Blok, Alexandr Aleksandrovich.. Born 28 November 1880. His father, A.L. Blok, was a lawyer and professor at Warsaw University. His mother, A.A. Beketova, was a writer. Soon after his birth, his parents separated and the young Blok spent much time with his grandfather, A.N. Beketov, a botantist at St. Petersburg University. At age five, the young Blok began writing verses such as:
Nice little rabbit, little grey rabbit,In 1889, Blok's mother remarried, and he went to live with her and her new husband, Lieutenant Frants Feliksovkich Kublitsky-Piottukh. He spent summers in the Beketov summer house in Shakhmatovo, halfway between Petersburg and Moscow. At age 14, he was the editor of The Messenger, a family literary journal produced in only one copy. His mother, grandmother, grandfather, uncles and aunts all contributed. Blok himself wrote sentimental verses on the beauties of life at Shakhmatovo. At age sixteen, he became enchanted with the theatre, particularly the work of Shakespeare. He decided to become an actor.
In 1898, Blok entered the law faculty of Petersburg University, but in 1901 he transferred to the historical-philological faculty, from which he graduated in 1906.
Beginning in approximately 1898, Blok began to fall under the influence of the poetry and mysticism of Vladimir Solovyov. It was also during this time that he began wooing Lyubov Mendeleeva, his future wife. In the verses he was writing, Lyubov became the "Beautiful Lady", the Eternal Feminine, Sofia, Wisdom--ideas all drawn from Solovyov. In 1903 Blok and Lyubov were married.
1903 was also the year that his first verses were published in the journal Novii Put'. The Symbolists, in particular Bely, were swept up in the admiration of Blok's work. Blok and Bely began correspondence in 1903 and met for the first time in January 1904 when Blok and Lyubov traveled to Moscow. Blok was somewhat bemused and Lyubov embarrassed over the adoring attention Bely and the other Symbolist showered on Lyubov as the embodiment of the Eternal Feminine.
Blok's first book of verse, Verses on a Beautiful Lady, appeared in 1904. In these poems, transcendent meaning arises from the mundane. Solovyov's cult of the "Holy Sophia" is a predominant element. Motifs used by Blok in this volume include distance, dawn, sunset, azure, and mysterious premonitions. Church symbolism also abounds.
But almost as soon as Verses on a Beautiful Lady appeared, Blok began to turn away from the Solovyovian mysticism. Bely saw this as a betrayal. Bely openly declared his love for Lyubov, but she rejected him.
Following the revolutionary events of 1905 and Blok's graduation from university in 1906, his outlook became bleaker, he took up drinking. Bely pestered him, argued with him, challenged him to a duel. Nothing, of course, came of it.
Both Blok and his wife turned their attention to theatre. Lyubov wanted to be an actress and joined Meyerhold's group. For about a year, Blok fell under the sway of another of Meyerhold's actresses, Natalya Volokhova, who provided him inspiration for the poems Snow Mask and Faina and the play Song of Fate, arguably the worst thing Blok ever wrote.
Meyerhold wanted Blok to write a dramatic work, and Blok responded with the lyric drama Balabanchik ("The Fair Show Booth" or "The Puppet Booth") in 1906. N. Berberov describes the work thusly:
A little theatre with tightrope walkers, a fairground stall, where a sad Pierrot waits for his Columbine, whom the Harlequin will take from him. The Beautiful Lady is cardboard, the sky--where the happy lovers fly away--is tissue paper. Liquid flows from the wound of the poor abandoned lover, and the "mystics" who jabber their "theories" in chorus remain open-mouthed, become quite flat and disappear, while the author, pestered from right and left, doesn't know what to dream up to explain to the audience what has just happened.Bely, of course, erupted with indignation, correctly seeing the "mystics" as a lampoon of himself and his fellow "Argonauts".
Blok's next volumes of verse, Accidental Joy and Land in Snow, both appeared in 1907. They continued the turning away from and even parodying of the Solovyovianism. Blok's main symbol now is the unpredicatable, irrational power of nature. He also develops the image of the Unknown Woman (Neznakomka), an ordinary urban woman seen as the incarnation of mystery and beauty. New, more dangerous images of blizzards, fires, and falling stars are featured. He also presents the city as something lifeless and infernal, full of lonliness and doom. He also begins the use of free verse and colloquial speech.
Even as Lyobov continued to travel with Meyerhold's theatre company, Blok parted with Volkhova and grew more depressed. He wrote to his mother:
I drink a lot, I lilve in a horrible fashion, and as always not like the rest of the world.Blok found solace in drinking and numerous short-lived romantic liaisons. By Blok's own counting, there were some 300 of these. He also undertook a series of articles, Russia and the Intelligentsia, in which he demonstrated an acute awareness of the social tensions in Russian society. He criticized the intelligentsia for ignoring these tensions. A class rift was developing which he saw as unbridgeable. He wrote:
If the will to die is increasingly frequent among the Russian intelligentsia, the people have always had the will to live....They [i.e., `The intelligentsia'] throw themselves on the people, only to meet with silence, mocking smiles, pity, disdain.Blok sensed the coming upheaval:
Gogol and other Russian writers liked to think of Russia as the embodiment of sleep and silence. But this sleep is coming to an end; the silence is being replaced by a distant, growing rumble which has nothing in common with the noise of our great cities.That rumbling, Blok suggested, was a troika speeding furiously into a future which the intellectuals cannot understand and which will crush them:
Even as we cast ourselves at the feet of the people, we are casting ourselves under the furious troika, to certain death.In 1909, Blok and Lyubov took a trip to Italy, seeking refuge from the unhappiness of Russia and, as Blok said, "Our only real enemies--the government, the priests, vodka, the crown, the police." The journey resulted in his cycle of "Italian Verses" and the collection of essays "Lightning of Art". They returned to Russia, but the news was not good. Blok's mother was having epileptic seizures, and his father died in Warsaw.
