Requiem, Anna Akhmatova
Requiem Anna Akhmatova
Russian poem of the twentieth century.
The following entry provides criticism of Akhmatova's Requiem from 1972 through 1999. See also, Anna Akhmatova Literary Criticism (Introduction), and Volumes 25, 126.
Rekviem (1963), translated into English as Requiem, is the one of the best known works of the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova. The composition consists of a series of numerous short poems that reflect the anguish of the Russian people during years of persecution and purges under the rule of Joseph Stalin. Although it was composed in large part prior to 1940, Akhmatova considered Requiem too dangerous to be written down, much less published, at the time, so until the mid-1960s it remained unpublished, and existed only as individual verses memorized by the poet and a handful of her most trusted confidants.
Akhmatova (also transliterated as Axmatova) was born Anna Andreevna Gorenko in Odessa, a coastal town along the Black Sea in the Ukraine, on June 23, 1888. She was raised in Tsarskoye Selo, near St. Petersburg. Her affinity for writing poetry began during childhood. In 1910, she married the poet Nikolai Gumilyov, with whom she was a founding member of the Acmeist group of poets who rejected the mysticism and stylistic obscurity of Symbolism and attempted to restore clarity to poetic language. She gave birth to a son in 1912 and was divorced from Gumilyov following an unhappy marriage in 1918. Gumilyov was executed by the Soviet regime for treason in 1921. An unofficial ban by the Communist party on the publication of Akhmatova's works was imposed starting in 1925; this was due in some measure to her previous association with Gumilyov, but it was also a consequence of her popularity as a poet in pre-Revolutionary years and her choice of themes such as death, poverty, and the fear of war. Her son, too, suffered at the hands of the Stalinist regime through repeated arrests for no discernible “crime” other than being the son of literary parents whose works were regarded with suspicion by the political leaders of the day. During the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s, Akhmatova continued to write and translate verse, but much of the work attributed to these decades, including Requiem, remained unpublished until the late 1950s and mid-1960s, well after the death of Stalin. She died on March 5, 1966.
Plot and Major Characters
Requiem is a cycle of fifteen short poems introduced with a paragraph of prose that, taken as a whole, constitutes an epic of grief and remembrance. Although the work possesses no conventionally defined plot, the ten internal numbered poems form a chronological revelation that documents the suffering of the Russian people during the years of Stalinist terror. Through the eyes of the women—who stood outside prisons for days, hoping for word about their loved ones, hoping to deliver a hat or a pair of salvaged gloves or shoes, hoping for one last glimpse before the inevitable sentence of death or exile for a beloved son or husband—Akhmatova plumbs the depths of unimaginable suffering, and charts the journey of mourning and memorial. The poem opens with a declaration of the pain of one woman, an individual circumstance but recognizable to all who lived through the era. With each successive poem, the central figure experiences a new stage of suffering: mute grief, growing disbelief, rationalization, raw mourning, steely resolve. Sometimes writing in the first person, sometimes in the third person, Akhmatova becomes the voice of the people as she universalizes her personal pain over the repeated imprisonment of her son and the loss of friends and literary peers to execution and exile.
Throughout much of the cycle the suffering Russian woman, one yet universal, is the central figure. At the climax of the cycle of grief, however, three figures of Christian religious significance appear: Mary Magdalene, Mary the Mother of Christ, and John, the beloved disciple. Critics hold various opinions about why Akhmatova incorporated these personages who are closely associated with Catholic religious beliefs, and about whom significant people in the poet's life each figure represents. Within the work as a whole, however, these religious figures, placed outside the context of their New Testament roles, reinforce the poet's subtext of the inevitability of suffering. Akhmatova allows the central figure to transcend her personal circumstances in an almost mystical, supernatural way—not to mitigate her pain or allow her a measure of peace, but to dignify and honor the ability of this woman, and all women, to confront their deepest grief and fear and survive. In Requiem, writes Amanda Haight, Akhmatova “has taken suffering to its limit and so there is nothing to fear.”
