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Aleksandr Blok (1880-1921)


Russian poet, playwright, and essayist, a leader of the Russian Symbolists at the turn of the century, and a disillusioned prophet of the Russian Revolution. Blok is considered by many the most important poet after Pushkin. He believed that the artist's role was to serve as intermediary between this and "other worlds," and reveal the purpose of man on earth. Blok's poetry, produced by "the fever of the heart, the cold of mind," was praised for his musical flow of words, dream-like spontaneity, in which sound and repetition were used to evoke mood.

"The battle of Kulikovo is one of the symbolic events in Russian history. Such events are destined to return. The divination of their true significance is still in the future." (Blok in 1912)

Aleksandr Blok was born in St. Petersburg into an aristocratic family of Russian and German descent. His father, A.L. Blok, was a scholar and professor of law at Warsaw University. Aleksandra Beketova, Blok's mother, was a translator and the daughter of the rector of the University of St. Petersburg. The parents divorced when Blok was a small child and he spent his childhood with his grandfather, Andrei Beketov, whose country estate of Shakhmatovo he inherited in 1902. At the University of St. Petersburg, Blok studied law, without success, but then in 1906, he received his degree in philology.

Blok began to write poetry seriously at the age of seventeen. In the early period of his literary career Blok came under the influence of the nineteenth-century philosopher Vladimir Soloviev (1853-1900) and his concept of the Eternal Feminine, Divine Wisdom. In Blok's verse she appeared as the force of good, 'The Beautiful Lady,' an abstract ideal of the feminine spirit. "O, Holy Lady, how the candles are gentle, / How Your features comfort me! / I hear neither sighing nor speaking, / But I believe: the Beloved is Thee" (from 'I Enter Darkened Temples', 1902). Soloviev also influenced the Symbolist poet and theorist Andrey Bely (1880-1934), who had an affair with Blok's wife.

Blok's first book, Stikhi o prekrasnoi dame (Songs to the Beautiful Lady), came out in 1904. The poems reflected the mystical experience that he underwent some years earlier, and his relationship with Lyubov Dmitrievna Mendeleeva, the daughter of the famous chemist Dmitry Mendeleyev. Lyubov inspired Blok's poems, he saw her as the incarnation of divine Sophia. At one point in 1902 Lyubov decided to stop seeing Blok, but they eventually married in 1903. However, the marriage marriage turned out to be an error; Blok, who regularly visited prostitutes, had contracted a venereal disease, and Lyubov engaged in extra-marital affairs. Andrei Bely, whom she abandoned, took his revenge in the novel Petersburg (1916), where the Divine Sophia, Angel Peri, has a "real moustache" upon her lips. In the poem 'The Stranger' Blok views a woman in dual terms as Madonna and Whore. "The primary sign that a given writer is not an accidental or temporary greatness," he wrote in 1909, "is a feeling for the road."

Songs to the Beautiful Lady marked the end of Blok's symbolist worship of spiritual beauty. "Are you evil or good? You are altogether from another world / They say strange things about you / For some you are the Muse and a miracle. / For me you are torment and hell..." (from The Heritage of Russian Verse, ed. by Dmitrii Obolensky, 1965). In Vozmezdie (1910-21) the poet described his marital turmoil: "About valour, glory and fame / I was forgetting on the wretched earth... / Your face in its simple frame / With my own hand I removed from the desk."

After 1905 Blok's exalted visions started to give way to irony and pessimism. Blok's growing sense of loss and despair was exemplified in the Kniga vtoraya (1904-08), which his fellow-Symbolists associated with Dante's Inferno. Na pole Kulikovom (1908) turned to the battle on the field of Kulikovo, and celebrated Russian victory over the Mongols in 1380. The image of the Eternal Feminine was now replaced by Blok's native land, heavenly and divine but at the same time suffering from savagery and backwardness. Balaganchik (The Puppet Show) was a satire on symbolism, which parodied Greek classical tragedy and commedia dell'arte. It was staged in 1906 by the avant-garde director Vsevolod Meyerhold at the Komissarzhevskaia Theater, and also produced in New York and Paris in the 1920s. The set was designed by Nikolai Sapunov. Mihail Kuzmin's songs from the play became popular among the Petersburg elite.

