- Armenian Literature, History, Religion
Hovhannes Tumanyan

Hovhannes Tumanyan


1869 – 1923

Alternative spellings: Toumanian, Tumanian, Toumanyan

Writers are destined to play a role in the history of their nation’s literature. It is the rare few who play a special role, also, in their nation’s spiritual life. Hovhannes Tumanyan has played such a role in Armenian literature. He has portrayed the Armenian people’s national character, their history, their dreams, and their most sacred ideals with depth and clarity through his writings. He was called the “pan-Armenian poet” during his lifetime and until today his popularity still remains great. His works are loved not only in Armenia, but also far from its borders. In every place where Armenians live, his words emit the aroma of his homeland.

In 1916 Valeryi Bryusov (1873-1924), an exceptional Russian poet who admired Armenian culture, said, “Tumanyan’s poetry is Armenia itself, ancient and new, resurrected and portrayed in poems by a great master.” In the Northern part of Armenia there is a land with extraordinary natural beauty known as the Lori region, which possesses an abundance of forest infested mountains with portentous peaks that attempt to meet the sky. These mountains host villages at their feet and a gaping gorge, where the river Debet flows, making faint musical reverberations.

Hovhannes Tumanyan was born on February 19, 1869 in Dsegh, one of the villages of Lori. His father was the local parish priest. Later Tumanyan would write: “The most precious and the best thing that I had in life was my father. He was honest and the most noble man. Extremely altruistic and generous, witty, cheerful, sociable, at the same time he always maintained an air of deep seriousness.” The future writer inherited a priceless legacy from his father.

Since his early years Tumanyan realized how bitter was the life of the Armenian peasant and understood his dreams and burdens. He grew up with the fairy tales, parables and legends of his people. The folklore and beauty of Lori became an integral part of his work and an inseparable part of his spiritual life which he was to later reflect in his writing.

This fruitful bond between the poet and his people persisted until the end of his life, despite the fact that almost his entire life (since 1883) Tumanyan lived far from Lori in city of Tiflis, a political and cultural center in the Transcaucasus.

Tumanyan began his education in Lori, and then attended one of the best Armenian schools of the time, the Nersisyan School from which he, unfortunately, had to leave when his father took ill and died. At age 16, two years before graduation, he ended his formal education and returned to Dsegh to care for his family. At age 19 Tumanyan married and eventually fathered ten children. In need of finances to support his family, he was obliged to do work not fitting to his talents and intellect where the atmosphere stifled him to the point where he later remembered those days as “hell.” In the mid 1890s Tumanyan left that ‘hell’ in order to focus all his time to writing.

Tumanyan was persistent in successfully educating himself through his avid reading. He revered Shakespeare’s works, as well as Byron, Pushkin, and Lermontov’s prose and poetry. He had a keen interest in world folklore, and with the sensitivity of a folklore writer, he retained the integrity of Armenian cultural history, escaping foreign influences in his writing. “I always had a faithful and reliable guide: my intuition,” Tumanyan said.

Tumanyan started writing when he was 10-11 years old, but only became known as a poet in 1890, when his first poetry collection was published. Even in this early book one can clearly see all the freshness that Tumanyan brought to Armenian literature with his poetry.

By the beginning of the 20th century, Tumanyan had rewritten and developed his earlier works and had written new poetry and prose. He emerged as an accomplished artist, who brought a fresh spirit and quality to Armenian literature.

This fresh spirit and quality came from his principal attitude towards poetry rather than external poetic form (where Tumanyan was often quite traditional). He brought poetry closer to the people. This stage of development in Armenian literature justifiably is referred to as the “Tumanyan phase.”

Tumanyan’s inspiration came from everyday ordinary activities of the people. The heroes of his works are simple villagers. He reveals such qualities as indestructible strength of thought, beauty and richness of feelings, wisdom and depth. Life was harsh for villagers who endured unwritten patriarchal laws and prejudice and the reign of unjust oppression. Facing these difficulties, Tumanyan’s heroes often die a tragic death. While depicting these sad realities, Tumanyan, at the same time, discovers and exposes true poetry, purity of feelings, integrity, and inextinguishable determination towards justice among his heroes. The images created by Tumanyan move the reader even today with their truthful reality, but especially move the reader delicately to profound compassion for truth and beauty in the human experience.

