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This article is taken from PN Review 42, Volume 11 Number 4, March - April 1985.

The Ikon of the Epoch: Anna Akhmatova John Pilling

'She is,' wrote Kornei Chukovsky in 1921, 'our only remaining Orthodox poet'; and twenty years after her death Akhmatova still seems a singular phenomenon, though difficult to characterize so precisely. This singularity may be slightly diminished when we think of Akhmatova alongside Pasternak, Tsvetaeva and Mandelstam, the great dead poets of her 1961 memorial poem 'There are four of us'. But our received idea of them as 'four' derives very largely from Akhmatova herself, so that even within this constellation she seems to occupy a special, and specially privileged, position of authority. The same holds true across the years for her early Acmeist affiliations, when it was her name, rather than those of Gumilyov and Mandelstam, which echoed, or was echoed by, the movement to which they were committed. From whatever angle we choose to approach her, indeed, and against whatever background, Akhmatova seems etched in high relief and, like Blok and Pushkin before her, quite as much a symbolic or emblematic figure as a real one.

Akhmatova's first fame came when, though still only in her twenties, she was acclaimed by those closest to her for qualities that were later to be universally acknowledged. Nikolai Gumilyov, whom she had married, greeted her Rosary volume of 1914 - the first collection to win her a huge audience - with the shrewd perception that she had provided a voice for things previously without one. In due course this view of Akhmatova took on its classic formulation in Mandelstam's ...

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