Akhmatova on Looking Back

 

Lot’s Wife (translation by Stanley Kunitz)

And the just man trailed God’s shining agent,
over a black mountain, in his giant track,
while a restless voice kept harrying his woman:
“It’s not too late, you can still look back

at the red towers of your native Sodom,
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.”

A single glance: a sudden dart of pain
stitching her eyes before she made a sound…
Her body flaked into transparent salt,
and her swift legs rooted to the ground.

Who will grieve for this woman? Does she not seem
too insignificant for our concern?
Yet in my heart I never will deny her,
who suffered death because she chose to turn.

by Anna Akhmatova (1889-1966)

Response Poem

A response poem is any poem that directly responds to another work of literature (not to be confused with ekphrastic poetry, which is poetry that responds to non-literary art). Responses can range from a reply to a disagreement to an outsider’s opinion. What matters most is that the response poem engages another work of literature in a meaningful way.

The Biblical Account of Lot’s Wife

According the bible, Lot was informed that God was going to burn his native city Sodom and all of its people to the ground. He was given instructions by two angels to flee the city with his family and to never look back. However, when his wife looked back, she was punished by being turned into a pillar of salt.

Akhmatova’s Response

Akhmatova opens the poem by dramatizing the punishment of Lot’s wife and adding details not present in the biblical account. Notice how Akhmatova emphasizes Lot’s wife’s sentimental attachments to Sodom when a voice beckons her to look back at “the square where you once sang, the spinning-shed,/ at the empty windows set in the tall house/ where sons and daughters blessed your marriage bed.” Akhmatova is drawing a parallel between Lot’s wife and herself.

In Lot’s wife’s decision to look back at the ravaged Sodom, Akhmatova sees her own decision to look back on her beloved St. Petersburg, whose culture and vitality was similarly ravaged by the Great Purges. Her identification with Lot’s wife is solidified in the final two lines: “Yet in my heart I never will deny her,/ who suffered death because she chose to turn.” Thus, the story of Lot’s wife becomes, by extension, a convenient and meaningful way for Akhmatova to defend her decision to remain in Soviet Russia, despite its immediate dangers.

 

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