The Russian poet Aleksandr Aleksandrovich Blok (1880-1921) was a leading figure in the Russian symbolist movement. His strongly rhythmic poetry is characterized by metaphysical imagery, dramatic use of legend, and responsiveness to history and to social life.
Aleksandr Blok was born in St. Petersburg on Nov. 28, 1880. His father was a professor of law, and his mother a writer and translator; Blok thus grew up in an upper-class intellectual milieu. Summers were spent at Shakhmatovo, the Bloks' country home near Moscow. There the famous chemist D. I. Mendeleev was a neighbor, and in 1903 Blok married Mendeleev's daughter.
Blok had begun to write as a boy. In 1903 some of his poems were published in D. S. Merezhkovski's magazine, the New Way. Blok's first book, the strongly symbolistic Verses about the Beautiful Lady, appeared in 1904. Although most critics ignored the volume, it was greeted enthusiastically by Valery Bryusov, Andrei Bely, and the "older generation" of Russian symbolists, and Blok's poetry and reviews soon appeared regularly in their magazines.
Bryusov, the editor of the Balance and a leading symbolist theorist and poet, strongly influenced Blok in the years 1903 and 1904. Under Bryusov's guidance Blok turned to themes of city life and began to use fresh rhythmic patterns and images that expressed the mysterious power of sensual love. Among his notable poems of this period are "The Swamp Demon," "The Unknown Lady," "The Night Violet," "The Snow Mask," "The Factory," and "From the Newspapers." The last two indicate Blok's growing social awareness.
By 1906, when he graduated from the philological faculty of St. Petersburg University, Blok was a recognized poet. That year Vsevolod Meyerhold directed and starred in Blok's one-act verse play, The Puppet Show. Though admired in literary circles, the play was never a popular success. Blok wrote several other plays, including the fulllength The Rose and the Cross (1913), which was based on medieval French romances. Although rehearsed by Stanislavski's Moscow Art Theater, this play was not presented.
In 1907-1908 Blok was a reviewer for the magazine Golden Fleece. His articles combined evaluations of contemporary literature with a longing for the Russian past and for a vital connection between the intelligentsia and the people. In "Russia" and "On Kulikovo Field" (both 1908), he searched for a way to bring national history to bear on the present.
Despite his feelings of personal failure, from 1909 to 1916 Blok wrote poetry of high artistic achievement. "The Terrible World," "In the Restaurant," "Night Hours," and "Dances of Death" are particularly indicative of his spiritual turmoil. Blok and his wife had a stormy marital relationship, but during a temporary reconciliation they traveled in Italy in 1909. This trip inspired Blok's exquisite cycle Italian Poems (1909).
During World War I Blok served as a clerk with a forward engineers' company. He greeted the 1917 Revolution sympathetically. Indeed, his poem The Twelve (1918), a combined lyric and narrative about 12 Red Guardsmen on city patrol, synthesizes Christian values and reformist principles. It brought Blok even wider popularity and enduring fame. The revolutionary leader Leon Trotsky remarked that although Blok was not "one of us," The Twelve was "the most significant work of our time." In his long, unfinished, autobiographical poem Retribution, Blok summarized social change at the turn of the century.
Under the Soviet government Blok was a member of the directorate of the state theaters and chairman of the Petrograd section of the Poets' Union. Hard times, political bitterness, and his own confused life made him old at 40. In one of his last published works, The Decline of Humanism (1921), he lamented the dissipation of European style and the loss of heroes who could persuade men to act rationally in true self-interest. Blok died in Petrograd on Aug. 7, 1921.
Further Reading on Aleksandr Aleksandrovich Blok
Many studies of Blok in Russian have recently appeared, as well as a new edition of his complete works. Studies in English are Cecil Kisch, Alexander Blok, Prophet of Revolution: A Study of His Life and Work (1960); Franklin D. Reeve, Alexander Blok: Between Image and Idea (1962); and Robin Kemball, Alexander Blok: A Study in Rhythm and Metre (1965). See also Renato Poggioli, The Poets of Russia, 1890-1930 (1960).
Additional Biography Sources
Berberova, Nina Nikolaevna, Aleksandr Blok: a life, New York: George Braziller, 1996.
Chukovskaeei, Korneaei, Alexander Blok as man and poet, Ann Arbor, Mich.: Ardis, 1982.
Forsyth, James, Listening to the wind: an introduction to Alexander Blok, Oxford Eng.: W. A. Meeuws, 1977.
Mochulskiaei, K. (Konstantin), Aleksandr Blok, Detroit: Wayne State Univ. Press, 1983.
Orlov, Vladimir Nikolaevich, Hamayun, the life of Alexander Blok, Moscow: Progress, 1980.
Pyman, Avril, The life of Aleksandr Blok, Oxford Eng.; New York: Oxford University Press, 1979-1980.