Biography of Alexander Blok / Биография Александра Блока

Alexander Alexandrovich Blok was born into a gentry family on November 16, 1880. His father, a jurist and professor, was very authoritarian (there was “something frantic and scary” about him, Blok would write) and repeatedly abused his mother. Blok’s mother was the writer Alexandra KublitskayaPiottukh (born Beketova). She left Blok’s father because of the abuse soon after Alexander was born. As a result, Blok was raised mainly at his maternal grandfather’s estate, Shakhmatovo, and in St. Petersburg. This proved a propitious turn of events, as his mother’s family was steeped in literature and the sciences. His grandfather was a famous botanist and director of St.

Petersburg University; his grandmother was the daughter of a great explorer, a translator in her own right, and knew many of the great writers, from Gogol to Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy. As Blok wrote, his mother’s family “loved and understood the word.” After graduating from gymnasium in 1898, Blok entered the law faculty of St. Petersburg University, soon transferring to the philology faculty. Neighboring Shakhmatovo was Boblovo, the estate of the renowned chemist Dmitry Mendeleyev, an old family friend of the Beketovs. Blok fell for Mendeleyev’s daughter, Lyubov while he was still a student. The two would act together—the theater was an early passion for Blok and he almost sought a career in acting—in amateur performances at the Mendeleyev estate.

Lyubov was the inspiration for most of Blok’s early, romantic poetry, and much of his later verse as well. But their marriage was not to prove fulfilling for either. Despite her passion for theater and acting, Blok had met in Lyubov a rather basic, down to earth, “elemental” woman. Lyubov could not live up to the idealist views Blok had of her; Blok, for his part, could not love Lyubov fully. Blok’s poetry is musical and deeply rhythmic. His first book of poetry, Verses on the Beautiful Lady (1904) was published while he was still a student. The publication of his second book, Inadvertent Joy, (1907), and the staging of his play “The Puppet Booth” (1906) made him famous.

By late in the first decade of the 1900s, however, the lyricism and mysticism of Blok’s poetry began to be replaced by a dark foreboding of a future catastrophe. This corresponded to a dark time in his personal life, when his wife nearly left him for his rival Andrei Bely. Meanwhile, the poet himself was obsessed with the actress Nadezhda Volokhova (to whom he dedicated his cycle of verses The Snow Mask) and the actress and singer Lyubov Delmas. For Blok, personal turmoil was a creative force. As one critic eloquently wrote, “he gave his own life a supra-personal meaning, perceived it as a religious tragedy.” Blok’s hundreds of poems and his handful of plays and essays are too numerous to list.

Suffice it to note that, by 1914, Blok was famous throughout Russia in a way few poets have been famous in this country. Blok was drafted into the army in 1916, but finagled a posting in a non-combat engineering unit. He initially greeted the February 1917 revolution and even the October 1917 revolution with optimism and hope. He implored the intelligentsia “to listen to the revolution with all their heart.” But Blok quickly became disenchanted with the results of the revolution. His grave ambivalence would be most eloquently expressed in one of his last poems: “The Twelve.” In his last public lecture, Blok ruminated on the place of the poet in everyday life.

The poet, he said, is a “son of harmony” (he had always held that poets were extraordinary individuals, more closely in touch with the forces and music of the universe than “ordinary mortals”). The son of harmony’s calling, Blok said, consists of three tasks: “the first is to free sounds of their native, chaotic element, the second is to bring these sounds into harmony and to give them shape, and the third, to introduce this harmony into the external world.” Alexander Blok died a painful death at the age of 40, on August 7, 1921, wracked by psychological despair, material want and venereal disease.

Yet he left behind a very rich (and highly controversial) legacy. His influence on subsequent Russian literature has been immense, his musical idiom transforming the Russian poetic style, his art a bridge from late 19th century romanticism to 20th century symbolism and impressionism. Anna Akhmatova called him “a monument to the beginning of a century.”
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