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Unbearable Burdens: Blok and the Modernist Resistance to Progeny

Unbearable Burdens: Blok and the Modernist Resistance to Progeny

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22



Poetry against Progeny



“Modernism,” Said claims, “was a response to the crisis of what could

be called filiation—a linear, biologically grounded process, that which

ties children to their parents—which produced the counter-crisis within

modernism of affiliation, that is, those creeds, philosophies and visions

re-assembling the world in new non-familial ways.”1 Though this crisis of

filiation was experienced by virtually all of the Russian modernists, perhaps no single poet felt this crisis more acutely or responded to it more

directly in his work than Alexander Blok.2 Born in 1880 into an aristocratic household that was disrupted by his parents’ separation and eventual divorce, Blok developed an ambivalence about family life that only

increased with the growing social and political turmoil in Russia. Shortly

after the revolution of 1905, he came to the conclusion that the only true

artist was the one willing to abandon hearth and home. “The primary

sign that a given writer is not an accidental and temporary greatness,”

he writes in 1909, “is a feeling for the road [chuvtsvo puti]. It is necessary

to constantly recall this well-accepted truth, especially in our time” (SS,

5:369). Family ties not only inhibited the poet’s ability to feel the spirit

of the times but also his very ability to create. For Blok, this resistance to

family life became intertwined with very real fears that poetic production

and human reproduction were two mutually exclusive activities.

Although Blok assumed this antiprocreative position rather early on

in his poetic career, nowhere does his commitment to this disruptive

vision of poetic creation come into more dramatic relief than in his discussion, after the 1910 crisis in Russian symbolism, of the acmeists and

futurists, two new poetic groups that had radically different ideas about

the role that generational continuity should play in modern culture.

Whereas the futurists declared it necessary to “throw Pushkin, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, etc. overboard from the Ship of Modernity,” the acmeists

exhibited much more reverence for the past and for their literary predecessors.3 In spite of the fact that the futurists took a much more violent

stance vis-à-vis Blok and the symbolists than the acmeists did, calling

for, among other things, the “liberation of Russian literature from the

muck in which Andreev, Sologub, Blok etc. had placed her” (SS, 7:233),

Blok felt a much closer kinship with the futurists than the acmeists. And

his affinity for the former demonstrates the extent to which he remained

committed to a disruptive vision of history. According to Blok’s idiosyncratic understanding of acmeism, which was by no means as unified

or homogeneous a literary movement as he suggests, it represented a

return to a poetic culture of domesticity and traditional values that was

untenable for the writer in modern Russia.



Unbearable Burdens



23



The manner in which Blok maps out his relationship to the acmeists

in his diary and notebooks entries of 1913—the year that signaled the

changing of the guard, so to speak, in Russian modernist poetry—reveals just how dedicated he was to a disruptive vision of poetic and

generational history.4 In a diary entry dated 10 February 1913, Blok attempts to convince himself that he is younger and stronger than the

burgeoning group of acmeist poets. “It is time to untie my hands,”

he writes. “I am no longer a schoolboy. No more symbolisms—I am

alone. I answer for myself alone—and I can still be younger than the

‘middle-aged’ young poets, who are burdened by progeny and acmeism

[obremenennye potomstvom i akmeizmom]” (SS, 7:216). In a variation

on the classical Bloomian Oedipal model of poetic history, which focuses primarily on the creative anxiety experienced by young poets

in the face of their strong poetic precursors, the aging Alexander Blok

refrains from asserting his poetic prowess over the preceding generation of poets, his poetic fathers and grandfathers, as it were.5 Instead,

he proclaims his poetic power over the new generation of poets, his

younger acmeist cousins, so to speak—a power that derives from his

renunciation of affiliation with any one literary movement as well as

of filiation or childbearing. By effectively divorcing himself from the

traditional generational patterns that inform both poetic and human

history, Blok, already at a midpoint in his poetic career, adopts the classical posture of the avant-garde poet, who is typically alone, typically

