The overarching theme of Poem Without a Hero is introduced in the frivolous harlequin and masquerade of the opening section and brought to conclusion in the ghostly prisoner-double of the poet in the last section. Put simply, the theme is that of the enduring personal power of poetry (especially Russian poetry) itself. This is a Poem Without a Hero in the usual sense—the hero is poetry itself. The anonymous brutality of fascism and communism operating in the name of the collective good are only a mockery of the true community, one that endures in the land, the people, and the language of which the poet is the steward.
The stewardship of the poet, her reverent salvaging of the poetry and culture of the past, is her memory. Her memory is the sanctuary that protects and preserves the living consciousness of her race; Poem Without a Hero is a record of that consciousness. The symmetry between Akhmatova’s personal memory and the poem is established very early, when she describes the “absent Companionship” with which she will “hallow/ The coming forty-first year.” This companionship takes the form of the mummers who invade her room as she packs for her evacuation from the city, as well as being seen as traces of the lost past. The sense of absent companionship is the ghostly presence of the dead, the preserving companionship of those who can live only in the imagination of the poet.
As the Russian critic Viktor Zhirmunsky observes, “the poet is both hero and author of the poem, contemporary and guilty along with the people of her generation but at the same time a judge pronouncing a verdict over them.” In attempting to fathom the meaning of this intricate poem, the reader can keep in mind the ways that Akhmatova is committed to being at once a commentator on and an impresario of her life. She is determined to live deeply in the historical reality in which she finds herself. Poem Without a Hero attempts to mirror in every ambiguous and terrifying detail the events of the first forty or so years of the twentieth century. The meaning for which it strives is the meaning of the time during which it was written and which it reflects. To experience the poem is to experience the devastation of meaning itself in completely personal and at the same time completely historic terms.