Lost in space and time: Gumilev`s «Zabludivshijsya tramvaj»

  • Дата:
  • SEEJ, Vol. 26, No. 4 (1982)
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Стихотворения О Гумилёве…
теги: Ахматова и Гумилёв, Заблудившийся трамвай

The following account appeared in the Peterburg journal Zlatotsvet in 1914:

Recently at a meeting of the circle «Poet's Guild,» many new poems were read by their authors. In the discussions which followed, the poet N. Gumilev noted in the work of the newest poets a curious phenomenon which calls for psychological research, that is, the poets» striving to escape from time, and to base their experiences outside of the concepts of past, present, and future.1

Gumilev was certainly not the first or the last to note the preoccupation with time in Russian modernism. As a literary theme, a principle of construction, and a category of personal experience, time is ubiquitous in the poetry and prose of the early twentieth century, and over the years it has received extensive critical attention.2 Nonetheless, Gumilev's comment is valuable as an indication of his own consciousness of the issue, and it prompts the attentive reader to search for examples of such an «escape from time» in Gumilev's own work. In fact, there are many such examples, especially in his later work, but none is so provocative as «The Runaway Streetcar» («Zabludivshijsya tramvaj»), one of Gumilev's best and most difficult poems.3 Written shortly before the poet's death, «Streetcar's» convoluted chronology and abstruse imagery have led critics to describe it as surrealistic, and the poem defies easy interpretation. Taking its cue from Gumilev's own comments, this study looks to the poet's feelings about time for the elucidation of the poem's structure and imagery.

Gumilev suggested to the Poets' Guild that the topic of time in poetry calls for psychological research, but in «The Runaway Streetcar,» time invites consideration from biographical, historical, literary, and philosophical perspectives, as well as from the psychological. As a category of personal experience, the poet captures time through memory and depicts it poetically through calculated imagery. Not only personal biography, but also the historical and cultural past is preserved in the poem and recalled by means of significant imagery and poetic subtexts. An additional literary consequence of the poet's concern with time in «Streetcar» is its deliberately discontinuous temporal organization. This deviation from the rules of chronological time and three-dimensional space may in general be more characteristic of Futurism than Acmeism, but in fact the leader of the Acmeists was not averse to the creative manipulation of time in poetry. His Acmeist manifesto states: «He who imagines the evolution of the personality always within the conditions of time and space reveals a poverty of imagination.»4

This statement from the manifesto hints at a latent philosophy, and indeed, informing the historical, psychological, and literary functions of time in Gumilev's poem are certain substantive, if not systematic, philosophical ideas. In an interview from 1917, Gumilev says, «Russian poets of today are writing. . . poems of psychologic content in touch with present-day cultural and philosophic currents of thought, both Russian and foreign.»5 Of course, time was one of the prevalent philosophical concerns of the early twentieth century. Guided by the natural sciences, such Russian thinkers as P. A. Florenskij and V. I. Vernadskij addressed the problem,6 but the philosopher whose name is most commonly associated with the philosophy of time was a Frenchman, Henri Bergson.7 And significantly, in the same 1917 interview, Gumilev cited Bergson as a potential ideological basis for Russian poetry. Before we turn to an analysis of the poem, it may be useful to summarize Bergson's philosophy of time, space, and memory.

Bergson's approach to the problem of time and space is through psychology, and particularly through an analysis of the multiplicity of psychic states. Several of Gumilev's poems are related to this theme. In the well-known poem «Memory» («Pamyat»,» 2, 35), for example, which, in this context provides a counterweight for «Streetcar,»8 Gumilev uses the motif of reincarnation to review the various states of consciousness which he experienced — the child, the poet, the adventurer-soldier, and a final spiritual state. The individual life stages are presented in this poem in clear-cut segments, in chronological order with easily comprehensible imagery. The structure of «Memory» demonstrates what Bergson calls «unfolding time in space.» The consciousness externalizes the psychic states and sets them side by side to form a discrete multiplicity, as in stringing beads on a thread.9 This is the ordinary method of presenting the inner self, by carving it up to correspond to the scientific segmentation of time into years, months, and minutes. But, says Bergson, the result is a distortion. Conscious states should not be considered in isolation from one another, for they exist not in space, but in time. True, a perception of the inner life in terms of well-distinguished moments and clearly defined states will better answer the requirements of social life. But a more accurate understanding of the self requires that we make an effort to perceive conscious states in the context of concrete (not discrete) multiplicity, and in time rather than in space. To achieve this, one must abandon scientific time and turn to what Bergson calls «pure time» or «real duration.»

We have gone astray, says Bergson, in trying to describe the dynamic self by using concepts that inevitably impose an artificial rigidity on it [Time and Tree Will, 90]. Indeed, the most characteristic feature of our inner life is its unceasing change, the continuous flow of thoughts, sensations, and perceptions which are not homogeneous units occupying separate positions in space, but which permeate one another unceasingly. The self grows not in discrete stages, separable into the units of scientific time like beads on a string, but constantly, the present accumulating around the past like snow accumulating around a rolling snowball. This dynamic snowballing time, this time that we feel intuitively when we turn from abstract thought to direct experience is real time, or duration, as opposed to the conceptualized static time of science.

Pure duration is the form which the succession of our conscious states assumes when our ego lets itself live, when it refrains from separating its present state from its former states.
. . . In recalling these states, it does not set them alongside its actual state as one point alongside another, but forms both the past and present into an organic whole, as happens when we recall the notes of a tune melting, so to speak, into one another. . . . We can thus conceive of succession without distinction, and think of it as a mutual penetration, an interconnection and organization of elements, each one of which represents the whole, and cannot be distinguished or isolated from it except by abstract thought. [Time and Free Will, 100.]

Thus, observed within its proper element of duration, the self is a «unity of interpenetration,» moments and conscious states permeating one another without precise outlines. In Bergson's words, «Duration is the continuous progress of the past which gnaws into the future and which swells as it advances.»10 We will see that this philosophy is the extra- literary subtext of «Streetcar» and the key to the poem's structure. Retrospective self-analysis, in time rather than in space, as a snowball rather than a string of beads, is the compositional principle of «The Runaway Streetcar.»

