Alexander Alexandrovich Blok, poet and playwright, was born into a family of the gentry. His father, A L Blok,was a jurist, professor of Warsaw University, and a talented musician. His mother, A. A. Beketova, was a writer. His parents separated soon after his birth. Blok spent his childhood in the family of his grandfather A. N. Beketov, a botanist and Rector of Petersburg University, in Petersburg and the Beketov's estate Shakhmatovo, near Moscow. In 1889 Blok's mother obtained a formal divorce and married F. F. Kublitsky-Piottukh, an officer, whereupon she and her son moved to his apartment in an industrial section of Petersburg. Having graduated from a Gymnasium in 1898, Blok entered law school at Petersburg University, but transferred to its Historical-Philological Division in 1901, from which he graduated in 1906. In his early youth he had developed an interest in the theater (he played Hamlet, Romeo, and Chatsky in Griboedov's Woe from Wit) and intended to become an actor, but at 18 he began to write poetry seriously. In 1903 Blok married L. D. Mendeleeva, daughter of the famous chemist D. I. Mendeleev. This marriage, hardly successful in a conventional sense, proved important for Blok's inner development: L. D. Mendeleeva inspired almost all of his early and much of his later verse. Blok's rapprochement to Andrei Bely, Sergei Solovyov, and other Symbolists occurred at the same time. In 1903 Blok's verses were first published in Novyi put', a journal edited by Dmitri Merezhkovsky and Zinaida Hippius.
In 1904 Blok's first book of verse appeared: Verses on a Beautiful Lady (Stikhi o Prekrasnoi Dame) was received with enthusiasm by the young symbolists. Blok's second book of verse, Inadvertent Joy (Nechayannaya radost', 1907), and his lyric drama The Fair Show Booth (Balaganchik), staged in 1906, made him famous. It was then that Blok became a professional man of letters, moving in the circles of the literary-philosophic intelligentsia and the theatrical Bohemia. His personal life and creativity were affected by his relations with the actress N. N. Volokhova (his cycles of verse, "Snow mask" [Snezhnaya maska], "Faina," and the play Song of Fate [Pesnya sud'by]) and the singer L. A. Del'mas (his cycle of verse, "Carmen"). Blok made several trips abroad, of which his journey to Italy in 1909 was particularly significant (his cycle "Italian Verses" and his series of essays, Lightning Flashes of Art [Molnii iskusstva]). His trip to Warsaw, occasioned by the death of his father in 1909, gave Blok the impulse for his verse epic Retribution (Vozmezdie, 1910-21). After the appearance of his books Land in Snow (Zemlya v snegu, 1907), Lyric Dramas (1908), Nocturnal Hours (Nochnye chasy, 1911), a three-volume collection of his poems (1911-12), the play Rose and Cross (Roza i krest, 1913), and the verse epic Garden of Nightingales (Solovlnyl sad, 1915) Blok's fame had spread all over Russia. He published many articles and gave many public lectures ("The People and the Intelligentsia" - Narod i intelligentsiya, 1908). In 1916 Blok edited and wrote an introduction to a collection of the poetry of A. Grigoriev, who influenced his late poetry in many ways.
Drafted in 1916, Blok was appointed, through the influence of friends, to serve as a record keeper with an engineering unit. He was stationed at the front near Pskov until March of 1917. He greeted the February Revolution with enthusiasm. Starting in May of 1917 he edited testimony given by former ministers of the Tsar before the Extraordinary Investigative Commission of the Provisional Government, which provided him with material for his book, The Last Days of the Old Regime (Poslednie dni starogo rezhima, 1919). The October Revolution initially also gave Blok much hope this article, "Intelligentsia and Revolution," 1918). He worked for Soviet institutions, participated in the publishing house Vsemirnaya literatura (World literature), the Bolshoi dramatic theatre, and the Vol'naya filosofskaya assotsiatsiya (Vollfila, Free Philosophic Association), which he helped to organize. In 1920 he was elected chairman of the Petrograd division of the All-Russian Union of Poets. Blok was close to the Left Social Revolutionaries' Party at the time. In February of 1919 he was briefly arrested in connection with the so-called "conspiracy of the Left SR's." The last two years of Blok's life were marked by his profound disappointment in the Revolution. Apathy, despair, hard living conditions, and a mysterious (possibly venereal) disease led to his mental illness and early death.
