Love and Gender: The Literary Context and Subtext of Gumilev's "Zhestokoj"

Francoise Rosset, Wheaton College

In his collection Chuzhoe nebo, Nikolaj GumilĪv dedicates the second portion, or about half the cycle, to Anna Axmatova. Axmatova was his wife at the time. It was of course tempting to read many of the poems as a documentary record of their relationship, and this is indeed what happened in the early commentaries on both GumilĪv and Axmatova's work. However, the emphasis has long shifted to more specifically subtextual and intertextual points of view. This paper will analyze the cycle, but particularly "Zhestokoj," in terms of general gender identity and relationships, in this poem and in several of its explicit literary antecedents.

"Zhestokoj" is one of several poems in this cycle focusing on the difficulties of male-female relationships. But here the woman addressee is initially portrayed as a potential lesbian who may prefer "the tender touch of women's hands alone," since she refuses the male speaker's advances. This simplistic initial tableau is quickly complicated by the poem, which moves to defend the woman and ends with a compelling evocation of the world of Sappho and Lesbos. It has been noted before that, within intellectual circles at least, Russia in the 1900s was far more sexually tolerant than the subsequent Soviet era. This sexual tolerance was a more broadly European turn-of-the-century phenomenon and an explicit part of the literary and artistic culture of the time. It is reflected in "Zhestokoj" and its literary antecedents.

The particular images and language of the poem reflect several specific literary subtexts. These include Ovid's version of the story of Sappho; poems by RenČe Vivien, the French translator/popularizer of Sappho and an immensely popular figure in French literary circles of the time. "Zhestokoj" and its attitude towards Lesbos also directly echoes Baudelaire's "Epaves", the poems originally censored out of Les Fleurs du mal; several of these present Sappho and Lesbos as an alternate but legitimate "gender reality." Finally, there are specific correspondences between "Zhestokoj" and a few poems by Axmatova. The intent of this paper is to discuss the internal movement of the poem and its place in its cycle in light of this rich literary context.