ALEXANDER BLOK

blokIntroduction

Alexander Aleksandrovich Blok (1880-1922) was born to talented members of the gentry. His mother, A.A. Beketova, was a writer, and his father was a jurist, musician, and professor at Warsaw University. Blok studied law at St. Petersburg University, but then moved into philology. In 1903 he married the daughter of the famous chemist Mendeleev, joined the Symbolists circle of Bely and Solovyov, and published his first poems.

Two years later he brought out his first collection, Verses on a Beautiful Lady, which was well received. Blok graduated in 1906, and a year later produced two collections: Inadvertent Joy and Land in Snow, promptly following these up with Free Thoughts, an oddly realistic blank verse collection. Plays, essays and poems appeared at regular intervals through to the outbreak of the Russian Revolution, which Blok supported. In 1921 he was elected head of Petrograd's All-Russian Union of Poets, but a year later wrote To Pushkin House and On the Poet's Calling. Blok's health was now failing, possibly from venereal disease, and he died, disillusioned with the Revolution in 1922.

Blok's first poems drew on Zhukovsky, Fet and the German romantics. But by his first collection, Verses on a Beautiful Lady, he had become a Symbolist, with his own mythology, exalting beauty, light and worship of the Divine and the eternal feminine, all vaguely connected to utopia and universal catastrophe. Passion and spiritual crisis became more marked in Inadvertent Joy and Land in Snow, and these were joined by gritty realism in Free Thoughts. Developing rapidly, Blok published Lyric Dramas in 1908, and staged The Unknown Woman. A year later found him in Italy, whence he travelled to Warsaw at his father's death, a journey that inspired his verse epic Retribution. A year later he produced another collection, Nocturnal Hours. More plays appeared in 1913 and 1914, but in 1916 Blok was drafted and stationed near Pskov. Now a supporter of the Revolutionary Government, Blok wrote the essay Intelligentsia and Revolution and arguably his most important poem: The Twelve, a verse epic where the twelve Red Army soldiers represent the twelve apostles. Polyphonic, with abruptly shifting rhythms, the poem employs language of the city, of romance and of sloganeering. 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.

The spiritual father of Russian literature is Pushkin and from him derive the dream sequences of Gógol, Bély, Blok and Mandelstám. Also the belief that the writer must be the moral and political conscience of his age: Akhmátova, Pasternák, Solzhenítsyn, Yevtushenko. Blok's great contributions were his expressiveness, melodiousness and play on multiple meanings in words. Reaction to Symbolist 'vagueness' came in Mixail Kuzmin (1875-1936) who aimed at a beautiful clarity, and the acmeist school of Nikolaj Gumilëv (1886-1921), Anna Axmatova (1889-1966) and Osip Mandelstam (1891-19238), who all stressed pictorial aspects that did not shy away from the cruelty, desolation and mediocrity of contemporary life. Mandelstam died in a concentration camp (probably) and Axmatova was denied publication. Very different, but persecuted just the same, were futurists like Velimir Xlebnikov (1885-1922) and Vladimir Majakovstij (1894-1930), and urban futurists like Nikolaj Kljuev (1885-1937) and Sergej Esenin (1895-1925). One who did survive was Boris Pasternak (1890-1960) whose passionate lyrics remained true to the legacy of Fet and Rilke.

Bibliographies for Alexander Blok and Russian literature can be found in the Russian Poetry section of the The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics (1993) and the Cambridge History of Russian Literature (1989). Good introductions include R. Lord's Russian and Soviet Literature: An Introduction (1972), V. Nabokov's Lectures on Russian Literature (1981), V. Terras's A History of Russian Literature (1994), and C. Kelly's Russian Literature: A Very Short Introduction (2001).

Suggestion: Blok: Selected Poems J. Woodward. Bristol Classical Press/Duckworth. 1992. $20.00.

An anthology of Blok's poems. Translations by various hands. Edited by J. Woodward, who provides a glossary and introduction to the period.

Learning Russian

Russian can be learnt from books, tapes, courses and CDs, available at abroad languages, multilingual books and linguaphone. BabaVera has audio books in Russian on CD.

Free lessons and material are at master Russian, Russian resources andenchanted learning.

Other works, dictionaries, etc. can be ordered through russkiekniegi, znanie, abebooks and alibris.

Russian-English-Russian online dictionaries are at word2word, yourdictionary, freedict, babelfish, systran and bab-la .

Machine translation can be helpful, though you will need some grammar to correct the rendering: omnilang, free translation, prompt online, babelfish, and worldlingo.

Some useful language exchanges: friends abroad, xlingo, mylanguage exchange, polyglot learn language, and lingozone.

Russian Poetry

Bibliographies can be found in the Russian Poetry section of the The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics (1993) and the Cambridge History of Russian Literature (1989). Good introductions include R. Lord's Russian and Soviet Literature: An Introduction (1972),V. Nabokov's Lectures on Russian Literature (1981), V. Terras's A History of Russian Literature (1994), and C. Kelly's Russian Literature: A Very Short Introduction (2001).

For those short of time there are browser plug-ins and parallel texts (e.g. S. Burnshaw's The Poem Itself, 1960) and decent translations at zeroland, soviet literature, kulichki, poem hunter, russian legacy, russian poetry speaking in tongues and kline .

Sites for individual writers include: Bély, Blok, Kuzmin, Gumilëv, Anna Akhmatova, Osip Mandelstam, Khlebnikov, Majakovstij, Nikolaj Kljuev, Esenin and Pasternak.

Pushkin

Several translations of Eugene Onegin can be read/compared at johnson, litoshik and ledger. There are many biographies of Alexander Pushkin, mostly in Russian, but try H. Troyat's Pushkin (1970) or E. Feinstein's Pushkin: a Biography (1999).

Blok

Information on Alexander Block can be found at antenati.

 

C. John Holcombe   |  About the Author    | ©     2007 2012 2013 2015.   Material can be freely used for non-commercial purposes if properly referenced.