The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 724

Requiem is a poem sequence composed over a twenty-year period; it includes four sections of introduction, ten numbered central parts, and two epilogues. The title comes from the Catholic funeral service. Requiem in pacem is a Latin phrase that means “may the soul rest in peace.” Many great pieces of music have this title; for example, the Requiems of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Johannes Brahms, and Gabriel Fauré. The phrase may refer to a specific person or to the general concept of peaceful rest for the dead. The poet speaks in the first person, intimately, of an experience shared by many in her century: waiting outside a prison wall to be let in to speak with a beloved person inside and to bring him a food package. The poet’s son was held in a Leningrad prison for seventeen months in an official attempt to force Akhmatova to write pro-Stalinist poetry.

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The poem moves from a general statement that the poet stayed with her people through the difficult times, not running away in exile to a safe place, to memories of her son’s sudden arrest, detention, and sentencing, to visions of death and spiritual comfort, closing on a meditation about the poet’s relationship to her nation.

The opening four lines set the tone of sorrow and loyalty. The poet has chosen to suffer with her Russian people during the dark years of terror. A prose explanation then describes the scene outside the prison when a woman recognizes the famous poet and asks, “Can you tell of this?” The poet replies, “Yes, I can.” This part is dated “April 1, 1957, Leningrad.” The introductory “Dedication” salutes the women who stood with her outside the closed prison gate for so many hours. She wonders where they are now, her companions in suffering.

“Prologue” sets the scene—Russia in the period of Stalin’s Terror (the 1930’s), when “only the dead could smile” and innocent millions of ordinary people lived in dread of police arrest. Typically, Anna Akhmatova does not name the dictator. She does not need to. In part 1, she recalls her son’s arrest from her home at dawn: The younger children are crying, and the candle before the religious icon is burning. Akhmatova retained her Russian Orthodox faith throughout her life although the Soviet government was vigorously opposed to religion. She recalls other periods in Russian history when women suffered from the political persecution of their loved ones. In part 2, she begins to slip into a confused mental state brought on by the intense pain of her concern for her son. She is alone and ill; her husband has been killed, and now her son has been arrested. In part 3, she describes the increasing disintegration of her spirit. She asks for oblivion. This part is dated 1940, the height of the Terror.

In part 4, in a mood of nostalgia, the poet recalls her happy childhood. She grew up in a home in the czar’s parkland—it is an intense contrast to the prison where so many lives are ending. In part 5, an enormous star foretelling death hangs overhead. The mother has been waiting outside the prison each day for seventeen long months. Delirium is described in part 6. The weeks fly by like single nights, and the poet thinks about her son and death. “The Sentence,” part 7, describes the poet’s feelings when her son’s sentence is pronounced. She must survive by killing her feelings, her memory. She will keep busy. This section is dated June 22, 1939.

The last three sections—8, 9, and 10—resolve the experience of intense pain with religious consolation. She welcomes death, since it will come anyway. A partial madness relieves her spirit. She submits to it, lets it carry away the suffering. Part 10, “Crucifixion,” recalls Christ’s agony on the cross and his concern for his mother. This poem is dated “1943, Tashkent,” where Akhmatova...

(The entire section contains 1233 words.)

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