Requiem has been called an elegy, a poem of memorial and mourning, for the people of Russia. Critic Sam Driver wrote in 1990 that the work was conceived by the poet as “a combination of the epic and the lyric.” Constructed as a lament for the people of Russia, its scale is simultaneously enormous and intimate: although it chronicles a nearly unfathomable episode of terror and persecution in a specific historic time period, it is characterized by short, almost episodic pieces of verse. Not incidentally, even this characteristic of structure is integral to the work's thematic core: the short elements that comprise the work as a whole are of such length that they could be committed to memory in a short period of time and carried, in secret, in the hearts of those for whom it had meaning. This is how the work was preserved for several decades by the poet and her closest confidants; the danger of being caught with such words on paper was considered too great by Akhmatova. The composition of the poem in this manner is representative of the ways in which the Russian people communicated with each other and offered one another support and assistance during the years of the Stalinist regime: in secret, in veiled language, and without a trail of evidence that could be used in further persecution.
Although the work is recognizable as an epic lament for a particular people in response to specific circumstances of history, Akhmatova couches references to actual times and places in such a way that the work transcends its era and becomes a universal and timeless voice for the victims of persecution anywhere and any time. Images evoked by the poet's words—for example, women waiting wearily outside prisons for word from loved ones, their faces ravaged by raw grief and fear—may be visualized as belonging to a particular episode of Russian history. Yet they also possess a timelessness that allows them to serve as icons of the universality of human cruelty and human pain. Throughout this work, Akhmatova explores the role of the poet as the voice of truth, and the role of poetry, the language of both suffering and redemption, as a weapon of resistance and solidarity. Thematically, the poem also honors love and remembrance as forces that transcend evil and empower the powerless.
Akhmatova's Requiem is considered to be one of the most significant works of her long career. Until it appeared in print for the first time in the 1960s, Akhmatova's considerable reputation as a poet had been based primarily on the love poems she composed during her youth, and on her role as a founding member of the Acmeist school. She had fallen from favor in her own country, and been virtually forgotten by readers and critics elsewhere. Following the death of Stalin in 1953, Akhmatova gradually felt more secure and safe as a poet in her homeland, and her work was tolerated, though not celebrated, by the Soviet leadership. Her literary voice was renewed, and her works once again came to the attention of scholars and critics. In the years prior to her death works such as Requiem and Poema bez geroya (1960; Poem without a Hero) saw publication, and a new body of work emerged for critical scrutiny. National and international critics had lauded Akhmatova's early works for their blend of graceful language and complex classical Russian forms of poetry. As the full breadth of her achievement became visible and was published first in Russian and then in translation throughout the world, she was recognized as not only one of the few poets of her generation to survive to old age in her country, but as one of the most accomplished Russian poets of the twentieth century. Sam Driver notes that in Requiem, in particular, Akhmatova managed to “generalize her own shattering experience into an epic cry for her people.” The work is accepted as one of the masterpieces of her career, and it continues to receive critical attention, not simply as an example of laudable art emerging from the fire of persecution, but as a carefully crafted masterwork composed by a master poet.
Vecher [Evening] 1912
Chetki [Rosary] 1914
Belaya staya [White Flock] 1917
U samogo morya 1921
Anno Domini MCMXXI 1921
Iz shesti knig [From Six Books] 1940
Izbrannye stikhi 1943
Stickhotvoreniya, 1909-1957 1958
Poema bez geroya; Triptych [Poem without a Hero] 1960
Stikhi, 1909-1960 1961
Stikhotvoreniia, 1909-1960 1961
Rekviem [Requiem] 1963
Beg Vremeni 1965
Sochineniya [3 vols.] 1965
Stikhotvoreniia i poemy 1976
Sochineniia v dvukh tomakh 2 vols. 1986
Severnye elegii: stikhotvoreniia, poetry, o poetakh 1989
Forty-Seven Love Songs 1927
Collected Poems: 1912-1963 1963
Selected Poems 1969
Poems of Akhmatova 1973
Poem without a Hero 1973
Tale without a Hero and Twenty-two Poems by Anna Axmatova 1973
Requiem and Poem without a Hero 1976
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SOURCE: Driver, Sam N. “Later Works.” In Anna Akhmatova, pp. 125-55. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1972.
