Aleksandr Blok, Russia’s most celebrated and arguably most gifted symbolist poet, is known primarily for his lyrics (Stikhi o prekrasnoi dame [1903; Verses about the beautiful lady], “Neznakomka” [1907; “The Incognita”], the cycle “Rodina” [1912; Native land]) and for a narrative poem about the Bolshevik Revolution (Dvenadtsat’ [1918; The Twelve]). He is also known for his drama Balaganchik (The Puppet Show), which was staged by the famous director Vsevolod Meyerhold in 1906.
By comparison, Blok’s critical, philosophical, and historical prose, which consists of over 250 separate pieces, has received rather spotty attention. For Blok’s contemporaries, however, his book reviews, essays, and public lectures were major events on the cultural landscape. From the outset of his career, Blok himself considered expository prose an essential part of his creative legacy, very nearly on a par with his poetry. It is significant that he begins the rough draft of his first article with the statement: “The following essay…emerges from the pain of my soul…This is a small work but an inspired one, which I want to leave posterity in addition to my songs” (1902).
An effort must be made to classify Blok’s voluminous prose inventory, if only to determine which items can justifiably be called “essays” in the sense he intended (“inspired” pieces that express “the pain of my soul”). Setting aside 40–50 brief reports and notices which clearly do not qualify, we can identify about 100 articles and speeches of substantial length that bear the imprint of Blok’s emotional sensibilities and definitely warrant the designation “essays.” Occupying a median ground are 150 or so reviews of books and plays, ranging in length from one to five pages. Roughly half of these— especially those devoted to works which had special significance for Blok—are also miniature “essays” inasmuch as they convey not only Blok’s judgment but his creative personality.
It is possible to break the inventory down further into various subgenres—articles about individual writers, literary surveys, historical treatises, autobiographical sketches, feuilletons, travel notes, and essay-narratives, to name the most common types. But there is reason to dispense with such categories and group Blok’s essays according to the criterion of their relative poeticity, as Dmitrii Maksimov (1981) does. The majority of Blok’s essays are written in a highly lyrical, metaphoric, and symbolic style that exploits ambiguity for aesthetic ends. Unabashedly impressionistic, they give free rein to Blok’s prodigious imagination. By contrast, the nonpoetic essays, which are fewer in number and less idiosyncratic, tend to be discursive, logical, even academic in manner. They avoid metaphoric leaps and have a better-defined structure.
All of Blok’s essays gravitate to one of these poles regardless of their subject matter.
Hence there are lyrical book reviews (“Andrei Belyi: Simfoniia,” 1903; “Valerii Briusov: Urbi et Orbi,” wr. 1903), scholarly articles that tell us more about Blok’s experience as a poet than about the topics they ostensibly treat (“Poeziia zagovorov i zaklinanii” [1908; The poetry of magical sayings and incantations]; “O sovremennom sostoianii russkogo simvolizma” [1910; On the contemporary state of Russian symbolism]), and personal memoirs that resemble fairytales (“Devushka rozovoi kalitki i murav’inyi tsar’” [1907;
The girl at the pink fence and the ant king]; “Ni sny ni iav’” [1921; Neither dream nor reality]). On the other hand, there are also sober, almost academic essays on poetic topics (“Sud’ba Apollona Grigor’eva” [1916; The fate of Apollon Grigor’ev]; “Iskusstvo I revoliutsiia” [1919; “Art and the Revolution”]) which lack Blok’s customary lyricism.
His prose exists in a dynamic, complementary relationship with his poetry, and the boundary between the two is constantly fluctuating. Unlike Pushkin, Blok did not believe that prose and poetry were inherently different media that ought to be kept discrete.
In poeticizing the essay Blok followed the norm of his time. Rebelling against the rationalistic bias of the previous century, most essayists of the symbolist era, like Blok, replaced logical persuasion with emotive, imagistic reasoning. Nevertheless, the authorial persona of Blok’s essays is unique. Less outlandish than Andrei Belyi, less vain than Konstantin Bal’mont, less cerebral than Viacheslav Ivanov, less pedantic than Valerii Briusov, and more socially committed than all of them, Blok spoke in his own distinct voice. His essays have an affinity to Innokentii Annenskii’s in their brazen whimsicality, but they lack Annenskii’s intellectuality. In relation to Western essayists, Blok comes closest to Wagner and Nietzche, whom he knew well.
