Blok, Aleksandr (Aleksandrovich)
Aleksandr (Aleksandrovich) Blok 1880–1921
Russian poet, dramatist, essayist, critic, and autobiographer.
The leading figure of the Russian symbolist movement, Blok is considered the outstanding poet of the final years of Imperial Russia. While Blok's early poems reveal his efforts to find the true essence of reality in beauty, his later poetry is more concrete, frequently focusing on Russia, its history, and its future. Despite the shifting focus of his poetry, however, Blok retained the visionary outlook characteristic of the symbolists, and his ultimate source of inspiration remained constant as well. All of his poetry is infused with what he called the "spirit of music": an emotional and intellectual sense of exaltation and vivacity, and the fount of all creativity. Blok is today best remembered as the creator of the controversial Dvenadsat' (1918; The Twelve), praised as the greatest poetic celebration of the October Revolution.
Born on the grounds of St. Petersburg University, Blok spent his childhood at Shakhmatovo, a small estate outside Moscow that belonged to his maternal grandfather. His parents, Alexandra Andreyevna and Alexander L'vovich, a brilliant lawyer, separated shortly before his birth, and Blok had slight contact with his father throughout his life. Raised in a cultured and literary atmosphere, first at Shakhmatovo and later in St. Petersburg, Blok was a mediocre student who much preferred the intellectual stimulation he found at home to his school work. At his father's insistence, he entered the School of Law at St. Petersburg University in 1898, the same year he fell in love with Lyubov Dmitrevna Mendeleeva, his future wife. Eventually changing his course of study from law to philology, Blok devoted much of his college years to composing poetry and studying the writings of the mystical philosopher and poet Vladimir Soloviev. For Blok, Lyubov was the incarnation of Soloviev's concept of the Eternal Feminine—Sophia, who represented eternal love and wisdom. Blok became the center of an admiring coterie of rising symbolist poets who worshipped his wife as the "Beautiful Lady," a figure Blok apotheosized in his poems of the early 1900s. However, by the time Blok's first collection of verse, Stikhi o prekrasnoi dame (1905), was published, his marriage had deteriorated. Lyubov had fallen in love with Andrey Biely—Blok's friend and a fellow symbolist. From this point on, the rarefied wonder of Blok's early verse gave way to earthbotind pessimism: his poetry, as well as his dramas, revealed his self-destructive bitterness. During the last decade of his life, Blok gradually abandoned mortal women in his search for Sophia, and he began to turn to Russia itself as his new ideal. His verse increasingly evidenced his concern for his country's culture and destiny, most strikingly in The Twelve.
Critics often divide Blok's poetic career into three periods. His earliest poems were inspired by Soloviev's writings on Sophia, as well as by his wife, in whom he found Sophia reborn. In these works, which were written primarily between 1898 and 1904, Blok addresses a "Beautiful Lady" who is the incarnation of the divine and the object of ideal love. The imagery of the poems—twilight skies, delicate rains, wispy clouds, and golden landscapes—reinforces the ethereal qualities Blok perceived in his beloved. By the time Stikhi o prekrasnoi dame was published, Blok was suffering from an emotional crisis that had a significant impact on the direction his poetry was to take. Disillusioned by his inability to reconcile his ideal visions with the coarse nature of reality, Blok sought an outlet for his frustrations in St. Petersburg night life. Drinking escapades with gypsies, womanizing, and reckless passion became the new subjects of his poetry. Like the poems of the first period, these verses reveal Blok's obsession with the feminine ideal. In these later works, however, Blok seeks out his beloved in the material rather than the spiritual world: in taverns, brothels, and city tenements. Again, the imagery of the poems—snowstorms, howling winds, and the darkness of night—reflects the poet's emotional state. In the most famous poem from this period, "Neznakomka" (1907; "The Unknown Lady," a title he also used for a later drama), Blok views his beloved through a wine-induced haze in a noisy suburban restaurant. Toward the end of the decade, Blok's poetry changed course once again. His love of Russia and concern for its future replaced the quest for the feminine ideal. Written shortly after the Bolshevik ascension, The Twelve describes an unruly group of twelve Red Guardsmen as they march through the streets of St. Petersburg, looting, shouting obscenities, and mocking the bourgeoisie. At the end of the poem, Christ appears as the invisible leader of the men, seemingly implying that the guardsmen are to be identified with the twelve apostles, and the October Revolution with Russia's salvation. The Twelve was soon followed by Skify (1918), a threatening call for Western support of the new regime, but Blok wrote little thereafter, telling his friends that due to the hunger, violence, and devastation caused by the Russian civil war he could no longer sense the "music" of his earlier life.