[In the following excerpt, Driver offers a thematic overview of Akhmatova's Requiem.]
Unlike the Poem Without a Hero, Requiem is not a private poem. It is not so much a new experiment in Akhmatova's poetry as a culmination of a style perfected over the decades preceding; Akhmatova organizes her characteristic devices and techniques into an amazingly powerful statement which requires no elaboration or “explanation.”
Neither is the Requiem a private poem in the sense that the subject, unlike that of the “Petersburg Tale,” is immediately accessible to anyone with a knowledge of Russia's recent history—and all too well-known to those who lived in Russia during the late 1930's. The poem is, if not private, deeply personal: but Akhmatova is able to generalize her own shattering experience into an epic cry for her people. It was a time when “The stars of death stood above us, / And guiltless Russia huddled trembling / Under bloody boots / And under the tires of the Black Moriahs.”
For the introduction to Requiem, Akhmatova wrote: “In the terrible years of the Ezhovshchina1, I spent seventeen months in the prison lines in Leningrad.” Time has dulled the mind to the enormity of what happened in Russia in the late...
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SOURCE: Ketchian, Sonia I. “An Inspiration for Anna Akhmatova's Requiem: Hovannes Tumanian.” In Studies in Russian Literature In Honor of Vsevolod Setchkarev, edited by Julian W. Connolly and Sonia I. Ketchian, pp. 175-188. Columbus, Ohio: Slavica Publishers, 1986.
[In the following essay, Ketchian proposes that one source of inspiration for Akhmatova's Requiem was a Tumanian.]
Numerous literary, cultural, and historical sources have enriched Akhmatova's masterpiece Requiem (1935-1961). Some have been studied, but many more await their turn.1 The present objective is to illuminate a source of inspiration for Requiem, the poem “Requiem” (“Hogehangist”) by Hovannes Tumanian (1869-1923).2 While there is no written reference to familiarity with Tumanian's poem and its translator Naum Grebnev, the likelihood of Akhmatova being familiar with the poem is great, particularly in interlinear translation.3 For, on the one hand, attested acquaintance of Akhmatova with Armenian poetry dates to the mid-thirties, when she commenced her own Requiem. At that time she published her translation of the Symbolist poet Daniel Varuzhan's (1884-1915) poem “First Sin” in the journal Zvezda (1936) and was translating two poems of the fiery Eghishe Charents (1897-1937), according to her prose piece “What I Am Working on”:...
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SOURCE: Amert, Susan. “Akhmatova's ‘Song of the Motherland’: Rereading the Opening Texts of Rekviem.” Slavic Review 49, no. 3 (fall 1990): 374-89.
[In the following essay, Amert offers a close reading of the first two texts of Akhmatova's Requiem.]
Pokoinyi Alig'eri sozdal by desiatyi krug ada.
Hostias et preces tibi, Domine, laudis offerimus: tu suscipe pro animabus illis, quarum hodie memoriam facimus: fac eas, Domine, de morte transire ad vitam.
the requiem mass
Anna Akhmatova's Rekviem is a deceptively simple piece. Compared to the opacity and self-conscious literariness of Poema bez geroia, Rekviem seems transparent, much like Akhmatova's early lyrics, and appears to demand little in the way of commentary or elucidation.1 Its very form and scope, however, as well as the dates of its composition (1935-1961), identify it as a product of the “later Akhmatova”—the Akhmatova who resumed writing in the mid-1930s after a decade of relative poetic inactivity, the Akhmatova who created Poema bez geroia. Rekviem fully adheres to the poetics of the later work,2 most strikingly in the salient role of intertextual references—allusions to Russian literature and the western European literary tradition—in the generation of meaning, a role...
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SOURCE: Driver, Sam. “Anna Akhmatova.” In European Writers: The Twentieth Century, vol. 10, edited by George Stade, pp. 1521-42. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1990.
[In the following excerpt, Driver provides a brief overview of Akhmatova's Requiem.]
