Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Anna Akhmatova's "Lot's Wife"

Hello, and welcome to another bout of feminist literary analysis! Are you ready for some fun? Good!

Today's poem is Anna Akhmatova's "Lot's Wife," which is an interesting poem for several reasons. First, it contains a biblical theme, which is always interesting for feminist criticism because o the varied ways that women are depicted in the Bible. And interestingly enough, Akhmatova's poem recognizes and subverts one of the common themes that arises when more traditional analyses of the Bible are used. That is, women tend to be either pure and holy or very bad troublemakers, frequently harlots or enemy spies, people who seduce men to their doom--as melodramatic as that sounds. Lot's wife comes from the most notoriously wicked city in the Bible this side of Babylon: Sodom, sister city to Gomorrah. Her fate is not mentioned much in the Bible. In fact, she has a single line, which only states that she looked back and was turned to salt.

Yet, despite being only present in a single sentence, she has captured the imagination of many poets, Akhmatova not excepted. Her punishment in the Bible (and it is a punishment) marks her as yet another woman who did wrong, someone with whom the reader is not expected to sympathize. The lack of ceremony attached to her death illustrates this as well. She is quickly forgotten, and Lot does not mention her again.

Akhmatova, however, exhibits a great sympathy with her plight. The fact of the life being left behind in Sodom is brought up, and the contrast that is made at the start of the poem helps to set the tone for the rest of the work. Lot is referred to as "the just man" and Abraham as "God's shining agent", going along a giant track and moving with great purpose. In contrast to this masculine energy and determination, "his woman" is being harried by a "restless voice". She is not as certain, does not move along as straight a path. In contrast to the straightforward movement shown by the male figure in the poem, she imagines still, domestic scenes. She sees a circularly moving spinning wheel, a marriage bed, children. None of these things move as directly or as calmly as a track (as if for a train?); they are more erratic. A bed does not move at all. Yet, it is Lot that is commended, for he can move on without these things.

However, repeatedly being referred to as "woman", Lot's wife is involved with female sentiments and concerns. The traditionally feminine concerns of home and family drive her to look back, to remember, and it is for this that she is punished. It is interesting that Akhmatova states that Lot's wife seems insignificant--in the Biblical text, in fact, she does seem insignificant. But perhaps this is because female concerns and priorities are historically viewed as insignificant. It is difficult for Lot, or the average reader of the Bible, to see the domestic sphere as particularly important, since it is, as seen in the story of Lot's wife, so easy to abandon.

Here is the poem for your reference. I got it from here: Poets Dot Org

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.

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