In the late 19th century, “Symbolism” became a major influence upon the arts. It started with Charles Baudelaire, who was strongly influenced by the writings of Edgar Allen Poe. Symbolists believed that art was all about absolute truth, which could only be expressed indirectly. And so they focused on metaphors and other symbols.
Symbolism affected fiction, poetry, painting, and music; some of the artists and writers embracing it or influenced by it were Richard Wagner, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Edvard Munch, Henrik Ibsen, Frederic Nietzsche, Paul Verlaine, and Oscar Wilde, among many others.
The Symbolists in turn influenced the next generation, including T.S. Eliot, Claude Debussy, William Butler Yeats, Alexander Pushkin, and Boris Pasternak. In Russia, Symbolism found its primary expression in poetry, and especially in the poetry of Alexander Blok (1880-1921).
Blok was born in St. Petersburg. His father was a law professor; his mother, a writer. The marriage didn’t last; Blok was raised by relatives near Moscow. His first collection of poetry, entitled Verses About the Lady Beautiful, was published in 1904 (and were poems written about his wife, the daughter of the chemist Dmitri Mendeleev). Other collections followed, and Blok came to be considered the finest Russian poet of the so-called Silver Age. Russian poets who paid tribute to Blok as major influences on their own poetry include Boris Pasternak, Marina Tsvetaeva, Anna Akhmatova, and Vladimir Nabokov.
Translator and poet Andrey Kneller has assembled 34 of Blok’s poems into a collection entitled The Stranger: Selected Poetry of Alexander Blok, a solid introduction to Blok’s poetry. It includes the title poem “The Stranger,” and it includes this one, dated 1906, and which takes the title from its first line:
Night. The city grew calm…
Night. The city grew calm.
Behind the large window
The mood is solemn and somber,
As if a man is dying.
But there someone stands simply sad,
Troubled by his misfortune,
With an opened collar,
And looks at the stars.
Tell me the cause of grief!”
And he looks at the stars.
Where did such anguish come from?”
And the stars tell him,
The stars tell him everything.
During World War I, Blok became a Communist and spent some time as a kind of court stenographer in either the interrogations of czarist officials about government failures or those who had known Rasputin. In 1918, he published the long poem he considered to be his best work, The Twelve. Arrested in 1919 as a counter-revolutionary, he lost faith in the revolution, and did not publish any poetry during the last three years of his life.
His influence lived on, however. Even today, he’s still considered one of Russia’s best poets. With The Stranger, Kneller has thoughtfully assembled a representative sample of Blok’s poems. You read them, and you forget about Symbolism and movements in the arts, and even wear and revolution. Instead, you read love poems that metaphorically speak to human existence across decades and cultures.
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