THE OTHER

St Petersburg

How Gumilev wrote 'The stray tram'


(Irina Odoevtsova recalls meeting Gumilev the morning after)
I called in for Gumilev at 11 o'clock in the morning, so that we could go together to the House of Arts.

He opened the door of the kitchen to me himself and was unnaturally glad at my coming. He was in some kind of extraordinarily excited state. Even his eyes, which were usually sleepy and dull, shone strangely, as if he was in a fever.

"No, we're not going anywhere," he declared immediately. "I've just come back home and I'm terribly tired. I spent the whole night playing cards and I had some big winnings. We'll stay here and drink tea."

I congratulated him on winning, but he waved a hand at me.

"Nonsense! You can congratulate me, but not on winning. I'm always lucky when it comes to cards, war, and love."

"Always?" I wondered to myself.

But he was already continuing:

"You can congratulate me on the utterly extraordinary poem which I composed on my way home. So unexpectedly." He thought for an instant. "Even now I can't understand how it happened. I was walking over the bridge over the Neva - the sun was rising and there was no one around. And suddenly a tram flew past me, right next to me. It threw up sparks like the fiery trail you see at dawn. I stopped. And I suddenly had a moment of insight, of realization. The wind blew in my face and it was as if I remembered something which had been a long time ago and at the same time seemed to see what would happen in the future. But it was all so muddled and agonizing. I glanced around, not understanding where I was and what was happening to me. I stood for a while on the bridge, holding on to the railings, and then slowly went, in the direction of home. And that was when it happened. I immediately found the first stanza, as if it had been given to me already complete rather than my composing it myself. Listen:

Walking along an unfamiliar street,
Of a sudden I heard ravens cawing
And the sounds of lyres and distant thunder -
In front of me a tram was flying

I continued walking. I continued pronouncing line after line, as if I were reading someone else's poem. Right until the end. Sit down! Sit down and listen!

I sat down there and then at the table in the kitchen, and he, standing in front of me, started to read excitedly:

How I jumped onto its footplate
Was a mystery to me."

This is altogether unlike his earlier poems. It's something altogether new, something that was as yet unfamiliar. I was amazed, but he was amazed every bit as much as me.

When he stopped reading, his hands were shaking, and, stretching them out in front of him, he was looking at them in surprise.

"It must be as a result of the fact that I did not sleep all night, but drank and played cards - I'm a big gambler - and I'm extremely tired, that must be where this mad inspiration came from. I still haven't recovered. My head's spinning. I'll have a lie down on the sofa in the study, and you try to make some tea. Do you think you can?..."

Irina Odoevtseva, On the banks of the Neva

nikolay gumilev by N I Kalita