Nikolaj Gumilev

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  • The poets of Russia 1890-1930. Harvard university press. Cambridge, Massachusetts 1960

The son of a navy doctor, Nikolaj Gumilev was bom in 1886 in the arsenal city of Kronstadt. He started his literary career very early, and when he was twenty-two he had already published two collections of poems, The Way of the Conquistadors (1905) and Romantic Flowers (1908). He briefly studied Romance philology at the Sorbonne, and in 1909 he was one of the founders of the Petersburg literary review Apollo, which a few years later became the organ of Acmeism. The acknowledged leader of that movement, Gumilev also helped to establish in Petersburg a “guild” of young poets. It was in that period of time that he married the poetess Anna Akhmatova (from whom he was divorced in 1918) and published the most important collection of his youth, Pearls (1910). Obsessed by a spirit of adventure, and perhaps influenced by Kipling (as he was to be later influenced by D’Annunzio, to whom he addressed an ode during the Fiume affair), he dreamed of an African empire for Russia. After an earlier voyage, he returned in 1913 to Somaliland and Abyssinia, this time at the head of an ethnographical and geographical expedition organized by the Russian Academy of Sciences. He reflected his experience of the dark continent in many of his ensuing books, starring with Foreign Sky (1912), which contained, among many other things, a scries of Abyssinian songs.

Gumilev was the only Russian poet of stature who fought in the war of 1914, volunteering as a private and then serving as an officer in a cavalry unit. The bravery he showed in the East Prussia campaign earned him two Saint George crosses, or, as he said in “Memory,” speaking of himself in the third person, “Saint George touched twice his breast untouched by bullets.” Soldiering did nor prevent Gumilev from writing and publishing new volumes of verse, such as The Quiver (1916) and The Pyre (1918), the first of which includes most of his war poems. The February Revolution caught him in Paris, on his way to join a Russian corps fighting on the Macedonian front. lie returned home the following spring, and upon his arrival he publicly declared himself a supporter of the monarchy. As shown by the words of another poem (“I shall not die in bed between a doctor and a lawyer”), he had always known that his destiny had marked him for an out-of-the-ordinary death. Accused of counter-revolutionary activity and implicated in the so-called Tagantsev conspiracy, he was shot by the Bolsheviks on August 25, 1921, barely thirty-five years of age, just after the publication of another book of poems. The Tent (1921), mostly inspired by his experiences and adventures in Africa.

The most important of his posthumous collections. The Pillar of Fire, appeared the next year, to he followed by Poems (1922) and To the Blue Star (1923). The Pillar of Fire remains his masterpiece and shows how the poet had grown and matured at the very time of his death. None of these or of Gumilevs earlier books was ever reprinted in Soviet Russia, and this is why there is not yet a complete edition of his writings, which include not only poems, but also plays and tales in prose and verse. Even outside Russia many of these items and other fragments have appeared in print only recently in a volume edited by Gleb Struve, entirled The Unpublished Gumilev (1952). What remains still important in Gumilev's literary legacy is the fruit of his varied activity as a translator, which enriched Russian literature with splendid versions of Villon’s ballads, Gautier’s Emaux et Camees, Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner, and the Assyrian epic of Gilganiesh. Also his critical essays, collected posthumously in the volume Letters About Russian Poetry (1923), have more than a purely historical value, and may still be read with great interest.

The emergence of Gumilev was for Russian poetry an event not too different in kind (although far less in degree) from the earlier appearance in England of Kipling, and in Italy of the martial and patriotic D'Annunzio. Gumilev’s sudden rise on the horizon of Russian poetry was viewed at first as a novel miracle, as a wonder of youth. Gumilev came to the fore in the shape of a new David, a gay rogue who relied on his arm and eve no less than on his God, and the weary spirit of the giant, Russian Symbolism, seemed to collapse under the shot from his sling. Gumilev was aware of the novelty, or rather, of the timeliness of his message. He felt that he had come to restore to manliness and health a poetry which had degenerated into the vices opposed to those two virtues. Thus, in the poem entitled “My Readers” he prided himself for sparing them from all those morbid, effete, and mystical impressions which the poetry of his elders tried to achieve: “I do not offend them with neurasthenia, ” said the poet, “I do not humble them with a soft heart, nor do I bore them with complex symbols about the shell of a sucked-out egg.”

