The theme of war in the works of Gumilev

  • Дата:
  • Slavic and East European Journal, Vol. 21, No. 2 (Summer, 1977), pp. 204-213
теги: война

Gumilev’s poems on the theme of war have been both praised and condemned, but he is generally acknowledged as the outstanding Russian soldier-poet of the Great War.1

His treatment of this theme, along with his exotic adventure poems, is largely responsible for his subsequent position in the history of Russian poetry as the stereotyped “poet-warrior.” Actually, Gumilev’s war poems are not numerous. In all, there are only ten poems dealing with the war as the central theme, and it appears peripherally in but a few more.2 Other poets of the time, notably Sergej Gorodeckij and Georgij Ivanov, produced more war poetry, and patriotism is more pronounced in the works of Blok and Belyj than it is in Gumilev’s. However, it is Gumilev’s name which is most often associated with the Russian poetic experience of the First World War.

One of the reasons for this inevitable association is that Gumilev was the only major Russian poet to see actual service in the Imperial Army. Although he had a medical exemption, Gumilev volunteered for service just one month after Russia entered the war. The immediacy of his intention is indicated by a poem dated the day after Russia’s declaration of war, where he writes, “Zovet menja golos vojny” (“The voice of war calls me,” 313). He entered the guards regiment of Her Majesty’s Uhlans and was assigned to Her Majesty’s squadron.

In addition to poetry, Gumilev wrote a series of prose sketches entitled “Zapiski kavalerista” (“Notes of a Cavalryman”) for the Petersburg newspaper Birževye vedomosti. The style of the sketches has been referred to as “simple realism,” and it has been contrasted with the eloquent rhetoric of the war poems.3 However, Gumilev’s conscious artistry is as prominent in the seemingly straightforward sketches as it is in the eloquent poetry, and the distinction is primarily one of perspective and narrative persona.

Gumilev’s war poems are usually exalted and rhetorical in tone. He treats the “poetic” aspects of the situation (honor, courage, sacrifice) with little concern for objective reality.4 Dmitrij Karenin comments, “In Gumilev’s verses, dubious deeds are vested in exaggeratedly bright, but unconvincing, garments,” and he adds that if Gumilev actually believed in these bright trappings of the war, he was unusual in his idealism.5 The question is not one of sincerity, however, but of a conscious choice of artistic style. The war offered Gumilev an opportunity to exercise his rhetorical power, and he did this consciously. In a poetic critique of “modern times” from the collection Kolčan, he wrote, “Pobeda, slava, podvig — blednye / Slova, zaterjannye nyne”. (“Victory, glory, exploit — pale / Words, now lost,” 183). As Ejxenbaum noted in a review of the collection, in his war poems Gumilev rediscovers these “lost” words and employs them lavishly.6

The rhetorical exuberance of Gumilev’s style is clear in one of the most famous of his war poems, “Solnce duxa” (“The Sun of the Spirit,” 174), which begins, “Kak mogli my prežde žit’ v pokoe / I ne zdat’ ni radosti ni bed.” (“How could we have previously lived in peace / Expecting neither joy nor misfortune.”) The poem praises the warriors who are inspired and uplifted by the “sun of the spirit.” The idea expressed here is typical of the patriotic fervor generated by the situation, and there is no doubt but that the feeling was genuine. However, Gumilev does not speak as an individual moved by the intensity of emotion, but as an orator attempting to inspire a general audience with noble zeal. His point of view is the rhetorical “we” and his tone is forceful and declamatory. The poetic figures are those of oratory—rhetorical questions and exclamation (“Kak mogli my” [“How could we”]); repetition (of the titular phrase “solnce duxa”); contrast of body and spirit; parallelism (“v dikoj prelesti . . . v tixom tainstve” [“in wild charm . . . in quiet mystery”]); epithets (“ognezarnoj boj” [“fire-lightning battle”], “rokočuščaja truba pobed” [“the resounding trumpet of victory”]); and lofty diction (“dreva duxa” [“the tree of the spirit”]). Ejxenbaum notes that Gumilev does not know the measure of his words: “One must be more cautious with such words. They are too solemn and full of meaning in themselves. They clang like bells, drowning out the inner voice of the soul.” (18.)

