Anna Akhmatova. A Critical Analysis of her Poetry

Seminararbeit, 2012
13 Seiten, Note: 2


Table of contents

1. Introduction

2. Biographical facts

3. Work and style
3.1. What is Acmeism?
3.2. Akhmatova’s poetry

4. Critical analysis
4.1. Earlier and later poetry
4.2. Analysis of selected works

5. Conclusion

6. References

1. Introduction

“You will hear thunder and remember me, and think: she wanted storms...”, Anna Akhmatova once said herself. And indeed, this predication became a reality: she is still remembered today, and not only remembered as some poet of the 20th century, but as an outstanding artist and an extraordinary woman. Without doubt she is to be considered as one of the most acclaimed writers in the Russian canon, and her work still has an impact today. Not only being a representative of the Silver Age and of Acmeism, but also living and writing under the shadow of Stalinism, her poetry is characterized by its very distinct style and has to be viewed in that special context.

The major part of my essay will focus on Akhmatova’s writing style and the significant character of her works. After giving a brief survey of her biography, as well as a short summary about her work and style in general, I am going to analyze some parts of her poetry in particular, using selected pieces of work.

The following questions are going to lead me throughout the whole essay: what is so specific about Akhmatova’s poetry? In what way is her work representative of Acmeism? To what extent did her biographical circumstances and, even more importantly, the political situation in Russia influence her writing? How is her early work different from her later work? And why are her poems still so interesting for today’s reading public?

2. Biographical facts

Anna Akhmatova was born on the 23th June 1889 in Bolyhoy Fontan, near the Black Sea port of Odessa, as Anna Andreyevna Gorenko. She was the third of six children of a lower noble family and spent most of her childhood near St. Petersburg in Tsarskoje. Her early years were overshadowed by the serious illness of several members of her family, and especially by the loss of her little sister Irina, who died at the age of four. Akhmatova was eleven years old when she started writing poetry and by then gravely sick herself; later she would name that sickness as the trigger for her to write her first poem (Cf. Feinstein 2005: p. 11).

From 1910, Akhmatova – after starting to study law in Kiev and shortly afterwards dropping out of that studies – studied literature in St. Petersburg and soon became part of the city’s cultural and artistic life. Still in the same year she married Nikolaj Gumilev, who was already a famous literary critic and poet in Russia at that time, and they had a son – Lev Gumilev – in 1912; in retrospect, though, she talked about that marriage as “a marriage of strangers” (Feinstein 2005, p. 6). It seemed to be doomed to failure right from the first year, and Akhmatova later – being “part of [the] sexually promiscuous society” (Feinstein 2005, p. 6) of St. Petersburg’s artists and writers at that time anyway – entered into an affair with Osip Mandelstam.

Her first collection of poetry, Evening, was published in 1912, and from that date she began to publish regularly. Her works were very well received and earned her a great deal of praise, and soon she became one of the central figures in the Acmeist movement. As her father, however, did not want her to publish any verses under his “respectable” name, she chose to adopt her grandmother’s distinctly Tatar name “Akhmatova” as a pen name. (Cf. Feinstein, p. 7 et seq.)

The Russian Revolution was to dramatically affect the life of Anna Akhmatova. Although she got divorced from Gumilev in 1918, she was stunned by the execution of her ex-husband in 1921 by the Bolsheviks due to his alleged betrayal of the Revolution. Later, in 1938 – Akhmatova meanwhile had a second marriage and then a third – was imprisoned as well and kept in the Gulag until the death of Stalin in 1956. Her third husband, Nikolai Punin, was also imprisoned in 1949 and died in a Siberian prison camp in 1953.

During that period from 1925 to 1940 – which is called the “Era of silence” – all of Akhmatovas writing was unofficially banned and none of her works were published. By that time, when not only her son and her husband, but also many of her friends remained in prison, she did not even dare to put down her poems on paper at times. Unlike many of her literary contemporaries, though, she never considered flight into exile.

In 1940, her poetry finally got published again. Akhmatova started to write – or rather rewrite – her probably most famous poems during that time: Poem without a hero and Requiem.

In 1965, Akhmativa received a honorary degree of Literature at the University of Oxford. Her poems were meanwhile popular both in Russia and in Europe.

Anna Akhmatova died on the 5th March 1966 and was buried in St. Petersburg (Cf. Harrington 2006: p. 12-20).

3. Work and style

3.1. What is Acmeism?

Anna Akhmatova’s work is generally associated with the Acmeist movement. For a better understanding of her poetry, it is thus necessary to take a look at Acmeism and to explain its objectives and purposes.

