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Akhmatova: Northern Elegies

by John Cobley

Friday Feb 28th, 2020


This sequence of seven elegies was written over 40 years (1921-1964) and arranged just before Akhmatova’s passing in 1966. The elegies vary in length from 23 to 57 lines, averaging 40. Akhmatova often used this format of a small number of short poems under one title. It was also used by some of her contemporaries—Tsvetaeva, for example with “Poems on Moscow.”


These seven elegies cover phases and aspects of her life. Elegies 1-4 cover specific periods, while the last three elegies are more generally retrospective: her “substitute life,” the trials of memory and her “silence” of 30 years. 


In Northern Elegies, Akhmatova might best be described by a boxing term: down but not out. The sequence starts fairly buoyantly with a playful tone in “Prehistory.” The mood darkens toward the end of the next poem; after a description of her childhood, she says of her future, “I knew I would pay dearly.” The third poem describes the years of terror in her first marital home. The mood stays dark in the fourth elegy as she moves on to her second marriage to Punin. Mixed feelings of regret fill the fifth elegy as Akhmatova contemplates how her life could have been different. In the sixth elegy an examination of memory leads to a feeling of insignificance. Finally she ruefully explains her “silence” imposed on her by political realities. 


1. “Prehistory.” Written in her early 50s, this is a description of St Petersburg just before her birth. It is full of Dostoevskian allusions—Staraya Rysa, Optina monastery, Baden, Omsk convict, Semenyov Square. There is also brief description of her mother. 

2. “About the 1910s” is a misleading title as the first part is about her childhood in the 1890s. The second part describes her reaction to her early poetic success when she was in her 20s. 

3. Akhmatova depicts the house in Tsarskoye Selo that she and Gumilyov moved into in 1910. It was written soon after Gumilyov’s execution on August 25, 1921: ”You are where everything is known.” 

4. The autumn landscape here places the elegy in her middle-age. She looks back on her marriage to Nikolay Punin on the day that would have been the 25th wedding anniversary of his first marriage. Punin had a 15-year civil relationship with Akhmatova (1923-1938).  

5. Akhmatova describes how Soviet Russia took away the life she should have led. She has become “some other woman” with the same name. She finally decides that this substitute life was actually for the better. 

6. Memory is described as having three epochs: 1. A charmed childhood; 2. A period of seclusion. 3. A condition of social alienation.  

7. In this incomplete elegy, Akhmatova describes her 30-year silence and the reaction of those around her. 




Northern Elegies


                                                          Everything is a sacrifice to your memory




1.  Prehistory

I don’t live there now


Dostoevsky’s Russia. The moon

Almost a quarter hidden by the bell tower.

The taverns are open, the droshkies are running,

Huge five-storey blocks are burgeoning overhead

In Gorokhovaya, near Znameniya, near Smolny.                   

Dance classes everywhere, signs for money-changers,

 “Henriette,” “Basile,” “André” in a row.

And superior coffins: “Shumilov Senior.”

But the town hasn’t changed much.

I’m not the only one                                                               10

To have noticed that it can 

Sometimes look like an old lithograph,

Not a first-class one but quite decent,

From the seventies possibly.

   Once enclosed by gates,

   The hard, straight Liteiny Boulevard,

   Which is still not disgraced by modernization, 

   Gets dark, especially in winter at dawn and dusk.

   And across from me Nekrasov

   And Saltikov live… both of them on memorial 

   Plaques. Oh, how horrified they’d be                                  20

   To see those plaques! Let’s move on.

The splendid ditches in Staraya Rysa,

Rotting summer houses in backyards,

Window panes as black as iceholes.

I think, because of what has happened there,

It’s better not to drop by. Let’s leave.

Not every place can consent

To give up its secrets

But I’ll never go to Optina again…)                


The rustle of skirts, plaid travel rugs,                                     30

Walnut frames of mirrors that were

Amazed by the beauty of Karenina,

And in the narrow corridors the wallpaper

That we admired in our childhood,

The yellow kerosene lamp,

And that plush fabric on the armchairs…

   All in raznochinets style, somehow casual…    

   Fathers and grandfathers unfathomable,

   Mortgaged lands. And in Baden—roulette.  


And a woman with crystalline eyes                                       40

(Of such a deep blue that to gaze into them

And not think of the sea was impossible).

