Andrey Bely Essay - Critical Essays

Bely, Andrey


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.

Principal Works


Vtoraia simfoniia: Dramaticheskaia [Second Symphony: The Dramatic] 1902

Severnaia simfoniia: Pervia geroicheskaia [First Symphony: The Northern Symphony] 1903

Zoloto v lazuri [Gold in Azure] 1904

Vozvrat: Tretiia simfoniia [The Return: The Third Symphony] 1905

Kubok metelei: Chetviortiia simfoniia [The Goblet of Blizzards: Fourth Symphony] 1908

Pepel [Ashes] 1909

Urna [The Urn] 1909

Khristos voskres [Christ Is Risen] 1918

Pervoe svidanie [The First Encounter] 1921

Other Major Works

Serebrianyi golub' [The Silver Dove] (novel) 1909

Lug zelenyi (essays) 1910

Peterburg [St. Petersburg] (novel) 1913

Kotik Letaev (autobiographical novel) 1922

Zapiski chudaka (novel) 1922

Vospominaniya o A. A. Bloke (memoirs) 1922–23

Moskva (novels) 1926

Kreshchenyi kitaets (novel) 1927

Ritm, kak dialektika i "Mednyi vsadnik" Pushkina (criticism) 1929

Na rubezhe dvykh stoleti (unfinished memoirs) 1930

Maski (novel) 1932

Mezhdu dvukh revolyutsi (unfinished memoirs) 1934

Complete Short Stories (short stories) 1979


D. S. Mirsky (essay date 1926)

SOURCE: "The Symbolists," in A History of Russian Literature, edited by Francis J. Whitfield, 1949. Reprint by Alfred A. Knopf, 1966, pp. 430–84.

[In the following excerpt from an essay that was originally published in 1926, Mirsky discusses stylistic aspects of Bely's poetry, focusing on its satirical, philosophical, and musical elements.]

If Blok was the greatest of the symbolists, certainly the most original and influential was Bély. Unlike Blok, whose nearest affinities are in the past with the great romanticists, Bély is all turned towards the future, and, of all the symbolists, he has most in common with the futurists. The example of his prose especially revolutionized the style of Russian prose writing. Bély is a more complex figure than Blok—or even than any other symbolist; in this respect he can easily vie with the most complex and disconcerting figures in Russian literature, Gógol and Vladímir Soloviëv, both of whom had their say in his making. He is, on the one hand, the most extreme and typical expression of the symbolist mentality; no one carried farther the will to reduce the world to a system of "correspondences," and no one took these "correspondences" more concretely and more realistically; but this very concreteness of his immaterial symbols brings him back to a realism quite outside the common run of symbolist expression. His hold on the finer shades of reality—on the most expressive, significant, suggestive, and at once elusive detail—is so great and so original that it evokes the unexpected comparison with that realist of realists, Tolstóy. And yet Bély's world is an immaterial world of ideas into which this reality of ours is only projected like a whirlwind of phantasms. This immaterial world of symbols and abstractions appears as a pageant of color and fire; and in spite of the earnest intensity of his spiritual life, it strikes one rather as a metaphysical "show," splendid and amusing, but not dead earnest. The sense of tragedy is curiously absent from Bély, and in this again he is in bold contrast to Blok. His world is rather an elfland—beyond good and evil; in it Bély moves like a Puck or an Ariel—but an undisciplined and erratic Ariel. All this makes some people regard him as a seer and a prophet; others, as a sort of mystical mountebank. Whatever he is, he is strikingly different from all the symbolists by his complete lack of hieratic solemnity. Sometimes he is comic against his will, but on the whole he has most audaciously fused his comic appearance with his mysticism and utilized it with surprising originality. He is perhaps the greatest Russian humorist since Gogol, and to the general reader this is his most important and attractive aspect. But it is a humor that disconcerts at first and is very unlike anything else in the world. It took the Russian public some twenty years to learn to appreciate it, and it will hardly take the uninitiated foreigner by storm. But those who have tasted of it will always recognize it as (in the strict sense of the word) unique—one of the choicest and rarest gifts of the great gods….

