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
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
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
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
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
Is a guest – equally welcomed – in conversation at a
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.