In the simple story Harlequin steals Columbine from Pierrot. On a sleigh-ride she tumbles out into the snow. Harlequin continues his adventures and Pierrot is left on an empty stage. From this material Blok and Meyerhold formed a theatrical tour de force, in which illusions are created and exposed, and finally the seemingly haphazard actions are wrapped in a more beautiful and sad dream. One of the great admirer of the play was Marc Chagall. Pesnya sudby, written in 1908, was rejected by Konstantin Stanislavsky – he felt that the audience would be baffled by it.

Poverty, heavy drinking, and disillusionment with life, combined with his love of Russia, influenced the bitter themes of social protest that mark Blok's later works. From 1908 until 1918 Blok returned over and over again to the difference between his mystical, idealized concept of Russia, and the contrast on the other hand with bureaucratic civil servants, spiritually dead merchants and a conservative bourgeoisie. Zemlia v snegu (1908), his fourth book of poetry, received much attention. Blok was considered a true poet, a visionary, although his prophecy of the approaching destruction was rejected. The public started to call Blok the "poet of Nevsky Prospect." Feeling that he has done everything there is to do, Blok even contemplated suicide.

Blok's travels to Italy in 1909 and to France two years later inspired some of his best works, among them his last major play, Roza i krest (1912, The Rose and the Cross), which was based on a medieval French legend. Although it went through more than 200 rehearsals, it was not staged. Despite some objections by the censor, Neznakomka, a social satire based on Blok's poem from 1906, was eventyally staged in 1914 at the Tenishevsky school. Pesnja sudby (1907-1908, revised in 1919) was not produced.

With the advent of Bolshevism, Blok sought an association with the Communist Party. Like many writers, he supported the 1917 revolution as the fulfilment of a dream, but also regarded it in his own special way as a manifestation of the spirit of music. He joined in the army in 1916 and served behind the front lines in civil defence near Pinsk. In 1917-18 he worked for the provisional government in a commission interrogating Czarist ministers.

Blok's greatest poem, Dvenadtsat' (1918, Twelve), was a kind of apocryphal vision, born from two wars, three revolutions and Civil War, and the poet's dream the create a musical poem from this antimusical chaos. A band of twelve Red guardsmen, apostles of destruction, march in the first winter of Bolshevik Russia through icy streets of Petrograd, looting and killing. They are led by an invulnerable Christ figure, "crowned with a crown of snowflake pearls, / a flowery diadem of frost," who appears beneath a red flag. The Twelve was written in two days in January 1918. It generated controversy, but reportedly sold some two million copies in three years. Blok asks in the beginning and in the end of the poem "What's out ahead?" On the Vatican index, the poem was long banned in Fascist countries, including the Colonels' Greece. Along with The Twelve Blok published The Scythians, in which he swallowed his disgust of Western culture and called for help for the socialist government. "For the last time, old world, we bid you come, / Feast brotherly within our walls. / To share our peace and glowing toil / Once only the barbarian lyre calls." (from The Scythians, 1918)

Shakhmatovo, Blok's "corner of paradise," was sacked in November 1917 and finally went with the Revolution. After 1918 Blok spent much time on government editorial and theatrical commissions. In 1919 he was arrested briefly and nearly executed for supposed counter-revolutionary activities. From 1918 to 1921 he translated books for Gorky's publishing house Vsemirnaja Literatura.

Boris Pasternak met Blok in May 1921, during Blok's last visit in Moscow. Blok was ten year's his senior. He had first read Blok's poetry in 1906; his style represented for Pasternak the spirit of the age. Later in the famous novel Doctor Zhivago the young Zhivago says that the young people in both capitals were mad about Blok". Pasternak himself was called "the true successor to Blok in Russian poetry."

In 1919-21 Blok was chairman of the Bolshoi Theatre and the head of the Petrograd branch of the All-Russian Union of Poets in 1920-21. Blok's mental and physical health started to decline. He had lost his faith in the Revolution and stopped writing poetry. "I'm suffocating, suffocating, suffocating!" he complained to the avant-garde artist Yuri Annenkov. "We're suffocating , we will all suffocate." On the anniversary of Pushkin's death he said, "Peace and freedom are taken away. . . . life has lost its meaning."