A corollary to Bergson's philosophy of time is the role of memory in self-analysis and the linguistic expression used to convey it. Unlike scientific time, duration is not divided into past, present, and future; rather, it is distinguished into a sense of earlier and later by memory and expectation. Memory in Bergson's system is not the recalling of experiences from the past, but the past living on in the present, since past and present are mutually interpenetrable. Thus, ordering one's life stages in duration becomes a process of subjective perception which, because it has no causal objective connection with the external world, is extremely difficult to express in ordinary language.

Our perceptions, sensations, emotions and ideas occur under two aspects: the one clear and precise, but impersonal; the other confused, ever-changing and inexpressible, because language cannot get hold of it without arresting its mobility or fit it into its commonplace forms without making it into public property. [Time and Free Will, 129.]

If ordinary language is unable to deal with duration, the conventional imagery of poetic language is only slightly more adapted to the task. In his comprehensive study of time in literature, Hans Meyerhoff writes, «To render this peculiar structure, therefore, requires a symbolism or imagery in which the different modalities of time — past, present, and future — are not serially, progressively, and uniformly ordered but are always inextricably and dynamically associated and mixed up with each other.»11 The link between space, the outside world, and duration, the inner experience of time, is expressed not through objective causal connections, but through images of significant association, which Bergson calls «the intersection of time and space.» To summarise, the dynamic interpenetration of past, present, and future in retrospective self-analysis is the thematic motif of «The Lost Streetcar,» and it is expressed through a system of imagery based on significant association. This accounts for the surrealistic atmosphere of the poem — the metaphoric fluidity of time and space, and the opacity of imagery.

It remains, then, to see how this complex system of ideas can help clarify the poem. It begins in an ominous tone:

Шел я по улице незнакомой
И вдруг услышал вороний грай,
И звоны лютни и дальние громы,
Передо мною летел трамвай.

(I was walking along an unfamiliar street / And suddenly heard a cawing of crows, / The sounds of lutes and distant thunder, / In front of me flew a streetcar.)

The stanza is filled with images of sound, which refer on one level to the approaching streetcar, but which, on a metaphorical level create an atmosphere of foreboding and condition the reader's perception of what is to follow. The cawing of crows is traditionally an omen of misfortune, going back to the Igor Tale (“chasto vorony grajali»). Already in the first stanza there is an effort to escape time and a subtle blending of historical epochs on the level of imagery. After all, the twentieth-century sounds associated with trolleys are clangs and bells, rather than lutes and crows. Similarly, the next stanza presents a visual image: «V vozduhe ognennuju dorozhku / On ostavlyal i pri svete dnya.» (It left a fiery trail in the air / Even in the light of day.») The «fiery trail» is the tenor of an implied metaphor; the vehicle, the sparks generated by the tram, is unstated and must be supplied by an interpolation on the part of the reader. The effect is to create an impression of speed, mystery, and magic surrounding the streetcar.

The lyrical persona jumps aboard the rushing streetcar, which flies like a «dark, swift storm» and becomes lost in «the abyss of Time.» The streetcar is the persona's vehicle into pure duration through the immediate experience of motion. Motion is «the living symbol of duration,» says Bergson, for properly speaking, motion exists only in duration, where it is directly experienced, and not at all in scientific time, which cuts it up into a series of potential stopping points [Time and Free Will, 110]. In a well-known poem from 1910, Gumilev expresses the same idea in more poetic terms:

Ax, в одном божественном движении,
Косным, нам дано преображение,
В нем и мы — не только отраженье,
В нем живым становится, кто жил ...

(Oh, only in divine motion, / Are we sluggish ones granted transfiguration / In it we are not just a reflection, / In it, he who has lived becomes alive. «Otkrytie Amenki», 1,199.)

In this early poem, the persona flies through space and time guided by the Muse of Distant Voyages. The motivation is more subtle and poetically sophisticated in «Streetcar,» but the result is the same — the transformation of the personality in a dynamic state of intensified existence.

The streetcar rushes through regions familiar to the poet:

Поздно. Уж мы обогнули стену,
Мы проскочили сквозь рощу пальм,
Через Неву, через Нил и Сену
Мы погремели по трем мостам.

(Too late. We had already skirted the wall, / We leapt through the grove of palms, / Across the Neva, the Nile, and the Seine / We thundered across three bridges.)

The geographical details have a personal relevance to Gumilev s experience. Note, however, that the rivers here, each representing a separate stage of the poet's life, are juxtaposed in the poetic imagination with no sense of consistent location in space. Instead, they melt into one another, the past and present forming a timeless co-presence of temporal elements. Furthermore, the image of the river, an archetypal symbol of time and timelessness, reinforces the experience of duration by metaphorically mirroring it. Having crossed the rivers, the persona finds himself in «the abyss of time,» where all sense of sequential chronology is lost. Here the lyrical hero catches sight of an old beggar, a point in «real space,» to use Bergson's term. But the persona perceives him not in extended space, but in time:«Konechno tot samyj, / Kto umer v Bejrute god nazad.» («Of course the one / Who died in Beirut a year ago») In this timeless world across the river, life and death seem to be no longer separate states, but like present, past, and future, they are mutually interpenetrable.

The persona recognizes the distortion of his ordinary perception and draws attention to it with the exclamation «Where am I?». His heart responds, «Vidish vokzal, na kotorom mozhno / V Indiju Duxa kupit' bilet?». («See the station where / One can buy a ticket to the India of the Spirit?».) This ambiguous image was clarified for me by Roman Timenchik, the leading Soviet Gumilev scholar. It is his idea that the flight of the streetcar in this poem follows the route of a real Petersburg tramvaj. At this point in the route, according to Timenchik, the streetcar passes a museum where the current exhibit was a display of Indian art. Again, the image represents a point in «real space,» and it reinforces the thematic-structural motif of the poem. India traditionally has represented the serenity of the contemplative life, the escape from the world of appearances into the eternal state of Oneness, from time into timelessness, and it was a popular motif at the time in literature and various modish occult movements.

