A life unshackled: Remembering the symbolist poet Zinaida Gippius

Zinaida Gippius was an eminent and significant Russian poet, prose writer and critic. Her poetic and cultural influence went hand in hand with her refusal to conform to prescribed notions of femininity. Admired by writers such as Virginia Woolf and Gertrude Stein, Gippius was a central figure in the established cultural elite of her day, despite being highly subversive. Yet today, in the West, she is all but forgotten.

Born in Belyov, Tula (112 miles south of Moscow), on Nov. 20, 1869, Gippius started writing poetry at an early age. She moved to St. Petersburg in 1889 after marrying Dmitry Merezhkovsky, who was a significant poet, writer and literary critic in his own right. The pair soon became key figures in St. Petersburg’s literary elite, hosting illustrious salon gatherings and becoming acquainted with leading figures such as Maxim GorkyAnton Chekhov and Leo Tolstoy.

Following the October Revolution in 1917 and the subsequent civil war, Gippius and Merezhkovsky joined the exodus of many prominent writers, philosophers and statesmen from Russia, moving to Paris in 1919. They held famous Sunday salons in which Gippius was an authoritative leader, presenting confrontational themes to discuss and directing polemics. In 1927 she hosted the first meeting of the “Zelenya Lampa” – the Green Lamp, considered one of the most important and erudite of the many émigré literary groups during that period.
Gippius was an innovative poet who was firmly at the heart of the first wave of Russian Symbolism, and many subsequent Symbolist poets based their technique on her experiments with rhyme and meter. Symbolist writers saw the written word as a means of apprehending an infinite, transcendental truth, and Gippius played with decadent motifs and themes of the sacred and the profane.
She formulated an ideology that “art should materialize only in the spiritual,” and her spirituality – like many other aspects of her life – was unconventional and linked to a pursuit of spiritual freedom. “My soul is bare, stripped to the purest bareness,” she wrote in her 1905 poem “The Wedding Ring” – “It has escaped, transcended all its bounds.”

Poetry was also a space in which Gippius could escape gender expectations. She often adopted a male persona in her work, and was criticized for using the masculine endings of verbs and personal pronouns. In response she asserted that she wanted to “write poetry not just as a woman but as a human being.”

Gippius treated her life as art and used it as another medium through which to explore her creative philosophy. She had a reputation outside of her circle for being a “decadent Madonna” and was likened to the devil. She did nothing to contradict these labels, associating herself with the gothic figure of the spider and using decadent motifs and imagery throughout her poetry:

The silk flares up in flames,
Then turns to a pool of blood;
“Love” is our paltry word
For the blood language cannot name.
(“The Seamstress,” 1901)

Gippius’s personal style was both elaborate and subversive. She would sometimes wear ostentatiously feminine dress deemed “inappropriate” by many around her, affecting an image and attitude that parodied conventional conceptions of femininity. Andrei Bely, one of the most important Russian symbolists described her as “a human-sized wasp,” going on to say that “a lump of distended red hair … concealed a small, crooked face … the charm of her bony, hipless skeleton recalled a communicant deftly captivating Satan.”

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