Valentin Serov: Portrait of Konstantin Balmont. 1905.
|Born||Konstantin Dmitrievich Balmont
15 June [O.S. 3 June] 1867
Shuya, Russian Empire
|Died||23 September 1942
|Citizenship||Russian Empire / France|
|Education||Moscow University (dropped)|
|Literary movement||Russian symbolism|
|Notable works||Burning Buildings (1900)
Let Us Be Like the Sun (1903)
|Children||Nina (Niniko) Balmont
Konstantin Dmitriyevich Balmont (Russian: Константи́н Дми́триевич Бальмо́нт; IPA: [kənstɐnˈtʲin ˈdmʲitrʲɪjɪvʲɪt͡ɕ bɐlʲˈmont] ( ); 15 June [O.S. 3 June] 1867 – 23 December 1942) was a Russian symbolist poet, translator, one of the major figures of the Silver Age of Russian Poetry.
Konstantin Balmont was born in village Gumnishchi, Shuya (then Vladimir Guberniya, now Ivanovskaya oblast), the third of the seven sons of a Russian nobleman, lawyer and senior state official Dmitry Konstantinovich Balmont and Vera Nikolayevna (née Le′bedeva) 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 risqué' at the time. It was from her that Konstantin Balmont, as he later remembered, inherited 'tempestuousness of character' and rabble-rouser mentality.
Balmont who learned to read at the age of five (while watching 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. Balmont used to remember those ten years he spent in his family’s Gumnishchi estate with great love and warmth, referring to the place as "a tiny kingdom of silent comfort".
In 1876 the family moved to the town of Shuya where Vera Nikolayevna owned a two-story decrepit-looking house. At the age of ten Konstantin joined the preparatory class of a local gymnasium, an institution he later described as "the home of decadence and capitalism, good only at air and water contamination".: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. What he became involved in instead was an illegal circle (formed by students and some traveling teachers) which printed and distributed Narodnaya Volya proclamations. "I was happy and I wanted everybody to be happy. The fact that only a minority, myself included, was entitled to such happiness, seemed outrageous to me", he later wrote, explaining his early enchantment with revolutionary activities.
Vera Nikolayevna transferred her son to another gymnasium, in Vladimir, but here the boy had to live in the house of a Greek language teacher who took upon himself a duty of a warden, becoming a source of much psychological suffering for a boy. In the late 1885 Balmont made his publishing debut: three of his poems appeared in a popular Saint Petersburg magazine Zhivopisnoye obozrenye. This event (as a 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 graduated in 1886. having spent "one and a half years in prison-like conditions" "I curse gymnasium wholeheartedly. It ruined my nervous system completely," the poet remembered in 1923.
In 1886 Balmont joined the law faculty of the Moscow University where he met several of leftist activists, among them P.F. Nikolayev. The following year Balmont was arrested for taking part in the students' demonstrations (triggered by a new set of rules for students introduced by the authorities), spent three days in prison, then was expelled from the University and sent back home to Shuya. In 1889 Balmont returned to the University but soon quit again due to nervous breakdown. He joined the Demidov’s Law college in Yaroslavl but was expelled in September 1890 and decided that he’d had enough of formal education. "I simply couldn't bring myself to studying law, what with living so intensely through passions of my heart and being deeply involved in studying German literature," he wrote in 1911. The only family member who supported Konstantin’s decision was his elder brother who studied philosophy at the time. "At the age of 13 I learned the meaning of the English word self-help, fell in love with intellectual work and never stopped it until my dying days", Balmont wrote in the 1930s.:7
In 1889 Balmont married Larisa Garelina, the daughter of a local factory-owner. The marriage proved to be unhappy one; it brought two tempestuous characters together. In 1890 he released a self-financed book called simply Poetry Collection (Sbornik stikhotvoreny), which included some of the pieces published in 1885. The publication has been prompted in many ways by the involvement of V.G. Korolenko, already an established writer. A couple of years earlier Korolenko received a hand-written note-book (which was sent to him by Konstantin's classmates) and replied with a letter providing serious and favourable critical analysis, praising the schoolboy’s sharp eye for small detail but pointing at the occasional 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 momentary impressions and later ensures young flower <of a talent> blossoming," Balmont remembered. "Should you learn to concentrate and work methodically, in due time we’ll hear of your having developed into something quite extraordinary", were the last words of this remarkable letter. Much impressed with the famous writer's magnanimity, Balmont later credited Korolenko as being his 'literary Godfather'.:10 Meanwhile, the debut collection made no impact whatsoever. Disgusted both with the book and the lack of public attention, the poet collected and burnt all of its copies. In 1888–89 Balmont published several Romantic pieces he translated from German, in 1890 and 1891 he made translations from French symbolist poetry.
