John Ellison discusses Alexander Blok's great poem The Twelve, and its links to the Russian Revolution.
I came fresh, utterly fresh, to the most famous poem by Alexander Blok - The Twelve - written in January 1918, and the freshest of poetic responses to the November Bolshevik revolution. Before reading it, I knew Blok’s name, but nothing of his work. The Twelve is so striking as to be impossible to drive out of memory.
In Russian, it runs to a little over a thousand words and is not ‘revolutionary’ in message in the wildest sense of that word. It carries no imprint of a sudden or superficial craze for radical change, but reflects Blok’s open-eyed rapport with the seizure of power by the Bolsheviks and their commitment to a socialist future.
He was born in 1880 in St. Petersburg and died, aged only 40, in the same city in 1921, after a lengthy illness. The Twelve, and a shorter poem in a conventional form - The Scythians - which was written immediately afterwards, are regarded as the last of his significant creative work. He grew up mainly in the households of his mother and of her parents. He was a child of the upper class academic intelligentsia, which did not exclude the ownership of country estates, or involvement with the Orthodox Christian Church. He inherited, besides privileged conditions of living, his mother’s tendency to imbue events with mystical significance and developed early on a heightened sensitivity to the world about him. Though he is often described as of the Russian ‘symbolist’ school, he should not, to judge by The Twelve, be regarded as confined to a particular poetic movement.
My picture of Blok as a boy, a man and a poet is extracted in large part from James Forsyth’s Listening to the Wind (1977). This is an engaging study which wears its scholarship lightly and reveals much.
One English translation of The Twelve with its own definite character is that by prolific socialist author Jack Lindsay. Introduced by Lindsay, it was published in a slim 1982 Journeyman Press edition. A special feature was its accompaniment, reproduced from the original Russian publication, by the remarkable illustrative line drawings of Yuri Annenkov, which accompany this article. Another popular translation, by English poet Jon Stallworthy and collaborator Peter France, can be found in 20th Century Russian Poetry, edited by a later generation Soviet poet, Yevgeny Yevtushenko, and published in 1993. These translators had previously, in 1970, published their version in The Twelve and other Poems. A third important translation is by Alex Miller. I located this in Soviet Russian Literature 1917-1977, compiled by Yuri Andreyev (1980), but Miller’s translation can also be found in a separate Selected Poems by Blok. One more distinguished English version (more recent – 2010) is that by American academic Maria Carlson.
The Twelve sensationalises the revolutionary moment as much as celebrates it. A street patrol of twelve Red Guards marches in darkness, snow and wind in Petrograd. Their number is also the number, and not by coincidence (as is confirmed in the poem’s final lines), of the disciples of the founder of Christianity. These soldiers on street duty are no role models for rank and file revolutionaries. They are doing their duty according to their own standards, and their standards are not high. They look like jailbirds. During the patrol, one of them, helped by at least one accomplice amongst the others, carries out a murder. His former girl-friend, Katya, a prostitute, passing by at speed in a horse-drawn cab with her current lover Vanka, takes a bullet apparently aimed at Vanka. The patrol carries on marching.
At another moment during the patrol, rifle fire is directed at a building on the basis of suspicion only that enemies might be present there.
The Twelve, in my view, could be thought of as a scene in a play or film as much as a poem. It is in twelve parts or ‘cantos’, each distinguishable in style and flavour from the next. Its opening – borrowing Lindsay’s translation here - is incontestably atmospheric, dramatic, intense.
Wind O wind!
It knocks you down as you go.
Wind O wind –
Through God’s world blowing.
‘God’, and indeed ‘Christ’, and ‘holy Russia’, it should be said, are very much part of the poem, highlighting the obvious fact that the revolution just carried out has not detached the minds of Russian people (including Blok) from the world in which they had been previously living. At the end of the poem Christ – or a vision of Christ – leads the patrol. But this is Christ the founder of Christianity, not the Christ of ‘holy Russia’; it is Christ of the new world, not Christ of the old. Or is he better described as Christ of the old world, but resurrected as a torch-bearer of revolution? Is there here an implied unity of Christianity and communism? And is it so certain that the murderer, who is in a rage against both Katya and her lover, actually intended to kill him but not her? An intriguing feature of Blok’s work is its ability to make room for different interpretations, for mystery.
Another feature is his view of the natural world as a producer of an eternal music of its own. There is nothing cut-and-dried about Blok’s verse or about Blok himself.