Among the works that portray the times in which Tumanyan lived, are his poem, “Anush” and the story “Gikor.” These are celebrated works for the contemporary reader. “Anush” is often called the pinnacle of Tumanyan’s poetry, and “Gikor,” –of his prose.

“Anush” tells about the tragic love of a young shepherd boy (Saro) for a girl (Anush). The poem portrays the spiritual richness of heroes, their inner feelings, their endless devotion to one another, and their youthful selflessness and readiness to self-sacrifice. Tumanyan, at the same time, while giving a spiritual picture, gives a broad picture of the cultural life of the people, depicting daily activities and customs, their joys and sorrows, and their vision of the world. In essence, he unveils the national character of the Armenian people. It is no wonder that V. Bryusov remarked that to the non-Armenian reader the acquaintance with Tumanyan’s poetry (for example his “Anush”) renders more knowledge about Armenia and the life of her people, than tomes of special reference texts. “Gikor” is the tale of a 12-year-old peasant boy who goes to the city and succumbs to the cruelty of those that surround him there. The entire story is extremely dramatic, abounding in lyrical quality with simultaneous touches of happiness and sadness.

Before Tumanyan there was no one who could extract poetry from things seemingly not poetic and banal as he could. No one came forth with his kind of skill and talent to expose complex human characters in their entire tragedy and beauty.

Especially valuable is Tumanyan’s contribution to Armenian epic poetry. Armenian poetry has a very rich ancient tradition, and its lyrical aspects are especially powerful. Among the luminary giants are the great poet of the 10th century, Grigor Narekatsi, wonderful poet Nahapet Kuchak of the Middle Ages, the great troubadour, Sayat-Nova (17th century) who sang of love, and last, but not least, extraordinary poets of the 19th century, who created before Tumanyan (P. Duryan, H. Hovhannisyan, etc.). Tumanyan’s poetic talent is first of all seen in epic settings, in portrayal of sharp, dramatic situations and bold, strong characters. His numerous ballads and poems are among the best samples of the world’s epic poetry for perfect form and most especially due to the richness of the life and philosophical depth portrayed in them.

As a true artist Tumanyan never preached, yet his works are etched with deep philosophical reasoning. He was constantly concerned with issues of life and death, the purpose of human life, and man’s connection with Nature. Tumanyan loved “straying into eternity” trying to find answers to questions that preoccupied him, trying to penetrate into the “secrets of the universe.” His poem “Into Infinity” and his quatrains written during the last years of his life are of exceptional value in this regard. Tumanyan’s entire personal and artistic experience is concentrated in these quatrains. These miniatures eloquently express his emotions and his inner thoughts about people and their destiny. One of the main thoughts of this great poet-humanist is that human beings by their moral essence must deserve harmony and natural beauty as he expresses in the following lines:

What else is needed if freedom and love we possess?
What are you looking for if you can’t even make a step without suffering?
Oh fool! When will the hour come when you will take all that
We’re gifted with, even not for long, without suffering?

Not since Grigor Narekatsy has any Armenian poet created such rich spiritual content as Tumanyan. More than any one of his predecessors Tumanyan opened the floodgates for Armenians to discover the folklore from different nations. He artfully used folk images, plots and motives from other cultures and introduced them into Armenian literature without imitation, without repetition. He selected material from various folk sources, reshaping it in his own way and created a completely new work of art. Tumanyan always placed his principles of integrity and ideals into each of his literary adaptations of folk art. Based on several versions of the Armenian epos he wrote the “David of Sassoon” epic poem, which today is still considered the best artistic adaptation of the Armenian national epos. Using the historical legend, Tumanyan created one of his masterpieces – “The Capture of the Tmuk Fortress,” a poem, about beauty and immortality. It lauds patriotism and the strength of love that is able to inspire an act of great achievement – an act of great courage.

Tumanyan’s ballad, “Parvana,” is also a gem! Using the legendary plot, Tumanyan asserts the idea of eternal human strife for perfection. Many of Tumanyan’s ballads and tales originate from folk sources and it is generally accepted that Tumanyan’s best tale is “Brave Nazar” – a tale, which the poet wrote using about 20 versions of the same plot, including non-Armenian versions. This tale ridicules those people who idolize undeserving people and raise them into rulers. Later these ‘rulers’ incite wars, spread violence and tyranny and make people suffer. The tale is remarkable for its sharp satire, keen and witty detailed observations, and its depth and wisdom. Tumanyan himself, who always evaluated his creative work very modestly, said that he was ready to present this tale for judgment before the entire literary world! And indeed, “Brave Nazar” is one of the best examples of folktale genre worldwide.

