SEEJ Author 11-28
Acmeist Mythopoetics: Nikolai Gumilev, Viacheslav Ivanov, and “Eidolology”
Recalling her first husband Nikolai Gumilev, Anna Akhmatova once said, “Vsego nuzhnee poniat’ kharakter Gumileva i samoe glavnoe v etom kharatere: mal’chikom on poveril v simvolizm, kak liudi veriat v Boga” (cited in Davidson, 64).1 Indeed, to understand Nikolai Gumilev’s conception of Acmeism, it is essential to examine his relationship to the Symbolists, and in particular with Viacheslav Ivanov, who acted as his mentor in a brief but important period before the beginning of this movement.2
The foundations of Acmeism lie in the famous rift that occurred between Gumilev and Ivanov in 1911. Before this conflict, Gumilev had begun moving away from his former mentor, Valerii Briusov, turning instead to Briusov’s rival Viacheslav Ivanov and his Petersburg circle. Briusov himself had introduced Gumilev to Ivanov’s poetry, suggesting that he study it to improve his understanding of metrics. Gumilev admired Ivanov’s command of the qualities he most feared his own poetry lacked, formal virtuosity and sophisticated philosophical content. He also enjoyed the bohemian society his charismatic new teacher kept. Despite reassurances to Briusov, the young poet quickly came under the sway of “Viacheslav the Magnificent” (Gumilev, NiN, 253-261).
Ivanov’s diaries from the year 1909 note that the young poet was a frequent visitor to his “Tower” apartment, which served as an important gathering place for the literary avant-garde. He writes of Gumilev with affection: “Den’ byl sovershenno besplodnyi dlia raboty, rano prervannoi priezdom Gumileva, kotoryi ostalsia obedat’. Ia liubliu ego i okhotno govoril s nim o mnogom i chital emu stikhi” (SS, II, 782).3 In turn, when Gumilev and Sergei Makovsky organized the Obshchestvo Revnitelei Khudozhestvennogo Slova (The Society for the Adherents of the Artistic Word), known informally as the “Academy,” Gumilev proposed that Ivanov assume a leadership role in the group (Pyman, 324). Ivanov took the young poet's side against his friend Maksimilian Voloshin during the conflict over Cherubina de Gabriak (Ivanova, 407). Correspondence from this period suggests that Ivanov had even planned to join Gumilev on one of his famous journeys to Africa (Gumilev, NiN, 253-261).
Gumilev and Ivanov’s friendship during this period did exhibit signs of strain, however. Though Ivanov expressed admiration for Gumilev as a poet, the issues plaguing his interactions with the younger generation of writers during this period – mainly relating to the Symbolist master’s theoretical intractability and authoritarian attitude – began to affect his relationship with Gumilev as well. A case in point is the set of “response sonnets” they exchanged in 1909, Gumilev’s “Sudnyi den’” (“Judgment Day”) and Ivanov’s “Sonetto di risposta” (“Response Sonnet”). These sonnets were part of a literary game, a variation of one played by thirteenth-century Italian poets in which one wrote a sonnet with the rhyming words left blank, and the second guessed the rhyming words and wrote them into a second sonnet. As Mikhail Gasparov points out, Ivanov’s response to Gumilev subtly corrected one of his rhymes (209-210). This reminder of his teacher’s prowess in the technical realm, an area in which Gumilev was obviously insecure, highlighted the somewhat manipulative nature of Ivanov’s relationship to the younger poet.