Not surprisingly, Blok acquired his reputation as an essayist in symbolist journals with an educated and aesthetically refined readership—most notably in Zolotoe Runo (The golden fleece), for which he edited the literary criticism section from 1907. When Zolotoe Runo closed in 1909, Blok was left without a suitable forum for the poetic type of essay which came most naturally to him. His ideal audience had always been an aesthetic elite who read and appreciated his poetry—his prose in fact was designed in part to explicate his own verses. Publishing in daily newspapers, he was forced to tone down his lyricism and reorient himself to a less sophisticated readership. In the years 1910 to 1916 he could hardly tolerate such constraints and contemplated abandoning the genre of the essay entirely. To reach his ideal audience, he relied increasingly on speeches, where he could freely indulge in esotericism.
One of the few symbolists who welcomed the Bolshevik Revolution, Blok experienced a new creative surge as an essayist after 1917. Some of his most inspired pieces were composed shortly after the Revolution (“Ispoved’ iazychnika” [1918; A heathen’s confession]; “Katalina” [1919; Cataline]; “Krushenie gumanizma” [1919; “The Collapse of Humanism”]). A handful of these found their way into the collection Rossiia I intelligentsiia (1918; Russia and the intelligentsia). Nevertheless, the Bolsheviks were disturbed by Blok’s independent thinking and ultimately suppressed his best prose. Blok himself soured toward Bolshevism after he was arrested and nearly executed in February 1919 on the erroneous charge that he was a counter-revolutionary. The essays of his last years, therefore, reached an extremely limited public. Only two complete editions of his essays appeared in the Soviet era, the earliest of which was prefaced by a stern warning that they were “intolerable” and represented “the ideology of the bourgeoisie” (Vasilii Desnitskii, 1935). Only a small fraction of his essays have been translated into English (more are available in French and German translation).
Blok’s essays treat many topics, but beneath the particulars is an abiding concern over Russia’s fate during the cataclysmic changes of the early 20th century. In his first true essay, written during the Revolution of 1905 (“Tvorchestvo Viacheslava Ivanova” [Work of Viacheslav Ivanov]), Blok quoted Fedor Tiutchev’s words: “Blessed is he who visited this world/In its fateful moments.” Near the end of his life, when Bolshevik authority was thoroughly consolidated, he spoke about the social-political changes of his time as commensurate with those of “several centuries” (“Vladimir Solov’ev i nashi dni” [1920; Vladimir Solov’ev and our times]). Thus Blok thought of himself as a privileged witness of an historic upheaval, and in his essays he continually tried to register its spiritual significance both for himself and his generation. In “Narod i intelligentsia” (1908; “The People and the Intelligentsia”), Blok attributes Russia’s trials to the fragmentation of national culture, to the split between the Westernized elite and the native peasantry. In “Stikhiia i kul’tura” (1909; The natural elements and culture), he describes the popular revolution as kind of natural cataclysm, the nation’s primordial revenge against an alien and artificial culture. Blok believed that the violence of revolution was a necessary stage in the ritual of Russia’s spiritual purification (“Intelligentsia i revoliutsiia” [1918; “The Intelligentsia and the Revolution”]), and in a stark indictment of his own former values, he even welcomed the demise of Western individualism and its humanistic heritage (“The Collapse of Humanism”).
The perspective from which Blok passed such scathing judgments was that of a prophet or seer using poetic clairvoyance to demystify political phenomena. The role of the poet, he believed, was to discern the cosmic harmonies that resonated beyond the chaos of visible experience (“Dusha pisatelia” [1909; The writer’s soul]; “O naznachenii poeta” [1921; On the calling of the poet]), and he found in the peasant’s primitive aestheticism a model for such an oracular art (“Poeziia zagovorov i zaklinanii”). There was, of course, an inherent contradiction between the language of Blok’s essays and this defense of primitivism. He could hardly expect an uneducated reader to follow the trajectories of metaphoric thought in his prose. Nor did he rid his essays of symbolic vagueness—a tendency that infuriated even sophisticated readers like Belyi and Zinaida Gippius. Like many Russian writers, Blok revered the common folk as a repository of truth but could not express this faith in an idiom it understood.
