led some to insinuate a decline in talent, as others had done for Pushkin. Long unnoticed was the device of extending the limits of her concise verse by incorporating literary allusions, correspondences, and subtexts. Akhmatova burrowed deep into the recesses of modern and ancient literatures and culture to create three-tiered edifices in verse, for which she provided a hint in Poem without a Hero: "But the box has a triple bottom." Indeed, the allusions often had more than one source; for example, in "Oh, How Heady Is the Fragrance of the Carnation" correspondences to Mandelshtam in turn echo Pushkin. Moreover, to substantiate intimate knowledge and firsthand familiarity with the culture and history of all times, some of Akhmatova's personas undergo metempsychosis. Metempsychosis of the persona parallels the use of allusions and sub- texts by Akhmatova the poet: the persona expands her experience-the poet extends the limits of her verse. For if the oeuvre of each poet is construed as one lifetime in the ongoing process of literature, then reverberations of other writers in the works of Akhmatova represent, as it were, an incorporation of other lives into her poetry. Granted, the poet's literary knowledge and the persona's familiarity with many lives do not in themselves create verse: the poet as a person must participate in life, love, and grief before transmuting her experiences into art with the aid of her Muse.
At the crux of Akhmatova's creative philosophy lies omnipresent fire, both in life, love, grief, and in the composing of verse. In The White Flock she evolves fire thematics into a recurring pattern: living for her persona means to burn with feeling and to love, which results in grief. To alleviate her suffering the persona prays at the altar of her deity, the Muse, who instills fiery inspiration giving birth to melody which transforms prayer into song. Like life and love, creation is a form of suffering whose fruit consoles through the medium of fire. When committed to paper, song translates into verse. Poems collected into notebooks are fired for preservation as independent entities: "The Burned Notebook." Fire and grief are Akhmatova's inherent birthright since the root of her inherited surname, Gorenko, combines burning and grieving (gore, "grief," goret', "burn"), a fact she exploits artistically.
Akhmatova has bequeathed two masterpieces in verse. Requiem, immortalizing a mother's anguish over her son's imprisonment, reaches all peoples and times. The ten core poems are preceded by an epigraph and three introductory pieces, as if a work on imprisonment were difficult to commence. Once begun, the surge subsides but slowly, as evidenced by the ponderous bipartite Epilog. Lacking sequential narration, these poems of diverse rhythm shift their focus on the leitmotif of prison and suffering. Each poem has a different approach, as if grief had sent the mother's head reeling with her mind fixated to her loss. Religious overtones intensify with the mother's suffering. Trees that once murmured to her maintain silence in pain. With the son's sentencing, insanity hovers to obliterate memory, but, like death, it evades her. A picture of the Mother of Christ at the Crucifixion broadens the inexpressible sorrow: "And there, where the Mother silently stood,/No one even dared to glance." Even if things change, the persona vows to accept no monument to herself except beside the prison lest in blissful death she forget the suffering of millions. The poema's impactful content is offset by a melodious, folkish, subdued form.
Poem without a Hero. A Triptych is a complex, ciphered, densely structured narrative in verse whose many layers and possible interpretations contribute to its magnificent mystique. It is permeated with literary and biographical allusions. Like Pushkin in Eugene Onegin, Akhmatova invented her own strophe. Part 1, "1913. A Petersburg Tale," termed "a polemics with Blok" by Akhmatova herself, confines numerous authors within itself. It is based on a stylized recollection of the tragic suicide in 1913 of the young comet and poet Vsevolod Knyazev, out of love for Akhmatova's friend Olga Sudeikina, an actress who preferred the poet Blok. On New Year's Eve 1940 costumed shades from 1913, including the ones in the romantic triangle, visit the persona at her home. They are described enigmatically. Nothing is related; a re-creation is achieved through the Hoffmannesque visit of shades, masks, and a portrait stepping out of its frame which conjures up the final year before the cataclysm of 1914 as well as that before World War II. The second part, "Tails" (Reshka, as in "heads and tails"), claiming to illuminate the preceding, returns to the present to treat the fate of a writer's artistic freedom in the face of editorial philistinism; it parallels Pushkin's "Conversation of a Bookseller with a Poet." Akhmatova provides a coded explanation for the obtuse editor unable to distinguish between the three persons in the triangle. Part 3, "Epilog," returns to postwar Leningrad with the poet's departure from Asia. A vessel for memory and culture, the poem memorializes a bygone era. Form, as important in the poem as content, is more accessible since the former is easily appreciated while the latter must be mined for comprehension. Through this work the poet conquers time and space.