Blok traveled to Warsaw for the funeral of the father he barely knew. This experience was the basis for his epic verse "Retribution", a story of three generations. Blok described it thusly:
Its theme is the development of the links in a single chain which is a family. Each offshoot develops to a certain degree and is then enveloped by the surrounding society. In each offshoot something individual, new and poignant forms and ripens, at the cost of countless sacrifices, tragedies, falls, defeats, at the cost eventually of losing valuable qualities that are fine and admirable in their season: moral virtues, loyalty, humanity.After his return to Warsaw, Blok and Lyubov took a trip across Europe. Blok visited the Louvre but didn't get to see the Mona Lisa because it had been stolen. "In The Field of Kulikovo" appeared in 1909.
By 1910, back in Russia, Blok--now completely separated from the Symbolists ("Nothing in the world is more horrible than mysticism")--was groping for a deeper grounding in reality. He was fascinated with wrestling and gymnastics. He wrote:
A real work of art cannot be born these days unless: 1. you maintain real--not cerebral--connection with the universe; 2. our art rubs shoulders with other arts (for me, painting, music, architecture and gymnastics.In 1911 - 1912, Blok's health was wobbly. He suffered from scurvy and neurasthenia. Lyubov was off a lot, touring with Meyerhold's company. In 1912, Blok began a relationship with Mlle. Delmas, an actress with the Musical Drama Theatre. This affair would last until the poet's death. In 1913, Blok completed the play "Rose and Cross", based on an old French legend. Stanislavsky's Moscow Art Theatre began preparing a production of the play. Blok and Stanislavsky never really understood each other, and other problems plagued the production, which ultimately was never staged.
When World War I began, Lyubov signed up as a nurse and was sent off to the front. During this period, Blok wrote little, but read the newspapers avidly. He sincerely desired the fall of tsarism, but did nothing to help bring this about. In 1916 he was drafted into the army. He got a cushy appointment as a record-keeper in an engineering units 10 kilometers from the front. Life was uneventful.
Blok joyously welcomed the February Revolution. He was disappointed, however, when Kerensky's government decided to continue the war. In May 1917 he was reassigned to edit testimony given by tsarist ministers before an investigative commission of the Provisional Revolutionary Government. This provided much material for his book "The Last Days of the Old Regime" (1919).
Perhaps his most famous work, Dvenatsat ("The Twelve") appeared in 1918. It was greeted as the first serious literary treatment of the October Revolution. Generally interpreted as an acceptance of Bolshevism, other interpretations are possible. The Right denounced it, but Lunacharsky and Kamenev weren't too happy with the "outdated symbol" of Jesus Christ at the end of the poem. Kamenev told Blok:
You shouldn't read these lines out loud because you are sanctifying in them what we others, old socialists, most dread.Trotsky advised that Blok to replace Christ with Lenin. V. Zhirmunsky said the poem creates the impression of "a grandiouse unresolved dissonance". It was an immediate success and brought Blok a steady income. Every night, Lyubov recited it in an artists' cafe.
Blok also published The Scythians in 1918. It was a type of warning to the West about the power of Russia.
Blok was envigorated by the revolutionary times. He was employed on the Commission for the Reorganization of Theatres and Spectacles and was on the publishing panel of the People's Commissariate for Education. He saw that "the old world is at melting-point! The new is coming into being!" As for the position of the poet in this new, post-October world, he wrote:
A poet must realize that Russia as she was no longer exists, and will never return....A new era is opening for the world. The old civilization, the old social ideas, the old religion are dead.Of course there are those trying to revive the corpse of the old world. But:
A poet must be inflamed by a holy anger against all those who wish to reinvigorate such a corpse. But this anger must not degenerate into hatred--hatred is a tempation--and thus the poet must never forget the truth that ours is a great epoch, and that all hatred is unworthy of it....A poet must prepare for the even greater events still to come, and he must know how to bow before them.In 1919 he became director of the Bolshoi Drama Theatre, where the repertoire was mainly classical--Shakespeare, Moliere, Schiller. For Gorky's "Scenes From History" project, Blok wrote a short theatre sketch, Rameses, about Egypt. He also published Grey Morning, a collection of earlier poems.
Bely showed up in Petrograd. He and Blok formed the Free Philosophical Association, where religious, philosophical, and artistic questions could be debated. Blok inaugurated the association by reading his paper "The Collapse of Humanism".
In 1920, Blok was elected chairman of the Petrograd division of the All-Russian Union of Poets. He was also editor of the literary journal Zapiski Mechtatelei ("Dreamers' Notes").
In February 1921, at an evening to celebrate Pushin, Blok proclaimed "Peace! Freedom! For every poet they are indispensible." But this peace and freedom were soon to leave him. His illness, which had been brewing since 1918, became acute in April 1921. Pain was excrutiating. He couldn't walk. Simultaneous with this he claimed he was becoming deaf--not physically deaf, but he could no longer hear the music of life, the music of the revolution.
He died on 7 August 1921 and was buried at Smolensky cemetery.
"Aleksandr Blok: A Life" by Nina Berberova. George Braziller, Inc., New York. 1996.
Terras, Victor. "Handbook of Russian Literature", Yale University Press, 1985.