The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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.

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....

(The entire section is 547 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 586 words.)