The next scene represents a sharp contrast in tone:

Вывеска. . . кровью напитые буквы
Гласят — зеленая, — знаю, тут
Вместо капусты и вместо брюквы
Мертвые головы продают.

В красной рубашке, с лицом как вымя,
Голову срезал палач и мне,
Она лежала вместе с другими
Здесь, в ящике скользком, на самом дне.

(A sign . . . letters poured from blood / Read — «Vegetables.» I know, here / Instead of cabbages, instead of beets, / Corpses' heads are sold. // In a red shirt, with a face like an udder, / The executioner cut off my head too, / It was here with the others, / In a slippery box, on the very bottom.)

Here the tram seems to rush into the future, or rather, the future intersects with the present. In a state of timeless co-presence, past and future exist as potentialities within a single moment of experience, and things remembered coalesce with things being experienced and with things anticipated or feared. In a review from 1914, Gumilev wrote, «Eternity and an instant — these are not temporal concepts and therefore can be perceived in any interval; everything depends on the synthesizing progression of contemplation» (4, 335). The greengrocer tableau certainly presents an ominous picture for the poet's persona, combining a premonition of decapitation with striking color and nature imagery in what may be a political allegory. To begin to untangle the logic of images here, we must look to the context of Gumilev's work in his mature period.

Context, in the sense in which the Soviet structuralists use the term, comes from text theory. It is proposed that an individual text obtains its fall meaning only in relation to other texts and to the context as a whole. For example, as extensive studies have shown, one cannot decipher the meaning of a key word in a poem by Mandelshtam without an analysis of its use in other cases, that is, without an analysis of Mandelshtam's entire context.12 This sort of lexical-semantic repetition or self-quotation was widely used by the Acmeists to maximize meaning by expanding the semantic significance of individual images. Gumilev engages in these semantic exercises perhaps to a lesser extent than Mandelshtam and Akhmatova, but in his mature work, he also sets the reader metaphorical riddles, which must be resolved by appeal to context. Thus, an image gains in semantic value as a result of its recurrence in diverse contexts, and this results in an intensified semantics, which compensates in part for the more tenuous implications of individual poetic figures.

Gumilev is said to have foretold his violent death in his poems.13 The decapitation at the hands of the greengrocer-butcher here is particularly gruesome, but decapitation is not an uncommon motif in Gumilev's work. There is no explanation provided for the execution in «Streetcar,» but elsewhere it is a punishment for sedition. In «Kantsona vtoraya» («Second Canto,» 2, 43), the allegorical executioner is a pendulum, knocking of the «pretty heads» of «conspiratress seconds.» Even more precise prophetic» significance may be found in the conclusion of the prose sketch «Afrikansakaya ohota» («African Hunt») from 1916 (4, 141-52), where the poet dreams that he is executed by decapitation for participation in a palace coup. As in «Streetcar,» the (persona exhibits no apparent anxiety, and describes his death in matter-of-fact fashion. Indeed, the conclusion to «African Hunt» is positively serene.

The battue ended. At night, lying on my straw mat, I pondered why I feel no remorse, killing animals for amusement, and why my blood-tie with the world only becomes stronger from these killings. And at night I dreamed that, for participation in some Abyssinian palace coup, I am decapitated. Bleeding profusely, I applaud the skill of the executioner and rejoice at how simple it is, how good, and not at all painful.

The serenity of the poet's imagined death here apparently stems from his strong blood-tie (krovnaja svyaz) with the world, which is paradoxically strengthened by killing. In his dream, the narrator of African Hunt finds himself in somewhat the same position as the animals he has killed for sport. One of Gumilev's Acmeist concerns was to define the place of man in the natural world, and throughout his work he consistently refuses to exalt him, but instead sets himself on the same level as the lower» natural forms by his participation in the life and death cycle of nature. In his manifesto, Gumilev stated, «As Adamists, we are somewhat like forest animals and in any case, we will not surrender what is animal in us in exchange for neurasthenia» (4, 174). In Detstvo (“Childhood,» 2, 6) from 1916, he writes:

Я за то и люблю затеи
Грозовых военных забав,
Что людская кровь не святее
Изумрудного сока трав.

(And I love the amusements / Of perilous military fun, / Because human blood is no more sacred / Than the emerald juice of the grass.)

The dividing line between human and simpler forms of life has become less definite, until in «Streetcar» it is obliterated entirely, and in a macabre juxtaposition, cabbages and human heads receive equal treatment from the greengrocer-executioner. The greengrocer is also a butcher, and he himself seems related to the animal world, with his udder-like face. The reader's reaction to the scene is one of horror, while the persona expresses a matter-of-fact acceptance of his fate.

The theme of man's place in the natural world and his subjection to the power of nature is carried through also in the color imagery. The sign reading «Vegetables,» in Russian simply «green» (“zelenaya»), is written in letters poured from blood. The juxtaposition of red human blood and the emerald green juice of the grass had already been set up in «Childhood» and it was used extensively in a long, unfinished poem, also from 1921, entitled Poema nachala (Poem of the Beginning). Here the earth is depicted as filling with green juice the «tender blades of grass,» and with red juice, the heart of the lion. Then, without understanding why, the earth spills both red and green juice onf the sand.

С сотворенья мира стократы,
Умирая, менялся прах,
Этот камень рычал когда-то,
Этот плющ парил в облаках.
Убивая и воскрешая,
Набухать вселенской душой,
В этом воля земли святая,
Непонятная ей самой.

(Since the creation of the world hundreds of times, / The ashes, dying, are changed, / This rock once growled, / This ivy soared in the clouds, / Killing and resurrecting, / To swell the universal soul, / This is the sacred will of the earth, / Inscrutable even to her. 2, 239.)

