Thursday, February 21, 2019

QUOTES: Anna Akhmatova, "My Half Century"

Anna Akhmatova was the preeminent Russian poet of the first half of the 20th century.  It's likely you've not heard of her.  Between 1912 and 1921 she had five collections of poetry published, to critical acclaim.  But when her first husband, Nikolai Gumilyov, was killed for wrongly being accused as a counterrevolutionary, Akhmatova and her son Lev were also implicated.  By 1924, critics panned her verse as simplistic and anachronistic, and a party resolution by the Soviet government essentially banned her from being published, though she continued to write poetry.  Stalin intervened in 1939, allowing for a new publication of verse, but by 1946 another resolution censored and censured Akhmatova, leaving many of her most realized works, such as "Requiem" and "Poem Without a Hero," unpublished.  But she still wrote and would share her work with confidantes, who would memorize poems and circulate them orally, so they would not be lost.  Shortlisted for the Nobel Prize in 1965, not until 1988 was the resolution banning her poetry in Russia rescinded, allowing for a new and better understanding of this important 20th-century poet.

I am currently reading a "My Half Century," a curated collection of Akhmatova's prose, much of it taken from her diaries and letters.  It's a fascinating book, and I wanted to share some quotes from it, through a series of posts here.

In a diary entry, toward the end of her life, Akhmatova looked back to the early 1900s and to the funerals she witnessed in the streets of Tsarskoe Selo, when it felt like a shift had taken place, as Russia cast off the 19th Century and moved into the 20th.  Her language, and the details, such as "fresh greenery and flower...dying from the frost," add so much to her insights, offering a distinct image that also works as a metaphor, not only for the funeral described, but for the world at large and the changes rushing headlong at them, with the onset of WWI.

...And sometimes on that same Shirokaya Street a funeral procession of unbelievable splendor would pass by coming from or going to the station:  a boys' choir would sing with angelic voices, and you couldn't see the coffin for all the fresh greenery and flowers, which were dying from the frost...The carriages with formidable old women and their dependents followed the catafalque as if they were awaiting their turn, and everything resembled the description of the countess's funeral in "The Queen of Spades." 
And it always seemed to me (later, when I would recall those spectacles) that they were a part of some grandiose funeral for the entire nineteenth century.  That was how the last of Pushkin's younger contemporaries were buried in the 1890s.  This spectacle in the blinding snow and the bright Tsarskoe Selo sun was magnificent, but the same thing in the yellow light and thick fog of those years, which oozed out from everywhere, could be terrifying and even somewhat infernal.

Beautiful, and haunting.


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