Finding Balmont’s hand in a UL copy : the November 2021 Slavonic item of the month

This guest blog post is written by one of our UL Reading Room colleagues.  David, also a learner of Russian, came across a hidden treasure in our older collections – a book of poetry by the poet Bal’mont (normally Balmont in English, as below) with inscriptions by the author.

Konstantin Dmitriyevich Balmont was a well known poet of the Silver age of Russian Literature. The last book he completed, Свѣтослуженіе (Svi︠e︡tosluzhenīe; Liturgy of light), was published in Harbin, Manchuria in June 1937 to coincide with Balmont’s 70th anniversary.

Like many of Russia’s literary and cultural figures he had left his homeland for Paris following the Bolsheviks’ victory in the Russian Civil War. But abroad Balmont’s star had faded critically and commercially. At the same time his health was failing. In the earlier part of the decade he had been hospitalised for severe depression that left him unable to write.

Vsevold Vladimirovich Obolyaninov, an acquaintance of Balmont’s from decades earlier was now living in Harbin, at that time the largest émigré Russian community. He heard of the poor condition in which the poet was living and wrote him a letter proposing to publish a new volume of Balmont’s poetry.

The letters from Balmont to Obolyaninov from this period show that the poet was enthusiastic, but with a quixotic fixation on certain aspects of the book.

As evidenced from the title, Свѣтослуженіе, Balmont refused to adopt the simplified “leftist spelling without ъ and ѣ,” of the Soviets’ 1917/18 orthographic reform. He insisted on “My own spelling … the spelling of the good old days.”  [Note that the correction in the image here shows Balmont’s addition of the letter ъ…]

Trouble in communicating with Paris and negotiating with the Japanese military authorities in occupied Manchuria resulted in a hurried publication. When Obolyaninov informed Balmont that the poet would not be able to correct the final manuscript himself, he replied “Your last letter, dear friend, upset me a great deal. If it is impossible for me to proofread Свѣтослуженіе, oh well, you proofread it very carefully instead.”

However, the final work disappointed Balmont and the last letter he sent to Obolyaninov is annotated “Correspondence terminated due to unsuccessful publication of Свѣтослуженіе”.

Balmont’s dissatisfaction with the book are made clear in the copy of Свѣтослуженіе which Cambridge University Library holds. It is one of the 50 copies which Balmont ordered for himself (which he requested be sent “in two or even three packages” to avoid a postal surcharge for weighty parcels) and contains his handwritten notes.

In addition to correcting the spelling and grammar in a few places throughout the book Balmont has written “эти два последних стихотворения помещены издателем помимо моего согласия, по частным соображениям, и никакого отношения ко поэту не имеют” – “These last two poems were placed here by the publisher without my consent, for personal reasons, and have nothing whatsoever to do with the poet” across the top margin of page 92.

The final two poems Вероника (Veronika) and Греза (Dream) are respectively dedicated to Veronika Obolyaninova and Irina Obolyaninova, the publisher’s daughters. Balmont had sent them with letters to Oboloyaninov with pride “You found my verse to your daughter Veronika ingratiating, but the poem to Irina seems even to me something special, and I am afraid the discord between the sisters will only intensify now.” Despite this, he never intended the verses to be included in Свѣтослуженіе as they were not a part of what he perceived as a single unified, lyrical work, one luminous verse, where each poem runs into the other as one stanza to the next.

The first (and only until the book was reprinted in 2005) impression was only 350 copies. Few copies remain available to the public in libraries worldwide. Despite the irregularities with the publication and Balmont’s disappointment with the book, modern critics regard Свѣтослуженіе as a worthy final entry in the canon of a significant Russian poet. Balmont’s letters to Obolyaninov were reprinted in an edited form and with commentary by Pavel Kupryanovsky and Natalia Molochanova in the May-June, 1997 issue of Voprosy Literatury.

This copy is being moved to a Rare Books class for safer keeping. Its record will be updated accordingly (and corrected and expanded) in due course.

David Chapman

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