To be sure, exaggeration is inevitable in this kind of poetry, and the standards for its judgment are necessarily different from those of reflective, personal lyric poetry. It is questionable, for example, whether Gumilev intended to express the “inner voice of the soul” in this poem. And Ejxenbaum is correct in noting the absence of a subjective poetic voice — the orientation is clearly rhetorical. However, it is by no means certain that “Solnce duxa” succeeds even as rhetoric, if by that term is implied poetry which persuades, inspires, and moves to action. Gumilev exploits the rhetorical tropes in this poem to the detriment of structure and development. The poem has no informing consciousness or focus (the “sun of the spirit” is not developed sufficiently to unify the thoughts), and there is no clear line of development. In an extensive review of Kolčan, M. Tumpovskaja described this effect: “The words do not flow in an orderly procession, but break loose ... in a brilliant and powerful throng.”7 The effect is a glorification of war and an effusion of emotional fervor, but not an impelling or effectual exhortation.

In a more lyrical vein is “Vojna” (“War,” 158), another of Gumilev’s most popular poems on the war theme. Here Gumilev draws a parallel between scenes from nature and warfare:

Как собака на цепи тяжелой,
Тявкает за лесом пулемет,
И жужжат шрапнели, словно пчелы,
Собирая ярко-красный мед.

Like a dog on a heavy chain,
A machine gnn barks beyond the forest,
And shrapnel buzzes like bees,
Collecting bright red honey.

The soldiers’ distant “hurrah” is compared to the singing of farm laborers (“pen'e trudnyj den’ okoncivsix znecov”). The pastoral motif in “Vojna” is well-conceived and effectively presented. However, the tone is not even, and in contrast to the simple lyrical description, Gumilev interjects lofty diction and rhetorical images:

И воистину светло и свято
Дело величавое войны,
Серафимы, ясны и крылаты,
За плечами воинов видны.

And indeed bright and holy
Is the majestic action of war,
Seraphim, clear and winged,
Over the shoulders of warriors are seen.

The “majestic action of war” jars with the immediately preceding evocation of the “peaceful village,” and the winged seraphim with the humble laborers. It is characteristic of Gumilev to combine various levels of style in a single poem, which often results in an ambiguous tone rather than an integrated perception.

Ejxenbaum calls the poems on the theme of war “psalms” and characterizes Gumilev’s perception of the war as a “misterija duxa” (18). It has often been noted that Gumilev reacted to the war spiritually and expressed this emotion in his poems by means of the frequent Christian motifs. Struve, Tor example, comments that Gumilev combines the military and Christian traditions and sees war as “a valuable spiritual experience.”8 In commending Gumilev’s war poems for their counterpoint of lofty and simple vocabulary (II, xxvii), Struve counters Ejxenbaum’s criticism and agrees with Žirmunskij, who approves Gumilev’s attraction to the “rhetorical splendor of eloquent words.”9 In Gumilev’s poems on the war, Žirmunskij sees a union of the “individual life force at its extreme intensity” with the “superindividual force” (nadindividual'naja sila), wherein the individual achieves “eternal, mystical heights.”10 This approach would lead to an interpretation of “Solnce duxa” and “Vojna” as a “metaphysical” vision of war.

But although Gumilev could possibly have undergone a spiritual renewal in his war experience, it would seem that this speculation does not deserve special emphasis. There is a general proliferation of religious imagery in Gumilev’s poetry of this period, and in any case the Christian element is a basic feature of the Russian patriotic-literary tradition. It is likely that the spiritual tone of these poems is as much a conscious artistic choice on his part as it is an expression of personal sentiment. In his Acmeist manifesto of 1912, Gumilev had rejected the supernatural as a subject of poetry and insisted that the elements of “the other world” have value in poetry only as artistic devices (IV, 175). It is in this sense that he utilizes the seraphim and “the sun of the spirit” in the war poems. To be sure, the patriotic mood of the early days of the war was imbued with a sense of Holy Russia and the sanctity of the war effort. Gumilev certainly shared this patriotic-religious temperament and added the overlay of artistic tradition to give it a fitting expression. But to identify Gumilev as the “Holy Warrior” on this basis would be unjustified. The same religious imagery, idealization of death, and praise of valor and honor appear as well in his adventure poems, as, for example, in “Otkrytie Ameriki” (“The Discovery of America,” 156). In “Snova more” (“Again the Sea,” 178), a poem which invokes the persona’s love of travel and adventure, the image of “the sun of the spirit” appears with no spiritual or patriotic overtones. “Afrikanskaja noč'” (“African night,” 179) deals with the theme of war in the same religious and rhetorical spirit as the poems cited here, but the war in question is a jungle war of white colonializers against the natives, rather than the patriotic Great War. N. Uljanov aptly notes that for Gumilev war is not holy because it has a noble goal, but simply because it is a valuable experience in itself, and he comments, “Under the Christian covering, there appears the religion of a Viking.”11