In Мarch 1890 a near fatal accident occurred: Balmont attempted suicide by jumping off the 3rd floor window. He survived, but broke his leg and received multiple injuries which left him bed-ridden for a year. The immediate impulse has been provided apparently by Tolstoy’s Kreytzerova Sonata, but there was more rational reason behind it: the falling apart of his marriage, alcohol abuse and financial difficulties (his parents, who loathed Larisa, have left the pair without support). The year of recuperation, though, became an important turning point for Balmont, who, in his words, experienced "the unusual mental agitation and the ensuing rush of cheerfulness". It was then that he recognized 'life’s sacred value' and envisaged his 'poetic mission'.
After the divorce Balmont for some time was destitute: none of the literary journals showed interest 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,:376 meaning apparently Larisa, 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 mere attention to his work would make great difference", he wrote to Mikhail Albov, one of Severny Vestnik‘s editors, in September 1891.
Professor Nikolay Storozhenko of Moscow University gave the struggling poet some more practical help. "If it was not for him I would have died of hunger. He gave me a fatherly helping hand," the latter remembered. Professor accepted Balmont's essay on Shelley and in October 1892, during young poet's first trip to the capital, introduced him to the influential Severny Vestnik clique. Here for the first time Balmont met Nikolay Minsky, Dmitry Merezhkovsky and Zinaida Gippius (although the latter's cool animosity rather spoiled his 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 Italian literature. Those books, published in 1894–1895, "were feeding me for three years, making it possible for me to fulfill all my poetic ambitions,” Balmont wrote in 1922. All the while he continued to translate Shelley and Edgar Allan Poe. Balmont’s translations of Poe's ballads and short stories are still regarded as exemplary.:11
Another important figure who's helped launching the poet's stellar career was philanthropist Prince Alexander Urusov, an expert in West European literature who sponsored the publication of two of the Poe's books, translated by Balmont. In 1894 in the student's Circle of West European Literature fans Balmont met Valery Bryusov, who was deeply impressed by the young poet's "personality and his fanatical passion for poetry" and soon became his best friend.
In December 1893 Balmont informed Nikolai Minsky in a letter: "I've written a series of my own verse and in January I'm planning to start the publishing process. I anticipate my liberal friends to be outraged for there's no liberalism in this whatsoever, while 'corrupting influences' are there aplenty". The book, Under the Northern Sky (Pod severnym nebom) came out in 1894, was received favorably by critics and had success with the public. Regarded as Balmont's first 'real' book, it marked the starting point in his literary career. Prince Urusov declared himself a fan while critics noted, on the one hand, the dominance of the popular 'current' themes' (laments on 'grayness’ of life, etc.), on the other, young author’s individuality, exquisiteness of form and technical versatility.:12 The second collection, In Limitless Darkness (V bezbrezhnosti mraka, 1895) was seen as a much stronger effort. It was here that Balmont started experimenting with the Russian language's musical and rhythmical structures. Mainstream critics reacted coolly,:12 but the Russian cultural elite embraced the innovator and soon he was welcomed in all the major literary journals.
In 1895 Balmont met Jurgis Baltrusaitis (a poet who in the 1919 helped 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 that time was the sponsor and formal editor of the symbolist magazine Vesy (edited actually by Bryusov) and five years later found the Scorpion publishing house. All the while Balmont was engaged in an intensive self-educating process: he learned several languages, read extensively and became an expert in various subjects from Spanish painting to the Chinese culture.
