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  • Nikolai Gumilev on Russian poetry, Ardis, 1977
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The Life of Verse


The peasant plows, the stonemason builds, the priest prays and the judge judges. What does the poet do? Why does he not set forth in easily memorized verses the sprouting of various grasses, why does he refuse to compose a new popular song such as “Dubinushka'’ or sweeten the bitter medicine of religious theses? Why is it that only in moments of faint-heartedness will he admit that he aroused good feelings with his lyre? Does the poet really have no place in society, no matter whether among the bourgeoisie, the social democrats, or in the religious community? Let John the Damascene be silent!

Thus say the champions of the thesis “Art for Life.” Hence — François Coppée, Sully-Prudhomme, Nekrasov, and in many ways, Andrei Bely.

The defenders of “Art for Art’s Sake” retort: “Go away, what does the peaceful poet have to do with you... you offend his soul, like coffins, you’ve still got whips, dungeons, and axes to defend your stupidity and malice, enough of you, mad slaves... For us, Princes of Song, sovereigns of the castles of dreams, life is merely a means of flight: the harder a dancer strikes the earth with his feet, the higher he soars. Whether we chase our verses like goblets, or write obscure, virtually drunken ditties, we are always, and primarily, free, and we have utterly no desire to be useful.”

Hence — Hérédia. Verlaine, and in our country, Maikov.

This controversy will go on for many more centuries, without leading to any results, and this is not surprising, for of any attitude toward anything, whether it be toward people, things, or ideas, we require above all that it be chaste. By this I mean the right of every phenomenon to be valuable in itself, not to require justification of its existence and some other, higher right to serve others.

Homer sharpened his hexameters, unconcerned with anything except vowel and consonant sounds, caesurae and spondees, and adapted his content to them. However, he would have considered himself a poor craftsman if, hearing his songs, youths had not striven for martial glory, if the misty gaze of young girls had not increased the beauty of peace.

Unchasteness of attitude is present in both the doctrine of “Art for Life” and that of “Art for Art’s Sake.”

In the first case art is brought down to the level of a prostitute or a soldier. Its existence has value only to the extent that it serves goals extraneous to it. It would not be surprising if the eyes of the gentle muses were to grow dull, and they developed bad manners.

In the second case art becomes effete, grows agonizingly moony, Mallarmé’s words, put in the mouth of his Hérodiade, are applicable to it:

…J'aime l'horreur d'etre vierge et je veux
Vivre parmi l'effroi que me font mes cheveux…

(I love the horror of being virgin and I want
to live amidst the terror my hair inspires...)

Purity is suppressed sensuality, and it is beautiful; the absence of sensuality is frightening, like a new unheard-of form of depravity.

No! cries the era of aesthetic puritanism, of great demands on the poet as creator, on idea or word as artistic material. The poet must place upon himself the fetters of difficult forms (recall Homer’s hexameters, Dante’s terze rime and sonnets, the Old Scottish stanzas of Byron’s poems) or ordinary forms, but in a stage of advanced development, brought to the point of impossibility (Pushkin’s iambs), he must do this — but only in praise of his God, whom he is obliged to have. Otherwise he would be a simple gymnast.

Still, if I were to choose between the two above doctrines, I would say that in the first there is greater respect for art and understanding of its essence. There is a new aim imposed upon it, a new application is indicated for the powers boiling within it, an unworthy, low application perhaps — that is not important: isn’t the cleaning of the Augean stables referred to on an equal basis with the other great feats of Hercules? In ancient ballads it is told that Roland was depressed when a dozen enemies rode out against him. He could fight beautifully and worthily only against hundreds. However, one should not forget that even Roland could be defeated.

Now I shall speak only of poetry, recalling Oscar Wilde’s words, which horrified the weak and inspired courage in the strong: “For the material that the painter or sculptor uses is meagre in comparison with that of words. Words have not merely music as sweet as that of viol and lute, color as rich and vivid as any that makes lovely for us the canvas of the Venetian or the Spaniard, and plastic form no less sure and certain than that which reveals itself in marble or in bronze, but thought and passion and spirituality are theirs also, are theirs, indeed, alone.”

