The Silver Age of Russian Poetry

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The Acmeists

Nikolai Gumilev

Anna Akhmatova

Osip Mandel'shtam


The movement of Acmeism began in the early twentieth century, partially as a reaction against symbolism. In defiance of the older poets whose innovations had changed poetry in Russia, Nikolai Gumilev, Anna Akhmatova, and Osip Mandel'shtam began to apply their own ideas to the art of building poetry. They wanted to bring the art form back down to earth. They did not believe poetry was tied to mysticism and thought that poets (who were talented human beings rather than the prophets of symbolism) should express ideas about culture, the word, and human existence.

Time was transparent to the acmeists. The past, present and future met in the lines of their poetry. The Hellenistic age encroached on twentieth century Russia, and the acmeists continued the symbolist tradition of incorporating mythical and biblical figures into their verses.

Nikolai Gumilev

Nikolai Gumilev (1886-1921) was a poet and literary theorist and critic. He and Anna Akhmatova had a tumultuous marriage from 1910 to 1918. Many of his poems were influenced by his trips to Africa, where he was captivated by the landscape and wildlife. It is said that he wrote the poem The Giraffe to cheer Anna Akhmatova once when she was depressed. He wanted to share the far away world that had made such an impression on him.

A later and much more complicated poem, The Streetcar Gone Astray shows Gumilev's horror with the constant war and suffering in Russia. He shows his fear for the future of his country through the unstoppable careening of the streetcar past the St. Petersburg landmarks he mentions. He shows the effect that war and revolution have on personal lives, through his mention of Mashenka, a woman the narrator loved. He does not know whether she is alive or dead.

Gumilev weaves together past, present and future in The Streetcar Gone Astray, by evoking images of the past, describing the horror of the present, and fortelling his own tragic fate. He wrote this poem in 1921, tragically the same year he was arrested and shot. One of the references to the past is a literary allusion. The streetcar is a modern-day version of Aleksandr Pushkin's Bronze Horseman. Pushkin (1799-1837) is Russia's most famous and well-loved poet. In his poem, The Bronze Horseman (Text in Russian), the famous statue of Peter the Great that stands in St. Petersburg breaks free and careens around the city, terrorizing the poem's hero, Evgenii. That same statue flies by Gumilev's streetcar... As you can tell, I'm fascinated by this poem. I could go on and on, but I won't.

Translations of Gumilev's poems: The Giraffe The Streetcar Gone Astray

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Anna Akhmatova

portrait of Akhmatova

Anna Akhmatova (1889-1966) is another of Russia's most famous poets. She is very popular on the World Wide Web, even in English:

Akhamatova was not afraid to express the cold reality of the pain people can cause one another. This poignant anguish is evident in
her early poem, The Guest.

Later, Akhmatova continued to portray strong, but suffering women. In Lot's Wife (scroll down to select this poem), she gives an explanation for why Lot's nameless wife looked back, even though it had been forbidden. She was not evil -- she was remembering, and already missing her home. She could not simply turn her back on the places where she played as a child, got married and bore children. Akhmatova herself was probably remembering a happier time, before war and death entered her life.

For most of her life, Akhmatova was not permitted to publish her poems in the Soviet Union. However, they continued to circulate among the people. In 1935, after a long period of writing nothing at all, Akhmatova began to write her most famous poem, Requiem (scroll down to find this poem). In it she portrays the plight of Russian women waiting to hear news of their loved ones who have been arrested and taken to the GULAG. The heroine of the poem is pining for her son, just as Akhmatova had to wait in anguish for news of Lev, her own son, who was imprisoned largely in order to keep her in line. This was also the fate of her good friend, Nadezhda Mandel'shtam, who went into exile with her husband, Osip, and finally had to suffer with him through his arrest, and await the news of his death.

Translations of Akhmatova's poems:
The Guest
Lot's Wife (scroll down to select this poem)

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Osip Mandel'shtam

Despite Soviet suppression and censorship, the works of Osip Mandel'shtam (1891-1938?), were successfully preserved throught the efforts of his wife, Nadezhda Mandel'shtam, and her dedicated friends.

Mandel'shtam writes about the birth of a poem in Silentium. This early poem draws on the story of the birth of Venus (Aphrodite) from the ocean waves. It is a paradox because Mandel'shtam says a poem, the word, music are perfect as unexpressed thoughts, before they take on form. He writes "Remain as foam, Aphrodite!", meaning "Don't take on concrete form." However, in order to describe the creative process, he done just what he warns against. He has caused an expressive poem to take shape.

Mandel'shtam wrote Silentium in 1910, when his transition from symbolism to acmeism was not yet quite complete. His words in The Age, which he wrote in 1923 (the year he was banned from publication in the Soviet Union) are much more tied to his contemporary reality. He evokes the harsh image of a bleeding and broken beast to represent the struggling state of Russia under the new regime. The beast represents the shattered state of people's lives, and the impossibility of reconciling the past with the brutal present. He ends with a tempered optimism for his country's future:

And the buds will swell again,
And the green shoots will sprout.
But your spine has been smashed,
My beautiful, pitiful age.

The Age is part of a book of poems called Tristia. The entire text of Tristia has been put online in English and Russian. To find these poems, , then scroll down to a preface about Mandel'shatm by the translator, and finally down to the bilingual text of the poems. The third column will look very strange because it is in a Cyrillic text that your browser probably does not support:

Online Text of Tristia

Translations of Mandel'shtam's poems: Silentium The Age

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The Silver Age of Russian Poetry
created by Lindsay Malcolm

last modified: August 8th, 1999