young, and of course childless.6 In such a fashion, he anticipates the

youthful pronouncements of the futurist Vladimir Mayakovsky, who a

few years later would boldly proclaim: “I don’t have a single gray hair

in my soul, and there’s no old man’s tenderness there! Having shaken

the world with the might of my voice, I walk a handsome twenty-two

year old” (U menia v dushe ni odnogo sedogo volosa, / i starcheskoi

nezhnosti net v nei! / Mir ogrómiv moshch’iu golosa, / idu—krasivyi, /

dvadtsatidvukhletnii). At the ripe old age of thirty-two, however, Blok

asserts his lyric vitality only quietly and introspectively within the relatively private realm of his diary and not “at the top of his voice” like the

younger and more rebellious futurist poet would do some time later.7

The fact that Blok strikes a youthful pose and accuses the acmeists of

being encumbered with the bourgeois trappings of family and children

would appear to have more to do with the early onset of his own poetic

midlife crisis, now that the symbolist movement was clearly waning,

than with the reality of a modernist baby boom. If anything the modernist movement in Russia was in danger of suffering from zero population



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Poetry against Progeny



growth, not a population explosion.8 As Said aptly points out in his

discussion of Western modernism, “childless couples, orphaned children, aborted childbirths, and unregenerately celibate men and women

populate the world of high modernism with remarkable insistence, all

of them suggesting the difficulties of filiation.”9 And like their Western

counterparts, the acmeists demonstrated a certain resistance to the generative impulse. Most of the major figures associated with the movement

never produced any children, and in this they followed the lead of the

symbolists, who were for the most part childless. And those poets who

did have families, such as the acmeist couple, Anna Akhmatova and

Nikolai Gumilev, identified themselves with literary bohemianism by

congregating in the Petersburg cabaret appropriately named the Stray

Dog (Brodiachaia sobaka) and embracing the themes of love, travel, and

café culture in much of their early poetry.

Yet for all of their avowed bohemianism, the acmeists did, at times,

demonstrate a willingness to treat domestic problems in their poetry.

And nowhere can this better be seen than in some of the early work

of Akhmatova, the leading member of the acmeist movement from the

distaff side. If in much of her early poetry Akhmatova dedicates herself

to overtly erotic themes that were far removed from the poetics of domesticity, in at least one of her early lyrics she addresses the problem

of reconciling marriage with the bohemian lifestyle of the avant-garde,

perhaps not thinking so much of herself as a woman poet as of her poethusband. In her famous poem, “He loved . . .” (“On liubil . . .”) (1910),

penned in the same year as her marriage to Gumilev, Akhmatova’s poetic speaker chronicles the difficulties that her adventurous lover encountered when faced with the tedium of family life. Looking back on

their unhappy life together, her speaker wistfully recalls:

Он юби три вещи на свете:

За вечерней пенье, бе ых пав инов

И стертые карты Америки.

Не юби , ког а п ачут ети,

Не юби чая с ма иной

И женской истерики.

. . . А я бы а его женой.10

[He loved three things on this earth: singing at vespers, white

peacocks, and worn maps of America. He didn’t like it when

children cried, he didn’t like tea with raspberry, or female hysteries . . . And I was his wife.]



Unbearable Burdens



25



Akhmatova opens this deceptively complicated little lyric by defining

the preferences of her as yet undefined male muse as inclined toward

the exotic. With the catalogue of singing at vespers, white peacocks,

and worn maps of America, she not only conjures up an image of him

as world traveler and explorer (an image that, it bears noting, was not

too far afield from Gumilev’s own self-fashioning as poet-conquistador)

but also suggests that domesticity was alien to his very nature.11 White

peacocks are unlike their more colorful feathered friends in that they are

unable to reproduce—a fact of life that Akhmatova perhaps implicitly

associates with her beloved here. Birds of a feather flock together, or

so the old English adage goes. And in the next three lines of the poem,

Akhmatova reinforces the notion of her beloved as reluctant family man

when she describes his dislike of sticky domestic scenarios composed

of crying children, tea with raspberry, and female hysterics. However,

in the final line of this poem, which itself verges heavily on prose with

its reliance on lists and catalogues, Akhmatova disrupts the sharp delineation between his likes and dislikes, the exotic and the domestic, as

well as the poetic and prosaic, which she has hitherto maintained in the

poem, when she interjects the final line containing an eye rhyme: “. . .