And, that verse is the highest form of speech is known to everyone who, carefully sharpening a piece of prose, used force to restrain the rising rhythm.


The origin of separate poems is mysteriously akin to the origin of living organisms. The poet’s thought receives a shock from the external world, sometimes in an unforgettably clear moment, sometimes dimly, like conception in sleep, and for a long time it is necessary to bear the foetus of the future creation, heeding the timid movements of the still weak new life. Everything affects the course of its development—a beam of the horned moon, an unexpectedly heard melody, a book read, a flower’s smell. Everything determines its future fate. The ancients respected the silent poet, as one respects a woman preparing to be a mother.

Finally, in the labor, like the labor of childbirth (Turgenev speaks of this) a poem appears. It is lucky if, in the moment of its appearance, the poet is not distracted by some considerations extraneous to art, if, gentle as a dove, he strives to convey what was born at full term, Finished, and tries, wise as a serpent, to include all this in the most perfect form.

Such a poem can live for centuries, moving from temporary oblivion to new glory, and even dead, will, like King Solomon, long inspire in men a sacred trembling. Such is the Iliad.

But there are poems not born at full term, in which, around the original impressions, others did not manage to accumulate, and there are those in which on the contrary details obscure the basic theme, they are cripples in the world of images, and the perfection of their separate parts does not gladden, but rather saddens us, like the beautiful eyes of hunchbacks. We are much obliged to hunchbacks, they tell us surprising things, but sometimes you dream with such longing of the svelte youths of Sparta, that you no longer pity their weak brothers and sisters, condemned by a severe law. This is what Apollo wants, a rather frightening, cruel, but terribly beautiful god.

What is necessary for a poem to live, and not in a jar of alcohol, like some curious freak, not the half-life of the invalid in a wheelchair, but a full and powerful life — for it to arouse love and hatred, to make the world reckon with the fact of its existence? What requirements must it satisfy?

I would answer in short: all.

Really, it must have: thought and feeling — without the first, the most lyrical poem will be dead, and without the second, even an epic ballad will appear a dull contrivance (Pushkin in his lyrics and Schiller in his ballads knew this), — the softness of outline of a young body, where nothing stands out, nothing is wasted, and the definition of a statue in sunlight; simplicity — only for it is the future open, and — refinement, as a living recognition of the continuity of all joys and sorrows of past ages; and above all that — style and gesture.

In style God appears from out his creation, the poet gives himself away, but the secret self, unknown even to him, and allows us to guess the color of his eyes, the shape of his hands. And that is so important. For we love Dante Alighieri, the boy in love with Beatrice’s pallor of face, the frenzied Ghibelline and the Veronese exile, no less than his Divine Comedy... By gesture in a poem I mean such arrangement of words, choice of vowel and consonant sounds, acceleration and deceleration of rhythm as has the reader of the poem strike the pose of his hero, copy his mimicry and movements and, thanks to the suggestion of his own body, experience what the poet himself did, so that the spoken idea becomes no longer a lie, but the truth. Poets’ complaints about the fact that the public does not sympathize with their sufferings, intoxicated with the music of verse, are based on misunderstanding. The joy, the sorrow, the despair the reader feels are only his own. To arouse sympathy, one must speak of oneself in a clumsy manner, as Nadson did.

I return to the preceding: to be worthy of its name, a poem, having the qualities enumerated, must preserve complete harmony among them and, what is most important, be called to life not “by irritation of a captive thought,” but by internal necessity which gives it a living soul — a temperament. Besides that, it must be impeccable even to the point of irregularity. Because only conscious departures from the generally accepted norms give a poem individuality, though they love to disguise themselves as unconscious ones. Thus, Charles Asselineau tells of an “uncontrolled sonnet,” where the author, consciously breaking the rules, pretends that he does it in a burst of poetic inspiration or a fit of passion. Ronsard, Maynard, Malherbe wrote such sonnets. These irregularities play the role of birthmarks, through them it is easiest of all to recall to mind the aspect of the whole.