Now that Akhmatova has been for so long fixed among the premier poets of Russia, it is difficult to recall that in the middle to late 1950's she was very nearly forgotten in the West and that in the Soviet Union she was considered to be an obscure figure, certainly not one who was very “relevant.” Older readers typically remembered “the left-hand glove drawn onto the right” and often a good deal more, but most were surprised that Akhmatova was still among the living. As individual poems found their way into print both in the Soviet Union and abroad, it became clear that Akhmatova not only had retained both a high level of creativity and a consistency of style throughout the decades of enforced silence but had also undergone a remarkable development in her worldview. Her themes and images once carefully restricted to the worlds familiar to her from personal experience, now open out to encompass the whole world, and draw deeply on the European cultural tradition as well as the Russian.
This is partially illustrated by the rather spare total of representative poems from the 1920's and 1930's. At critical times during those...
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SOURCE: Basker, Michael. “Dislocation and Relocation in Akhmatova's Rekviem.” In The Speech of Unknown Eyes: Akhmatova's Readers on Her Poetry, edited by Wendy Rosslyn, pp. 5-25. Cotgrave, Nottingham, England: Astra Press, 1990.
[In the following essay, Basker examines aspects of Akhmatova's Requiem that project qualities of disorientation and dislocation.]
The American critic Sam Driver has described Rekviem as ‘an amazingly powerful statement which requires no elaboration or “explanation”’.1 A ‘public’ work, woven, we are told, from the ‘poor words’ of the ordinary victims of the events described,2Rekviem indeed seems readily accessible and intensely moving. In lines such as:
Я zdu tiby—mni оcins trudnо
it achieves a pathos-laden directness, and an absolute simplicity at the very limits of poetic art, which make the critical elucidation vital to an appreciation of so much of Akhmatova's later poetry appear lamely redundant. This, as much as previous political constraints, perhaps accounts for a relative critical neglect of this major work.
Naturally enough, those who have written in most detail on Rekviem have concentrated primarily on ‘ideational’ aspects and, to a lesser extent, on narrative progression and structural unity. The main themes of the cycle have been...
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SOURCE: Reeder, Roberta. “The Great Terror: 1930-1939.” In Anna Akhmatova: Poet and Prophet, pp. 211-22. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1994.
[In the following excerpt, Reeder provides a biographical and thematic overview of Anna Akhmatova's career during the composition of her Requiem.]
Indeed, Akhmatova had begun to write brilliant poems again. Her “mute” period was over, as the impressions of the many years of quiet suffering finally rose to the surface. Philosophical themes, such as humanity's place in the universe and the role of suffering in the life of those who believe in a benevolent God, now began to play a more dominant role in her work. “In 1936 I began to write again, but my handwriting changed, my voice sounded different, and my life passed under the reins of a Pegasus which somehow reminds one of the apocalyptic White Horse or Black Horse of poems that were yet to be born—a return to my first style is impossible. Whether it is better or worse one cannot judge.”1
When her creative powers returned, Akhmatova wrote the cycle of poems about the Great Terror that have since made her world-famous—Requiem (1935-40). Anatoly Naiman, Akhmatova's literary secretary at the end of her life, points out how very personal this work is:
The hero of this poetry is the people. Not a larger or smaller plurality of...
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SOURCE: Wells, David N. “Stalinism and War: Works of the 1930s and 1940s.” In Anna Akhmatova: Her Poetry, pp. 64-95. Oxford, England: Berg, 1996.
[In the following excerpt, Wells discusses structure, theme, and inspirational sources of Akhmatova's Requiem.]
Akhmatova's most sustained piece of overtly oppositional writing in the 1930s is the cycle Requiem (I, 359-70).1 Although the epigraph and prose introduction to the cycle were both added later, the cycle as such was put together in 1940.2 The poems which make it up appear to have been inspired by several different episodes in Akhmatova's biography. Although the most immediate impetus is clearly Akhmatova's experience, following her son's arrest in 1938, in the queues of women waiting outside prisons attempting to receive news of their imprisoned menfolk, there are also additional sources. The first of the ten numbered poems, ‘Uvodili tebya na rassvete’ (‘They took you away at dawn’, I, 363) is dated 1935, and according to Akhmatova's memoir of Mandelstam, refers to the arrest that year of Nikolai Punin (II, 181). Mandelstam, it appears, took this poem to refer to his own arrest. But the exact biographical referents are perhaps not important. Akhmatova, by combining them in her cycle has produced what is, in its own way, a comprehensive social history of the Terror, what Haight has called ‘an organic unit...
