Lives Of The Poets Russia's Anna Akhmatova And Marina Tsvetaeva



Poets Anna Akhmatova and Marina Tsvetaeva both experienced the bittersweet and privileged, "never-to-be-returned-to" Russian childhood of the fin de siecle, when children were attended by nurses, maids carried "trays, tea sets, water bottles-even whole baked pies. . ." and funeral processions were the spectacles recorded by Pushkin, with choirs of young boys, priests burning incense, coffins draped with living flowers, stately blinkered horses, officers of the Guard, gentlemen wearing opera hats, everything bathed in the glow of lanterns.
Akhmatova's story has become fixed as hagiography; what we know of her childhood comes from poems, a thin body of autobiographical prose and the memoirs and diaries of her contemporaries. She was born Anna Andreyevna Gorenko in 1889, the third of six children in a modest gentry family. Her mother's ancestors had been well-planted in the aristocracy since the 15th Century; her father's family had only attained high rank through her grandfather's service in the navy.
Her parents, in their youth, had contact with the outlawed political movement, the People's Will, but they were not intellectuals. A volume of Nekrasov's poetry was the only book in their household, and that had been a present to her mother from her first husband, who had shot himself. Her father, a naval officer, eventually left the family to live with the widow of an admiral. As a girl Akhmatova was regarded as an outsider. Somehow she got hold of poetry, Baudelaire, Voltaire, the poets maudits.
In the 1930s, as an emigre in Paris, Tsvetaeva composed a series of autobiographical essays, and these, along with the memoirs of her sister, Anastasiya, have established the configuration of the Tsvetaeva legend. Born in Moscow in 1892, she came from an artistic and scholarly family. Her mother was a pianist who did not perform because of social constraints but instilled music in the household. Her father, son of a village priest, was a professor of art history at the University of Moscow and founder of the first Russian sculpture museum.
Tsvetaeva began to play the piano at age 4, but from the beginning she sensed that music belonged to her mother while her identity would be welded to words. She was educated first by tutors and then at boarding schools in Switzerland and Germany while her mother was treated for the consumption from which she would die in 1906.
The lives of the two poets echoed each other as they entered adulthood-at a time when the events that would lead to war, revolution and civil war were being felt only as a vague undertow. In 1910 Tsvetaeva arranged to have her first book, "Evening Album," printed privately in Moscow. Akhmatova was married that year to a childhood friend of her brother Andrey, Nikolay Gumilyov, an adventurer, critic and poet, editor of several literary journals and founder of the Acmeist movement. He was one of the first to praise Tsvetaeva's work.


In 1912 Tsvetaeva married Sergey Efron, the son of revolutionary parents; she was pregnant at the time of the wedding. That same year Akhmatova published her first book, titled "Evening." In the fall she gave birth to a son. Both women had chosen young husbands, although Gumilyov, already a central figure in the Russian avant-garde, may have acted as Pygmalion to Akhmatova, while Efron, boyishly handsome, idealistic, shy, appears to have been a weaker partner.
Akhmatova quickly became a celebrity in the Petersburg cabarets, where young poets such as Mandelstam, Mayakovsky and Kuzmin mingled with artists and composers. Tsvetaeva was associated with Moscow, her father's museum, the large house on Three Pond Lane that was in the background of much of her writing. Akhmatova left her son to be raised by her husband's mother and aunt while she established herself as a poet. Tsvetaeva's daughter, Ariadna or Alya, was tended by nurses and maids.
Through her poems and her demeanor, Akhmatova constructed an image (which included choosing for herself a name that linked her to Tatar nobility and Genghis Khan) of stately, fragile and tormented love. Tsvetaeva was swept up by uncontrollable passions for men and women (years afterward she referred to the demise of her first lesbian affair, with the writer Sofiya Parnok, as "the hour of my first catastrophe").
By 1917, the last year of the war and the year of the Revolution, the Akhmatova-Gumilyov marriage, which had always been "free," disintegrated. Tsvetaeva, who had just given birth to a second daughter, Irina, was in Moscow, cut off from Efron, who had joined the White Guard to fight the Bolsheviks.
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