The motif of nature continuously dying and being resurrected in changing forms suggests a transmigration of souls, a frequent theme in Gumilev's later work, or a kind of cosmic vitalism, influenced perhaps by Bergson's Creative Evolution. In this view, the world is in a state of constant evolutionary development, the lines between life and matter, plant and animal are blurred, and the world is a harmonious whole in which human intelligence is but one branch of the universal elan vital The individual is but a manifestation of this urge to life and is part of the universal evolutionary striving to a higher level of consciousness. In his poetry, Gumilev seems to bow to this force in a kind of happy quietism which is only apparently contradicted by his aggressive life style.14 After all, the narrator of « African Hunt» only strengthened his blood-tie to the world by killing wild animals.

Another aspect of the color imagery in this scene gives it a potential allegorical value. The greengrocer wears a red shirt, which, besides tying him to the animal kingdom, has an obvious political significance. He has been widely interpreted as representing the revolution, and this reading is reinforced by the other examples in Gumilev's work of decapitation as punishment for sedition.15 If the scene is in fact meant to represent the revolution, the color and animal imagery would seem to stress its primitive, elemental nature. We have little information concerning Gumilev's reaction to the revolution, and in fact, his complicity in the counter-revolutionary plot for which he was executed is still uncertain. However, it is likely that Georgij Ivanov's characterization of Gumilev's attitude, for all its unreliability, is not far off the mark. I fought the Germans for three years, and I've hunted lions. But I've never seen any Bolsheviks. Why not return to Russia? It can hardly be more dangerous than the jungles.»16 Indeed, we might expect Gumilev to react to the revolution as he did to war and the African safaris, because «human blood is not more sacred than the emerald juice of the grass.»

If Timenchik is right and the poem presents the actual route of a Petersburg streetcar, the images here may have a lateral significance as «points in extended space,» in addition to their multi-leveled symbolic value. Assuming that Gumilev actually travelled the route by streetcar, the greengrocer tableau may have been prompted by a real market. According to a 1912 guidebook of Petersburg, line No. 7 crosses the Bolshaja Neva from Marsovo Pole to the Petersburg side via the Troitskij Bridge.17 (The motivation, perhaps, for crossing the Neva, Nile, and the Seine on three bridges at once?) The route proceeds along Kronverkskij Prospekt past the Sytnyj Rynok, where one's imaginary reconstruction of the trip would place the greengrocer. Along the route to this point, the Krechinskij mosque would have been visible — a reminder of Beirut, perhaps? Though this line of interpretation is still highly speculative, it is not inconsequential to a complete understanding of the poem. After all, Gumilev purposely recalls the city of Petersburg in the poem, and, as the backdrop against which his life story was played out, it is of major significance in his retrospective self-analysis. Unless we are to assume that the images of the poem are random and unmotivated, which seems unlikely, the best explanation is that they are images of significant association, examples of the “intersection of space and time.»

At the persona's request, the tram then stops at an old-fashioned house. The lyrical hero addresses his thoughts to the house's former inhabitant, Mashenka, and reminisces about a sad farewell. This is the central episode of the poem, and it requires special attention.

А в переулке забор дощатый,
Дом в три окна и серый газон...
Остановите, вагоновожатый,
Остановите сейчас вагон!

Машенька, ты здесь жила и пела,
Мне, жениху, ковер ткала,
Где же теперь твой голос и тело,
Может ли быть, что ты умерла!

Как ты стонала в своей светлице,
Я же с напудренною косой
Шел представляться Императрице
И не увиделся вновь с тобой.

(And in a by-street a board fence, / A three-windowed house with a gray lawn, / Stop, conductor, / Stop the car right now! // Mashenka, here you lived, and here you sang, / Yon wove a rug for me, your betrothed, / Where now are your voice and body, / Could it be that you are dead! // How you moaned in your chamber / But I with powdered wig / Was going to present myself to the Empress / And we were never again to meet.)

This episode has been the subject of various speculations as to the identity of the ambiguous female figure. Gumilev's sister-in-law identifies her as the poet's cousin, Masha Kuzmina-Karavaeva, for whom Gumilev allegedly harbored an incestuous love.18 Irina Odoevceva, who claims to be the first to have heard the poem on the morning after its creation, relates that in the original version, the name of the female figure was Katenka, and it was changed to Mashenka only several days later in honor of Pushkin's «Kapitanskaja dochka.»19 Struve pursues this point in his interpretation of the episode as a borrowing from Pushkin's story (294). There have also been attempts to identify the figure with more abstract concepts, such as «the ideal woman» the Muse, or Russia. Certainly, if we accept the political-allegorical interpretation, Mashenka may be an evocation of old Russia, left behind by the speeding streetcar of the new era. However, like most other images in the poem, this episode has poly-semantic significance and can be interpreted on many levels. Paradoxically, the most literal meaning is the most obscure, hidden in layers of subtext.

If metaphoric riddles are best resolved in context, subtext, an allusion to another poet, is by nature a metonymic device, since the reader must identify the whole from the part. The subtext becomes a physical part of the new text, a complete understanding of which must then be based on the hidden subtext and the determination of its semantic function. In this poem, the subtext, a cluster of «alien words,» provides a possible revelation of the poetic message of the Mashenka episode.

The eighteenth century spirit of these stanzas has often been noted. The time shift is motivated by the reminiscences from Pushkin, which recall and preserve the historical and cultural past through literary memory. However, the poem is apparently a synthesis of life experiences, and a closer look at the stylization of these stanzas and the remainder of the poem suggests another subtext. In their semantic and stylistic coloring, these stanzas stand out against the rest of this poem and indeed, against all of Gumilev's later poetry, but they contain provocative echoes of the poetry of Anna Akhmatova, Gumilev's first wife and, as the memoirists would have it, his only true love.

For example, the house is a common image in Akhmatova's poems, and most often the description of the house is as simple as the one here, with frequent attention to the detail of windows.20 The epithet «gray» (or «dull,» «colorless») would seem to be an unusual qualifier for the lawn, but gray occurs frequently in Akhmatova's early poetry, or at least Gumilev thought so, and noted it in his review of her book Chetki (Rosary):

There are many attributes of color in Akhmatova's verse, most frequently yellow and gray, until now most rare in poetry. And perhaps as confirmation of the nonaccidental nature of her taste, most of the epithets emphasize the poverty and paleness of objects: a threadbare rug, worn-down heels, a faded flag, etc. In order to love the world, Akhmatova must see it as dear and simple. (4, 339.)