This editorial incident was hardly isolated. Ever since the 1907 death of Lidiia Zinovieva-Annibal, Ivanov’s second wife, artistic collaborator, and muse, the poet had been seriously depressed. Though generally a patient mentor, Ivanov permitted himself more frequent ideological criticisms of new poets and their poetry, as he did in the spring of 1911 when Gumilev presented his newly composed “Prodigal Son” (“Bludnyi syn”) to the audience at the Tower. By this point, Gumilev and Ivanov’s relationship had undergone a number of strains, though Gumilev had tried to remain on good terms (Gumilev, NiN, 253-261). This incident, however, essentially ended those efforts. Michael Basker records that Ivanov responded to the new work with “unprecedented ferocity” (502).4 “Though no details are available,” he writes, “it is known that the issue under debate was ‘the limits to the freedom with which a poet might work traditional themes’” (502). Gumilev’s poem made some key changes to the Biblical story of the Prodigal Son when he replaced the titular character’s brother with a sister, who presents him unexpectedly with a bride, as well as a feast, at the very end.5 By exchanging the jealous brother for a mysterious sign of divine grace in female form, Gumilev appears to adjust the original parable to make it more consistent with Ivanov’s conception of human salvation through Dionysian submission to the divine, which, following Soloviev’s conception of Sophia, sometimes took on the appearance of a woman. By re-reading this parable in terms of the Dionysian principle, Gumilev tried to emulate his new mentor.
From Ivanov’s point of view, however, Gumilev had overstepped the bounds of artistic license into the realm of heresy. The older poet regarded canonical myths as unique phenomena that allowed access to mystical truths. While certain changes might preserve or enhance a sacred story’s theurgic potential, others could destroy the religious value of a given work.6 Ivanov recognized that antiquity produced many valid versions of particular myths. However, he did not always approve of those adjustments that contemporary writers, whose goals were aesthetic rather than theurgic, introduced to ancient myths, and presumably he placed Gumilev’s changes under this category. Ivanov’s censure struck a serious blow to Gumilev. It was not long after this event, and probably in response to it, that he and Sergei Gorodetsky, another of Ivanov’s estranged protégés, began to organize the Acmeist movement.
It makes sense, then, to interpret their first manifestos in terms of this polemic with Ivanov. A case in point is the word “eidolologiia,” or “eidolology” in English, a term coined by the Poets’ Guild (Gumilev, PSS, VII, 495).7 Gumilev used it repeatedly over the course of his career, beginning with a 1913 review in the journal Apollon and continuing up to the last year of his life, 1921, where it appears in two manuscripts that were later published as articles (“The Reader” (“Chitatel’”) and “Anatomy of a Poem” (“Anatomiia stikhotvoreniia”)) as well as in his lecture notes and in the unpublished notes for a book, Theory of Integral Poetics (Teoriia integral’noi poetiki),. While it is clear that he considered eidolology important – in his later writings, he consistently lists it together with rhythmics, stylistics, and composition as one of the four essential components of poetry – its exact meaning has puzzled both Gumilev’s contemporaries and later critics. The brief explanation he offered at the beginning of his lecture notes – “the study of images” (“nauka obrazov”) (495)– seems simple, but it later became clear that eidolology meant more than that. “Anatomy of a Poem” explains that “eidolologiia podvodit itog temam poezii i vozmozhnym otnosheniiam k etim temam poeta” and “neposredstvenno primykaet k poeticheskoi psikhologii” (242)8 The notes to his Theory of Integral Poetics complicates this term even further: “Poniatie eidolologii: obrazy, vybiraemye poetom, i otnosheniie k nim. Poznanie poeta: dvenadtsat’ bogov i dve pauzy. Dionis i Budda. Tri podrazdeleniia: golova, serdtse, chrevo. Chetyre kasty (shest’ vidov). Otnosheniie k miru, vytekaiushchee takim obrazom” (SVTT, 229).9 The section on eidolology that appears later in his notes for his curriculum of lectures is no less mystifying, repeating many of the elements mentioned in the notes for Integral Poetics and introducing new concepts, like “vremia i prostranstvo i bor’ba s nimi” and “vozmozhnost’ poeticheskoi mashiny” (230).10
Scholars have elucidated some of the ambiguous elements of Gumilev's eidolological project – the system of gods and castes, for example, refers to an elaborate schema Gumilev developed for categorizing poetic personalities (330) – but its general meaning and origin have remained unclear. Part of the reason for this may be that Gumilev's opponents, and in particular Blok, considered eidolology the epitome of Gumilev's Salieri-like efforts to destroy poetry by reducing it to a pseudo-formalist systematization (PSS, VII, 495). Such opponents were unlikely to devote much effort to the elucidation of their enemy’s program. Another source of confusion was the artificiality of the word itself. Blok described eidolology as “dlia menia neponiatno, kak nazvanie chetvertogo kushan’ia Truffal’dino v komedii Goldoni” (Schwarzband, 379).11 Some conflated it with the German phenomenological term “eidology,” in spite the fact that Gumilev’s German was famously terrible (Eshelman, 62). Even Gumilev’s friends made mistakes with this awkward word. In his description of the literary studio where Gumilev used it with his students, Kornei Chukovsky spells “eidolology” both with and without the second “lo” syllable (cited in Fokin, 418).