And I was his wife” (. . . A ia byla ego zhenoi). With the addition of this

prosaic fact (and poetic line whose verbal, if not visual, rhyme scheme

breaks down at the very moment when the final word zhenoi (wife) with

its mis-stress on the last syllable is uttered aloud), Akhmatova’s poetic

speaker reveals the true identity of her beloved to have been that of husband. And she implies that the very domestic activities he eschewed—

noisy children, tea with raspberry, and family quarrels—were, in fact,

an integral part of his reality.

Akhmatova’s poem, operating as it does on the principle of the return

of the repressed family drama, would appear to embody the very essence of lyric “middle age” from which Blok attempts to distance himself

in his diary entry of 1913. The unhappy husband and wife who inhabit

this poem are more reminiscent of Lev Tolstoy’s middle-aged Stiva and

Dolly, with their marital problems and brood of crying children, than

they are of the youthful Levin and Kitty enjoying their “family happiness.” Whether Blok had the messy domestic scenario of this particular

poem in mind or the birth of Akhmatova’s and Gumilev’s son, Lev, in

1912 when he accused the new generation of poets of being “‘middleaged’ young poets burdened by progeny and acmeism” remains unclear. But what is clear is that, in a discursive sense at least, the acmeists



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Poetry against Progeny



were much more inclined than their symbolist precursors to tolerate the

incursion of quotidian details and domestic concerns into what had been

for the symbolists the sacrosanct realm of the avant-garde.12 This implicit

concern with family life is something that emerges less in the domestic

practices of the acmeists than in the names that were bandied about

for the new poetic movement, acmeism and Adamism. Although the

more canonical term, acmeism (which derived, as Gumilev explained,

from the Greek akme meaning “the highest degree of something, the

flower, a flourishing time” and “the prime of all powers, spiritual and

physical”) did not evoke the poets’ fascination with domesticity and the

realm of the ordinary, the movement’s alternate appellation, Adamism,

did suggest that this was a movement that was intimately concerned

with family relations and domestic life.13 Adam was, after all, not just

the first earthly son—the “primordial Adam” (pervobytnyi Adam) that

sprouted up in several programmatic acmeist poems—but also the first

earthly father from whom all future generations derived.14 Consonant

with the image of Adam as father and progenitor, one acmeist poet

and theoretician tended to make “family values” a cornerstone of the

movement, if not a part of acmeist praxis. In particular, in his important

acmeist manifesto, “Morning of Acmeism” (“Utro akmeizma”) (1919),

Osip Mandelstam would admonish the symbolists for their inability to

keep house, something that he considered to be a necessary prerequisite

to acmeist church building. “The symbolists,” he claims, “were poor

stay-at homes [domosedy]; they loved to travel, yet they felt unwell, uncomfortable in the cage of their own organisms or in that universal cage

which Kant constructed with the aid of his categories. Genuine piety

before the three dimensions of space is the first condition of successful

building: to regard the world neither as a burden nor as an unfortunate

accident, but as a God-given palace.”15

Almost all of the major Russian symbolists were afflicted by this

travel bug—some for purely artistic reasons and others for highly political ones. Blok visited Belgium, Italy, France, and Germany; Zinaida

Gippius and Dmitry Merezhkovsky shuttled between Petersburg and

Paris; Andrei Bely spent extended periods of time in Germany and

Switzerland; and Viacheslav Ivanov lived in Italy, to cite only a few examples. And for Blok, as for many of his contemporaries, this restlessness became a central facet of his poetic self-fashioning. As Blok scholar