The «gray lawn» and «board fence» surrounding the three-windowed house create a typical Akhmatova-like setting, emphasizing the «poverty and dullness» of objects. The archaic stylized term svetlitsa (chamber) is characteristic of Akhmatova, as is the term Zhenix (betrothed, bridegroom) for the persona's beloved.21 Accordingly, the eighteenth-century motif also appears in her work: «I my zhivem kak pri Ekaterine» (“And we live as in Catherine's time,» 146.) The reference to «meaning» recalls Akhmatova's numerous poems of unhappy love and Gumilev's satirical treatment of her poetic style in «Iz logova zmieva» (“From a serpent's nest,» 1, 166).

Moreover, Akhmatova's lyrical heroine frequently presents herself as dead or dying, or she appears in an ambiguous state of half-death and half-life, similar to Mashenka in this poem. Note, for example, the similarity of vocabulary and tone in Akhmatova's poem «Milomu» (“To my Dear One,» 123) from 1915, where she promises to return to her beloved in nature, «Chtob ne strashno bylo zhenihu / . . . / Mertvuju nevestu podzhidat'.» (“So my betrothed won't be frightened / . . . / Waiting for his bride.») And other poems address a lover who is, or may be dead, and in many cases he is easily identified as Gumilev. For example: “Ja ne znaju, ty zhiv ili umer.» («I don't know whether you are dead or alive,» 119.)22 Kees Verheul discusses this typical technique in The Theme of Time in the Poetry of Anna Akhmatova. He indicates that moments of separation form an important starting point in Akhmatova's work for the development of a sense of temporal complexity. Furthermore, the poetic symbol of the shade (or dead hero/heroine) is made to stand for other transformations in consciousness than those caused by death, such as losses by separation. «The shade serves as an expression of the loss through time of a directly palpable reality and its transformation into an innerpsychological reality persisting through time» (29-32). Gumilev repeats this device with the same purpose.

In addition, there are thematic motifs here which correspond to the poets' common experience. The reference to singing, of course, implies poetry, and weaving recalls Penelope's patient waiting for the return of her adventurer-husband.23 The persona's “presentation to the Empress» has an analogue in Gumilev's military service. He enlisted in the regiment of Her Sovereign Highness and Empress Aleksandra Fedorovna and was assigned to Her Majesty's squadron.24 The scene of parting has many poetic manifestations both in Akhmatova's and in Gumilev's verse, and in reality, Gumilev's departure for the war in effect put an end to their relationship. Finally, in a poem dated 4 April 1915, Akhmatova refers to a wooden house in a narrow lane, and she warns the addressee that he would eventually search for it in «cities of reveries» on a street which does not exist on the map (120). Similar houses and by-streets appear in other poems by Akhmatova, particularly in a later poem “Putem vseja zemli,» (“The Way of All the Earth,» 347), which has much in common with “Streetcar,» being a retrospective autobiography in verse with a discontinuous chronology, and in «Epicheskie motivy» (“Epic motifs,» 324). The editors of the Biblioteka poeta edition inform us that in the latter poem, the “snowy, short bу street» refers to Tuchkov pereulok on Vasil'evskij ostrov, where after her marriage, Akhmatova lived in a student dormitory at the end of Kadetskaja linija, near the Tuchkov bridge; This, in fact, was the route of streetcar No. 7, which the guidebook shows as crossing the Malaja Neva on Tuchkov bridge onto Kadetskaja linija on Vasil'evskij ostrov. In this section of the city, between Kadetskaja linija and Malaja Neva, were located old-fashioned wooden houses from the Catherine period, an additional motivation, no doubt, for the eighteenth-century motif25

There are further reminiscences of Akhmatova in the last stanzas, but perhaps this is the place to offer justification for this reading. Though the details of the Akhmatova-Gumilev relationship are yet to be clarified, there is little doubt that it was a major emotional involvement in Gumilev's life and might naturally play a central role in his poetic reconstruction of his biography.26 The feelings of remorse, the attitude of tragic resignation which prevails through this episode and the final part of the poem are not characteristic of the macho stance which Gumilev struck so frequently in his poems. But they do recall another plainly autobiographical poem in which he depicts a parting from Akhmatova: «I ty ushla, v prostom i temnom plat'e, / Pohozhaya na drevnee Raspjatie,» (“And you left, in a simple, dark dress, / Like in an ancient Crucifixion scene,» 1, 223). The emotion in «Streetcar» is freer, less restrained than is usually the case in Gumilev's rather impersonal poetry, but it is shrouded in the ambiguity which pervades the poem. It is hardly surprising that Gumilev, who promised his readers rio “neurasthenia» in his poetry (“Ja ne oskorblyau ih nevrastenij,» «I don't insult them with neurasthenia,» “Moi chitateli,» 2, 61), would disguise his intensely personal experiences in imagery and ambiguity. Recognizing Akhmatova as a possible prototype for Mashenka adds a further level of meaning to this already rich image. However, the figure is carefully and deliberately polysemous, and this biographical reading of the poem by no means discredits the interpretation of Mashenka in more abstract or symbolic terms.

After the Mashenka episode, or perhaps as a result of it, the persona comes to an important realization:

Понял теперь я: наша свобода
Только оттуда бьющий свет,
Люди и тени стоят у входа
В зоологический сад планет.

(Now I comprehend: our freedom / Is only a light which beams from the beyond, / The living and the dead stand at the gate / To the zoological garden of the planets.)