Lenin, who read Blok's poems, refused to grant him permission to leave the country. At the Pushkin Festival, on February 1921, Blok made a last plea for the "freedom of creation." Blok died in Petrograd on August 7, 1921, of heart failure brought on by malnutrition. In 1914 Blok had written: "He was wholly on the side of freedom, / he was wholly on the side of light!" Along with his death, the "idealistic" period of the Revolution ended.

Besides writing poems and plays, Blok wrote essays and theatre reviews. The majority of his essays were composed in a highly lyrical, impressionistic style with emotive reasoning. A central conception was the "spirit of music," through which every movement and every culture is born. Blok saw himself as a witness of an historic upheaval, but towards the end he regretted: "I have not heard any new sounds for a long time". Several of his essays appeared in Zolotoe Runo, which he edited from 1907 to 1909, when the magazine was closed. In 'Stikhiia i kul'tura' (1909) he connected revolution with the nation's primordial revenge against alien culture. In 'Intelligentsia i revoliutsiia' in 1918 he argued that the violence of revolution is necessary for Russia's spiritual rebirth. As an aesthete Blok felt uncomfortable when he could not address his favorite readers, the elite, and he was said to have outlived his time. Also the Bolsheviks were disturbed by his independent thinking and his symbolic vagueness. Blok's last essays reached an extremely limited public.

For further reading: Beyond the Flesh: Alexander Blok, Zinaida Gippius, and the Symbolist Sublimation of Sex by Jenifer Presto (2008); Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, vol. 1, ed. by Steven R. Serafin (1999); Aleksandr Blok: A Life by Nina Berberova (1996); Aleksandr Blok Centennial Conference, ed. by Walter N. Vickery (1984); Aleksandr Blok by Konstantin Mochulsky (1983); Aleksandr Blok as Man and Poet by Kornei Chukovsky (1982); Blok: An Anthology of Essays and Memoirs, ed. by Lucy Vogel (1982); Poeziia i proza Aleksandra Bloka by D.E. Maksimov (1981); Aleksandr Blok v vospominaniiakh sovremennikov, ed. by Vladimir N. Orlov (1980, 2 vols.); The Life of Aleksandr Blok by A. Pyman (1979-1980, 2 vols.); Listening to the Wind by James Forsyth (1977); The Poet and the Revolution by S. Haekel (1975); Aleksandr Blok: The Journey to Italy by L. Vogel (1973); Aleksandr Blok by F.D. Reeve (1962); Aleksandr Blok: The Prophet of Revolution by Cecil H. Kisch (1960) - Suom.: Suomennoksia antologioissa Venäjän runotar (1946), 20 Neuvostoliiton runoilijaa (1960) ja Neuvostolyriikkaa 1 (1975).

Selected works:

