Language and Metaphor in Anna Akhmatova’s “Requiem”
Of all verbal arts, poetry might be the most saturated with metaphors and other means of communicating emotional subtext. Anna Akhmatova’s “Requiem”, a long poem mourning the victims of the Soviet repressions is not an exception. To express the feelings of loss, the poetess uses metaphors, comparisons, and other tools of verbal expression. This essay seeks to provide examples of such uses of language by Akhmatova and explain their effect on the reader’s experience.
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The Historical Context and Reception of “Requiem”
“Requiem” was written when many Soviet people lost their loved ones, and grief was the primary emotion of the populace. The poem is comprised of smaller poems written by Akhmatova in the years 1935 and through 1940, during and following the period of Russian history known as “The Great Purge” or “Yezhovschina” (Akhmatova, “Instead of a Preface”). It lasted for two years, from 1936 to 1937, and is known for the large-scale campaign of political repression by the USSR officials (History.com Editors, 2018, para. 1). In “Requiem”, Akhmatova captured the universal feeling of grief, mourning, and fruitless desperation which reigned over the Soviet people, Anna included.
The main aspect of the poem’s critiques is its disputed alignment with the genre stated in the title due to the main aspect of the poem being arrest and not death. However, Emilia Smith (2019) argues that an elegy is “occasioned by death, but more accurately it can be defined as a poem about loss” (para. 3). When approached from this perspective, “Requiem” fits the genre perfectly as it is centered around loss.
Other than the claims of the poem not fitting the declared genre, “Requiem” is generally regarded as one of the best works by Akhmatova and as a classic of Russian poetry. In her review of the selected poems, Brown (2019) writes about her impressions of “Requiem”: “[…] her writing, reflective of where she was and the time period, becomes very dark and each detail hauntingly specific. It was a fascinating but quite sad read” (para. 5). As a finale for his text for BBC Culture about Akhmatova’s struggle to keep “Requiem” and herself alive under Soviet censorship, Martin Puchner (2018) shares his perspective on the poem:
When I read Requiem now, I find myself compelled by its powerful images, by a voice that registers the effects of terror in everyday life, and by the snippets of overheard conversation arranged in individual vignettes that create a powerful effect of despair and resilience. […] (para. 16).
In short, “Requiem”’s public and critical acclaim is far more universal and strong than the occasional debates on the poem’s genre.
“Requiem” and Expressive Language
As stated earlier, “Requiem” is not an exception when it comes to poetry’s general expressiveness. There are many different translations of the poem; in this essay, the translation by Yevgeny Bonver is used for the analysis. It is one of the few translations which retain both the original’s nuances and the poem’s metrics. Akhmatova uses particular language to convey the grief she – and the whole nation along with her – was experiencing:
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The quiet Don bears quiet flood,
The crescent enters in a hut.
He enters with a cap on head,
He sees a woman like a shade.
This woman’s absolutely ill,
This woman’s absolutely single.
Her man is dead, son – in a jail,
Oh, pray for me – a poor female! (Akhmatova, “Prologue”, 2)
The crescent moon in this section of “Prologue” symbolizes an NKVD (secret Soviet police) official executing the repressive orders of arrest. He sees a woman, only a shade of her previous self after the loss she endured. The section is comprised of four short equal stanzas and is one of the verses establishing the grief which remains present through the poem.
Akhmatova described not only other people’s feelings but also her own. In another section of “Prologue” Akhmatova describes the experiences with her son’s second arrest: “I fell at hangmen’ feet – not once, / My womb and hell you’re from” (para. 12). She calls the officers the “hangmen” – executioners – because in this time an arrest would almost surely result in death (History.com Editors, 2018, para. 12). The most vivid metaphor is found in the next line, where Akhmatova writes that her son is not only from her womb but also from her “hell”. This reflects the horror she felt from the imprisonment of a loved one.
The whole poem is dedicated not to the arrested and the executed, but rather their wives and mothers. In “Crucifixion”, a symbolically titled section which comes before “Epilogue”, Akhmatova makes it once again clear by comparing the repressions’ victims to Jesus:
The angels’ choir sang fame for the great hour,
And skies were melted in the fire’s rave.
He said to God, “Why did you leave me, Father?”
And to his mother, “Don’t weep o’er my grave…” (Akhmatova, “Crucifixion”, I)
Later in the section, she once again shows the Mother’s grief: “But none dared – even for a moment – / To sight Mother, silent and alone” (Akhmatova, “Crucifixion”, II). “Crucifixion” shows the repressions from the viewpoint of the victims’ families. It perfectly describes the feelings of Soviet women who lost their sons and husbands, and Akhmatova was able to convey those emotions because she experienced them herself.
In conclusion, “Requiem” may not be an elegy in its purest form, but it does not need to. Through metaphors and comparisons, Anna Akhmatova makes the reader grieve with her and with all other Soviet women who lost their loved ones during The Great Purge. It is a poem that is saturated with the emotions such as loss, grief, desperation, and even hope, due to Akhmatova’s masterful use of the language. One of her most famous works, “Requiem” will continue to touch its readers for many decades to come.
Poetry Lover’s Page – Anna Akhmatova: Requiem (n.d.). Poetry Lover’s Page. 2020, Web.
Brown, A. (2019). Book review: Anna Akhmatova- selected poems. The Courier Online. Web.
History.com Editors. (2018). Great purge. HISTORY. Web.
Puchner, M. (2018). Requiem: How a poem resisted Stalin. BBC Culture. Web.
Smith, E. D. (2019). Exploration of Akhmatova’s Requiem as an elegy. University College London., by Emilia Dixon Smith. Web.