Maxim Gorky tells the story he had heard of a Polish peasant whom chance had brought to the city of Krakow
where he completely lost his bearings. He tramped the streets for hours but was unable to find his way to the open spaces outside the city, where he would feel in his own element. Finally, despairing whether the city would release him from its clutches, he fell to his knees, uttered some prayers, and jumped from a bridge into the Vistula in the hope that the river would carry him to freedom. He… died of his injuries.
Gorky recalled this story when he heard the news of the death of Sergei Esenin, by his own hand, in a St Petersburg hotel on a dreary December day in 1925. Apparently, the poet’s pen had run dry. He slit his own vein, dipped his pen in the blood, and left his own epitaph in these luminously beautiful lines:
Farewell, my dear friend, farewell!
Within my heart you’ll stay,
And as we part, I can foretell
That again we shall meet some day.
Farewell, no clasping and no crying,
No scowling and no feeling blue –
There is nothing new about dying,
And to keep on living isn’t new.
Esenin had struggled hard to come to terms with a country in the throes of revolution. He had greeted the revolution warmly, written glowingly about his pride in being a ‘Bolshevik’, and had even claimed once that he was ‘more left that the Bolsheviks’.
But in truth he felt uprooted from a Russia he had known intimately, and he was unable to sink his roots into a country turned upside down by one of history’s most cataclysmic episodes.
Born to a peasant family in distant Ryazan at the heart of rural Russia, he always felt himself somewhat of an outsider in the bustling metropolis. The flux of the Revolution only served to compound his difficulties. Like the Polish farmer’s son who had lost his bearings in busy Krakow, Esenin could not find his way to the certitude and harmony he so desperately craved. The landscape around him broke his heart, and he chose to shut his eyes for ever.
And what a way to bid farewell! Here was a man, all of 30 years old, taking leave of life with the gentlest, most tender lines of poetry on his lips. He left “without slamming doors, but closing them quietly with a hand from which blood was flowing”, as Leon Trotsky wrote memorably in his obituary. In the poet’s heart there was ineffable pain, for however hard he tried to make the revolution his own, he failed again and again. Esenin had decided it was best he tried no more:
Well then, my friends, well, well…..
I have seen you, and I have seen the
And your funereal trembling
I shall take as a last caress.
The vast Russian countryside with its many colours and smells and moods had etched itself into Esenin’s sensibility. He had started writing poetry at school, though he published first at age 19, in Moscow, where he pursued a university education for a while before taking up sundry minor jobs to support himself. He moved to St Petersburg, then the Russian capital, in 1915 where the great Alexander Blok took an interest in his poetry and helped him find his feet in the city’s literary circles. Soon, he became wildly popular, with St Petersburg’s literary salons opening their doors to him with alacrity.
“The city took to him”, wrote Gorky – himself a great admirer of Esenin’s work – drily to Romain Rolland, “with the delight a gourmet reserves for strawberries in winter. A barrage of praise hit him, excessive and often insincere”. A callow young man of 20, Esenin found it hard to adjust to his dramatically altered circumstances. Increasingly in the evenings and late into the nights, he hopped from one watering hole in the city to another in the noisy company of friends, often kicking up drunken brawls and finding himself on the wrong side of the law.
The coarse choruses of the Moscow taverns began to crowd out his vivid, sweeping lyricism. He now often put on his poems a deliberate mask of vulgarity, trying to smother tenderness and the lightness of touch that came to him so naturally. To all that knew him well, he was caught in a frantic seeking after solidity and poise, and the more his search failed him, the greater was his anguish.
And yet, Esenin remained the supreme lyricist. He was also the quintessentially Russian poet. In perhaps the work of no other poet, before him or since, has the beauty of nature in Russia found a truer, more musical voice. Let us consider this striking image of autumn that he effortlessly brings to life:
In the bay thickets, near the hillside slopes, it is soft autumn…
A russet mare tosses her mane.
To this day the popularity of Esenin’s poetry cuts across all social and regional barriers around Russia, his verses often being sung rather than recited:
No regrets, no cries, no pain will ever
Touch my heart like blossoms touch a tree –
Withering with autumn, I will never
Be the young man that I used to be.
You’ll not throb, heart, as before, but tremble,
Feeling chills that you have not yet known.
In bare feet you shall no more be tempted
Through the birch-print countryside to roam…
We are mortal, we were born to perish,
Copper leaves are falling with no sound.
Once it came to blossom, to be cherished –
Blessed, returning to the silent ground.
Into this inimitable lyricist’s world of song, the revolution had broken violently. Perhaps, as Trotsky said, “(h)is lyric spring could have unwound to the end only under conditions where life was harmonious, happy, full of song, a period where ruled as master, not rough combat, but friendship, love and tenderness”. Alas!, this was not the world that Esenin had entered upon, and wistfulness permeated such lines as these, from a poem dedicated to his mother:
I will come back, mother, when our garden
White with spring, outstretches its branches.
But this time, mother, wake me not at daybreak,
The way you’d do all those years ago.
Don’t stir up the old expectations;
Don’t wake up all that didn’t come true –
I’ve endured loss and much exhaustion,
Yes, and endured them quite early, too.
Vladimir Mayakovsky (19 July 1893 – 14 April 1930)
Vladimir Mayakovsky was cut to the quick by Esenin’s suicide. He grieved, but he also had a point to make.
No, Esenin, this I don’t write deridingly,
in my throat not laughter but sorrow racks.
I see – your cut-open hand maddeningly,
swings your bones like a sack.
Stop it, chuck it! Isn’t it truly absurd,
allowing cheeks to flush with deathly hue?
You who could do such amazing things with words
that no one else on earth could do?
