Konstantin Balmont

Konstantin Balmont

Valentin Serov: Portrait of Konstantin Balmont. 1905.
Born Konstanti′n Dmi′trievich Balmo′nt
15 June 1867(1867-06-15)
Shuya, Russian Empire
Died 23 September 1942(1942-09-23) (aged 75)
Paris, France
Occupation Poet
Nationality Russian
Citizenship Russian Empire / France
Education Moscow University (dropped)
Period 1885-1937
Genres poetry
political essay
Literary movement Russian symbolism
Notable work(s) Burning Buildings (1900)
Let Us Be Like the Sun (1903)
Spouse(s) Larissa Garelina
Yekaterina Andreeva
Elena Tzvetkovskaya
Children Nina (Niniko) Balmont
Mirra Balmont

Konstantin Dmitriyevich Balmont (Russian: Константи́н Дми́триевич Бальмо′нт) (15 June [O.S. 3 June] 1867 — December 23, 1942) was a Russian symbolist poet, translator, one of the major figures of the Silver Age of Russian Poetry.



Konstantin Balmont was born in v. Gumnishchi, Shuya, then of Vladimir Guberniya (now of Ivanovskaya oblast), the third of the seven sons of Russian nobleman, lawyer and senior state official Dmitry Konstantinovich Balmont and Vera Nikolayevna (nee Le′bedeva)[1] The latter, having come from a family of military men where enthusiasm for literature and theater was almost hereditary, had the most profound influence over her son: she introduced him to the world of music, history and folklore. Vera Nikolayevna knew several foreign languages and often received guests who might have been deemed 'politically risque' at the time. It was from her that Konstantin Balmont, as he later remembered, inherited 'tempestuousness of character' and rebel-rouser mentality.[2][3]

Balmont who learned reading at the age of five (watching secretly his elder brother’s family lessons) cited Pushkin, Nekrasov, Koltsov and Nikitin as his first favorites. He insisted, though, that "the family house, the garden, creeks, marshy lakes, whispering leaves, butterflies, birds and sunrises" were his first poetry teachers.[4] Ten years spent in his family’s Gumnishchi estate Balmont always remembered with great love and warmth, referring to the place as "a tiny kingdom of silent comfort".[5]

In 1876 the family moved to the town of Shuya where Vera Nikolayevna owned a two-storey, rather decrepit-looking house.[1] A ten year old Konstantin joined the preparatory class of a local gymnasium, an institution he later described rather hatefully as "the home of decadence and capitalism, able only of air and river contamination".[6]:9

It was here at school that, rather vexed with the educational system's restrictions, he became interested in French and German poetry and started writing verses of his own. His first two poems, though, were criticized by his mother in such a harsh manner that for the next six years he made no attempts to repeat this first poetic venture[7] What he became involved in instead was an illegal circle (formed by students and some traveling teachers) which printed and distributed Narodnaya Volya proclamations.[7] "I was happy and I wanted everybody to be happy. The fact that only a minority, me included, was entitled to such happiness, was for me outrageous", he later wrote, explaining his early enchantment with revolutionary activities.[8]

Mother transferred her son to another gymnasium, in Vladimir, but here the boy had to live in the house of a Greek teacher who took upon himself a duty of a warden, bringing much psychological suffering to a disgruntled youth. In the late 1885 Balmont made his publishing debut: three of his poems appeared in a popular St. Petersburg magazine Zhivopisnoye obozrenye. This event (as a latter day biographer put it) "has been noticed by nobody except for his (tor)mentor" whose ultimatum included a veto on any further publications until the graduation day. Balmont was graduated in 1886 году.,[9] having spent «one and a half years in a prison-like conditions»[7] «Gimnasium I curse with all my might. It ruined my nervous system completely», the poet remembered in 1923.[3][10]

In 1886 Balmont joined the Law school of the Moscow University[11] where he socialised a lot with leftist activists (among them P. F. Nikolayev).[10] Next year Balmont was arrested for participation in the students' demonstrations (the unrest was triggered by a new set of rules for students introduced by the authorities), spent three days in prison, then expelled from the University and sent back home to Shuya.[12]

In 1889 Balmont returned to the University but soon quit again due to nervous breakdown. He joined Demidovsky Law college in Yaroslavl but after having been expelled in September 1890 decided that of formal education he’d had enough.[3] «I simply couldn’t bring myself to studying law, what with living so intensely with true passions of my heart and being deeply involved in studying German literature», he wrote in 1911.[10][13] At least one family member supported his decision: it was an elder brother, infatuated in the same way with studying philosophy[9] Otherwise, "…at the age of 13 I learned the English word self-help, fell in love with the intellectual work and went on with it until my dying days", Balmont wrote in th 1930s[6]:7.


