From the tower there was a way out on to the sloping roof and in that white Petersburg night all we artists, poets, and actors, excited by verses and wine—and in those days we got drunk on verses as easily as on wine—came out under the pale sky and Blok, deliberate, outwardly impassive, young, tanned (he always began to get brown right at the beginning of spring), climbed up on to the large iron box which protected the junction of the telephone wires and, yielding to our clamorous insistence, for the third and fourth time recited his immortal ballad in his restrained, hollow, monotonous, passive, tragic voice.
This is Korney Chukovsky describing an evening with Aleksandr Blok in 1906; the immortal ballad is “The Stranger.” All his life Blok fascinated his contemporaries, through the power of his poetry, but also through his presence, his physical beauty, his voice, his noble bearing. People readily described him as a knight in armor, a prince, or a tragic hero—or else as Don Juan, Faust, or Hamlet (his poetry is indeed full of these figures). Today’s reader, skeptical of the religion of art, may well feel suspicious of such magnification of the poet, and in any case it is easy for yesterday’s matinee idol to lose his glamour and appear as an illusion of the epoch. Trotsky suggested something of the sort in Literature and Revolution when he wrote (virtually quoting Blok) that “the twilight lyrics of Blok are gone into the past and will never return.” For Trotsky, writing very soon after the event, Blok’s poem of the revolution, “The Twelve,” was the only one of his poems that would “live forever.”
“The Twelve” is the culmination of Blok’s work, but it is not all. A great deal of his earlier poetry is as powerful for later generations as it was for his contemporaries; in it we can continue to hear the voice of one of Russia’s greatest poets as well as a witness to the hopes and agonies of an age. It is still hard, after you have immersed yourself in his writings, not to speak of him with the enthusiasm of those who first heard his poems.
I do not know how much of this can come across through translations of the poetry, but Avril Pyman’s monumental biography, which makes admirable use of notebooks, letters, memoirs, and visual illustrations, as well as translated poems, does allow the English-speaking reader to experience much of the fascination. Quite apart from Blok’s poetry, his is a very moving life—moving because of the agony of much of it, and because of his dedication, the deliberate choice of difficulty that would enable him to speak as the conscience of his age.
Blok’s adult life covered the period of the two Russian revolutions, and for all the parallels we may draw with, say, Yeats or Baudelaire, it makes a very Russian story. He was born into a privileged milieu, and the world of his mother’s family, the Beketovs, is beautifully described here—complete with amateur theatricals straight out of Chekhov’s Seagull. Theirs was a life informed by the assumption that the individual should be dedicated to the service of humanity; this went with a rich cultural tradition and an easy superiority which did not need to be backed up by wealth or power. But in Blok’s case this innocent arrogance was crossed with an unquiet, “demonic” strain which was present in his mother and dominant in his father, whom he never really knew. His boyhood in Petersburg, during which he learned about sex through brothels and contracted syphilis, led him to an agonized awareness of duality.
Paradise lost was a real experience for him. Paradise appeared often in the guise of the country retreat of Shakhmatovo, near Moscow, where he continued to spend the summer months until the onset of the Great War destroyed the established life of his society. Against this Muscovite paradise is set the typically Russian hell of Petersburg, the artificial yet all too real city of Pushkin’s “Bronze Horseman” and of Dostoevsky.
Blok’s life was spent in reaction against this consciousness of the Fall. He was never fully a Christian, but all his life he was both attracted and repelled by Christianity. His own ideal figure was that characteristic myth of his time (now much the worse for wear), the Eternal Feminine, or as he put it in the title of his first published volume, the Beautiful Lady. The Lady, object of Blok’s longings and mystical experiences, was the bearer of the world’s lost harmony. She was akin to the Spirit of Music, which he hoped might once again be manifested in history. At the same time, she could be glimpsed in the earthly features of women, and particularly of Lyubov’ Dmitriyevna Mendeleyeva, whom Blok married in 1903. The cynical reader will be tempted to conclude (wrongly I think) that the ups and downs of the poet’s love for her provide the key to the Beautiful Lady. On his insistence their marriage was for the most part a “white” one, since sex and the Lady did not go together. Avril Pyman’s book gives a most moving account of this difficult partnership, difficult above all for the woman, who did not want to be a Beautiful Lady only, tried to have her own life (on the stage and in love affairs), but to the end gave Blok a tenderness and understanding that were indispensable to him.
