Born into nobility as Anna Andreevna Gorenko, Akhmatova grew up in Tsarskoe Selo, the Tsar’s summer residence. She joined the Guild of Poets, founded by her husband, Nikolai Gumilev, and published about a dozen collections of poetry between 1912 and 1922, including the five shown here. After her husband’s execution in 1921 she continued to write poetry but was unable to have her work published for 20 years, finally being expelled from the Union of Soviet Writers after World War II. In an era of experimentation, her verse was far less innovative than that of many of her contemporaries; its strength lay in its precision and economy.
Akhmatova’s work continued to be recognized despite the gap in her publications and she remained extraordinarily popular into the early 1960s, serving as a mentor to later generations of poets, among them Joseph Brodsky. As Brodsky noted in his introduction to an edition of her poetry published in 1983, she was a cultural icon:
She looked positively stunning. Five feet eleven, dark-haired, fair-skinned, with pale grey-green eyes…slim and incredibly lithe, she was for half a century sketched, painted, cast, carved and photographed by a multitude of artists starting with Amadeo Modigliani. As for the poems dedicated to her, they’d make more volumes than her own collected works.
Anno Domini, 1921. [The Year of Our Lord, 1921.]
This book contains the stamp of Futurist Vadim Shershenevich.
Petrograd: Petropolis, 1921.
Dmitriĭ TSenzor, editor.
[Almanacs of Verse.]
Petrograd: TSievnitsa, 1915.
A reproduction of a poem by Mikhail Alekseevich Kuz’min, 1872-1936, from this anthology is on display. Kuz’min was an openly homosexual writer whose poetry reflected his attractions. Because of this some scholars assumed that he was a Decadent (an early Symbolist), but he rejected the mysticism and duality inherent in Symbolism and spoke and wrote in favor of Acmeism, for example in his 1910 essay “On Beautiful Clarity.” He believed reality provided the raw material for poetic expression and that Symbolism was far too contrived. Kuz’min remained in the Soviet Union after the revolution, and in 1924 Trotsky condemned his poetry. He died almost completely forgotten in the mid 1930s.
Nikolaĭ Stepanovich Gumilev, 1886-1921.
Peterburg: Epoch, 1921.
Фарфоровый павильонъ: китайские стихи.
[The Porcelain Pavilion: Chinese Verses.]
Saint Petersburg: Hyperborea, 1918.
Nikolai Gumilev was the founder of the Guild of Poets, a group of Acmeists who believed that the creation of poetry was a matter of crafting words to define known reality. This was, more than anything else, a reaction to Symbolism and its mysticism. After he and Anna Akhmatova were married in 1910, Gumilev travelled to Africa and the Near East looking for fresh artistic material. His use of exotic subjects can be seen in his book of poems The Porcelain Pavilion, subtitled Chinese Verses. The ornament beside the book is one of several book illustrations taken from U-tsin-tu, published in 1724, which was housed in the Library of Petrograd University. Gumilev’s Fiery Pillar, also translated as Pillar of Fire, was dedicated to his wife, Anna Nikolaevna Gumileva (later Akhmatova), and was published in the year he was executed by firing squad after being unjustly accused of conspiring against the Soviet state.
Osip Mandel’shtam, 1891-1938.
Tristia. [Sadness.] Illustrated by Mstislav Valer’ianovich Dobuzhinskiĭ, 1875-1957.
Petersburg and Berlin: Petropolis, 1922.
Born in Warsaw, Mandel’shtam grew up in St. Petersburg as a member of the intelligentsia. In 1911 he joined Gumilev’s Guild of Poets and identified himself with the Acmeists. Generally regarded as one of Russia’s finest poets, Mandel’shtam saw the world as based on man and the things of this world, and described his worldview as shaped by form, or “the word.” Beginning in the 1920s Mandel’shtam’s refusal to define his poetry in political terms made it difficult and eventually impossible for him to publish his work. He continued to write until he was arrested and exiled to Siberia, where he died. Since his poetry could not be published, it was either saved in manuscript or memorized by close friends, then later transcribed by his wife, Nadezhda.
Georgiĭ Ivanov, 1894-1958.
Сады: Третья книга стихов.
[Gardens: Third Book of Verse.]
Petrograd: Petropolis, 1921.
Ivanov began his career in Russia as an Acmeist, but lived out his life as an émigré poet. Unlike many, Ivanov continued to write Russian verse of the same quality after he emigrated, and after the end of World War II his poetry was republished by his fellow expatriates in France.