In 1889 Balmont married Larissa Garelina, a daughter of local factory-owner. The marriage proved to be unhappy one: two tempestuous characters clashed. Next year he released a self-financed book called simply Poetry Collection (Сборник стихотворений),[14] some of his pieces, published in 1885 here included.[15] In many ways the instigating factor was V.G. Korolenko, a well-known writer who, on receiving a couple of years earlier a hand-written note-book (sent to him by Konstantin’s classmates) sent a schoolboy a letter containing serious and favourable critical analysis, where he spoke of the young autor’s rare eye for small detail but also of the lack of concentration and general hastiness. "He wrote that… one is not to chase every fleeting moth; not to whip one’s emotions up with one’s thought, but rather trust and rely upon this unconscious part of human soul which accumulates all the live impressions and later ensures the young flower <of a talent> blossoming into full swing", Balmont remembered.[16] "Should you learn to concentrate and work methodically, in due time we’ll hear of your having turned into something quite extraordinary", were the last words of this remarkable letter.[7] Much impressed with the famous writer’s magnanimity, Balmont later credited Korolenko as being his 'literary Godfather'.[6]:10 meanwhile, the debut collection made no impact whatsoever.[17] Disgusted both with the book and the lack of public attention, the poet collected and burnt all of its copies.[2] In 1888-89 he translated and published a selection of German Romantic poetry, in 1890 and 1891 he worked on translations from French symbolist poetry.[4]

Konstantin Balmont in the late 1880s

In Мarch 1890 a near fatal accident happened: Balmont attempted suicide by jumping off the 3rd storey window. He survived, but broke his leg and received multiple injuries which left him bed-ridden for a year. It was said at the time that the immediate impulse for the suicide attempt was provided by Tolstoy’s Kreytzerova Sonata, but there was more rational reason for it: falling apart was his marriage that caused among other things (like growing penchant towards alcoholism) the rift with parents who left him without financial support.[7] The year of recuperation, though, became an important turning point, causing "the unusual mental agitation and the ensuing rush of cheerfulness".[9] It was then that Balmont recognized ‘life’s sacred value’ and clearly envisaged his ‘poetic mission’.[18]

After the divorce Balmont for some time was destitute, none of the literary journals being interested in his own work. "My first book of course was a total failure. People dear to me with their negativism made this fiasco even less bearable", he wrote in 1903.[19]:376, meaning apparently Larissa, but also his University friends who scorned the debut collection for being ‘reactionary’ and its author, for "abandoning the ideals of social struggle". Again, Korolenko came to help. "The poor guy is very shy; a simple attention to his work would make great difference", he wrote to Mikhail Albov, one of Severny Vestnik editors in September 1891.[20]

Professor Nikolay Storozhenko of Moscow University provided the struggling poet with some more of the practical help. "If it was not for him I would have died of hunger. He gave me a fatherly helping hand", the latter remembered.[12] Professor accepted Balmont's article on Shelley and introduced the young author to the influential Severny Vestnik clique in October 1892 when he made his first trip to the capital. Here he met for the first time Nikolay Minsky, Dmitry Merezhkovsky and Zinaida Gippius (although the latter’s cool animosity rather spoiled young man’s overall enthusiasm). Even more importantly, Storozhenko introduced Balmont to K.T. Soldatenkov, a respected publisher who commissioned him to translate two fundamental works on the history of German and Italiam literature. Those books, published in 1894-1895, "fed me for three years, making it possible for me to fulfil all my poetic ambitions”, balmont wrote in 1922.[21] All the while he continued to translate Shelley and Edgar Allan Poe. His translations of Poe's ballads and short stories are still regarded as exemplary.[6]:11

Another crucial figure who helped the poet was a renown philanthropist Prince Alexandr Urusov, an expert in West European literature, who financed the publication of two of the Poe’s books.[17] In 1894 in the student’s Circle of West European Literature fans Balmont met Valery Bryusov, his future best friend. The latter was deeply impressed by the young poet’s "personalty and his fanatical passion for poetry".[22]


