Alexander Blok’s Beautiful Lady

T.J. Binyon

  • The Life of Aleksandr Blok: Vol. 1: ‘The Distant Thunder 1880-1908’ by Avril Pyman
    Oxford, 359 pp, £12.50, January 1979, ISBN 0 19 211714 9

The appearance of the second volume of Avril Pyman’s life of Aleksandr Blok to join the first, published last year, brings her enterprise, the fruit of some twenty years’ work on the poet, to a triumphant conclusion. Blok’s life is well-documented, and the period is almost too rich in contemporary memoirs. Dr Pyman demonstrates a complete mastery of the sources, both printed and in manuscript, using the original diaries, notebooks and letters in Russian archives to supplement the expurgated Soviet editions. With loving care she assembles detail upon detail to build up what must be the fullest possible account of Blok’s life and immediate environment. At the same time, she analyses the sources of the poet’s inspiration, charts the movements of his psyche, and presents us with a comprehensive account of his development from a hermetic lyricist to a prophet of the Revolution.

There is little here to criticise; it is hardly a major fault if the author’s lens is focused so closely, with such clarity, on the tall, slender, invariably tanned, ‘unbelievably handsome’ poet with his ‘beautiful grey-blue eyes’ and thick reddish-gold hair, that the edges of her picture become, at times, slightly blurred. It’s true that one may occasionally feel that Dr Pyman is almost too empathetic, too closely attuned to her subject; that we are merely exchanging one kind of impressionism, or one set of symbols, for another, rather as was the case – to take a work of a very different kind – when Nabokov wrote on Gogol. Nevertheless, it is difficult to believe that this biography can be superseded: it stands as a fitting monument to the greatest Russian poet of his generation, one of ‘the children’, as he wrote, ‘of Russia’s terrible years’ – ‘the tragic tenor of the epoch’, in Akhmatova’s words.

Aleksandr Aleksandrovich Blok was born in 1880. His father, a professor of law at Warsaw University, was descended from a German surgeon who had emigrated to Russia in the middle of the 18th century. His mother’s family, the Beketovs, were old-established Russian gentry with a history of intellectual distinction and public service. On both sides of the family, however, there was evidence of mental instability. ‘There was something convulsive and terrible about his whole personality,’ Blok wrote of his father on whom, according to family legend, Dostoevsky had thought of modelling a character, and who died in 1909 in a Warsaw flat piled high with the detritus of a lifetime: nothing had ever been thrown away, no room ever cleaned. His mother, Aleksandra Andreyevna, who left her husband immediately after her son’s birth (she later married a pleasant, conventional regular army officer: Colonel Frants Kublitsky-Piottukh), suffered from epileptoid fits and periods of deep, suicidal depression. Blok was very conscious of these elements in his background. To a friend he spoke of feeling ‘the hereditary forces at work within himself’; ‘I am a degenerate from the Blok family,’ he wrote.

Two opposed, contrasting environments were to condition Blok’s life and his verse. On the one hand, the urban scenery of St Petersburg, ‘the most fantastic and intentional city in the world’, as Dostoevsky called it; on the other, the Russian countryside around the Beketov estate at Shakhmatovo, where the poet’s summers were spent. On the one hand, western, intellectual, urban Russia; on the other, eastern, peasant, rural Russia.

Not far from Shakhmatovo lived the chemist Mendeleyev, discoverer of the periodic law, and it was with his daughter, Lyubov Dmitriyevna, ‘plump and golden and full of fun’, that Blok fell in love in 1900. The Verses about the Most Beautiful Lady, written over the next two years, are both a lyrical diary of this love, and an attempt to convey a mystical experience – a revelation of divine harmony. The mysterious Lady, infinitely beyond the poet’s reach, yet at times tantalisingly close, is half-identified with Lyubov, but is at the same time the Eternal Feminine, Hagia Sophia, the Wisdom of God. Later Blok was to look back on these poems with longing and wonder. ‘I once knew something greater than art, not infinity, but the End, not worlds, but the World,’ he wrote.

Away from Shakhmatovo, doubt and disillusion set in. Demonic doubles appeared in the poetry; even the mysterious Lady developed a dark counterpart. There were misunderstandings with Lyubov; she became cold and unapproachable; Blok priced revolvers and wrote a suicide note. But it was not needed: on 7 November 1902, at a students’ dance given at the Assembly Rooms for the Nobility in Petersburg, he proposed and was accepted. They were married the following August. ‘My life is a series of incredibly confused human relationships, my life is a series of broken hopes,’ Blok noted in his diary in 1914. It was true above all of his marriage.

