The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 547

Written almost entirely in the third person, “Balakirev’s Dream (1905)” is really a lyric poem masquerading as a narrative. The poem consists of nineteen unrhymed couplets, all but three of which are self-contained syntactical units. As the title indicates, the poem purports to recount the dream of Mily Balakirev (1837-1910), a famous Russian conductor and composer. Both the date in the title and the reference to the warship Sevastopol carefully situate the poem in time: during or just after the Sevastopol mutiny, which broke out spontaneously on November 11, 1905, and which, despite the support of other groups of insurgents, was soon crushed. Like the much more famous mutiny aboard the battleship Potemkin, the Sevastopol mutiny was but a single episode in the ill-fated Russian Revolution of 1905-1907, which was ruthlessly suppressed by czarist forces.

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The poem begins at a piano recital. Outside the concert hall, the streets are darkened by a strike; inside the hall, a pianist has begun to conjure up a dream world in which real stones (the brutal outside world?) become as light as dewdrops. The poet likens the black grand piano to a large spider trembling in its net of music. Listening to this music, the aging composer dozes off and dreams about a journey he is taking in the czar’s carriage (droshky), which is rumbling over cobblestones in a “crow-cawing” world that is both dark and threatening.

As frequently occurs in dream situations, the dreamer imagines that he is in two places at the same time: inside the carriage and running along beside it. Moreover, his sense of time is distorted: His clock shows that the trip has taken not hours, but years. He finds himself in a field in which a plow is lying idle; then the plow becomes a fallen bird that is transformed, in turn, into a darkened, icebound ship with people on its deck. As the carriage approaches the icebound vessel, the grating and clattering sounds it makes subside, and the wheels spin over the ice with a sound that is as soft as silk, recalling perhaps the activity of the grand piano-spider, weaving its delicate net.

Next, Balakirev finds himself the prisoner of the mutineers on board the Sevastopol. Handing him a curious “instrument,” which is “like a tuba or a phonograph/ or part of some unknown engine,” the hostile sailors tell him that only by playing this instrument can he save his life. Paralyzed with fear, Balakirev realizes that this instrument is the piston that runs the ship. He tries to defend himself by turning to the nearest sailor and begging him to cross himself. The symbolic gesture he urges upon the sailor becomes a reality when the man turns his sad eyes on Balakirev and—“as if nailed in the air”—is crucified. Just as the dreamer is about to witness the execution of the mutineers, the drumrolls that often accompany executions become a round of applause. The pianist has finished weaving his net of music, and Balakirev awakens with the impression that wings of applause are flapping in the hall as the pianist takes a bow. Though the fallen bird from the dream may once again have taken wing, the continued agitation in the street outside suggests that Balakirev’s anxiety dream is prophetic.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 586

As was mentioned above, the poem consists of nineteen unrhymed, strongly rhythmical couplets. All but three of these couplets are self-contained syntactical units. Tomas Tranströmer uses this structural device, which enables sudden displacements in time and space, to create a realistically presented dream pattern. As each indeterminate dream image recedes, it is replaced by another. The succession of images appears to mobilize the dreamer’s repressed fears, finally bringing him to a confrontation with the hostile mutineers aboard the Sevastopol who threaten his life at the climax of the dream—that is, in the three couplets that are syntactically connected, from “He turned and faced the nearest sailor” to “as if nailed in the air.” This climactic scene—and, indeed, the cinematic presentation of the whole dream sequence—is reminiscent of Sergei Eisenstein’s famous film about the revolutionary events of 1905, Potemkin (1925). Tranströmer has in fact admitted that memories of this film are associated with the composition of “Balakirev’s Dream (1905).”

This poem is partly based on one of Tranströmer’s own dreams, which he originally intended to attribute to Anatoly Lyadov, one of Balakirev’s colleagues. This leads one to wonder why Tranströmer has chosen to enter the world of political tyranny through a dream that he attributes to Balakirev. As is frequently the case (especially in his earlier poems), he apparently wished both to avoid personal involvement and to gain objectivity by transferring this confrontation between the artist and political reality to a Russian composer who was alive at the time of the Revolution of 1905.

A professional psychologist, Tranströmer has both a deep interest in dreams and a detailed technical knowledge of their function in people’s psychic lives. He believes that in dreams—or on the threshold of the dream state—the experiencing self penetrates more deeply into itself and into life’s secrets than it can in the waking state. Many of his poems describe dreams, which he sees as mediating between the inner world and the outer world of social life. The vivid dream images in “Balakirev’s Dream (1905)” become a series of graphic metaphors that enable the reader to share the emotional reactions of the dreamer, even if the reader is ultimately unable to interpret the dream.

The opening line of the poem transforms the grand piano into a large black spider, trembling in its net of music. The primary aim of this poetic equation is to show that just as the spider makes a net strong enough to support drops of dew, so the music creates an alternative world in which stones (the cares and worries of the outer world) are as light as dewdrops. Yet it is difficult to overlook the fact that the spider’s insubstantial net is not only its home, but also a trap for its victims.

Itself a metaphor, the Swedish word for grand piano (flygel) means “wing.” Thus, besides establishing the setting of the poem, it also subtly introduces the idea of flight and birds that figures so prominently in the dream: for example, the “crow-cawing dark,” the “fallen bird,” and the “wings of applause” (the “fallen bird” resuscitated?) that flap in the hall when the pianist finishes playing. Near the end of his dream journey, Balakirev sees an abandoned plow (representing the nurturing activities of peace) and then an icebound warship (representing the powerlessness of the insurgents to resist tyranny). These images of disuse, impotence, and death reinforce the dreamer’s inability to remedy a desperate situation.

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Themes