Of course the etymological root of “eidolology,” as several have now pointed out (see, for example, Doherty, 127, Gumilev, PSS, VII, 495, and Selkonikov, 9-10), is not “eidos” – Greek for “idol” or “image,” the root of “eidology” – but a similar word, “eidolon,” which also means image, but carries a secondary meaning of “spirit” or “shade.” This term was used widely in the Silver Age, especially among Theosophists and Symbolists, to refer to powerful or iconic images.12 It was also important to one of their touchstones, Plato, who gave the word negative connotations by using it to refer to falsified images propagated by sophists in The Sophist. 13 In The Birth of Tragedy, one of the period’s most influential texts, Nietzsche notes that “the Platonic distinction and evaluation of the ‘idea’ and ‘idol,’ the mere image, is very deeply rooted in the Hellenic character” and goes on to recognize the same distinction in his argument (73).14 Moreover, the Greek authors Stesichorus, Herodotus, and Euripides used it to describe the false Helen created by Hera to take the place of the real one during the Trojan War (Nagy, xi-xii).
While Gumilev might have encountered this word in a number of places, I propose that his direct source for “eidolology” was Viacheslav Ivanov’s programmatic essay “Two Elements in Contemporary Symbolism” (“Dve stikhii v sovremennom simvolizme”), first published in 1908 and later republished several times. Robert Bird points out that it was in this essay that Ivanov “made the greatest impression on contemporaries and subsequent critics,” and it certainly could not have escaped Gumilev’s attention (SE, 238). It was in this article that Ivanov first drew the distinction between theurgic symbols, which could give rise to myths, and their non-theurgic, individualistic equivalents, assigning them to two opposing trends in art that he calls Realistic and Idealistic Symbolism, respectively. Realistic Symbolism, which is receptive art, presents the world as it truly is in a mystical sense, and Ivanov calls it “realistic” for this reason. Idealistic Symbolism, on the other hand, shows an individual artist’s idea of the world, and in doing so presents a transformed vision of reality. At one point, Ivanov concedes that this transformation is not always necessarily problematic: “Khudozhnik-idealist ili vozvrashchaet veshchi inymi, chem vosprinimaet, pererabotaia ikh ne tol’ko otritsatel’no, putem otvlecheniia, no i polozhitel’no, putem prisoedineniia k nim novykh chert.” But he quickly returns to his former position by adding that Idealistic Symbolism “ili zhe daet neopravdannye nabludeniiem sochetaniia, chada samovlastnoi, svoenravnoi svoei fantazii” (PZ. BiM., 183).15 Since by definition the individualistic perspective of Idealistic Symbolism estranges it from the essence of reality, art following this tendency necessarily falls short of Ivanov’s religious goals.
It is with reference to Idealistic Symbolism that Ivanov follows Plato by using the term “eidolon” negatively. For Ivanov, the distinction between Idealistic and Realistic Symbolism was analogous to the one Plato drew between sophists and philosophers. The poet uses an episode from Faust, a scene that refers to the stories about Helen’s eidolon, as a metaphor to illustrate his point:
“Эпоха Возрождения поняла античную древность, в которой искала освобождения от средневекового варварства, идеалистически: вызванная из обители Матерей волшебным ключом Фауста прекрасная Елена была призраком (εἴδωλον), тенью Елены древней, и магическим маревом стал для человека весь озаренный ею мир.” (186)16
While Realistic Symbolism – which contained real myths accepted as such by the common people – was founded on mystic truth, Idealistic Symbolism presented ghost-like approximations of these myths as the real thing and revealed nothing more profound to its audience than magicheskoe marevo, “a magic haze.”17
One recalls that Ivanov had accused Gumilev of creating precisely this sort of myth during their dispute over “The Prodigal Son.”18 While there is no documented evidence that Ivanov specifically used “Realistic Symbolism” or “eidolon” to describe the younger writer’s poetry or poetics, I propose that the context of Gumilev’s subsequent use of “eidolology” to describe a positive element of Acmeism as he conceived it, and as one of four essential elements of poetry in general (PSS, VII, 242), indicates that he coined the term as a polemic response to Ivanov.