Throughout his life Blok was extremely close to his mother. His many letters to her are long, intimately detailed – perhaps unwisely so – accounts of his life; she always addresses him, right up to his death, as Detochka (‘little child’) or Dushenka (‘little soul’). She, naturally, was jealous of her new daughter-in-law, while Lyuba, equally naturally, took offence when Aleksandra Andreyevna wished to interfere in the couple’s affairs. At times the tension, exacerbated by Aleksandra Andreyevna’s illnesses, became unbearable. She would threaten suicide, claiming that Lyuba was turning her son against her; Blok would lash out at his wife – on one occasion he wrote in his notebook:

Lyuba has reduced Mama to this sickness. Lyuba has alienated me from people, Lyuba has created all the unbearable and exhausting complexity in our relationships as they now stand. Lyuba thrusts away from herself and from me all the best people including my mother, that is, my conscience. Lyuba has spoilt so many years of my life, exhausted me and reduced me to what I am now.

And Lyuba herself demonstrates the bitterness that infused the relationship with her mother-in-law by the rancorous resurrection in her memoirs of petty domestic quarrels and imaginary insults.

At the age of 16 Blok had an affair with a woman twice his age – Kseniya Mikhailovna Sadovskaya, to whom the early cycle of poems, Ante Lucem, is dedicated. Like his Moscow contemporary, Valery Bryusov, he had made an early acquaintance with the world of brothels and cafés-chantants. As a result of these encounters he had contracted syphilis, outbreaks of which were to recur throughout his life. ‘It was no adored mistress who had introduced him to life, but a chance-met, impersonal woman bought for a few minutes,’ Lyuba later wrote. ‘Aphrodite-Urania and Aphrodite of the streets are set apart from one another by a whole abyss ... for Blok that is how it remained – a dualism which cleft his whole life.’ In other words, for Blok passion and love were not related, but irreconcilable. To have sexual relations with the innocent Lyuba, about whom there still clung the aura of the mysterious Lady, was almost inconceivable. Even before their engagement she had found his attitude hard to understand: ‘You look upon me as though I were some kind of abstract idea,’ she had written to him. ‘I am a live human being and that is what I want to be, even with all my faults.’ Later she reports a strange conversation after the engagement, when ‘he began to theorise that we did not need physical intimacy, that this was “Astartism”, “dark”, and God knows what else. When I told him that for my part I loved all that side of existence, which as yet I did not know, that I wanted it – I again got theories.’ Passion was short-lived, he said: inevitably, he would be physically unfaithful to her, and she to him. In fact, theirs was a mariage blanc for nearly a year, until a developing sensuality got the better of her, and, she wrote, ‘with malice aforethought on my part, unpremeditatedly on his’, she became his wife indeed. But the attempt was short-lived and unsuccessful, summed up by a note in Blok’s diary: ‘After this nothing is possible. All that is over, passed, “expended”.’

He flung himself savagely into debauchery, punctuated by a series of more or less serious affairs, to find what the marriage no longer offered. If his love for Lyuba was incompatible with sex, the alternative was to use sex to generate feeling. After one chance encounter he writes in his diary: ‘My system – of transforming shallow professionals into passionate and tender women in three hours – has scored another triumph.’ The self-congratulatory note is perhaps – given what we know – merely pathetic, but there is, too, a distinct, if perverted echo of 19th-century sentimentality to be caught here: the remark is irresistibly reminiscent of Nekrasov’s poem on the redemption of a prostitute:

When out of the darkness of error
With ardent words of conviction
I drew a fallen soul ...

a poem which Dostoevsky used, with devastating irony, as a counterpoint to the narrative of his Notes from the Underground. Blok is more bracing in public: witness the famous lines from ‘Humiliation’ (1911), rendered by Dr Pyman as

You are bold! Cast aside every fear, then!
Neither husband, nor friend I – so deal
Me my death-blow, my yesterday’s angel,
Through the heart with your pointed French heel!

The figure which accompanies this period is no longer that of the mysterious Lady, but the Stranger, the veiled demi-mondaine glimpsed by the poet through the misty window of a station restaurant in suburban Petersburg (Ozerki, 20 minutes by train from the Sestroretsk station, first-class fare 25 copecks) behind whose dark veil – the veil of Isis – he sees ‘the enchanted shore/And the enchanted distance’.

Lyuba, too, began to experiment: ‘I was delivered to the will of anyone who courted me with assiduity.’ Andrey Bely, the excitable, unbalanced, golden-haired infant prodigy of the Moscow Symbolists, who had become one of the couple’s closest friends, and who later wrote a series of long memoirs – fascinating but unreliable – describing the peripetias of his strange and contorted relationship with Blok, laid his heart at her feet, seeing in her the incarnation of the Most Beautiful Lady, the Woman Clothed in Gold. As might have been expected, this came to nothing, but it was followed by a number of more serious entanglements, which Blok experienced with agonising jealousy, realising at the same time that he had foregone any right to object or interfere. The situation grew worse when Lyuba took up acting and began to be away for long periods. From one tour in the provinces, after a passionate affair with a young actor, a shadowy figure, called only ‘Page Dagobert’ in her memoirs (Blok referred to him as the ‘hooligan from Tmutaratan’), she returned home pregnant. Blok persuaded her to have the child; he would acknowledge it; he looked forward to being a father. A boy was born, but died after ten days.