Vladimir Orlov has indicated, “throughout [Blok’s] entire oeuvre there

runs a persistent and resilient motif of homelessness, of loss of simple

human happiness, and of atrophy of the feeling for the ‘family hearth’



Unbearable Burdens



27



[‘domashnii ochag’].”16 One of the primary ways in which he gave expression to this sense of homelessness was by presenting his poetic persona as perpetually in motion. From The Verses about the Beautiful Lady

(Stikhi o Prekrasnoi Dame) (1901–2) to The Twelve (Dvenadtsat’) (January

1918), as Dmitry Maksimov has shown, the theme of the road is a dominant topos of Blok’s poetry.17 And in taking up the road, Blok followed

in the footsteps of his beloved Russian writer, Nikolai Gogol, and of a

long line of avant-garde wanderers from Charles Baudelaire’s dandified

flaneur to Arthur Rimbaud’s scruffy poet-vagabond.18

Perhaps because of the seductiveness of the road, Blok found it easier

to identify with the futurists than with the acmeists. Though almost all

of the acmeists were avid travelers, it was the futurists who were responsible for taking poetry to the streets. Not only did they valorize the urban themes initiated in Russian poetry by the likes of Blok and Valery

Briusov but they made the street the site of artistic performance.19 And

while Blok admits that he did not fully comprehend the intricacies of

“the futurists’ scandal-ridden debates” (disputy futuristov, so skandalami) (SS 7:232), he considers them healthier and more in tune with their

age because of their ability to resist the weight of tradition and the forces

of gravity. He declares David Burliuk to “have a fist [kulak]” (SS, 7:232)

and the phenomenon of futurism to be “more earthy and alive than

acmeism” (bolee zemnoe i zhivoe, chem akmeizm) (SS, 7:232), which

was overcome by what might be termed the “unbearable heaviness of

being.”20 The acmeists were not only “burdened” (obremenennye) or

“pregnant” with family ties (obremenennye suggests both translations

because of its etymological relation to the word beremennaia) but also

weighed down by their cultural ties to the Western European poetic tradition.21 “The futurists, as a whole,” Blok writes in 1913, “are apparently

a much more significant phenomenon than acmeism. The latter are puny

[khily]. Gumilev is weighed down [tiazhelit] with ‘taste.’ His luggage is

heavy (with everything from Shakespeare to Théophile Gautier)” (SS,

7:232). While Mandelstam declares his poetic predecessors to be suffering from the typically symbolist desire “to distract [themselves] with a

stroll through the ‘forest of symbols’” (razvlekat’ sebia progulkoi v “lesu

simvolov”), Blok diagnoses the acmeists with an entirely different strain

of literary influenza, the anxiety of influence, that incapacitates them

by depriving them of movement.22 By depicting Gumilev as a weakling

struggling with the baggage of his poetic precursors, Blok anticipates by

more than half a century Bloom’s discussion of the “weak poet,” who

is so overcome by the presence of his dead poetic ancestors that he is



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Poetry against Progeny



unable to make the necessary “swerve” away from them that would

allow him to forge his own unique poetic path or tvorcheskii put’. And

by emphasizing the burdens of family and poetic tradition, he assumes

a position that is only slightly more respectful of his elders than that of

the French futurist Guillaume Apollinaire who in the very same year

cautioned that “one cannot be forever carrying one’s father’s corpse. It

must be abandoned with the other dead.”23

Blok’s scattered comments on the acmeists in his diary and notebook entries of 1913 might suggest that he was prepared to throw his

own excess cultural and personal baggage from “the Ship of Modernity” and sail off into the future, but his actual relationship with the

past and with his own family was by all accounts much more nuanced

and complicated. In his important study on the poet, Blok’s contemporary Kornei Chukovsky emphasizes that the poet’s lyric posture of