In writing, Gumilev first uses “eidolology” in a review of Sergei Gorodetsky, whose 1906 collection Iar’19 was once one of the Symbolist leader’s models for the resurrection of mythopoeism in contemporary literature. Indeed, in “Two Elements in Contemporary Symbolism,” Ivanov describes how aptly one of the poems from Iar’ conveys the essence of Realistic Symbolism:
В «Яри» С. Городецкого есть несколько не лучших в книге стихов, в которых молодой поэт, предчувствуя тайну мифа, метко очерчивает его происхождение («Великая Мать»): [Here Ivanov cites the poem.] <…> Реальное мистическое событие — в данном случае брак Деметры и Диониса, — событие, свершившееся в высшем плане бытия, сохранилось в памяти хлебных колосьев, так как душа вещей физического мира… есть поистине причастница тайновидений и тайнодеяний плана божественного; и человек, причащаясь хлебу, делается в свою очередь причастником тех же изначальных тайн, которые и вспоминает неясною, только ознаменовательною памятью потусторонних событий: в этой смутности воспоминания — глубочайшее существо мифа. <…> Так верит поэт, так он познает интуитивным своим познаванием. Мифотворчество — творчество веры. Задача мифотворчества, поистине, — «вещей обличение невидимых». И реалистический символизм — откровение того, что художник видит, как реальность, в кристалле низшей реальности. (PZ. BiM., 199-200)20
When Andrei Bely wrote a series of polemical responses to Ivanov’s article, Gorodetsky himself published a response in 1909 entitled “Idolotvorchestvo” (“The Creation of Idols”), and in this article, he repeats Ivanov’s classical terminology in his defense of his teacher’s distinction between Realistic Symbolism and Idealistic Symbolism:
“…Idea [sic] (ens realissimum) или εἴδωλον? Для многих поэтов вопрос этот является роковым. Куда направить творческую энергию: к ознаменованию ли сущего, или к преображению видимостей, к созданию хрупких образов, не имеющих за собой бытия, а только распростаняющих бывание?” (808)21
Here, Gorodetsky associates “idea” with true reality (“bytie” and Realistic Symbolism) and “eidolon” with the transitory world of appearances (“byvanie” and Idealistic Symbolism”). His use of “eidolon” here underscores the importance of this term for Ivanov with regard to this particular polemic, as well as his own status as the latter’s protégé.
Thus, when Gumilev came to the word “eidolology” to distinguish between Symbolist and Acmeist uses of myth in the poetry of the renegade Symbolist Gorodetsky, he was obviously confronting Ivanov. In Gumilev’s 1912 review of Gorodetsky’s Willow (Iva), he does not yet employ this specific word, but he does associate Gorodetsky’s developing sense of image with his recent departure from Symbolism. Gumilev writes that “[s]tikhi simvolicheskie, v kotorykh obraz po sravneniiu s ritmom igraet chisto sluzhebnuiu rol’ – slabee drugikh” (PSS, VII, 136).22 Later, he adds, “Sergei Gorodetskii chuvstvuet, chto mera stikha est’ ne stopa, a obraz, kak v russkikh pesniakh i bylinakh, i kak by ni bylo sil’no perezhivaniie, gluboka mysl’, oni ne mogut stat’ materialom poeticheskogo tvoreniia, poka ne obleklis’ v zhivuiu i osiazatel’nuiu plot’ samotsennogo i deesposobnogo obraza” (136).23 This discussion of the self-sufficient image is clearly related to the concept of “eidolon,” which, one recalls, encompassed not only the image, but also the individual artist’s unique use of the image. Gumilev then goes on to explicitly connect this concept of the image with myth:
Мифотворческий период Сергея Городецкого весьма многознаменателен и, прежде всего, потому что поэт впал в ошибку, думая, что мифотворчество — естественный выход из символизма, тогда как оно есть решительный от него уход. Миф — это самодовлеющий образ, имеющий свое имя, развивающийся при внутреннем соответствии с самим собой, — а что может быть ненавистнее для символистов, видящих в образе только намек на «великое безликое», на хаос, Нирвану, пустоту? <…> Мечтающий о мифе Сергей Городецкий понял, что ему необходима иная школа, более суровая и плодотворная, и обратился к акмеизму. (136) 24
Openly polemicizing with Ivanov’s conception of myth as an essentially religious phenomenon, this review reinvents myth as an artistic practice valid on its own literary terms, and implicitly places mythopoeism under the Acmeist category of eidolology.25 In other words, it presents the sort of mythopoeism that Gumilev practiced in “The Prodigal Son,” which subverted the original story to the poet’s personal artistic vision, as the only correct model of mythopoeism. Later, in a review of Gorodetsky’s next collection, Flowering Staff (Tsvetushchii posokh), Gumilev explicitly commends the poet’s eidolology (ORP, 142).