  • Stikhi o prekrasnoi Dame, 1904
  • Kniga vtoraya, 1904-08
  • Balaganchik, 1906 (play/prod.)
    - The Puppet Show (translated by M. Kriger and Gleb Struve, 1949-50; Timothy C. Westphalen, in Aleksandr Blok’s Trilogy of Lyric Dramas, 2003)
  • Snezhnaja maska, 1907
  • Nechaiannaia radost', 1907
  • Korol na ploshchadi, 1907
    - The King on the Square (translated by Timothy C. Westphalen, in Aleksandr Blok’s Trilogy of Lyric Dramas, 2003)
  • O liubvi, poezii i gosudarstvennoi sluzhbe, 1907 (dramatic dialogue; Dialogue about Love, Poetry, and Government Service)
  • Pesnja sudby, 1907-1908 (play, revised 1919)
  • Liritsheskije dramy, 1908
  • Zemlja v snegu, 1908
  • Primater, 1908 (prod.)
  • Na pole Kulikovom, 1908
  • Korol' na ploshchadi, 1908
  • Liricheskie dramy, 1908
  • Strashnyi mir, 1909-16
  • Vozmezdije, 1910-21
  • Notshnyje tshasy, 1911
  • Sobranie stikhotvorenii, 1911-12 (3 vols.)
  • Pljaski smerti, 1912-14
  • Roza i krest, 1912 (play)
    - The Rose and the Cross (translated by Michael Green, in The Russian Symbolist Theatre: An Anthology of Plays and Critical Texts, 1986) / The Rose and the Cross: Western Esotericism in Russian Silver Age Drama and Aleksandr Blok’s The Rose and the Cross (edited, translated, and with an introduction by Lance Gharavi, 2008) 
  • Skazki, 1913
  • Kruglyi god, 1913
  • Jamby, 1914
  • Neznakomka, 1914 (play/prod.)
    - The Unknown Woman (translated by Timothy C. Westphalen, in Aleksandr Blok’s Trilogy of Lyric Dramas, 2003)
  • Stikhi o Rossii, 1916
  • Kniga pervaia, 1898-1904, 1916
  • Kniga vtoraia, 1904-1907, 1916
  • Dvenadtsat', 1918
    - The Twelve (translated by C.E. Bechhofer, 1920) / Blok’s "Twelve" (translated by Robin Fulton, 1968) / The Twelve and Other Poems (translated by Peter France and Jon Stallworthy, 1970) / The Twelve and the Scythians (translated by Jack Lindsay, with an afterword by Yuri Molok; illustrated by Yuri Annenkov, 1982) / The Twelve (excerpt, translated by Andrey Kneller, in The Stranger: Selected Poetry, 2011)
  • Intelligentsija i Rossija, 1918
  • Skify, 1918
    - The Scythians (translated by Jack Lindsay, 1982)
  • Solov'inyi sad, 1918
  • Iamby, 1919
  • Katilina, 1919
  • Za gran'iu proshlykh dnei, 1920
  • Sedoe utro, 1920
  • Ramzes, 1921 (play)
  • Poslednie dni imperatorskoi vlasti, 1921
  • Stikhotvoreniia, 1921
  • Kniga tret'ia, 1907-1916, 1921
  • Vozmezdie, 1922
  • Otroxheskie stikhi, 1922
  • Sobranie sochinenii, 1923 (7 vols., 10 planned, edited by V.N. Orlov et al.)
  • Dnevnik Anleksandra Bloka, 1911-1913 and 1917-1921, 1928 (2 vols.)
  • Sobranie sochinenii, 1932-36 (12 vols.)
  • Peperiska / Aleksandr Blok – Andrei Belyi, 1940
  • The Spirit of Music, 1946 (translated by I. Freiman)
  • Sobranie sochineniy, 1960-65 (8 vols., edited by S.A. Nebolsin)
  • Selected Poems of Aleksandr Blok, 1968 (edited by James B. Woodward)
  • The Tweve and Other Poems, 1970 (translated by Jon Stallworthy and Peter France)
  • Sobranie sochinenii, 1971 (6 vols.)
  • Selected Poems, 1972 (edited by Avril Pyman)
  • Teatr, 1980
  • Selected Poems, 1981 (translated by Alex Miller)
  • An Anthology of Essays and Memoirs, 1982 (edited by Lucy E. Vogel)
  • O literature, 1989
  • Stikhotvoreniia, 1994 (3 vols.)
  • Ėkho: stikhotvoreniia, 1898-1908 gg, 1995
  • Polnoe sobranie sochinenii, 1997-2003 (v. <1-5, 7 >, edited by M.L. Gasparov, et al.)
  • Selected Poems, 2000 (translated from the Russian by Jon Stallworthy and Peter France)
  • Andrei Belyi i Aleksandr Blok--perepiska 1903-1919, 2001 (edited by A.V. Lavrov)
  • Aleksandr Blok’s Trilogy of Lyric Dramas: A Puppet Show, The King on the Square and The Unknown Woman, 2003 (translated and edited by Timothy C. Westphalen)
  • Pisʹma k Aleksandru Bloku: 1907-1915 / Nikolai Kliuev, 2005 (edited by K.M. Azadovskii)
  • Vse eto bylo, bylo, bylo--: zhiznʹ poeta, rasskazannaia im samim, 2007 (edited by A. Turkov)
  • The Stranger: Selected Poetry, 2011 (translated by Andrey Kneller)

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