Andrey Bely Criticism - Essay

D. S. Mirsky (essay date 1926)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 1873 words.)

Oleg A. Maslenikov (essay date 1952)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 3216 words.)

Simon Karlinsky (essay date 1971)

(Poetry Criticism)

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…....

(The entire section is 2871 words.)

Samuel D. Cioran (essay date 1973)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 5832 words.)

Nina Berberova (essay date 1979)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 2510 words.)

Peter France (essay date 1980)

(Poetry Criticism)

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,...

(The entire section is 590 words.)

Gerald Janačk (essay date 1984)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 4995 words.)

Alexander Woronzoff (essay date 1987)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 588 words.)

G. S. Smith (essay date 1987)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 5652 words.)

Harvey Pekar (essay date 1988)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 560 words.)