Another significant use of “eidolology” occurs in a review from 1913 in which Gumilev treated Ivanov alongside several lesser-known poets. This review is also structured polemically.26 While here Gumilev calls his old teacher one of the two more significant Russian Symbolists (along with Sologub) and offers nothing but praise for the volume Tender Mystery (Neznaia taina), he nevertheless calls him a “young poet” (“poet molodoi”) and concludes this section of the review with these challenging words: “No kak dalek etot individual’nyi, odinokii rastvet ot togo ravnovesiia vsekh sposobnostei dukha, kotoroe teper’ grezitsia mnogim… Mezhdu Viacheslavom Ivanovym i akmeizmom propast’, kotoruiu ne zapolnit’ nikakomu talantu…” (PSS, VII, 153).27
Then Gumilev goes on to denigrate Ivanov further by discussing clearly inferior poets in almost the same breath. He calls Vadim Gardner and Aleksei Skaldin, both Ivanov protégés (see Magomedova and Tsar’kova) a “dilletant” (“diletantom”) and a “poor, shabby double [of Ivanov]” (“bednyi, zakhudalyi dvoinik”), respectively (PSS, VII, 153). Then he continues to Aleksandr Roslavlev, known as an epigon of Briusov’s (see Molodiakov), and Ia. Liubliar and Vsevolod Kudriumov, two poets who seem to have been known in 1913 for their distinctively poor work. According to Gumilev, Liubliar, who debuted with three books at once, “does not know most of the most elementary laws of versification” (“ne znaet… bol’shinstva samykh elementarnykh zakonov stikhoslozheniia”) and Kudriumov’s volume is “one of the most unpleasant books of the season” (“odna iz samykh nepriiatnykh knig sezona”) (154-155). Vadim Shershenevich is the only poet other than Ivanov to receive actual praise, and while Gumilev does not mention Ivanov’s name explicitly in his discussion of Shershenevich’s work, he does include strong hints that Realistic Symbolism is the issue at hand:
В эйдолологии (системе образов) он ученик Александра Блока, иногда более покорный, чем это хотелось бы видеть. Но уже проглядывает в его стихах стремление к четкости и договоренности, как бунт против настроения раннего немецкого романтизма в русской поэзии. Мне кажется, идя по этому пути, он может воплотить многое из того ценного, что уже брезжит в «Carmina». И, может быть, тогда только он освободится от устаревшей литературности, которая иногда холодит его лучшие стихи (155).28
In addition to using the word “eidolology,” Gumilev makes reference to Ivanov’s ideological ally Blok and mentions German romanticism, a movement associated with both Blok and Ivanov.29 Gumilev also discusses this German influence in another article from the same year, the even more overtly polemical manifesto “The Legacy of Symbolism and Acmeism” (“Nasledie simvolizma i akmeizm”), in which he disparagingly associates it with Symbolism: “…eta zhe simvolicheskaia sliiannost’ vsekh obrazov i veshchei, izmenchivost’ ikh oblika, mogla rodit’sia tol’ko v tumannoi mgle germanskikh lesov” (147).30 While Shershenevich was not an Acmeist, Gumilev casts him in the terms of his own manifesto as a post-Symbolist ally, and indeed, at this point in time Shershenevich was polemicizing with the Symbolists himself in his critical writings. Futurism Unmasked (Futurizm bez maski), also published in 1913, begins with a brazen challenge to Symbolism written in verse: “…Pochti okonchena postroika / I nam zamenit dlia chudes / Simvolisticheskuiu troiku / Futuristicheskii ekspress” (3).31 Moreover, in another sign of semi-allegiance to Acmeism, “Carmina” also includes a playful complimentary poem dedicated to Gumilev himself.32
