Nikolai Gumilev Criticism - Essay

Nikolai Gumilev (essay date 1919)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 1540 words.)

Vyacheslav Zavalishin (essay date 1958)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.)