Even late in life, when he was famous for a much less ethereal kind of poetry, he insisted that this early mystical experience was what really mattered. If he had remained as the rapt servant of the Lady, however, he would certainly not be read now. In order to become (for us) a great poet, he had to come down from these radiant heights to a fiercely self-destructive life of drunkenness and Don Juanism. That he did so was partly forced on him by his own contradictions, but it was also his own choice of the “hell of art.” In choosing it he became (as so many commentators have written) a seismographic recorder of the experience of his generation, as the 1905 revolution was followed by a period of reaction, and then by the time of war and revolution which was apprehended, by Blok and by others, as both an end and a beginning.
Avril Pyman gives a full and enlightening account of the contradictory forces that led Blok gradually from the quasi-religious symbolism of his First Book through the snowstorms and wild ecstasy of his Second Book to the harsher realism of his greatest poetry in the Third Book. An important point on this road is 1908, when Blok, who had sympathized deeply with the revolutionary movement of 1905, began to enter public life. This is reflected in the great cycle “On the Field of Kulikovo,” a group of five poems evoking the battle of 1380 in which the army of the Muscovite Prince Dmitry defeated the Tartar Khan Mamay. A brooding, somber note of expectation is sustained until the final poem, by which time it is clear that Blok’s cycle is directed at the twentieth century by way of the fourteenth:
Over the field of Kulikovo
again the mist rose, spread, and lay
draped like a fallen cloud to cover
the face of the coming day.
Behind the unscarred silence, under
the infiltrating mist
you cannot hear the battle thunder
nor see the battle lightning twist.
But I perceive you now, beginning
of high turbulent days. Once more
over the enemy camp the winging
of swans is heard, swans trumpet- ing War.
The heart cannot live peaceably.
Now not for nothing does the air
darken, armour hang heavily.
Your hour has struck. To prayer!1
At this time he wrote to Stanislavsky: “That is how my theme stands before me, the theme of Russia (and in particular, the question of the intelligentsia and the people). To this theme I deliberately and irrevocably dedicate my life.” Like many writers before and since he spoke of the terrible chasm which separated the intelligentsia from the mass of the people. Like Tolstoy he saw the privileged classes and their writers as oppressors and exploiters of the poor and simple. In 1919, on hearing that the family house at Shakhmatovo had been burned and looted, he wrote in his diary:
I am the stronger, even today, and I owe this strength to the fact that someone (my ancestors) had leisure, money, and independence, their children were born proud and independent (though degenerate in other ways), the children were educated and were taught (taught partly by blood, partly by their remoteness from earning bread by the sweat of their brow) to create priceless things from nothing…and then to write books and to live by those books, when those who had never learned to write them were dying of hunger.
It was perceptions such as these, rather than any Marxist beliefs, that led Blok to welcome the Bolshevik revolution as a just retribution (the word is central to his thinking) and also, possibly, as a revival of the moving, living spirit of music in a world that had betrayed it (as the poet himself had betrayed the Beautiful Lady). His belief in the potential Russia, as opposed to the decadent civilization of post-Renaissance Europe, implied no blind acceptance. “The Twelve,” which is his cantata of the revolution, also gives a grim picture of the Red Guards, childish, brutal, vindictive—and yet he believed that there was a “terrible rightness” in the Bolshevik cause. In this he was at odds with most of his fellow intellectuals; many of them broke with him and even today he has not been forgiven by some.
Whatever the historical or moral rights and wrongs, there is no denying the force of “The Twelve.” It opens on an elemental note:
by the wind. The wind!
You cannot stand upright
for the wind: the wind
scouring God’s world.