In short, a poem must be a copy of the beautiful human body, that highest level of perfection imaginable: with reason did men create even the Lord God in their own image and likeness. Such a poem is valuable in itself, it has the right to exist at all costs. Thus to save one man expeditions are got ready in which dozens of other men perish. But, yet, once he is saved, he must, as everyone else, justify to himself his own existence.


Really, the world of images is in close connection with the world of men, but not as people usually believe. Not being an analogy of life, art does not have an existence completely like ours, cannot convey to us a perceptible link with other realities. Poems written even by true visionaries in moments of trance have meaning only in so far as they are good. To think otherwise is to repeat the famous mistake of the sparrows that wanted to peck painted fruit.

But beautiful poems, like living beings, enter the circle of our life; they now instruct, now appeal, now bless; among them are guardian angels, wise leaders, tempter demons and dear friends. Under their influence men love, hate and die. In many respects they are the highest judges, like the totems of the North American Indians. For example — Turgenev’s “A Quiet Backwater,” where the poem “The Upas Tree,” by its strength and distance, precipitates the denouement of a solitary love, painful in the Russian fashion; or — Dostoevsky’s The Idiot. when “The Poor Knight” resounds, like an incantation on Aglaya’s lips, mad with the craving to love the hero; or — Sologub’s “Night Dances” with their poet, enchanting willful princesses with the marvelous music of Lermontovian stanzas.

In contemporary Russian poetry, as an example of such “living” poems, I will point out only a few, attempting only to illustrate the above, and setting aside much that is important and characteristic. Here, for example, is a poem by Valery Bryusov, “In the Crypt”:

You are laid out in the tomb in myrtle crown.
I kiss the moon’s reflection on your face.

Through latticed windows the circle of the moon is seen.
In the clear sky, as above us, the secret of silence.

Behind you at your pillow a wreath of damp roses,
On your eyes, like pearls, drops of former tears.

A moon beam, caressing the roses, silvers the pearls,
Moon light circles round the ancient marble slabs.

What do you see, what remember in your unwaking sleep?
Dark shadows bend ever lower towards me.

I came to you into the tomb through the black garden.
By the doors lemurs watch maliciously over me.

I know, I know I won’t be long alone with you!
The moon light completes its measured circle path.

You are motionless, you are beautiful, in myrtle crown.
I kiss the light of heaven on your face!

Here, in this poem, the Bryusovian passion, which allows him to treat even the higher terror of death, of disappearance, thoughtlessly, and the Bryusovian tenderness, a tenderness almost maidenly, which everything gladdens, everything torments, the moonbeams, the pearls, the roses — these two most characteristic qualities of his work help him to create an image, a copy perhaps, of the instant of meeting of lovers irrevocably separated and forever poisoned by this separation.

In the poem “The Heliads” (Transparence, p. 124) Vyacheslav Ivanov, the poet, through his sunniness and purely masculine power, so different from the lunar femininity of Bryusov, gives the image of Phaethon. He transforms the bright ancient tale into eternally young truth. There have always been men condemned to perish by the very nature of their daring. But they did not always know that defeat could be more fruitful than victory.

He was beautiful, proud youth,
Son of the Sun, young Sun-god,
When he seized with firm hand
The fateful pledge of grandeur —

When from the blushing Horae,
He carried off the reins of his realm —
And the steeds struggled against the gates,
Smelling the flaming expanse!

And, freed, flew up, neighed,
Deserting the scarlet prison,
And ran with the clatter of brazen hoofs,
Obedient to the light yoke... etc.

