Aleksandr Blok's Black Raven

By retreating into the inner world of imagination, the Symbolists were a reaction to the crass materialism of the age and to the social intentions of civic poets like Nekrásov. Important predecessors were Tiutchev and Fet, but the  strongest influences were French: Baudelaire, Verlaine and Mallarmé. All explored a reality beyond the world of the senses, and tried to bring poetry closer to the art of music. In Russia these experiments inspired a whole movement, equal in many ways to the accomplishments of Pushkin and his circle, but where the most confident and accomplished performer was Aleksandr Blok. He used a metaphoric language to convey spiritual and psychic experience, and his many religious and love poems brought a Romantism back into fashion. Blok hailed the Russian Revolution as liberation from outworn conventions, and though he was disappointed by its reality, and indeed died a broken man, empty of inspiration, he left behind a new technical mastery, particularly in stress verse, where it was the number of stresses to the line, and not the metre, that gave verse its coherence. {3}

Aleksandr Aleksandrovich Blok was born into a sheltered and intellectual environment. His father was a law professor, and his mother the daughter of the rector of St. Petersburg University. He was reared in the atmosphere of artistic refinement at the manor of his aristocratic maternal grandparents, and in 1903 married Lyubov Mendeleyeva, daughter of the famous chemist. Poetry came easily and naturally to Blok, and the early verse celebrated the exaltation and spiritual fulfillment of marriage. The technical mastery of Pushkin, and the apocalyptic philosophy of the poet and mystic Vladimir Solovyov were important influences on Blok, who developed inovatory rhythms where sound and musicality were paramount. The first collection of poems, the cycle Stikhi o prekrasnoy dame (1904; 'Verses About the Lady Beautiful'), focuses on personal and intimate themes but these are somewhat aetherial and mystical, where the lady is a symbol for eternal femininity. {4}

translating Blok's black raven

The following collections were different. Nechayannaya radost (1907; “Inadvertent Joy”), Snezhnaya maska (1907; “Mask of Snow”), and Zemlya v snegu (1908; “Earth in Snow”) were set in contemporary city life, and included revolutionary events, deeply-felt love, and complex psychologies.

It was the third volume that contained Blok's strongest work. Older poems were incorporated with new to give an historical and mystical perspective of Russia in the 1910s. Blok did not see combat in W.W.I, serving in the the engineering and construction corps, but he was well aware of the 1917 Revolution, which he saw as part of a world-wide period of change — critical, tragic, and threatening in its consequences, but to be welcomed by Blok's faith in humankind. Blok worked for a commission investigating crimes of the imperial government, and later directly for the Bolshevics, whom he felt represented the will of the people. “Terrible, sweet, inescapable, imperative” was how he expressed it in his poetry, which was represented by the novel in verse Dvenadtsat (1918; The Twelve) and the poem Skify (1918; “The Scythians”). Blok vividly expressed the mood of the time, but quickly became disillusioned with the Bolshevik government, practically ceasing to write poetry thereafter. {4}

Russian Text

Черный ворон в сумраке снежном,
Черный бархат на смуглых плечах.
Томный голос пением нежным
Мне поет о южных ночах.

В легком сердце - страсть и беспечность,
Словно с моря мне подан знак.
Над бездонным провалом в вечность,
Задыхаясь, летит рысак.

Снежный ветер, твое дыханье,
Опьяненные губы мои...
Валентина, звезда, мечтанье!
Как поют твои соловьи...

Страшный мир! Он для сердца тесен!
В нем - твоих поцелуев бред,
Темный морок цыганских песен,
Торопливый полет комет!

Александр Блок. Избранное.
Москва, "Детская Литература", 1969. {1}


The piece, written in 1910, is almost in iambic tetrameters, but the odd additional syllable shows this is dol'nik verse, which Blok was particularly fond of. {2}

Чер ный во рон в сум раке снеж ном, 4A
Чер ный бар хат на сму глых пле чах . 4b
Том ный го лос пен ием неж ным 4A
Мне по ет о юж ных но чах . 4b

В лег ком сер дце - страсть и бе спеч ность, 4C
Слов но с мор я мне по дан знак. 4d
Над без дон ным про ва лом в веч ность, 4C
За ды ха ясь, ле тит ры сак . 4d

Снеж ный ве тер, тво е ды хань е, 4E
Опь я нен ные гу бы мо и. .. 4f
Ва лен ти на, звез да, меч тань е! 4E
Как по ют тво и со лов ьи. .. 4f

Страш ны й мир ! Он для серд ца те сен! 4G
В нем - тво их по це лу ев бред, 4h
Тем ный мо рок цы ган ских пе сен, 4G
То ро пли вый по лет ко мет! 4h

A TTS Audio Recording:


Blok's verse is dol'nik, i.e. slightly irregular. Should our translation render that irregularity? Occasionally, I think, without impeding the verse flow. Extra syllables occur in 'langorous' , 'careless, the', 'Valentina, my star' and 'delirium':

Black raven in the snowy evening:
black-mantled too the swarthy sights.
Languorous voice, as soft as breathing,
sings to me of southern nights.

Intense and careless, the heart agreeing,
a sign that’s sent me from out the sea.
Across the pit the rider’s fleeing,
breathless to eternity.

How chill the snowy breath you’re bringing,
intoxicating lips, that seem
but nightingales: how sweet they’re singing:
Valentina, my star, my dream!

Delirium of kisses, they too fearing
a world too narrow for the heart:
Dark holds of gypsy songs I’m hearing:
how fast the comets flare apart.


Smiling Girl by Abram Arkhipov. 1920s. {1}

Abram Arkhipov (1862-1930: birth name Abram Pyrikov) was born in the Ryazan Oblast and studied in the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture under  Perov, Polenov and Makovsky. In 1883, he moved to the Imperial Academy of Arts at Saint Petersburg for two years, returning to Moscow. Arkhipov joined the Wanderers in 1889, and then the Union of Russian Artists in 1903, and later the Association of Artists of Revolutionary Russia. In 1927 was awarded the title of People's Artist of the USSR. {2}

Arkhipov's paintings were in the realistic naturalism tradition, with a predilection for showing the harshness of peasant life, particularly of women. They were often freely painted with a flamboyant touch of lyricism, however, as in the painting above. {2-3}

References and Resources

References can now be found in a free pdf compilation of Ocaso Press's Russian pages.

Russian poem translations on this site: listing.