In December 1893 Balmont informed Minsky in a letter: "I’ve written a series of my own verse and in January I'm going to begin the publishing process. I anticipate my liberal friends will be outraged for there’s no liberalism in this whatsoever, while ‘corrupting influences’ are there aplenty".[23] The book, Under the Northern Sky (Под северным небом) came out in 1894 and was favorably received by both public and critics. It is regarded as Balmont's first 'real' book and a starting point in his literary career. Prince Urusov declared himself a fan while critics noted, on the one hand, popular 'current' themes' dominance (laments on 'greyness' of life, etc), on the other, young author’s individuality, exquisiteness of form and technical versatility.[6]:12 The second collection, In Limitless Darkness (В безбрежности мрака, 1895) was seen as a much stronger effort. It was here that Balmont started his experiments with the Russian language's musical and rhythmical structures which soon made him famous. With mainstream critics the book was unpopular[6]:12, but Russian cultural elite embraced the innovator and soon he was welcome in all the major literary journals.[9]

In 1895 Balmont met Jurgis Baltrušaitis, a poet who in the 1919 played crucial role in helping him leave the Soviet Russia. Even more significant was his friendship with Sergey Poliakov, a man of many trades and talents (known as, among other things, Knut Hamsun’s Russian translator) a shrewd entrepreneur who at the time edited modernist Vesy magazine and five years later would found the Scorpion publishing house.[24] All the while Balmont was engaged in intensive self-educating prosess: he learned several languages, read extensively and became an expert in various subjects from Spanish painting to the Chinese culture.[7]

In 1896 Balmont married Yekaterina Andre′eva, a fellow translator whose placid, rational character provided a counter-balance to his own flashy emotionalism. The couple went abroad to travel through Western Europe.[6]:12. In Spring 1897 Balmont was invited to the Oxford University to read lectures on Russian poetry.[25] "For the first time ever I’ve been given the opportunity to live my life totally according to my intellectual and aesthetic interests. This wealth of arts, poetry and philosophy treasures I’ll never get enough of", he wrote in a letter to critic Akim Volynsky.[26] European impressions and reminiscences formed the essence of Balmont’s third collection The Silence (Тишина, 1898) which was lauded by contemporary critics as the poet's best effort to date.[7]


For two years he was continuously on the move, then settled at S. Polyakov’s Banki estate to concentrate on his next piece of work. In the late 1899 he wrote to poet Lyudmila Vilkina:[6]:15[27]

I’ve got many news, all of them excellent. Luck’s being on my side. I write non-stop. My love of life grows and now I want to live forever. You won’t believe how many new poems I’ve written: more than a hundred! It’s madness, it’s fantasy and it’s something new. The book I’m going to publish will be different. It will raise many an eyebrow. My understanding of the state of things has totally changed. Funny it may sound, but I’ll tell you: I’ve understood how the world works. For many years <this understanding will stay with me>, hopefully forever.

The book in question was Burning Buildings (Горящие здания, 1900), a collection of radically innovative verse, generally regarded as an apex of the poet’s legacy. The essence of it according to the author was the "longing for inner liberation and self-understanding".[3] In 1901, sending a copy to Leo Tolstoy, he wrote in the accompanying letter: "This book is a prolonged scream of a soul caught in the process of being torn apart. One might call this soul low or ugly. But I won't disclaim not a single page of it as long I keep this love for ugliness which is as strong in me as my love of harmony”.[28] The Burning Buildings made Balmont the leader of the Russian Symbolism. From then on "for a decade he was hovering above everybody else in the Russian poetry. Others either meekly followed him or were struggling painfully to free themselves from his overbearing influence”, wrote Bryusov.[29] Despite continuous partying (in the company of S. Polyakov and friends) Balmont’s flow of creative output in those years was virtually ceaseless. "Something new came to me, something more complex than I could have even envisaged. I churn out one page after another, hastily, desperately trying to avoid mistakes… How unpredictable one’s soul is! Just one more look inside, and you see new horizons. I feel like I’ve struck a goldmine. Should I remain on it, I’ll make a book that will never die", he wrote to Y. Yasinsky in 1900. By the time his most famous book was published (in the late 1902) he was already a literary celebrity in Russia, regarded by many as the most important poet of his generation. Let Us Be Like the Sun. The Book of Symbols (Будем как солнце. Книга символов) had enormous success and in retrospect is seen as his strongest.[30] Alexander Blok called it "unique in its unfathomable richness".[6]:15

K. Balmont. A portrait by Nikolai Ulyanov (1909)

In March 1901 Balmont made himself quite a name in the St.-Petersburg revolutionary circles.[6]:14. First he took part in the student demonstration on the Kazansky Sobor square which was violently disrupted by the police and Cossacks. Then several days later he went up stage of the literary event which was held in the Russian State Duma building and read his freshly written poem Little Sultan, a vitriolic swipe at Tzar Nicolas The 2nd. The hand-written version of it became widely popular, even V.I. Lenin was, reportedly, much impressed.[7] As a result, Balmont was deported from the capital with an official 3-year ban on living in the University cities. Almost immediately he flew to Paris and spent 1902 traveling from one West European country to another with lectures.[9]