Meanwhile Blok had fallen desperately in love with an actress, Natalya Nikolayevna Volokhova, described by Bely as ‘very slender, pale and tall with black, wild and agonising eyes with blue shadows beneath them, with narrow thin hands, with very compressed, thin lips, a wasp-waist, black-haired and dressed all in black’. ‘Having been endowed by nature with a tragic style of beauty, I had far too good taste to cultivate a cheerful personality,’ she later remarked of herself. She is the cruel, cold Snow Maiden in the Snow Mask cycle of poems. Fascinated by him, she yet refused to yield to him: he was not for her a ‘real person’, someone with whom she could fall in love. Two bitter poems of 1908 mark the end of the relationship.

Five years later, in the winter of 1913, Blok attended a performance of Carmen in St Petersburg and immediately fell in love with the heroine: Lyubov Aleksandrovna Delmas. ‘A fine mezzo-soprano with a scorching temperament, tawny eyes, red-gold hair and a voluptuous, graceful figure’ is Dr Pyman’s description of her. His mother, with some annoyance, wrote to a friend:

He has taken and fallen in love with her just like that, during the performances at the Musical Drama, in her part as Carmen. I saw her too. Very fine – as a singer and an actress. But now it’s all sleigh-rides again, and expeditions and flowers. And whole days devoted to her. And again it is an elemental woman.

The affair was to last until Blok’s death; in it he found a happiness that he had not experienced before. Delmas inspired many poems, none more impressive than the demonic Carmen cycle, written at the beginning of the relationship.

Nevertheless, despite the strains put upon it, the marriage held together. Blok’s feelings for Lyuba were of an entirely different kind from those he experienced for others: ‘I have had 100 women – 200 – 300 (or more?), but really only two: one is Lyuba; the other – all the rest,’ he noted in 1916; and she was equally bound to him by ties which could not be broken.

Russian Symbolism had begun as a reaction against the didactic, civic literature of the previous age; above all, as a reaction against the doctrine that art was merely a means, not an end in itself. ‘I am not a Poet, but a Citizen,’ Ryleev had written in 1824, modestly, and correctly, disclaiming any particular artistic merit for his verse. (His civic duty was to lead him to the gallows two years later, together with four other leaders of the Decembrist revolt.) Some thirty years later Nekrasov seized on the remark and gave it imperative force –

A Poet you may not be,
But a Citizen you are obliged to be

– a famous formula whose baneful effect was far to outlive its creator.

Against this conception the Symbolists defiantly asserted its opposite. Art was an end in itself, the supreme value:

Everything in life is but a means
For brightly-singing verses,

Bryusov wrote. The artist’s duty lay only in his service to art, to which his whole life was subordinate. ‘The artist himself is the word made flesh,’ Bely proclaimed. Blok had accepted this. ‘I am really now an “artist” and live not from that which makes life full, but from that which makes it black and terrible,’ he wrote; and again, echoing Volokhova’s complaint: ‘I doubt that I shall ever become a real human being, and at the moment I do not want to.’

The facile, superficial tendentiousness of Nekrasov and his epigones concealed, however, a deeper, more truly ‘civic’ strain in Russian literature to which Blok gave expression in an article of 1908:

A writer is a man marked of fate; he is put into the world to lay bare his own soul before the spiritually hungry ... Perhaps it is the writer’s duty to give them his whole soul, and this is particularly true of the Russian writer. Perhaps why Russian writers die so young, perish or simply come to the end of all they have to give is that nowhere is literature so vital as it is in Russia, that nowhere else does the word pass into life and become bread or stone as it does in our country. That is why Russian writers have less right than anybody else to complain of their fate; for good or for ill, they are listened to, and whether or not they are understood at least half depends on them.

The formulation is very much that of Blok’s day, but Pushkin, Baratynsky and Tyutchev had also, in different ways, recognised this duty, as did, in a sharper and more painful situation, his successors, Mandelshtam, Akhmatova and Pasternak.

At the same time as Blok was experiencing the ‘torture and hell’ of his demonic, symbolist muse, a new ferment was working within him: the unsolved problems – discussed interminably in the 19th century, but now posed more acutely by the pressure of contemporary events – of Russia’s mission, her destiny, her national identity, the seemingly irreconcilable splits within her society. ‘To this theme I deliberately and irrevocably dedicate my life,’ he wrote; and later: ‘May God help me to cross the desert: organically to introduce the new and general into the organic and individual.’

