In a preface written in 1957, the author recounts the origin of "Requiem." Akhmatova spent 17 months waiting in line outside a prison in Leningrad for news of her son. One day a woman shivering in the crowd identified Akhmatova and whispered, "Can you describe this?" The poet answered, "I can." This sequence of poems is the result.

In "Dedication" Akhmatova sets the scene: "We rose / and each day walked the wilderness, / trudging through silent streets and square, / to congregate, less live than dead." (p. 101) In this time "when only the dead / could smile . . . " she addresses her son, "At dawn they came and took you away. / You were my dead." (p. 103) For "seventeen months I have cried aloud," but there is no relief, and "nothing is left but dusty flowers, / the tinkling thurible, and tracks / that lead to nowhere." (p. 107)

She addresses death; she welcomes madness: "Already madness lifts its wing / to cover half my soul." (p. 111) In the end the poet's requiem is not only for those who died in Stalin's terror, but also for those who remained alive, for those who waited at the gates: "for all who stood outside the jail, / in bitter cold or summer's blaze, / with me under that blind red wall." (p. 115)


Akhmatova's son, Lev Gumilev, was arrested in 1935 during the terror that followed the assassination of Stalin's crony, Kirov. He was released in 1937, but was re-arrested in 1938. However, this sequence of poems draws upon and depicts a broader grief--her husband's death at the hands of the Soviets in 1921; the persecution and ultimate death of her friend, the poet Osip Mandelstam; the Great Terror itself; Stalin's pact with Hitler in 1939; and ultimately the desperation of war and siege of Leningrad. (However, the sequence of "Requiem" was complete before the siege began.)

For Akhmatova's reflections on the war and Leningrad, see "The Return" (p. 127) and especially "This Cruel Age Has Deflected Me" (p. 129) in the collection cited here. In "The Return" she writes: "Thank God there's no one left for me to lose-- / so I am free to cry . . . "


Translated by Stanley Kunitz with Max Hayward. This edition features the Russian text on left hand pages and English text on right hand pages.


Little, Brown

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Kunitz, Stanley (with Max Hayward)

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