Alexander Blok (Александр Блок) (1880-1921) was the foremost of the Russian Symbolists, who changed the face of Russian letters from the late 1890s through until the Russian Revolution, leading Russian literature into a ‘Silver Age’ after the great works of the previous century.
Chekhov died in 1904, and Tolstoy, over thirty years his senior, not until 1910. Tolstoy published his final novel, Resurrection, in 1899; worked on Hadji Murat – which wasn’t published until after his death – until about 1904; and wrote and published one of his great short stories, ‘Alyosha the Pot’, in 1905. Chekhov’s stature as a playwright owes to his later years: The Seagull premiered in 1896, Uncle Vanya in 1899, Three Sisters in 1901, and The Cherry Orchard in 1904. Some of his best short stories were written during the same period, including ‘The Bishop’ as late as 1902, but especially ‘Lady With the Toy Dog’ (1899) (otherwise known as ‘Lady With the Little Dog’, or ‘Small Dog’, or ‘Pet Dog’, or simply ‘Dog’) and ‘In the Ravine’ (1900). Indeed, Chekhov’s career as a serious writer was only established in the latter half of the 1890s, when the Symbolist movement in Russia was itself emerging under Merezhkovsky, Balmont and Bryusov.
Still, the work of Chekhov and the later works of Tolstoy sit happily alongside the writings of Pushkin, Gogol, Dostoevsky and Turgenev, as well as Tolstoy’s earlier pieces. All of these writers extended, in various manners and through various disciplines, into the twentieth century and beyond; but they seem, certainly in retrospect, together as one tradition, which is that of the 1800s. This perhaps owes something to their lack of immediate and gifted successors in the novel and the short story. The Symbolists had the effect of reestablishing poetry as the primary form in Russian literature. Anna Akhmatova, Osip Mandelstam, Marina Tsvetaeva and Vladimir Mayakovsky would follow them in differing ways. The Symbolists held their forebears in the highest regard. Andrei Bely wrote penetrating essays on Russian prosody, and on Gogol in particular, rescuing his work from the socially conscious realm delimited by Vissarion Belinsky. Yet in their metaphysics, and in their formal innovations, they took Russian literature into a distinctly new and decidedly modern era.
Blok wrote from a young age and was publishing his poetry to acclaim by 1903. He soon found himself at the head of the second wave of Russian Symbolism. This Symbolist movement in Russia was something quite distinct from the Symbolist movement in France. Edmund Wilson, in Axel’s Castle, characterises the movement in France as the ‘second swing of the pendulum away from a mechanistic view of nature and from a social conception of man’ – which is to say that it took its lead from Romanticism, and its related but sometimes unclear (especially outside of Germany) sense of philosophical Idealism, and sought the individual against the Naturalism associated with Émile Zola. While the social realist model of literature had continued to thrive in Russia after Belinsky, and whilst there were contemporary realist writers to respond and react against, in Russia there were other important influences: in the writings of prominent religious thinkers and mystics; and also in a nascent attention being paid towards folk art. Consequently Symbolism in Russia was itself more mystical, and more explicitly and thoroughly philosophical. This was so at least in the early years of its writers, who moved on significantly throughout their careers in both form and thought.
D.S. Mirsky calls the lyrics Blok wrote between 1908 and 1916, which together comprise the third volume of his collected poems in Russian, ‘certainly the greatest body of poetry written by a Russian poet since the middle of last century’, the time of Pushkin, Tyutchev and Lermontov. Mirsky also calls much of this poetry untranslatable, as it ‘depends to such an extent on the ‘imponderables’ of diction, sound and association’. Yet some of the musical, stridently rhythmic qualities of Blok’s verse do, I believe, show through in translations of his work.
One of my favourite poems by Blok is also one of his most well-known and reproduced. It bears no title, but is dated 10 October, 1912. Below I will give the poem in Russian; in my own admittedly rough transliteration, which I think still gives a strong sense of the flow of sounds; and then in three different translations into English.
Ночь, улица, фонарь, аптека,
Бессмысленный и тусклый свет.
Живи ещё хоть четверть века –
Всё будет так. Исхода нет.
Умрёшь — начнёшь опять сначала,
И повторится всё, как встарь:
Ночь, ледяная рябь канала,
Аптека, улица, фонарь.
10 октября 1912
Notch, oolitsah, fonar, aptyekah,
Byessmuyslennuyi ee tooskluyi svet.
Zheevee yeshe hhot chetvyerrt vyeka –
Vsyeh boodyeht tak. Eeshhuhda nyet.
Oomryesh – natchnesh opyaht snatchahlah,
Ee puhvtoreetsyah vsyeh, kak vstahr:
Notch, lyedyahnayah rryahb kanahla,
Aptyekah, oolitsah, fonar.
10 Oktyabryah 1912
Transliterated by me, Christopher Laws
English Translation 1
The night. The street. Street-lamp. Drugstore.
A meaningless dull light about.
You may live twenty-five years more;
All will still be there. No way out.
You die. You start again and all
Will be repeated as before:
The cold rippling of a canal.
The night. The street. Street-lamp. Drugstore.
10 October 1912
Translated by Vladimir Markov and Merrill Sparks
English Translation 2
Night, street and streetlight, drugstore,
The purposeless, half-dim, drab light.
For all the use live on a quarter century –
Nothing will change. There’s no way out.
You’ll die – and start all over, live twice,
Everything repeats itself, just as it was:
Night, the canal’s rippled icy surface,
The drugstore, the street, and streetlight.
10 October 1912
English Translation 3
A night, a street, a lamp, a drugstore
A meaningless and dismal light
A quarter century outpours –
It’s all the same. No chance to flight.
You’d die and rise anew, begotten.
All would repeat as ever might:
The street, the icy rippled water,
The store, the lamp, the lonely night.
October 10th, 1912
Markov, V. and Sparks, M. Modern Russian Poetry (MacGibbon & Kee, 1966)
Mirsky, D.S. A History of Russian Literature (London; Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1968)
Wilson, E. Axel’s Castle (Glasgow; Fontana, 1976)