In summer 1903 Balmont visited Moscow, then moved to the Baltic shore to work on his next book. The collection of poetry called Only Love (Только любовь, 1903) couldn’t possibly surpass any of his two previous masterpieces, but added to the cult of Balmont.[31] "Russia was passionately in love with him. Young men whispered his verses to their loved ones, schoolgirls scribbled them down, filling notebooks", Teffi remembered.[32] Many established poets – Mirra Lokhvitskaya, Valery Bryusov, Andrey Bely, Vyach. Ivanov, Maximilian Voloshin and Sergey Gorodetsky among them – treated him (in the words of Darya Makogonenko, a modern researcher) as a "genius… doomed to rise high above the world by submerging himself totally into the depths of his soul".[6]:5.

In 1904-1905 the Scorpio published the two-volume set of Balmont’s best work. It was followed by Lithurgy of Beauty. Hymns of Elements (Литургия красоты. Стихийные гимны) and Fairies’ Tales (Фейные сказки, both 1905): the first one was created much under the impression of the Russian-Japanese war,[10] the second was a children’s book written for daughter Nina Balmont. Back from his trip to Mexico and California Balmont became involved in the 1905 street unrest, reading poems on barricades and (according to Y.Andreeva) "carrying a pistol in the pocket wherever he went". Now friends with Maxim Gorky, he contributed both to the latter’s New Life (Новая жизнь) and Paris-based Red Banner (Красное знамя) radical newspapers.[25] In December 31, 1905 he flew to Paris so as to avoid arrest.[7] Balmont’s posing as a political immigrant was ridiculed in Russia, but many years later archive researchers found conclusive evidence for the fact that the Russian secret police held the poet under the 'dangerous political activist' file and tried to trace his every move in the West, of which there were many.[3]


Balmont lecturing. Natan Altman's caricature, 1914

His next two books comprised all of the pieces that’s been written during and in the wake of the First Russian revolution events. Poems (Стихотворения, St.Pbg, 1906) were immediately confiscated by the police; Songs of the Avenger (Песни мстителя, Paris, 1907) were banned in Russia, what with direct calls for assassination of Tzar ("You should be killed, you’ve become everyone’s grief". - To Nicolas the Last) being there present. Another one, Vile Charms (Злые чары, 1906), was banned for the allegedly anti-religious sentiments. None of this fuss, though, could make up for the fact that the poet's muse mysteriously abandoned him: both critics and fellow poets (close friend Brysov among them) saw these forays into socio-political spheres as total failures.[10] Russian folklore-oriented Firebird. Slav’s Svirel (Жар-птица. Свирель славянина, 1907), Hortus conclusus. Kisses-like words (Зеленый вертоград. Слова поцелуйные, 1909) and Ancient Calls (Зовы древности, 1909), even if radically different, bore the same sign of deep artistic crisis, of which the poet himself, apparently, was totally unaware.[2] Most notable Balmont's work of the time, three non-poetry books – Mountain Peaks (Горные вершины, 1904), White Heat Lightnings (Белые зарницы, 1908) and The Luminous Sea (Морское свечение, 1910), - were collections of essays on Russian and foreign authors.[3]

In 1907-1912 Balmont travelled continuously. Different brands of ethnic folklore and esoteric ideas formed the basis of his next books: Snakes’ Flowers (Змеиные цветы. 1910), White Architect (1914) and The Osiris Land (1914). "I want to enrich my mind, for too many personal things’ been jamming it off over the years", he explained.[25] In 1913 the political amnesty (declared in time for the Romanovs’ 300 years Jubilee) made it possible for Balmont to return home. Once again he was in the center of public attention, a hero of banquets, ceremonies and extravagant celebrations.[7] In 1914 the publication of the Complete Balmont in ten volumes began and continued for the next seven years.[25]

Touring Russia and abroad, he continued translating – among other things, Hindu, Georgian and Japanese folklore originals.[6]:18 As the World War I broke out the poet happened to be in France; he had to make a trip through Britain, Norway and Sweden to finally return home in May 1915.[6]:18 By this time Balmont has discovered for himself a new genre in poetry: he wrote 255 sonnets which were published under the title Sonnets of the Sun, the Moon and the Honey (Сонеты cолнца, мёда и луны, 1917). This, along with Fraxinus. The Visions of a Tree (Ясень. Видение древа, 1916), was moderately successful in Russia, but still critics deplored "overall monotony and banality of linguistic decorativeness" his verse was still being apparently plagued by.[25]