In Bergsonian thought, the notion of freedom naturally follows from duration, and the philosopher deals with it in detail in Time and Free Will

Every demand for explanation in regard to freedom comes back, without our suspecting it, to the following question: “Can time be adequately represented by space?» To which we answer: «Yes, if you are dealing with time flown; No, if you are speaking of time flowing. Now the free act takes place in time which is flowing and not in time which has already flown. Freedom is therefore a fact.» (221)

That is, freedom can be felt only in duration. It is something directly experienced in a dynamic series of mutually permeable states, the condition in which the persona of this poem finds himself. The imagery here recalls Bergson's world-vision, which is all flux, motion and change, and in this it reflects something of the other-worldly: «God . . . has nothing of the already made; he is unceasingly life, action, freedom» (Creative Evolution, 271). In accordance with the growing religious note in his late poetry, Gumilev may be suggesting that perfect freedom is in giving one's self up to life, action, and God. The persona here recognizes the true nature of freedom not in extended space, like the freedom of the adventurer so often sung by the early Gumilev, but in the inner category of time, which he perceives now «outside of the concepts of past, present, and future.» In accord with this, the confusion of the living and dead at the entrance to the zoo of the planets puts his new perception of time in a cosmic context. The circular movement of the planets has traditionally been associated with the idea of time and corresponds to physical, temporal life. As for the image here, one would expect to find a zoo along the streetcar route, and in fact, streetcar No. 7 passes the zoological garden in Aleksandrovskij Park.

The final landscape is the familiar Petersburg naberezhnaja, the Falconet statue of Peter the Great and St. Isaac's cathedral.

И сразу ветер знакомый и сладкий,
И за мостом летит на меня
Всадника длань в железной перчатке
И два копыта его коня.

Верной твердынею православья
Врезан Исакий в вышине,
Там отслужу молебен оздравьи
Машеньки и панихиду по мне.

(And right away a sweet, familiar wind / And beyond the bridge, flying toward me / The hand of the Horseman in an iron glove / And the two hooves of his steed. // Isaac is chisled in the heights, / A true stronghold of Orthodoxy / There I'll hold a prayer service for Mashenka's health / And a requiem mass for myself.)

These monuments evoke a wealth of historical cultural, and literary associations. No less important is their literal meaning as landmarks of the city where Gumilev lived. There may be deliberate echoes of Akhmatova as well in the imagery here, which is strikingly similar to her «Stihi о Peterburge» (77), another poem of parting:

Вновь Исакий в облаченьм
Из литого серебра.
Стынет в грозном нетерпеньи
Конь Великого Петра.

Ветер душный и суровый...

(Again Isaac in vestments / Of molded silver. / Frozen in stem impatience / The steed of Peter the Great.)

However, Gumilev transforms the «stifling, oppressive wind» from Akhmatova's verse into a «sweet and familiar wind.» Apparently the tram has crossed the river once again, and accordingly the permeable boundary between life and death has again been crossed. The persona who previously exclaimed to Mashehka, «Could it be that you are dead!», now offers a service to her health and a panihida for himself.27 Finally, he again addresses Mashenka, and the poem ends with an expression of intense personal emotion.

И все ж навеки сердце угрюмо,
И трудно дышать, и больно жить...
Машенька, я никогда не думал ,
Что можно так любить и грустить.

(And still forever my heart is gloomy / And it's hard for me to breathe and painful to live . . . / Mashenka I never believed / It possible to love and yearn like this.)

In this poem, as in the autobiographical «Five-foot Iambs,» Gumilev expresses the profoundly human tendency to torment one s self with memories of past failures and possibilities never realized, and the poem ends on a note of pain and despair.

In a sense, the entire poem is a panihida for Giimilev,28 the result of which is a recuperation of the self and a sense of liberation from the confines of temporal life. It is clear that memory not only recovers time past, hut it recovers the self as well. Thus, through the therapeutic power of memory the individual can overcome the destructive power of scientific time, which threatens to divide the self into discontinuous states of consciousness, and in duration he sees a guarantee of unity and continuity of his self.

By allowing us to grasp in a single intuition multiple moments of duration, memory frees us from the movement of the flow of things, that is to say, from the rhythm of necessity. The more of these moments memory can contract into one, the firmer is the hold which it gives us on matter.29

And, one might add, the firmer is the hold on the self. The recollection by the individual of a multiplicity of heterogeneous elements serves to create a unity which could not otherwise be elicited from immediate experience. This creative aspect of memory allows a unified, coherent structure of the self, which is not accessible to the individual in direct experience. Finally, the work of art, which allows for the expression of the unified self in duration, also partakes of this «unity of multiplicity,» and the poem represents an integration which may only be fleetingly, if at all, accessible to its creator.

This integrating function is not easily accomplished even by the poet, though he is better able than others to achieve it. For, according to Bergson, «To call up the past in the form of an image, we must be able to withdraw ourselves from the action of the moment, we must have the power to value the useless, we must have the will to dream» (Matter and Memory, 94.) Bergson describes the process of integration as follows:

Let us seek in the depths of our experience, the point where we feel ourselves most intimately within our own life. It is into pure duration that we then plunge back, a duration in which the past, always moving on, is swelling unceasingly with a present that is absolutely new. But at the same time, we feel the spring of our will strained to its utmost limit. We must by a strong recoil of our personality on itself, gather up our past which is slipping away, in order to thrust it, compact and undivided, into a present which it will create by entering. Rare indeed are the moments when we are self-possessed to this extent. It is then that our actions are truly free. (Creative Evolution, 199.)

And for the poet, it is then that he becomes truly creative.

Fortunately, we know something of the creative history of «Streetcar.» Irina Odoevtseva, who was a student and friend of Gumilev's in post-revolutionary Petersburg, relates the following story. On a spring morning in 1921, she called on Gumilev and found him in an unusually excited state. He explained that he had just returned from a night of drinking and cards and had composed an exceptional poem on the way home.

Even now I don't understand how it happened. I was walking along a bridge across the Neva. It was dawn and there was no one around. Deserted. Only crows were cawing. And suddenly a streetcar flew past me, very close. . . . Something suddenly pierced me and dawned upon me.... It was as though I recalled something from long ago, and at the same time, I seemed to see what will be. But it was all so vague and oppressive. I looked around, not understanding where I was or what was happening to me. . . . And then it happened. I suddenly found the first stanza as though it came to me complete and not as though I myself composed it. . . . I continued to recite line after line as though reading someone else's poem. All, all to the end. . . . Probably because I didn't sleep all night, I played cards, drank. . . and was extremely tired, probably that explains this mad inspiration. (422-23.)

