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  Philologica 10 (2013/2014)  
   
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Evgenij SOSHKIN

WE ARE FOUR
(Towards a Description of Anna Axmatova’s Poetic Cosmology)

 
 
 



 

Summary

This paper explores some aspects of Anna Axmatova’s personal myth, one aspect of which was her self-identification with various literary and historical characters. When her son was anticipating a death sentence during Stalin’s Great Terror, she mainly identified herself with Shakespeare’s Cleopatra, who had lost her loved ones and committed suicide to preserve her dignity and freedom. Another aspect of Axmatova’s personal myth, which remained important for all her life, was a transcendental liaison with Pushkin. Axmatova was convinced that Pushkin had dreamt for many years about a lover who would be a modern incarnation of Cleopatra. In this regard, Cleopatra took on a mediating function as a counterpart of Axmatova. However, Axmatova faced a logical problem with her trans-temporal fantasies: Pushkin was not attracted by the Shakespearean Cleopatra. Instead, he was enchanted by the libertine Cleopatra of historical anecdote, who would sell her love at the price of the buyer’s life. The paper shows that Axmatova tried to ameliorate this conflict by selecting two epigraphs, one from Shakespeare and the other from Pushkin, for her poem Cleopatra (1940). The common theme of the epigraphs (as well as of the poem itself) is Cleopatra’s relationship with the four elements. In Pushkin’s poem, the motif of the elements and their obedience to Cleopatra is secondary, whereas in Shakespeare the images of the elements are extremely dominant. For example, in the death scene, Cleopatra identifies Antony and herself with air and fire, which are the highest elements among the four. Mostly due to this motif, Axmatova adopted the ancient model of the four elements and put it at the heart of her understanding of the essence of poetry and the relationship between the poet and language. This understanding stands opposed to corresponding ideas of Marina Cvetaeva who, in circumstances similar to Axmatova’s and Cleopatra’s, chose suicide. At the turn of the 1950s and 1960s, it became popular to represent Mandel’shtam, Cvetaeva, Pasternak, and Axmatova as a particularly close foursome of post-symbolist poets. Axmatova enthusiastically promoted this representation and legitimized it in her poem Nas chetvero (We are Four, 1961), largely because of the number of poets coinciding with the number of elements.

 

Key words: Axmatova and Cleopatra, Pushkin and Cleopatra, Axmatova and Pushkin, Axmatova and Shakespeare, suicide, four elements, four poets

 



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