Drawing by Nikolai Gumilyov / Image courtesy of Novaya Gazeta
Today marks 125 years since the birth of Nikolai Gumilev (or Gumilyov), one of the founders of Acmeism—a poetry movement that seems to find its parallel among the Anglo-American modernists in Imagism. The Acmeists defined themselves against another group of Russian poets, the Symbolists, about whom Osip Mandelstam wrote the following in his 1912 essay “The Morning of Acmeism” (“Утро акмеизма”):
The symbolists did not make for good house occupants. They loved to travel, but they felt unwell, not at home in their own bodies. … One can build only in the name of “three dimensions,” since any structure depends upon them. This is why an architect must be a good house occupant, but the Symbolists were poor craftsmen. To build means to do battle with emptiness, to hypnotize space.
The Acmeists saw themselves as doing practical, material work with language and even called their group a “workshop” (“цех”). In his 1913 essay “The Legacy of Symbolism and Acmeism” (“Наследие символизма и акмеизм”), Gumilev explained that the poets in his movement sought “a greater balance of power and a more precise knowledge of the relationship between subject and object than had existed in Symbolism.” As I say, when reading statements like these, I can’t help but think of the Imagists, who advocated “direct treatment of the ‘thing’” and the use of “absolutely no word that does not contribute to the presentation” (Ezra Pound, “A Retrospect,” 1918). Appropriately, what the Acmeists found objectionable in Symbolism—that is, abstraction—is the same problem that Ezra Pound is said to have helped another poet grounded in symbolism, W. B. Yeats, to remedy.
The Acmeists included two figures well known to American readers—Mandelstam and Anna Akhmatova, who was married to Gumilev—and two others who I think may be somewhat less familiar—Mikhail Kuzmin and Georgy Ivanov. As for Gumilev, he famously met his end in 1921 at the age of thirty-five when he ran afoul of the Bolsheviks, placing him on that seemingly endless list of Russian poets about whom we wonder, “What else might they have done if they’d lived just a bit longer?”