Nikolai Gumilev Critical Essays


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.