At the house of M. S. Soloviëv, Bély used to meet Valdímir Soloviëv and early became an adept in his mystical teachings. The years immediately preceding and following the beginning of the new century were for Bély and his precocious friend Sergéy Soloviëv an era of ecstatic apocalyptic expectations. They believed, with the most realistic concreteness, that the first years of the new century would bring a new revelation—that of the Feminine Hypostasis, Sophia—and that her coming would transform and transfigure the whole of life. These expectations were enhanced by the news of Blok's visions and poetry. At the same time Bély studied at the University of Moscow, where he remained eight years, taking degrees in philosophy and mathematics. Despite his brilliant capacities he was looked at askance by the professors for his "decadent" writings—some of them even refused to shake hands with him at his father's funeral! The first of these "decadent" writings appeared in 1902 under the disconcerting title Symphony (Second, Dramatic). A few exceptionally sensitive critics (M. S. Soloviëv, Bryusov, and the Merezhkóvskys) at once recognized in it something quite new and of unusual promise. It is almost a mature work and presents a full idea of Bély's humor and his wonderful gift of writing musically organized prose. But the critics treated it and the works that followed with indignation and scorn, and for several years Bély...

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Oleg A. Maslenikov (essay date 1952)

SOURCE: "Boris Bugayev as Man and Artist," in The Frenzied Poets: Andrey Biely and the Russian Symbolists, University of California Press, 1952, pp. 65–95.

[Maslenikov was a Russian educator, translator, editor, and author with a special interest in twentieth-century Russian poetry. In the following excerpt, he examines autobiographical aspects of Bely's poetry.]

Bugayev's earliest literary work was essentially lyrical. It comprises his first three Symphonies and his first book of verse, Gold in Azure (1904). The novelty and freshness of Andrey Biely's writings astonished readers who were sympathetic to modernism, and who, from the very first, recognized in...

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Simon Karlinsky (essay date 1971)

SOURCE: "Symphonic Structure in Andrej Belyj's Pervoe Svidanie," California Slavic Studies, Vol. VI, 1971, pp. 61-70.

[In the following essay, Karlinsky praises Bely's use of musical imagery, forms, and language in his book-length narrative poem The First Encounter.]

A student of Russian poetry would have to go back to Lomonosov to find another Russian poet whose poetry is comparable to Andrej Belyj's in its scope and variety of erudition, spanning the most diverse fields. Certainly, no other twentieth-century poet has Belyj's grasp of physical and mathematical sciences, of speculative philosophy, of aesthetics, of linguistics, and of musical theory and practice…....

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Samuel D. Cioran (essay date 1973)

SOURCE: The preface and "The Call to Eternity," in The Apocalyptic Symbolism of Andrej Belyj, Mouton, 1973, pp. 5-6, 71-91.

[In the following excerpt, Cioran analyzes the function of apocalyptic symbols in Bely's Symphony poems, asserting that the theme of apocalypse is the key to understanding his work.]

Of all the Russian symbolists, Andrej Belyj offers the greatest challenge for interpretation. His problematic manipulation of enigmatic language, cosmic imagery and aesthetic theory presents untold problems for exegetical study. Yet, in spite of the differences, both aesthetic and ideological, which separate Belyj from others of his era, he shares with them the...

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Nina Berberova (essay date 1979)

SOURCE: "Preliminary Remarks," in The First Encounter by Andrey Bely, translated by Gerald Janaček, Princeton University Press, 1979, pp. xxiii-xxx.

[Berberova is a Russian-born American educator, author, and critic. In the following excerpt, she discusses the metrical pattern and oral interpretation of Bely's narrative poem The First Encounter.]

