|Akhmatova's Requiem is a poem of terror and
atrocity. Set during the Stalinist purges in Soviet Russia, the poem's fragmentary nature
is a result both of political necessity (Akmatova had to commit each short section to
memory) and of a high modernist vision that stresses the shredded, pointillist
quality of a world without a cohesive, centering vision. The poem's evocative,
pregnant symbols ask the reader to complete their meaning by taking cues from the poet's
text. This is true of the poem's religious symbols and language--the kissing of the icon,
the poet's need for prayer, the apocalyptic language of the censer and the "enormous
star," even the title of the poem itself which betokens a mass for the dead.
This symbolism is especially pronounced in Akhmatova's use of the crucifixion in section X
and the day of remembrance in the two epilogues. Why does she invoke such symbols?
Is her artistic purpose primarily political and/or ethical, or does it also take the
political and ethical and frame it within a religious vision?
over the following five ways in which sufferers, especially women sufferers, respond to
the meaning of Christ's crucifixion. Which category or categories best describe
Akhmatova's use of the cross in Requiem, particularly section X? What key lines
would suggest one or another model?
- Pragmatic: Suffering and atrocity need to be practically
addressed, coped with, minimized, and possibly eliminated. The cross is a reminder of the
agony and pain of suffering and a reminder to act.
- Existential: The cross as a metaphor or symbol helps make
meaning of the otherwise meaningless and overwhelming condition of misery. By
comparing our pain to that which surrounded the cross, we better understand our own. The
cross becomes a frame or a narrative that gives a shape to formless human suffering.
- Exemplary: Christ's suffering on the cross is an example for
us in how to undergo affliction (cf. I Pet 2:21-25, 4:1-2, 4:12-14). Christ's own actions
show us what to do when we suffer, for example, teaching us to move from self-absorption
to cooperation and compassion for others in their pain.
- Mystical: Some in the Christian monastic traditions believe
that one can experience Christ's own suffering in moments of spiritual awareness and that
this awareness allows one to transcend one's own misery. Another version of this holds
that the Christian's suffering participates in some way in Christ's own anguish (cf. Col
1:24, also cf. Rom 6:1-14, Gal 6:14, Phil 3:10). Simone Weil takes this even further,
arguing that affliction is God's tight embrace as a Lover and that this mystical knowledge
balances off the sufferer's experience of ruin.
- Honorific: The work of the cross is that of
the infinite God who honors us, purifies us, and makes our lives beautiful by consenting
to suffer with us as a human being in the person of Jesus, by becoming a curse for our
separation from God, and by giving our lives a stable aesthetic form that allows us to
tell the truth about our suffering. The work of the cross reverses the shame, impurity,
and ugliness that victims feel as a result of the affliction and atrocities they have
In other words, can Akhmatova be said to invoke the cross
as a call to action, as a way of making meaning of Russian women's suffering, as an
example of how to undergo suffering, as a higher experiential knowledge that transcends
the horror, and/or as God's work on behalf of victims' ravaged selves?
The Day of Remembrance (Panikhida)
You Who wield authority over the dead and the living as an
immortal King, Christ, who rose from the dead, our true God: At the supplications of
Your irreproachable, holy Mother; of the holy, glorious, and all-blessed Apostles; of our
blessed and God-bearing Fathers; of the holy, glorious Prophets, Abraham, Isaac, and
Jacob; of Christ's holy and righteous friend, Lazarus, four days entombed; and of all the
Saints: Accord the soul of Your servant who has fallen asleep, [name], a place in the
abodes of the righteous; grant him/her rest in Abraham's bosom; and number him/her among
the righteous. Have mercy on us, as the One Who is good and cherishes the human
May your memory be everlasting, our [brother(s) (and) sister(s)], worthy of
blessedness and undying memory.
--from the Litany of the Panikhida
At the prayers of your Martyrs, Lord, give rest to the soul
of your servant. In heavenly bridal chambers, the noble Martyrs implore you, O Christ:
Grant to your faithful servant who has passed from earth the enjoyment of eternal good
things. His soul will dwell among good things.
--from the odes of the Panikhida
Priest: May the One Who has power over both the living and
the dead, Who Himself rose again from the dead, Christ our true God--through the prayers
of His all-pure Mother, the Holy glorious and all-worthy Apostles, our holy and
God-bearing Fathers, and all of the Saints--establish in the mansions of the righteous the
soul(s) of His servant(s) who have been taken away from us. May He give him/her/them
rest in Abraham's bosom, and number him/her/them among the righteous. And may He
have mercy on us, for He is good and cherishes the human race.
Priest: Grant eternal rest in blessed repose, Lord, to the soul(s) of
Your servant(s) [name(s)], departed from this life; and cause his/her/their memory to be
Choir: Memory everlasting! (thrice)
--Dismissal Portion of
The Russian Orthodox Day of Remembrance actually takes
place 12 times a year: the deceased are remembered in memorial services on the third,
ninth, and fortieth days, at the half-year and one-year anniversary, and during important
liturgical days of the calendar including the Saturday before Pentecost, and Saturdays of
the Great Fast. Traditionally the observant give alms, say private prayers for the dead,
and bake Kolyva bread which is blessed and eaten by the faithful. The Orthodox
prayer service includes several important hymns that stress the Triune nature of God, the
Incarnation, and prayers for rest for those who have died. The prayers of the holy martyrs
are also enjoined in some of these services. Such a service focuses on the eternal destiny
of the dead but also on the spiritual unity of the faithful, living and dead. [Click here for an English example of the orthodox
Question: What is Akhmatova suggesting by invoking the Day
of Remembrance, including its prayers, in the epilogues? Is she invoking the service for
religious or secular purposes?
chief value of an image was it capacity to present an intellectual and emotional complex
simultaneously, linking images in a sequence would clearly destroy most of their efficacy.
Or was the poem itself one vast image, whose individual components were to be apprehended
as a unity? But then it would be necessary to undermine the inherent consecutiveness of
language, frustrating the reader's normal expectation of a sequence and forcing him to
perceive the elements of the poem as juxtaposed in space rather than unrolling in
--Joseph Frank, "Spatial Form in Modern Literature"
- Does the fragmentary (perhaps even spatial rather than
sequential) nature of the poem keep us from ultimately decoding Akhmatova's purpose for
the crucifixion imagery? Why or why not? How would such a dilemma contribute to or detract
from the poem's overall purpose?
- Likewise, does the symbolism in the poem leave a number of
possibilities open? Does the poem's language close any down or make some more likely than
- If we decide the poem does have a religious meaning, what
does the crucifixion and the Panikhida tell us about
the ethical and political meaning of the poem? How does it give a larger or deeper view to
what happened in Russia?