The Decadents had viewed poetry as if it were a descent into the underworld of the senses; the Symbolists, as an ascent toward the heaven of the soul. Gumilev refused to explore both the forest of symbols and the cave of our dreams, since the path going through them may lead to what is either too base or too lofty for the heart and the mind of man. He rejected the temptation to wander into the ghostly realms of the metaphysical and the occult, and ventured instead into the material and physical world. His quest was not for Eden or Hell, but for a remote oasis or a lonely island, an unbeaten desert or a virgin continent. What spurred him was not the external urge of literary exoticism, but a romantic and passionate nostalgia for the venturesome discovery of new worlds. The frequence in his poetry of Southern and Eastern landscapes may remind us of the Parnassian predilection for the same distant countries and faraway seas. Yet one must not forget that for the Parnassians those landscapes were hardly more than ornamental frames or decorative backgrounds, while in Gumilev’s poetry they are direct illustrations of his states of mind. This may serve as a further proof that, all appearances to the contrary, Gumilev’s conception of poetry is hardly Parnassian in the real sense of the term. The Russian poet cannot accept the Parnassians' detachment and indifference, as well as their outright denial of any sense of order in the universe beyond the sphere of art. It is against both Parnassian nihilism and Symbolistic mysticism that Gumilev proclaimed, in strongly moral accents, that “religion and poetry are but opposite sides of the same coin.” For the Parnassians poetry is but the triumph of a lucid eye and a firm hand on a brute and blind matter, and such a triumph is possible only when no subjective concern affects the artist, at least while he is shaping his object. This is the doctrine of poetic impersonality, which the French Symbolists had inherited from the Parnassians, and were later to impose on many of their followers outside of France. The doctrine, as we well know, had little effect on the Russian disciples of French Symbolism, except on Brjusov, and Gumilev reacted perhaps against the only one among his elders whom he respected as a master when he restated the Romantic belief that “poetry is for man one of the means by which to express his personality.” It is to poetry, not less than to religion, that Gumilev assigns the task of educating mankind, or, as he says, of “raising man to the level of a higher type.”

Gumilev also took a middle position toward some of the main poetic issues of his time, protesting equally against the Parnassian tendency to treat the word as a mere object and the Symbolist one to treat it almost as pure spirit, and choosing to treat it as if it were a living thing: “poetry, as a living organism, has its anatomy and its physiology; and it is primarily in word combinations that we see what one might call its flesh.” lie viewed the word also as an instrument of action, through which man makes, or remakes, the world. Once, said he in the poem “The Word,” men used words to stop the sun, or to lay a city in ruins. For primitive man, even numbers were endowed with the magic power of words. But modern man has mechanized and materialized both numbers and words, and the latter lie now like dead bees in the empty hive of modern life.

It is with words which are both complex and simple that Gumilev sings his main themes, war, danger, and adventure. He celebrates a free life in a wild world, and praises among men only those with whom one can share a common undertaking or the same risk. It is in such men, “strong, wicked, and happy, loyal to this planet,” that he sees his ideal readers. Like them, Gumilev respects the body, which he deifies. In his poem “Memory,” as a matter of fact, he reverses the doctrine of reincarnation by assigning a series of different souls to a single physical being. It is perhaps this ability to understand in all its complexity the problem of personality that enables this imperialist to understand and admire the “lesser breeds.” Gumilev feels himself the friend and the equal of any native, of a decrepit beggar in Beirut or of an old Ethiopian outlaw. An uncanny feeling of the ties between physical and psychic forces allows him to describe animals, especially wild beasts, in a light of poetic and natural innocence, avoiding at once the pit-falls of sentimental idealization or emblematic stylization, as can be seen in many pieces, especially in the lovely poem “The Giraffe.”

Conscious of being born a leader, Gumilev knows that he has the right to excel and to command: he considers his own poetry as an example of courage, as a lesson in self-discipline. In “My Readers” he defines his own poetic task as that of teaching all his peers “not to dread, and to do what must be done. ” In brief, Gumilev’s ethos is a martial one, and rests on the warrior’s acceptance of fate and death. There is no better proof of this than the poem “The Worker,” written during the war, describing a little, old, German workingman in the act of shaping the bullet destined to pierce the poet's heart. The poem remains prophetic, although we know that that bullet was molded, or at least fired, by Russian hands. Later the poet dared to face again the vision of his own death in “The Derailed Streetcar,” the nightmarish poem he composed shortly before the end of his life.

Gumilev’s early work perhaps lacks the visionary power which distinguishes such poems as these. Born too late in a world too old, the youthful poet had felt too much the anguish of living in a shrunken space: and this is why he had tried to find not only escape, but also self-realization, in the faraway corners of this all-too-narrow planer of ours. Yet it would be a mistake to define the early Gumilev as merely “the poet of geography,” as the critic Julij Ajkhenval’d did, with the intent of praising him. In reality, even the early Gumilev searched not so much for new lands as for the tree of life; and that tree spreads its roots in depth, nor in width. This is why he changed from a geographer and an explorer into an ethnographer and an archaeologist. Perhaps what he sought was to be found in the caves of prehistory, rather than in the broad expanse of a geographical world. Hence the importance of a poem such as “The Stellar Fright,” which evokes the terror felt by primitive man at the vision of the star-filled sky. This sense of awe before the sacred mystery of nature is perhaps one of the most viral strains of Gumilev’s inspiration. It is from that sense that the poet derives his belief that man’s destiny is ultimate defeat, and that his duty is to accept that destiny readily, with heroic resignation and silent stoicism. In this Gumilev recalls Vigny, from whom he drew the epigraph for one of his books. Such an attitude is obviously Romantic: yet Gumilev’s is a vigorous and virile Romanticism, impatient of all sentimental vagueness and moral perplexity. What he called Acmeism was but a projection of the literary side of his personality, which he expressed, at its best and most directly, in the book which he prepared for publication just before his death. The muse which dictated that book was life rather than literature: and this is why the figure of its author seems still to stand and shine before our eyes like “the pillar of fire“ of its title.