rootless wanderer stood in direct opposition to his biographical reality

or, as Boris Tomashevsky might put it, there was a marked disparity

between his self-created “biographical legend” and the actual facts of

his “curriculum vitae.”24 According to Chukovsky, “Blok was fond of

seeing himself as a homeless tramp, when, in fact, very few people had

ever received the same comfort and affection from Russian life that he

had. [. . .] Compared to Blok, the rest of us seemed like orphans without

ancestors or creature comforts. We didn’t have an estate near Moscow

where jam was forever cooking under noble, century-old lime trees; nor

did we have his curls, his fathers and forefathers, his pile of toys and

stately white horse. We were rich in heirs, not ancestors, whereas Blok

was totally preoccupied with his ancestry, both as a man and a poet. He

was the last of the poet-gentlemen, the last of the Russian poets who

could adorn his house with portraits of his fathers and forefathers.”25

Not surprisingly, Blok turned to the theme of his aristocratic lineage in

his numerous autobiographical sketches and in his unfinished semiautobiographical narrative poem, Retribution (Vozmezdie), which he began

to work on shortly after his father’s death in December 1909. And in this

work, Blok reinterprets his relationship with his family’s past, as well as

with Russia’s literary and cultural past and in particular to the work of

Alexander Pushkin, the father of Russian literature.26 And in so doing,

he evinces a preoccupation with both familial and poetic origins.27

Yet for all his creative investment in his ancestors both poetic and

real, Blok was, in the words of his own mother, plagued by a “lack of

family feeling,” and this is where, I suggest, he shows himself to be

quintessentially symbolist and at odds with the culture of domesticity



Unbearable Burdens



29



he implicitly associates with the acmeists.28 If acmeism or Adamism appeared to Blok, at least, to inaugurate a vision of human history that we

might characterize as essentially postlapsarian and “middle aged” (this

in spite of the movement’s valorization of the “primordial Adam”), then

Russian symbolism was indebted to a view of history that was deeply

nostalgic and utopian in its desire to recuperate a childlike, prelapsarian state before procreation became either a necessity or possibility.29

This particular aspect of Russian symbolism has not escaped the notice

of recent scholars. In her groundbreaking essay, “The Symbolist Meaning of Love: Theory and Practice,” Olga Matich convincingly demonstrates that there was a strong utopian orientation in Russian symbolism, which manifested itself primarily in a resistance to the traditional

forms of marriage. “The Symbolists,” she maintains, “offered a variety

of erotic practices as alternatives to the traditional bourgeois family.

Among them were Platonic love for a soul twin, Dionysian eros, new

versions of the romantic triangle, homoerotic love, narcissism, and romantic love for an unattainable object.”30 In Blok’s own marriage, which

was not consummated until more than a year after the wedding and was

marked by infidelities on both sides, we can find several of these erotic

practices in operation at once—namely romantic love for an unattainable object and new versions of the romantic triangle.31 And it would

appear that these deviations from the bourgeois norm were at least to

some extent conscious on Blok’s part. According to Blok’s wife, Liubov

Mendeleeva, he had theorized that “we did not need physical closeness,

that this was ‘astartism,’ ‘darkness,’ and God knows what else. When I

would tell him that I loved this still undiscovered world, that I wanted

it, he would theorize further: such relationships cannot be lasting, no

matter what, he would eventually leave me for others. But what about

me? ‘You too would do the same.’”32 And Blok’s own writings confirm

the notion that they were to enter into a sexless or “white marriage.”