Early on in The Twelve, only the title suggests that twelve people might be somewhere about. But the historical moment in which the action takes place is quickly captured through the sighting of a banner strung between buildings. This declares: ‘All Power to the Constituent Assembly’. Viewed, as the patrol moves forward, are an old woman believing the political banner would be better used for children’s clothing and shoes, a bourgeois with nose in his collar (standing, symbolically, at a cross-roads, his cross-roads, Russia’s cross-roads), a mutinous intellectual and an unhappy priest. Then a second mention of the Constituent Assembly is immediately succeeded by interchanges between an ‘Assembly’ of female prostitutes debating and fixing customer prices.
Slowly the Bolshevik militia identity of The Twelve emerges from the darkness and the snowstorm. It is announced: ‘Twelve men are walking’. And they have rifles. And one of them is playing over in his head an angry argument with his rival, Vanka, for the transferred affections of Katya. Then soon after, an order is barked out: ‘Keep a revolutionary step!’ (Stallworthy), ‘Keep in step with the revolution’ (Miller), or ‘Hold to the revolutionary pace’ (Carlson). Before long ‘the twelve’ are identified as Red Guards.
The poem – or verse-play – is alive with contrasts. At one moment the group is, metaphorically, firing a bullet at holy Russia. At another there is a call from the marchers to God to bless them as Red Guard revolutionaries. Suddenly the cab appears, carrying Vanka and Katya, canoodling, and from the rejected and jealous Red Guard – now given the name of Petrukha – come memories of Katya and of knifing another envied rival in the past. Soon after, when the same cab with the same passengers comes past again, Petrukha apparently fires at his army officer rival Vanka but kills Katya instead. The other eleven, whether directly complicit in, or untroubled by, the crime, keep marching with Petrukha. And the shout to the Twelve is renewed: ‘Keep a revolutionary step!’ This garish sequence of events comes across as strange, startling, surreal, yet powerfully credible.
During the exposition a hungry and flea-bitten dog is picked out, tail between legs, as a symbol for the old world. The image is repeated in a later verse, after the presence of the bourgeois at a cross-roads has again been registered. Alex Miller’s rich translation of this verse reads:
The bourgeois stands there. As if hungry,
Just stands there like a question mark;
The old world, like a starving mongrel,
Cowers at his feet, too cold to bark.
I should come clean about my limited knowledge of the Russian language, having only a smallish stock of vocabulary in my head, but a lot more in a large Russian-English dictionary to extend it. Furthermore, James B. Woodward’s 1968 edition of Blok’s Selected Poems - in Russian - contains detailed notes in English as to the meaning of some colloquial, dialect and archaic Russian expressions employed. My understanding of Russian grammar is undeveloped. Nevertheless, some knowledge of the language has encouraged me to comment, reliably or not, on the English translations I have studied.
Jack Lindsay’s translation of The Twelve seems to me attractive and ingenious, but, while I marvel at the production of so many neat rhymes, at moments there is for my taste too much jingle and bounce. Meaning can be sacrificed or something invented to obtain a rhyme. This subtracts from the darkly volatile spirit of the original. An example is Lindsay’s translation of six words towards the close of the second section, which in the original occupy three lines, each ending with the same vowel sound, summarizing the essence of ‘Holy Russia’:
Wood huts in a clump,
And a big fat rump.
Here Lindsay doubles the number of words in the Russian original (which, in an end-note, is translated literally by Woodward as ‘sturdy Russia with its peasant huts and broad bottom’) and produces a sing-song effect. Stallworthy’s version, on the other hand, has more thrust and economy:
With her big, fat arse!
Miller, too, certainly cuts to the chase:
My personal preference is for Carlson’s version:
Blok’s original, here and elsewhere, comes over as on fire with creative energy. It relies more on echo and assonance – on a succession of sounds in a musical relationship with each other - than on smart rhymes. Forsyth describes The Twelve as ‘a patchwork cantata of…popular poetry and song’, sources which Blok had long been practised in mining and deploying.
Miller’s translation appears to me to follow Blok’s own style with imagination and varied vocabulary which includes English slang. That of Stallworthy and France stands equally free, independent and impressive. (Both, incidentally, anglicize the names of the actors, while Lindsay and Carlson do not.) Carlson’s version may be, overall, more literal than the others, but in my view has depth too.
Take another example of translation variations from the fifth section. When Katya is first seen with her lover, Miller translates a four-line verse as follows:
Katie, have you clean forgotten
Him that hadn’t time to bolt
From my knife? Or does your rotten
Memory need a little jolt?
Stallworthy’s translation is comparable, but the message is more savagely dispatched:
Do you remember that officer –
The knife put to an end to him…
Do you remember that, you whore,
Or does your memory dim?