In 1896 Balmont married Yekaterina Andreyeva, a fellow translator whose placidness and rationality provided a much-needed counterbalance to his own flashy and emotional character. That year the couple went abroad to travel through Western Europe.:12. In the spring of 1897 Oxford University invited Balmont to read lectures on the Russian poetry. "For the first time ever I’ve been given the opportunity to live my life totally in accord with 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. These European impressions have formed the basis for Balmont's third collection The Silence (Tishina, 1898) which was lauded by contemporary critics as his best effort to date.
After two years of continuous travelling Balmont settled at Sergey Polyakov's Banki estate to concentrate on his next piece of work. In the late 1899 he informed fellow poet Lyudmila Vilkina:
I’ve got lots of news, all of them excellent. Luck's 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. It may sound funny, but I’ll tell you: I’ve understood how the world works. For many years [this understanding] will stay with me, hopefully forever.:15
The book in question was Burning Buildings (Goryashchiye zdaniya, 1900), a collection of innovative verse which later came to be regarded an apex of Balmont’s legacy. At the very core of it, according to the author, was the "longing for inner liberation and self-understanding". In 1901, along with a copy of Burning Buildings Balmont sent Leo Tolstoy a letter, saying: "This book is a prolonged scream of a soul caught in the process of being torn apart. One might see this soul as low or ugly. But I won't disclaim not a single page of it as long I keep in me this love for ugliness which is as strong as my love of harmony". Burning Buildings have 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 Valery Bryusov. Despite continuous partying (in the company of Sergey Polyakov and friends) Balmont's flow of creative output in those several years was virtually ceaseless. "Something new has come upon me, something more complex than I could have envisaged. I churn out one page after another, hastily, desperately trying to avoid mistakes… How unpredictable one’s soul is! 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 Ieronim Yasinsky in 1900.
In March 1901 Balmont made himself quite a name in Saint Petersburg’s revolutionary circles.:14. First he took part in the student demonstration on the Kazansky Sobor square, the one violently disrupted by police and Cossacks units. Then several days later he went up stage of the literary event which was held in the Duma building and read his recently written poem Little Sultan, a vitriolic swipe at Tzar Nicolas The 2nd. The hand-written version of it became widely popular, even Lenin was reportedly much impressed. As a result, Balmont was deported from the capital and was officially banned for three years from living in the University cities. Almost immediately he flew to Paris and spent the whole of 1902 traveling from one West European country to another with lectures.
In the late 1902 Burning Buildings came out and Balmont became Russia’s number one 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 (Budem kak solntse. Kniga simvolov) had enormous success and in retrospect is seen as his strongest one. Alexander Blok called it "unique in its unfathomable richness".:15
In the summer of 1903 Balmont visited Moscow, then moved to the Baltic shore to work on his next book. The collection of poetry called Only Love (Tolko lyubov, 1903) couldn’t possibly surpass any of his two previous masterpieces but added to the cult of Balmont. "Russia was passionately in love with him. Young men whispered his verses to their loved ones, schoolgirls scribbled them down to fill their notebooks", Teffi remembered. 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 depths of his soul".:5.
In 1904–1905 Scorpion published the two-volume set of Balmont’s best work. It was followed by Lithurgy of Beauty. Hymns for Elements (Liturgiya krasoty. Stikhiynye gimny) and Fairies’ Tales (Feinye skazki, both 1905). The first one was created much under the impression of the Russian-Japanese War, 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 (Novaya zhizn) and Paris-based Red Banner (Krasnoye znamya) radical newspapers. In December 31, 1905, he flew to Paris so as to avoid arrest. 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 regarded the poet as 'dangerous political activist' and was making efforts to trace his every move in the West, of which there were many.
Balmont's next two books collected pieces written during and in the wake of the First Russian revolution events. Poems (Stikhotvorenya, 1906) were immediately confiscated by the police; Songs of the Avenger (Pesni mstitelya, 1907), containing direct calls for assassination of the Tzar ("You should be killed, you’ve become everyone's grief". - To Nicolas the Last) were banned in Russia and came out in Paris. Another one, Vile Charms (Zlyiye tchary, 1906), was banned for its 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. Russian folklore-orientated Firebird. Slav’s Svirel (Zhar-ptitsa. Svirel slavyanina, 1907), Hortus conclusus. Words Like Kisses (Zelyony vertograd. Slova potseluinyie, 1909) and Ancient Calls (Zovy drevnosty, 1909), even if radically different, bore the same sign of deep artistic crisis, of which the poet himself, apparently, was totally unaware. Most notable Balmont's work of the time, three non-poetry books – Mountain Peaks (Gornyie vershiny, 1904), White Heat Lightnings (Belyie zarnitsy, 1908) and The Luminous Sea (Morskoye svetchenyie, 1910), - were collections of essays on Russian and foreign authors.
