Bees in a Deserted Hive
- The Pillar of Fire by Nikolai Gumilev, translated by Richard McKane
Anvil, 252 pp, £12.95, August 1999, ISBN 0 85646 310 8
In 1916, Private Nikolai Gumilev and two of his superiors came under fire on the bank of the River Dvina north of St Petersburg; the two officers jumped into the nearest trench. Gumilev wouldn’t be rushed: still in range of the battery on the other side of the river, he lit a cigarette and smoked it. Only then did he join the others. He was reprimanded for ‘unnecessary bravery’. Perhaps the original phrasing was stronger – ‘stupidity’ is a word you could imagine using – but the colonel who recorded the incident preferred the more flattering accusation for the regiment’s poet.
Poets attract legends, particularly in Russia, where throughout the 19th century the influence of Western European literature, much of it translated at two removes, from English into French into Russian, was strongly felt, after the fact. The first major craze was sentimentalism, sparked off by Karamzin’s imitations of late 18th-century French romances. Byronism came next, fuelled by Pushkin and Lermontov, with their misunderstood heroes lost in love and keen on duels. The poets lived the legends, too, and Gumilev fought his own duel in 1909 – somewhat after the date at which it was fashionable – with Maximilian Voloshin, another poet, at Chernaya Rechka, the spot Pushkin had also chosen. His sense of adventure took him to Africa three times, on the first two occasions as an enthusiastic amateur explorer and collector, the third time with the half-hearted patronage of the Academy of Sciences. The story of his third journey, rediscovered in 1987 and published in Ogonek, begins with him courting the experts at the University of St Petersburg. He took them an Egyptian folding icon from his previous trip (mysteriously depicting the Virgin Mary on one side and a one-legged saint on the other); they were delighted with his find, but even more excited by the travels themselves, asking him whether there were very many lions, whether the hyenas were dangerous, and what the traveller does if he is attacked by a horde of Abyssinians. The rather more serious Academy of Sciences was less easily won over, but he secured some funding after five months’ petitioning.
Gumilev was also a collector of people. He met Akhmatova in 1903, when he was 17 and she was 14, and pestered her on and off for seven years until she married him. (They divorced in 1918; she found his affairs difficult to handle. Their son, Lev, followed in his explorer father’s footsteps and became an anthropologist.) He collected anything and anyone he might find improving; a notebook he kept during a visit to London in 1917 lists essential reading (Browning, Chesterton, Poe) and details appointments with the people he needed to know: Arthur Waley at the British Museum, a guide in his versions of Chinese and Persian poetry; Akhmatova’s friend Boris Anrep, who made the mosaic on the floor of the National Gallery; C.R.W. Nevinson, the painter whom everyone needed to know; and Ottoline Morrell and the rest of the Bloomsbury set, with whom he spent a weekend at Garsington. He’d always wanted to go to Madagascar; but he was arrested and shot in 1921, during the first wave of disappearances under the Bolsheviks. He was 35.