Under the Sign of Blok

The Twelve and Other Poems

by Alexander Blok, translated by Jon Stallworthy, translated by Peter France
Oxford, 181 pp., $5.75

Selected Poems

by Anna Akhmatova, translated by Richard McKane, with an Essay by Andrei Sinyavsky
Oxford, 111 pp., $3.75

Fever and Other New Poems

by Bella Akhmadulina, translated by Geoffrey Dutton, translated by Igor Mezhakoff-Koriakin, with an Introduction by Yevgeny Yevtushenko
Morrow, 66 pp., $5.50

Anna Akhmatova
Anna Akhmatova; drawing by David Levine

In the half-dozen years preceding the First World War, the artists and poets of Russia, in the words of one of them, “lived under the sign of Blok.” They got drunk on his poetry as he himself got drunk on wine, although several groups were already proclaiming their opposition to the Symbolist school which he was supposed to represent. To Blok nothing earthly had meaning except as the embodiment of supernal value. His love—whatever its object: women, Russia, poetry—was passionate and yearning; his poems originated in ethereal, mysterious, immeasurably distant sounds; his emotions were wind and fire; glimpses of perfection brought him momentary bliss, disappointment was anguish. The infinite was enchanting; the limited filled him with despair. Without visions men were puppets and life a desolate recurrence of the senseless and the drab.

Poems About the Beautiful Lady, published in the autumn of 1904, was the first, and the happiest, of all his books. Quasi-religious, ecstatic, other-worldly, it is a song of adoration in which his tremulous love of a real woman, Liubov Dimitrievna Mendeleeva, whom he had known since boyhood and married in 1903, was, like Dante’s love of Beatrice, indistinguishable from his longing for the Ideal:

I enter the dark church slowly
and perform a humble rite.
I wait for the Beautiful Lady
in the glimmer of icon light.

But even now there was a presentiment of loss:

I wait in silence, grieving and loving.
The whole horizon is on fire for the apparition,
but terror pricks me. You will change Your shape.

The Beautiful Lady did change, to be replaced by an infernal Stranger in a dreary world of “drunkards’ haunts,” “dusty side-streets,” and “jocular swells,” in which Pierrot, Columbine, and Harlequin acted out their puppets’ drama of disillusionment and deception. And now Blok wrote profoundly melancholy lyrics: “Night, a street, a lamp, a chemist’s shop, a meaningless and dullish light”—the dismal scene was fixed for all eternity; you may live another quarter-century, it will be there still; you may die and start all over again, all will be repeated, “the chemist’s shop, the street, the lamp.” Twenty-five years after his death, Akhmatova wrote: “He’s right. Once more the street-lamp and the chemist’s shop. The Neva, silence, granite.”

The periods of gloom were broken by ardent involvements: infatuations with women, the actress N. N. Volokhova in 1907, the singer L. A. Delmas in 1914, each of them resulting in an impassioned cycle of lyrics, The Snow Mask and Carmen; a no less vehement, lifelong affair with Russia, celebrated, among other poems, in the magnificent series On the Field of Kulikovo; and finally a headlong absorption in the Bolshevik revolution that inspired Blok’s best known work, The Twelve, and its sequel, The Scythians, both of them written in a kind of divine frenzy between January 8 and 30, 1918, in…

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