Andrey Bely's poem The First Encounter (Pervoe svidanie) is written in iambic tetrameter, the meter used overwhelmingly and successfully, by every Russian poet from Lomonosov through Pushkin, Tyutchev and Blok to Brodsky. The syllabo-tonic line based on the number of syllables and the number of stresses (or...

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Peter France (essay date 1980)

SOURCE: "A Search among Symbolists," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 4013, February 22, 1980, p. 213.

[In the following essay, France offers a favorable review of The First Encounter.]

[The First Encounter] is the autobiographical evocation of the world of the mystically inclined Moscow symbolists in the years round 1900—a world also evoked, at greater length, and often more acrimoniously, in Bely's memoirs, which have not yet appeared in English. We see the young poet, shortly to form his ill-fated alliance with Alexander Blok, befriended by the Solovyov family and searching for the true way in the contradictory currents of natural science,...

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Gerald Janačk (essay date 1984)

SOURCE: "Andrey Bely," in The Look of Russian Literature: Avant-Garde Visual Experiments, 1900—1930, Princeton University Press, 1984, pp. 25-67.

[Janaček has translated The First Encounter by Bely and edited a collection of critical essays about him. In the following excerpt, he emphasizes the importance of typographical experimentation in Bely's poetry.]

The modern history of Russian typographical experimentation can be said to have begun with the appearance in print of the first literary works by Andrey Bely (1880-1934). Though he remained conservative, or rather stayed within certain bounds, while others soon tried more radical things—thus relieving him...

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Alexander Woronzoff (essay date 1987)

SOURCE: "Aural History," in The New York Times Book Review, October 4, 1987, p. 22.

[In the following favorable review, Woronzoff offers a thematic and stylistic overview of Bely's The Dramatic Symphony.]

From the early Symphonies to his masterpiece, Petersburg, the critical and imaginative output of Andrei Bely (the pseudonym of Boris Bugaev, 1880-1934, the Russian Symbolist poet, novelist and critic) is characterized by verbal virtuosity and constant experimentation with the limits of language and genre. Bely referred to his novels (most of which have already been translated into English) as narratives in verse, while he called his prose poems...

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G. S. Smith (essay date 1987)

SOURCE: "Bely's Poetry and Verse Theory," in Andrey Bely: Spirit of Spiritualism, edited by John E. Malmstad, Cornell, 1987, pp. 243-84.

[In the following excerpt, Smith elucidates the factors that have inhibited critical attention to Bely's poetry, in particular the poet's extensive revision of his work.]

It is a remarkable and suggestive fact that we do not seem to possess an extended analysis, a close reading, of any single one of the 500-odd lyric poems published by Andrey Bely. One of his two longer poems, The First Encounter (Pervoe svidanie, 1921), has received more adequate critical attention; the other, Christ Is Risen (Khristos...

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Harvey Pekar (essay date 1988)

SOURCE: "Melancholy Biely," in The Village Voice, Vol. XXXIII, No. 5, February 2, 1988, pp. 62, 64.

[In the following essay, Pekar offers a negative review of The Dramatic Symphony.]

Andrei Biely is one of the most important 20th-century literary figures, a great novelist, excellent poet, and stimulating essayist. Once he was a powerful literary influence, the major figure in the Russian symbolist movement. Since the 1930s, however, Soviet authorities have considered him a decadent modernist, and many of his works have been extremely difficult to obtain there and in the West.

Biely was marked by the impressionism of the French symbolists and was one...

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Further Reading


Mochulsky, Konstantin. Andrei Bely: His Life and Works. Translated by Nora Szalavitz. Ann Arbor, Mich.: Ardis, 1977, 230 p.

Unfinished critical biography on Bely, and the only one in Russian or English which studies all of his work in detail. Mochulsky examines Bely's literature in relation to the writer himself, the period in which he lived, and the people and ideas that influenced him.


Berberova, Nina. "A Note on Andrey Biely." The Russian Review 10, No. 2 (April 1951): 99-105.

Discusses Bely's importance to the Russian...

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