In fact, whatever the patriotic spirituality of the poems might seem to indicate, it is probable that Gumilev’s basic approach to the war did not differ significantly from his approach to African safaris. The persona of the sketches, who is a modest cavalryman rather than an eloquent orator, constantly underplays the “velicavoe delo” and regards it as a game or adventure. He compares the battle to hunting: “Only when hunting great beasts, leopards, buffalo, have I experienced the same sensation — when anxiety for oneself suddenly gives way to the fear of losing a magnificient prey” (IV, 522-23). He faces danger in a casual manner: “It was rather dangerous, somewhat complicated, but for all that, extremely fascinating” (IV, 453). And he enjoys the excitement of the “game” of war, comparing it to “hide and seek” (IV, 463-64). Obviously, this is as much a conscious posture as the exuberant rhetoric, and in this sense Soviet critics are not incorrect in seeing Gumilev’s approach to the war as an extension of his romantic fantasies.12

“Nastuplenie” (“The Attack,” 180) presents a romantic conception of war that is not unlike Gumilev’s expressions of bravado in the adventure poems. The persona of this poem, the “bearer of a great idea” (nositeI' mysli velikoj), is quite different from that of “Solnce duxa,” whose “we” was generalized and rhetorical. Here the situation is particularized — the “we” is a group of soldiers about to enter combat, and later it is narrowed to an individual participant in the attack. The situation is seen from this soldier’s point of view, and his peculiar perspective stresses the validity of the experience. The reader perceives the religious-patriotic feelings of the persona (“Zolotoe serdce Rossii / Memo b'etsja v grudi moej” [“The golden heart of Russia / Deliberately beats in my breast”]) along with his sensations (“Nado mnoju rvutsja šrapneli, / Ptic bystrej vzletajut klinki” [“Above me shrapnel howls, / Fragments start faster than birds”]). And because of the authority established by the consistent point of view and the seeming simultaneity of the action, they acquire credibility. Despite the grandiose vocabulary, hyperbolic imagery, and extreme sentiments, there is a genuine intensity of feeling in “Nastuplenie.” The rhetoric is motivated and integrated and, most importantly, controlled by the presence of a definite lyrical persona. The poem thus succeeds to a greater extent than the more general and diffuse emotional philosophizing of “Solnce duxa,” for example. And it comes closer to what might be expected from a poet who saw front-line action.

In contrast to most of the war poetry, Gumilev’s sketches, “Zapiski kavalerista,” are quite consciously the work of a front-line cavalryman. In his poetry, Gumilev exploits traditionally “poetic” topics — honor, courage, sacrifice. The poetry is highly abstract, with little relation to the objective realities of the experience. In the sketches, the subject matter is closer to reality — hunger, fatigue, discomfort — apparently “realistic” topics not suited for idealistic poetry.

However, the matter of selection is but the superficial level of the distinction. Given a single author and an identical body of source material, divergence implies a differentiation in viewpoint, that is, a distinction of personae. The difference between the two genre treatments is a consequence of varying perspectives. The persona of the sketches is still a propagandist, still the romantic adventurer. But while the poetic persona was an orator whose purpose was to impress and inspire, the persona of the sketches is a writer-journalist whose purpose is to report, more or less honestly, the facts of experience. While the immediate impression left by the journalistic style is one of simplicity, closer examination reveals it to be a studied simplicity. The impression of straightforward, unpretentious narration is deceptive. On the contrary, Gumilev makes a conscious artistic effort to achieve this effect.

