Study Guide

A History of Russian Symbolism

by Avril Pyman

A History of Russian Symbolism Summary

Summary (Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

In Century’s End: A Cultural History of the Fin de Siècle from the 990s to the 1990s (1990), Hillel Schwartz tells us that the phrase fin de siècle made its “popular debut” in France late in 1885. From France it spread rapidly throughout Europe and even to the United States, so that by 1891 an Atlantic Monthly contributor was complaining that “Everywhere we are treated to dissertations on fin-de-siècle literature, fin-de-siècle statesmanship, fin-de-siècle morality.”

The fin de siècle was protean in its aspects. Seen from one perspective, the 1890’s were “years of nervousness, decadence, boredom, and thrill-seeking, suicide and Ferris wheels, faithlessness and occult philosophies, anarchy and artificiality.” Some saw the waning of the century as emblematic of the end of an epoch in Europe’s history. Meditations on the close of the nineteenth century mixed with prophecies about the century to come. The prospect of radical change, heralded by stunning technological developments, was celebrated by some, while others regarded it with foreboding.

Throughout Europe the arts were strongly marked by the fin de siècle. In Russia, this mood was most strongly expressed in the Symbolist movement. In A History of Russian Symbolism, Avril Pyman traces the history of this movement from its beginnings in 1892 to 1910, when the “Symbolist rebellion against utilitarianism and simplistic belief in progress” began to open out “into a delta of many streams.” Pyman, author of a two-volume biography of the poet Aleksandr Blok (The Life of Aleksandr Blok, 1979-1980), the greatest figure in the Symbolist movement, defines her approach here as “that of the chronicler rather than the critic.” She quotes extensively from the works of the Symbolists, both poetry and prose (poems are given in Russian with English translation). The main text is supplemented by a thirty-page year-by-year chronology, which is very helpful; this is followed by notes, a primary bibliography, and an unusually full index. A tour de force of meticulous scholarship, Pyman’s book will be indispensable to students of Russian literature and of the fin de siècle.

Russian Symbolism took its name from the French movement associated with Stéphane Mallarmé, Paul Verlaine, and others (and strongly influenced by Charles Baudelaire). As Pyman shows, however, many previous treatments of Russian Symbolism have exaggerated the influence of the French movement. (Consider for example the beginning of the entry on Symbolism in the Handbook of Russian Literature, edited by Victor Terras, 1985: “a literary movement which originated in France and which had ramifications in several national literatures and a florescence in Russia between 1900 and 1910.”) “Russian Symbolism was not an imitation of the French,” Pyman writes, “but part of a wider European movement” of the fin de siècle. It needs to be seen in that larger context and, at the same time, in the context of specifically Russian matters—in particular, the demand for a socially concerned “literature of the people.”

The founding manifesto of Russian Symbolism was Dimitrii Merezhkovsky’s “On the Reasons for the Decline and on New Trends in Russian Literature,” a set of two lectures delivered at the end of 1892 in Saint Petersburg and published at his own expense in 1893. Earlier in 1892, a collection of poems by Merezhkovsky, entitled Simvoly (symbols), had been published. In his lectures, Merezhkovsky suggested that art offers access to realities that cannot be comprehended by science or any other form of strictly rational...

(The entire section is 1501 words.)