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SOURCE: Katz, Boris. “To What Extent is Requiem a Requiem? Unheard Female Voices in Anna Akhmatova's Requiem.” The Russian Review 57, no. 2 (April 1998): 253-63.
[In the following essay, Katz traces musical, literary, and religious subtexts in Akhmatova's Requiem.]
Some cry up Haydn, some Mozart, Just as the whim bites. For my part, I do not care a farthing candle For either of them, nor for Handel. Cannot a man live free and easy, Without admiring Pergolesi?
—Charles Lamb, “Free Thoughts on Several Eminent Composers” (1830).
It is obvious that not every poet would share Charles Lamb's attitude toward music in general, and toward “several eminent composers” in particular. Anna Akhmatova certainly would not. There is no need to cite a great deal of evidence; it is sufficient to recall one passage from the memoirs of Anatoly Naiman, a Russian poet who was close to Akhmatova in her later years. The passage presents a good picture of Akhmatova's diverse and selective preferences in the world of music:
At the head of the truckle-bed was a low table with an electric record player: either I had hired it locally or someone had brought it from town. She listened to music frequently and for long periods; she listened to various kinds of music, but sometimes she would be especially interested in a particular piece or...
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SOURCE: Bailey, Sharon M. “An Elegy for Russia: Anna Akhmatova's Requiem.” Slavic and East European Journal 43, no. 2 (summer 1999): 324-46.
[In the following essay, Bailey defines Akhmatova's Requiem as an elegy of mourning, particularly giving voice to the grief of the women whose loved ones were imprisoned or executed during the years of Stalinist rule in the Soviet Union.]
In the final lines of Akhmatova's Requiem is the image of a bronze monument to the poet, standing motionless in front of the Leningrad Prison and crying with each spring thaw. Although this statue has not yet been erected, Requiem itself is nothing less than such a monument. Within the course of the cycle, Akhmatova reconstructs her experience of the Stalinist Terror. After the arrest of her son, the fabric of her life dissolves in grief, loneliness and despair. Reconciliation is, however, eventually found in the verbal commemoration of the grief. With Requiem, Akhmatova weaves a veil of words that articulates her pain of those years, acknowledges the crimes which were the cause, and perpetuates the memory of it in defense against the forgetfulness of time.
This complex cycle of fifteen poems and one prose paragraph was written during the height of the Stalinist Terror, in which as many as 40 million people were arrested, exiled or...
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Crone, Anna. “Antimetabolie in Rekviem: The Structural Disposition of Themes and Motifs.” In The Speech of Unknown Eyes: Akhmatova's Readers on Her Poetry, edited by Wendy Rosslyn, pp. 27-41. Cotgrave, Nottingham, England: Astra Press, 1990.
Structural analysis of Akhmatova's Requiem.
Kemball, Robin. “Anna Akhmatova's ‘Requiem, 1935-1940.’” The Russian Review 33, no. 3 (July 1974): 303-12.
English translation of Akhmatova's Requiem that purports to retain the meter, line-length and rhyme-scheme of the original Russian.
Stone, Carole. “Elegy as Political Expression in Women's Poetry: Akhmatova, Levertov, Forché.” College Literature 18, no. 1 (February 1991): 84-91.
Comparison of elegies composed by women poets.
Terras, Victor. Poetry of the Silver Age: The Various Voices of Russian Modernism. Dresden, Germany: Dresden University Press, 1998, 353 p.
Poets highlighted in the chapter about the Acmeism movement include Nikolai Gumilyov, Akhmatova's first husband, and Akhmatova.
Thomas, D. M. Anna Akhmatova: Requiem and Poem without a Hero. Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 1976, 78 p.
Translations of two of Akhmatova's master works, including a critical...
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