In 1907–1912 Balmont travelled continuously. Different brands of ethnic folklore and esoteric ideas formed the basis of his next books: Snakes' Flowers (Zmeinyie tsvety. 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. In 1913 the political amnesty (declared in time for the Romanovs' 300 years Jubilee) made it possible for Balmont to return home where he found himself in the center of public attention, a hero of banquets, ceremonies and extravagant celebrations. 1914 saw the beginning of the Complete Balmont in ten volumes publication which continued in the course of the next seven years.
Touring Russia and abroad, Balmont continued translating – among other things, Hindu, Georgian and Japanese folklore originals.:18 The break out of the World War I found him the poet in France and he had to make a trip through Britain, Norway and Sweden to finally return home in May 1915.: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 (Sonety solntsa, myoda i Luny, 1917). This, along with Fraxinus. Vision of a Tree (Yasen. Videniye dreva, 1916), was moderately successful in Russia, but still critics deplored "overall monotony and banality of linguistic decorativeness" which his verse was still being apparently plagued by.
Balmont welcomed the February Revolution and even became the member of the Society of Proletarian Art, but soon got disillusioned, joined the Cadet party and praised Lavr Kornilov in one of the newspaper articles.: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. Still, in his Revolutionary: Am I or Am I Not? autobiographical essay Balmont argued that a poet should keep away from political parties and keep "his individual trajectory which is more akin to that of a comet rather than a planet".
1918–1919 were the years of enormous hardship for Balmont who, now living in Petrograd with his third wife Yelena Tsvetkovskaya (and their daughter Mirra), had to support Yekaterina Andreeva (and Nina) whom he from time to time visited in Moscow. He struck close friendship with Marina Tsvetayeva, another poet virtually on the verge of physical collapse.:18 Unwilling to collaborate with the Bolsheviks (whose "hands were smeared with blood", as he declared openly at one of the literary meetings) he still occasionally had to. In 1920 A.Lunacharsky (much under the pressure from Jurgis 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 the Cheka secret meetings the fate of Balmont was discussed: "those demanding him being put to a firing squad just happened to be in minority at the time", and he has been left alone for a while. On May 25, 1920, Balmont and his family left Russia for good.:19
In Paris Balmont found himself in an ideological crossfire. Radical Russian emigres saw his too easy an exit suspicious and started insinuating about him being a Communist sympathizer. 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. On the other hand, Balmont has said negative things the Bolshevist Russia and this gave the Soviet press the reason to accuse of "treacherousness” a poet, who "having been sent to the West on a mission to collect common people's revolutionary poetry abused the trust of the Soviet government." Condemning repressions in Russia, though, Balmont was critical of his new environment too, speaking of many things that horrified him in the West. 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. For Balmont his European experience was "life among aliens". "Russia is what I long for. Emptiness, emptiness everywhere. Not a trace of spirituality here in Europe," he complained in a December 1921 letter to Yekaterina Andreeva.
In 1921 Balmont moved out of Paris into the province where he and his family rented houses, mostly in Brittany, Vendee and Gironde. 1926 he spent in Bordeaux. In the late 1920s Balmont's criticism of both the Soviet Russia and the leftist Western elite (Romain Rolland in particular), indifferent, as he saw it, to the plight 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 Saint Petersburg, weakened by our military defeat" has rendered "a fatal blow to the last remnants of honesty in the post-War Europe". 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. His views in many ways were similar to those of Ivan Bunin; the two (who’s never been friends) were speaking in one voice on many occasions.