One of the literary devices Gumilev uses to achieve a sense of forthright, subjective narration is irony. The cavalryman expresses seemingly “honest” emotions which, by their modesty, create the impression of realism. For example, the narrator is apparently candid about acknowledging feelings of fatigue, discomfort, and even fear — feelings that would be inconceivable for the poetic persona. He admits his desire to maneuver himself into a position in headquarters so as not to be sent out into the cold (IV, 480), reproaches himself with cowardice (IV, 511), and admits to feelings of fear: “I felt that kind of fear which can be conquered only by an effort of will” (IV, 522). Of course, he does conquer fear, and he is sent out into the cold, and he follows orders, or there would be no point to the story. Therefore, what seems at first to be honest realism is in fact another conscious artistic posture, disguised by the unpretentious manner of narration. The posture here, in contrast to the heroic persona of the poems, is sympathetic and within the sphere of ordinary human experience, so it is scarcely conspicuous as a pose, and thus the reader is led to believe that he is witnessing the author’s direct and unadorned personal reflections.

It is interesting to compare Gumilev’s prose with his theoretical precepts, as indicated in his review of Kuzmin’s prose from 1910: “The distinctive characteristics of M. Kuzmin’s prose are the definition of the plot, its smooth development, and a particular modesty of thought. ... He simply and clearly, and thus, perfectly, narrates about this and that. Before you is not a painter, not an actor, but a writer.” (IV, 413-14.) Gumilev’s theoretical demands in prose are not unlike the Acmeist precepts he set forth for poetry. He demands clarity, objectivity, and modesty (celomudrie), and for the most part, his prose on the theme of war achieves these goals to a greater extent than does his war poetry.

In the same review, Gumilev wrote: “In order to charm the reader, to capture and master him, one must relate the uninteresting in an interesting manner. . . . What can be less interesting than the everyday events of another’s life?” (IV, 413-14.) Gumilev is a good story-teller. His sketches move at a brisk pace and the plot unravels smoothly with humor and suspense. Scenes and events are depicted in clear, precise language in a logical manner: “Toward lunch time, a rumor reached us that five men of our squadron had been taken prisoner. Toward evening, I already saw one of these prisoners, the rest were sleeping in the hayloft. Here’s what happened. There were six of them in the outpost. Two were standing guard, four were sitting in the hut. . . .” (IV, 468.) And the narrator proceeds in this laconic manner to recount the events. Again, however, the straightforward style is deceptive. Gumilev’s technique of sustaining interest is to produce a burst of insight, emotion, or sympathy in the sudden realization of the contrast between the significant content and its understated style. As in his best poems, he eschews exposition and explanation, presenting a visual tableau which speaks for itself:

Patrols converged from all directions, squadrons came in from their positions. The early arrivals were cooking potatoes and brewing tea. But there was no opportunity to take advantage of this, because we were formed into a column and led out to the road. Night fell, quiet, blue, frosty. The fluttering snow glimmered. The stars seemed to be shining through glass. We were ordered to stop and wait for further instructions. And for five hours we stood on the road. (IV, 498.)

His verbal economy is notable, and his personal “modesty” is emphasized by his stylistic understatement. After a carefully detailed account of a midnight reconnaissance mission, Gumilev concludes: “All the same, the intelligence we gathered proved to be useful, they thanked us, and for that night I received the Cross of St. George” (IV, 465). Of course, by understating his romantic bravado the persona is in effect emphasizing it, and a heroic pose emerges subtly from the unassuming prose style.

The irony inherent in Gumilev’s contrast of noble content with simple expression becomes more obvious when the contrast is reversed, when the style is more lofty than the idea expressed. An example is his hyperbolic description of a moment spent with a hot glass of tea in the security of a peasant hut as the happiest moment of his life (IV, 481), or in his mock- rhetorical paean to comfort and “low, stuffy huts” (IV, 448-49), which might almost be a self-parody on the style of the patriotic poems.

