Aleksandr Blok, The Twelve, and death
When the revolution came, Blok greeted it with a kind of religious joy, as a rejoicing in Russia’s spiritual transformation.
On one occasion at the beginning of January 1918 he was visiting friends and in a noisy dispute started defending the October revolution. His friends had never seen him so excited. In the past, he had disputed calmly, vigorously, but now he gesticulated and even shouted. One of the things he said was:
“But behind each Red Army soldier’s back I see an angel’s wings.”
This declaration provoked much sarcasm. Blok left – and wrote ‘The Twelve’. It seemed that this was just the beginning of a long and heroic fight. But a month went by – and Blok fell silent. It wasn’t that he had fallen out of love with the revolution or lost his faith in it. No, but what he had loved in the revolution was only the ecstasy and now it seemed to him that the ecstatic period of the Russian revolution was over […]
He died immediately after writing ‘The Twelve’ and ‘Scythians’, because it was then that he suffered something which is essentially equivalent to death. He became deaf and dumb. Which is to say, he could hear and speak, but that amazing ear and seraphic voice which had been his alone had left him for ever.
After writing ‘The Twelve’, he spent the next three and a half years trying to make clear to himself what it was that he had written.
Many people remember how inquisitively he listened to what people around him were saying about ‘The Twelve’ – as if waiting for someone to come along who would at last explain to him the meaning of this poem […] Once Gorky told him that he considered his poem a satire.
“It’s the most virulent satire on everything that was happening at that time.”
“Satire?” asked Blok, before falling into deep thought. “Are you sure you mean satire? It’s unlikely. I don’t think so. I don’t know.”
And he really did not know: his poetry was wiser than him.
I remember how in June 1919 at the Institute of the History of the Arts [in Petrograd] Gumilyev, in the presence of Blok, read a lecture on Blok’s poetry. One of the things he said was that the end of ‘The Twelve’ (where Christ appears) struck him as artificially ‘tacked on’ and Christ’s sudden appearance a purely literary effect.
Blok listened, as ever, without any change of facial expression, but then at the end of the lecture said with careful thoughtfulness, as if listening in to something:
“I too do not like the end of The Twelve. I would like the end to be different. When I finished the poem, I was myself surprised: why Christ? But the closer I looked, the more clearly I saw Christ. And so I noted down, ‘Regrettably, Christ’.”
Korney Chukovsky, 1924