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Symbolism in Russian Literature of the Silver Age
July 9, 2015 11:35

Symbolism is the mystical trend in modernism art and literature of the 1870-1920s, focusing on the artistic expression through the symbols of intuitively fathomed essences and ideas. 
Symbolism was the first and the most important of modernist trends to appear in Russia, an integral part of the Silver Age culture. The history of origin and development of the Russian Symbolism was long and intrinsically complicated. The new literary trend came as a fruit of deep crisis in the European culture of the late 19th – early 20th century. It was an esthetic attempt to escape from contradictions of everyday reality to the realm of the higher ideas and eternal truths. It caused the symbolists’ withdrawal from traditions of the democratic Russian thought and from civil traditions of the Russian classical realistic literature to philosophical and idealistic approach.
Dmitry Merezhkovsky's article On the Reasons of Decay and New Trends in Modern Russian Literature published in 1893 became the first manifesto of the Russian Symbolism. Stating the existence of "other worlds" and aspiring to express them through art determine the Symbolism as a whole, the three principles of which are proclaimed in the manifesto: mystical contents, symbolization and expansion of art impressionability.
The symbolists considered the person’s spiritual experience and the artist’s creative intuition the only tool for cognition of the world. They claimed that the purpose of art is not to depict the real world, which they believed to be the secondary one, but to convey “the higher reality”. The symbolists intended to attain it with the help of the symbol. The symbol is an expression of the poet’s intuition and revelations of the true essence of being. Symbolists developed a new poetic language, which did not name a subject directly, but hinted at its essence by means of allegory, metaphor, musicality, color scale, and free verse.
Symbolism was not an internally uniform phenomenon. It was a complex, historically developing literary trend associated with names of the prominent Russian poets of the early 20th century, each of them with unique pronounced identity.
Symbolists can be divided into two groups:
1) Dmitry Merezhkovsky, Fyodor Sologub,   Zinaida Gippius, Valery Bryusov, Konstantin Balmont, and others made a group of the “senior symbolists”, who were the founders of Russian Symbolism. These authors had impressionistic perception of life and aspired for purely esthetic updating of the Russian poetry.
2) In the early 1900s the group of “younger symbolists”, namely Alexander Bely, Sergey Solovyov, Vyacheslav Ivanov, Alexander Blok, and others adhered to philosophical and religious understanding of the world in the spirit of the late idealistic philosophy of Vladimir Solovyov with his idea of the Third Testament and coming of the Eternal Feminity. Vladimir Solovyov proclaimed that the highest mission of art is “... creating the universal spiritual being”.
Symbolists saw art first of all as “comprehending the world in other than rationalistic ways” (Bryusov). They were interested in the highest spheres of life (the realm of “the universal soul”, according to Vladimir Solovyov), which is not subject to rational knowledge. It is art that can penetrate into these spheres, and symbols with their infinite polysemy can reflect the whole complexity of the universal world. The symbol is the tool helping to break on through the veil of daily routine (the lower life) to the higher reality. The poet’s calling is to connect the realistic earthly world with ultramundane realms.
Symbolist poetry is meant for aristocrats of the spirit. The symbol is an echo, a hint, a metaphor that conveys the sacral meaning.


Author: Vera Ivanova

Tags: Symbolism Silver Age Russian Poets Russian Literature  

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