In a notebook that he began keeping just a month prior to his wedding

in the summer of 1903, he insists that “the state of prohibition [zapreshchennost’] should always remain even in marriage” (ZK, 48), thereby

espousing a Victorianism that, Matich has shown, would be typical of so

many of the symbolist marriages and distinctly at odds with the “family

values” later to be celebrated by Mandelstam, if not actually practiced

by him or any of his fellow acmeists.33

Blok’s decision to avoid consummation of his marriage may have

been influenced by a complex of social and cultural factors, including

the lingering influence of the utopian marriages of the 1860s and the



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Poetry against Progeny



antiprocreative theories of the nineteenth-century Russian religious philosophers, Vladimir Soloviev and Nikolai Fedorov, as well as perhaps

by underlying physical and psychological issues.34 By this time, Blok

had already had his fair share of romantic liaisons and may have feared

that he would pass a disease on to his wife and sully the woman who

had ostensibly served as the model for the Beautiful Lady. As we shall

see in the next chapter, the decadent theme of syphilis would enter into

his writings, suggesting that he either contracted or feared contracting

the disease.35 But whatever the specific reasons, one thing remains clear:

his reluctance to engage in conjugal relations with this wife ultimately

became interconnected with the belief that reproduction would somehow have a negative effect on his poetic production. Though the idea

that poetry was incompatible with progeny gains particularly clear articulation in Blok’s denunciation of the acmeists child-rearing practices

in 1913, this notion first begins to take hold considerably earlier, in the

months leading up to his marriage, and appears at least in part to have

been influenced by the theories of his friends and mentors, Gippius and

Merezhkovsky, who had helped to orchestrate his literary debut on the

pages of their journal, The New Path (Novyi put’), several months earlier

in March 1903.36

Gippius, who preached sublimated love to her contemporaries

and indulged in many symbolic activities to undercut the sanctity of

her own marriage, including sporting a single braid as a sign of her

virginity after ten years of marriage and somewhat later a necklace of

the wedding bands of her married admirers, was apparently disturbed

by Blok’s decision to marry the woman who had supposedly served

as the prototype for the Beautiful Lady in his early poems.37 Believing

that there was a dissonance between the mystical Solovievian aspect of

Blok’s poetry and the idea of marriage, Gippius attempted to convince

her young protégé to call off the wedding. After all, Dante did not marry

Beatrice, nor Petrarch Laura. As the heir apparent to Vladimir Soloviev

and the courtly love tradition he had introduced into Russian letters,

it would not be in Blok’s best interest to marry his real-life muse, or

so the logic went.38 Initially, however, Blok appears to have scoffed at

the Merezhkovskys’ theory that marriage and poems would necessarily

make for strange bedfellows, noting in a letter to his father written in

the early summer of 1903: “Z. N. Gippius [. . .] and all her associates do

not sympathize with my wedding [ne sochuvstvuet moei svad’be] and

find it in ‘disharmony’ with my poems. For me it is somewhat strange,

because it is difficult to grasp the completely abstract theory that the



Unbearable Burdens



31



Merezhkovskys are staunchly bringing to life to the extent of denying

the reality of two undeniable facts: marriage and poems (as if either

one of them is not real!). The principle blame is passed on me because

I apparently cannot ‘foresee the end,’ which will clearly result (in their

opinion) from my worldly circumstances [zhiteiskie obstoiatel’stva]”

(PABR, 1:86–87).39

Although one can hardly blame Blok for resenting the Merezhkovskys’ meddling (they appear here to have overstepped the boundaries of literary mentors and assumed the role of marriage brokers or

svakhi), their concern about the effects that the poet’s “worldly circumstances” would have on his art was by no means unusual within the

larger context of European modernism. In spite of Gustave Flaubert’s

famous edict to the effect that if one wants to be avant-garde in one’s art

one should lead a conventional life, there had been a strong tendency

particularly among the French modernists to resist conventionality and

especially bourgeois domesticity. And for those writers who did allow

themselves to succumb to the comforts and confines of domesticity, family life was frequently seen as more of a burden than a solace. This was