Balmont welcomed the February Revolution and even became the member of the Society of ProletArt, but soon got disillusioned, joined the Cadet party and praised Lavr Kornilov in one of the newspaper articles.[6]:18. The October revolution horrified Balmont and made him repudiate many of his views of the past. Being the 'absolute freedom' idea apologist, he condemned the dictatorship of proletariat doctrine as destructive and suppressive.[3][4] Still, in his Revolutionary: Am I or Am I Not? autobiographical essay Balmont argued that poet should keep away from political parties and keep "his individual trajectory which is more akin to a comet’s than that of a planet".[17]

The 1918-1919 were years of enormous hardships for Balmont who, now living in Petrograd with his third wife Yelena Tsvetkovskaya (and their daughter Mirra),[33] had to support Yekaterina Andreeva (and Nina) whom he from time to time visited in Moscow.[12] It was at this time that he struck close friendship with Marina Tsvetayeva, another poet virtually on the verge of physical collapse.[6]:18 Unwilling to collaborate with the Bolsheviks (whose "hands were smeared in blood", as he declared openly at one of the literary meetings) he still occasionally had to. In 1920 A.Lunacharsky (much under the pressure of poet J.Baltrushaitis, then the head of Lithuanian diplomatic mission in Moscow) gave Balmont a permission to leave the country. B. Zaitsev later opined that what Baltrushaitis did was actually save Balmont's life. For, according to S.Litovtsev (a Russian critic who lived in immigration) at one of Cheka secret meetings the fate of Balmont was discussed: "those demanding him being put to a firing squad happened to be in minority at the time", and he was let be for a while.[34] On May 25 Balmont and his family left Russia for good.[6]:19

Ivan Shmelyov and (above him) Konstantin Balmont. 1926

In Paris Balmont found himself in an ideological crossfire. Radical Russian émigrés saw his too easy an exit suspicious and started insinuations about him being a Communist sympathizer.[34] In a way Lunacharsky with his apologetic article ensuring the public at home that Balmont’s stance wasn’t in any way anti-Bolshevist played up to these suspicions. Balmont himself did have negative things to say of the Bolshevist Russia which in the Soviet press was seen as proof of “treacherousness” of a poet, who “having been sent to the West on a mission to collect the revolutionary poetry of common people” has misused the trust of the Soviet government”. On the other hand, condemning repressions in Russia, Balmont criticized the West too, speaking of many things that abhorred him there.[34] What caused him most trouble, though, was his longing for Russia. "There wasn’t another Russian poet in exile who’d suffer so painfully his being severed from his roots", wrote Yuri Terapiano.[35] For Balmont his European experience was "life among aliens". "Russia is all I want. Emptiness, emptiness everywhere. Spirituality here in Europe there is none", he wrote in December 1921 to Ye. Andreeva.[25]

In 1921 Balmont moved out of Paris into the province where he and his family rented houses, mostly in Brittany, Vendée and Gironde. In 1926 he moved to Bordeaux.[4] In the late 1920s Balmont's criticism of both the Soviet Russia and the leftist Western elite (Romain Rolland in particular), showing indifference, as he saw it, to the suffering of the Russian people, was becoming more pronounced. Great Britain’s acknowledgement of the legitimacy of (in Balmont's words) "the international gang of bandits who seized power in Moscow and St. Petersburg, weakened by our military defeat" has rendered "a fatal blow to the last remnants of honesty in the post-War Europe".[36] All the while, unlike his conservative friend Ivan Shmelyov, Balmont’s politics were liberal: he detested fascism and right-wing nationalist ideas. At the same time he shied the Russian ex-Socialists (like Kerensky and Fondaminsky) and expressed horror at France’s enchantment with Socialism. The similarity of his views and those of Ivan Bunin was quite obvious; the two (never friends on the personal level) were speaking in one voice on many occasions.[37]

