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  • Nikolai Gumilev on Russian poetry, Ardis, 1977
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Acmeism and the legacy of symbolism

It is clear to the attentive reader that Symbolism has completed its circle of development and is now declining. There is the fact that Symbolist works hardly ever appear anymore, and if any do appear, then ones that are extremely weak, even from the point of view of Symbolism, and that, more and more frequently voices are raised in favor of a reconsideration of values and reputations indisputable not so long ago, and that the Futurists, the Ego-Futurists, and other hyenas that always follow the lion have appeared.1 To replace Symbolism there is a new movement, which, whatever it is called — Acmeism (from the word ακμή — the highest degree of something, the flower, the time of flowering), or Adamism (a manfully firm, clear view of life), — demands, in any case, greater balance of powers and a more exact knowledge of the relationships between subject and object than there was in Symbolism. However, for this trend to establish itself fully and be a worthy successor to what preceded it, it must accept the latter’s legacy and answer all the questions it posed. The glory of one’s forebears carries obligations, and Symbolism was a worthy father.

French Symbolism, the ancestor of all Symbolism as a school, moved purely literary questions into the foreground — free verse, a more original and vacillating style, metaphor elevated above all else, and the notorious “theory of correspondences.” This last betrays its non-Romance and consequently non-national, alien basis. The Romance spirit is too beloved of the element of light, which separates objects, draws careful, clear lines; but this Symbolist merging of all images and objects, the changeability of their appearance, could have arisen only in the misty gloom of Germanic forests. A mystic would say that Symbolism in France is a direct result of Sedan.2 But at the same time it revealed in French literature an aristocratic craving for the unusual and the difficult to attain and thus saved it from the vulgar naturalism that threatened it.

We Russians cannot but take French Symbolism into account, if only because the new trend I spoke of above gives a decided preference to the Romance over the Germanic spirit. Just as the French sought a new, freer verse, the Acmeists strive to break the chains of meter by skipping syllables and by freer transposition of stress than ever before; and there are already poems written in a newly devised syllabic system of versification. The giddiness of Symbolist metaphors trained them in bold turns of thought; the instability of vocabulary, to which they became accustomed, prompted them to search in the living national speech for a new one with a more stable content; and a lucid irony, which has not undermined the roots of our faith — an irony which could not but appear if only from time to time in the Romance writers — has now replaced that hopeless German seriousness which our Symbolists so cherished. Finally, while we value the Symbolists highly for having pointed out to us the significance of the symbol in art, we cannot agree to sacrifice to it other methods of poetic influence and we seek the complete coordination of all of them. This is our answer to the question of the comparative “beautiful difficulty” of the two movements: it is harder to be an Acmeist than a Symbolist, just as it is harder to build a cathedral than a tower. And one of the principles of the new trend is always to take the line of greatest resistance.

German Symbolism, in the persons of its ancestors, Nietzsche and Ibsen, put forth the question of the role of man in the universe, the role of the invidivual in society, and settled it by finding some sort of objective goal or dogma which he was meant to serve. This showed that German Symbolism did not sense each phenomenon’s intrinsic worth, which requires no justification from without. 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. Our duty, our feedom, our joy and our tragedy is to guess each hour what the next hour may be for us, for our cause, for the whole world, and to hurry its coming. And for our highest reward, never suspending attention for a moment, we dream of the image of the last hour, which will never arrive. But to rebel in the name of other conditions of existence, here, where there is death, is as strange as for a prisoner to break down a wall when in front of him there is an open door. Here, ethics becomes esthetics, expanding into the latter’s sphere. Here, individualism in its highest effort creates community. Here, God becomes the Living God, because man felt himself worthy of such a God. Here, death is a curtain, separating us, the actors, from the audience, and in the inspiration of play we disdain the cowardly peeping of “What will happen next?” As Adamists, we are somewhat like forest animals and in any case will not surrender what is animal in us in exchange for neurasthenia. But now it is time for Russian Symbolism to speak.

Russian Symbolism directed its main energies into the realm of the unknown. By turns it fraternized with mysticism, then theosophy, then occultism. Some of its strivings in this direction nearly approached the creation of myth. And it has the right to ask the movement coming to take its place whether it can boast only of its animal virtues, and what attitude it takes toward the unknowable. The first thing that Acmeism can answer to such inquiry is to point out that the unknowable, by the very meaning of the word, cannot be known. The second, that all endeavors in that direction are unchaste. The whole beauty, the whole sacred meaning of the stars lies in the fact that they are infinitely far from earth and that no advance in aviation will bring them closer. He who conceives of the evolution of personality always within the conditions of time and space reveals a poverty of imagination. How can we remember our previous existences (if that is not a patently literary device), the time we were in the abyss, with myriads of other possibilities of being, of which we know nothing, except that they exist? For each of them is negated by our being and each in its turn negates it. The feeling of not knowing ouiselves, childishly wise and sweet to the point of pain — that is what the unknown gives us. Francois Villon, asking where the most beautiful women of antiquity are now, himself answers with the mournful exclamation:

...Mais o’u sont les neiges d'antan!

And this allows us to feel the unearthly more strongly than whole tomes of discourse on which side of the moon houses the souls of the dead ... The principle of Acmeism is always to remember the unknowable, but not to insult one’s idea of it with more or less likely conjectures. This does not mean that it denies itself the right to portray the soul in those moments when it trembles, approaching another; but then it ought to shudder only. Of course, knowledge of God, the beautiful lady Theology, will remain on her throne, and the Acmeists wish neither to lower her to the level of literature, nor raise literature to her diamond coldness. As for angels, demons, elemental and other spirits, they are part of the artists’s material and need not have a specific gravity greater than other images he chooses.

Any movement will experience a passionate love for certain writers and epochs. The loved ones’ graves tie people together more closely than anything. In circles familiar to Acmeism, the names most frequently spoken are those of Shakespeare, Rabelais, Villon and Theophile Gautier.3 The choice of these names is not arbitrary. Each of them is a cornerstone of the edifice of Acmeism, a lofty exercise of one or another of its elements. Shakespeare showed us man’s inner world; Rabelais — the body and its joys; Villon told us of a life which has not the slightest doubt in itself, although it knows everything — God, sin, death and immortality; Theophile Gautier found in art worthy garments of irreproachable forms for this life. To unite in oneself these four moments — that is the dream which now unifies the people who so boldly call themselves Acmeists.

Apollo, No. 1, 1913, pp. 42-5.

1. The reader should not think that with this phrase, I am burying all extreme trends in contemporary art. In one of the up-coming issues of Apollo, an article will be devoted to their examination and evaluation, [author's note]

2. Sedan, French city of great strategic importance on the Meuse River. Gumilev refers to the decisive battle of the Franco-Prussian War, fought there on 1 September 1870, which resulted in the surrender to the Prussians of 100,000 men under the command of Napoleon III

3. Theophile Gautier (1811-72), French poet and novelist, forerunner of the Parnassian school.

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