Tumanyan radically altered the ideas about the poetic world that prevailed in literature before him. He renounced the inconsequential and weak elements and conventionality. “The art must be clear and lucid like the eye, and as the eye complex as well,” the poet said. And his entire work is a vivid representation of this thought. Tumanyan’s word is amazingly simple, natural and at the same time poetically inspired and beautiful, wise and deep; it comes from the energetic elements of native language. It is not by mere chance that dozens of phrases and expressions from Tumanyan’s works have become a natural part of people’s everyday language, their sayings, adages, and maxims. This is what made Tumanyan the greatest national poet of the Armenian nation. A renowned Armenian poet, Avetik Isahakyan (1875-1957) wrote about his contemporary, “Like a stream he descended from the wild mountains of the legendary Lori, bringing along the entire world of nature – splendid and diverse, and the ancient nation with its songs and speech, feelings and imagination. And like the nature – the great designer – he opened before our soul a sincere and genuine poetry. In the beginning this torrent was spontaneous and wild, but with time it brightened, became crystal and flowed into those wonderful legends and poems that amount to eternal glory and elevate to the unsurpassed peak of our literature.”

Tumanyan had a fundamental understanding that in art the national and the common to all mankind are closely related, and such thoughts and ideals, which are precious and understandable for all nations will be expressed only when the life and the national character of the native people are portrayed. The poet himself said: “The closer the writer is to his own nation and the deeper he digs into its folklore, the greater is his greatness and the meaning of his work for mankind.” Tumanyan’s own literary heritage is a brilliant confirmation of these words. He created masterpieces, in which he immortalized noble human aspirations – sublime dreams of happiness and justice, of the beautiful and ideal. And if today Tumanyan is not very well known to the worldwide reader, the only reason for that is the fact that his
works did not find an appropriate literary realization in translations.

Tumanyan was never an “armchair” poet. He was always in the “thick of things” and in the center of all the important events of his time. His time witnessed stormy upheavals: international conflicts in the Caucasus; World War I; the genocide of Armenians in Turkey; revolutions; and civil wars. Tumanyan wouldn’t have been Tumanyan if he had remained aloof and simply wrote poetry. Thousands upon thousands of voices of his people echoed their hopes and sufferings in his heart. “I live and agonize with everybody, I suffer for all,” he wrote. The following poem is another example of his enduring bond with his people and nation:

The Armenian Grief

The Armenian grief is a shoreless sea,
An enormous abyss of water;
My soul swims mournfully
On this huge and black expanse.
It prances at times – enraged,
And looks for the shore – blue and serene,
Where sometimes, it wearily dives deeply
Looking for fathomless rest;
But it will never reach the bottom of this sea.
It will never reach the shore.

In the Armenian grief – on the black expanse
My soul lives and mourns…

Lest it be found a more profound expression of the relationship between the artist and his nation. There are two images passing through this poem – the image of an endless, bottomless sea, which embodies the immeasurability of the nation’s suffering, and the image of the poet, who grieves for his nation and feels the weight of the sorrow with his entire heart. The poet is an inseparable part of this sea of grief, the center of national suffering, expectations and hopes.

With full authority Tumanyan can be called a crusader for universal human brotherhood. He considered aiding the establishment of peace among nations as his highest duty. Most of all he was concerned with the relations of the people of the Caucasus’ nations – Armenians, Georgians and Azeris. He constantly called them to friendship, to peaceful life. When the Armenian-Turkish slaughter started in the Caucasus in 1905-1907 and thousands of peaceful citizens fell prey to the blind fanaticism that the nationalist governments waged, Tumanyan actively involved himself, writing appeals. He risked his life visiting regions where the slaughter took place, convincing and proving that the bloodshed and hatred were in vain. Sometimes his voice was heard. In one of his letters Tumanyan wrote: “Today I am not so satisfied with the fact that I did something in literature, but with the fact that I could bring to peace the nations who rose against one another and could save innocent people from a barbarous slaughter.” Tumanyan again was in the “thick of things” when WW I started and the unprecedented genocide was waged in Western Armenia. Twice he left for the Caucasian front and dealt with the problem of relocation for thousands of refugees and orphans. On numerous occasions he declared that neither sword nor blood, but principles of reason and justice should be means for conflict resolution among nations. Tumanyan himself acted based on these principles in 1918 during the Armenian-Georgian clashes and in 1921 during the civil war (sovietization) in Armenia. His pacifist mission helped hasten settlement of the conflicts.

