From 1894 to 1910 Symbolism was the leading movement of Russian poetry. It began as an avant-garde movement expressing an estheticist conception of art for art’s sake and interest in the exotic and strange. The technique of Symbolism was impressionistic, and its poetic products were compared to music. Russian Symbolism gained much from French models and from the Russian philosopher-poet Vladimir Solovyov. The movement also embodied a certain bohemianism and an escape into personal fantasy and mysticism. Although the term Symbolism has been applied to a whole group of poets, not all of those so designated made as systematic use of symbols as the two leaders of the movement. Both Audrey Bely and Blok are central to Russian Symbolism in that their did rely on symbols, musical verse, and soaring personal fantasy.
Aleksandr Blok is perhaps the greatest Russian poet of the early twentieth century. Born in St. Petersburg in 1880, he grew up in a sophisticated society of writers, painters, and scientists. In 1903 he married Liubov Mendelev and in the same year discovered the work of Vladimir Solovyov. Solovyov claimed he had experienced a mystic vision of Sophia, the incarnation of Divine Wisdom. From this he developed a metaphysics of total unity wherein the universe, though separated from God, continually strives for unity. Sophia is the principle of unification and harmony of the fragmented universe. For Solovyov, Sophia was a real and divine person whom he thought of as the “Eternal Feminine.”
Blok’s first period, from 1898 to 1904, was permeated by the influence of Solovyov, as was that of Bely, but in Blok’s verse Sophia appears in the various incarnations of the Beautiful Lady, also as the Mysterious Maiden or the Eternally Young One. Blok’s first collection of poetry, VERSES ABOUT THE BEAUTIFUL LADY, was published in 1904. In these poems the Beautiful Lady is indeed Solovyov’s Sophia; however, the mood of the poems is one of expectation rather than mystical revelation. The Beautiful Lady is more of a dream and lyrical hope than a reality. Blok’s early poems were prayer-like in tone, but these prayers were often disturbed by reversals: spiritual blasphemy, descent, and rebellion.
After 1904 the harmony of Blok’s understanding of Sophia dissolved rapidly. Gradually he gave up his mystical flights and turned to more earthly descriptions. At the same time his serenity gave way to despair and terror. The Unknown Woman, a prostitute whose identity the poet cannot discern, replaces the Beautiful Lady as the chief symbolic figure in his work. In EARTH’S BUBBLES and THE CITY, loneliness, ugliness, taverns, gipsies, and prostitutes are the favorite subjects. In his poetic drama, THE PUPPET SHOW, written in the same period, Blok ridicules his earlier dreams and mystic visions.
The failure of the 1905 revolution plunged Blok into greater despair and gloom. In 1909, depressed by the deaths of his young child and his father, he traveled abroad. This change of scene hardly changed his mood. From France he wrote: “European life is as revolting as that in Russia; in general, the life of all men the world over is a monstrous, dirty puddle.” Blok’s despair and gloom can be seen also in his “Danses Macabres,” in which the poet talks about a corpse in the world of living people. It is easier for the corpse to remain alone, he says, but there are times when he must mix with the living. Then the corpse fears they will hear the rattle of his bones.
Despite his melancholy, Blok gradually gained a new positive faith, a love for Russia. True to form, he often compared Russia to women. And as with his conception of the Beautiful Lady, his new faith, though powerful, was irrational. He recognized Russia as backward and, almost as a result of this realization, he professed a great, faithful love for her. Blok questioned the significance of Russia’s fate and her unseen destiny. He felt that the aristocratic culture was doomed, but that she had other sources of strength. In the poem “The Field of Kulikovo,” he described the victory of the Russians over the Tartars in 1380. However, the most characteristic expression of Blok’s new faith is found in a brief poem to Russia. Here he dwells on the sins and stupidities of Russia and yet ends with an assertion of his love for her, saying that she is dearer to him than any other.
In “Retaliation,” which Blok began in 1910 and worked on until a few months before his death in 1921, he realistically describes social conditions in Russia. He had intended the work to be a panorama of Russian history during the reign of Alexander III and the Revolution of 1905. But the poem was never finished. Blok welcomed the 1917 revolution, and in “The Scythians” expressed the Socialist revolutionary opinion that the revolution of 1917 was a confirmation of the national characteristics of the Russian people. Here the Russian people, the “Scythians,” could either be the friends or conquerors of the West, depending on whether the Allies would intervene in the Russian Revolution.
In THE TWELVE, usually regarded as Blok’s masterpiece, the Red Revolution is portrayed less as a social or human catastrophe than as a cosmic upheaval. As the critic, Renato Poggioli, observed, Blok did not symbolize the Revolution by a standard image such as fire, which destroys but also warms. Instead, Blok used ice which would suggest demonic, blind forces. It does not call to mind either divine or human associations. Trotsky was also struck by this fact when he wrote that Blok thought of the Revolution only as an element which, because of his temperament and vision, he saw as in terms of cold, not heat. Poggioli maintains that Blok equated history with prehistory and felt that essentially man was still in the ice age. If we accept this interperation it is possible to go still further and see in the poem the suggestion of Russia as a “Siberia of the Spirit.”
Structurally the poem is composed of fragments varying in rhythm and style. Political slogans are juxtaposed with poetic images. The beginning of the poem is almost exclusively descriptive, suggesting the action only by a series of abbreviated sketches, but the central part becomes almost entirely narrative. Both the content and style suggest confusion and desperate brutality, but the effect of the whole is perfectly controlled by the poet.
The imagery of cold and snow is powerful, and the figure of Christ appearing at the end of the poem as the leader of the Red soldiers is startling. The meaning of Blok’s use of Christ as a symbol is disputed, for it is a highly personal image, too ambiguous for the unengaged reader. Perhaps Christ symbolizes the victory of the Revolution over the Russian Empire. Or perhaps he redeems or consecrates the brutality of the Red soldiers. The twelve Red guards, of course, recall Christ’s disciples. The specific meaning of the poem also caused a great controversy at the time of its publication in 1918, provoking endless discussion, praise, and condemnation.
Blok became increasingly disillusioned with the Revolution. It failed to satisfy his dreams, and the last entries in his diary speak of his “love-hatred of Russia.” In May, 1921, he wrote that corrupt Mother Russia had devoured him as an old sow eats her young. In August of that same year Blok died.
In spite of his renown, Blok did not greatly influence Russian literature, primarily because of the highly personal spirit of his poetry and the fact that anti-Symbolist trends after 1910 weakened any influence he might otherwise have had. Blok has been honored in the Soviet Union as a great poet who accepted the Revolution, but little comment has been made concerning the moods of gloom and despair in his poetry. The fact that he accepted the Revolution because of his personal mystical interpretation of its significance has been ignored.