The Mad Poet: Russian Symbolism and the Romantic Inheritance

This paper examines images of the mad poet in Russian Symbolist works, identifying their source in the Romantic movement and pinpointing how the Symbolists adapted the Romantic cult of madness to suit their own purposes. The turn of the twentieth century in Russia witnessed a confluence of interest among literary and scientific circles, as an age-old fascination with the phenomena of genius and madness gained new impetus. Approaches to the subject differed considerably, however, and often clashed. The artist’s psyche became a focus of study and psychiatrists engaged in literary interpretation, often declaring writers mentally ill on the basis of their works alone. The Symbolists were favorite subjects of study as they shocked audiences with a new art that challenged prevailing literary tastes, discarding the criteria set by social-utilitarian criticism and clearing the way once again for poets to sing of subjective experience. They often looked back to their Romantic predecessors for justification, claiming the poet’s prerogative of madness in defense of their art and personal lives. As Joan Delaney Grossman has noted, “what they sought was a model of the poet as a free artist, independent of social demands; unrestricted in his choice of theme and form, responsible only to his poetic inspiration” (Genius and Madness: The Return of the Romantic Concept of the Poet in Russia at the End of the Nineteenth Century). The Russian Symbolist fascination with madness ran deeper than this, however. The Russian Symbolists distinguished between destructive and constructive types of madness and argued the latter to be a source of inspiration, revelation, and—paradoxical as it may seem—a component of mental health. Through an examination of selected poems and essays by Bal′mont, Belyj, Blok and Ivanov, this paper defines the Russian Symbolist view of madness and its relationship to creativity. It will be shown that the Symbolists did not reject reason entirely, but rather sought a balance of reason and madness.