Blok is "the last romantic poet" (V. Zhirmunsky) His creations are in all of their manifestations imbued with a profound lyric quality. It is important to be aware of the mythopoeic character of Blok's poetry: he gave his own life a supra-personal meaning, perceived it as a religious tragedy (in his mystic strivings he was close to the Gnostics and undogmatic branches of Christianity). The three volumes of his verse form, in his own words, "a trilogy of humanization" (trilogiya vochelovecheniya), describing the spiritual becoming of the world and of the hero, the road to knowing the Truth through love. Blok was an innovator mainly in that he gave a new meaning to old, often archaic symbolic entities.
Blok's early poetry is linked to the traditions of Zhukovsky, Polonsky, Fet, as well as to the epigonic lyrics of the 19th century. The spirit of German romanticism enters it through Zhukovsky. Impressions of the theater, poetic quotations and reminiscences play a significant role in his early verses. Later, Blok was fascinated by the poetry of Vladimir Solovyov, and particularly by his cult of the World Soul, Sophia. This led him to theophanic and eschatological motifs, linked also to Novalis and Dante. In his Verses on a Beautiful Lady, Blok appears as a consistent symbolist and clairvoyant. These poems may be perceived as an intimate lyric diary; yet in terms of a symbolist "poetics of correspondences," the transcendent reveals itself to the poet in the mundane, and amatory, psychological, or landscape verse becomes timeless myth incarnate. The Beautiful Lady, an unearthly beloved, mediatrix between God and man, assumes certain traits of the Mother of God, yet on an earthly level becomes identical with the poet's fiancee, L. D. Mendeleeva, with the poet her servant and her knight. The peripeties of earthly love are interpreted on a philosophic plane, as participation in the spiritual foundation of being, as well as on a plane of mystic utopia, as anticipation of universal catastrophe, and the end and regeneration of the world. Motifs characteristic of the early Blok, such as those of distance, dawn, sundown, azure, mysterious premonitions and encounters, are connected to all this. These poems derive their structure from a complex intertwining of mythological motifs, they are saturated with Church symbolism, and in their tonality remind one of a prayer; every detail of landscape, every word, and every movement acquire hidden meaning. However, as early as in 1901 overtones of doubt and fear begin to invade Blok's poetry. They are followed by motifs of scepticism and cruel harlequinade, as in the cycle "Crossroads" (Rasput'ya, 1902-04).
The collections Inadvertent Joy and Land in Snow mark a transitional period in Blok's creative career. The revolution of 1905, in particular, is reflected in his changed worldview. Mystic presentiments and inner calm are replaced by moods of spiritual crisis and ruinous passions. The poet now proposes a plurality of avenues in the search of truth and leans himself toward moral relativism and anarchy. He downgrades and parodies the Solovyovian myth. The poet's friends A. Bely and S. Solovyov (and to some extent Blok himself) perceived this period as a betrayal of former ideals and even as religious apostasy. In Blok's poetry of this period the World Soul is replaced by another universal symbol, the unpredictable, irrational Power of nature. On the level of poetic imagery, the most significant transition is from the Beautiful Lady to the Unknown Woman (Neznakomka), an ordinary urban female who appears to the half-crazed imagination of the poet as an incarnation of mystery and beauty. While the symbolist duality of the real and unreal is retained, it turns to chaos and confusion. In place of dawn and sundown, the threatening and ominous motifs of blizzard, conflagration, and falling stars make their appearance. So do cityscapes, certainly in part under the influence of the urbanist poetry of Bryusov and the French symbolists to which Blok was attracted at the time. But in contrast to Bryusov, Blok sees the city as something deeply antispiritual, lifeless, infernal. Demonic nightmares of doubles and masks take shape in Petersburg's phantom world. Motifs of loneliness, doom, as well as social motifs originating with Dostoevsky prevail. Blok fills the city with fantastic and grotesque creatures. An interest in popular demonology and folk magic also appears in the cycle Bubbles of the Earth (Puzyri zemli). Symbol is largely replaced by metaphor, often with traits of romantic satire. These phenomena, in spite of all their inner ambivalence, enrich Blok's lyrics and make them more complex. His poetry of this period is marked by boldness and irrationality of composition and imagery. The elevated lexicon of a religious cult is replaced by a concrete urban vocabulary. Also, Blok's metrics and strophics now tend to depart from classical norms, as dolniki, free verse, colloquial speech, and features of the gypsy romance make their appearance. The canon of exact rhyme is broken. In these respects, Blok is to some extent a precursor of Futurism. However, while he changes the structure of his verse, he still retains the romantic tone of his poetry: exaltedness, musicality, and a tendency toward synaesthesia and catachresis continue to be its dominant features.
