Themes and Meanings

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The main theme of The Twelve is the Russian Revolution of October, 1917. Although written by a nonrevolutionary who was not even a real sympathizer, it is considered to be the definitive poem of the revolution, the best poetic rendition of this monumental event.

Yet, it was not perceived as such at first. The opponents of the revolution refused to accept this blatant glorification of it, especially because the poem was written by a poet whose predominantly spiritual, even religious, attitudes in the past were not attuned to the revolutionary way of thinking and were even opposed to it. The revolutionaries themselves rejected Blok’s nebulous, pseudospiritual, and basically incorrect interpretation of the revolution. More objective critics were puzzled by the ambiguities and inconsistencies, which they found hard to reconcile not only with the author himself but also with actual events (if anything, the revolutionaries were against all forms of religion).

The controversy primarily concerned the appearance of Christ at the end of the poem. To make matters worse, the poet himself had difficulties explaining it; it seems that the more he tried to explain, the less clear it became. In his diaries and letters, Blok attempted to shed some light on these incongruities. He was convinced that Christ goes before the revolutionaries but was himself astounded that He appears with them again—apparently referring to the often-repeated notion that Christ was the first communist.

Blok was not surprised by the storm of criticism that ensued, for if the church were real and, in his opinion, not merely a class of morally dull professionals, it would have realized long ago that Christ is with the Bolsheviks. Blok believed that all who read the Bible should see this “obvious” truth. Yet, he compounded the confusion further by saying that sometimes he despised the “womanish phantom” of Christ; that the Bolsheviks were right in being afraid of The Twelve; and that he did not like the ending of the poem either, wishing for a different ending, although the closer he looked into it, the clearer he saw Christ.

The controversy can be partially explained by Blok’s interest in the phenomenon of Christ in the last years of his life. He had intended to write a play about Him and to that end read much of what had been written on Christ, particularly Ernest Renan’s treatment of Christ primarily as a historical figure, stripped of religious and supernatural elements. Furthermore, Blok was indeed confused by the revolution. An opponent of the czarist autocratic rule, he embraced the democratic revolution of February, 1917, only to be bitterly disappointed by its inability to solve social and political problems and to improve the lot of the people (hence the ridicule of the poster about the Ratifying Assembly). When the October Revolution came about, Blok accepted it wholeheartedly, thinking only about its promises of a better life and not about its ideological program. He lived long enough to be disillusioned again, but an illness that led to his death prevented him from voicing his disapproval. The fact remains that he wrote only one other poem after The Twelve, which perhaps indicates that he was unwilling to write under the new, oppressing circumstances.

In the last analysis, The Twelve should be looked at as an artistic creation, not as a political statement. Blok himself warned against seeing his poem as a political document, saying that those who do so are either blind to art or are so immersed in political mud that they can see nothing else in his poem. The greatest merits of the poem are to be found not in its message, which is admittedly vague, but in its high artistic quality: the mixture of realism and symbolism, the rich polyphony, the sudden breaks and skillful transitions, the strong rhythm, the use of folk speech and factory songs, and the variety of form.

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