Nikolaj Gumilev's "The Sudan": A Response to Post-Colonial Theory

Gwen Walker, University of Wisconsin

Post-colonial theory treats relationships of political, social, and economic power as central to colonial-era discourse, but tends to leave little room for the consideration of other forms of power. The present paper responds to this tendency primarily through a close reading of Nikolaj Gumilev's "The Sudan" (from his African collection, The Tent), a work that challenges terrestrial notions of authority by alluding to a more elevated, indeed celestial, point of reference. In this poem, as often in his depictions of late-colonial Africa, Gumilev draws attention to the efforts of the "horizontal" axis to attain "verticality," that is, to the struggles of some individuals, representing a variety of tribes, nations, races, and classes, to preside one over the other. And in tracing that imaginary plumbline to the highest theoretical coordinates in the postulation of the divine, "The Sudan," like a number of Gumilev's other African works, shows the powers of this world as so surpassed by those of the next as to seem paltry by comparison. Indeed, the very recognition of this disparity, the poem suggests, can itself affect how power is perceived, exercised, and distributed in everyday human life.

The structure of the argument takes a cue from the fact of the poem's publication in two stages (1921 and 1922). In its three original verses, "The Sudan" presents a cross-section of Sudanese society, depicted as sharply tiered and ultimately unstable. To end the poem with that characterization, as Gumilev initially does, is to make a strong statement about social stratification and the impermanence of any one form of rule. In the second edition of The Tent, however, he goes on to add five more verses that transport the lyrical consciousness of "The Sudan" to a whole different plateau of existence. Here he reveals a glimpse of the Creator (or rather his representative, in the form of a celestial "gardener") at work, designing the African landscape and its animal inhabitants. While that image implies a gentle, creative force, the poem's ending also unleashes a more awesome, retributive one in the form of a forest fire that effectively dissolves the distinctions of rank and title so scrupulously observed by people in the opening. The final lines suggest that the peace and equality that now (temporarily) prevail in the Sudan come hand in hand with the humble recognition of a transcendental authority, in this case figured by the native population as Allah. Meanwhile, the narratorial perspective undergoes a similar correction, a decentering and deprivileging of position, which shifts in the course of the poem from a rather commanding view of the various players in late-colonial Africa, to the awareness of an overarching intelligence responsible for the continent's very creation, and finally to the reflection that this higher being might have still more pressing concerns elsewhere in the universe—as the "gardener," completing his work on this planet, departs for the stars.

A study of "The Sudan" points out some of the constraints in post-colonial theory, which by and large seeks to expose the will to power, penetration, and possession in treatments of the colonized "other." Whereas today's critical practices tend to attribute such urges to Western culture alone, Gumilev locates them in a variety of peoples across national and ethnic borders. Further, he conceives of power as an end not only material or psychological, but also spiritual. Indeed, his poem portrays these very different forms of power as interrelated; the observation of a circumambient power may even be a precondition for a more just perception, exercise, and distribution of power on earth. In the present paper, then, I invoke post-colonialism in order to engage with it critically and constructively, while attending closely to the formal and thematic elements of the text itself to suggest a reading that speaks to various fields of interest, including especially Gumilev, colonial discourse, post-colonial theory, and its alternatives.