Because Blok’s most inspired essays are written in the arcane idiom of a symbolist poet, reading them as a whole poses the question of how he understood their relation to the purely lyric form. It is interesting that in a plan for his collected works compiled in 1917, Blok referred to the essays simply as “prose,” suggesting that despite their convergence, there was still an inherent difference between his essays and his verse. This difference would seem to be primarily one of focus. Blok’s lyric poetry, in its aggregate, is a mesmerizingly intimate confession which draws the reader deep into the recesses of the poet’s soul. It requires a phenomenal capacity for contextual reading—a knowledge not just of one poem, but of whole cycles and volumes. To the reader who embarks upon the arduous task of deciphering his lyrics, the poems reveal a complex personality, the avenues and alleyways of a vast buried labyrinth. In order not to lose the way through this labyrinth it is essential to recall the paths traversed and strive to divine those ahead— that is, to contemplate the design of the whole poetic oeuvre and the intellect which devised it.
The essays, by contrast, are directed mainly toward external phenomena. They do not have Blok’s inner self as their focus, nor do they reveal (and conceal) a secret world.
Whereas his verse is self-referential to an obsessive degree, the essays open onto a wider horizon and show Blok pondering a different reality: the social and political events, the cultural and aesthetic currents of his time. Blok’s persona comes across no less vividly, but the environment is not claustrophobic. It is as if he is contemplating his place in the vast philosophical landscape that history has opened before him.
Aleksandr Aleksandrovich Blok. Born 28 November 1880 in St. Petersburg. Studied at Vvedenskii School, St. Petersburg, 1891–99; studied law, then philosophy at the University of St. Petersburg, 1899–1906. Married Liubov Dmitrievna Mendeleeva, 1903.
Literary editor, Zolotoe Runo, from 1907. Traveled abroad several times, including to Italy and Warsaw, 1909. Served in the army as a record keeper with an engineering unit, stationed at the front near Pskov, 1916–17. Edited testimony of former ministers of the Tsar for the provisional government’s Extraordinary Investigative Commission, 1917–18.
Worked for Gor’kii publishers’ Vsemirnaia Literatura (World literature) series, 1918–21, and the Vol’naya Filosofskaia Assotsiatsiia (Free philosophical association). Arrested briefly for supposed counter-revolutionary activities, 1919. Chair, Directorate of the Bolshoi Theater, 1919–21, and the Petrograd division of the All-Russian Union of Poets, 1920–21. Died (of heart failure) in Petrograd, 7 August 1921.
Essays and Related Prose
Molnii iskusstva (Lightning flashes of art), 1909–20(?)
Rossiia i intelligentsiia, 1918; revised edition, 1919
Poslednie dni imperatorskoi vlasti (The last days of the Imperial Regime), 1921
The Spirit of Music: Selected Essays, translated by I.Freiman, 1943
Other writings: three volumes of poetry (including Dvenadtsat’ [1918; The Twelve]) and several plays.
Collected works editions: Sobranie sochinenii, 12 vols., 1932–36; edited by Vladimir N.Orlov and others, 8 vols., 1960–63, and in 6 vols., 1971.
Kolpakova, E., and others, in Vilniusskii gosudarstvennyi pedagogicheskii Institut 6 (1959)
Pomirchiy, P.E., in Blokovskii Sbornik 2 (1972)
Pyman, Avril, in Blokovskii Sbornik 1 (1964)
Chukovskii, Kornei, Alexander Blok as Man and Poet, Ann Arbor, Michigan: Ardis, 1982
Desnitskii, Vasilii, “A.Blok kak literaturnyi kritik,” in Sobranie sochinenii by Blok, vol. 10, Leningrad: Izdatel’stvo Pisatelei v Leningrad, 1935:5–16
Kisch, Cecil H., Alexander Blok: The Prophet of Revolution, London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1960
Kluge, Rolf-Dieter, Westeuropa und Russland im Weltbild Aleksandr Bloks, Munich: Slavistische Beiträge, 1967
Maksimov, Dmitrii E., “Kriticheskaia proza Bloka,” in his Poeziia i proza Aleksandra Bloka, Leningrad: Sovetskii Pisatel’, 1981
Potsepnia, Dina M., Proza A. Bloka: Stilisticheskie problemy, Leningrad: Izdatel’stvo Leningradskogo Universiteta, 1976
Pyman, Avril, The Life of Aleksandr Blok, Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2 vols., 1979–80
Pyman, Avril, “Blok v angliiskom i amerikanskom literaturovedenii,” in Literaturnoe nasledstvo, vol. 92, book 5, Moscow: Nauka, 1993:362–401
Reeve, F.D., Aleksandr Blok: Between Image and Idea, New York: Octagon, 1981 (original edition, 1962)
Vogel, Lucy, editor and translator, Blok: An Anthology of Essays and Memoirs, Ann Arbor, Michigan: Ardis, 1982
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