With the rarest of names, white hands

And a kind nature that I received 

From her like an inheritance,--

A useless gift for my harsh life…

The land is feverish, and the Omsk convict                

Understood everything and gave it all up for lost.     

Now he shuffles everything 

And rises above the primordial confusion                              50

Like some kind of spirit. Midnight is sounding.

A pen scrapes, and many pages

Are redolent of Semyenov Square.     )


This is when we opted to be born

And timing it correctly

So that no one will miss the upcoming

Pageants, we bid farewell to non-existence.





5. Gorokhovaya was a main merchant street in St. Petersburg. After the 1917 Revolution the Cheka HQ was located there.

29. The Optina Pustyn is an Eastern Orthodox monastery for men near Kozelsk in Russia. In the 19th century, the Optina was the most important spiritual centre of the Russian Orthodox Church. It was here that Dostoevsky met monk Ambrose, the model for Father Zosima in The Brothers Karamazov. There are other allusions to Dostoevsky in lines 22,37,39,47,53.


37. Raznochinets: 19C intellectuals of humble means


2.  About the 1910s


You—the conqueror of life

       And I—your free-spirited friend

N. Gumilyov


It was far from a rosy childhood…

Freckles, teddy bears, toys,

Doting aunts, scary uncles, and even

Friends among the river pebbles.

From the very beginning, I felt myself

To be someone else’s dream or delirium

Or a reflection in someone’s mirror,

Without name, flesh or origin,

I already knew the list of crimes

That I was fated to commit.                                       10

And thus I, a roaming sleepwalker,

Entered life and startled it.

It stretched before me like the meadow

Where Proserpina once strolled.

Before me, humble and inept,

Unexpected doors opened,

And people emerged and cried out:

“She’s come, she herself has come!”

And I looked at them in amazement

And thought: “They’re out of their minds!”              20

And the more they praised me,

The more people admired me,

The more frightening it was to live in the world

And the more I wanted to wake up.                           

I knew I would pay for it a hundred times

In prison, in the grave, in the madhouse,

Wherever someone like me must awaken--

But the torture endured as happiness.


July 4, 1955 Moscow




It was really terrible living in that house,

And not the patriarchal heat of the hearth,

Not the cradle of our child,

Not the fact that we were both young

And full of ideas …………………

…………………………..and success

Dared not take one step 

From our threshold for seven years-- 

Nothing lessened that feeling of terror.

And I learned to laugh at it                                                     10

And left a drop of wine

And breadcrumbs for the one who

Scratched at the door at night like a dog

Or peeped into the low window.

After midnight we would try not to see 

What was being created in our imagination,    

Those heavy footsteps under which

The steps of the dark staircase groaned,

As if begging plaintively for mercy.

And you said, smiling strangely:                                            20

“Who are they dragging downstairs?”

Now that you are where everything is known,--tell me:

What apart from us was living in that house?


1921 Tsarkoye Selo




So here it is—that autumn landscape,

Which has scared me all my life:

And the sky—like a blazing abyss,

And city noises—heard as if from 

Another world, forever alien.

It’s as if everything that I have always 

Struggled with inside myself

Has received life separately and been realised

Within these blind walls, in this black garden…

At that moment, over my shoulder,                                       10

My former home still followed me

With a screwed-up and disapproving eye,

That unforgettable window.

Fifteen years—seeming to be

Fifteen granite centuries,

But I myself was like granite:

Pray, suffer, call for

The queen of the sea. No matter. No need…

But I should have convinced myself

That all this has happened many times                                  20

And not to me alone—to others also—

And even worse. No, not worse—better.

And my voice—and this, in truth, was

The scariest—spoke from the dark:

“Fifteen years ago, you greeted the day

With such song, you begged

The heavens, the choirs of stars and oceans

To salute the festive meeting

With the one you left today…

So this is your silver anniversary:                                          30

Call the guests, dress up, celebrate!”


Tashkent, 1942




                                                                                          N.A. O-oi 



Like a river’s, my course has been changed

By this severe epoch. 


I was given a substitute life. It began to flow

In a different channel passing the other one.

I didn’t recognize my own banks.

Oh, so many scenes have I missed;  

The curtain rose without me,

And it fell too. So many friends

That I never met in this life. 

So many city skylines that could have drawn                         10

Tears from my eyes.

