Nikolai Gumilev Essay - Critical Essays

Gumilev, Nikolai


Nikolai Gumilev 1886-1921

(Born Nikolai Stephanovich Gumilev) Russian poet, critic, and dramatist.

A Russian poet and literary theorist, Gumilev was a founder and an influential proponent of Acmeism, a literary movement emphasizing clarity of expression, vivid imagery based in concrete experience, and respect for the structure and precision of traditional literary craftsmanship. His poetry, unique in Russian literature for its lavish descriptions of life in foreign lands, reflects a high regard for courageous adventurers and an interest in the ethnology of other cultures. Gumilev's literary and critical writings influenced the development of modern Russian poetry in spite of their repression in the Soviet Union from the time of his execution in 1921 until the mid-1980s.

Biographical Information

The son of a navy doctor, Gumilev was raised in St. Petersburg and attended Tsarskoe Selo Lyceum, where he came under the influence of the noted poet Innokenty Annensky and began seriously writing verse. While at the lyceum, Gumilev also met Anna Akhmatova, another aspiring poet who later became his wife. In 1905 he published his first collection of poems, Put konkvistadorov. Gumilev's early verse was written in the Symbolist style, but he soon became disillusioned with the lack of clarity of Symbolist verse and developed his own poetic style, which he called Acmeism. In 1911 he founded a group called the Poets' Guild in order to promote and disseminate the principles of Acmeism, rapidly becoming one of the most prominent Russian poets. Gumilev fought in Prussia and Poland and served on the staff of the Russian Expeditionary Corps in Paris during World War I. In 1918 he returned to Russia and began providing largescale translations of foreign literature, including Samuel Coleridge's Rime of the Ancient Mariner, for Maxim Gorky's publishing firm. Divorced from Akhmatova in 1918, Gumilev remarried in 1919, and remained active as a poet, lecturer, translator, and editor until his execution in 1921 for alleged participation in an anti-Soviet conspiracy.

Major Works

Gumilev's first books of poetry, including Put konkvistadorov, Romanticheskie tsvety, and Zhemchuga, reflect his early Symbolist orientation and exhibit a wide range of themes, including American exoticism, classical mythology, and European Christianity. Chuzhoe nebo has been called the most Acmeist of Gumilev's work; this volume marked his break with the Symbolist school. In later volumes such as Kostyor, Shatyor, and Ognennyi stolp—the last two of which are considered by many critics to contain his finest poetry—Gumilev exhibits a neo-classical treatment of such themes as death, reincarnation, and the convergence of mysticism and earthly concerns. Gumilev's dramatic works, written predominantly in verse, reflect a wide range of subject matter. Of his three early one-act dramas, only Acteon, which retells the mythological story of Acteon and Diana, is considered by critics and scholars to rank among Gumilev's best work. Later verse dramas include Ditya Allakha, notable for its use of Eastern verse forms, and Gondla, a piece set in ninth-century Iceland. Gumilev's most extensive dramatic work, Otravlennaya tunika (The Poisoned Tunic), is a classical tragedy in five acts set in sixth-century Byzantium. A fragment of yet another verse drama, presumed to be based on the Fenian cycle of Irish legends and believed to have been written between 1918 and 1921, surfaced in the Central State Archive of Literature and Art in Moscow after Gumilev's death.

Critical Reception

Although his poetry has been well received, Gumilev is not considered one of the best Acmeist poets. Rather, he is valued as a literary theorist whose essays on the creation and translation of poetry were, despite their official obscurity, influential in the development of both Soviet and dissident writers. His essays, many of which appeared in the literary journal Apollon between 1909 and 1916, are considered to be among his most valuable contributions to early twentieth-century Russian literature.

Principal Works

Put konkvistadorov (poetry) 1905

Romanticheskie tsvety (poetry) 1908

Zhemchuga (poetry) 1910

Chuzhoe nebo (poetry) 1912

Acteon (drama) 1913

Kolchan (poetry) 1916

Ditya Allakha (drama) 1917

Gondla (drama) 1917

Kostyor (poetry) 1918

Ognennyi stolp (poetry) 1921

Shatyor (poetry) 1921

Ten ot palmy (essays) 1921

K sinei zvezde (poetry) 1923

Pisma o russkoy poezii (essays) 1923

The Abinger Garland (poetry) 1945

*Otravlennaya tunika [The Poisoned Tunic] (drama)

Sobranie sochinenii. 4 vols. (poetry) 1962-68

Selected Works of Nikolai S. Gumilev (poetry, short stories, drama, essays) 1972

On Russian Poetry (essays) 1977

*This work was completed in 1918.


Nikolai Gumilev (essay date 1919)

SOURCE: "On Translations of Poetry," in Nikolai Gumilev on Russian Poetry, edited and translated by David Lapeza, Ardis, 1976, pp. 34-8.

