There was moreover in Russian symbolism a sense of religious… – Сustom Literature essay


Cambridge Histories Online © Cambridge University Press, 2008


Idealist thought. These movements were sufficiently influential that they gave rise to a "silver age" of Russian culture generally. There was moreover in Russian symbolism a sense of religious mission not characteristic of symbolism in its western variants. Indeed the term "symbolist" was pre-empted in Russia by a group of writers who subscribed to some form of neo-Platonism. This group included some seven well-known poets, among them Valery Bryusov and Alexander Blok. A few writers of mystical or decadent inclination - Innokenty Annensky, for example - remained outside the "school": though they were clearly symbolists in the European sense, they were denied that title by their Russian contemporaries.

The Russian symbolists, who began publishing in the middle 1890s, wrote both poetry and prose, and dealt with many of the moral and religious questions which Dostoevsky had raised before them. Members of the so-called "first wave" of the symbolist school, whom hostile critics called decadents, an appellation which they accepted for themselves, dealt with topics displaying a religious malaise and a self-indulgent preoccupation with melancholia and unwholesome tendencies. One of the most typical representatives of the "decadents" of this period was the poet Konstantin Balmont. The movement as a whole found an outlet in the luxury journal World of Art (Mir iskusstva), founded in 1898 by Sergei Diaghilev and other connoisseurs of art, which continued to appear until 1904.

By the beginning of the century, however, a new literary self-confidence had replaced the passive melancholia of the first wave of symbolists, as several new poets who adhered to the movement at that time and constituted its second wave brought with them a psychology which might be referred to as a "dawn" mentality. The sanguine cultural expectations of this period were linked to a rising tide of political hopes, hopes which vanished with the suppression of the revolution of 1905. There ensued a new era of pessimism which engulfed a broad segment of the intelligentsia as the symbolists reverted to decadent themes. Their principal literary journal of the time was The Scales {Vesy, 1904-9). Still, it was during this period of doubt that many of their greatest works were written, and Alexander Blok even became a celebrity. But it was also at this time that several "symbolists" who had not


Cambridge Histories Online © Cambridge University Press, 2008


Previously been members of the inner group gained prominence, including the outstanding prose-writer Alexey Remizov.

By 1910 the symbolists had easily become the literary establishment, the establishment against which avant-garde writers now rebelled as they founded new literary movements. After the revolution of 1917 about half the Russian symbolists went into emigration.

As we have already noted, in its early stages the prolific but very uneven poet Konstantin Balmont (1867-1942) won notoriety for the new "decadent" current, and he remained the most celebrated Russian symbolist until about 1906. He originally studied at the Moscow University Law faculty until a nervous breakdown forced him to leave in 1887 and he became a poet and translator. A stay in England enabled him to become acquainted with the new literary currents as exemplified in the writings of Oscar Wilde and his entourage.

Upon his return to Russia Balmont first achieved literary success with Under Northern Skies (Pod severnym nebom, 1894): the atmosphere of the book is compounded primarily of a mysterious sadness and a spiritual nostalgia. In his subsequent publications - Beyond All Limits (Vbezbrezhnosti, 1895) and Silence (Tishina, 1898) - he elaborated a coherent philosophy steeped in Schopenhauerian pessimism: the poet longs for communion with a world soul or ideal, as do all mankind and nature in all its phenomena, but all are doomed to frustration. Art is the only way in which such frustration can be overcome.

Since Balmont was something of a cultural barometer, he quickly signalled the general shift to a mood of optimism at the very turn of the century. In Buildings on Fire {Goryashchie zdaniya, 1900) and Let Us Be Like the Sun (Budem kak solntse, 1903) he expressed the new poles of his experience as the ecstasy of attainment and the spite born of a will denied. He was a pantheist who sought to share in the might and delicate beauty of the universe. The cosmos as he interpreted it was amoral, and his aim became the experience of passion and esthetic delight in themselves. This vision of life as an esthetic whole suggests the influence of Nietzsche, as do elements of a superman credo to be found in his writing.

In addition to poetry Balmont wrote fiction, plays and travel

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27 October 2014. Author: Criticism