The image of Christ in the conclusion of The Twelve has been a common point of departure for Blok's critics throughout the twentieth century. Upon its publication, The Twelve provoked heated controversy in Russian political circles. Blok's contemporaries, most of whom interpreted The Twelve as a religious justification for the Bolshevik Revolution, believed that the work represented a radical shift in Blok's social views. Praised by communists as a stirring affirmation of the new regime, it drew the scorn of Marxists and enraged the intelligentsia. Among later critics, The Twelve has elicited a variety of readings. Some scholars argue that the poem is not a glorification of communism because Blok, as a member of the intelligentsia, never fully grasped the meaning of the revolution. Others maintain that the poem betrays no political sympathies whatsoever; rather, Blok was simply responding to a creative inspiration over which he had no control, in this case "the music of the revolution," as Blok himself phrased it. The Twelve has also been studied in terms of topics that are pertinent to Blok's poetry as a whole, notably the dichotomy between the real and the ideal and Blok's conflicting loyalties to the intelligentsia and to the masses.
Overall, scholars have generally agreed that the importance of Blok's position within Russian literature and culture lies in his successful transversal of two eras. As Marc Slonim has stated, "His poetry proclaimed in prophetic lines the collapse of the world to which he belonged. He tried to transmit his message to the new world that was being born amid the chaos of an implacable upheaval, and he also attempted to discern and to welcome the future. Thus he stands at the crossroads of two epochs … the last poet of Imperial Russia is the first poet of its triumphant Revolution."
Stikhi o prekrasnoi dame [Verses about the Beautiful Lady] 1905
Nechayannaya radost 1907
Snezhnye maski [The Snow Mask] 1907
Zemlya v Snegu 1908
Nochniye chasy [The Violet of the Night] 1911
Solovyinny sad [Of What the Wind Sings] 1913
Stikhi o Rossii [Garden of Nightingales] 1916
* Dvenadsat' [The Twelve] 1918
* Skify [The Scythians] 1918
Vozmezdie [Retaliation] 1922
Selected Poems 1968
Other Major Works
Balaganchik [The Puppet Show] (drama) 1906
Korol na ploshchadi [The King in the Square] (drama) 1907
Pesnya sudby [The Song of Fate] (drama) 1909
Neznakomka [The Stranger] (drama) 1913
Rossiia i intelligentsiia (essays) 1918
Rosa i krest [The Rose and the Cross] (drama) 1920
Dnevik Al. Bloka. 1911-1913 (diaries) 1928
Dnevik Al. Bloka. 1917-1921 (diaries) 1928
Alexandr Blok: The Journey to Italy (essays, sketches, and poetry) 1973
*These works were published together in a single volume in 1918.
Viktor Zhirmunskij (essay date 1921)
SOURCE: "The Passion of Aleksandr Blok," in Twentieth-Century Russian Literary Criticism, edited by Victor Erlich, Yale University Press, 1975, pp. 117-37.
[In the following essay, which first appeared in Zhirmunskij's The Poetry of Alexander Blok (1921), Zhirmunskij traces the development of Blok's love poetry and his poetry about Russia, underscoring the spiritual basis of both sets of verse.]
Blok's path is one of coming to know life through love. Its outer boundaries are marked by the religious lyrics "Verses about the Beautiful Lady" on the one hand, and by the gypsy motifs of the poet's last years on the other. Vladimir Solov'ëv...
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Leon Trotsky (essay date 1924)
SOURCE: "Alexander Blok," in Literature and Revolution, Russell & Russell, 1957, pp. 116-25.
[In the following essay, originally published in 1924, Trotsky discusses The Twelve and Blok's understanding of the Bolshevik Revolution.]
Blok belonged entirely to pre-October literature. Blok's impulses—whether towards tempestuous mysticism, or towards revolution—arise not in empty space, but in the very thick atmosphere of the culture of old Russia, of its landlords and intelligentsia. Blok's symbolism was a reflection of this immediate and disgusting environment. A symbol is a generalized image of a reality. Blok's lyrics are romantic, symbolic, mystic,...
