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 Alexander Blok

Born:   28 November 1880
Deceased:   7 August 1921

Russian Silver Age lyrical poet, an outstanding symbolist


Alexander Blok was born in St. Petersburg, in intelligent family. His father was a law professor in Warshaw, but Alexander didn't konw him well, because their parents separated soon after his birth.
He grew in mother's family where the boy were exposed to literature from the cradle, as the members of his family were writers and translators.
In 1899 Block entered the law faculty of St. Petersburg University, but three years later he switched to Philology as he decided to devote his life to literature. He began to write poetry at the age of five, his first serious work came at the age of 18. 
In early years Block's creativity was inspired by the by the early 19th-century Romantic poetry of Vasily Zhukovsky and Alexander Pushkin. Later in the University he learnt about Symbolism, a literary trend which became popular in the 1890s and later influenced Blok’s poetry and life. 

In 1903 Alexander Blok married Lyubov Mendeleeva, the daughter of a famous Russian scientist Dmitry Mendeleev. His first book called Verses about the Fair Lady (Stikhi o Prekrasnoy Dame, 1904) was dedicated to Lyubov and brought him fame. His poetry was considered as the fresh breath of Symbolism and greeted by patriarchs of the Symbolist movement.   

Night, a streetlight, a street, a chemist's,
All in a dim and useless light.
In the next twenty-five years
They'll still prevail, against one's plight.

And you may die but then, returning,
You'll see again the same old night,
The icy canal waters running,
The street, the chemist's, the streetlight.

The whole Blok's poetical output can be divided in three volumes. The first volume is composed of his early poems about the Fair Lady. The second volume comments upon the impossibility of attaining the ideal for which he craved. The third volume, featuring his poems from pre-revolutionary years, is more lively, but quite belligerent sometimes.

Block always tended to mysticism. His wife became the main source of inspiration as the unachievable ideal of a woman, a symbol of the World Soul and Eternal Femininity. Blok's religious worship even threatened to destroy his family, because he was afraid to spoil his "heavenly" wife by marital relations. The situation worsened when Blok’s friend and fellow Symbolist Andrey Bely also fell in love with Lyubov Blok. The two friends almost ended up in a duel.

My sweet friend, and in this quiet home,
Beats a fever me, the same.
I can’t find a place in quiet home
By its always peaceful flame!

Voices sing, a blizzard calls, I hear,
Comfort is my cross….
E’en behind your shoulders, oh my dear,
Someone’s eyes wait for me close!

There, behind your shoulders so quiet,
The wings’ tremble I feel,
Pierces me with his look of a fire
The storms’ angel – Israfil!

His further poetry collections differed markedly from his first one and depicted everyday life, revolutionary events, human psychology and tragic love, in works like Inadvertent Joy (Nechayannaya Radost, 1907), Snow Mask (Snezhnaya Maska, 1907), Faina (1906-1908), and Earth in Snow (Zemlya v snegu, 1908). By this time Blok was established as a leader of Russian Symbolism, though some of his peers accused him of betraying the ideals reflected in his first collection.
  In his best years Alexander Blok was often compared with Alexander Pushkin and had an enormous influence on younger poets. Many of his colleagues, such as Anna Akhmatova, Marina Tsvetaeva, Vladimir Nabokov and Boris Pasternak, wrote important verse tributes in his honour.

Being an outstanding symbolist, Blok created a complicated system of poetic symbols. Colours, sounds, smells, images - this all had its own sense and deep meaning. For example, in one of his early works  wind represents the Fair Lady's approach, whereas morning or spring is the time when their meeting is most likely to happen. 

Do not entrust all roads yours 
To the unfaithful, immense crowd:
It’ll smash your castle with rough force,
And quench light of your temple, proud.

He’s single to bear his hard cross
Whose spirit is unmoved in rightness,
His fire on high hills he burns,
And breaks a curtain of the darkness.

The poet's later works mostly reflected his thoughts on Russia: its past and future, the path it chose and the drastic changes it was undergoing at that time. They included the collections Night Hours (Nochnye Chasy, 1911), Poems about Russia (Stikhi o Rossii, 1915), Motherland (Rodina, 1907-1916) and the epic Retribution (Vozmezdie, 1910-1921).

Influenced by doctrines of Russian philosopher Vladimir Solovyev, he had vague apocalyptic apprehensions and often vacillated between hope and despair. "I feel that a great event was coming, but what it was exactly was not revealed to me," he wrote in his diary during the summer of 1917. Surprisingly for most of his colleagues and admirers, Blok enthusiastically welcomed the Russian Revolution of 1917. He dedicated to it his most important epic poem "Twelve" ("Dvenadtsat", 1918) about twelve Red Army soldiers marching through revolutionary Petrograd. It featured numerous artistic devices like distinctive sounds, clear and chopped rhythms, gloomy colours, repetitive symbols and slang language – all of them helped to capture the mood of the time and Blok’s ambivalent view of the revolution. He used unusual sources for the poetry of Symbolism: urban folklore, ballads (songs of a sentimental nature) and ditties ("chastushka"). That poem was sold in million copies in the first year and raised many disputes. Blok also wrote The Scythians, which explored Slavophile issues and Russia's mediating role between Europe and Asia. But Blok was now parting company with the Revolution, and his essays To Pushkin House and On the Poet's Calling celebrate the secret freedom of art in the face of banality and officialdom.

But soon Blok became deillusioned with the Bolsheviks and their methods of governing, and then he even stopped composing poetry. From 1918 to 1921 he worked in different organizations as an essayist, editor, translator, publisher and theatre worker.
From time to time he recited his verse in public in St. Petersburg and Moscow. His last remarkable public speech in February 1921 was called On the Poet's Calling and was dedicated to Alexander Pushkin. Blok called him the greatest poet of all time, who did much to unite Russia in difficult times.

Aleksandr Blok died on August 7, 1921 in Petrograd (now St. Petersburg) of unknown causes, although it’s believed deep depression and nervous and physical exhaustion might have played their part. He didn't write poetry for three years. Few weeks before his death Blok told his friend Korney Chukovsky: "All sounds have stopped. Can't you hear that there are no longer any sounds?" 
Alexander Blok's death was considered as the end of the whole epoch of pre-revolutionary Russian literature.

You’re gone away, and I’m in desert,
Pressing myself against hot sand.
But now my mouth can’t profess it -
The proud word that’s to be said.

I see my past without sadness –
I’ve understood your sacred heights:
Yes, you’re the Galilee, so precious
To me – non-resurrected Christ.

And let another you caresses,
Let multiply abuse and spread:
The Son of Man still never fathoms
Where’er to lay his own head.


Sources: English translations of Blok's poems (translation by Yevgeny Bonver)

Wikipedia Poetry Lovers Poetry-Portal Russia Today The New York Times

Julia Alieva

Tags: Russian literature Russian poetry Alexander Blok Symbolism  

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