The cycle Free Thoughts (Vol'nye mysli, 1907) is markedly different from Blok's other works of this period. Here his blank verse, striking in its energy and freedom of intonation, approaches the traditions of Russian realism.
Blok's mature poetry (the poems of his "third volume," 1907-16), enriched by new accomplishments, returns to classical models. Blok now moves close to Pushkin, whose level of artistry he almost reaches. As before, motifs of heartache, despair, cosmic dissonance, and chaos (the cycle Terrible World - Strashnyi mir), the absurdity of human existence (a group of poems entitled Danse macabre - Plyaski smerti) stand out. The cycle Retribution contains some magnificent penitential verse ("Of valor, feats, and glory" - "O doblestyakh, o podvigakh, o slave", "The Commander's Steps" - Shagi Komandora). Blok now looks back to his second period as to a fall, a substitution of modern decadence for living and creative symbolism; ecstatic transcendence beyond the limits of the mundane turned to sin. An ever present memory of his earlier symbolic systems imparts a metapoetic character to Blok's poetry of this kind. A striving emerges to leave lyric isolation for more objective genres. The cycle Iambs (Yamby) is imbued with political and social themes. In Blok's Italian Verses a vivid sense of history, a picturesque plasticity, and lively narrative appear; here Blok achieves an unsurpassed harmony of composition, rhythm, and sound symbolism ("Ravenna"). His short poema "Garden of Nightingales" in many ways resembles his Italian Verses.
The cycle My Country (Rodina), devoted to Russia's fate through history, occupies a central position in Blok's "third volume." It is full of anxiety and tragic premonitions. Here Blok turns to the traditions of Russian religious-philosophic thought and simultaneously to the heritage of Nekrasov and "populist" lyrics. The image of Russia created in these poems is profoundly ambivalent. It flashes traits of a heavenly beloved, the Mother of God, but the savage, chaotic element is also present. Russia is humble and patient, yet possessed by an outlaw spirit of revolt. Rooted in her religious past (the cycle On the Field of Kulikovo - Na pole Kulikovom), poor and sinful in her present, Russia promises to become the New America of the future. The opposite poles of Blok's poetic ideal, whose outlines appeared in the first two volumes of his lyrics, are now fused in the image of Russia. Blok's myth becomes thus historically concrete: the Beautiful Lady and the Power of nature are reinterpreted as "my fateful native country" (rokovaya, rodnaya strana). The hero again becomes a knight who has broken the spell cast over his beloved and who foresees and helps to bring about the future New Life. By the same token, Blok now leans toward a radical revolutionary worldview. But even here he remains a symbolist and a romantic: entirely real objects and events become allegories, images of spiritual states.
The unfinished verse epic "Retribution" is, according to Blok, full of "revolutionary premonitions." In this work, Blok went back to his own roots, his personal genealogy: the poem was to delineate the history of the Beketov family from the 1870s to 1915. Most interesting is the historiosophic aspect of the poem, where the 19th century is characterized as "iron," and the 20th as "homeless." Blok sought to show the maturation of a spirit of music in the womb of an amusical civilization. "The spirit of music," related to Bergson's elan vital, which breaks down all boundaries and synthesizes culture, becomes a new Blokian myth (cf. his essay, The Downfall of Humanism - Krushenie gumanizma, 1919).
