Understanding the Poem Cycle "Requiem" by Anna Akhmatova
Anna Akhmatova's poem "Requiem" can be difficult to fully grasp. The poem is considered a poem "cycle" or "sequence" because it is made up of a collection of shorter poems. These poems are not meant to be read in isolation, but together as part of one cohesive longer work.
Akhmatova lived in Russia during Stalin's reign of terror. Her poems seek to bear witness to the oppressive silence during that time. The "Requiem" cycle was written as a response to the imprisonment of Akhmatova's son, during which time she stood in a line outside of the jail every day for seventeen months waiting for news. One day, a women in the crowd recognized her, and asked her to write a poem about the experience. "Requiem" is the response to the woman's request.
In the poem, Akhmatova addresses many themes, including religion, the desperation and hopelessness of war, censorship and silencing, grief, and whether it is possible to maintain hope in the midst of darkness. "Requiem" is Akhmatova's best known work, considered by many to be her magnum opus, or masterpiece.
Preface, Prologue and Dedication
"Requiem" begins with the idea that humanity has been erased for the narrator and other’s who wait endlessly outside the prison.
“Instead of a Preface” links these people together through shared experience. The woman who has recognized Akhmatova makes an expression that is “something like a smile,” passing “over what had once been her face.”
We are painted a picture of a life that has had the humanity stripped of it, there is no longer joyful expression, just a “torpor” shared by all, even expression at all as communication can only come through whisper. The woman has never “of course” heard Akhmatova called by name, identity has been stripped away as well as humanity.
This idea follows into “Dedication,” in which the sentiment that has begun is solidified, the prison waiters are “less live than dead.” In such a life that is not a life, the question is then is there room for the divine, and if so how can there be without room for humanity?
The prison line is compared to an early mass in Dedication, as the prison waiters rise early and then congregate there. In this sense, religion has been replace with a stark reality. Rather than church and religion being the means of hope, salvation, and a beacon of comfort, only the news of incarcerated loved ones has any bearing on their lives.
The “Prologue” shows redemption or “deliverance” only for the dead, for it is they who are able to smile, unlike their loved ones condemned wait in an earthly “hell."
Poems I - X
The cycle then continues with "I", which sets up the comparison of Akhmatova’s son to Jesus. As the son is taken away, she walks behind as if it is a funeral procession. With references to a “dark room,” the holy candle not having oxygen to burn, chill lips, it becomes clear that the son is not simply just taken, he has already been sacrificed and entombed within the prison.
"Dawn" is when the son is taken away, the next stanza’s move the poem forward through evening (yellow moon slipping into the house), where she beseeches an unnamed “you” to pray for her, a strand of connection to others in the midst of isolation. Then we move to night, figuratively. This is the darkest point of the poem. Akhmatova speaks of loneliness, isolation, grief, the lack of meaningful religious symbols, all as symptoms of an overwhelming lack of hope.
Yet the poem continues, and "VII" describes the narrator as “still living.” At this point she points out the fact that at some point she must move on with life, “prepare to live again.” However, in order to do so, the memory and pain must somehow be “killed,” her heart turned “to stone.” It is only by banishing these emotions does she feel she can once again have hope, regain her humanity, and once again engage in living life. The narrator is aware that this death or banishment is necessary, but wonders how the process can actually occur, and if it is indeed possible to banish so much grief.
In "VIII," it appears that she feels unable to kill memory and go on, and simply waits and wishes for death. Death is the only comfort now.
"IX" she “admits defeat,” which has already been insinuated by "VIII." At this point there is “no use to fall down on my knees,” no use to either beg for compassion or clemency, or even to pray.
Yet in "X" religious metaphor again makes a reappearance, with the crucifixion aspect. The focus is shifted from the suffering of Christ to the emotions of the women who watched this scene of crucifixion.
The epilogue brings back the sense of community or shared suffering introduced at the outset. The main body of the poem described a very individual experience, yet here we are reminded of the others outside the jail. Prayer again has a role, and is more than simply a plea for prayer but the sentiment that the narrator will pray for both herself and others.
In the depth of her suffering, in the depths of her alienation, there was no room for the divine, yet at this point it can exist. While a point of healing may not have been reached yet, at least a sort of coping has become tangible.
The narrator now has a sense of purpose, to be the witness for the crowds of people that would otherwise be erased into a nameless faceless blur, devoid of identity, of voice for what has transpired. The task of bearing witness gives the narrator a sense of greater meaning, allowing for the divine in a way that the darkest points did not. As the poem chronicles this period of her life, so too does it chronicle the ebbing and rising tides of the divine within the entire experience of the "Requiem" cycle.