The poem is indeed unlike anything else he had written and clearly it is the product of some unusually acute inspiration. However, its images and careful technique belie the illusion of unconscious creation described here. However doubtful in its details, Odoevtseva's secondhand account of the poem's creation is undoubtedly true in spirit. «The Runaway Streetcar» is the result of some extraordinary poetic impulse and it seems to represent some extraordinary, though vague revelation. The dreamlike atmosphere and the unclear identity of Mashenka and other figures suggest that the poet is reluctant to share his memories fully. However, the poem as a whole is more than an «escape from time.» It represents a transcendence of time through the freedom of aesthetic creation.

This account of sudden inspiration does not invalidate the Bergsonian subtext hypothesized here. In fact, Odoevtseva's account accords with Bergson's description of the integrating function of memory. Bergsonian philosophy may not be sufficient to an interpretation of this very complex poem, but given Gumilev's comments on Bergson and on time in poetry, it is clearly relevant. Moreover, it is preferable, I believe, to an understanding of the poem as a return to mysticism. For Bergson, there is nothing mystical about duration. «Why resort to a metaphysical hypothesis, however ingenious, about the nature of space, time and motion, when immediate intuition shows us motion within duration, and duration outside space» (Time and Free Will, 114). It is this increasing use of intuition which lends Gumilev's late poetry its ambiguous, surrealistic nature. It allows him to transcend the narrow confines of Acmeism as expressed in the manifesto and to achieve a new level of poetic creativity.


1. Quoted in R. D. Timenchik, «Zametki ob akmeizme,» Russian Literature, 7-8 (1974), 27.

2. There have been numerous studies of time in Russian modernism. I will cite here only those dealing with the Acmeists: Gregory Freidin, “Osip Mandelstam: The poetry of Time (1908-1916),» California Slavic Studies 11 (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1980), 141-86; V. Terras, «The Time Philosophy of Osip Mandelshtam,» Slavic and East European Review, 47 (1969), 344-54; Kees Verheul, The Theme of Time in the Poetry of Anna Axmatova (The Hague: Mouton, 1971); Howard A. Goldman, «Anna Akhmatova's Hamlet: The Immortality of Personality and the Discontinuity of Time,» Slavic and East European Journal, 4 (1978), 484-93.

3. First published in the journal Dom iskusstv, 1 (Petersburg, 1921), it became part of Gumilev's posthumously published collection Ognennyj stolp, 1921. N. Gumilev, Sobranie socinenij v chetyreh tomax, ed. G. P. Struve and B. A. Filippov (Washington: Kamkin, 1962-68), 2, 48. Subsequent references to the Struve-Filipp о v edition will appear in the text by volume and page number.

4. Sobranie sochinenij, 4,174. In a review of Gorodeckij from 1914, Gumilev writes, «Only poets, and perhaps their most attentive readers, know how flexible our conception of time is and what wonders it conceals for those able to control it» (4,335).

5. «Gumilev in London: An Unknown Interview,» Russian Literature Triquarterly, 16 (1979), 82.

6. See Vjabeslav V. Ivanov, «The Category of Time in Twentieth-Century Art and Culture,» Semiotica, 1 (1973), 1-45.

7. Bergson's theories of time and memory were well-known throughout Europe in the first decades of the twentieth century. His work was translated into Russian as early as 1900, and extensive articles and reviews of his books appeared in Vestnik Europy, Voprosy filosofii i psihologii, Russkoe bogatstvo, Sovremennyj mir and other journals, Mandelshtam is said to have returned from Europe with a copy of Bergson in his pocket [Georgij Ivanov, Peterburgskie zimy (New York: Izd. imeni Chekhova, 1952), 113], and he subsequently referred to Bergson explicitly and extensively in his essay «On the Nature of the Word.» [See Jane Gary Harris's forthcoming article «Mandel'shtamian “Zlost»: A New Acmeist Aesthetic?», Ulbandus Review, 4 (1981).] There seems to have been direct Bergsonian influence on many of the central Formalist principles; see James Curtis, «Bergson and Russian Formalism,» Comparative Literature, 28 (1976), 109-21. And it is easy to see the impact of Bergsonism on Russian modernist literature, Furturist and Imaginist, as well as Acmeist. See my forthcoming article in Slavic Review, «Acmeism, Post-symbolism, and Henri Bergson.»

8. See Earl D. Sampson's study of these two poems: «In the Middle of the Journey of Life: Gumilev's Pillar of Fire» Russian Literature Triquarterly, 1 (1971), 283-96.

9. Henri Bergson, Time and Free Will: An Essay on the Immediate Data of Consciousness, trans. F. L. Pogson (New York: Macmillan, 1921), 89,121.

10. Creative Evolution, trans. Arthur Mitchell (New York: Henry Holt, 1913), 4,

11. Time in Literature (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1968), 23-24.

12. See Omry Ronen, «Leksicheskij povtor, podtekst, i smysl v poetike Osipa Mandelshtama,» Slavic Poetics: Essays in Honor of Kiril Taranovsky, ed. С. H. Van Schooneveld, Dean S. Worth (The Hague: Mouton, 1973), 367-87. Also, see my article «Intertextuality: The Soviet Approach to Subtext,» Dispositio, 11-12 (1979), 213-35.


И умру я не на постели,
При нотариусе и враче,
А в какой-нибудь дикой щели,
Утонувшей в густом плюще.

(And I will die not in bed, / With notary and physician, / But in some wild ditch, / Buried in the thick ivy. «Ja ivy,» 2, 10)

See also «Rabochij» («The Worker,» 2, 14). Sidney Monas interprets the image of the beggar in Beirut as a sort of death-wish dream, presaging the persona's own wished for death, in the introduction to N. S. Gumilev, Selected Works, trans. Burton Raffel and Alla Burago (Albany: State Univ. of New York Press, 1972), 24.