Thus Stallworthy, keeping the utterance crisp, does not trouble to address Katya by name, as the original does, and translates robustly as ‘you whore’ a word for ‘cholera’, which according to Woodward signifies ‘you curse’.
Lindsay’s translation here is liberal too, but perhaps less incisive than the others:
That captain of yours, have you forgotten?
When he grabbed you, you’d almost swoon.
I knifed him, yes, he’s dead and rotten.
Don’t tell me you forgot so soon.
Lindsay’s second line – ‘When he grabbed you, you’d almost swoon’, has no foundation in the original. It was incorporated, presumably, to add scenery and to ensure a rhyme with ‘soon’. More seriously, his translation in some places in my view departs too much from the raw yet concentrated quality of the original by rendering some utterances too tidily simplistic. But tastes differ.
In the sixth section comes Katya’s brutal death, a death for which, a moment later, she is blamed by killer Petrukha. His ethical standards plunge low indeed before he softens:
Miller: Well, Katie, happy? Not a word…
Then lie there on the snow, you turd!...
Stallworthy: Katie, are you satisfied? Lost your tongue?
Lie in the snowdrift then, like dung!
Lindsay: Happy now, Katya? I’d like to know.
Sprawl there, carrion, in the snow.
Carlson: Glad now, Kat’ka? ‘What not a peep…
Then lie there, carrion, on the snow!...
All four versions seem strong to me, and even reach beyond Blok’s actual words, as the original contains no word denoting ‘turd’, ‘dung’ or ‘carrion’, reminding us that mood, as well as actual words, must be reflected when rendering a poem from one language into another.
A feature of the Russian language is its inherent greater succinctness than is English. Because it has no ‘a’ or ‘the’, it relies, in putting nouns into singular or plural form, on adjusting their end letters. In relation to the numbers of words used in translating The Twelve, Miller’s is the shortest, though is more than half again as long as the Russian original. Lindsay’s is a fraction longer than that, and Stallworthy’s is longer still.
Self-identification with the Bolshevik revolution by Blok had its preamble, a dozen years earlier. In late 1905, during the failed attempt at revolution that year, he carried a red flag at the head of a procession, and in the same year his poem The Well-Fed Ones carried a denunciatory message arrowed at the privileged. The appearance of Halley’s Comet in 1910 encouraged him in expectations of renewed revolution, and by the summer of 1917, after the Provisional government installed itself in the wake of the abdication of Tsar Nicholas, he was keenly in step with the idea of socialist revolution.
Blok was ‘a son of the nobility’. Did he, however much sympathising with the Revolution, and however much seeing the world through the eyes of the Red Guards, also look down on them from above as social riff-raff? I have my doubts. If we consider Blok’s own personality and history, we should note, echoing the murderously jealous Petrukha, that he was capable of expressing violent feelings in poetry, and obsessive infatuations in life, the latter to the extent, when he proposed marriage to his future wife in late1902, of threatening suicide as the one alternative to her acceptance. If rough Red Guards had wildness and passion, so did Blok.
It would be absurd, I suggest, to stress-test the poem for socialist purity of outlook. Its special blend of romanticism and realism expresses a personal vision, which has retained its potency for a whole century, and is likely to continue to do so. And the fact that Blok’s profound attachment to the revolution suffered later knocks in his last years, amid civil war, external military interventions, shortages, privations and censorship, cannot detract from his poetic response to it in January 1918. The Twelve evidences the truth of words that had once come from his pen: ‘The greatest thing that lyrical poetry can achieve is to enrich the soul and complicate experience…’ On 8 January, when he began the poem, he wrote this in his diary: 'All day – The Twelve – An inward trembling.' On 29 January, when the poem was finished, its final stanza having delivered the peaceful image of Jesus Christ ahead of the marching men, he recorded: ‘I hear a terrible noise, growing within me and all around me.’
The poem first appeared in early March 1918 in a Bolshevik newspaper. Jack Lindsay wrote in his introduction to his own translation that it had ‘an immediate and vast effect. Phrases from it were endlessly repeated; hoardings and banners all over Russia bore extracts’. It became ‘the folklore of the revolutionary street’.
In November 1918 The Twelve was published in its own right in Petrograd, adorned with Yuri Annenkov’s drawings. Forsyth states simply that it ‘became accepted as the essential expression of the Revolution, not only in Russia, where readers were either excited or disgusted by it, but also abroad’. The Twelve, extraordinary as it is, and inseparably connected with the Revolution, will continue to capture and enthuse readers before releasing them, charged with a memory which is not so easily released.