Lot’s Wife by Anna Akhmatova, Translated by Richard Wilbur

This intriguing poem, ‘Lot’s Wife’, by Anna Akhmatova, translated by Richard Wilbur, takes an age-old story that has been passed down from generation to generation and tells it from a new perspective, that of Lot’s wife. The Genesis story of Lot’s family is told practically, without giving much insight into emotions or thoughts of the people involved. In fact, the account reads like a historical document more than a story. As the biblical story unfolds, readers are given the facts about what happened, but no insight into the feelings or thoughts of any of the characters are revealed. Lot’s wife is particularly overlooked in this story, as she turns into a pillar of salt for disobeying the command of the angel, and is never spoken of again. This poem gives the reader insight into what might possibly have been going through the mind of this woman, Lot’s wife, whose name we are never even given.

From the title itself, the reader can sense that this account is going to be different from the original story. In the biblical account, Abraham and his wife Sarah are the central focus. Lot and his wife seem nearly forgotten after their move to the city of Sodom. That is, until God tells Abraham that he is about to destroy Sodom, and Abraham begs God to save the righteous from the city. God honors that request, and Lot and his family are led to safety while the rest of the city burns. But God commands them not to look back upon the city, and Lot’s wife disobeys that command and instantly turns into a pillar of salt.

The title of this poem lets the reader know immediately that the poem will sympathize with Lot’s wife. Though she is simply a casualty in the original story, she is the central focus of this poem.

Lot's Wife by Anna Akhmatova, Translated by Richard Wilbur

 

Summary of Lot’s Wife

‘Lot’s Wife’ by Anna Akhmatova is a retelling of the biblical story about Lot’s wife. 

‘Lot’s Wife’ by Anna Akhmatova presents the sad story of Lot’s wife in an innovative manner. It seems the poet is actually sensitive about the story in which the poor wife of Lot turned into a statue of salt. Her lonely statue still stands on the “black mountain”. Men trailed by, overlooking it. But the poetic persona can hear the voices from the past. Someone is telling the lady to “look back”. The native people of “Sodom” blessed the marriage of Lot and the lady.

However, fate was not in her favor. Her happy moments of married life turned into a lifelong burden of suffering. Inside the statue, the voice seems to be trapped. The poet can hear it. She says, “Yet in my heart I never will deny her,/ who suffered because she chose to turn.” The last line does not sound like regret. It celebrates the feminine perseverance in her heart.

You can read the full poem Lot’s Wife here.

 

Significance of the Title, “Lot’s Wife”

‘Lot’s Wife’ by Anna Akhmatova has a significance behind its title. From the title itself, the reader can sense that this account is going to be different from the original story. In the biblical account, Abraham and his wife Sarah are the central focus. Lot and his wife seem nearly forgotten after their move to the city of Sodom. That is until God tells Abraham that he is about to destroy Sodom, and Abraham begs God to save the righteous from the city. God honors that request, and Lot and his family are led to safety while the rest of the city burns. But God commands them not to look back upon the city, and Lot’s wife disobeys that command and instantly turns into a pillar of salt.

The title of this poem lets the reader know immediately that the poem will sympathize with Lot’s wife. Though she is simply a casualty in the original story, she is the central focus of this poem.

 

Analysis of Lot’s Wife

Stanza One

And the just man trailed God’s shining agent,

(…)

“It’s not too late, you can still look back

The poem begins by aligning with the biblical account in that it calls Lot a “just man” and explains that he “followed…his angel guide”. The speaker describes the angel as “hulking and bright”. The use of the word “hulking” seems almost contradictory to the “bright” descriptions usually used for angels. It gives the reader the sense that the speaker does not necessarily side with the angel, although the speaker never blatantly disregards him.

The speaker then identifies strongly with Lot’s wife when she describes the “wild grief” in her “bosom”. Many who have read the biblical account may never have considered the sadness in the heart of Lot’s wife as they left their home. But the speaker of this poem brings Lot’s wife to life by allowing the reader into her thoughts. Italics are used for the very thoughts of Lot’s wife, as the speaker portrays them, to allow the reader to feel her pain. The speaker imagines that Lot’s wife was filled with thoughts of her old life as their home burned behind them. She may have thought, “It’s not too late, you can still look back” and she describes the city she once called home.

 

Stanza Two

at the red towers of your native Sodom,

the square where once you sang, the spinning-shed

(…)

where songs and daughters blessed with your marriage-bed.”

Still engaged in the thoughts of Lot’s wife, the reader is able to empathize with how she must have felt leaving behind the home where she “loved [her] husband” and where her “babes were born”.

The speaker guides the reader outside of the thoughts of Lot’s wife by changing from italics back to regular font. The speaker is, again, a third-person outside perspective as is the reader. At this point, however, the reader experiences a newfound sympathy for Lot’s wife.

 

Stanza Three

A single glance: a sudden dart of pain

(…)

and her swift legs rooted to the ground.

The speaker continues to engage the reader in empathy for Lot’s wife when she describes her decision to turn and look back as one that resulted in a “bitter view”. She describes her eyes as being “welded shut by mortal pain” which again, allows the reader to feel the pain she must have felt as she turned and looked at her old home, burning, knowing that was the last sight she would ever see. That was also the last step she ever took. The speaker describes her feel as being “rooted in the plain” when her “body grew” into “transparent salt”.

 

Stanza Four

Who will grieve for this woman? Does she not seem

(…)

who suffered death because she chose to turn

In the final stanza, the speaker takes a step back and asks a question. “Who would waste tears upon her? Is she not the least of our losses, this unhappy wife?” The speaker is aware that most who have read the biblical account of this story would feel no compassion for Lot’s wife. After all, she disobeyed what the angel commanded. This speaker, however, sets herself apart from the rest by claiming that even if every one else looked on Lot’s wife with scorn, she would not. This speaker would continue to think of Lot’s wife with compassion in her heart. She would remember her fondly when she thinks of this story, because Lot’s wife “for a single glance, gave up her life”. With this line, the speaker implies that Lot’s wife was not merely foolish and unable to control herself, but that she made a conscious decision to give up her life for one final glance at the place she once called home.

 

Historical Context to Lot’s Wife

Anna Akhmatova is revered in Russia as an incredible poet. Akhmatova lived through intense political persecution, totalitarian reign, and war. She was known to have criticized other Russians who fled Russia for their own safety. Instead, she chose to stay in Russia out of loyalty for her country. This insight reveals the ways in which Akhmatova may have sympathized with Lot’s wife. Although she disagreed with the way in which her country was being governed, she still loved her homeland. It is easy to see how she would identify with Lot strongly, as Lot’s wife was also unwilling to leave her homeland, even for her own safety. While others may read the story of Lot’s wife and consider her a fool, Akhmatova had experienced similar feelings as she was also unwilling to leave her homeland even for her own safety (Chin 580).

Works Cited:

  • Chin, Beverly Ann. Glencoe Literature: The Reader’s Choice. New York, NY: Glencoe McGraw-Hill, 2002. Print.
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  • Avatar Alex says:

    Great analysis! I recently came across this poem. The Richard Wilbur translation is here (https://www.theparisreview.org/poetry/4644/lots-wife-anna-akhmatova) whereas the link to the full poem is a different translation. Even this, though, makes for an interesting comparison.

    • Lee-James Bovey Lee-James Bovey says:

      Thank you. It can be tricky when dealing with translations.

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