In immigration Balmont continued to write a lot. He published several books of poetry: A Gift to Earth (Дар Земле) and Lightened Hour (Светлый час, both 1921), Haze (Марево, 1922), Mine to hers. Poems of Russia (Моё — ей. Стихи о России, 1923), Stretching Horizons (В раздвинутой дали, 1929), Northern Lights (Северное сияние, 1933), Blue Horseshoe (Голубая подкова) and Serving the Light (Светослужение, both 1937). He released autobiographies and memoirs: Under the New Sickle (Под новым серпом), The Airy Path (Воздушный путь, both in 1923) and Where Is My Home? (Где мой дом?, Prague, 1924). Balmont’s latter days poetry was not popular with his contemporaries: Vladimir Nabokov called the Balmont’s verse "jarring" and "it's new melodies false".[38] Nina Berberova argued that Balmont totally exhausted his muse while in Russia and none of his latter work was worthy. Modern critics assess Balmont’s last books more favourably, as lacking in flamboyance, but being more accessible and having more depth. Poet Nikolay Bannikov called Pines in Dunes (Дюнные сосны) and Russian Language (Русский язык) "little masterpieces".[7] In the late 1920s Balmont was still touring, reading lectures (in Poland, Czech Republic, Bulgaria and Lithuania) and translated a lot. Returning to Russia became his idée fix which never transpired.

In the early 1930s life for Balmont became hard, as financial support from Czech and Yugoslav governments' literary funds ceased. The poet who had to support three women (of whom daughter Mirra’s erratic behavior was a constant source of trouble) has fallen into poverty. Ivan Shmelyov provided moral support and addressed philanthropers; professor Vladimir Zeeler was the one person who regularly provided financial help. Things worsened in 1932 when it became clear that Balmont was suffering from mental illness (triggered to some extent, apparently, by his 1920s alcohol abuse). He never lost neither his mind, nor a sense of humor. Of a car accident which left him with some bruises and a costume spoiled, he wrote to a friend in 1936: "The quality of life of a Russian immigrant is such that the thought of what would be more profitable to lose: trousers or legs on which they are usually on, becomes a serious dilemma".[39] In April 1936 the group of Russian writers and musicians abroad celebrated the 50th anniversary of Balmont's literary career by staging a charity event; among the organizers and contributors were Ivan Shmelyov, Ivan Bunin, Boris Zaitsev, Sergei Rachmaninoff and Mark Aldanov.[37] In 1939-1940 the Russian Nazis in Paris tried to bring up the poet's "revolutionary past" to the attention of their German masters, but the latter (according to Yu. Terapiano) showed total indifference to the fact.[24] Balmont died on December 23, 1942 in the Russian House asylum, due to complications of pneumonia. He was buried in Noisy-le-Grand's catholic cemetery, with four words engraved on a grey tomb: "Constantin Balmont, poète russe". Few people were present, among them Boris Zaitsev, daughter Mirra and Jurgis Baltrushaitis’ widow.[24][40]


Konstantin Balmont’s been characterized variously as theatrical, pretentious and outright egotistical, his behaviour being more often than not erratic and irrational. He could sprawl himself on a cobbled street of Paris to make an upcoming fiacre stop abruptly, or, dressed in a coat and hat, enter a pond at night so as "to experience something new and express this in poetry".[7] What fans saw as the whimsies of a genius, others treated as cheap posturing aiming to impress. Boris Zaitsev remembered how his wife became duly appalled when Balmont (who was a neighbour) once asked her: "Vera, would you prefer a poet coming to Boris’ room by air, by-passing banal trails of the real world?" - We knew of one of his earlier attempts of the kind and were grateful for his visits having being made through banal and natural ways", Zaitsev added. Ridiculing good-humouredly his neighbour’s vain eccentricities, he remembered episodes when Balmont "could be altogether different person: very sad and very simple".[24]

There’s been certainly more to the poet’s real personality than drunken escapades or impulsive follies he’s gained notoriety for. Poet Andrey Bely spoke of Balmont as of a lonely and vulnerable man, totally out of touch with the real world. Inconsistency marred his creativity too: “He’s failed to connect and harmonize those riches he’s been given by nature, aimlessly spending his spiritual treasures”, Bely argued.[41] Duality was intrinsic to Balmont and the way he looked. According to Bely,[41]

His deep-seated, almost browless eyes looked sombrely, humbly and mistrustfully. Once a spiteful look entered his face, a glimpse of vulnerability followed suit. His whole image was a kaleidoscope of contradictory features: arrogance and weakness, majestic posturing and languid apathy, cheekiness and fear – those were flickering on and on, making his pale, emaciated face ever changing. Sometimes this face looked insignificant. Sometimes it radiated unspoken grace.
Balmont and Sergey Gorodetsky with wives (Ye. Andreeva to the right), St.-Petersburg, 1907.