Acmeism was a transient poetic movement which emerged in Russia in 1910 and lasted until 1917. Originally, it began to turn up as an alternative to Symbolism. While Symbolism was focussed on the world to come and had a distance to earthly things, Acmeism was centered in poetry: the Acmeists regarded themselves as craftsmen of poetry. Acmeism was influenced by architecture, literature and art; its basic intention was to transform the past into the present. (Cf. Moser 1989: p. 426 et seq.).

The poets usually organized meetings in private – most of the times at the apartments and houses of the members.

The movement has its origin in St. Petersburg and basically never found its way outside the city. The circle of members remained small: according to Anna Akhmatova’s diaries of 1963, there were only 19 persons who belonged to the movement. The most important ones were Nikolay Gumilev, Anna Akhmatova, Osip Mandelstam and Sergey Gorodeckij.

Acmeism was not only a literary movement, but also constituted the image of St. Petersburg; an important regular event was the meeting at the so-called “Stray Dog”, a cabaret that served as a platform for the Acmeists. The “Stray Dog” soon became a synonym for the mixture of easy life and tragic art which was characterisitc for all of the Acmeist poet’s conduct (Cf. Feinstein 2005: p. 1-10).

The city of St. Petersburg was not only the center of the movement, but also the topic of many of the Acmeist’s poems – especially of those of Akhmatova and Mandelstam. On the 12th of December 1912, Gumilev and Gorodeckij presented their manifests of the Acmeist movement, which both contained a critical part about what Acmeism is not, a definition of its aims and objectives as well as the connection to the literary tradition (Cf. Moser 1989: p. 426 et seq.).

Important literary idols for the Acmeist movement were e.g. Shakespeare, Rabelais, Villon, Flaubert and Gautier. Most of these poets lived throughout a period of many changes – changes concerning literary movements, like, for instance, the transition from romanticism to realism. What cannot be found in the manifests is a philosphical position of the movement, and there was also a lack of concrete poetic positions regarding the use of rhetoric devices – what was obvious, however, is that Acmeists did not like metaphors or symbols, but rather a more direct and clear expression of their thoughts and emotions.

3.2. Akhmatova’s poetry

Anna Akhmatova is one of the most famous and acclaimed female poets in the Russian canon. During a career lasting more than half a century – starting to write and publish poetry in the pre-revolutionary era, and becoming a key figure of the Silver Age in the first quarter of the 20th century – she witnessed revolution, civil war, two Worls Wars, the purges and the Thaw. All of this had a great impact on her work and is reflected in her poetry. For many younger writers she was seen as both the represantative of a lost cultural context – that is to say early Russian modernism – and a contemporary poet. This view of Akhmatova as a link between past and future is due to the fact that her career splits up into two different periods: anearlier (ca. 1912-25) and a later (ca. 1938-1966), divided by more than ten years of silence and reduced literary output. (Cf. Harrington 2006: p. 11)

Akhmatova's work ranges from short poems to very long pieces that remind of short stories to complex cycles, such as Requiem (1935–40), her much-praised masterpiece about the Stalinist terror. Her style, characterised by its economy and emotional restraint, was strikingly inventive and distinctive to her fellow poets. The strong and clear leading female voice was groundbreaking and for the Russian poetry at that time. The principle themes of her works are meditations on time and memory as well as the difficulties arising from of living and writing under Stalinism.

Generally – as already mentioned above – Akhmatova’s work is referred to as Acmeist poetry. Accordingly, she uses very clear and direct expressions by means of images and a very simple poetic language. Her poems can also be associated with Cubism, as many times her motifs do not seem to directly link to each other. A common thread in her poetry is the use of magical pictures and religious aspects; also, St. Petersburg is described in many of her poems, which is another typical feature of Acmeism.

Although it is possible to identify repeated motifs and images and a certain common style in Akhmatova’s poetry, her work from the later period, however, differs from the earlier both formally and thematically. Her earlier manner, intimate and colloquial, gradually gave way to a more classical severity, apparent in her volumes The White Flock (1917) and Anno Domini MCMXXI (1922); and, beyond that, there is an identifiable shift away from a fairly homogenous body of early lyrics miniatures to the more diverse and complex work of her later phase. (Cf. Harrington 2006: p. 11 et seq.).


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Anna Akhmatova. A Critical Analysis of her Poetry
Universität Wien
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anna, akhmatova, critical, analysis, poetry
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Melanie Heiland (Autor), 2012, Anna Akhmatova. A Critical Analysis of her Poetry, München, GRIN Verlag,


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