Valery Bryusov - Biography

The poet Vladyslav Khodasevich once said about Valery Bryusov: “He believed himself to be the captain of a literary ship.”

Bryusov is considered to be one of the founders of Russian symbolism. He was a poet, a writer, a scholar, a polyglot and a publisher.

Maxim Gorky called Bryusov “the most refined intellectual” of all Russian writers of his time. Bryusov was the leader of Russian symbolism during the cultural revival known as the Silver Age along with such authors as Konstantin Balmont, Aleksandr Blok, Vyacheslav Ivanov, Andrey Bely, Dmitry Merezhkovsky and others. Bryusov's collection of poetry “Venok” (“The Wreath”) is among the highest achievements in Russian literature.

Bryusov was born in Moscow, Russia. His grandfather, Aleksandr Bakulin, was a poet, and his father, Yakov Bryusov, a wealthy merchant who also published his poems and stories. Young Bryusov grew up in a trilingual environment. He spoke French and German and, of course, Russian. He received an excellent private education. From 1885 to 1893 he studied in private gymnasiums and acted in several school plays. At that time Bryusov was romantically involved with a young and beautiful woman, Elena Kraskova. Her sudden death in 1893 caused him an emotional trauma, and Bryusov tried to find a cure in writing. In 1893 he wrote his first drama, “The Decadents (End of a Century).” At the same time, in a letter to Paul Verlaine, the French representative of symbolism, Bryusov referred to himself as the founder of symbolism in Russia. Symbolism was a late 19th century art movement of French and Belgian origin in poetry and other arts. The label “symbolist” itself comes from the critic Jean Moréas, who coined it in order to distinguish the symbolists from the related decadent movement in literature and art. Symbolists believed that art should aim to capture more absolute truths, which could only be achieved indirectly. Thus, they wrote in a highly metaphorical and suggestive manner, endowing particular images or objects with symbolic meaning.

Bryusov was for years the leader of the symbolist movement. The symbolists saw art as a way to approach a higher reality. The writer was also instrumental in introducing Western works to Russian audiences through his translations of Charles Baudelaire. He also edited the important symbolist magazine “Vesy” (“The Scales”), which was modeled after a similar French publication and showcased the works of Russian writers alongside European symbolists. In 1892 three collections of verse were published under the title “The Russian Symbolists.” Rejecting positivism and materialism as well as the classic approach to literature, Bryusov followed the example of his Western counterparts. He experimented with literary form and valued suggestion, intuition and musicality in his work.

From 1892-1899 Bryusov studied history and literature at Moscow University. After graduating in 1899, Bryusov joined the Moscow Literary Artistic Society, which was the center of the new styles and trends emerging at the turn of the 20th century. Bryusov himself tried a variety of styles in his numerous poems, but his best achievements belong to symbolism. His poetry ranged from sophisticated eroticism to mythology, legends and epic subjects.

Bryusov is probably best known today for his historical novel “The Fiery Angel” (1908). It was published by “Vesy” under the title “The Fiery Angel or the True Story.” Set in 16th-century Germany, it tells the story of a devil who appears in disguise before a girl and tempts her into committing various sins. The introduction in “Vesy” explained that an old manuscript had been given to the editorial board by a collector and was translated into Russian. The publication evoked great interest and was soon translated into foreign languages. The mystery of the authorship did not take long to unravel. The ambiguity was set up by Valery Bryusov, whose remarkable skills and erudition made it possible for the pubic to grasp the bleak era of the Inquisition. The trick was done so professionally that German literary critics did not believe the author was their contemporary - and a Russian. They wanted the name of the collector and they wanted to study the manuscript. This gloomy, sensual book had its origins in a real-life love triangle between Bryusov, poet Nina Petrovskaya and poet Andrey Bely. It was adapted into an eponymous opera by Sergey Prokofiev in 1927.

After the book of Bryusov's poems called “To the City and World” came out in 1903 poet Aleksandr Blok wrote, “The book teases, lures and embraces. I will be reading it for a long time, and I'm happy I haven't read it all yet, haven't smoothed out all the pages, haven't permeated my heart with all the commas.” 

Bryusov found inspiration in the works of Virgil, a Roman epic poet, and Vassily Zhukovsky, a Russian poet of the first half of the 19th century. But his main inspiration was Aleksandr Pushkin. Bryusov was the author of eighty-two articles about Pushkin and edited Pushkin's letters and documents connected with his work.

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