certainly true in the case of the French symbolist Stéphane Mallarmé,

who saw his own status as family man and provincial schoolteacher

as inherently incompatible with his poetic aspirations. Particularly in

the early years of his poetic career, after he had just become a father,

Mallarmé was plagued by his family ties.40 In his famous poem, “Sea

Breeze” (“Brise marine”) (1866), which he composed shortly after the

birth of his first child, Geneviève, in 1864, Mallarmé can be seen, in the

opinion of Robert Greer Cohn, as acting upon this “desire to flee from

bourgeois domesticity.”41 Much like his own strong poetic predecessor

Baudelaire, Mallarmé longs in this poem to escape to an exotic realm,

a realm Baudelaire had described earlier in “Exotic Perfume” (“Parfum exotique”) (1857) as “One of those lazy, nature-gifted isles, / With

luscious fruits, trees strange of leaf and limb, / Men vigorous of body,

lithe and slim, / Women with artless glance that awes, beguiles” (Un

ỵle paresseuse ó la nature donne / Des arbres singuliers et des fruits

savoureux; / Des hommes dont le corps est mince et vigoureux, / Et

des femmes dont l’oeil par sa franchise étonne).42 But unlike Baudelaire,

who remained faithful to the bohemian lifestyle and to a Gauguin-like

aesthetic of exotic isles, Mallarmé was forced to confront the responsibilities of marriage and children—a fact that becomes abundantly clear

in this poem. Although Mallarmé’s poem is ostensibly about escapism,

it is cluttered with reminders of domesticity—the garden, the study, the



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Poetry against Progeny



mother and child. Mallarmé, though, remains adamant throughout the

poem’s first stanza, presented here in the epigraph, that these vestiges

of home life will not inhibit him from accepting Baudelaire’s invitation

to take a voyage. Ultimately, however, Mallarmé’s attempts at escape

are frustrated, as the poet is left with “no fertile isle, no spar on which

to cling” (sans mâts, sans mâts, ni fertiles ỵlots), though, it should be

noted that he is accorded one of the pleasures of Baudelaire’s earlier

voyager—the “sailors’ barcarole” (le chant des matelots).43 And, thus,

by concluding in disaster, this poem can be read as staging, in the words

of Henry Weinfield, “the shipwreck of the Ideal against the shoals of

actuality.”44 Or if we were to gloss the poem in Mayakovskian terms,

we would say that “the love boat has smashed against the daily grind”

(liubovnaia lodka razbilas’ o byt).45

While I do not want to suggest that the Merezhkovskys necessarily

had the particular case of Mallarmé in mind, the tragic clash between art

and family life that this poem reflects is exactly the type of catastrophe

they were attempting to avert when the encouraged Blok to call off his

wedding.46 Family life was no more compatible with the poetics of the

Russian symbolists than it was with French symbolism. Judging from

the comments Blok made on his impending nuptials in his notebook

entries from the summer of 1903, it would appear that he did eventually

“foresee the end” that the Merezhkovskys were prophesying and that

Mallarmé’s poetic speaker had so tragically confronted in “Sea Breeze”

and elsewhere.47 Although Blok did not share the Merezhkovskys’ view

that it would be impossible for him to unite marriage and poetry, he

did express the fear that having a family would have a deleterious effect on his ability to produce poetry, and he set out to ensure that his

poetic path would not be inhibited by the presence of children. In a notebook entry written on 16 July 1903, just a month before his wedding, he

goes so far as to make a list of members of the Blok family who “still

intend[ed] to reproduce” (imeiut v vidu eshche rasplodit’sia) (ZK, 50),

suggesting that “if I were to have a child, it would be worse than my

poems. Exactly the same . . .” (Esli u menia budet rebenok, to khuzhe

stikhov. Takoi zhe . . .) (ZK, 51). With these statements, Blok not only

sets up a sibling rivalry, as it were, between his poetry and progeny but

also a reproductive rivalry between himself and his future wife, Liubov

Mendeleeva, a woman whose first name meant “love” and whom Blok

and his contemporaries Andrei Bely and Sergei Soloviev conflated with

the otherworldly and all-powerful figure of the Beautiful Lady in his

Verses about the Beautiful Lady. Given the erotic power of his imagined



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Unbearable Burdens: Blok and the Modernist Resistance to Progeny

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