The poem closes with an ingenious variation on the last two lines of Esenin’s last poem:
Our planet is poorly equipped for delight.
One must snatch gladness from whatever there are.
In this life it’s not so difficult to die,
To mould life is more difficult by far.
Mayakovsky must have believed every word he said here. Unlike the essentially apolitical Esenin, he was the revolution’s stormy petrel. Since his middle teens, he had been a political activist, distributing propaganda leaflets and helping smuggle female political workers out of prison. The police picked him up a number of times and, aged 16, he was sentenced to his first prison term. It was while in jail that he cut his poet’s teeth. After being set free, he attended the Moscow Art School for two years, before joining the Russian Futurists group of which he soon became the leading light. The Futurists’ manifesto, flamboyantly called A Slap in the Face of Public Taste, came largely from Mayakovsky’s pen.
His poetry became increasingly defiant and declamatory in tone, and he experimented ceaselessly with complex strophes and stanza structures, also using street-lingo and slang freely. (All this makes him exceedingly hard to translate.) Every poetic convention was put to rout, the purpose being to ‘depoetise’ or de-privilege poetry. Mayakovsky embraced the Revolution with open arms, rapidly becoming its most widely-recognised mouthpiece, and lending a hand to mass literacy and propaganda campaigns in which both his dexterity with the artist’s brush and his monumental creative energy came into play.
However, he remained at heart a lyric poet of consummate skill. His command over rhyme patterns was phenomenal and he could shape even patently ‘prosaic’ themes into lilting verse, as in his tribute to Lenin upon his death:
When I sieve through
what I’ve lived through,
When I summarize:
which the best,
which the worst day –
There it is,
the first day.
with the crash
of the fighting,
(*25th: October 25 in the old Gregorian calendar, corresponded to November 7 in the Julian calendar, or the date of the Revolution).
The 1915 poem A Cloud in Trousers takes one’s breath away by its whirlwind of dazzling images, each more stunning than the one that came before it, as well as by its frenzied tempo:
Fantasizing on a sodden brain,
Like a bloated lackey on a greasy couch sprawling, —
With my heart’s bloody tatters, I’ll mock it again.
Until I’m content, I’ll be ruthless and galling.
No grandfatherly fondness in me,
No gray hairs streak my soul!
Shaking the world with my voice and grinning,
I pass you by – handsome,
Twenty two year old.
Irony came easily to Mayakovsky, and in a time convulsed by civil war, famine and terror, irony became his defence against bitterness and pathos:
stirring the ceiling’s calm,
to a moaning motif:
Marquita, my darling,
why won’t you,
why won’t you love me….’
should Marquita love me?!
no francs to spare.
(at the slightest wink!)
for a hundred francs
she’d be brought anywhere…
The first post-revolution years with their heady sense of creative freedom gave way in the late 1920s to regimentation and state control. When the revolution was in decline, irony became a potent weapon with which Mayakovsky confronted the rising tides of despair and demoralisation.
He lampooned the bureaucracy spawned by the NEP, castigated inefficiency and red-tape, and wrote witheringly about mindless adherence to moth-eaten rules and conventions. He wrote satirical plays, and scoffed at kowtowers and equivocators thronging the ranks of artists and writers:
In all conscience,
I need nothing
a freshly laundered shirt.
When I appear
before the C.C.C.*
of the coming
by way of my Bolshevik party card,
above the heads
of a gang of self-seeking
poets and rogues,
all the hundred volumes
(C.C.C.: the Party’s Central Control Commission)
His barbs hit home often enough, and this did not endear Mayakovsky to officialdom. The late 1920s were also when the party organisation was being turned upside down, and Stalin’s hegemony over the state and the party was being finessed.
The bureaucracy was ossifying steadily around all organs of the state, and the revolutionary in Mayakovsky was feeling increasingly restive. For quite some time, he resisted being drawn into the VAPP – the All-Union Association of Proletarian Writers – which had emerged as the sole arbiter of artistic and cultural policy in the Soviet Union, dispensing favours and passing proscriptions aimed at bolstering ‘Socialist Realism’.
Mayakovsky’s immensely popular public recitals of poetry had begun to be cold-shouldered by the authorities and his satirical plays were drawing near-hostile critical assessments. He felt increasingly isolated.
When Mayakovsky did finally agree to join the VAPP in January 1930, he was a chastened, sad man. In a well-known poem, he felt obliged even to change the last few lines (‘‘I want to be understood by my country,/ but if I fail to be understood –/ what then?/ I shall pass through my native land/ to one side,/ like a shower of/ slanting rain’’) to a sterile paean to the state (“That’s how it is,/the way it goes…/ We’ve attained/ the topmost level,/ climbing from the worker’s bunks:/ in the Union /of Republics/ the understanding of verse/ now tops/ the prewar norm…”).
Probably the spirit of October looked to him to have spent itself even as privilege and moral equivocation was gaining ground all around. Too tired perhaps to carry on, on April 14, 1930, three months short of his thirty-seventh birthday, Mayakovsky killed himself in his Moscow apartment.
Among his papers was this little poem:
Past one o’clock. You must have gone to bed.
Night’s Milky Way flows like a silver stream.
No rush. I’ll not wake you, bothering your head
With lightning telegrams to crush your dream.
As they say, that’s the end of the story,
The boat of love has smashed against life’s reefs.
We are quits and we don’t need an inventory
Of our mutual hurting, insults and griefs.
And see how the world lies in quietness.
The sky pays Night with a rash of stars from its purse.
In hours like these, one gets up to address
All Time and History and Universe!
The poet had no point to prove, to himself or to anyone else. He was simply being himself in his last hour.
Anjan Basu writes on a range of issues. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org