The “proud youth” does not appear in the poem itself, but we see him in the words and songs of the three maiden Heliads, in love with him. pushing him toward his doom and mourning him “on the green Eridanus.” And agonizingly enviable is the fate of one, of whom maidens sing such songs!

Innokenty Annensky is also mighty, but with a might that is not so much Manly as Human. In him feeling does not give birth to thought, as usually happens in poets, rather the thought itself grows so strong that it becomes feeling live even to the point of pain. He loves exclusively “today” and exclusively “here,” and this love leads him not only to the pursuit of decoration, but of decorativeness. His verses suffer from this, they inflict upon the soul incurable wounds and one must fight against them with the spells of time and space.

What grave, dark delirium!
How turbid, moony these summits!
To touch violins so many years
And not recognize their strings in the light!

Who needs us? Who lit
Two yellow, two melancholy faces?
And suddenly felt their union,
That someone took and someone merged them.

Oh, how long ago! Through this darkness
Say one thing: —are you she, she?
And the strings fawned upon him,
Ringing, but, fawning, trembled.

Isn’t it so? Never more
Shall we part — all right?
And the violin answers, “Yes,”
But the violin’s heart ached.

The bow understood everything, it fell silent,
But in the violin the echo was sustained,
And it was torture for them,
What seemed music to men.

But the man did not put out
The light until morning...and the strings sang,
Only morning found them exhausted
On the black velvet of their bed.

To whom has this not happened? Who has not had to bend over their dream, feeling that the possibility of realizing it has been lost irrevocably? And he who, having read this poem, forgets the eternal, virginal freshness of the world, believes that there is only torment, even if it seems like music, he is lost, he is poisoned. But are we not captivated by the thought of death from such a melodious arrow?

Next, passing over Blok’s “Lady” — there is so much written about her — I will say something about Kuzmin’s Chimes of Love. At the same time, the author wrote music to them, and this placed upon them the mark of a certain special exaltation and elegance, accessible only to pure sounds. The verse flows, like a stream of thick, fragrant and sweet honey, you believe that it alone is the natural form of human speech, and conversation or a prose passage afterwards would seem somehow dreadful, like a whisper in the Tyutchevian night, like an unclean spell. This poem is composed of a series of lyrical passages, hymns to love and about love. Its words can be repeated every day, as you repeat a prayer, inhale the scent of perfume, look at flowers. I include one passage from it, which completely captivates our conception of tomorrow, makes it a cornucopia:

Love sets out nets
Of strongest silks;
Lovers, like children,
Look for chains.

Yesterday you know not love,
Today you’re all aflame.
Yesterday you reject me,
Today vow to me.

Tomorrow the beloved will love
And the unbeloved yesterday,
He’ll come to you who was not
Other evenings.

Love, who will love
When the time comes,
And what will be, will be,
What fate prepared us.

We, like little children,
Look for chains,
And blindly fall into the nets
Of strongest silks.

Thus art, born of life, approaches it again, but not as a cheap laborer, not as a peevish grumbler, but as an equal to an equal.

First published in Apollo, No. 7 (1910). Translated from the text in N. Gumilev, Sobranie sochinenii (Washington: Kamkin, 1968), IV, 157-70. However, we have omitted “Part IV” of the essay, an obvious postscript, one page long, written to note the closing of the Symbolists’ journal The Scales in 1909. “The Life of Verse” was Gumilev’s first major essay on poetics. It is written from the point of view of an Acmeist, and published in a journal closely, but by no means exclusively, associated with Acmeism. On Acmeism and Apollo see: Denis Mickiewicz (ed.), “Toward a Definition of Acmeism,” Russian Language Journal, East Lansing, Michigan (Supplementary Issue, Spring 1975) and Denis Mickiewicz, “Apollo and Modernist Poetics,” in The Silver Age of Russian Culture, ed. C. and E. Proffer (Ann Arbor: Ar-dis, 1975), pp. 397-434.

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