There are other departures from the general denotative mode, and the persona occasionally displays a more serious and philosophical temperament:

That day our squadron was the leading squadron of the column and our platoon was the vanguard. I hadn’t slept all night, but the excitement of the attack was so great that I felt completely vigorous. I think that at the dawn of mankind people lived by their nerves in the same way, created much and died early. It is difficult to believe that a man who dines every day and sleeps every night can contribute anything to the treasurehouse of the culture of the spirit. Only fasting and vigil, even if they are involuntary, awaken in men special, heretofore slumbering forces. (IV, 490-91.)

The ideas here are similar to those expressed in the poem “Nastu- plenie,” but the style is more subdued. In other ways as well, the personae overlap. Many familiar metaphors and motifs reappear: “Bullets buzzed like big, dangerous insects” (IV, 519, cf. 518); “It was an experienced, renowned regiment, which went into battle as if to ordinary field work” (IV, 473-74). There are many passages, particularly in the nature descriptions, which indicate the poet’s sensitive perception of the world, and perhaps, in its attention to detail, an “Acmeist” perception (IV, 445). Gumilev intersperses humorous anecdotes in his sketches, usually at the Germans’ expense (IV, 452, 484, 488). And there are occasional vignettes which recall the visual poetic style of Acmeism:

I especially remember a grave old gentleman, sitting at the open window of a big manor house. He was smoking a cigar, but his brows were knit, his fingers nervously tugged at his gray moustache, and sorrowful astonishment was read in his eyes. The soldiers passing by looked at him shyly and shared their impressions in a whisper: “A stern gentleman, probably a general . . . and deadly, no doubt, when he curses” . . . . (IV, 451.)

Throughout the sketches, there can be felt the presence of the poet, which imbues them with genuine artistry, but it is tempered by the predominance of the cavalryman-journalist, creating the impression of ingenuous and unadorned directness.

The contrast between the poetry and the prose sketches on the war theme is, to repeat, not as clear-cut as it might seem on first impression. The personae take different approaches, but the aim is essentially the same — the patriotic glorification of war and the soldierly mystique. The poet speaks as self-appointed orator, the “bearer of a great idea,” whose appeal is philosophical and intellectual. By contrast, the author of the sketches is a cavalryman, a participant in the action whose insight is limited to his own observations and experiences. His goal is to relay to his readers the experience of war as perceived by the cavalryman in its midst. (The fact that this particular cavalryman is also a poet necessarily modifies the perception somewhat, but allows for its expression, and the autobiographical veracity contributes to its credibility.)

In the sketches, Gumilev achieves the standard of prose he demanded in his theoretical statements — modesty of thought (celomudrie mysli). However, this “modesty” is not the result of naive subjectivity. On the contrary, the poet’s conscious play with personae is a feature of his developing artistic style and represents a more mature and discerning approach to his basic romanticism. Similarly, to emphasize the poet’s spiritual approach to the war in his poetry is to stress speculative biographical and ideological content over artistic features, an approach which has persisted in Gumilev scholarship despite its generally recognized inadequacy. Despite his romantic temperament and adventurous spirit, Gumilev is first and foremost a conscious artist, constantly aware of the formal conventions of literary tradition that shape and discipline his personal emotions. Like his love poems, his literature on the theme of war is best understood not as the direct expression of personal sentiments, but as the distilled experience of a poet, molded by literary tradition.


1. Gumilev’s career has been judged in the light of his subsequent execution by the Bolsheviks. Traditionally, memoirists and emigre critics have emphasized Gumilev’s role as defender of monarchism and orthodoxy, and his war poetry has been praised for its “spirituality” and enthusiastic patriotism. See for example Julij Isaevic Ajxenval'd, Siluèty russkix pisatelej, (3 vols.; Berlin: Slovo, 1923) III, 265-78, and Leonid I Strakhovsky, Craftsmen of the Word (Westford, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1969). Soviet critics, on the other hand, have generally condemned Gumilev as an apologist for the aristocracy and Tsarist imperialism, and their interpretations and critical judgments of his war poems follow predictably. See A. A. Volkov, Poèzija russkogo imperializma (M.: GIXL, 1935), and Russkaja literatura XX veka: Dooktjabr'skij period, 5th ed. (M.: Prosvescenie, 1970), 411-38. See also O. L. Cexnovicer, Literatura i mirovaja vojna 1914-1918 (M.: GIXL, 1938), quoted in N. Gumilev, Sobranie sočinenij, ed. G. P. Struve and B. A. Filippov (4 vols.; Washington, D.C.: Victor Kamkin, 1962-68), IV, 625.

