Good Windows And Houses, Light And Darkness Essay Example

Type of paper: Essay

Topic: Women, Family, Literature, Wife, Poetry, Windows, Life, Poem

Pages: 6

Words: 1650

Published: 2021/01/03

Imagery in the Poems of Anna Akhmatova

Anna Akhmatova’s poetry is rich with images that evoke loss and melancholy, yet at the same time, acceptance, or at least resignation. Without knowing much about her life, a reader — or this one at least — can quite easily understand that she endured great loss, but did so without blame, or even much regret. The tone of her poems is what I would call ‘observational,’ in that they seem to be written in the voice of a detached observer, who is noting, rather than expressing, the feelings of a third party rather than herself.
Akhmatova accomplishes this through the use of several recurring images. Her poems present consistent references to windows, empty and full, to houses, tall and narrow or sometimes black or white. She writes of towers and turrets, gardens, flowers and the trees. And of light — the way it strikes a vase of flowers as it filters through a window. Transparency also figures prominently in these poems, in the sense that one can see through window glass or water. Akhmatova often writes about the relative transparency of water, liquid and frozen, in rivers or ice or tears.
This paper examines these images as they appear in three of Akhmatova’s poems: “Lot’s Wife,” “Evening Room,” and “Solitude.” While I will discuss those three poems in detail, I also want to say that I read many more Akhmatova poems in doing research for this paper. From all of my reading I have come to believe that the poet uses specific images to signal two main themes: that life is lived in a series of phases or periods, and a that the things a person sees when looking out onto the world are quite different than what that same person sees when looking in.
Houses and gardens are almost always written about as memories of places Akhmatova lived and the relationships she had while there. They symbolize life phases, such as the years during her girlhood when she lived at Tsarskoe Selo, a village outside of St. Petersburg that surrounded an imperial palace of the royal family. Rivers and water images are prominent as well, and I think that they symbolize the passage of time. A river flows, tears flow, time flows. Things grow and die, begin and end. After that there are only memories.
Windows and what is seen when looking through them, whether outside in or inside out, appear as signals of beginnings and endings. They also convey emotional states, especially when they are described in conjunction with degrees of light or darkness. The poem, “Lot’s Wife,” offers several examples.
1. Lot’s Wife
Interestingly, I discovered that various translations of this poem — and probably others, although I didn’t test them — use different wording, and this means that some translations offer more support for my interpretation of Akhmatova’s imagery than others. Therefore, I’ve looked at three different translations of “Lot’s Wife” to see how many instances I can find of my selected images. Across all translations, the main theme of the poem remains. I summarize it as a woman who is punished for looking backward, for feeling nostalgia for a past life and demonstrating a reluctance to leave and follow divine will. This story originates in the Hebrew Bible and I believe that Akhmatova saw it as a reflection of her own experience.
The first translation is by Stanley Kunitz and Max Hayward. It contains five images that convey life phases and the emotional states that accompany them. The first three are in the second stanza, “at the red towers of your native Sodom, / at the empty windows set in the tall house.” Empty windows, the tall house and red towers mean that the house and the city itself is abandoned. Life as Lot’s wife knew it is over.
In stanza three darkness enters the picture. “A single glance: a sudden dart of pain / stitching her eyes before she made a sound” tells us that the wife is blinded. The last thing she saw was Sodom and, again, the message is, it’s over. And so is the wife herself. Also in stanza three are references to transparency and rooted plants. “Her body flaked into transparent salt, / and her swift legs rooted to the ground.” This reminded me of the modern expression, “I’m looking through you,” as in “I see what you’re really like or who you really are” (and it’s never good.)
