Falling in Love with Fiction

Occasionally you stumble across some historical story so weird it could only have happened in in real life.  Exhibit A: the mysterious lover of Nikolay Gumilyov.

Ngumil
Nikolay Gumilyov

Who was Nikolay Gumilyov?  Born in 1886, he grew up well educated and began writing poetry at a young age, becoming first published, in fact, at around age 16.  Gumilyov spent much of his life as a man of letters and established poet, but he also served in the Russian cavalry in WWI.  He was executed in 1921 on suspicions of being part of a monarchist conspiracy. 

When he was still a young man and writing for a journal called Apollon, he fell in love with the author of some poems which had been submitted for publication.  Here I quote Wikipedia:

In August 1909, the famous Russian artistic periodical Apollon received a letter with verses on a perfumed paper with black mourning edges, signed only by a single Russian letter Ch. The verses were filled with half-revelations about its author—supposedly a beautiful maiden with dark secrets . . . Over the next few months, publications of the newfound poetic star were the major hit of the magazine, and many believed that they had found a major new talent in Russian poetry. The identity of the author was slowly revealed: her name was Baroness Cherubina de Gabriak, a Russian-speaking girl of French and Polish ancestry who lived in a very strict Roman Catholic aristocratic family, who severely limited the girl’s contacts with the outside world because of an unspoken secret in her past. Almost all of Apollon’s male writers fell in love with her, most of all the great poet Nikolai Gumilyov. He wrote a series of passionate love letters to her and received quite passionate answers.

The mystery of the newfound genius was short-lived. In November it was discovered that the verses were written by a disabled schoolteacher, Elisaveta Ivanovna Dmitrieva, with the participation of a major Apollon contributor and editor, the poet Maximilian Voloshin. 

Apparently, Voloshin and Dmitrieva came up with this scheme as a sort of publicity stunt in order to get her published.  Gumilyov, as you can imagine, was not amused.  The fallout between him and Voloshin eventually led to a duel, which (fortunately) did nothing to help sore feelings but at least resulted in no casualties, as Gumilyov missed and Voloshin couldn’t handle a gun.

Elisaveta Ivanovna Dmitrieva, AKA
Cherubina de Gabriak

You can read more about the love triangle here.  It’s quite a soap opera and makes the Charlotte Bronte’s “Currer Bell” seem mild by comparison!

Vice, Virtue, and Heroism in Eugene Onegin – Episode 26

For lovers of Pride and Prejudice and Jane Eyre, Eugene Onegin takes us back to Imperial Russia, where young Tatyana Larina falls for her brooding, Byronic neighbor. More than a romance, Alexander Pushkin’s epic poem is a classic of Russian literature and history, as well as a glimpse into the 19th-century dueling culture which proved to be so fatal for him.

Sources / Further Reading:
Why the Russian aristocrats spoke French – Reddit discussion with academic sources
Eugene Onegin – Translation by Henry Spalding (not my first recommendation, but it’s free)
Pushkin’s African Background – Article by the British Library
List of Alexander Pushkin’s duels – By blogger Rina Tim
Russian Ark (2002) – A creative documentary surveying 200 years of Russian culture.  I was able to watch this on loan from the library, and while it’s a slow film (not gripping), the visuals are interesting.
Opening quote read by MaryAnn (LibriVox)

Emily Dickinson – Life of a Poet – Episode 25

She left us with over 1,000 poems, full of vibrant imagery and even more mysteries.  Join me as I search for the real Emily Dickinson behind the legend, examining her life story and reading such gems as “I died for beauty” and “A bird came down the walk.”

Sources / Further Reading:
Selected Poems & Letters of Emily Dickinson – Edited by Robert Linscott
Emily Dickinson – Biography at Poets.org
The Emily Dickinson Museum

The Hound of Heaven – From Tow’rs to Francis Thompson

Lately, I’ve been enjoying the music of a little-known band called Tow’rs, whose style comes under the “indie folk” genre.  (Indie folk is a wonderful invention of old time instruments – fiddle, banjo, guitar, cello – combined with new lyrics and melodies.)  Tow’rs is from Arizona, and their specialty is infusing their songs with thoughtful meaning, while keeping the instrumentation and vocals gentle.  They also apply Christian themes to some of their songs, with subtlety which fits the music well.

