ALMOST THERE | ISSUE NINE
The Silver Age of Russian Poetry
Part One: Before the beginning
In Russia the poetry produced in the years around the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth is ranked very highly indeed, second only to that of Alexander Pushkin and his contemporaries. And rightly so. This ‘Silver Age,’ as it came to be known, was one of those rare moments in history that saw the coming together of a group of incredibly talented individuals, united and inspired by the belief they were creating a new kind of art. The result was Russian Symbolism, whose magnificent legacy includes prose, drama, literary theory and critical essays as well as poetry.
Sadly much of the finest work produced during the Silver Age remains untranslated and therefore inaccessible to the non-speaker of Russian. It is not my intention to try and redress that balance here. Nor do I intend to provide a comprehensive overview of this important period. Such endeavours are best left to the specialist.¹ What I would like to do is provide a few brief but hopefully meaningful glimpses onto a literary landscape that would otherwise remain hidden. But before I begin, I feel it would be helpful for those unfamiliar with Russian Symbolism to place the movement in its wider historical and literary context. And in order to do that the best place to begin is not Russia, but France.
Scholars still argue about the extent to which Russian Symbolism was derived from and influenced by the earlier French movement,² and I do not pretend to understand all the intricacies of the debate. What I can say with a measure of confidence is that there are enough similarities between the two schools to make a cursory glance at French Symbolism worthwhile.
Louis Welden Hawkins, A Window (1898)
The rise of French Symbolism
Literary movements are akin to revolutionary movements insofar as they can be defined not only by what they stand for but what they stand against. Symbolism is certainly no exception, since it originated, to quote the Encyclopaedia Britannica, “in the revolt of certain French poets against the rigid conventions governing both technique and theme in traditional French poetry, as evidenced in the precise description of Parnassian poetry.”³ The Parnassians themselves were a reaction to what they saw as the emotionalism and verbal imprecision of Romantic poetry, advocating instead a greater degree of technical perfection and objectivity that had clear parallels with the Realist movement in prose.
Leading the Symbolist revolt were the so-called poètes maudits,* a group of little known poets that included such future luminaries as Mallarmé, Verlaine and Rimbaud. The aims of these ‘decadents’ (as the group were disparagingly called in the early days) may have been purely artistic, but they also reflected the wider misgivings many people had about the direction Western European society was taking in the late nineteenth century. Industrialisation, urbanisation and a stream of staggering scientific and technological advances were rapidly changing society on every level. The basic premises underpinning intellectual and cultural life were also profoundly affected. The old, rather idealistic notion that the universe was a place of wonder and mystery was being replaced by a more rational, scientific worldview. In art, realism with its focus on a physical reality that could be observed and verified through reason and logic was now the dominant force. Symbolism was a strong reaction to this, though the poètes maudits were not the first who sought to return to art the priority of the spiritual over the material. The Romantics, with their rebellious swagger, their confident iconoclasm and their belief in the poet’s exalted mission as the ‘unacknowledged legislator of mankind’ (to use Shelley’s phrase) were clearly kindred spirits, but without doubt the Symbolists’ greatest source of inspiration was the ‘accursed’ poet par excellence, Charles Baudelaire.
Now acknowledged as a giant of French literature, Baudelaire was largely reviled, ridiculed or simply ignored in his own lifetime and died in abject poverty. Had he lived but a few years longer he would have seen the themes explored in his work, especially his masterpiece Les Fleurs du mal (1857) both appreciated and developed by a new generation of poets. The Symbolists embraced his idea that the universe was a unified mystical entity, and that the poet, through the use of symbolic language, could affect the hidden ‘correspondances’ that connected it all. Their goal was to evoke “the underlying mystery of existence through a free and highly personal use of metaphors and images that [...] would hint at the ‘dark and confused unity’ of an inexpressible reality.”³ Despite being based on a somewhat arcane sounding poetic theory, Symbolism proved popular, thanks no doubt to the brilliance of many of the poets associated with it. The Symbolist aesthetic soon began to influence fine art, particularly painting, giving rise to an artistic movement that ran well into the twentieth century.
And so, when the first Russian Symbolists began to emerge in the early 1890s, they were able to draw upon a vibrant and well-established literary scene. But they did more than merely imitate their French counterparts. They set about fusing the Symbolist ideal with the complex beauty of their native language and culture to create something quite different. Something that was, in fact, unique.
¹ The example of Russian Symbolist literature most readily available in English translation is Fedor Sologub’s novel, The Petty Demon. There are also a few short collections of Blok’s poetry in print, such as Aleksandr Blok, Selected Poems (translated by John Stallworthy and Peter France).
Avril Pyman’s A History of Russian Symbolism is the most comprehensive survey I know of.
² Standard sources such as the Encyclopaedia Britannica date the origins of French Symbolism to the early 1870’s.
³ The New Encyclopaedia Britannica (15th edition) volume 11, page 458.
*Literally ‘accursed poet’.