2. War is the central theme of the following poems from the collection Kolčan (1916): “Vojna” (158), “Solnce duxa” (174), “Afrikanskaja noč'” (179), “Nastuplenie” (180), and “Smert' ” (181). It is also central in these poems published separately in various journals: “Novoroždennomu” (313), “Madrigal polkovoj dame” (315), “Sestre miloserdija” (318), “Otvet sestry miloserdija” (319), “Vtoroj god” (320). War appears as well in “Pjatistopnye jamby” (174), “Oda D’Annunzio” (204), “Svjaščennye plyvut i tajut noči” (317). There are allusions to the Great War in “Švecija” (229) and “Na sevemom more” (231) from Koster (1918), and in “Pamjat' ” (247) from Ognennyj stolp (1921).

3. See for example A. A. Volkov, Poèzija russkogo imperializma, 187, and Vjaceslav Zavalisin, “Gumilev kak prozaik i kritik,” Novyj žurnal, 94 (1969), 286.

4. In only a few of the poems, where the war motif is subordinate to other personal themes, is there a reference to the more prosaic aspects of the experience, and even here the negative is often outweighed by bravado or extravagant rhetoric. For example, note the often-quoted stanza from “Pamjat' ” (“Memory,” 247):

Знал он муки голода и жажды,
Сон тревожный, беспокойный путь,
Но святой Георгий тронул дважды
Пулею нетронутую грудь.

He knew the torment of hunger and thirst,
The troubled dream, the restless road,
But St. George twice touched
The breast untouched by bullets.

See also the ending of “Pjatistopnye jamby” (“Five-Foot Iambs,” 164), where the persona’s understated description of his passive attitude toward military service (“Ja posel i prinjali menja / I dali mne vintovku i konja,” “I went and they took me / And gave me a rifle and a horse”) gives way to invocations of the seraphim and the voice of God in the heat of battle. A less serious aspect of war receives a light-hearted treatment in the fragment, “Madrigal polkovoj dame” (“Madrigal to the Regiment’s Lady,” 315), where the poet compares the camp followers to “houris in roses and silk.”

5. “Podlinnyj Gumilev,” Posev, 33, 82 (1947), 9.

6.“Novye stixi N. Gumileva,” Russkaja mys', 2 (1916), 19.

7. “N. Gumilev, Kolčan,” Apollon, 6-7 (1917), 66.

8.“Blok and Gumilyov: A Double Anniversary,” Slavonic and East European Review, 64 (1946), 178.

9. “Preodolevsie simvolizm,” Voprosy teorii literatury (L.: Academia, 1928), 315.

10. Quoted in Struve-Filippov, II, xxiii.

11. “Gumilev,” Vozroždenie, 19 (1952), 156.

12. This contrast between high-flown rhetoric and deliberately understated bravery is, of course, common to the romantic nature of the poet in such a situation. Rupert Brooke, Gumilev’s English counterpart as poet-patriot-hero of World War I, (with whose poetry, incidentally, Gumilev’s has much in common), is reported to have said of his voluntary army service, “Well, if Armageddon’s on, I suppose one should be there.” In contrast, however, he went off to Armageddon singing: “Now God be thanked who has matched us with his hour, / And caught our youth, and wakened us from sleeping.” (Cf. “Kak mogli my prezde žit' v pokoe. . . .”) Quoted in Robert H. Ross, The Georgian Revolt 1910-1922: Rise and Fall of a Poetic Ideal (Carbondale: Southern Illinois Univ. Press, 1965), 140. Several parallels can be drawn between Gumilev’s war poetry and the British literary experience of the Great War. For a general discussion of the latter, see John H. Johnston, English Poetry of the First World War (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1964), 3-20, and Paul Fussell, The Great War and Modern Memory (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1975).