The translation of this poem by the poet Richard Wilbur is a bit different. While line three doesn’t make a substantial difference in the imagery I’ve identified, I do like this line better the way that Wilbur translates it — “But wild grief in his wife’s bosom cried,” conveys much better the passion of the moment than does the Kunitz/Hayward translation, “while a restless voice kept harrying his woman.” Wilbur’s version of the poem includes the “red towers,” “tall house,” “empty windows,” and “blinded/darkness” images, as well as the “transparent salt” and the wife being rooted, although this time it’s her feet that are rooted rather than her legs. But the main reason this translation is distinctive is that the second stanza contains an overt reference to “the gardens” of Sodom and the fourth stanza includes an image of tears and also uses the word “unhappy”: “Who would waste tears upon her? Is she not / the least of our losses, this unhappy wife?” It is said that the eyes are the windows of the soul, so here we have the image of the wife being blinded, as in losing her soul, and the poet crying for her, or perhaps more for the sad truth that for just one look back the wife lost everything that lay ahead. And tears are made of salt, just like the wife’s body.
The third translation of “Lot’s Wife” includes most of the imagery already discussed. I want to mention it, however, because it has several variations of wording that are different from both of the other versions. If I were searching, for instance, for images of a road or highway, I would not find it in this translation, since A. S. Kline choses the term “black hill” in stanza one, rather than the “black highway” offered by Wilbur. This translation does, on the other hand, have two lines in stanza two that I prefer, where Akhmatova mentions the birth of the wife’s children: “The high windows of your dark home, / Where your children’s lives entered in.” The inclusion of “dark” conveys deep sadness at leaving and the idea of children entering life conveys the idea of windows and their openings between the inner and outer worlds.
2. Evening Room
This beautiful poem paints a picture of an old woman sitting in a room with antique, much-loved furnishings and dust motes dancing in the late afternoon sunlight. Akhmatova writes of the light on porcelain curios moving from bright to “dull lustre” as time wears on. The quality of the light is “yellow, heavy.” “And the room, with narrow windows, / Preserves love, remembers the past.” This is someone in the evening of her life, slowing moving away from the world, which she can still glimpse through her “narrow window.” As time passes, the room is becoming darker. It is turning into this woman’s mausoleum, but that’s OK. She accepts it. We know this because Akhmatova tells us that the woman can hear music as the sun sets.
So here again we have images of light and dark, of windows looking out, and also allowing us to look in, giving us a view on a life. Inside this room the past is remembered and the love it included is preserved. Without actually making any direct reference to death, the poet has given us a powerful word picture of this woman quietly moving on.
There’s also that reference to white chrysanthemum, a flower that lives and dies while bringing beauty into a room. Akhmatova’s poems often use white as the color of death, as well as for lack of feeling or numbness. White is an emptying or fading, in much the same way as this woman’s life is fading away.
3. Solitude
This poem has at least seven images of houses/buildings, windows and light/dark, depending on how you count. It speaks of “turrets” that are “High among high towers.” The poet thanks the builders of the tower because, “Here, I see suns rise earlier, / Here, their last splendors glow.” Often the sea winds “Fill the windows of my sanctuary.” The “divinely light and calm” and the “sunburnt” hand of the Muse all signal the here and now of the poet’s current phase of life. She’s not looking back at emptiness or out the window at fading light. Her windows are full. The sun rises and she sees it early in the day. It sets and she sees its splendid glow. She’s alone, but not lonely. A bird comes in through the window and eats from her hand. She is getting work done; the Muse is finishing the page. This is a good phase of her life. It will end someday, but not now. I think this poem is all about living in the present.

