Anna Akhmatova's Song of the Last Meeting

Anna Akhmatova (real name Anna Andreyevna Gorenko, 1899-1966) and Marina Tsvetaeva (1892-1941) are generally held to be the greatest of Russian women poets — by virtue of their originality and power of writing. Both were poets of love, but not generally of happy love. Both suffered under the Soviet regime. Akhmatova was able to publish little after the 1920s, and Tsvetaevs committed suicide after returning friendless to Russia in 1941.

Akhmatova early work was generally short lyric poems on the joys, and more usually the difficulties and sorrows, of love, but her later cycles, such as Requiem (1935–40) also acted as witness to the Stalinist terror. Her early (1912-25) style was quite distinctive: strong and clear but still economical and restrained, focusing on women's troubles seen from a feminine point of view. She was rarely in favour with the Soviet authorities, but pointedly chose not to emigrate.

Akhmatova's first husband, Nikolay Gumilev, was executed as a counter-revolutionary, and both her son Lev Gumilev and her common-law husband Nikolay Punin spent many years in the Gulag, where Punin eventually died. Akhmatova's second husband, Vladimir Shileiko, was an Assyriologist, and though the poet always regarded St. Petersberg as home, she was able to able in live in Paris for a while.

akhmatova, song of our last meeting translation

Akhmatova saw poetry as a high, exacting art, but popular elements in her work made her into a celebrity. Acmeism to Akhmatova was not simple a poetic style but a way of living, a pledge of personal honour. Much of the early poetry was a personalizing of fictional incidents, moreover, something the Soviet regime regarded as old-fashioned and self-indulgent.

Only in the 1960s did the poet really become well-known outside Modernist Russian circles.

Russian Text

Песня последней встречи

Так беспомощно грудь холодела,
Но шаги мои были легки.
Я на правую руку надела
Перчатку с левой руки.

Показалось, что много ступеней,
А я знала — их только три!
Между клёнов шёпот осенний
Попросил: «Со мною умри!

Я обманут моей унылой,
Переменчивой, злой судьбой».
Я ответила: «Милый, милый!
И я тоже. Умру с тобой…»

Это песня последней встречи.
Я взглянула на тёмный дом.
Только в спальне горели свечи
Равнодушно-жёлтым огнём.

September 29, 1911. Tsarskoe selo

The TTS Audio Recording is:

Prosodic Analysis

The poem is in ternary rhyme, rhymed AbAb but in slightly irregular anapaests:

Так беспо́мощно грудь холоде́ла, u u – u u – u u – u     3A
Но шаги́ мои́ бы́ли легки́. u u – u - - u u -     3b
Я на пра́вую ру́ку наде́ла u u – u u – u u – u     3A
Перча́тку с ле́вой руки́. u – u – u u –    3b

Показа́лось, что мно́го ступе́ней u u – u u – u u – u    3C
А я зна́ла — их то́лько три! u u – u u – u u    3D
Ме́жду клёнов шёпот осе́нний - u – u – u u – u    3C
Попроси́л: «Со мно́ю умри́! u u – u - u u -     3d

Я обма́нут мое́й уны́лой, u u – u u – u – u     3E
Переме́нчивой, злой судьбо́й». u u – u u – u -    3f
Я отве́тила: «Ми́лый, ми́лый! u u – u u – u – u     3E
И я то́же. Умру́ с тобо́й…» u u – u u – u –    3f

Э́то пе́сня после́дней встре́чи. - u - u u – u – u     3G
Я взгляну́ла на тёмный дом. u u – u u - u u    3H
То́лько в спа́льне горе́ли све́чи - u – u u – u – u     3G
Равноду́шно-жёлтым огнём. u u – u – u u -     3h

Previous Translations of the Poem

Ruverses have eight renderings. I give just the first stanza of each:

1. Rupert Moreton

Breast so helpless succumbing to chilling,
But with feather-tread airy I paced.
Struggling, frozen left mitten contriving
On right-hand digits to place.

2. Robert Chandler

I walked without dragging my feet
but felt heavy at heart and frightened;
and I pulled onto my left hand
the glove that belonged to the right.

3. John Woodsworth

My breast was chilled through, oh so helpless,
But my steps were still very light.
I picked up the glove for the left hand
And put it by chance on the right.

4. Andrey Kneller

How helplessly chilled was my chest, yet
My footsteps were nimble and light.
The glove that belonged on my left hand
I unconsciously put on my right.

5. Donald Michael Thomas

My breast grew cold and numb,
But my feet were light.
On to my right hand I fumbled
The glove to my left hand.

6. A. S. Kline

My heart was chilled and numb,
But my feet were light.
I fumbled the glove for my left hand
Onto my right.

7. Lyn Coffin

My breast was bound with a cold band,
And still my steps were light.
The glove intended for my left hand,
I put on my right.

8. Judith Hemschemeyer

Then helplessly my breast grew cold,
But my steps were light.
I pulled the glove for my left hand
Onto my right.

