Certain poets don the mantle of their art only when writing; others, such as the Russian Symbolist Aleksandr Blok (1880–1921), are unceasingly the poet. For his contemporaries, Blok was a mystical figure; his poems, vatic and eschatological. Disposed against the middle way, Blok’s eye scaled the empyrean or plummeted to harsh earthly realities. Likewise marked by extremes has been Blok’s literary reputation: referred to by some as the greatest of twentieth-century Russian poets, Blok is seen by others as a fatuous follower of the revolution. His most famous and controversial poem, “The Twelve,” an ironic, dissonant hymn to the October uprising, was taken by Soviet critics as proof of Blok’s sympathy. Yet it was not Marxism but Blok’s otherworldly idealism—with its characteristic polarities —that brought him first to support, then to reject out of bitter disillusionment, the revolutions of 1905 and 1917. (He would not live to see the resulting repression which engulfed his literary compatriots.)
Blok was nine when Chekhov’s Seagull was written, yet the poet seems prefigured by the character of Treplev—a fiery young man whose deeply felt, personal symbols served as the basis for his art. Like Treplev, Blok began in the theater (performing roles from Shakespeare); unlike Treplev, Blok got to marry his Nina—the actress Lyubov Dmitrievna Mendeleeva in 1903. Lyubov was, for Blok and his colleague Andrei Bely, the Symbolist muse, an embodiment of the poet-philosopher Vladimir Solovev’s “Eternal Feminine.” Solovev’s cult of the Divine Sophia became for Blok and Bely a touchstone to test the ore of poetry; Blok, in what he called his “submission to God and Plato,” wrote with awe of the young girl, Wisdom, the fairy-tale princess, the “desired friend,” the “white sovereign,” and the World Soul. As the late Princeton professor Nina Berberova writes in her posthumously published, informal biography of the poet, for Blok and his circle “contemplation turned into feverish searching, and the symbol of the ‘Woman clothed with the sun,’ was combined with the down-to-earth wisdom of the Gnostics.” Hardly terra firma; Blok’s fixation with his goddess might be likened to Yeats’s moon madness. Of the poems written during this period— over eight hundred of them—a portion were collected as Verses to the Most Beautiful Lady (1904), the poet’s celebration (or deification) of an always-capitalized “She.” Blok’s lyricism took on the quality of prayer in poems such as “I Seek Salvation” (translations of the poems are taken from Jon Stallworthy’s and Peter France’s The Twelve and Other Poems ):
The choir of stars grows weary and falls quiet.
Doubt disappears. The night is done.
There You descend from the far, bright
Waiting for You, I have stretched out my
You bring salvation!
Blok’s poetry in this vein owes as much to the romantic tradition as the modern; repeatedly, Blok, through the lyric “I” or masked behind various personae, appears as the questing hero, though a hero increasingly tinged with the tragic. Shortly after his first book appeared, Blok’s world view grew clouded: still present was the poems’ visionary tenor, but he began to eschew the ideal of the Beautiful Lady in favor of the “Unknown Woman,” a perfumed slattern in Blok’s native Petersburg. Natural settings were replaced by oneiric horrors of the metropolis:
And every evening, past the level-
crossing, the jocular swells,
bowlers tilted at a rakish angle,
stroll between ditches with their girls.
Over the lake the rowlocks scraping
and women screeching can be heard,
and in a sky inured to everything
the moon leers down like a drunkard.
Blok’s marriage had begun to falter, and he took refuge in the bars. Often thought of as a prophet of the revolution, Blok first imagined the events of 1905 as corresponding to the Beautiful Lady acting in history; he quickly came to speak of them, however, in terms of the ominous Unknown Woman. Berberova describes Blok’s downward spiral:
Blok aligned himself with everything that must perish; he observed in himself the slide toward destruction. His anguish was the world’s; the next disaster would be the end of everything he loved, the end of the Petersburg era, … the end of society, of a set of ideas which would be destroyed by the same fatal, implacable force which was destroying his own hearth.
Blok’s premonition of the coming storm was realized in 1917. He again began listening to the music of the revolution and recorded its charivari in “The Twelve,” a poem written in January 1918 in which a dozen Red Guards march through a blizzard led, finally, by the figure of Christ (Trotsky thought the image should have been changed to Lenin leading the twelve). A paean to the revolution, the poem is also deeply ambiguous—praise mingles with mockery, and the whole is blanketed in a mist of irony. The poem was among the last Blok would write. Immediately following publication of “The Twelve” many of his friends deserted him. He died on August 7, 1921, within days of his fellow poet Nikolai Gumilev’s arrest under the new regime; Gumilev, the first husband of Anna Akhmatova, was later shot. The poet Nadezhda Pavlovich, who saw Blok at the time of his death, commented that “over the last few days … he has lost his mind.” Blok envisioned the twilight of the old world in “The Twelve,” but even the prescient poet could not foresee the ensuing political darkness or the tragic fate of his poetic successors the Acmeists: think of the much-suffering Akhmatova, think of Mandelshtam.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 15 Number 2, on page 73
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