Symbolism in Alexander Blok's Poetry: "The Stranger"
Alexander Alexandrovich Blok (1880-1921) was born and spent most of his life in St. Petersburg, the city famous for its literary societies. He worked as a translator, dramaturg, and publicist during the course of his life, but became famous for his works of poetry: The Verses for Beautiful Lady (1904), The City (1906), Mask of Snow (1907). The Twelve (1918) is another masterpiece, a long poem, reflecting on the poet’s vision of the Russian Revolution, as he supported the opposition and was arrested and nearly executed in 1919 for the involvement. Blok belongs to the second generation of the Silver Age poets and remains the supreme figure of the Russian Symbolism.
Russian poets of the Silver Age inherited many of their artistic traits from the European Symbolists and Decadents. Though this fact is mentioned but not developed in multiple studies, the resemblance is undeniable (Donchin, 1954). Fin de siècle (“the end of century”) is a French term underlying the context of the decadence and general disappointment in society, the loss of faith and aspiration to individualism. Urbanisation and progress manifested in the development of large cities presented a challenge to the era of Romanticism, where nature was a source of inspiration, serving as a context and an object of lyric emotions (Chambers, 2006). In Blok’s poetry, it is visible how he had absorbed many of those traits and further transformed it into something unique.
Blok’s poetry reflected on his surroundings, as he dedicated a full cycle of poems to the city where he lived – St. Petersburg. Although the name of the city is rarely mentioned in his poems, he thoroughly described its citizens, crowded streets, noise, night-life, and women. Blok’s vision of the city was allusive, dark, and almost fantastic, as it was filled with monstrous creatures, like dwarfs, demons, vampires, living skeletons, and scary omens, coexisting with normal reality. He saw the urban life through the prism of decadent poetics and aesthetics (Ioffe, 2008, p.25), and his city poems carried the sense of “deadliness” and unavoidable doom. Blok’s attitude towards death was contradictory, as he was fascinated by it and terrified at the same time, though he believed that death was a solution to the suffering after life (Banjanin, 1970, p.73). This hopelessness and melancholia reached its peak in Blok’s most famous poem Night, a Streetlamp, Street (1912), where death represented the unavoidable end of existence.
Similarly to other Symbolists, Blok saw a way to escape the banal reality of everyday life in nature. For him, nature was a source of symbols and higher ideas, and in his poems he often referred to the moon, the sky, and the stars. He believed that an artist is the one who lives in a magical world, though he can see the invisible and the unknown. Therefore, Blok presented two layers of reality in his poetry (Banjanin, 1970, p.80). The contradiction of Blok’s feelings can be seen in his ideology. In his life and art, the poet was consistently trying to reach the “Ideal”. In this concept of the “Ideal”, which was inspired by Blok’s wife Ludmila Mendeleeva, he associated beauty with purity. The Verses for Beautiful Lady were dedicated to his wife and filled with high and tender feelings. In the cycle The City, women are mainly prostitutes, as he becomes disappointed in his high ideals. For the poet, the unreachable “Ideal” was connected with true love and spirituality. In the opposition to the "Ideal", “Spleen” represented the real world with its dirt, noise, people, and material matters. The significant figure in this opposition was always a woman. Blok called this system the world of things and the world of ideas, and between them – a symbol.
The Stranger (1906), or Unknown Woman (in various translations), one of Blok’s most famous poems, has been translated multiple times, and the most accurate and poetic translation was made by the famous writer Vladimir Nabokov. This poem was a turning point in Blok’s work, as it represented the change in the poet’s perspective: his lyrics became closer to the reality, while he was still nourishing his dreams of the sublime.
The poem describes the city in the evening, when its citizens go out for an idle stroll or a drink. Painting the atmosphere, Blok uses such expressions as “the sultry air,” “the evil spirit of spring,” “drunken vociferations,” “children crying,” “creaking oar locks,” “women squealing” (Blok, Nabokov, 2008, p.320). The words “and every evening” start the quatrain three times, giving the poem the repetitive mode. The lyrical "I" in the poem is lonely and sad, alienated from people in search of the higher meaning of life. Sitting at the restaurant, he sees a woman, but it is not clear whether she is real or if it is “merely a dream” (Nabokov, 2008, p.320). The poet feels attracted to the woman, because she is just like him – alone, and he is looking at her “with a strange intimacy enchanting him” (Nabokov, 2008, p.321). Her figure gives an impression of something mysterious and sad at the same time because her face is hidden behind the “dusky veil”, and she is described to have “dark-blue fathomless eyes” (Nabokov, 2008, p.321). The last lines of the poem provide a symbolic comparison of the poet’s feelings with a “treasure” that lies in his soul, and he alone has a “key” to it (Nabokov, 2008, p.321).
The Stranger can have more than one interpretation. The poem exists on two levels: the real encounter and a dream. It is possible that the lyrical hero in the poem sees the vision of this woman under the effect of wine, as his soul strives for the higher ideal, which would bestow him with love and inspiration (Banjanin, 1970). On the other side, this woman can be a real person, most likely one of the city prostitutes, who all of a sudden appeared in a different light to the lyrical hero (Banjanin, 1970, p.60). She could as well be a demonic creature, as she appears in the poem in the place and time which Blok had always associated with darkness. At this point, the hero of the poem is disappointed in his life and in humanity, and the only escape for him can be found in a drink. The Unknown Woman bewitches the lyrical hero, however she is still a reflection of the poet’s fall, lust, passion (Banjanin, 1970, p.72). Who or what the woman is remains a mystery. The feelings of melancholia and doom are always present in Blok’s reality. In his vision, citizens are no longer humans, but creatures, which have turned the city into a demonic realm. In Blok’s poetry, the city becomes a symbol with a few layers of reality, which transforms into a phantasmagorical vision of modern life.
Banjanin, M. E. (1970). THE CITY POETRY OF BAUDELAIRE AND BLOK. ProQuest Dissertations Publishing.
Blok, A. (2018). “Alexander Blok. Russian Poems in Translations.” Poems by Alexander Blok. ruverses.com/alexander-blok. Chambers, R. (2006). Baudelaire’s Paris. In The Cambridge Companion to Baudelaire (pp. 101–116). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. https://doi.org/10.1017/CCOL052183094X.007.
Donchin, G. (1954). French Influence on Russian Symbolist Versification. The Slavonic and East European Review,vol. 33, no. 80, pp. 161–187. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/4204617. Ioffe, D. (2008). “The Discourses of Love”: Some Observations Regarding Charles Baudelaire in the Context of Brjusov's and Blok's Vision of the “Urban Woman.” Russian Literature, 64(1), 19–45. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ruslit.2008.07.002.
Nabokov, V., et al. (2008).Verses and Versions: Three Centuries of Russian Poetry. 1st ed., Orlando: Harcourt.
Figure 1: Alexander Blok. (n.d.). [Photograph]. Russian Personalities. Retrieved from: https://beautifulrus.com/alexander-blok-russian-poet/
Figure 2: Conti B. (2014). Moonlight. [Illustration]. Doctor Ojiplático. Retrieved from: https://www.doctorojiplatico.com/2014/06/beppe-conti.html?m=1
Figure 3: Glazunov I. (1980) The Stranger. [Illustration]. Artchive. Retrieved from: https://artchive.ru/artists/17665~Il%27ja_Sergeevich_Glazunov/works/495180~Neznakomka_1980_Illjustratsija_k_stikhotvoreniju_A_Bloka
Figure 4: Alexander Blok’s handwriting (1906). [Photograph]. Ruverses. Retrieved from: https://ruverses.com/alexander-blok/unknown-woman/926/