The poets and the world war: "In Memoriam, July 19, 1914" by Anna Akhmatova

Anna Akhmatova, 1889–1966
Both in Anna Akhmatova and in Osip Mandel'štam’s poems dedicated to the Great War we find a kind of an obsession for the “century” and for the “age” they were living in. And this obsession is clearly developed in the famous Akhmatova’s poem proposed today in the translation by Stephen Edgar. In Memoriam, July 19, 1914 is included in the book “White Flock” (Belaya Staya) of 1917 and was written exactly one hundred years ago as a recollection of memories and sensations brought by the beginning of the war in July 1914. It is therefore a poem of memories, of "recollection", two years after the war outbreak. It is one of the great poems in the heritage of First World War literature: it's about time, compression of time, psychological percetion of time, duration, war, God and the role of the poet. "A book of portents terrible to read" is at the end the heritage of the World War I itself. One of the reasons why we consider comparation (and comparative literature as well?) useful is the huge difference from this recollected memories of the beginning of war and, for example, the way other poets welcomed the war in other countries. The feeling of acceleration, that was one of the distinctive marks of the Twentieth century lies there, in the first two verses of this poem composed one hundred years ago.


We aged a hundred years and this descended
In just one hour, as at a stroke.
The summer had been brief and now was ended;
The body of the ploughed plains lay in smoke.

The hushed road burst in colors then, a soaring
Lament rose, ringing silver like a bell.
And so I covered up my face, imploring
God to destroy me before battle fell.

And from my memory the shadows vanished
Of songs and passions—burdens I'd not need.
The Almighty bade it be—with all else banished—
A book of portents terrible to read.

(Translation by Stephen Edgar)


Мы на сто лет состарились, и это
Тогда случилось в час один:
Короткое уже кончалось лето,
Дымилось тело вспаханных равнин.

Вдруг запестрела тихая дорога,
Плач полетел, серебряно звеня.
Закрыв лицо, я умоляла Бога
До первой битвы умертвить меня.

Из памяти, как груз отныне лишний,
Исчезли тени песен и страстей.
Ей – опустевшей – приказал Всевышний
Стать страшной книгой грозовых вестей.