Female Impersonations: Valerij Brjusov’s Nellie

Olga Peters Hasty, Princeton University

In 1913 the Moscow publishing house Skorpion brought out a collection of poems entitledStixi Nelli. Although—because of the coincidence of the dative and genitive cases of the name—this title can be understood as either ‘Poems for Nellie’ or ‘Poems of Nellie,’ critical responses indicate that it was the latter meaning that prevailed. The slender volume of verse appeared to be the debut of a woman poet who, shying away from the public eye, chose to veil her poetic identity with a pen name. In accordance with established practice, “Nellie’s” ritual of debut occurred under the auspices of an established poet. As announced already on its cover, her collection opens with a verse dedication by Valerij Brjusov, the don of Russian poetry who, in Antokol′skij’s felicitous comparison, loved to “discover” young poets just as sailors loved to discover new islands orchemists new elements.

The identity of this mysterious new woman poet aroused interest, and it soon came to light that Brjusov had himself authored the purportedly “feminine” poems of the collection. The critical attention Stixi Nelli received both before and after the disclosure of this “mistifikacija” naturally centered on questions of feminine psychology and creativity, and the stylistics that might be seen as markedly feminine. Brjusov’s own heightened interest in these issues had already manifested itself in a group of stories written earlier and gathered in the collection Noči i dni, which also came out in 1913. With Stixi Nelli, Brjusov went a step further to make his debut as a woman writer. My paper explores particulars of how the female poetic persona is shaped in the poems written by Brjusov on “Nellie’s” behalf and in critical responses to these purportedly feminine poems. Here we can observe at first hand how expectations and demands placed on women poets of the time were realized poetically by an arbiter of poetic style who was instrumental in shaping constructs of gender of his times even as he mentored aspiring women writers.