Reading Hamlet (trans. Kunitz/Hayward, from Poems of Akhmatova)
A barren patch to the right of the cemetery,
behind it a river flashing blue.
You said: “All right then, get thee to a nunnery,
or go get married to a fool…”
It was the sort of thing that princes always say,
but these are the words that one remembers.
May they flow a hundred centuries in a row
like an ermine mantle from his shoulders.
Akhmatova wrote this at 19 or 20. I remember what I was writing at 21 and it needs to be burned. Heck, half these blog entries need to be burned, but I’m reluctant to throw gasoline on my Mac.
Onto the poem: The speaker may be in the cemetery. If she is, then there is no question what is “right” of it: that barren patch does sit in judgment. But that would equate the speaker and the cemetery.
The interesting case is if the speaker is facing the cemetery. Now what? Her right could very well be the cemetery’s left. I don’t know any Russian; I don’t know if this is an actual issue in the poem from the wordplay. I do know it is an actual issue from the themes the poem engages. The cemetery is likened to the prince; as one prays for the prince to have a mantle of white flow behind him, the cemetery more than likely has the river flow behind it. As the prince is preoccupied with death, he cannot see love as having any point: “All right then, get thee to a nunnery, / or go get married to a fool…”
So the question of “how do we determine what is right of the cemetery” is the question of “Who judges?” That barren patch is possibility: maybe the river flows behind it, and it alone. Maybe death – the cemetery – does not get to wear all the honors of life (“river flashing blue” being like the “ermine mantle”). The almost imaginary geography we are given – “Reading Hamlet” and our speaker’s Ophelia-like musing – seems to put judgment in our speaker’s hands.
Or does it? The ease the prince can be dismissed (“sort of thing that princes always say”) points to the prince as everlasting. A Prince is supposed to sit at the right hand of God at the end of time. The prince could be both the cemetery and the barren patch: given Hamlet, this makes perfect sense. “These are the words that one remembers:” this speaker is not Ophelia. She understands the glory he is, and is resolved to do homage, and only homage. She accepts him at the same time she rejects him; she is in judgment even as she is not judging; the barren patch is to her right, too, and I wonder if she is walking toward it as she mutters the last two lines. Love is for those on earth. The blue river and the white mantle are colors apart from the browns and greens of a barren patch.