The Poem

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

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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.

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 lived for a time during World War II. Epilogue 1 returns to thoughts of the women outside the red prison wall. She remembers their faces, the look of terror in their eyes. Epilogue 2 honors the women with the completed poem; their scream will be heard through the poet’s words. If the nation ever erects a statue to the poet, it should be placed in the prison square so that no one may forget the anguish caused by political oppression.

Forms and Devices

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References to religion and nature pervade this lament. In an anti-religious Communist state, Akhmatova speaks as a believer in Christian rituals and faith. She mentions the icon (a holy picture of a saint) on the wall in the arrest scene. Remembering Christ’s crucifixion helps her bear her agony at the loss of her beloved son. Her loyalty to Russia throughout this terrible period implies an eventual reconciliation. The Christian message of forgiveness is felt as she refrains from accusation or protest, and accepts her suffering.

Natural elements echo the moods of the poem. The flow of the quiet and majestic river Don expresses the flow of time. Rustling leaves set to music the excitement of suspense. Siberian storms greet the exiles in prison camps. Stars shine on her and light fills empty rooms. The last image, of a stone statue to the poet placed in the prison square, recaptures the act of suffering: Ice melting in winter becomes her tears from “the motionless lids of bronze.” Suffering has turned her to stone, but around the statue doves of peace are cooing, and the river that symbolizes Leningrad’s life, the Neva, flows by. The great world of stars, rivers, and mountains dwarfs human ills. A variety of meters and rhymes reflects the changing moments of the poet’s experience. The early prose passage is a device that Akhmatova used in other poems. The formal meters and rhymes act as a constraint on the overwhelming emotion. For example, the final Epilogue is in rhymed couplets, indicating harmony and order within a world of chaos and brutality.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 243

Haight, Amanda. Anna Akhmatova: A Poetic Pilgrimage. London: Oxford University Press, 1976. An excellent study of Akhmatova’s poems by one of the best authorities on her works.

Hayward, Max. “Anna Akhmatova.” In Writers in Russia 1917-1978. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1983. A fine biographical sketch of Akhmatova and discussion of the conditions under which she wrote her poems, including Requiem.

Leiter, Sharon. “The Terror and the War.” In Akhmatova’s Petersburg. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1983. A review of Akhmatova’s life in her beloved St. Petersburg and of political circumstances that provided the material for and led to the writing of Requiem.

Mihailovich, Vasa D. “The Critical Reception of Anna Akhmatova.” Papers on Language and Literature 5 (1969): 95-112. A thorough survey of critical works through 1968, in Russian and other languages, about Akhmatova’s works, including Requiem.

Reeder, Roberta. Anna Akhmatova: Poet and Prophet. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1994. The most extensive book in English on Akhmatova. Scholarly discussion of all facets of her life and works. Discusses Requiem in detail (pp. 211-222), focusing on its artistic quality and the fascinating genesis of the poem created in the midst of the terror under which Akhmatova lived. Long, useful bibliography.

Thomas, D. M. Introduction to Anna Akhmatova: “Requiem” and “Poem Without a Hero.” Translated by D. M. Thomas. London: Paul Elek, 1976. A brief but useful introduction to Akhmatova and to the poems by the translator. Includes a cursory comparison with other translations of Requiem.

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