But I know only one city in the world,

And I can find my way around it in my sleep.

Oh, so many poems that I haven’t written;

Their secret chorus prowls about me,

And perhaps it will still strangle me

One day…


I’m familiar with beginnings and endings,

And life after the end, and something

Which I now no longer need to recall.                                  20

Some other woman has occupied

My special place,

She bears my full legal name,

Leaving me a nickname, with which

I have done, perhaps, everything possible…

Alas, I won’t lie down in my own grave.

But sometimes the wild spring wind,

Or the combination of words in a book,

Or someone’s smile suddenly drags

Me into a life that never took place.                                       30

In this year this would have happened,

In that year—that: travel, observation, thought,

And memory and falling into love

As into a mirror, with a dim awareness

Of betrayal and a wrinkle that wasn’t there



But if I had looked from there

At the life I’m living today,

I would have died of envy…                                                                     40


September 2, 1945

Fontana House (conceived earlier in Tashkent)

Dedicated to Nina Olshevskaya (N.A. O-oi), friend of the poet.






The last key is the cold key of oblivion

It satisfies more sweetly than all 

the passions of the heart.



Memory has three epochs.

The first--as if it were yesterday.

The soul is under their blessed arch

And the body basks in their shadow.

Laughter has not yet stopped, tears are flowing,

The ink spot on the table hasn’t faded—

A kiss is like a seal upon the heart,

Unique, valedictory, unforgettable…

But this doesn’t last long…

Already there’s no arch overhead, and somewhere                            10

In a remote suburb there’s a secluded house,

Where it’s cold in the winter and hot in the summer,

Where there are spiders and dust lying on everything,

Where passionate letters are rotting,

And portraits are quietly changing;

People come here as if to a grave,

And going home wash their hands with soap,

And blink away a fleeting teardrop

From weary eyelids—and they breathe heavily…

But the clock ticks, one spring changes                                              20

To another, the sky turns pink,

Cities change names,

And there are no longer witnesses to events,

And no one to weep with, no one to remember with.

Ghosts we are no longer summoning 

Will slowly disappear.

Their return would be dreadful for us.

And once awake we realize that we’ve forgotten 

Even the path to that secluded house;

Choking with shame and anger,                                                          30

We run there, but (as in a dream)

Everything is different: people, objects, walls,

And no one knows us—we’re strangers.

We’re not at the right place…My God! 

And now the most bitter moment comes:

We now acknowledge that we couldn’t have  

Contained this past within the borders of our life,

That our life is almost as alien to us

As it is to our next-door neighbour,

That we wouldn’t recognize those who have died,                            40

And that those from whom God separated us

Managed perfectly without us—and even

That it was all for the best…


February 5, 1945

Fontana House





I am silent; I’ve been silent for 30 years.

A silence of Arctic ice

Envelops innumerable nights;     

It is coming to extinguish my candle.

The dead are silent like this, but that’s understandable

And not so terrible……………………..


My silence is heard everywhere,

It fills the court room,

It could have drowned out the actual

Murmur of rumours, and like a miracle                                  10

It lays its stamp everywhere.

It participates in everything, O God!

Who could have invented such a role for me?

Oh God, permit me for once at least, 

To become a little like someone else.


Maybe I didn’t drink hemlock.

Is that why I didn’t die

As planned—in that very moment?

…………………………………..                                                    20

No, not to the one searching for these books,

Who stole them, who even bound them,

Who carries them around like secret chains,

Who memorized every syllable 


No, not to that one does my dream fly,

Not to that one will I give my blessing.

But only to the one who dared proclaim

My silence on a banner,

And whom I lived with, and who believed in it,                     30

Who measured this pitch-black abyss.


My silence is in music and song,

And in someone’s contemptible love,

In separations, in books…

            In all that’s least known

In the world…………………..


I myself am sometimes afraid of my silence;

When its full weight presses down on me,                             40

Breathing and overshadowing,   

There’s no protection, actually none at all.


Who knows how it turned to stone,

Imagine how my heart was burnt

By such a fire! Everyone involved 

Is used to it and feels comfortable.

You all agree to share it with me,

But still, it is always mine.

…………………………………..                                                    50

It almost devoured my soul,

It’s distorting my fate,

But I’ll break it some day,

To summon death to a pillory. 


1958-1964 Leningrad

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