Andrey Bely Critical Essays


(Poetry Criticism)

Andrey Bely 1880–1934

(Also transliterated as Andrei and Andrej; also Belyj, Belyi, Biely, and Beluy; pseudonym of Boris Nikolayevich Bugayev, also transliterated as Bugaev) Russian poet, novelist, short story writer, autobiographer, essayist, and critic.

Bely is recognized as the most original and influential writer of the Russian Symbolist movement. His work typifies the traits of Symbolism, particularly its subjective themes and esoteric philosophical ideas. Although his work was virtually unknown outside of Russia during his lifetime, Bely's poetry has received widespread attention and acclaim in the latter half of the twentieth century.

Biographical Information

Bely was born in Moscow. He studied science, mathematics, and philosophy at Moscow University, while at the same time pursuing a passionate interest in music, aesthetics, and mysticism. In 1902 he published his first work, Vtoraia simfoniia: Dramaticheskaia, described by Bely as a poetic symphony. This and other pieces by Bely were influenced by the works of the mystic poet-philosopher Vladimir Solovyov, especially his theories of symbolism. Bely's prose poem is a mystic vision of Sofia, Solovyov's all-embracing divine feminine principle which rules all creation, and which can either be identified as nature or personified as Sofia, Divine Wisdom. In Solovyov's philosophy, the tangible world is only a shadow of the real, spiritual world, and it is Sofia who reveals the ultimate reality to the poet. Solovyov believed that Christ's incarnation demonstrated that man can become divine, and so the duality of the spiritual and material can and will be reconciled but only after catastrophe and apocalypse. Bely developed and expanded Solovyov's ideas, along with the ideas of other philosophers, and thereby synthesized and created the theoretical basis for Russian Symbolism. From 1905 to 1909 Bely and Valery Bryusov coedited the Symbolist periodical Vesy. Bely championed the ideas of Symbolism until 1912, when he traveled to Europe and became acquainted with the anthroposophical doctrines of Rudolf Steiner, a quasi-religious philosophy which sought the spiritual renewal of man through love and spiritual knowledge. Bely returned to Russia in 1916 but became disillusioned with the social and political changes brought on by the revolution the following year. He emigrated to Germany in 1921 yet returned to Russia in 1923, remaining until his death in 1934.

Major Works

Among Bely's earliest writings were his "Symphonies," prose poems in which he attempted to achieve effects of rhythm and structure analogous to those in music. Zoloto v lazuri (Gold in Azure), published in 1904, also displays innovative rhythmic technique, while in subject and tone it reflects the poet's melancholy and loneliness. Urna (The Urn) documents the poet's search for spiritual peace. Critics agree that Bely's autobiographical Pervoe svidanie (The First Encounter) is his finest achievement. In this book-length poem, published in 1921, Bely uses diverse narrative and structural techniques to recount his friendship with Solovyov in turn-of-the-century Moscow.

Critical Reception

Throughout his life most critics belittled Bely's significance, maintaining that his poetry is too vague and subjective and that his technical subtleties, in the end, become tiresome and irritating. It was only after his death that Bely's work gained widespread attention from critics, particularly for the depth of his imagination and the importance of his stylistic innovations. Commentators now view Bely not only as the most representative writer of the Russian Symbolist movement, but also as a profound influence on the course of Russian literature in the twentieth-century.