"Balmont was a poseur and reasons for this were obvious. Ever crowded by worshippers, he was trying to bear himself in a manner he saw as befitting a great poet, casting his head back, furrowing his brow... It was laughter that gave him away… This childish laughter could say a lot of the nature of those ridiculous shenanigans of his. Exactly like a child, he was always moved by a momentary impulse", wrote Teffi.[32] Close friend Valery Bryusov explained quirks and deviations in Balmont’s ways by "the deep poetic nature of his self". "He lives in a poet’s way finding in every moment of life’s its total richness. That is why one shouldn’t judge him by common criteria", Bryusov wrote.[42]

Many remembered Balmont as extraordinary warm and humane person. Piotr Pertsov who knew him from the late teenage years, wrote of Balmont as of "very nice, friendly and considerate young man". Marina Tsvetayeva who was Balmont’s close friend in the years when both suffered from hunger and cold, insisted that the poet was "a kind of man who’d give any one in need his last bread, his last log of wood". Mark Talov, a Soviet translator who in the 1920s found himself penniless in Paris, remembered how often, having made a visit to Balmont he was finding money in his coat’s pockets afterwards; the poet (who was very poor himself) preferred the anonymous way of help so as not to confuse a visitor.[7]

For some Balmont’s childishness was an affectation. Others saw it as genuine and true. Boris Zaitsev thought Valentin Serov’s portrait was closest in depicting Balmont’s brisky, slightly belligerent character. "Cheerful, easy to burst out, ready to retort sharply or effusively. Among birds he’d have been colourful chantecler, greeting daylight and life", Zaitsev wrote.[24]

Outward bohemianism aside, Balmont had always been a hard worker, highly proficient and prolific. Wherever he went, he never stopped learning, seeping in not just impressions but myriads of facts concerning the place’s history and culture. Eccentric to many, he seemed rational and logical to some. Publisher Sergey Sabashnikov remembered the poet as "accurate, punctual, pedantic and never sloven… Such accuracy made Balmont a very welcome client", Sabashnikov added.[18]


There is an element of controversy regarding Konstantin Balmont’s (and his second name’s) origins. The common knowledge is that his father Dmitry Konstantinovich Balmont (1835—1907) was a noble man of a Scandinavian (probably Scottish) ancestry.[3][9] In his 1903 short autobiography the poet wrote:[19]:375

According to our family legend, my ancestors were sailors, either Scottish or Scandinavian, who came to Russia and settled there. My father’s father was a Navy officer and a hero of Turkish War noted by Tzar Nikolay the First for bravery. My mother’s ancestors were Tatars, the first in the line being Prince Bely Lebed (White Swan) of the Golden Horde. That was the probable reason for her two distinctive qualities: unruliness and tempestuousness which I inherited…

There is a less exotic alternative version of this, championed by the poet's second wife Yekaterina Andreeva. According to her Memoirs,[43] Balmont’s grand-grandfather on his father’s side Ivan Andreevich Balamut (a Ukrainian surname, meaning “rebel-rouser”) served as a cavalry sergeant in Catherine the Great’s Imperial Guard regiment (Andreeva insisted she saw the original parchment-written document that's been kept in the family archives).[25] A landowner in Kherson, Southern Ukraine, Ivan Balamut has got his name somehow modified into Balmont.[44] This second version has its own detractors, though. According to T. Alexandrova, an authority on M.Lokhvitskaya and Balmont, "It would be more than natural for a foreign name to be transformed by common people of rural area into a folkish, recognizable version, but certainly not vice versa".[12]

Dmitry Konstantinovich, Vera Nikolayevna and all of their relatives pronounced the surname as Ba′lmont, first syllable stressed. The poet insisted that he personally (and officially) changed his surname into Balmo′nt and asked to pronounce it thus. He cited "a certain woman’s whimsy" as the only reason for this change.[12]

Private life

Yekaterina Andreeva, Balmont's second wife.

In 1889 Balmont married Larissa Mikha′ilovna Gare′lina, the Shuya factory-owner’s daughter, described as "a Botticellian beauty (Birth of Venus serving here for a point of reference).[6]:9 The poet’s mother who initially helped the two young people’s being acquainted forbode her son to marry the girl, but Balmont was adamant and even had to sever all ties with his family to implement his decision.[45] This marriage was doomed from the very start.[12] Garelina was variously described as a neurasthenic who "gave <the poet> love of a truly demonic nature",[6]:10 sympatyhized with neither his literary ambitions nor revolutionary inclinations, was suffering from bouts of violent jealousy and was, in fact, responsible for his well-publicized alcohol-related abuses (the latter fact Balmont corroborated in his autobiographical poem Forest Fires).[7] The poet’s first suicidal attempt on March 13, 1890, was believed to have been directly linked with his personal life's catastrophes. The couple's first son died in infancy, the second, Nikolai, was known to have suffered from mental illness.[12] Later some critics warned against demonizing Larissa Garelina’s character: they reminded that years later she married a well-known Russian journalist and literature historian Nikolai Engelgardt and with him enjoyed a perfectly normal family life. Their daughter Anna Engelgardt became the second wife of poet Nikolai Gumilyov.[12]

