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The Poetic Paganism of Alexander Blok

His life and work were inspired by Earthly Beauty

By Viktor Postnikov

Demon Sitting by Alexamder Vrubel, 1890

Demon sitting, Mikhail Vrubel, 1890

The small volume before me is a treasured book that I inherited from my father’s library. It is a posthumous collection of verses by Alexander Blok (1880–1921), one of the greatest Russian lyricist of the 20th century, if not the greatest. The book was prepared by the author and published by the Petrograd publishing house in 1924, three years after his death. This small book became a constant source of inspiration for me, especially during the 1990s when Russia itself seemed to be fading away. It was then that I felt an urge to preserve Russian poetry, which seemed most precious to me. Among the many beloved Blok’s poems, I unexpectedly came across a series of poems called The Bubbles of the Earth, written between 1905 and 1906. An epigraph from Macbeth, which prefaced the series, read:

“The earth hath bubbles, as the water has, and these are ones of them”

It intrigued me. After reading several poems, I had no doubt that those were pagan inspirations. The very first poem amazed me with its clear ecological motif:

the marsh priestling

On a spring-thawed patch,
Little Priestling of Marsh
Is staying
And saying his prayer.

His ragged black frock
Like a barely seen rock
Over tussock
And in tranquility of the reddish light
Little devils are out of sight;
And the evening grace
Has entwined him with delicate lace…
And the charms of the twilight,
And the rustling of space…

Quietly he prays,
And he smiles as he stays,
Bowing his head to the bog.
And with medicinal herbs
He would heal every hurt,
Every sickened and dying frog.

Then he would bless it and say,
“Now you’re free on your way,
You can go to your native log;
My heart is pleased
With every beast
And every creeper that exists”.

He resumes his quiet praying,
For the weed
That is swaying,
For a sickened beast’s hope,
For the Roman Pope…

Have no fear to be drown in a bog –
You’ll be saved by his blackened frock.

(17 April 1905, Easter)

Reactionary symbolist

We haven’t heard much about “green” Blok. Moreover, he does not fit into any literary genre. In the Soviet times, Blok was portrayed as a ‘reactionary symbolist’ who finally ‘accepted’ the revolution. On the contrary, his friends—symbolists and the religiously-minded intelligentsia—turned away from him when he descended on the ‘sinful earth’ and put Christ at the forefront of the revolution in his controversial poem Twelve.

In his youth, Blok was captivated by the philosophy of Vladimir Solovyov, one of those ‘mad’ prophets that had always been characteristic of Russia. The following lines of Solovyov’s Eternal Feminine fascinated him:

Eternal Feminine in flesh
Now treads the earthly quarters,
New Goddess prophesies light
Where heavens mixed with waters.

During his life, Blok would stay loyal to the theme of the Eternal Feminine. Any fashionable religious or political theories that infested Russia could not change him. In the brilliant essays written shortly before death, Blok discovers the essence of his poetry and his life purpose as the service to Earthly Beauty, which is manifested in Eternal Feminine, and only that.

The world has long been fed up with violence and brutality. Arguably, this brutality conforms to the masculine ethos sanctioned by Judeo-Christianity. This brutality strangely comforms with the ‘otherness’ of the next world, with a dream of after-life. Indeed, why care of the earthly beauty if much more beauty is awaiting us in heaven?

Blok turns his gaze away from heavens to the ‘sinful’ earth – it is here, on earth, where he seeks his Beautiful Lady. He anticipates Her arrival, yet fears that he’s not going to live up to Her coming:

You retreat to the fields without doubt,
Let Your Name be forever praised!
The spears of sunset will touch on my brow,
The reddish light will spill on to my face.

In the dark days I’ll press to your flute,
To your sweet golden flute I’ll succumb,
And if prayers are silenced and mute,
I will sleep, long-oppressed, in the tomb.

You will come in your deep purple gown
To enlighten yet another abode.
Let me breathe in this half-drowsy crowd,
Let me kiss the curved edge of your road…


Extravagant paganist

The world is ruled by a feminine archetype, and Blok perceives this archetype not only in women he loves, but, above all, in Nature. Blok sees Eternity not in any fictitious, or speculative ‘heaven’, but in the living, intimate, and tangible earth:

Love Eternity reigning in mires,
Their powers never deplete.
Grassy lands never yield to the fires,
Smallest thickets will stand up the sleet.

Rusty tussocks and stumps get to know
Your reposeful captivity age;
They are staying unchanged in the flow –
You are full of perennial change.

Love the destiny’s solitude glowing,
Inconceivable sacred Unknown.
It is just the Eternity flight
That has silenced the lips of our own.


It is not accidental that Blok was infatuated with the paintings of Mikhail Vrubel (1856-1910), an original Russian artist, his contemporary. Vrubel is the same ‘enlightened pagan’ as Blok. One may even say, that Vrubel was “Blok in painting”, or Blok was “Vrubel in verse.” Both definitions are equally valid. This paganism of both geniuses was not to the liking of keepers of Christian purity, and it is still frowned upon by them.

It must be said that at the dawn of the 20th century, Russia witnessed a new healthy—and in essence, ecological—direction in art and philosophy, which was suppressed on one hand by rising Marxism (strictly a political movement), and on the other hand by those intelligentsia who had gone to mysticism and religion.

Blok had no need to invent mysticism or seek otherworldliness: all nature was to him mysterious, enigmatic, and marvellous. This infatuation with Nature had not been shared by many of his colleagues, which earned him the label of extravagance.

marsh sprites

I have whipped you out of sight
Through the midday soot;
To await the evening light
Of quiet solitude.

