A year ago I read a cluster of books by the extraordinary generation of Russian Silver Age poets. I skipped the slightly older Alexander Blok for logistical reasons, now addressed. I read the other poets write about Blok: “But the talk is what I remember,” writes Anna Akhmatova.
The Twelve and Other Poems, translated by Jon Stallworthy and Peter France (1970), is a workhorse overview. Fifty poems, covering 1900 to 1918. Blok’s personality is evident, and some of his subjects: his mysticism, St. Petersburg, a succession of semi-imaginary semi-muses (the Beautiful Lady, the Snow Maiden), bouts of drunken Bohemianism in the company of other great poets, and finally his idiosyncratic embrace of the 1917 Revolution.
I get lost when the poems become too mystical, unless this counts as mysticism:
I am nailed to a bar with liquor.
Been drunk all day. So what! I’ve lost
my happiness – gone in a troika
careering into silver mist.
It is easier for me to understand Blok as a Bohemian, a poète maudit, which is not the whole story, but is at least one of his modes:
I want to live, live to distraction:
to make the present live for ever,
make the impersonal human, cover
with flesh whatever now has none!
That’s the positive expression of the mode. The negative is perhaps:
I long to see written
in men’s eyes and in women’s eyes
marks of damnation and election. (from “Earth’s Heart Is Growing Cold Again”)
If Blok sounds miserable, well, I can’t speak for more than what is in this book, but yes:
Oh, for that grave in the nettles
in which to sleep and forever
forget oneself! Damn books, be silent;
I never wrote you, never!
That is from “To My Friends,” which is funny.
The results of Blok’s 1909 visit to Italy are amusing given all the pro-Italy propaganda I read recently. The same sense of beauty and civilization that entranced Goethe and Forster repelled Blok. He was suspicious of Ravenna (“Sepulchral wastes where the grapes fatten,” from “Ravenna”) and loathed Florence.
Die, Florence, Judas, disappear
in the twilight of long ago!
In the hour of love and in the hour
of death I’ll not remember you.
The motorcars snort in your lanes,
your houses fill me with disgust;
you have given yourself to the stains
of Europe’s bilious yellow dust. (from “Florence,” ll. 1-4)
The next poem in the collection begins “Russia and I, must we suffer one destiny?” Whatever Blok meant by Russia, he meant it.
You may have noticed some rhymes up above. I don’t know. These translations give me a strong sense that Blok was a fascinating person and a weak sense that he was a great poet. Maybe there are better options now. Please recommend.
Aside from this book, I scrounged up three more translations of Blok’s great, late poem “The Twelve.” I’ll look at those tomorrow.