The wind’s song encloses a whole world of human speech, where Orthodox prayer stands cheek by jowl with stretches of conversation, popular ditties, and exclamations:
Fly away, mister, like a starling,
before I drink your blue veins dry
for the sake of my poor darling
with her dark and roving eye.
Blessed are the dead which die in the Lord…
and with the rhythms of rifle fire marches, and factory songs. His twelve guards, degenerate apostles, march through the poem, killing and blaspheming, but in the last line a half-seen figure appears out in front of them:
…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 bullets crossed—
crowned with a crown of snowflake pearls,
a flowery diadem of frost,
ahead of them goes Jesus Christ.
Although “The Twelve,” with its mysterious Christ and its strange apostles, was too disturbing to please the Revolutionary authorities when it first appeared, it later allowed Soviet critics and teachers to claim Blok as their own, one who made the transition from decadent mysticism and individualism to the public art of the new revolutionary age. Avril Pyman too stresses the constructive aspects of Blok’s last years during the civil war. (Exhausted by cold, hunger, and the hardships of civil war, he died in 1921, soon after the inauguration of the New Economic Policy, which he loathed.) Where some would see the defense of the integrity of art in his last great speech (“On the Calling of the Poet”) as the culmination of his writing, she sees this as a “gentle speech…in a minor key,” the real culmination being “The Twelve.” On the other hand, she brings out fully the pain and despair of these final years, years of hardship and hunger when Blok could no longer hear what he once thought of as the new Russia. And indeed it is hard to see how he could have continued as a poet if he had survived into an easier period.
Blok’s romantic notion of art was elemental, and his poetry is that of fire, water, wind, snow, and human passion, as in this brief love poem of 1914:
As the ocean changes color
when mountainous cloud alps form
and light erupts from a crater—
so the heart in the singing storm
changes its shape, fears to breathe in,
and color floods into the face,
and the heart constricts with hap- piness,
before the appearance of Carmen.
Carmen (or in real life the opera singer Delmas) is like the incarnation of the life-giving force of music, which Blok set against the fixed and deadening order of “civilization,” where the original flow of lava has hardened into an inert crust. Civilization in this sense has rarely taken a more oppressive form than in the literary bureaucracy of Soviet Russia.
As is always the case with biography, the reader may wonder whether the confident and plausible account of the poet’s inner development in these large and absorbing volumes corresponds to the lived reality—perhaps such coherent lives are to be found in books rather than in the world. But the letters to and from Blok, the excerpts from memoirs of those who knew him, and above all the passages quoted from his diaries and notebooks come across with great immediacy, greater than that of the translated poems. As one example among hundreds, take this passage from a letter written to his mother from Italy in 1909:
More than ever I see that never until death will I accept anything of modern life and never will I submit to anything. Toward the whole shameful edifice I feel nothing but repulsion. It is too late to change anything—no revolution will change it. All people will rot, one or two human beings will remain. I love only art, children and death. Russia for me is still the same lyrical immensity. But in reality she is not, never has been or will be.
For a long time now I have been reading War and Peace and have reread almost all Pushkin’s prose. That exists.
Anyone interested in Blok will be grateful for the chance to read so much of his private writing, and also for the patient exposition of his complex and changing relations with Orthodox Christianity and with the many mystical currents of the Symbolist movement in the first years of the twentieth century. Not only well-known figures such as Andrey Bely, but also relatively obscure persons such as the admirable Zhenya Ivanov, Blok’s modest, self-giving Christian friend, are vividly presented.
One would have to be the slave of a dated critical orthodoxy to deny that all this helps us with the poetry. It is true that the emphasis in these volumes is on Blok’s life, and that the poetry appears as evidence rather than as the true subject of the investigation. Even when poems are quoted in extenso (and this happens quite frequently), they are not usually discussed in detail; there is nothing here as illuminating as the presentation of the “Ode to the West Wind” in Richard Holmes’s recent biography of Shelley for instance.2 Nevertheless, Blok’s poetry was always confessional, and Avril Pyman amasses enough material for readers to understand many individual poems as reactions to specific situations. This is particularly true of the many rather abstract-seeming poems of 1902 and 1903, which are now seen to correspond to particular moments in his relationship with Lyubov’ Dmitriyevna.
