Anna Akhmatova, “Reading Hamlet”

Reading Hamlet (trans. Kunitz/Hayward, from Poems of Akhmatova)
Anna 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.

Comment:

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.

9 Comments

  1. This is a clever poem for sure. I don’t think the speaker is dead. Maybe the speaker is setting the scene like an establishing shot in a movie. I think this relationship is broken or breaking and while it saddens her for it to be this way because she loves him or at least should love him. I think this because she makes reference to the “ermine man­tle”. Its time to move on just like the river.

    Basically, I think it’s like this. She’s said about breaking up with this dude, because he’s pretty cool and has a little cash. He’s a bit pissed off and whips her with his tongue. She knows that life must go on.

  2. > It was the sort of thing that princes always say,
    > but these are the words that one remembers.

    The speaker is Ophelia, presumably, before her suicide. The river is where she committed (will commit) suicide.

    Her suicide was triggered by Hamlet’s rejection, which was the same scene as the quote is from, IIRC. The point of my quote is that Ophelia knows that there is nothing unusual about Hamlet’s dismissal of her (‘always say’), but she can’t let it go (‘one remembers’). And so since Hamlet will not love her, she will not remain in this world.

    > May they flow a hun­dred cen­turies in a row
    > like an ermine man­tle from his shoulders.

    May the emperor live 10000 years! Banzai!

  3. Ashok, you have such a beautiful command of language with your commentaries; it still surprises me that you are not teaching creative writing as a career, or literature, or poetry…

    Just peeking in to say “hi.” ;-)

  4. Wow, I’m impressed! It’s a very good analysis! If you studied literature class in Russia I’m sure you would have only “A”s. And I’m serious.

    Here there is the second part of this poem:
    “And as if by mistake
    I said: “You …”
    Shadow of a smile lit
    Nice features.

    Of such clauses
    Every eye will flash …
    I love you like forty
    Affectionate sisters.”

    And I looked up the analysis of this poem. It was in Russian and I tried to translate it with help of Google. This might be interesting for you and may give you a new prospective on this poem.

    “In 1909 Akhmatova wrote “Reading Hamlet “:” He told me: “All right then, get thee to nunnery / or go get married to a fool …”. It’s the same opposition: Shakespeare’s Hamlet condemns the rowdiness of women and turns away from Ophelia not only for the simulation of madness, but because the world for him was filled with evil and betrayal. A woman can keep a virtue only in the monastery, having handed her soul to God. A woman for Hamlet is only weak and, of course, sinful creature. Shakespeare has put Ophelia out this scheme: she is not a saint and a whore, but she a real person, she loved the Prince of Denmark, not just sung decent songs, having lost her mind. And Akhmatova in her poem goes away from the hardness and cruelty of the stated wishes of Hamlet, switching the meaning of the situation in other plan: “It was the sort of thing that princes always say / But I remember this speech, / Let it flows through one hundred centuries in a row / like a ermine mantle from the shoulders”. Here it’s very important, it’s not written from whose shoulders is this mantle from!!! It just “shoulders” that may turn out to be her (tricky part of translation).
    Favorite romantic Hamlet is great and the right in his conflict with the world, so – here we can expect even more remarkable turnaround – his unfair speech does not demean his girlfriend but becomes a sign and her royal dignity. Lyrical heroine does not deny evil words, but is capable of love and (in contrast to Ophelia) understands unjust. And we should note a remarkable feature. Lyrical heroine of Akhmatova does not coincide completely with the selected mask, it expresses itself not only through the similarity, but also by the difference. “I love you like forty / affectionate sisters” – a paraphrase of the words of Hamlet, which was impossible in the mouth of Ophelia, but is genuine in Akhmatova’s poem.”

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