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,...
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