In immigration Balmont continued to write a lot. He published several books of poetry: A Gift to Earth (Dar Zemle), Lightened Hour (Svetly tchas, both 1921), Haze (Marevo, 1922), Mine to hers. Poems of Russia (Moyo — ei. Stikhi o Rossiyi, 1923), Stretching Horizons (V razdvinutoi dali, 1929), Northern Lights (Severnoye siyaniye, 1933), Blue Horseshoe (Golubaya podkova) and Serving the Light (Svetosluzheniye, both 1937). He released autobiographies and memoirs: Under the New Sickle (Pod novym serpom), The Airy Path (Vozdushny put, both 1923) and Where Is My Home? (Gde moi dom?, Prague, 1924). Balmont’s poetry of the emigration period was not popular with his contemporaries: Vladimir Nabokov called his verse "jarring" and "it's new melodies false". Nina Berberova argued that Balmont totally exhausted his muse while in Russia and none of his later work was worthy of attention. Modern Russian critics assess Balmont’s last books more favourably, seeing them as lacking in flamboyance, but being more accessible and demonstrating more depth. Poet Nikolay Bannikov called poems Pines in Dunes (Dyunnyie sosny) and Russian Language (Russkiy yazyk) "little masterpieces". 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 idee fix which never transpired.
In the early 1930s life for Balmont became hard, as financial support from the 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 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 alcohol abuse in 1920s). He’s 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". 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 organizers and contributors were Ivan Shmelyov, Ivan Bunin, Boris Zaitsev, Sergei Rachmaninoff and Mark Aldanov. 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 Yuri Terapiano) showed total indifference to the fact. 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, poete russe". Few people were present, among them Boris Zaitsev, daughter Mirra and Jurgis Baltrushaitis' widow.
Konstantin Balmont has been characterized variously as theatrical, pretentious and outright egotistical, his behaviour was on more than one occasion described as 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." What fans saw as 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 were aware of one of his earlier attempts of the kind and would rather prefer his visits performed in the most banal, 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".
There's been certainly more to the poet’s real personality than drunken escapades or impulsive follies he 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. Duality was intrinsic to the way Balmont acted and even looked. According to Bely,
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 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, head cast back, brow furrowed... It was laughter that gave him away… This childish laughter could say a lot of the nature of those ridiculous shenanigans of his. Just like a child, he was always moved by a momentary impulse," wrote Teffi. 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 life’s every moment it’s full richness. That is why one shouldn’t judge him by common criteria," Bryusov wrote.
Many remembered Balmont as an extraordinary warm and humane person. Piotr Pertsov who knew him from teenage years, characterized Balmont as "very nice, friendly and considerate young man". Marina Tsvetayeva, Balmont’s close friend at the times of hardship, insisted that the poet was "a kind of man who’d give a needy one his last piece of bread, his last log of wood". Mark Talov, a Soviet translator who in the 1920s found himself penniless in Paris, remembered how often, after having left Balmont’s house he would find money in a pocket; the poet (who was very poor himself) preferred the anonymous way of help so as not to confuse a visitor.
Some dismissed Balmont’s childishness as an affectation, others saw it as something genuine. Boris Zaitsev thought Valentin Serov with his portrait came closest to depicting Balmont's brisk, belligerent character. "Cheerful, easy to burst out, ready to retort sharply or effusively. To make a parallel with the world of birds, he'd be a colourful chantecler, greeting daylight and life itself," Zaitsev wrote.
Bohemian habits notwithstanding, Balmont was a hard worker, highly proficient and prolific. Wherever he went, he never stopped learning, seeping in 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 slovenly… Such accuracy made Balmont a very welcome client," Sabashnikov added.
There is an element of controversy as to Konstantin Balmont’s (and his second name’s) origins. Common knowledge has it that his father Dmitry Konstantinovich Balmont (1835—1907) was a nobleman of Scandinavian (probably Scottish) ancestry. In his 1903 short autobiography the poet wrote:
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 praised 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 where two of her distinctive qualities, unruliness and tempestuousness which I inherited, have come from.:375
The less exotic, alternative version of this has been suggested by the poet's second wife Yekaterina Andreeva. According to her Memoirs, Balmont’s grand-grandfather on his father’s side Ivan Andreyevich Balamut (the Ukrainian surname, meaning "trouble-maker", "rabble-rouser") served as a cavalry sergeant in Catherine the Great's Imperial Guard regiment (Andreyeva insisted she saw the proof in the original parchment-written document that's been kept in the family archives). A landowner in Kherson, Southern Ukraine, Ivan Balamut has got his name somehow modified into Balmont. This second version has its own detractors, though. According to Tatyana Alexandrova, an authority on Mirra Lokhvitskaya and Balmont, "It would have been logical that a foreign name should be transformed by common people of rural area into a folkish, recognizable version, but certainly not vice versa."