Blok's most famous and most controversial work is the verse epic The Twelve (Dvenadtsat', 1918), the first serious artistic response to the October Revolution. One hears in it familiar Blokian motifs such as a hatred for the lifeless and absurd world of the city, a rejection of the established way of life, destructive passion, murderous revolt which acquires a religious significance. Many of Blok's friends sharply protested against the poem. Soviet critics have interpreted it as a justification and acceptance of Bolshevism on Blok's part. In fact, The Twelve allows different, including mutually contradictory, interpretations. It seems most reasonable to understand the poem as a religious-moral tragedy, in which the basic problems of Blok's creative world are stated with the utmost acuity, yet are not given a definite solution. The poem is structured polyphonically, with abrupt rhythmic transitions. It uses the language of the city, the idiom of the popular romance, of the chastushka, and of the revolutionary slogan. Blok destroys the harmonious and symmetric edifice of verse, introducing varied strophic patterns; yet at the same time, the poem possesses a strict cyclic structure, and its twelve parts correspond to the number of twelve apostles, the red guards of the poem. The romanticism of The Twelve turns into a satire, praise becomes mockery, affirmation changes to negation. The whole poem leaves an impression of "a grandiose unresolved dissonance" (V. Zhirmunsky).
Almost simultaneously with The Twelve, Blok wrote the poem "The Scythians" (Skify), in which he develops some traditions of Slavophile thought, juxtaposing the sphinx that is Russia to civilized Europe. This poem, substantially rhetorical, enjoyed and still continues to enjoy great popularity.
The Twelve and "The Scythians" are usually considered to have been a last flash of Blok's creative genius. It is more correct, though, to consider as such Blok's last poem, "To Pushkin House" (Pushkinskomu domu), and his so-called discourse on Pushkin, "On the Poet's Calling" (O naznachenii poeta) (both 1921), where the poet expresses, nobly and with rare vigor, his protest against tyranny and his praise of the "secret freedom" which stands up to the power of vulgar officialdom.
Blok is important not only as a poet and essayist, but also as a dramatic poet. In 1906, having become close to the theatre of V. Komissarzhevskaya and the director V. Meyerhold, he wrote four plays. The best known of them, The Fair Show Booth (Balaganchik) belongs to the same category of autopolemic and autoparodic works as many of Blok's poems of that period. Here Blok uncovers theatrical contrivance in mystery, mere posing in tragic experience, and emptiness in symbols. The Fair Show Booth can be interpreted on many levels, including the political. As far as structure and style are concerned, it is highly original: a mixture of tragedy and farce, a grotesque, with emphasis on the conventional and illusory. The play as well as its staging were a major event in the history of Russian and world avantgarde theater. The other three plays of that year were less successful. The King in the Square (Korol' na ploshchadi) and a dialogue connected with it, On Love, Poetry, and Civil Service (O lyubvi, poezii i gosudarstvennoi sluzhbe), state political problems in an ironic form which dates from German romanticism. The LUnknown Woman (Neznakomka) develops the theme of the poem of that title. Song ofl;are (1908) is not one of Blok's successes either: connected with the cycles "Snow Mask" and "Faina," and with the poet's "populist" moods, it presents these in an obtrusively allegoric manner. Blok's best play, Rose and Cross, is in verse. Here Blok brilliantly utilized the example of Calderon and Wagner. In contemporary literature, the plays of Paul Claudel may be considered analogous to it. The action of the play is set in a world of medieval legend and is connected with Gnostic myths. In 1916 K. Stanislavski accepted the play for staging, but it was never performed. Blok's last play, Ramses (1919), was written for educational purposes and is of no serious importance. Blok also translated F. Grillparzer's drama Die Ahnfrau (Pramater', 1908).
Blok had a huge influence on Russian poetry, including schools that were
hostile to him, Acmeism and Futurism. Akhmatova and Mayakovsky learned
from him directly. He has entered history as a poetic witness of great
changes and cataclysms, as a poet who transformed the Russian poetic idiom,
and as one of the most controversial and remarkable Russian writers, "a
monument to the beginning of a century" (Anna Akhmatova).