The Pillar of Fire 
by Nikolai Gumilev, translated by Richard McKane.
Anvil, 252 pp., £12.95, August 1999, 0 85646 310 8
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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.

Gumilev is – or has been – one of Russia’s favourite poets. But he’s best known, in the West at least, as the inspiration behind the Acmeist school, which included Akhmatova and Mandelstam – as influential, but second-rate. In 1911, he founded the Poets’ Guild, who professed their commitment to the nuts and bolts of poetry. They had a secretary, Akhmatova; a manifesto (technique must come first); and a journal, Apollon, stamped with their emblem, the lyre. Acmeism, whose arrival on the scene Gumilev announced in 1913, was the next step: it would be a rejection of Symbolism, with its northern mists and lyrical vagueness; the aim was hard Mediterranean clarity. The Acmeists didn’t want to get their ideas second-hand from the Europeans, but to compete they had first to assimilate a European past.

Conviction and fervour were perhaps easy to come by in the atmosphere of pre-Revolutionary St Petersburg, with its literary stars performing in glamorous basement cabarets, but what emerged wasn’t as new as it seemed. On the other hand, it did very much resemble what was being written in the West before 1921 and the real birth of Modernism: the early Acmeist poems had some of the lingering Symbolism that characterises Eliot’s ‘Conversation Galante’. Gumilev, the charismatic authority, had a little of the Ezra Pound about him, and as with Pound, his own reputation was eclipsed by the Modernists he championed. Gumilev’s protégé was Mandelstam, of whom he said: ‘I do not recall anyone else who has so completely destroyed the romantic in himself without at the same time touching the poet.’ But pupil and mentor went different ways. Mandelstam began by defining Acmeism as ‘a yearning for world culture’, and his own world culture at the time was wholly classical: ‘Nature is Roman, and mirrored in Rome’ is how he begins a poem from 1914. Gumilev was more interested in technique. He had a second name he would sometimes use to describe the new poetry – ‘Adamism’ – and for him it involved following ‘the line of strongest resistance’, doing the manly job of getting the words right; the subject was secondary. Mandelstam and Akhmatova began with a conservative aesthetic, but in their later poems, they caught up with the American Modernists (William Carlos Williams describing the peeling cityscape outside his window): by the time she wrote ‘Requiem’ and he wrote ‘Lines on an Unknown Soldier’, both formally innovative and both concerned with recording the voices of the lost, they had been forced into a Modernism commensurate with their experiences, into responding to what they couldn’t avoid.

Gumilev, unlike his more famous contemporaries, never had a political programme. He managed a brief, rebellious flirtation with Marxism in 1903 and his arrest in 1921 came after he condemned the suppression of the Kronstadt uprising. His poems have nothing to do with the Russia around him. They are a collection of curiosities from a four-cornered earth – the slipper of a lonely Chinese girl, the caravans of Africa, giants, dwarves, lions and snakes. They are about escape, and they have served their readers as an escape. Traditional in form (rigidly metrical and rhymed, in Russian at least) and exotic in imagery, they are easy to commit to memory and soon became schoolroom favourites. There’s something attractive about Gumilev’s love of the distant and strange, about his obsessional return to the faraway. His 1918 collection includes ‘Ezbekie’, a poem about a park in Cairo which, he explains in the first stanza, he had visited ten years earlier:

and the waterfall was white in the dark,
just like a unicorn prancing:
the moths flew around
among the flowers which were raised high,
or among the stars – the stars that hung low
like ripe barberries.

And I remember I exclaimed: ‘Life is higher
than grief, deeper than death. Accept
this wilful covenant of mine: whatever would happen,
whatever sadnesses, humiliations
should fall to my lot, I will not
think about an easy death before
once again I enter on such a moonlit night
under the palms and plane-trees of Ezbekie.’

Gumilev had a line on stars: ‘All the beauty, all the sacred significance of the stars is that they are infinitely far from the earth.’ In fact, he had a line on most standard poetic images. He believed that although the stock of such images was limited, a poetic personality was defined by the poet’s relation to them. At the time he was writing he wasn’t altogether wrong: since the early Acmeists still had a lot of the Symbolist about them, significant stars abound. In Mandelstam, they stand for something frighteningly alien, but Gumilev is at home with them: his stars hang low.

In translation, and particularly in Richard McKane’s (the second book-length selection to be published in English), Gumilev’s language can sound sadly clumsy as well as strange. Gumilev would never have allowed his unicorns to ‘prance’: the Russian is neutral, carrying no other sense than ‘standing up on its hind legs’ – ‘rearing’ would be closer. Some things are unachievable in translation: the Russian for ‘moth’ literally means ‘night butterfly’, which fits with the star/fruits in the dark. It’s not all McKane’s fault (though that awkward ‘just like’ doesn’t have to be there), and, in any case, the gist of the images comes through, which is perhaps what matters most. Gumilev likes ‘the troublesome outlines/of unknown continents’ and the ‘battlements and slits’ of faraway castles: shape and contour are what he is after – it’s a kind of cartography of the imagination. A poem from his second collection begins:

Do you remember the palace of the giants,
the silver fish in the pool,
the alleys of tall plane-trees
and the towers of stone rubble?

