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  • On Akhmatova
  • Donald Davie
The Complete Poems of Anna Akhmatova, exp. ed. Edited by Roberta Reeder. Translated by Judith Hemschemeyer. Boston: Zephyr Press, 1992. Pp. 908. $24.95 (paper).

It is high time for some one to say, however brutally, “This Empress has no clothes.” Particularly is this the case if the wide-eyed child who blurts this out knows no Russian, or very little. For the question that we need to put to ourselves is what poem by Anna Akhmatova, now that she has been so often translated, lives in our grateful memories as a significant poem in English, one that we need to remember as defining experience in this century. As myself in a modest way one of those translators, and therefore an interested reader of my competitors, I propose that there is no such poem: no one poem by Akhmatova (not even if we take “poem” to include loosely assembled sequences) lives with us as a necessary summation of some part of our twentieth-century experience. On the contrary, the further we probe, the more we find ourselves trapped inside a historical time warp: that of the late romantic nineties. In Russia as elsewhere those nineties extended themselves so far as 1915. That was the world in which Akhmatova achieved precocious fame, and to the end of her life the idioms of that time were the only ones she felt comfortable with, much as she tried from time to time to find another idiom, one more “modern.” Those who think that they respond to her now are responding only to that vanished period’s habits of lyrical surrender and excess. They were habits in life as well as in writing.

Accordingly, when Joseph Brodsky tells us, “Anna Akhmatova was the most senior member of that great quartet which included Marina Tsvetaeva, Osip Mandelstam and Boris Pasternak,” he is voicing what is now received opinion (though there was a time, which I remember, when Vladimir Mayakovsky outranked any of them). 1 But of these four, Mandelstam and Pasternak can readily be recognized as modernists (though of course with a Russian inflection), whereas Akhmatova is such only by her association with them. Modernist she never was, as she herself acknowledged. And to put her in that frame is to get her wrong.

In 1936 she published a tribute to Pasternak, in the form of a poem of seven metrically regular quatrains, rhyming abab. Judith Hemschemeyer’s version begins:

He who compared himself to the eye of a horse, He glances sideways, looks, sees, recognizes, [End Page 231] And instantly puddles shine As melted diamonds, ice pines. In lilac haze repose backyards Station platforms, logs, leaves, clouds. The whistle of a steam engine, the crunch of a watermelon rind, In a fragrant kid glove, a timid hand.


(Does this grab you? If it does, there is something wrong not just with your poetic taste but with your conception of what poetry is.) My own version of this poem, done thirty years ago, levels out each line into a pentameter, and finds one rhyme or near rhyme in each quatrain. Does this make my version marginally better than Hemschemeyer’s? No; for there is no question of margins. The Russian poem is radically incoherent; it has no argumentative structure, neither overt nor hidden, and so, whatever pains we as translators may or may not make to approximate its formal features, the essential incoherence shows through. Akhmatova’s poem has no form beyond that of random recollection—of images from Pasternak’s poems. This empties of any significance the last quatrain, which I quote in my translation, not Hemschemeyer’s:

He is awarded a kind of age-long childhood. Such a profuseness and such keenness as The illustrious have, the earth all his, of which He makes all men the co-inheritors.

It is what we all want to believe, and presumably my wish to believe it prompted my translation. But has the poem supplied any grounds for that belief? My own decision, arrived at over years, is that it does not. This poet’s recourse is impressionism; and impressions, however plangently recorded through the prism of memory, cannot sustain the...

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