“Balakirev’s Dream (1905)” is a poem about the relationship between art and reality. It tests the value of “escapist” art and asks if poetry must inevitably be politically engaged. Written in 1957—one year after the ill-fated revolt of the Hungarian freedom fighters—this appears to be a poem in which Tranströmer asks his readers to consider what is to be gained and what is to be lost if the artist takes a firm stand on political issues and uses his talent primarily as a means of goading others to action. By casting his poem in the form of Balakirev’s fictive dream, he not only depersonalizes and objectifies his own strong feelings about the disastrous consequences of the Hungarian revolt of 1956 but also indicates that he believes that this impersonal, quasi-historical approach will be more effective than a first-person lyrical outcry might have been.
The artist he has chosen to play the central role in this poem, Mily Balakirev, is certainly not known to have harbored any deep sympathies for the insurgents—around 1905 he was, in fact, chiefly devoted to preparing a new edition of the works of Mikhail Glinka (1804-1857). Between 1883 and 1895, Balakirev had served as director of the court chapel, which provided music for the imperial family. His divided loyalties seem to be reflected in the fact that in his dream he is both riding in the czar’s carriage and running alongside it. Why does he try to defend himself by turning to the nearest sailor and begging him to cross himself? According to Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov, Balakirev, who had become fanatically religious in the early 1870’s, often pressed his friends to cross themselves because he believed that this symbolic gesture might help bring them to religion. His superstitious reaction to the hostile sailor is one of fear, not sympathy, and by urging the rebel to make the sign of the cross—the only thing in the poem that really corresponds to what is known about Balakirev’s personal habits—he appears to cause his death. (The leaders of the Sevastopol mutiny were shot on March 6, 1906.) In other words, the artist’s empty gesture of spiritual aid (or moral support) has only made things worse. Perhaps Tranströmer wants to suggest that highly politicized poetry does more harm than good.
The crisis in Balakirev’s dream (that is, the drumrolls betokening execution) coincides with the round of applause that greets the performing artist and wakes the dreamer. Balakirev awakens to applause that is likened to a bird flapping about the hall. The bird (a phoenix?) completes one series of images that bind the poem together. This soaring bird may suggest the idea that art can—at least temporarily—triumph over life. Outside, however, in the streets darkened by the strike, the agitated motion of the droshkies shows that the political situation cannot be ignored. (In the original Swedish, the generally rising meter of the first eighteen couplets changes abruptly and dramatically to a heavily falling meter in the last couplet. This metrical change seems to underscore the fact that Balakirev’s dream has alerted him to political reality and to suggest that perhaps the shortest way to political awareness lies within.)
One gains considerable perspective on Tranströmer’s position on the question of the proper relation of art to reality by reading “Balakirev’s Dream (1905)” in close conjunction with “Allegro,” a short poem that appeared in Den halvfärdiga himlen (1962, the half-finished heaven), his next verse collection. In “Allegro,” the poet sits down at the piano after a bad day and plays a spirited piece by Franz Josef Haydn. The music he makes becomes a house of glass that is assailed by a shower of stones—stones that are by no means as light as dewdrops. Yet though these stones roll right through the glass walls, they cannot shatter them. Tranströmer seems to believe that, far from being a paradise for escapists, the world that artistic experience can provide is a place where freedom exists and persists, despite the brutal assaults of external existence.