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 everybody to pronounce it accordingly. He cited "a certain woman's whimsy" as the only reason for his decision to make this change.
In 1889 Balmont married Larisa Mikhaylovna Garelina, the daughter of a factory-owner in Shuya, described as "a Botticellian beauty (with the Birth of Venus serving here apparently for a point of reference).:9 The poet’s mother who initially assisted young people’s getting to know each other, subsequently forbade her son to marry the girl. Balmont was adamant and had to sever all ties with his family to implement his decision. This marriage was doomed from the very start. Garelina was described as a neurasthenic who "was giving [the poet] love of a truly demonic nature",:10 sympathized with neither his literary ambitions nor revolutionary inclinations, was suffering from bouts of violent jealousy and was responsible for his well-publicized alcohol-related excesses (this last idea has been propagated by Balmont himself, notably in the autobiographical poem Forest Fires). The poet's first suicidal attempt on March 13, 1890, was believed to have been the direct result of the catastrophe that his marriage proved to be. The couple's first son died in infancy; the second, Nikolai, was known to have suffered from mental illness. Later some critics warned against demonizing Larisa Garelina’s character, pointing at the fact that years later she married well-known Russian journalist and literature historian Nikolai Engelgardt and enjoyed perfectly normal family life with him. Their daughter Anna Engelgardt became the second wife of poet Nikolai Gumilyov.
Yekaterina Alekseyevna Andreyeva (1967–1952), the poet's second wife, came from rich merchants' family, related to Sabashikovs, the well-known Moscow-based publishers' clan. She was (as friends remembered her) an exceptionally well-educated woman, tall, elegant and slender, somewhat aloof, strong-minded and attractive. Andreyeva was (according to her Memoirs) passionately (and unrequitedly) in love with Prince Alexander Urusov and for a while was leaving infatuated Balmont’s passes without notice. 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). Andreyeva and Balmont had much in common: they even formed a translational tandem working together on the works of Gerhart Hauptmann, Oscar Wilde and others. Andreyeva, according to Boris Zaitsev, was a leading force in the family. Under her control the poet was "in strong, healthy and loving hands", well disciplined and leading a working man's life. In 1901, daughter Nina Balmont (later Bruni, died in Moscow in 1989 году) was born; it was for her that the poet wrote A Fairy's Tale, the 1905 book of children's verses.:284
In the early 1900s, 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, had never been in love with her, but soon found himself in many ways dependent on the girl who proved to be a loyal, devoted friend. Balmont's family life 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 but platonic relations with.:19 Torn apart between the two families, in 1909 Balmont attempted suicide for the second time (jumping out a window) and again survived. Up until 1917 he lived in Saint Petersburg with Tsvetkovskaya and Mirra, occasionally visiting Yekaterina and Nina in Moscow.:19 While in immigration Balmont continued to correspond with Andreeva until 1934 (when such links between relatives were officially banned in the USSR).
Teffi thus described Balmont and Tsvetkovskaya: "He [entered the room], 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'."  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 take him home. "Small wonder that, leading such a life, at 40 she looked like a very old woman," Teffi remarked.
The last woman Balmont has been romantically linked with was Dagmar Shakhovskaya (1893–1967), an Estonian baroness. The lovers met rarely, but had two children: George (1922–194?) and Svetlana (b. 1925). Balmont wrote to her almost daily; all in all 858 of his letters and postcards remained. Still, it was Yelena Tsvetkovskaya who was remaining beside him till his dying day. 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.
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. His poems are frequently performed as songs.
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- Wordlessness on YouTube, song by Larisa Novoseltseva
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- Collection of Poems by Konstantin Balmont (English Translations)
- English translations by Babette Deutsch and Avrahm Yarmolinsky, 1921
- Four poems in English c. 1900
- Konstantin Balmont, in wikilivres.ca