The problem of which Blok – through his environment, his upbringing, his experience – was most painfully aware was that of the ever-widening gulf between the intelligentsia and the people. This is the theme of his magnificent cycle On the Field of Kulikovo (1908), in which the battle of 1380 between the Russians under Dmitri Donskoy and the Tartars – ‘one of the symbolic events of Russian history’ – is used both as a record of the past and a sombre warning for the future: a warning of the coming clash, with millions on one side, a few thousand on the other.

Blok’s masterpiece should, perhaps, have been the long, semi-autobiographical poem Retribution, on which he worked intermittently from 1910 until his death. Using the Blok and Beketov families he planned, as he said, a kind of verse Rougon-Macquart, which could convey the essence of Russian society of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. But he was unable to complete it; events overtook him: in 1917 came the cataclysm whose advent he had been predicting for so long. The old order was swept away. Shakhmatovo, like countless other manor-houses, was looted and wrecked. ‘I have not the right to judge,’ he wrote. Neither, he said, had the intelligentsia, which for some sixty years had diligently undermined society, gathering together fuel for its eventual destruction, but now ‘when the flame suddenly flared up and unfurled, blowing skywards like a banner – we run around and squeal “Oh! Oh! We’re burning!”’

In three weeks in January 1918, listening to the ‘deafening and awe-inspiring roar of the Revolution’, a roar in which there was a ‘new music’, he composed The Twelve. Though it contains an uncompromising rejection of many earlier values, The Twelve does not represent an acceptance of the new order, is not a hymn in praise of the Bolshevik revolution, but of another, more intangible one. ‘All my life has been and is a single “unshakable truth” of a mystical nature,’ Blok had written to Bely in 1908, and The Twelve proves that this was still the case. Christ is leading Russia, not into the land of socialism, but into the mountains once inhabited by the Most Beautiful Lady. The private revelation had become a public one; the hope for individual transformation a promise of communal regeneration. The ultimate purpose, he wrote, was ‘to organise things so that everything should be new; so that our false, boring hideous life should become a just, pure, merry and beautiful life’.

Gradually the music he had heard died away; he felt surrounded by a ‘soundless space’, compared himself to the hero of The Light that Failed, ‘only he went blind, while I have gone deaf – for ever’.

Weakened by the privations which accompanied the Revolution and the Civil War, exhausted by back-breaking labour in Soviet literary institutions, he died on 7 August 1921. That February, on the 84th anniversary of Pushkin’s death, he had made his last public speech, in which he had called, using Pushkin’s words, for the poet to be allowed his ‘secret freedom’, his ‘peace and independence’.

‘By the will of fate (and not by my own feeble strength) I am an artist – that is, a witness,’ he wrote in 1917. His viewpoint was always an idiosyncratic one. Ratiocination was alien to him: he experienced rather than thought. ‘It would be wrong to say that he was out of touch with real life; still less that he was “not clever”, yet at the same time everything we call philosophy, logic, metaphysics, simply bounced off him; it was not applicable to him,’ wrote Zinaida Hippius. He saw life in terms of mystical colours, elemental sound. ‘I ... was drawn into the grey-purple, the silver stars, mother-of-pearl and amethyst of the blizzard’ is his description of the Revolution of 1905. Yet an innate decorum protected him from the excesses of Symbolism which affected the work of his contemporaries – from Bely’s hysteria or Bryusov’s necrophilia, for example. He did lay his own soul bare, communicating first a private, then a public vision with a scrupulous honesty, a modesty and a sensitivity which made him, as he has been well called by the novelist Olga Forsh, ‘the greatest and the most exact recorder of the heartbeat of his decade’.

It can be argued that he was too ready to abandon the values of his class, too ready to accept the coming of the Huns, the destruction of the old culture; that he should have seen earlier and more clearly what he was only to glimpse momentarily in the Pushkin speech. But the hope of renewal was too strong, too important to him. In 1914 he had written:

Perhaps a joyful youth
In the future will say of me;
Let us forgive his Gloom – surely this
Cannot be his hidden spring?
He is all – the child of light and good;
He is all – the triumph of freedom.

And someone later scribbled the lines on the cross over his grave. The words Pasternak puts into the mouth of Gordon at the conclusion of Dr Zhivago might stand as an epigraph to Blok’s verse and to the period in which it was conceived:

This has happened several times in the course of history. A thing which has been conceived in a lofty, ideal manner becomes coarse and material. Thus Rome came out of Greece and the Rusan Revolution came out of the Russian enlightenment. Take that line of Blok’s ‘We, the children of Russia’s terrible years’: you can see the difference of period at once. In his time, when he said it, he meant it figuratively, metaphorically. The children were not children, but the sons, the heirs of the intelligentsia, and the terrors were not terrible but apocalyptic; that’s quite different. Now the figurative has become literal, the children are children and the terrors are terrible. There you have the difference.