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."