The Poem

(Literary Essentials: Poets and Poetry)

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...

(The entire section is 724 words.)