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Poets of Hope and Despair: The Russian Symbolists in War and Russian Revolution: 1914-1918.

Poets of Hope and Despair presents Ben Hellman's personal reading of the Russian symbolist poets' ideologies during World War I, such poets as Andrei Bely, Alexander Blok, Zinaida Hippius, Dmitri Merezhkovsky, Fyodor Sologub, and others. The book consists of three major parts: "The War: Act I (1914-1915)"; "The War: Act II (1915-1916)"; and "The War: Act III (1918-1919)." The subdivisions of these three sections, with their conspicuous political overtones, are entitled "The Burning Questions," "The Neo-Slavophiles," "Patriotic Fiction," "The Crisis of Nationalism," "Facing Adversity," "Defeats and Deadlock," "The February Revolution of the Spirit," "Who Is for the War? Who Is Against?," "Russia in Deep Crisis," and so forth. Further subdivisions of themes within the above groupings are entitled "The Tragedy of Occupied Belgium," "The Tragedy of Divided Poland," "The Tragedy of Victimized Jews," "Waiting for Revolution," et cetera.

In pursuing his analysis and political compartmentalization of Russian symbolist poets - a compartmentalization not always easy to maintain - Hellman fails to undertake any esthetic approach to these poets' works. His emphasis is on their ideologies as he interprets them, a process in which he often oversimplifies their thoughts and one in which he passes upon them his categorical judgments. He observes that the Russian poets sometimes were guilty of not expressing themselves adequately because they "shied away from using big words" or were "embarrassingly weak" in their utterances. He then proceeds to reformulate their ideas in accordance with his own notions about them. He also utilizes psychological interpretation, censuring these poets for not, in his belief, presenting "a true picture of a war in progress, because of personal involvement." Hellman's pontifical pronouncements appear often in his text: for example, "This confession also means the defeat of Hippius as a writer and 'Everything Has Changed' cannot but leave the reader dissatisfied"; or, "The voluntary silence was therefore the most decent attitude for a writer toward the theme of war."

Only a few representative poems of the Russian symbolists are cited, whereas 402 pages of the study present Hellman's uninspiring critical discourse. It is unclear what audience Hellman had in mind when writing this book (and dedicating it to the memory of the late Professor Sven Linner of Uppsala, Sweden). A student of Russian poetry will be perplexed by the lack of artistic analysis of the works of these first-rate Russian symbolist poets. The question arises: of what intrinsic value is this approach to works of art? In one of his interviews, Vladimir Nabokov remarked: "Mediocrity thrives on ideas."

Poets of Hope and Despair is further marred by typographical and grammatical errors, as on page 145, where "allen" appears instead of "fallen," or on page 220, where we find "uzhasom" instead of "uzhasam." There also are contextual inadequacies: for example, Hippius and Merezhkovsky in reality initiated the Religious-Philosophical Meetings in St. Petersburg (29 November 1901 to 5 April 1903), not the Religious Philosophical Society, which was organized by the religious philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev several years later. Furthermore, the Merezhkovskys spent the winter of 1913 (as well as the winter of 1914) in St. Petersburg and not in France, as claimed by Hellman. The book closes with a bibliography but lacks an index of names and titles.

Temira Pachmuss University of Illinois, Urbana
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Author:Pachmuss, Temira
Publication:World Literature Today
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 1996
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