How a golden horse by the towers
playfully reared up,
and its white saddle-cloth was decorated
with the patterns of slender threads?

Do you remember, by the cavities of clouds
we found a cornice
where the stars, like a bunch of grapes,
shot down in a rush?

The poems, with one static image placed beside another, are themselves like charts – the good old kind with all the sea-monsters marked. At such moments, the poetry is close to the heraldic and emblematic. The ‘bunch of grapes’ is typical, an image taken from the leaf of an emblem-book and used purely pictorially, without the meaning that an emblem-book would attach to it.

The contrast with Akhmatova is telling. Hers is an imagery of sensation rather than pattern and shape. Her poetry is full of the tangible, ‘the engine’s whistle, watermelon’s crunch’. There are often absent figures (Lev Gumilev is one who appears – or disappears – in her poems: he was arrested, released, arrested again and sent to the camps), who are identified by the traces they have left behind: ‘Forgotten on the table/A riding-crop and a glove’). In one of her poems to her husband she writes:

He loved three things in this world:
evensong, white peacocks
and faded maps of America.
He didn’t like crying children,
he didn’t like raspberry jam with his tea –
and womanish hysterics.
... And I was his wife.

His are the symbolic things: his ‘faded’ maps, for instance, no longer quite representing reality but enjoyed for their own sake. Hers are the sounds and tastes – what he didn’t like. You can feel the tug here – as if she’s caught him on camera just as he’s about to run away: it’s all a bit tactile for him.

McKane’s occasionally embarrassing translations don’t in fact do as much disservice to the original as they might. Gumilev himself is occasionally embarrassing. ‘The turquoise kingdom/of the lovelorn prince’ is a tricky image in any langauge. But McKane gives him tired poeticisms he doesn’t deserve (‘cleave’, for instance, in place of the unobjectionable ‘split’); the original is overblown only in what it presents. The words remain tools that are used for their proper purpose. As for the clumsiness, at least Gumilev got there first: part of his firework show is himself and all his awkwardnesses. Some poems nicely pre-empt any such objections (the translation this time is my own):

Remember me again you will,
And all my strange, disturbing world,
A clumsy world of songs and fire,
But of them all, the only real.

‘I must have written badly,’ the poet goes on to admit; his interlocutor (a difficult Muse) replies: ‘An alien world disarmed me/With rough and simple charm.’ But this isn’t the end of it: despite the appeal of the alien world, she has chosen not to live in it. Both the confession and the exchange are disarming in themselves. This isn’t false modesty, but a true assessment of Gumilev’s poems: his badness is attractive because it is part of his strangeness. Sincerity isn’t well thought of in poetry: poets do different voices to avoid the charge of unconscious conventionality. (It’s all right if you don’t mean it.) Gumilev can be startlingly sincere – he has no alternative persona to justify the appearance of his palaces and princesses – but it comes to seem a permissible fault. And he is self-conscious.

In his ‘Translator’s Preface’, McKane declares: ‘The translator is like a pane of glass through which one can glimpse the heart of the matter, not a mirror or reflection but a transparent film which should not hold up the eye.’ He falls short of his ideal in practice, of course, but then the ideal is questionable. Gumilev’s poetry is all mirror and reflection; his subjects are never assimilated, but remain foreign by design. He did a lot of translation himself, particularly in the last two years of his life, when he worked on Gorky’s World Literature project – notably a Gilgamesh and a Pippa Passes. The latter is nothing like Browning: it seems oddly apocalyptic. His ‘Imitation of the Persian’, based on the poet Rumi, is not very Persian. In a way not unlike Waley and Pound, he forgoes accuracy (he may not have been capable of it in any case), in favour of maintaining the reader’s sense that something has been lost. Rumi is euphoric in his glimpses of the beloved, and he sees him everywhere: ‘When I seek peace, he is/the kindly intercessor,/and when I go to war,/the dagger, that is he.’ Gumilev’s version – ‘I have become a street hooligan, my beauty’ – is addressed to the same deity, but it’s sadder. To place translation and original side by side and compare individual lines, measuring them according to an ideal of interchangeability, is perhaps a misprision: translations are read with the feeling that there is a distant, better original behind them.

In his later years Mandelstam seems to have been mildly condescending towards Gumilev; but there was one poem that, according to Nadezhda Mandelstam, infuriated him:

when God inclined
his face over the new world,
then the Word could stop the sun,
the Word could destroy towns.

But times have changed and that primeval power has faded:

It is we who have imposed on it
the meagre limits of nature,
and like bees in a deserted hive
dead words smell bad.

Mandelstam – who had an Auden-like ability to revivify tired language by using it in unusual contexts – didn’t believe in dead words. But he seems to have misunderstood Gumilev, for whom this idea of the absence of meaning amounted to a creed, but whose practice – purely technically – was not so dissimilar to his own.

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