Gumilev’s Don Juan and its Literary Antecedents

Francoise Rosset, Wheaton College

This paper proposes to lead the audience through a detailed discussion of Gumilev’s treatment of Don Juan, with particular reference to the Don Juan myth in literature and to the aspects of the tradition which influenced Gumilev’s version. In his narrative poem “Pjatistopnye jamby” (“Iambic Pentameter”), a text traditionally considered a thinly veiled recounting and reworking of his relationship to wife and fellow poet Anna Axmatova, Gumilev lists several indicators of sorrow, among them “Čto Don Žuan ne vstretil Donnu Annu…” (“that Don Juan was not able to meet with Donna Anna…”).

This not the only mention of Don Juan, for Gumilev wrote an entire play on the subject as well as a famous poem entitled Don Žuan, and it is one of the premises of this paper that Gumilev saw the character of Don Juan as an especially emblematic personage, caught between enjoyment and remorse, alone while surrounded to by women and even men whose company cannot redeem him: “čto ja, nenužnyj atom,/ ja ne imel ot ženščiny detej,/ i nikogda ne zval mužčhinu bratom.”

The purpose of the paper is to discuss which literary antecedents hold particular significance for Gumilev’s Don Juan. The obvious first subtext would be the original appearance of Don Juan in the Spanish play that introduced him, Tirso de Molina’s El Burlador de Sevilla. But even more relevant are a version closer to Gumilev’s own tradition, that is, Puškin’s short drama, and finally, a short story which emphasized Don Juan’s conversion into a possibly repentant monk, Prosper Mérimée’s Les âmes du purgatoire. These are some – not all – of the key precursors of Gumilev’s version of Don Juan.