14. In his Acmeist manifesto, Gumilev writes, «For us, the hierarchy of phenomena in the world is merely the specific weight of each of them, though the weight of the most insignificant is still immeasurably greater than the absence of weight, non-existence, and for that reason, in the face of non-existence, all phenomena are brothers. We could not bring ourselves to force an atom to bow to God, if this were not in its nature. But feeling ourselves to be phenomena among phenomena, we become part of the world rhythm, accept all the forces acting upon us and ourselves become forces in our turn» (4, 173).

15. It is curious that whenever an executioner appears in Gumilev's work, Gumilev refers to the color of his shirt. The executioner in the painting described in “Fra Beato Andzheliko» (X, 217) wears a blue shirt, and in «Sudan» (2, 83), the exotic executioner's shirt is bright red. Similarly, in «Rabochij» (2,14), (the workman of the title is the one who makes the bullet which is to bring the persona's death), the color of the shirt, light gray, is mentioned. In view of this, one might hesitate to ascribe allegorical significance to the color of the greengrocer's shirt. Concerning the «udder» image, Monas says that it contributes to the generally apocalyptic hints and allusions, suggesting the «dragon red and hidden harlot and also the wolf-bitch, mother of cities, that suckled Romulus and Remus» (24).

16. «O Gumileve,» Sovremennye zapiski, 47 (1931), 306-21.

17. St. Petersburg (St. Petersburg: Gorodskaja uprava, 1912), appended map.

18. A. Gumileva, «Nikolaj Stepanovich Gumilev,» Novyj zhurnal, 46 (1956), 107-26. This interpretation is seconded by Marie Maline, Nicolas Gumilev, poete et critique acmeiste (Brussels: Classe des lettres et des sciences morales et politiques, 57, fasc. 5, 1964), 14. Monas sees the poem as representing “sublimated incestuous motifs» (19).

19. Irina Odoevtseva, Na beregah Nevy (Washington: Kamkin, 1967), 243.

20. See Sam N. Driver, Anna Akhmatova (New York: Twayne, 1972), 66-69. As Kees Verheul understands it, «The motif of the past is poetically localized in the image of the house» (70).

21. Anna Akhmatova, Stihotvorenija i poemy, Biblioteka poeta, Bolshaja serija (Leningrad: Sovetskij pisatel', 1976). For example: “Kto tam? — ne zhenih li, / Ne zhenih li eto moj?» (1910), 34; «I so mnoj seroglazyj zhenih» (1913), 61; «Tam vpervye predstal mne Zhenih» (1914), 93; «Gde ty, laskovyj zhenih?» (1917), 133; «S ulybkoj predo mnoj stojal zhenih» (1916), 145; «O strashen, strashen konets rasskaza / O tom, kak umer moj zhenih» (1911), 272. Also, «Promolvil, vojdja nazakate v suet lieu: Ljubi menja, smejsja, pishi stihi!» (1914), 86; «Ottogo i temno v svetlitse» (1913), 127; «I pridja v svoju svetlitsu, / Zastonala hischnoj ptitsey» (1917), 164. Akhmatova also uses the archaic synonym «gornitsa,» 116, 128, 142. In his question «Gde zhe sejchas tvoj golos i telol,» Gumilev echoes Akhmatova's “A ludi pridut, zarojut / Мое telo I golos moj» (1912), 73.

22. See also «Uteshenie» (1914), 108, and «O net, ja ne tebja ljubila,» (1917), 139.

23. Gumilev had used this theme before in a poem from 1910 «Vozvraschenie Odisseja,» 1, 137. Note also Akhmatova's poem from 1912 where she says, «V etoj zhizni ja nemnogo videla, / Tol'ko pda i zhdala,» 70. The motif of the returning Odysseus was used also by Mandelshtam in «Zolotistogo meda struja iz butylki tekla» (1917). He also makes reference to Penelope's needle work and describes Odysseus as «prostranstvom i vremenem polnyj.»

24. See Gumilev's service records in Struve-Filippov, 1, xlvi-xlvii. This very autobiographical stanza did not appear in the first publication of the poem in «Dom iskusstv.» Odoevceva relates that originally the verse read as follows:

Знаю, томясь смертельной тоскою
Ты повторяла : Вернись, вернись!
Я же с напудренною косою
Шел представляться Императрице.

(Na beregax Nevy, 423.) The semantic and stylistic coloring in this original version is even closer to that of Ahmatova.

25. See Karl Baedecker, St. Petersburg und Umgebung (Leipzig: Baedecker, 1913), map,
and V. Kurbatov, Peterburg: Hudozhestvenno-istoriteskij oterk (Petersburg: Izd. obśćiny sv. Evgenii, 1913), 572.

26. Earl Sampson suggests that the turning point in Gumilev's inner development may not have been the war alone, but some other experience of those years, perhaps the failure of his relationship with Akhmatova (Nikolay Gumilev, 289). According to Odoevtseva, Gumilev returned from the front with the intention of becoming reconciled with Akhmatova. Upon his return, she asked for a divorce and announced her plan to remarry, whereupon he proposed to Anna Engelgardt (179-81). In spite of the vicissitudes of their relationship, each poet was conscious of his presence in the other's verse. See Akhmatova, “Lis' golos tvoj poet v moih stihax, / V tvoih stihah moe dyhan'e veet» (1913), 61; and Gumilev, «A noch'ju v nebe drevnem i vysokom / Ja vizhu zapisi sudeb moih / 1 vedaju, chto obo mne, dalekom, / Zvenit Akhmatovoj sirennyj stih» (1915), 2,135.

27. Cf. Akhmatova: «A myiivem kak pri Ekaterine: / Molebny sluzhiim, urozhaja zhdem» (146).

28. Akhmatova called her poem “Putem vseja zemli,» which echoes the style and spirit of «Streetcar,» a «bolshaja panihida po samoj sebe» (511).

29. Henri Bergson, Matter and Memory, trans. Nancy Margaret Paul and W. Scott Palmer (New York: Macmillan, 1929), 303.

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