9. Evelyn Bristol {3}

Then my heart turned to ice — I was helpless,
But my steps as I walked were as light,
and the glove that I took from my left hand
I, unknowingly, put on my right.

Starting the Translation

Akhmatova's poetry transfers well into English, and has been much translated. All the versions above have their pluses and minuses, but let's first produce simple iambic tetrameters rhymed abab:

Immediately I felt the heart
go cold but kept the footwork light.
I could not tell the hands apart:
but put the left glove on the right.

In stepping down — how many there?
I knew that there were only three,
but maples had that autumn air
of whispering they would die with me.

I am by treachery denied,
a gloomy fate has run me through.
'My own dear, dearest,' I replied,
'me, I'll also die with you.'

And so the song when last we met,
the house was shuttered just the same.
Only the candles in the bedroom yet
glowed with an indifferent yellow flame.

The line we have to concentrate on is number 12. What is it saying — that the poet's lover is dead, and she will gladly join him in death? No. Akhmatova's early poems — this appears in her collection 'Evening' — are self-dramatizations. The whole collection concerns the quarrels, separations and sufferings of someone imagined, who is not, or not entirely, the poet herself. The narrator was in fact faithfully married to Nickolai Gumilev at the time, who materially helped her to publish the poems. But Akhmatova was always a little larger than life, attention seeking, going her own flamboyant ways, and she did indeed divorce Gumilev in 1918.

The New Criticism argued that biography is irrelevant to our appreciation of a poem, but here we do need to understand the inner world that Akhmatova created. She in fact regarded these early poems as naive and inept, though readers have generally preferred them to her later, more polished work.

Nonetheless, we would do better, I think to modify this stanza, avoiding this misinterpretation and toning down the melodrama a bit:

A heart by treachery denied;
a gloomy fate has run me through.
'My own dear, dearest,' I replied,
'I also want to die with you.'

Beyond that, and remembering that, for Russian readers, yellow denotes separation, {4} we have finished the translation.

But have we? The original is in ternary trimeters, which given the problems the replica occasions in English, may be sensibly rendered in iambic tetrameters. But Evelyn Bristol, as ever faithful to the Russian, does replicate the metre. As her second stanza indicates, this imparts a dreamy, not altogether real aspect to the rendering, which is just what the poem needs:

I've been wronged by a sad and gloomy,
By a treacherous, evil fate."
And I answered, "O my dearest, dearest,
I was, too - I'll come die with you . . ."

(In fairness, we should also note that renderings 2 and 3 of line 4 are also neat and satisfying trimeters.)

So perhaps we should convert iambic tetrameters to anapaestic trimeters:

Inert and cold went the heart,
though steady the footwork and light.
The gloves I couldn't tell apart,
and mixed up the left with the right.

I go down — how many are there?
I knew there were only the three,
still maples in the autumn air
whispering they'd die with me.

And so, if the heart hasn't lied,
a hard, gloomy fate runs me through.
'My own dear, and dearest,' I cried,
'I also will die with you.'

So the song when we latterly met,
the house there unlit the same,
the candles in the bedroom yet
indifferent in yellow flame.

This is intolerable, of course, a travesty. We have turned a serious and well-loved poem into a galumphing nursery rhyme. But if we now go back and look at the scansion of the Russian original, we now see why the author has made it so irregular — precisely to avoid trivializing the experience. And this indicates what we need to do: make the rendering sparer and more laconic by replacing the anapaests by iambs in many of the lines. Professor Bristol has also added the odd word to set the scene more clearly, which I think is wise: readers can't relate to the translation if they don't understand what's going on.

Completing the Translation of Akhmatova's Poem

Confused and cold felt the heart,
footwork kept deft and light.
But with gloves not told apart,
the left got swapped for the right.

How many the steps down there?
I know there are only three,
fresh maples in the autumn air
sweet whispering they'll die with me.

I am by treachery denied,
a gloomy fate has run me through.
'My own dear, dearest,' I replied,
'How willingly I'd die with you.'

This song when last we met,
with the house still shuttered the same:
only candles in the bedroom yet
indifferent in yellow flame.

Nonetheless, I'm bound to say that I don't like this rhythm very much, and would be happier with something sparer:

Confused and cold the heart;
though footwork deft and light.
With gloves not told apart,
the left got tangled with the right.

How many the steps down there?
I knew there were only three,
but maples in the autumn air
were whispering they'll die with me.

By saddening gloom denied,
ill-fortune runs me through.
'Ah, my dearest,' I cried,
'How willingly I'd die with you.'

So song when last we met,
and dark the house became,
with candles in the bedroom yet
indifferent in yellow flame.

References and Resources

1. Bristol, E., A History of Russian Poetry (O.U.P.) 211-12.

2. Watchel, M. The Cambridge Introduction to Russian Poetry. (C.U.P. 2004)99.

3. Bristol, 210-14.

4. Short article in Russian.

5. Another school lesson, a little fuller, but also in Russian.

Russian poem translations on this site: listing.