One Less Hope: Essays on Twentieth-Century Russian Poets

By Constantin V. Ponomareff | Go to book overview

Nikolay Gumilev’s The Pillar of Fire

It is generally accepted that Gumilev’s (1886-1921) The Pillar of Fire (Ognennyy stolp, 1921), published shortly after his execution by a Bolshevik firing squad, was the height of his poetic achievement. Earl Sampson has pointed out that this collection of poems - coming in the wake of Gumilev’s acmeist phase - was a return to Russian symbolism, but “on another higher level of the spiral.”202

It was ironic that Gumilev, in his Letters on Russian Poetry (1923), a collection of earlier reviews and articles published between 1909 and 1916, should in his discussion of the symbolist poetry of Fedor Sologub (1910) have described a poetic personality that resembled his own:

The images of Sologub … but how can one speak of images, if in the poet’s own eyes, there
is only an “I”, the only reality that has created the world. And it is not surprising that this
world is only a desert in which there is nothing to love, because to love means to feel
something that is higher and better than oneself …203

Gumilev has usually been seen as a romantic poet in search of ideal love and exotic and dangerous adventures, but The Pillar of Fire shows us how very close he still was to the symbolist obsession with poetic self, almost Godlike. In Renato Poggioli’s words: “It is to poetry, not less than to religion, that Gumilev assigns the task of educating mankind, or, as he says, of ‘raising man to the level of a higher type’.”204

The poem that best expresses this side of Gumilev is “Memory” (Pamyat’). We see this in what one might describe as Gumilev’s romantic replacement of God with himself, the poet, though this is done in an indirect way, purposely obscuring his meaning, but still in the end suggesting it.

Amid all his reincarnations as a poet in the flow of the forever changing forms of soul, the central focus of the poem was on his keeping his body intact, in other words, retaining the immortality not of his soul but of his body and, with it, of course, Gumilev’s physical and poetic identity. But in telling us that the first two ancestors of his body were poets, he was less than honest when he chided the second poet for being obsessed with his poetic self:

202 Earl D. Sampson, Nikolay Gumilev (Boston, 1979), p. 148; see also p. 183, fn. 47.

203 N. Gumilev, Sobranie sochineniy, edited by G. P. Struve and B. A. Filippov (4 vols.; Wash-
ington, 1962-68), IV, 241. Further references to this edition will be given in the text. The
translations are mine.

204 Poggioli, The Poets of Russia 1890-1930, op. cit., pp. 226-27.

-133-

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