[In the following essay, Gumilev demonstrates the Acmeist emphasis on formalism and precision in literary structure in his outline of nine criteria for the proper translation of poetry.]

There are three methods for translating verse: by the first, the translator uses whatever meter and combination of rhymes happen to come into his head, his own vocabulary, often alien to the author, and at his personal discretion now lengthens, now shortens the original; clearly, such translation can only be called amateurish.

By the second method, the translator acts, for the most part, in the same way, but introduces a theoretical justification for his act; he assures us that if the poet being translated had written in Russian, he would have written in just that way. This method was very widespread in the eighteenth century. Pope in England, Kostrov in our country translated Homer that way and enjoyed extraordinary success. The nineteenth century rejected this method, but traces of it remain in our own day. Even now some still think that it is possible to substitute one meter for another, for example, pentameter for hexameter, forego rhyme, introduce new images and so forth. The spirit preserved is supposed to justify everything. However, a poet worthy of the name uses precisely the form as the only means of expressing the spirit. I shall try to outline now how this is done.

The first thing that attracts the reader's attention and, in all probability, the most important, if often unconscious, basis for the creation of a poem is its idea or, more exactly, its image, since a poet thinks in images. The number of images is limited, evoked by life, and the poet is rarely their creator. Only in his relationship to them is his personality revealed. For example, the Persian poets thought of the rose as a living being, the medieval poets as a symbol of love and beauty; Pushkin's rose is a beautiful flower on its stem, Maikov's rose is always a decoration, an accessory; in Vyacheslav Ivanov the rose assumes mystical value, etc. Naturally, in all these cases both the choice of words and their combinations are essentially different. Within the bounds of the same relationship there are thousands of nuances: thus, the comments of Byron's Corsair stand out against the background of the author's psychologically flowery description of him in their laconism and technical choice of expressions. In his gloss to "The Raven," Edgar Allan Poe speaks of an undercurrent theme, scarcely outlined, and for that very reason producing an especially powerful impression. If someone translating that same "Raven" were to transmit with greater care the external plot of the movements of the bird, and with less—the poet's longing for his dead beloved, he would have violated the author's conception and failed to complete the task he had taken upon himself.

Immediately after the choice of image, the poet is confronted with the question of its development and proportions. Both determine the choice of the number of lines and stanzas. In this the translator is obliged to blindly follow the author. It is impossible to shorten or lengthen a poem without at the same time changing its tone, even if the quantity of images is retained. Both laconism and amorphousness of image are determined by the conception, and each extra or missing line changes its degree of tension.

As for stanzas, each of them creates a particular train of thought, unlike the others. Thus, the sonnet, stating some proposition in the first quatrain, reveals its antithesis in the second, outlines their interaction in the first tercet and in the second tercet gives it an unexpected resolution, condensed in the last line, often even in the last word, for which reason it is called the key of the sonnet. The Shakespearian sonnet, with quatrains unconnected by rhyme, is supple, flexible, but devoid of sufficient strength; the Italian sonnet, with only feminine rhymes, is powerfully lyrical and stately, but of little use for narrative or description, for which the usual form is perfectly suited. In the ghazal, the same word, sometimes the same expression repeated at the end of every line (the Europeans incorrectly break it into two lines) creates an impression of gaudy ornament or incantation. The octave, extensive and spacious like no...

(The entire section is 1843 words.)

Marc Slonim (essay date 1953)

SOURCE: "After the Symbolists," in Modern Russian Literature: From Chekhov to the Present, Oxford University Press, 1953, pp. 211-33.

[Slonim was a Russian-born American critic who wrote extensively on Russian literature. In the following excerpt, he discusses Gumilev's development as a poet and his influence, citing his recurrent themes of strength, combativeness, and heroism as those most often reflected in later Soviet literature.]

The Acmeist group, founded by Gumilev in 1912, and succeeded by his Guild of Poets, included a great many people of diverse literary aspirations. They had no other unity save that of negation: they all rejected what they considered the...

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Vyacheslav Zavalishin (essay date 1958)

SOURCE: "The Acmeists: Nikolai Gumilyov (1886-1921)," in Early Soviet Writers, Frederick A. Praeger Publishers, 1958, pp. 42-6.

[In the following excerpt, Zavalishin discusses the recurring theme of monarchism in Gumilev's poetry, which may have led to his execution in 1921 for counter-revolutionary activity.]

After Gumilyov's execution in Soviet Russia in 1921, Georgi Ivanov, one of his followers, paid him the following tribute:

Why is it that he traveled to Africa, went to war as a volunteer, took part in a conspiracy, and demonstratively, with a sweeping gesture, made a sign of the cross in front of every church he passed in...

(The entire section is 1485 words.)

