ALMOST THERE | ISSUE TEN
The Silver Age of Russian Poetry
Part Two: Alexander Blok’s ‘mystic summer’ (1)
When third year law student Alexander Blok went to spend his summer holidays at his grandfather’s country estate at Shakhmatovo, he was doing what he had done virtually every year since he was born. But the summer of 1901, which subsequently came to be known as his ‘mystic summer’ was to be like no other.¹
Blok had entered the Faculty of Law at St Petersburg University in the autumn of 1898, though it is doubtful whether any of his family or friends really believed he was destined for a career in the legal profession.² From an early age young ‘Sasha’ had shown signs of the artistic sensibility that was to see him become one of Russia’s greatest poets, though strangely enough, when his talents first began to assert themselves it was not through the medium of poetry.
When he was thirteen years old Blok was taken to the theatre for the very first time. The production of Tolstoy’s The Fruits of Enlightenment left a profound impression on the boy and thus began a love for the stage that was to last his whole life. By the time he was sixteen Blok was already organising amateur dramatic performances during his summer stays at Shakhmatovo. The leading lady in these earnest productions was invariably Lyubov Dmitrievna Mendeleeva, the daughter of the famous chemist (and family friend) Dmitrii Mendeleev, who owned the nearby estate of Boblovo. Lyubov Dmitrievna fascinated Blok; she was quiet, there was an air of mystery about her and she shared his dream of pursuing a career on the stage. By the time he had turned eighteen, his adolescent fascination had turned into full-blown love. Young love is rarely straightforward, and Lyubov Dmitrievna, timid by nature, was over-awed by her admirer’s exalted tone and frequent lapses into sophisticated irony. Blok mistook her shyness for indifference and endured several years of anguish before he finally felt able to reveal his true feelings.
Entering university did little to soothe the painful intensity of Blok’s love for Lyubov Mendeleeva. Nor did it dampen his love of the stage: his amateur theatricals continued the following summer (much to the amusement of the peasants who made up the bulk of the audience) and in the autumn he joined the Petersburg Dramatic Society. There were signs, however, that he was beginning to take poetry more seriously. While still in his first year Blok wrote a poem inspired by Viktor Vasnetsov’s painting The Gamayun.³ Gamayun, the Prophet-Bird was to be the first poem Blok ever submitted for publication.
Гамаюн птица вещая
На гладях бесконечных вод,
Закатом в пурпур облечённых,
Она вещает и поёт,
Не в силах крыл поднять смятённых...
Вещает иго злых татар,
Вещает казней ряд кровавых,
И трус, и голод, и пожар,
Злодеев силу, гибель правых...
Предвечным ужасом объят,
Прекрасный лик горит любовью,
Но вещей правдою звучат
Уста, запекшиеся кровью!
Gamayun, the Prophet-Bird
(A painting by V. Vasnetsov)
Above the still, smooth, endless waters,
Bathed in the sunset’s purple glow,
She sings her songs of prophecy,
Too weak to raise her crumpled wings...
She sings of the evil Tatar yoke,
The bloody stream of executions,
Of famine, strife and conflagration,
And how the wicked rule while the righteous perish...
Though wracked by never-ending horror,
Her face is fair and burns with love,
But the lips that sing these prophecies
Are encrusted with dried blood!
Voktor Vasnetsov, The Gamayun (1897)
Blok had hoped the liberal journal Mir Bozhii (God’s World) would be receptive to his work but he was wrong. Ostrogorsky, the editor of Mir Bozhii refused publication, dismissing the poem as ‘abstract nonsense.’ Blok was clearly undeterred, however, because by the time he did see one of his poems appear in print a couple of years later, he had written over six hundred. Much of this early work reveals a strong spiritual yearning, which he described at the time as ‘a restless longing for God.’ The aspiring poet found conventional Christianity could not satisfy that longing, so he began to look elsewhere.
Blok spent the summer of 1900 studying works on philosophy, religion and mysticism. He returned to university in the autumn but was soon skipping his law lectures in order to attend a course on Greek philosophy. He was particularly drawn to Plato and the Neo-Platonists and their idea that our material ‘reality’ is but a shadow of true reality: a perfect, ideal world of which we are only dimly aware. The poet was now beginning to see life in terms of an eternal struggle against the darkness and chaos of material existence as we strive, haltingly yet instinctively towards the light. And the artist, he realized, had a pivotal role to play in that struggle. As one blessed with the ability to reflect the beauty of the ideal world, it was the artist’s mission to give the rest of humanity a glimpse of that world. Another pillar of Platonic thought that fired his poetic imagination was the concept of the World Soul, a living entity that bridged the void between this world and the one beyond. Here the poet saw clear parallels with his own belief in the ‘Eternal Feminine,’ a spiritual force capable of redeeming mankind, which was in many ways akin to the Christian concept of the Divine Sophia. The Eternal Feminine had already appeared in a number of Blok’s verses. She was to become the central theme of his first collection of poetry.*
Whilst devouring all the works on philosophy he could find in his grandmother’s extensive library (one wonders how much time he was devoting to his law studies at this point) Blok came across a new translation of Plato’s Dialogues. Vladimir Soloviev’s masterful introduction to the translation, The Drama of Plato’s Life, was nothing short of a revelation: the philosopher’s troubled life was described in a way he could empathise with and there was a detailed exposition of the nature of Platonic love in which he recognised something of his own experience. A further revelation followed in the spring, when he received a collection of Soloviev’s poetry as an Easter gift from his mother. He found confirmation of many of the insights he had glimpsed the previous winter. Here were clear allusions to the higher reality beyond the here and now and, in Soloviev’s love poetry, an illustration of the direct link between the love of another human being and reverence for the Eternal Feminine.**
¹ An interesting and illuminating account of Blok’s early life can be found in the introduction to Avril Pyman’s Alexander Blok: Selected Poems (1972). Professor Pyman is a leading authority on Russian Symbolism in general and Blok in particular.
² A possible exception was his father, Alexander Lvovich Blok, Professor of Law at Warsaw University. Blok’s parents had separated before the birth of their son.
³ The Gamayun is a mythical creature from Russian folklore, part bird, part woman. It is blessed (or perhaps more accurately cursed) with the power of prophecy.
* Stikhi o Prekrasnoi Dame (Verses on the Most Beautiful Lady) was published in 1904, but much of the collection was written during the ‘mystic summer’. Blok always referred to the Eternal Feminine as ‘the Most Beautiful Lady’.
** For more detail , see my posts on Vladimir Soloviev. Soloviev claimed to have seen (and communicated with) the Divine Sophia in a number of visions.