Translated by ROBERT LOWELL

AT SEVENTY-FIVE, Anna Akhmatova is the only surviving member of an exceptionally gifted generation of poets which grew with the Russian revolutionary years, a generation which had included Pasternak, Mandelstam, and Mayakovsky.

Akhmatova is essentially a St. Petersburg poetess: the refined sobriety of her verse is representative of that most orderly, most European of Russian cities. She has been a famous St. Petersburg literary figure since 1912, when her first book of poems was published there. Her early verse was intensely feminine, restrained, uncannily exact in capturing delicate shadings of emotion. Breaking as it did with Victorian conventions, and more specifically with Symbolist mannerisms, it created a fashion in Russian prerevolutionary literary circles and was widely, though unsuccessfully, imitated.

Since that time, Akhmatova has steadily grown as an artist, never ceasing to write, even in times of stress. In more recent years, the universality of her themes, the perfection of her poetic forms, sometimes evoke Pushkin himself, the St. Petersburg poet par excellence.

Despite her age and failing health, Akhmatova is still writing poetry: her new verse is superb. She also finds the energy for occasional visits to Moscow: literary life is far more active in Moscow than in Leningrad.

I called on Akhmatova at the home of the friends with whom she was staying during one of her Moscow visits. This was the balmy early spring of 1962, when destalinization in the U.S.S.R. was at its most uninhibited. Throughout the capital the atmosphere was carefree and relaxed, as the sun grew warmer and Easter and the May Day parade neared; that year the two festivities were taking place in the same week.

At first, Akhmatova’s regal presence intimidated me: her movements are slow and noble; her manners have utmost simplicity. She is rather tall and holds her head high. She has a magnificent, somewhat Bourbon profile softened by gray hair: her distinctive profile, her expressive carriage, have been famous since her youth, Modigliani captured them in a beautiful drawing made in Paris in 1912, which is still in Akhmatova’s possession. In it, the poetess, her head bowed, looks like a thoughtful slim Muse out of Greek mythology.

Akhmatova received me affably, yet without any display of warmth, as a queen entertains foreign ambassadors, with a kind of benevolent tolerance and the suggestion that homage is due her. I was happy to be able to tell her that outside the U.S.S.R. all those interested in Russian letters knew and admired her work, not only her early verse but some of her later poems, such as the “Poem without hero,” dedicated to her friends who died in the Leningrad siege.

I called on Akhmatova several times during that spring. After exchanging rather formal greetings and a few somehow stiff comments on daily topics, our conversation usually turned to literature and became more free-flowing. Akhmatova was interested in French literature, while deploring the sterility of its recent trends. “There is no French poetry any more. ...” She discussed fine points of Shakespearean translation into Russian, or spoke of the problems of interpreting certain events in Pushkin’s life. (She is one of the U.S.S.R.’s most distinguished “Pushkinists” and the author of two books about him.)

Often she would speak about her contemporaries in prerevolutionary St. Petersburg, which was then the center of Russian literary life. Conflicting poetic creeds competed there; Akhmatova explained to me at some length the intricate relationships which existed between various rival groups: Symbolists, Decadents, and Acmeists (the Acmeists, to which she belonged, reacted against Victorian rhetoric). She touched upon the enmity that she sensed among certain of her elders who were jealous of her fame; she had become a celebrated poetess when she was in her early twenties.

She spoke with intense admiration about another St. Petersburg poet, an Acmeist like herself, the great poet Mandelstam, who was a close friend of hers until his exile and death in 1938.

I was fascinated by Akhmatova, by her outstanding but utterly unpedantic erudition, yet I found her forbidding: she had a kind of heavy, dignified narcissism. This feeling was dispelled when, upon my request, she recited some of her poems to me. Reciting from memory, her eyes half closed, her head slightly bowed, she seemed to listen to the music of her own verse from the very depths of her being. She usually read three or four poems in succession. Her voice was muffled yet melodious, and her reading had the incantatory quality of many Russian poets’ reading; it emphasized the sounds rather than the meaning of the poem; it was slightly monotonous — but, paradoxically, the poems took on a new, marvelous life as she said them. Once she recited her “Muse,” which expresses so well her own regal simplicity:

Sometimes at night I watch for her coming
And life seems to hang by the frailest strand —
Ah! what are freedom, and youth, and glory
Beside the Fair Guest, a flute in her hand?
A moment: she comes, folding soft her cloak
And waits for my question — attentive, shy:
“Is it you who spoke the Inferno’s words
To the poet Dante?” She answers, “I.”

Poem translated by Rose Styron.

Another time she chose poems about the magnificently imperial, park-graced Tsarskoe Selo, where she had lived as a young woman. She urged me to go on a pilgrimage to the famous lycée which Pushkin attended as an adolescent there. “I of course will never return to Tsarskoe,” she said. “The place has been rather well restored after the war — but for me, too much has changed, too much of myself has lived and died there. . . .”

Akhmatova spoke willingly of her work: “I have never stopped writing. I wrote my first poem when I was eleven. My poetry is my link with our times, with the new life of my country. When I write, I live with the very pulse of Russian life. . . .”

She spoke of the twenties, of the heroic years of modern Russian poetry. When she mentioned Pasternak, I had the feeling that nothing, not even the admiration now bestowed upon her by her Russian contemporaries, could make up for the elapsing years: “Pasternak was lyricism personified. He would have said: Anna Andreevna in Moscow a real Akhmatovka! Akhmatovka sounds like the name of a railroad station, and it evokes a great deal of noise and confusion. Pasternak had in mind the stream of friendly and literary visits, of phone calls which I cannot resist when I come to Moscow. Today, the young poet X is calling at five, then a delegation of physicists is coming to record some poems. . .”And we would come to the subject which interested me particularly, the immense popularity of poetry in the contemporary U.S.S.R. “No, let us not make any hasty comparisons,” Akhmatova said, when I inquired whether the present-day poetic atmosphere reminded her of her youth. “ The twenties were years of great poetic blossoming, but interest in poetry was limited to a literary milieu. Our printings, even those of Mayakovsky, the most popular among us, were of the order of a couple of thousand copies. Now, since 1940, my books of poems have totaled ninety-five thousand copies in print.

“It seems to me that the passion for poetry which characterizes this era, as well as the variety of voices heard, is altogether a new phenomenon in Russia. This passion is by no means limited to a small group of people. In my experience, scientists are the most sophisticated, sensitive readers of poetry today, but then workers and students form a growing public. Because I had difficulties in Stalinist times, foreign scholars seem unaware that in what is an entirely new, hopeful era, I continue to write. Soviet editors compete for my new verse; I am asked to make records of my readings; people come from all over to see me.”

It occurred to me that, in spite of her age, of the lack of physical comforts, Akhmatova’s fate might well be envied by many Western poets. A life full of sufferings, dedicated to an esoteric art, suddenly was meeting with an immense human echo reverberating through all of Russia.

The following poems first came to my attention when a slim book entitled Requiem appeared in the West without Akhmatova’s knowledge. Some of these poems have been printed separately in Soviet publications — notably “The Verdict,” which was published in her latest volume of collected poems in 1961.

Robert Lowell has used Akhmatova’s stanzas and her imagery as a point of departure for his poetic adaptations of what is without question one of her very important cycles of poems. Requiem is dedi cated to the victims of the Stalinist repression in the late thirties. These poems contain many historical references. The “Ejevtshina” is the wave of repression led by the head of the police, Ejev, in the thirties. The Strelnikis were the Royal Musketeers whom Peter the Great suspected of treason and had executed at the gates of the Kremlin in the presence of their families, with all sorts of refinements in cruelty.