Yekaterina Alekse′evna Andre′eva (1967-1952), the poet’s second wife, came from rich traders’ family, related to Sabashikovs, a well-known Moscow-based publishers’ clan. Contemporaries remembered her as an exceptionally well-educated woman, tall, elegant and slender, somewhat aloof, strong-minded and attractive. Andreeva was (according to her Memoirs) passionately (and unrequitedly) in love with Prince Alexandr Urusov and for a while never even noticed infatuated Balmont’s passes. The latter prevailed, finally she fell for him and on September 27, 1896, the couple married and instantly left for France (one reason being the fact that the husband was still not officially divorced at the time).[12] Andreeva and Balmont have had much in common: they even formed a working tandem translating collectively the works of Gerhart Hauptmann, Oscar Wilde and others.[7] Andreeva, according to Boris Zaitsev, was a leading force in the family and while with her the poet was "in strong, healthy and loving hands", well disciplined and leading a hard-working man’s life.[24] In 1901 daughter Nina Balmont (later Bruni, died in Moscow in 1989 году) was born; for her the poet wrote A Fairy's Tale, the book of children's verses in 1905.[6]:284

Balmont and Shmelyov (second and third to the right respectively) with relatives and friends. Extreme left: Mirra Balmont, extreme right: Yelena Tsvetkovskaya.

In the early 1900 while in Paris Balmont met Yelena Konstantinovna Tsvetkovskaya (1880–1943), general K. G. Tzvetkovsky's daughter, who was at the time studying mathematics in Sorbonne and was the poet's ardent fan. Balmont, as some of his letters suggested, has never been in love with her, but soon found himself in many ways dependent on a girl who proved to be a loyal, devoted friend. Balmont's family life's got seriously complicated after Tsvetkovskaya in 1907 gave birth to a daughter. Balmont called her Mirra in memory of a poet Mirra Lokhvitskaya who died in 1905 and whom he had passionate, mostly platonic relations with.[6]:19 Torn apart between the two families, in 1909 Balmont attempted suicide for the second time (jumping off the window) and again survived. Up until 1917 he lived in St.-Petersburg with Tsvetkovskaya and Mirra, occasionally visiting Yekaterina and Nina in Moscow.[6]:19 While in immigration Balmont continued to correspond with Andreeva until 1934 (when such links between relatives were officially banned in the USSR).[44]

Teffi thus described Balmont and Tsvetkovskaya: "He <entered the room> with his head held high, a true Fame’s laurels bearer, neck wrapped in a black tie of a kind Lermontov might have found useful but nobody would even dream of wearing today. Lynx’ eyes, mane of long reddish hair. Followed by a shadow, Yelena: small, thin, dark-skinned creature who was obviously depending in life on two strong things: tea and her love." The couple, according to Teffi, communicated in strange and pretentious manner. "She was always calling him 'a poet', never – 'my husband'. A simple phrase: 'My husband asks for a drink' in their special argot would turn into something like: 'A poet is willing to appease his thirst'." [32] Unlike Andreeva, Yelena Tsvetkovskaya was totally helpless in domestic life and had no influence whatsoever over Balmont whom she felt as her duty to follow wherever he went to drink, spending nights by his side, never being able to root him out. "Small wonder that, leading such a life, at 40 she looked like a very old woman", Teffi attested.[32]

The last woman Balmont has been romantically linked with was Dagmar Shakhovska′ya (1893–1967), an Estonian baroness. The lovers met rarely but had two children: George (1922-194?) and Svetlana (b.1925).[46] Balmont wrote to her almost daily, all in all 858 of his letters and postcards remained.[44] Still, it was Yelena Tsvetkovskaya who was beside him till the last. She died in 1943, a year after her husband. Mirra Balmont (in marriage Boychenko, then Autina) published poetry as Aglaya Gamayun. She died in Paris in 1970.[37]

Cultural references

Many Russian composers set Balmont's poetry to music: Mikhail Gnessin, Nikolai Myaskovsky, Nikolai Obukhov, Sergei Prokofiev, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Maximilian Steinberg, Igor Stravinsky, and Sergei Taneyev.

One of his best known works is his free Russian translation of Edgar Allan Poe's The Bells, which formed the basis of Rachmaninoff's choral symphony of the same name, Op. 35.


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