Over the empty fields a black kite hovers,
And circle after circle smoothly weaves.
In the poor hut, over her son in the cradle
A mother grieves:
“There, suck my brest: there grow and take our bread,
And learn to bear your cross and bow your head.”
Time passes. War returns. Rebellion rages.
The farms and villages go up in flame,
And Russia in her ancient tear-stained beauty,
Is yet the same.
Unchanged through all the ages. How long will
The mother grieve and the kite circle still?
(Alexander Blok 1916, Tranls.F. Cornford and E.P. Salaman, from Everyman’s Russian Poets, A.Knopf)
For the western reader, the start of ‘The Kite’, with the image of a hovering bird of prey, invites comparison with one of the most well-known poems of the 1910s, Yeats’ ‘The Second Coming, which starts:
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer
Yeats’ poem is widely interpreted as a ‘prophetic poem’, containing symbols that describe the falling apart of the old order and the frightening emergence of a new one, Yeats asking
what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
Yeats, after all, lived in a time of great social and political upheaval, of world wars and local wars – in 1919, when the poem was written, the devastating First World War was over, and the Irish War of Independence was beginning. It was also a time of cultural change, when Nietzsche’s prophecy of the ‘death of God’ – that is the death of European Christian Civilisation seemed to be close to fulfilment. The falcon is an image of nobility, but also a bird subject to man’s control, symbolic of man’s mastery over the forces of nature. The falconer’s loss of control of the bird is an ominous symbol. Yeats was influenced by the ideas of the theorist Oswald Spengler, who believed that civilisations follow a uniform cycle of ascendency, apotheosis and decline, and that the West was reaching the end of its cycle.
The kite is a different bird altogether, and takes a very different symbolic function in this poem. Although a bird of prey, a kite is also a carrion bird, like a buzzard. It will hunt if it has to, but will get much of its sustenance from already dead animals. Kites were once common sights in England – their disappearance had much to do with farmers, who regarded them as a pest, and shot them when they could, but was also related to the improvement of sanitation in English cities, where they would formerly hunt among the filthy streets for rats and dead animals. Their reintroduction has, by the way, been quite successful, and kites now thrive in some valleys of England and Wales. If you visit Rowlands Gill, in County Durham (or Tyne and Wear, if you insist) on a dry day, you will be almost certain to see one, their ragged hovering flight quite distinct from that of the soaring buzzard.
But I digress – our kites are red kites, while those of the Eurasian landmass are black kites like the one in the poem. What is Blok’s kite? It has, of course, an aura of death about it. Is it there waiting to pick the bones of the grieving mother and child, or those of the unseen father? It also has a hint of nobility to it – of the ruling class of Russia who for so long lived privileged lives on the backs of the poor. Blok – like most Russian writers and poets was a member of this class, but, like many, had an acute sense of guilt about it – he was ambivalent at the prospect of a revolution that, if he had been a straightforward aristocrat ‘White’ he should have been dead against.. The woman and child in the poem represent the oppressed poor of Russia who suffer under the yoke of their masters and the ravages of war, and find solace in their Christianity – though the reference to religion here is ambiguous.
There is a sense of fatalism in the poem, a sense – a deeply Russian sense – that this is the way that things have always been, and the way that they will go on. The circling if the kite means something different from the circling of Yeats’ falcon; it is the eternal circle of life that cannot be broken. Yet the poem, like Yeats’, ends with a question. It hints at a change in the air, a feeling, one that must have been almost palpable in the Russia of 1916, that it was just possible that the cycle of poverty, war, oppression and tragedy will be broken. Indeed, after the revolution, the ruling class was deposed and a new one took its place, fighting in the name of the oppressed proletariat…