Tumanyan’s humanitarian and literary works call forth for friendship and brotherhood among nations, and the condemnation of wars of annexation. The ballad “A Drop of Honey” is characteristic in this sense. It is based on an Armenian tale from the Middle Ages that tells how a spilled drop of honey caused bloodshed between two people who lived in neighboring villages, and then – between those two villages, and then between states. Tumanyan used this fable to react to the most troubling issues of the 20th century. “A Drop of Honey” is an extraordinary satire on pointless and unjust wars that are instigated by belligerent monarchs and “patriotic”demagogues, who speak in the name of God and justice. The poet considered that the establishment of a long-lasting peace in the world should be based on the national outlook on the world, and on its accurate intuition. “The egotism of an office politician and sick nervousness of leaders is alien to nations. People live in nature, merged with it, and they are guided by life experience accumulated during centuries,” Tumanyan wrote in 1919. After a year he added: “And our great comfort is that not the common people, but their leaders are responsible for all these disasters and misfortune. And the faster their rule weakens, the faster the nations will become more conscious, and their contacts with each other – closer. The sooner the power and rights pass to the people, to the workers, the sooner the suffering will decrease, and with time will entirely stop.” With this indestructible belief Tumanyan waited for new times and welcomed them. Addressing the neighboring nations, he wrote:

On the periphery of the past years,
The dawn of future days rises!
So let us sing as one
A hymn of splendor for the sunrise!
Let light that song be,
Let it rock the distance –
So that the voice of evil drowns
In all the corners of the world.

Tumanyan considered, that the highest mission of literature is to awaken friendly relations among nations. It is “in literature where the best feelings of a nation, of its national genius and spirit are mirrored.” According to Tumanyan’s beliefs, art is a great force which should help people to achieve perfection and to lead them “towards a high sense of altruism and brotherhood.”

Hovhannes Tumanyan was hospitalized in Moscow during one of his humanitarian trips. During his illness, his thoughts constantly traveled back to his native land. He had passionately wanted to live long enough to finish all that he had started and to complete his unfinished poems, tales, legends, and stories. It was not to be. He passed away in March 1923 far from his beloved Lori.

Tumanyan’s works became a fundamental ingredient in the Armenian nation’s spiritual world. It is difficult to evaluate what influence his magnificent works will have on the further development of Armenian culture. The valuable and genuinely Armenian national literature that has been created during past decades is either directly or in some way related to Tumanyan’s traditions. One of the most remarkable Soviet Armenian poets, Egishe Charents (1897-1937), called Tumanyan “the greatest of all the Armenian poets, a patriarch of new Armenian poetry.” Charents dedicated inspirational lines to Tumanyan:

While reading him I came to realize that Lori’s genius son
Is a guest – equally welcomed – in conversation at a feast
With Homer, and with Goethe…

Charents himself owes his literary growth to Tumanyan, as do many other Armenian writers who stepped onto the literary path that Tumanyan had enlightened with the rays of his genius, like a bright star guiding them throughout their entire literary lives.

Tumanyan’s work gave inspiration and inexhaustible material for the Armenian stage and musical arts. His works have been staged on numerous occasions in various theatres and portrayed by painters. They inspired Armenian composers who wrote music of different genres based on the motives of his works – from songs to opera to ballet. Two national operas have been staged based on Tumanyan’s “Anush and “The Capture of the Fortress of Tmuk”. A. Tigranyan’s “Anush” and A. Spendiaryan’s “Almast” (drawn from “The Capture of the Fortress of Tmuk”) have become all time favorites.

“Each poet, first of all, should be the heart of his people,” Tumanyan wrote. His life’s work attests to this virtue. The Armenian people forever carry in their hearts the image of Tumanyan and his wise words. In Armenia everyone knows Hovhannes Tumanyan, both the youth and the aged; with every new reader Tumanyan shares the inexhaustible treasures of his soul and mind. Here in, rests his true immortality.

E. Jrbashyan


Translated by: Isabella Ter-Hovhannisyan
Edited by: Ruth Bedevian

See also: in in Russian
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