Cultural Dialogs Across Continents and Time: Adaptations of Chinese Verse by Judith Gautier and Nikolaj Gumilev

Maria Rubins, Rice University

This paper will address the peculiar way in which Russian Modernism took Oriental motifs as one of its identifying features but presented Asia largely through the medium of Western European interpretations. The leading Acmeist, Nikolaj Gumilev, is a case in point, as his 1918 collection The Porcelain Pavilion contained versified adaptations of French translations from Chinese classical poetry. Gumilev’s immediate source was The Book of Jade, published in 1867 by Judith Gautier, a fiction writer and an accomplished Sinologist.

French art of the middle of the nineteenth century was marked by an intense creative exploration of the Far East, and the “chinoiserie” style also became pervasive in literature. This style survived into the turn of the twentieth century, when stylization of the East was incorporated into the Art Nouveau movement. Art Nouveau came to Russia from the West, notably from France, a country with which Russian artists traditionally maintained close ties. It was only natural that they should turn to the medium of French culture in their assimilation of Oriental themes, promoted by Art Nouveau. Gumilev was no exception, as he traveled to France in 1917 in order to discover the beauty and aesthetic potential of Chinese verse through French translations.

Judith Gautier, who was fluent in Chinese, carefully rendered a number of Tang Dynasty texts in rhythmic prose, aiming primarily to introduce Chinese verse, still a largely unexplored area at the time, to the French cultural elite. Gumilev, who did not know Chinese, used Gautier’s The Book of Jade as a mere starting point for his collection, which is no slavish translation, but an independent work of literature. Although the theme, plot, and mood of each piece are conserved, the structure of Gumilev’s book, the use of versification in lieu of rhythmic prose, and the emphasis on metapoetic content all betray the Russian poet’s original agenda.

In this paper, I will analyze why classical Chinese poetry became a vehicle for the expression of Gumilev’s aesthetic sensibilities, as well as how the ideals of art for art’s sake, the careful crafting of verse, and leisurely creativity, so prominent in these texts, reflect the poet’s stance with respect to the political turmoil of revolutionary Russia. Ultimately, Gumilev’s example will emerge as an illustration of yet another form of Modernist cultural exchange between Russia and the West.