The Poems

Lot’s Wife
And the just man trailed God’s shining agent,
over a black mountain, in his giant track,
while a restless voice kept harrying his woman:

“It’s not too late, you can still look back

at the red towers of your native Sodom,
the square where once you sang, the spinning-shed,
at the empty windows set in the tall house
where sons and daughters blessed your marriage-bed.”

A single glance: a sudden dart of pain

stitching her eyes before she made a sound . . .

Her body flaked into transparent salt,

and her swift legs rooted to the ground.

Who will grieve for this woman? Does she not seem

too insignificant for our concern?

Yet in my heart I never will deny her,

who suffered death because she chose to turn.
Akhmatova, Anna. “Lot’s Wife.” Trans. Stanley Kunitz and Max Hayward. Poems of Akhmatova. New York: Little, Brown, 1973. Web.
————————————-

Lot’s Wife

The just man followed then his angel guide
Where he strode on the black highway, hulking and bright;
But wild grief in his wife’s bosom cried,
Look back, it’s not too late for a last sight
Of the red towers of your native Sodom, the square
Where once you sang, the gardens you shall mourn,
And the tall house with empty windows where
You loved your husband and your babes were born.
She turned, and looking on the bitter view
Her eyes were welded shut by mortal pain
Into transparent salt her body grew
and her quick feet were rooted in the plain.

Who would waste tears upon her? Is she not

The least of our losses, this unhappy wife?
Yet in my heart she will not be forgot
Who, for a single glance, gave up her life.
Akhmatova, Anna. “Lot’s Wife.” Trans. Richard Wilbur. A Book of Women Poets from Antiquity to Now. Ed. Aliki Barnstone and Willis Barnstone. New York: Shocken Books, 1980. 373-4. Print.
———————-
Lot’s Wife

The just man followed God’s messenger,

Vast and bright against the black hill,
But care spoke in the woman’s ear:
‘There’s time, you can look back still.’
At Sodom’s red towers where you were born,
The square where you sang, where you’d spin,
The high windows of your dark home,
Where your children’s lives entered in.’
She looked, and was transfixed by pain,
Unsure whether she could still see,
Her body had turned to translucent salt,
Her quick feet rooted there, like a tree.
A loss, but who still mourns the breath
Of one woman, or laments one wife?
Thought my heart can never forget,
How, for one look, she gave up her life.
Akhmatova, Anna. “Lot’s Wife.” Trans. A.S. Kline. Anna Akhmatova Selected Poems Including Requiem. 2005, 2012. 94. Web.
————————————————-

Evening Room

I speak those words, today, that come

Only once, born in the spirit.

Bees hum on white chrysanthemum:
There’s the must of an old sachet.
And the room, with narrow windows,
Preserves love, remembers the past.
Over the bed a French script flows:
It reads: ‘Lord, have mercy on us.’
Those saddened marks of so ancient a tale,
You mustn't touch, my heart, or seek to
I see bright Sevres statuettes grow pale:

Even as their lustre grows duller too.

A last ray, yellow, heavy,
Sets on the dahlia’s bright bouquet,
And I can hear viols playing,
A clavichord’s rare display.
Akhmatova, Anna. “Evening Room.” Trans. A.S. Kline. Anna Akhmatova Selected Poems Including Requiem. 2005, 2012. 22. Web.
—————————————

Solitude

So many stones are thrown at me
That I no longer cower,
The turret’s cage is shapely,
High among high towers.
My thanks, to its builders,
May they evade pain and woe,
Here, I see suns rise earlier,
Here, their last splendors glow.
And often winds from northern seas
Fill the windows of my sanctuary,
And a dove eats corn from my palm
And divinely light and calm,
The Muse’s sunburnt hand’s at play,
Finishing my unfinished page.
Akhmatova, Anna. “Solitude.” Trans. A.S. Kline. Anna Akhmatova Selected Poems Including Requiem. 2005, 2012. 48. Web.

Works Cited

Akhmatova, Anna. “Lot’s Wife.” Trans. A.S. Kline. Anna Akhmatova Selected Poems Including Requiem. 2005, 2012. 94. Web.
Akhmatova, Anna. “Evening Room.” Trans. A.S. Kline. Anna Akhmatova Selected Poems
Including Requiem. 2005, 2012. 22. Web.
Akhmatova, Anna. “Solitude.” Trans. A.S. Kline. Anna Akhmatova Selected Poems Including Requiem. 2005, 2012. 48. Web.
Akhmatova, Anna. “Lot’s Wife.” Trans. Stanley Kunitz and Max Hayward. Poems of Akhmatova. New York: Little, Brown, 1973. Web.
Akhmatova, Anna. “Lot’s Wife.” Trans. Richard Wilbur. A Book of Women Poets from Antiquity to Now. Ed. Aliki Barnstone and Willis Barnstone. New York: Shocken Books, 1980. 373-4. Print.
“Anna Akhmatova.” poets.org. Academy of American Poets, n.d. Web. March 26, 2015.

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