Unfortunately, of course, Blok’s poems (with the partial exception of “The Twelve”) are not much read by those who do not know Russian. It seems absurd that the work of Yevtushenko finds many times more readers in England and America than Blok’s. How good it would be if Avril Pyman’s biography led many more readers to the poems themselves (she remarks at one point, with excusable hyperbole, that it is worth learning Russian to read “The Twelve”).
Even without the poems, however, the story told in these two volumes seems to me fascinating and exemplary—exemplary in the first place in what it has to say about unhappiness. Blok’s life was enviable enough at times (the happiness of family summers at Shakhmatovo, the exhilaration of Petersburg literary society in one of its most exciting periods), but the overall impression is one of catastrophe. Often Blok seems to have concealed this from those around him, appearing healthy and happy when his diaries show his thoughts to have been pitch black. This inner blackness was not entirely of his choosing, but he welcomed it, not so much as a source of poetry (which it was) as because it was the only fitting response to an age and a society that he loathed and repudiated. It was a kind of solidarity with the victims too. Often enough he was tempted by the mirage of a return to paradise, but rejected it as wrong. In a short poem of 1911 he wrote:
Earth’s heart is growing cold again.
I meet the cold with my head up.
For mankind in the desert I main- tain
An undivided love.
Behind this love anger and scorn rise
And ripen. I long to see written
In men’s eyes and in women’s eyes
Marks of damnation and election.
“Poet,” they’ll cry, “forget, have done.
To the beautiful refuges return,”
No! Better in this cold to burn!
There is no refuge, no peace, none.
Blok’s writing, poems and notebooks alike, is full of disgust, hate, and despair. Isn’t it all too negative, too insistently black? Was the world he lived in really so disgusting? Were his standards impossibly high? From an Anglo-Saxon point of view his poems often lack the irony and wry modesty which is characteristic of much modern poetry. To use a Russian term, he was a “maximalist.” In places it does seem that vehement blackness is all there is, but elsewhere he insists that the darkness of the writing is the obverse of his love of light.
At all events, and even at its grimmest, Blok’s work corresponds to an exalted notion of the artist’s duty to be true and to concentrate on essentials. Avril Pyman’s book is full of striking quotations from his notebooks and letters on the subject of duty and conscience: “Do not lull my acute unease”; “art is to be found where there is waning, loss, suffering, cold”; “a writer is a man marked of fate; he is put into the world to lay bare his own soul before the spiritually hungry.” Blok was an inheritor of the great Russian tradition of seriousness in literature. His first play, The Puppet Booth, was artful and ironic, and was staged by Meyerhold, but he was always suspicious of Meyerhold and the modernist movement in general; Diaghilev appeared to him as the devil incarnate. Indeed, for all his celebration of passion, there was a fierce puritanism in this poet who appeared to many contemporaries as a Don Juan; in this he joins hands with that very different writer of his grandfather’s generation, Tolstoy.
Unlike Tolstoy, however, Blok was not a preacher, and after three years’ experience of the new Soviet literary establishment he gave a valedictory warning (in his speech “On the Calling of the Poet”) against the conscription of writers as engineers of souls. For unlike Tolstoy—and more like Pushkin—he retained a belief in the value and autonomy of poetry. Art was for him an entirely this-worldly phenomenon, not to be confused with religion, but in its own earthly sphere it had (or could have at best) its own rightness. The artist’s duty is to the truth, but this means not so much thinking correct thoughts as being receptive to what Blok called the “breath of life” or the “music of existence.” And his achievement as a poet was not in “making the transition from symbolism to realism” but in combining the high seriousness of a Tolstoy with the rhythms and images of elemental life. Avril Pyman tells us expertly about this, but it can only be fully experienced in the poetry itself.
May 28, 1981