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C. M. Bowra (essay date 1932)
SOURCE: "The Position of Alexander Blok," in The Criterion, Vol. XI, No. XLIV, April, 1932, pp. 422-38.
[In the following essay, Bowra assesses Blok's place among European poets, identifying and examining three phases in his poetic development.]
Alexander Block died on August 7th, 1921. His funeral was conducted with all the honours due to a great poet who had died before his time at the early age of forty-one. In the ten years since his death his reputation has not suffered, and impartial judges place him in the select company of great Russian poets. But he has left no followers. The man who wrote the first and greatest poem of the Russian Revolution has become a...
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Janko Lavrin (essay date 1935)
SOURCE: "Alexander Blok," in Aspects of Modernism: From Wilde to Pirandello, Books for Libraries Press, 1968, pp. 115-38.
[In the following excerpt, originally published in 1935, Lavrin investigates Blok's poetry in terms of romanticism and Russian symbolism.]
Although the poetic work of Alexander Blok is striking and original enough to defy any labels, some of its aspects can best be understood if treated in connection with the Russian symbolism. The latter came mainly out of that "decadent" current whose devotees were anxious to raise the formal standard of poetry, and also to free the literature of their country from various social and...
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Marc Slonim (essay date 1953)
SOURCE: "Block and the Symbolists," in Modern Russian Literature: From Chekhov to the Present, Oxford University Press, 1953, pp. 184-210.
[In the following excerpt, Slonim studies the progression of Blok's poetry in relation to both his life and social and political conditions in Russia; identifies the major elements of Blok's style; and comments on Blok's views concerning the role of the artist in society.]
Russian Symbolism still awaits its historian: this rich and complex movement, with all its ramifications, is not as yet thoroughly explored. But one thing we know with certainty is that its whole course has been encompassed by and summarized in the work of...
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Times Literary Supplement (essay date 1956)
SOURCE: "Romantic Poet of Russia," in Times Literary Supplement, No. 2841, August 10, 1956, p. 474.
[In the following essay, the critic outlines the predominant characteristics of Blok's early and late poetry and also comments on the continuity of his work as a whole.]
Alexander Blok was Russia's last great romantic, and one of her greatest poets by any standard. He was nurtured by symbolism, and its method admirably suited his aims, but he outgrew all the Russian symbolists in sheer power of vision and talent.
Born in 1880, Blok began his creative life at the turn of the century and it was imbued with that semi-mystical, semidecadent atmosphere...
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F. D. Reeve (essay date 1960)
SOURCE: "Structure and Symbol in Blok's The Twelve" in The American Slavic and East European Review, Vol. XIX, No. 2, April, 1960, pp. 259-75.
[In the following essay, Reeve offers a reading of The Twelve as an apolitical poem, in which the Christ figure symbolizes "apotheosis in suffering not through it" and "real freedom in actual restraint as distinguished from the idea of liberation."]
One's usual sense of chronology and politics suggests that Russian poetry after 1917 was quite different from Russian poetry before 1917 and quite different from postwar European poetry. Perhaps the historians and politicians have again persuaded us into...
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Boris Thomson (essay date 1978)
SOURCE: "The Necessity of Art: The Last Years of Aleksandr Blok," in Lot's Wife and the Venus of Milo: Conflicting Attitudes to the Cultural Heritage in Modern Russia, Cambridge University Press, 1978, pp. 29-52.
[In the following excerpt, Thomson examines the evolution of Blok's views on culture and the role of the artist in society in terms of the Russian struggle between the intelligentsia and the masses.]
Those who look into the future have no regrets for the past.
Who will shed tears for the wife in the Book?
For isn't she one of the least of the...
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Abernathy, Robert. "A Vowel Fugue in Blok." International Journal of Slavic Linguistics and Poetics VII (1963): 88-107.
A close analysis of the occurrence of stressed-vowel patterns in the third part of Blok's poem "Na pole Kulikovom."
Bowlt, John E. "Aleksandr Blok: The Poem 'The Unknown Lady'." Texas Studies in Literature and Language XVII (1975): 349-56.
Studies how Blok first creates and then destroys tension between the material and spiritual worlds in his poem "The Unknown Lady."
Byrns, Richard H. "The Artistic Worlds of Vrubel and Blok." Slavic and...
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