Gumilev continued to discuss eidolology and to polemicize with Symbolism even after the war, when the Acmeist and Symbolist movements had both effectively ended. Notes for Theory of Integral Poetics, as well as the articles “The Reader” and “Anatomy of a Poem,” which he may have intended to include in this book, show that he continued to develop his ideas about poetic personalities and their relations to images. Chukovsky, noting the important role that eidolology played in Gumilev’s lectures on writing poetry, describes the term (and the rest of Gumilev’s critical apparatus) as polemical: “Vsia eta naivnaia skholastika byla ot nachala do kontsa polemichna. <…> V te gody [ ] vrazhdebnye Gumilevu predstavleniia o poezii s osoboi siloi byli vyrazheny v tvorchestve Bloka. <…> I vse eti tablitsy s anzhambemanami, pirikhiiami i eidolologiiami byli vyzovom Bloku” (cited in Fokin, 418).33
Chukovsky’s reminiscences here do not offer us a complete understanding of the situation at hand. While he recognizes that Blok was Gumilev’s opponent (and he was indeed Gumilev’s major rival at that point), the first usage of “eidolology” dates back to the early days of Acmeism, when Gumilev still hoped that Blok might be an ally.34 The Literary Studio at the House of Arts in which Chukovsky participated was not organized until much later, after the Revolution, when Blok and Ivanov were firmly allied with one another. At that point Ivanov’s prominence in the St. Petersburg (now Petrograd) literary scene had eroded, while Blok’s had increased, so Chukovsky’s focus on the younger poet makes sense in this instance. In the wider context of Gumilev’s earlier uses of the term, however, the real target must not be Blok specifically, but Ivanov’s school of Realistic Symbolism in general. Another hint that Ivanov was still on his mind at this point is the reference to “poetic psychology” in the definition of “eidolology” in “Anatomy of a Poem” (PSS, VII, 242).. Ivanov connected psychology to individualism, and considered it a barrier to the universalist mindset necessary for engagement with real myths. Moreover, in “The Reader,” Gumilev attacks Ivanov’s concept of the myth-creating poet as the masses’ spiritual guide by explicitly distinguishing between the collective religious experience and poetry, which engages individuals (235-236). Up to the end of his life, Gumilev was still framing his poetics in opposition to his erstwhile mentor.
Eidolology’s original connection to mythopoeism also continued to be important. While explicit references to mythopoeism in Gumilev’s critical texts became rare toward the end of his life, myth becomes increasingly important to him as an artist. Here, the plainly derivative pseudo-Symbolist myths of his early verse give way to the more distinctive and compelling use of myth that characterized his mature period. The preponderance of mythic elements in Gumilev’s late poetry, especially in longer works like “Stellar Terror” (“Zvezdnyi uzhas”) and “Poem of the Beginning” (“Poema nachala”), have led some readers to attribute a “return to Symbolism” to the one-time Acmeist leader.35 However, Gumilev’s unceasing polemics with Symbolism show us that his late poetry represents a continuing development of his own movement.36 Gumilev did not abandon his earlier positions, but rather refined them in his period of maturity. Eidolological mythopoeism was always a part of Acmeism as Gumilev conceived it, and it accounts for many aspects of the last and greatest poetry that he wrote. This “mature period” responded to Symbolism by divorcing myths from their theurgic purpose and original context to express Gumilev’s individual poetic vision.
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