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...
(The entire section is 1873 words.)