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  Philologica 8 (2003/2005)  
   
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Omry RONEN

TWO ACMEIST IMAGES OF UNINTELLIGIBLE POETRY

 
 
 



 

Summary

The reflexive poetics of acmeism invites special attention to its enigmatic metapoetic vocabulary. Several entries in this vocabulary are figurative representations of reduced referentiality in poetry. Both of the metapoetic tropes to be discussed can be identified and interpreted as abbreviated but recognizable quotations.

The first of these tropes is the image of dead nightingales. It is shared by two acmeists, Gumilev and Mandel’shtam. Gumilev, in one of the poems (1917) from the collection To the Blue Star, wrote of the lovers who, like blind children, would, on mountain tops, search for wilted roses and listen to dead nightingales. Mandel’shtam, in his Notes on Chénier used the same simile: “<...> the entire romantic poetry, like a necklace of dead nightingales, would not give out, would not give away its secrets, would not know what legacy is ”.

G. Levinton perceived here an allusion to the dead nightingales of Gumilev’s poem. This may be so, but if it is, we are dealing with a quotation within a quotation, for the figurative collocation “dead nightingales” derives from a well-known source, Heine’s posthumously published long poem Bimini, a fragment of which Gumilev has translated into Russian. In the history of world poetry, Bimini is remembered as one of the last testaments of romanticism, and Heine’s dead nightingales are a brief recollection of the perished romantic dream: <...> Tote Nachtigallen flöten, // Schluchzen zärtlich, wie verblütend = <...> Dead nightingales flute // And sob tenderly, as if bleeding to death. In the same poem, the old native nurse wears an exotic “head-dress of padded hair interlaced with countless little birds” (<...> Hebet sich der Haarwulstkopfputz, // Der gespickt ist mit unzähl’gen // Vögelein <...>). Earlier, in 1826, the image of a chorus of dead nightingales appeared in Chapter IV of Heine’s Ideen: Das Buch Le Grand, in the evocation of the poet’s old age and death: “<...> die Geisterchöre verstorbener Nachtigallen flöten aus der Ferne” = “<...>the ghostly choirs of dead nightingales will flute from afar”.

The two parallel images, Gumilev’s and Mandel’shtam’s, appear to be, therefore, a characteristic instance of divergence from the same text that has been part of the common subtextual corpus of the Guild of Poets. It may be recalled in this connection that the presence of the Heine component in Mandel’shtam’s art is seldom acknowledged by modern scholars, and sometimes denied outright, even though considerable evidence of it has been identified since N. Berkovskij’s early study of Mandel’shtam’s prose (1929—1930).

The other metapoetic image of an incomprehensible but significant message with a lost code in the art of Mandel’shtam is the image of a sea monster, or of seaweed, or of the monster turning into a heap of seaweed. The perilous euphony of Italian verse was described by Mandel’shtam as a monster with azure brain and moist eyes for scales (“Tempt not foreign idioms...”, 1933). The “vinegar sponge” in this poem derives, of course, from the gospel, but enters the same semantic field of ‘grotesque marine life’ and establishes a link with Pasternak’s image of poetry as “a Greek sponge” (Spring, 1914; cf. A Few Propositions, 1918, 1922), on the one hand, and, on the other, with Mandel’shtam’s own interpretation, in Discourse on Dante (1933) of Inferno XXXII, 4: <...> Io premerei di mio concetto il suco <...> = <...> I would press out the juice of my conception <...> (trans. by H. W. Longfellow).

A closely related figurative evocation of the poet-reader’s attempt to penetrate an alien aesthetic system occurs in one of the draft versions of Mandel’shtam’s Slate Ode (1923): <...> What a torment it is to squeeze out // The seaweed of alien harmonies. “Seaweed” in Mandel’shtam’s metapoetic vocabulary signified “trans-sense”. In his essay The Nineteenth Century (1922) the image of seaweed conveyed the notion of a discarded, debased and misunderstood heritage, the jetsam of a finished historical era. The French Revolution, embodied in the “ancient frenzy” of Chénier’s iambs, is represented here as a gorgon (i. e., medusa ‘jellyfish’), whose head is washed ashore as a baffling “tangle of seaweed”. “Out of the union of reason and the furies was born romanticism, a mongrel monstrosity equally alien to the sublime rationalism of the Encyclopedists and to the ancient host of the revolutionary storm”.

This is a close paraphrase of Innokentij Annenskij’s metaphoric evocation of the mystery of Hamlet in his essay The Problem of Hamlet (1907). The two riddles, Mandel’shtam’s riddle of romanticism’s descent (the union of reason and the furies producing a monster) and Annenskij’s riddle of Hamlet suspecting the illegitimacy of his origin, are both riddles of birth: “The mystery of Hamlet sometimes appears to me a fabulous sea monster <...> A modest spark in the actor is enough for the gawking crowd on the shore to spot in the water a black outline of the catch and to start clapping <...> Yet you cannot wager that the mystery of Hamlet, having flashed at us even in full view its enigmatic silver, might not turn out on the shore merely a stack of useless and even putrid seaweed”.

In this context it becomes clear why Mandel’shtam has wistfully compared Annenskij’s own self-defeating role as a mediator between the great occidental tradition and the sleepy end-of-the-century Russia to an eagle “which would claw Euripides, Mallarmé and Leconte de Lisle”, “haughtily release the catch, letting it fall of itself”, and “bring us nothing but a handful of dry grasses in his clutches” (On the Nature of the Word, 1922). This vivid critical parable of Mandel’shtam is a compressed citation of Fet’s lines about the poet whose winged sound // Snatches in flight and fixes at once // The dark delirium of the soul and the vague smell of grasses, // Like <...> Jupiter’s eagle <...> carrying a shaft of lightning in his sure clutches (“How poor is our language...”, 1887).

The meaning of Mandel’shtam’s words about the inability of Annenskij to serve as a mediator, a translator or a bearer of any kind of influence is crucial to a correct under standing of the significance of citation in Russian modernism. The art of quotation is, after all, or has been before acmeism, a mediating art. Annenskij’s variety of this art, however, with its unemphatic but consistent foregrounding of the secondary, the peripheral elements of the subtext, truly makes him a forerunner, not only of acmeist criticism, but of the deconstruction at its rare artistic best.

 



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