Now – we’re sitting on a moss
In the heart of fen;
Crescent with a crooked mouth
Is our only friend.

I’m like you – a nature geek,
With a spooky face;
Quiet and shy like forest creek
In a hidden place.

Loosely hangs a parting bell
On my foolish cap.
Rivers weaving through a spell
Of a nature’s lap.

And we’re sitting, little fools –
Greenish caps on heads;
Peeping from the low-land pools
Into wider meads.

Dream deliriums of water,
Rusty run-off wave…
We’re forgotten echoings
Of a someone’s rave…


Accepted the Bolshevik revolution

To the horror of his friends, Blok was one of the few who accepted the Bolshevik revolution, not because he shared its ideals (although he probably did at the outset), but because he saw in it the manifestation of Nature’s elements. The time for humanism of the individual was gone (this was proclaimed by Nietzsche), and was replaced by a new era of mass homogeneity and Anti-Christ (‘a leader’). Having the intuition of an artist, Blok spoke in a masterly way of this period in his 1919 essay The Collapse of Humanism. In the face of the current ecological apocalypse, the poems of Blok seem prophetic. What is the artist’s role in new circumstances? Blok gives the answer in this definitive poem: to continue to be yourself, and to get back to the ‘ancient work’:

requital – a prologue

No end in life’s unfolding space,
We live commensurate with chances,
We either face the gloomy sentence
Or see the brilliance of Face.
But you, the artist, keep your credence
In laws unshaken. Be resolved
To tell the scoria from gold.
You’re bestowed with impassive edge
To measure all that you envisage.
Your mind – let it be firm and cute
Erase the accidental visage –
And you will see: the world is good.

Now, view the light – the dark is lit,
Permit all things unhurried flow,
All which is sacred, which is low,
Through heat of soul, through cold of wit.

“To erase the accidental visage…”, and “to permit all things’ unhurried flow”… Blok appeals to the myth of Ziegfried, in search of a needed courage:

Thus Ziegfried tempers sword o’er furnace:
Now enters into the red-hot ambers,
Now dips into the water deep –
And the magic sword receives its firmness.

But, having sensed the impending world war, the poet doubts his ability to withstand the challenge:

Who forges sword? – The fearless knight,
While I am helpless in my rave,
As you, as all – just a clever slave,
Created from the dust and blight.
This world seems terrible to me …
The hero is deprived of stand –
His hand is in the peoples’ hand,
A conflagration broke the land.
And every heart, and mind, and thought –
Has its own despotism and law…
And the thirsty dragon opens jaw
To gorge the Europe in glee.
Who shall defeat the dragon plight?
Don’t know: our side, obscure in sight,
As in the past, its future’s dim,
And smells of ashes in the night.

But the tune forever stays, instead:
There’s always someone there to sing
Amid the crowd. Lo! His head
A beauty offers to a king.
There, on a scaffold, singer stands
And looks into the butcher’s eyes;
Here, for his poems and his stance
The crowd gets him stigmatized.
And I will sing… You won’t succeed
In stifling my inflaméd creed.
Let church is empty and obscure,
Let pastor sleeps; before the mass,
I‘ll tread into a dewy pass,
And turn the rusty door-lock key
To sneak into eternity,
And in the scarlet dawn will serve
My own mass.

The Beauty that moves minds

“My own mass…” In the end, the only refuge for an artist is his or her religious ideals that are beyond the control of the masses, or their pastors. These ideals, or ‘vows of the ancient past’, have been nurtured for many generations, and were handed from father to son; from poet to poet. This is the Beauty that moves minds and inflames hearts.

Thou breathed this dawn, now, bless my tales!
May I expose you some details
of secret life? Of what is thriving,
Of how the wrath consumes the striving,
How freedom and the youth are one,
How spirit reigns in everyone,
How father to his son imparts
The vows of the ancient past ?
Some two-three links of generation
And carbon went a transformation;
Under a kick of stubborn strain
It turned into a precious grain.
So blow, without a restful sleep,
Let living vein is running deep,
The diamond glistens from afar –
My angry iambus, crush the stones!


Blok continues a lineage that starts from Pushkin and Lermontov. It is hard to name another lyricist that has had such a deep understanding of the artist’s role in the turbulent times. He himself however, could not survive the revolution and civil war, dying at the age of 41. But after all, no great Russian poet lived any longer. It is highly symbolic that Blok entitled his last autobiography (which he didn’t finish) The Confession of a Pagan. His entire life can be viewed as a poet’s desperate attempt to serve and perpetuate Earth’s beauty, despite all hardship and human follies. It was indeed, a demonic attempt.

O, I would madly, madly live,
Perpetuateall the existent,
Ennoble all the petty instant,
and realize all the conceived !

Let hardship suffocate with sorrow,
Let heavy dreams preclude my way,
The cheerful fellow of the morrow
Will say of me, some other day,

We must forgive his gloomy features,
He’s got a jolly inner mind,
A bright and effervescent creature,
A freedom’s celebrated kind!

(Note : All translation from Russian by the author of this article)

About the author

Viktor Ivanovitch PostnikovViktor Ivanovitch Postnikov is a Russian-born independent scientist (DSc.) who lives in Kiev, Ukraine. A prolific poetry translator, he has also translated books on both eastern philosophies and deep ecology, and written many essays on Russian anarchism and eco-poetry for journals and other publications.

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