Renato Poggioli (essay date 1960)

SOURCE: "The Neoparnassians," in The Poets of Russia: 1890-1930, Harvard University Press, 1960, pp. 212-37.

[Poggioli was an Italian-born American critic and translator. Much of his critical writing is concerned with Russian literature, including The Poets of Russia: 1890-1930 (1960), which is one of the most important examinations of this literary era. In the following excerpt, he discusses Gumilev's treatment of such themes as war, danger, and adventure with what he terms "vigorous and virile Romanticism."]

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...

(The entire section is 1600 words.)

Sam Driver (essay date 1969)

SOURCE: "Nikolaj Gumilev's Early Dramatic Works," in Slavic and East-European Journal, Vol. 13, No. 1, Spring, 1969, pp. 326-47.

[In the following excerpt, Driver focuses on Gumilev's dramatic works, discussing his early influences and the autobiographical themes of his plays.]

Of the major poets who began their careers as Acmeists, Nikolaj Gumilev remains relatively obscure. In recent years, works by and critical studies of Axmatova and Mandel'štam have been published both in the Soviet Union and abroad. Gumilev, who gave organization and primary impetus to the Acmeist movement, has for the most part been studied only by a small but dedicated group of émigré...

(The entire section is 4074 words.)

Earl Sampson (essay date 1971)

SOURCE: "In the Middle of the Journey of Life: Gumilev's Pillar of Fire," in Russian Literature Triquarterly, No. 1, Fall, 1971, pp. 283-96.

[In the following essay, Sampson characterizes Pillar of Fire as the volume most representative of Gumilev's poetic skill.]

Artistic careers may be divided into two main types: those which sometime during the artist's active life reach a peak, after which the artist does not develop further, but either declines or maintains more or less the level of that peak; and those which are or seem to be interrupted by the artist's death, i.e. those in which the artist's last creations are his best, and give promise of still...

(The entire section is 5392 words.)

Sidney Monas (essay date 1972)

SOURCE: An introduction to Selected Works of Nikolai S. Gumilev, edited and translated by Burton Raffel and Alla Burago, State University of New York Press, 1972, pp. 3-26.

[In the following excerpt, Monas places Gumilev and his works in the context of early twentieth-century Russian literary culture.]

Gumilev lived in a world of obstacles. At home, as a child, he had an older brother and a morose father to rival him for the attention of a young mother and a pretty girl cousin. Later, there were the Symbolists; and, above all, Alexander Blok. Conscious of his own homeliness and awkwardness, he was a performer, a surmounter, an over-reacher. He cultivated the...

(The entire section is 3063 words.)

Ewa M. Thompson (essay date 1975)

SOURCE: "Some Structural Patterns in the Poetry of Nikolaj Gumilev," in Die Welt der Slaven, Vol. 19-20, 1974-75, pp. 337-48.

[In the following essay, Thompson identifies a range of symbols and ideas that appear in opposite pairs throughout Gumilevs poetry.]

Gumilëv is a notoriously unknown poet. He was the spiritus movens of the Poets' Guild, an amorphous literary group from which Acmeism originated: therefore, all text-books of Russian literature pay him lip service and a canon of his poems appears in the anthologies of Russian verse. So far, however, his poetry has not been assimilated by those interested in Russian literature either in the West or in his...

(The entire section is 5107 words.)

N. Elaine Rusinko (essay date 1977)

SOURCE: "The Theme of War in the Works of Gumilev," in Slavic and East-European Journal, Vol. 21, No. 2, Summer, 1977, pp. 204-13.

[In the following excerpt, Rusinko characterizes Gumilevs war poems as abstract, heroic and "rhetorical," and compares them to his wartime prose sketches, which she considers more realistic.]

Gumilev's poems on the theme of war have been both praised and condemned, but he is generally acknowledged as the outstanding Russian soldier-poet of the Great War. His treatment of this theme, along with his exotic adventure poems, is largely responsible for his subsequent position in the history of Russian poetry as the stereotyped "poet-warrior."...

(The entire section is 3418 words.)

Further Reading


Graham, Sheelagh Duffin. "N. S. Gumilev and Irish Legend: An Unpublished Fragment from 'The Beauty of Morni.'" In Irish Slavonic Studies No. 5, 1984, pp. 167-80.

Discusses Gumilev's works based on Irish originals and presents a translation of the only known portion of an Irish-themed verse drama believed to have been written by Gumilev between 1918 and 1921.

Matlaw, Ralph E. "Gumilev, Rimbaud, and Africa: Acmeism and the Exotic." Proceedings of the Sixth Congress of the International Comparative Literature Association, Stuttgart: Kunst und Wissen, 1975, pp. 653-59.

Discusses the style of Gumilev's African poems....

(The entire section is 201 words.)