“Two Sparrows” is a song which makes a recognizable biblical reference in its title.  The line that really grabbed my attention, however, was an unfamiliar one:

If Corina sail’s stand still
The fields shake and flowers shrill
And the trees, your mother’s arms
The hound of Zion seek your heart
And calls for you

Admittedly, I’m rusty in my Bible memory, but I could not place this phrase – “the hound of Zion.”  Where did that come from?

A mere Google search away, I discovered there is a poem – a rather famous poem – called The Hound of Heaven, by a poet named Francis Thompson.  (Apparently Chesterton and Tolkien were impressed by it; now I do feel bad I hadn’t heard of it.)  It is a quick read and well-worth it if you have never encountered it before.

I fled Him, down the nights and down the days;   
  I fled Him, down the arches of the years;   
I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways   
    Of my own mind; and in the mist of tears   
I hid from Him, and under running laughter.

I can only surmise Tow’rs was making reference to that poem in their own lyrics.  The imagery is certainly stunning, in spite of Thompson’s dense word choice.  First I had my brother read it to me; then I read it myself…twice was necessary for basic understanding.

It is best maybe to read it as a memoir.  Francis Thompson‘s life involved a time of homelessness and opioid addiction, so for him to write this poem out of all of that is significant, but also personal.  I would like to read more of his writing at some point.

Minorities – the poetry collection of T. E. Lawrence

During moments in Lawrence of Arabia, or in whole passages in Seven Pillars of Wisdom, you might notice T. E. Lawrence’s love for the poetic, both in the actual form and in his prose.  He was, as it turns out, a serious reader and critic of poetry: he toted The Oxford Book of English Verse with him in Arabia, and collected his Minorities during and after the war.  In his own words, he defined Minorities as “Good Poems by Small Poets and Small Poems by Good Poets.”  The first U.S. edition was not published until 1971.

The poems (many of which are from the Oxford Book) are fairly what you’d expect from the complex mind of T. E. Lawrence.  Some are classics by his predecessors, such as Poe and Percy Bysshe Shelley, and others are poems by his contemporaries who surpassed his honest criticisms.  I was surprised at the variety, but perhaps I shouldn’t have been.  If you take into account his mental state after the war, mixed with his survivor’s fighting spirit and his longing for peace, the range of the collection makes more sense: beauty and bleakness, profanity and reverence, depression and hope.  Some of the first poems are particularly ugly and sacrilegious, coming near the end of the Arab Revolt and his depression over its result.  As the book goes on, however, the poems become less dark and more reverent, suggesting that time, if not the ultimate Healer, was instrumental in the healing process.

That said, the editor warns us not to take the book as autobiographical.  Though Lawrence copied some poems in entirety, still it was sometimes only a line or two of a poem which struck home with him.  I was very impressed with the editor and introduction; it’s very rare that an editor doesn’t make mountains out of mole hills, and J. M. Wilson succeeds in coming across as interested, but not overblown.

I marked nine poems that really stood out to me.  Maybe the most memorable one was “The Owl” by Edward Thomas, written in 1917.

Downhill I came, hungry, and yet not starved;
Cold, yet had heat within me that was proof
Against the North wind; tired, yet so that rest
Had seemed the sweetest thing under a roof.

Then at the inn I had food, fire, and rest,
Knowing how hungry, cold, and tired was I.
All of the night was quite barred out except
An owl’s cry, a most melancholy cry

Shaken out long and clear upon the hill,
No merry note, nor cause of merriment,
But one telling me plain what I escaped
And others could not, that night, as in I went.

And salted was my food, and my repose,
Salted and sobered, too, by the bird’s voice
Speaking for all who lay under the stars,
Soldiers and poor, unable to rejoice.

(Source: The Poetry Foundation)

I give this 3.5 out of 5 stars, recommended for anyone wanting to learn about Lawrence or the zeitgeist of his time.  They say these days you can learn a lot about someone by the music they listen to; think of Minorities as Lawrence’s playlist.