Blok, Alexander

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BLOK, ALEXANDER (1880–1921), Russian poet.

One of the major European poets and dramatists of the twentieth century, Alexander Alexandrovich Blok emerged as a symbolist at the beginning of his career but quickly transcended the confines of that movement. Born in St. Petersburg on 28 November (16 November, old style) 1880 to a family of the intelligentsia, Blok was raised by his mother and her family after his parents' divorce.

Whereas the so-called first generation of Russian symbolists acknowledged French symbolism as a formative influence, Blok turned to the poetry of his mother tongue, the romances and love poetry of Vasily Zhukovsky, Alexander Pushkin, Yakov Polonsky, and Afanasy Fet. The most telling influence, however, was that of Vladimir Soloviev, whose poetry, drama, and complex persona provided models for Blok throughout his career. In particular, Soloviev's conception of the Sophia, the divine feminine who would redeem and reconcile humanity, inspired Blok as he created his early poems, collected in Verses about the Beautiful Lady (1904). The most overtly symbolist of Blok's work, this cycle constitutes a diary in verse that recounts the poet's anticipation of and encounters with the Beautiful Lady, who mediates between the mundane world that surrounds the poet and the divine that he intuits beyond his senses. The cycle becomes ever more dramatic as the poet grapples with doubt and foreboding, which endow the entire work with an eschatological character. Blok resurrects and renews the key concerns of European love poetry, and Verses stands apart as a twentieth-century exemplar of a tradition that goes back to the troubadours, Petrarch, Dante, and beyond.

The doubt and foreboding that lent Verses its drama intensified after the Revolution of 1905. Thanks in part to the impact of the poet Valery Bryusov's volume Urbi et Orbi (1903; To the city and the world), Blok turned increasingly to urban themes. As an unforeseen consequence, the Beautiful Lady underwent a metamorphosis, arising as an Unknown Woman who is as much angel as whore. The work of Blok's so-called second period provoked a firestorm of recrimination, abuse, and charges of apostasy. The poet and novelist Andrei Bely went so far as to challenge Blok to a duel. Although the duel never took place, the crisis demonstrates how far Blok had strayed from his erstwhile friends and colleagues.

Blok's persona continued to evolve. He transformed it in the poems collected in such collections as Joy Unhoped-for and The Snow Mask (1907) through romantic irony and overt self-parody. This process was inherently dramatic, and it is telling that Blok turned to drama at this time. His first play, A Puppet Show (1906), is a complex parody of both his own work and of theatrical tradition. It so moved the great director Vsevolod Meyerhold that he staged it twice: The first production, at the Vera Kommissarzhevskaya Theater, turned into a seminal event in modern Russian culture as the play elicited a near riot. The second production, a double bill with Blok's third play, An Unknown Woman, proved more tranquil, yet still historic as it was here that Meyerhold began to work out the basic tenets of his constructivist phase.

While irony and self-parody leavened his earlier solemnity, Blok remained dissatisfied and sought positive meaning in his work. His seeking came to fruition as gradually the divinity of the Beautiful Lady melded with the earthliness of the Unknown Woman and became reified in Russia, whose image was at once concretely feminine and historically ordained. Much of Blok's best poetry, the collection Homeland (1907–1916) and the cycle On Kulikovo Field (1908), for example, issued from his historical vision of Russia. Blok's increasing preoccupation with history, Russia, and its mission informs not only his essays and lyric poetry but also his narrative poetry, which includes the unfinished Retribution (1910–1921) and culminates in The Twelve and The Scythians (both 1918). Even such seemingly independent works as The Rose and the Cross (1913), one of the finest plays of the era, and the literary folktale "Nightingale Garden" betray a debt to a vision that is at once mythic and historical. Blok died in Petrograd on 7 August 1921.

No poet after Blok has escaped his shadow. Poets as diverse as Anna Akhmatova and Marina Tsvetaeva acknowledged the impact of Blok's work on their own, but even poets who repudiated symbolism, such as Vladimir Mayakovsky, drew on his technique. As the poet Osip Mandelstam put it, Blok was a "canonizer of uncanonized forms," who introduced and popularized nontraditional rhymes and accentual verse meters, such as dolniki, that had rarely appeared before in high literature. Just as influential is Blok's persona. In surrendering himself to the historical elements of the revolution, Blok shaped the image of what a poet should be for a generation and beyond.

See alsoBely, Andrei; Pushkin, Alexander; Silver Age; Soloviev, Vladimir; Symbolism.


Primary Sources

Blok, Aleksandr. Selected Poems. Translated by Jon Stallworthy and Peter France. Manchester, U.K., 2000. Originally published as The Twelve, and Other Poems. London, 1970.

——. Aleksandr Blok's Trilogy of Lyric Dramas. Translated by Timothy C. Westphalen. London, 2003. Contains A Puppet Show, The King on the Square, and The Unknown Woman.

Secondary Sources

Berberova, Nina. Aleksandr Blok: A Life. Translated by Robyn Marsack. Manchester, U.K., 1996.

Chukovsky, Kornei. Alexander Blok as Man and Poet. Translated and edited by Diana Burgin and Katherine O'Connor. Ann Arbor, Mich., 1982.

Mochulsky, Konstantin. Aleksandr Blok. Translated by Doris V. Johnson. Detroit, Mich., 1983.

Orlov, Vladimir. Hamayun: The Life of Alexander Blok. Translated by Olga Shartse. Moscow, 1980.

Pyman, Avril. The Life of Aleksandr Blok. Vol. 1: The Distant Thunder, 1880–1908. Oxford, U.K., 1979.

——. The Life of Aleksandr Blok. Vol. 2: The Release of Harmony, 1908–1921. Oxford, U.K., 1980.

Sloane, David A. Aleksandr Blok and the Dynamics of the Lyric Cycle. Columbus, Ohio, 1988.

Vogel, Lucy, ed. and trans. Blok: An Anthology of Essays and Memoirs. Ann Arbor, Mich., 1982.

Westphalen, Timothy C. Lyric Incarnate: The Dramas of Aleksandr Blok. London, 1998.

Timothy C. Westphalen