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Review of “Lot’s Wife” by Anna Akhmatova

One of the most impressive aspects of Anna Akhmatova’s famous poem “Lot’s Wife” is the way the poem moves from the personal to the universal. Actually, the poem moves, in linear function, from the universal to the personal, but the thematic resonance of the poem is one which originates in subjective contemplation and flowers into universal understanding. The poem is told from the point of view of a first-person speaker, ostensibly the poet herself, who is contemplating the Biblical story of King Lot, or more specifically, a slight sub-story within that Biblical story which involves Lot’s wife.

The fact that the speaker of the poem has chosen a Biblical story to meditate upon is important; there can be no mistake, even to a casual reader, that “the Bible is the source of the story told. ” (Amert 1992, 13). This fact is key, not only because it grants the poem and immediate gravitas in the minds of many readers, but because it places the poem, thematically, and quite overtly on spiritual grounds. Obviously, because the poem is steeped in Biblical allusion, the imagery of the poem is also Biblical ion nature.

However, Akhmatova uses the imagery of her own native Russian landscape in place of the historical middle-eastern Biblical landscape to transpose the Biblical event to “modern” times and also to enrich the sense of personal involvement in the recounted Biblical events. This kind of transposition is very subtle, but can be inferred from the following lines of the poem: “the square where once you sang, the spinning-shed,/ at the empty windows set in the tall house/where sons and daughters blessed your marriage-bed.

” (Akhmatova). This scene can be understood to be an articulation toward universality in that it extracts from an ancient Biblical setting, those aspects which would feel most normal and familiar to modern readers” windows, houses, marriage beds, in order to make a connection between the Biblical references and contemporary experience: “she takes on the persona of a woman looking back–on the realistic level, to the familiar locales of her native city. ” (Reeder 1997, 112)

Strictly speaking, the setting where the poem takes place could be conjectured to be the poet’s own writing desk or reading room where she is reading her Bible. Or it could be in a church or in a Sunday school or most anywhere the reader would like to imagine. The setting of the poem’s imaginary space is, however, much more crucial than the specific whereabouts of the narrator herself, and this setting is, as mentioned, a rich blend of Biblical and contemporary imagery.

The blending of the two settings is crucial because, thematically, Akhmatova is “asking” her audience to re-imagine the story of Lot’s wife, or more appropriately, to consider it deeply perhaps for the very first time. She also wants her readers to view Lot’s wife with modern, rather than ancient, eyes. This insistence is provoked thorough her twining of ancient and modern imagery and modern and ancient diction. In order to re-imagine the story of Lot’s wife, it is necessary for the alert reader to carefully consider the original Biblical story.

Lot’s wife is unnamed and occupies only a small fragment of the action of the overall story of King Lot: “Lot’s unnamed wife is mentioned briefly in Genesis 19:26” (Taylor and Weir 2006, 400) and the main thrust of Akhmatova’s interest in the story involves the part where “Lot’s family was fleeing from the destruction of Sodom [and] she looked back and was turned into a pillar of salt” (Taylor and Weir 2006, 400). Angels had warned all of those fleeing from the sinful city of Sodom not to look back at it.

Obviously, in an “the mystery surrounding Lot’s wife’s meta- morphosis, and the brevity of both these accounts all provide interpreters with an opportunity for amplification and elucidation of this narrative” (Taylor and Weir 2006, 400). By elucidating the narrative in her own, brilliantly original fashion, Akhmatova was able to instill the slight, almost footnote-like, existence of Lot’s unnamed wife with epic profundity.

Although it may be somewhat simplistic to say so, I belive that one of the methods by which Akhmatova was able to produce such an important poem with such a short length and seemingly simple subject was by attaching a personal interpretation to a universal myth. By seeing herself as Lot’s wife. she was able to make Lot’s wife stand for the universal experience of women who are often treated as “unnamed” by male adn Christian dominated societies.

Interestingly enough, I felt that the poem gained a lot of impact through its vivid description of Lot’s wife turning to salt: “Her body flaked into transparent salt,/ and her swift legs rooted to the ground. ” (Akhmatova). The way this description fills the “blank” provided by the Biblical story is almost chilling in impact. Although the poem is in some ways a repudiation of Christian bias toward women adn the neglect that Western Christianity has had in regard to women’s plight, the poem is also a genuine articulation of spiritual faith.

Akhmatova was, according to her biographers, a deeply spiritual person who “expressed the belief that war and revolution came to Russia as retribution for the indifference shown by the intelligentsia and upper classes toward the suffering of the common people. ” (Reeder 1997, 106). In this way, she preserves the Biblical “lesson” of the story of King Lot by never questioning the overall message but merely opening a universal theme by expressing her empathy for Lot’s wife, which provided both a daring and profound theme for one of her greatest lyric poems.

Works Cited Amert, Susan. 1992. The Later Poetry of Anna Akhmatova . Stanford, CA: Stanford University. Reeder, Roberta. 1997. Anna Akhmatova: The Stalin Years. New England Review 18, no. 1: 105-125. Taylor, Marion Ann and Heather E. Weir, eds. 2006. Let Her Speak for Herself: Nineteenth-Century Women Writing on the Women of Genesis. Waco, TX: Baylor University Press.

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