In his poem 'Hymn to the Gods' ('Гимн богам', 1913), Valery Bryusov (1873–1924), one of the founders of Russian Symbolism, exclaims:
… and mortals, with timid delight,
Greet in eternal images of myth what was, what is and what will be.
May you, o Olympic gods, keep your power over the world now and forever!1
Myth, presented here as the ultimate vessel for the eternal essence of poetry, is a key to Bryusov's verse, with its outstanding cross-cultural versatility, tendency for dramatic plots and visionary plasticity. For an in-depth understanding of Bryusov's mythological poetry, it is illuminating to consider it in the context of the poet's French models. Much has been written about Bryusov's connection to major French Symbolists such as Mallarmé, Verlaine and Rimbaud; yet two figures that constitute maybe equally vital links between the Russian poet and French Symbolism have been largely overlooked or underestimated hitherto: José-Maria de Heredia (1842–1905), a key exponent of the Parnassian poetic school, and Gustave Moreau (1826–1898), often recognized as a pioneer in the Symbolist use of myth in painting.2 Moreau's art was deeply inspirational for Heredia's sonnet collection LesTrophées (1893), which went on to influence Bryusov in his adaptation of the French Symbolist aesthetic to Russian poetry.
Bryusov knew the primary mythological material extremely well, especially classical mythologies. Yet the poetic transformation of myth in his art was greatly indebted to the French artists, who were among the first to contribute to the fin de siècle resurgence of myth. I shall argue that a consideration of Bryusov's mythological verse in the light of selected works by Heredia and Moreau enables us to reconcile two apparently incompatible tendencies in the Russian poet's work: on [End Page 325] the one hand, Bryusov's Symbolist modernity, with its haziness and esotericism and, on the other hand, a Parnassian, even classical or allegorical clarity repeatedly noted by his critics. Instead of questioning Bryusov's status as a true Symbolist, as has been done earlier,3 our comparative analysis will highlight the organic connection between Parnassianism and Symbolism in his verse. In a broader context, this may shed light on the ways in which the classical aesthetic ideals, rooted in antiquity and the Renaissance, were not merely rejected, but fruitfully re-worked in Symbolist art.
Symbolism, as the movement emerging in European literature and art in the 1880s and christened so in particular by Jean Moréas's 'Manifesto' (1886), tends to investigate the irrational, subjective world of emotions, fantasies and dreams, in opposition to the 'objective' approach of the contemporary Naturalist movement. Symbolist art is often associated with an esoteric, ambivalent mode of expression, a decorative aesthetics and a Decadent outlook. The generic distinction between Symbolism and Decadence is especially relevant to Bryusov. According to Grossman, Bryusov, inspired by Z. Vengerova in 1892, initially saw Decadence as 'the larger phenomenon relating to world outlook and lifestyle' characteristic of fin de siècle Europe, while Symbolism was for him 'specifically the artistic method developed to express the perceptions, intuitions, and feelings of Decadence'.4 However, as we shall see, Decadence in the usual sense, as the perverse spirit of a society in decline, is not necessarily a prerequisite of Symbolism – and in particular Bryusov's Symbolism. Significantly, the poet appears to have equated Decadence with the modern spirit of fin de siècle culture, a rather wide and vague notion.5 Indeed, by the end of 1893, Bryusov wrote that the language of the Decadents 'was not an essential element of Symbolism' (Grossman, p. 91). He grew progressively less enthusiastic about Decadence with time.
It is thus not too surprising that Bryusov was drawn not just to Mallarmé, Verlaine and Rimbaud, but equally to Heredia, in whose poetry with...