Alexander Blok (1880-1921)
Alexander Blok, born into a well-to-do academic family,(*) is regarded by many experts as the most important Russian poet since Pushkin, and certainly the greats of the Silver Age of Russian poetry - Osip Mandelstam, Anna Akhmatova, Marina Tsvetaeva, Boris Pasternak - were influenced by his work. But to my mind, the children were greater than the father.
Blok was a man of Absolutes, a deeply romantic Symbolist even after the mystic experiences of the entity he called the Beautiful Lady faded away. Though he was an archetypal St. Petersburg intellectual, he shared Tolstoy's romantic view of rural, agricultural life, a life he dabbled in every summer on his family's estate, and damned the "artificial Hell" of St. Petersburg, where he nonetheless spent most of his life.
At first, Blok's lyric poetry was dedicated to his mystic pursuits and experiences, to that which is beyond time and to that part of love which he considered to be beyond time.(**) The tone is ecstatic, and his first book of poetry is full of this sort of thing. But he lost his contact with the Beautiful Lady and replaced her with a series of more human figures whom he recognized as leading him away from the Eternal, as "poisoning his soul", and also with "limitless Russia." But there are a few more appealing poems, poems flavored with Russian folklore and song, and poems which drop the high-flying symbols and spend a moment in actual life:
She came in from the frost
with her cheeks glowing,
and she filled the room
with a scent of air and perfume,
with her voice ringing
and her utterly work-shattering
Immediately she dropped on the carpet
the fat slab of an art magazine
and suddenly it seemed
that in my generous room
was a shortage of space.
This was all a little annoying
not to say silly.
What's more, all at once she wanted
me to read Macbeth to her.
Hardly had we got to the 'earth's bubbles',
of which I cannot speak without emotion,
when I noticed that she too was moved
and staring out of the window.
And there was a big tabby cat
inching its way down the gable
in pursuit of some passionate pigeons.
I was annoyed most of all because
it was not us but the pigeons who were kissing
and that the times of Paolo and Francesca were over.
From around 1908 onward Blok tried to escape what he increasingly saw as the solipsism of his lyric poetry by turning to epic poetry (particularly the uncompleted "The Retribution" and the cycle “On the Field of Kulikovo”) and to drama. A few trips to Europe left him with the sense that Europe was only putrefied past.
Die, Florence, Judas, disappear
in the twilight of long ago!
In the hour of love and in the hour
of death I'll not remember you.
Oh, laugh at yourself today, Bella,
for your features have fallen in.
Death's rotten wrinkles disfigure
that once miraculous skin.
The motorcars snort in your lanes,
your houses fill me with disgust;
you have given yourself to the stains
of Europe's bilious yellow dust.
(The first stanzas of "Florence".)
When the February Revolution arrived, Blok welcomed it, writing his most famous poem, "The Twelve," in January, 1918. What an unusual creation it is!
Some twenty pages long, it mixes scraps of direct speech, songs and prayers with onomatopoetic representations of firing rifles and machine guns to relate a strange story of twelve (the number is not arbitrary) Red Guards who are searching through a blizzard in St. Petersburg for a young woman who was spirited away by another young man in a cab. Finally finding them, the Red Guards fire a salvo to which only the young woman falls victim. After a brief lament the young men bluster and threaten the city with mayhem. And then the poem changes as the soldiers continue marching into the blizzard:
Abusing God's name as they go,
all twelve march onward into snow...
prepared for anything,
Their rifles at the ready
for the unseen enemy
in back streets, side roads
where only snow explodes
its shrapnel, and through quag-
mire drifts where the boots drag...
before their eyes
throbs a red flag.
the echo replies.
Keep your eyes skinned
lest the enemy strike!
It goes on like this to my increasing consternation until the poem closes with:
....So they march with sovereign tread...
Behind them limps the hungry dog,
and wrapped in wild snow at their head
carrying a blood-red flag -
soft-footed where the blizzard swirls,
invulnerable where the bullets crossed -
crowned with a crown of snowflake pearls,
a flowery diadem of frost,
ahead of them goes Jesus Christ.
(!!!) Trotsky is reported to have said with disgust: “What was the point in climbing our mountain in order to erect a medieval shrine on the top?” I should mention that Blok rejected Christianity for his particular flavor of mysticism. Asked to explain, Blok commented, “If you look into the snow along that road, you will see Jesus Christ.” OK then!
I expect it was not the rather confused sentiments of the poem which allowed it to last, but the remarkable mixture of voices and styles in which they are expressed, particularly remarkable in a Russian poetic tradition which was still in thrall to the 19th century. After writing "The Twelve" and the nearly equally curious "The Scythians," in which Blok presents the Russians as the bulwark of the West against the East, he stopped writing poetry and turned entirely to his efforts in the theater. Nonetheless, his musical and highly rhythmic idiom became one of the ingredients in the formation of the next, and truly great generation of Russian poets. In my humble and very incompletely informed opinion...
The Twelve and Other Poems (1970) is a collection of translations of fifty poems put together by the team of John Stallworthy and Peter France. They made a real effort to reflect the poetic nature of Blok's work, and write in their introduction that in the ever present translators' fidelity or beauty question they came down firmly on the side of beauty. As I now incline to think that Blok's greatness lies less in his ideas than in his technique, I think that Stallworthy/France made the right decision here.
(*) His grandfather was the Rector of St. Petersburg's university and his father was a law professor at the University of Warsaw.
(**) According to his biographer, Avril Pyman, Blok felt that love was eternal and sex was demonic, carrying this to the point that his was a white marriage until his wife finally succeeded in seducing him in the second year of their marriage.(!) She was too inexperienced for that to last, because he had already acquired a taste for the "demonic" and frequented prostitutes. (He died at the age of 40 of an unspecified venereal disease which was surely syphilis.) She eventually turned to Andrei Bely for solace, presenting Blok with a son he pretended was his own.