On this date in 1972, Vladimir Nabokov wrote a poem in Russian about a Russian poet murdered fifty-one years earlier by the Bolsheviks. Here is the translation by his son Dmitri:
“How I loved the poems of Gumilyov!
Reread them I cannot,
But traces have stayed in my mind,
Such as, on this think-through:
“`. . . And I will die not in a summerhouse
From gluttony and heat,
But with a heavenly butterfly in my net
On the summit of some wild hill.’”
With Osip Mandelstam and Anna Akhmatova, Nikolay Stepanovich Gumilyov (1886-1921) was Acmeism, a gathering of poets in the decade preceding the Revolution. They wrote in reaction to such Russian symbolists as Bely and Ivanov. Gumilyov and the others prized clarity and craft, and their work often is compared to the early Imagist poems of Ezra Pound. In his 1919 essay “The Morning of Acmeism,” Mandelstam defines the movement as “a yearning for world culture” and likens poetry to architecture: “Acmeism is for those who, inspired by the spirit of building, do not like cowards renounce their own gravity, but joyously accept it in order to arouse and exploit the powers architecturally sleeping within.”
Gumilyov was a hero of the Great War, Akhmatova’s first husband, a gifted poet and prolific translator (Villon, Blake, Wordsworth, Heine, Leopardi, Gautier, Baudelaire, et al.). Gumilyov never disguised his distaste for the thuggery of Lenin and the Bolsheviks, and was arrested in August 1921 on trumped-up charges of conspiring against the Soviet state. On August 26, as Guy Davenport puts it in “The Man without Contemporaries” (The Geography of the Imagination, 1981), Gumilyov “crumbled under the volleys of a Soviet firing squad, clutching a Bible and a Homer to his heart.” Sixty others died with him. His crime: membership in the nonexistent Tagantsev conspiracy, an entrapment scheme devised by Feliks Dzerzhinsky, founder of the Cheka.
Nabokov’s brief poem remains largely opaque to me. In his biography of the novelist, Brian Boyd refers to Gumilyov as “a sort of crisper Kipling and one of the favorite poets of Nabokov’s youth.” So why, at age seventy-three, can Nabokov no longer read Gumilyov? Has he repudiated his youthful admiration or is the memory too painful? Seven months after Gumilyov’s death, Nabokov’s father was assassinated by right-wing thugs in Berlin. The second stanza seems to be lines from Gumilyov. Are they faithfully rendered or a half-recalled pastiche? The scene they depict – outdoors, butterfly net in hand – might have been conjured by Nabokov. Earlier that year he had finished writing his short, tricky novel Transparent Things, in which he writes:
“Perhaps if the future existed, concretely and individually, as something that could be discerned by a better brain, the past would not be so seductive: its demands would be balanced by those of the future.”
Boris Dralyuk has translated a 1917 poem by Gumilyov, a seemingly Nabokovian meditation on memory:
“You shall recall me yet, and more than once —
Recall my world, uncommon and exciting:
A clumsy world, fashioned of flame and songs,
But, unlike others, wholly undesigning.
“It could have been yours, too, but no. It had
Proven too little, or perhaps too vast.
My verse, it seems, must have been very bad,
My pleading with the Lord for you, unjust.
“But every time, drained of your strength, you’ll yield
And utter: ‘I don’t dare recall those nights.
A different world has fascinated me
With all its simple, unrefined delights.’”
The poem may be personal, even autobiographical. Gumilyov and Akhmatova divorced in 1918 after eight years of marriage. It may also address the future -- us, the readers -- as Nabokov does in his 1925 story "A Guide to Berlin."
[Nabokov’s poem can be found in Nabokov’s Butterflies: Unpublished and Uncollected Writings (2000), edited by Boyd and Robert Michael Pyle, a 782-page compendium of Nabokov’s work, scientific and artistic, on Lepidoptera, and a perfect bedside volume. The Mandelstam essay is in his Critical Prose and Letters (trans. Jane Gary Harris, Ardis, 1979). You’ll find Boris’ Gumilyov translation in The Penguin Book of Russian Poetry (2015), edited by Robert Chandler, Dralyuk and Irina Mashinski.]