‘Serge Yessenin: On the Death of a Poet’ by Leon Trotsky. translated by Bessie Weissman from New Masses. Vol. 1 No. 2. June, 1926.
(Serge Yessenin is known to Americans chiefly through the fact of his marriage to Isadora Duncan, the American dancer, with whom he paid a brief visit to this country in 1924. The poet, one of the most talented of the literary “fellow-travellers” with the revolution, committed suicide several months ago. Trotsky’s tribute to Yessenin was written in a letter to the All-Russian Union of Writers on the occasion of its memorial evening for Yessenin in the Moscow Art Theatre. It was published in the Communist newspaper, Pravda. Those who know Trotsky only as an economist and revolutionary general, will be surprised to read this tribute which reveals him also as a deep lover of poetry. Ed.)
WE HAVE lost Yessenin — such a fine, fresh and genuine poet. And how tragically have we lost him! He went at his own choosing, writing farewell with blood from his veins to an unknown friend, perhaps to all of us. Remarkably tender and delicate are those last lines of his. He left life without any noisy offense, without a pose of protest, or any slamming of the door behind him, but quietly closing it with his hand, from which was oozing blood. At that moment the poetical and human image of Yessenin blazed forth in a last unforgettable splendor.
Yessenin wrote the brazen poems of a hooligan, imparting an inimitable Yessenin melody to the harsh strains of Moscow’s taverns. He took pride in insolent gesture and rough word. But under the crust of his affected brazenness throbbed the peculiar tenderness of an unshielded, undefended soul. With this half-simulated roughness Yessenin was only trying to protect himself from the harsh period into which he was born. But he could not protect himself. I can bear it no longer, said the vanquished poet on December 27. He said it with no challenge, no reproach. Yessenin had apparently always felt himself as one not quite of this world. This is not spoken in praise of Yessenin, for it was because of this unearthliness we lost him; but it is not said in condemnation either. Is it conceivable to pursue our most lyrical poet with reproaches merely because we could not save him for ourselves?
Our time is severe, perhaps one of the severest in the history of so-called civilized humanity. A revolutionary born for these decades is possessed of a furious patriotism for his era, his fatherland in time. Yessenin was not a revolutionary. The author of “Pugachev” and “Ballads about the 26” was a lyrical poet. Our era, however, is not lyrical. This is the main reason why Serge Yessenin, of his own free will, has left us and his epoch so prematurely.
Yessenin’s roots are deeply national, and his nationalism, as everything in him, is real and genuine. And this is most unmistakably shown, not in his poem of the national insurrection but rather in his lyrics:
Quietly, against the juniper thicket on the slope,
Red, mare Autumn scratches her mane.
This image of Autumn, as many other of his images, in the beginning shocked us as baseless audacity. But the poet has forced us to feel the peasant roots in his images and to absorb them deeply into our marrow. Fet would not have said it so, and still less Tiutchev. The peasant background, purified and refracted through his creative art, is very strong in Yessenin. But the strength of this peasant background constitutes the real weakness of Yessenin’s personality: he was uprooted from the old without striking root in the new. The city did not strengthen him, but only shattered and covered him with bruises. His travels through foreign countries, through Europe and across the ocean, did not strengthen him at all. He reacted with immeasurably greater depth to Teheran than he did to New York. In Persia the lyrical quality indigenous to that ancient soil was more akin to him than were the cultural centers of Europe and America.
Yessenin was not hostile to the Revolution, and by no means alien to it. On the contrary, he always aspired to it — in a special manner in 1918:
Native land, mother mine,
I am a Bolshevik.
In another sense — these last years:
Now in the land of the Soviets
I am the most furious poputchik.*
The Revolution forced itself both into the structure of his verses and his imagery, at first heavily slagged, but later purified and refined. In the shipwreck of the old world, Yessenin had lost nothing and had nothing to lament about. No, the poet was not aloof from the Revolution. He was simply not akin to it. Yessenin is intimate, tender and lyrical; the Revolution is public, epic and catastrophic. That is why the brief life of the poet ended in a tragedy.
It has been said by someone that every person bears within himself the spring of his fate, and that life expands this spring to the end. This is only partially true. Yessenin’s spring expanded, but it caught in the facets of his time and was snapped off.
Not a few of Yessenin’s precious lines are saturated in our time. The epoch winnows through his entire creative activity. But at the same time Yessenin is not “of this world,” is not a genuine poet of the Revolution.
I will accept all of it, as it is,
I accept everything.
I am ready to follow the beaten steps
I will give all my soul to October and May
But my beloved lyrics I will not give up.
His lyrical spring could have expanded to the end only in a society alive with song, harmonious and happy, in which not struggle, but friendship, love and tenderness rule.
Such a day will come. After this period, in whose womb are still concealed many ruthless and fruitful battles of man with man, other times will come, the very times being prepared in the present struggle. The human personality will blossom forth into wonderful colors, and with it — lyrical poetry. The Revolution, for the first time, will conquer for every man not only the right to bread, but also the right to lyrical expression. To whom did Yessenin write in his last hour with blood? Perhaps he was only crying out to the friend who has not yet been born, to the man of the approaching future, whom some prepare through battle and whom Yessenin was preparing through song.
The poet perished because he was not akin to the Revolution. But for the sake of the future the Revolution will adopt him forever.
Yessenin aspired to death almost since the very first years of his creativeness, realizing his inner lack of defense. In one of his last poems Yessenin bids farewell to the flowers:
Well, my darlings, what of it,
what of it,
I saw you and I saw the earth,
And this grave-like shiver I will, like a new caress, accept.
Only now, after his suicide, all of us — those who knew the poet little or not at all — can fully appreciate the sincerity of Yessenin’s lyrics, in which almost every line is written in the blood of a baffled heart. All the more poignant seems his loss. For even in the fullness of life, Yessenin continued to find melancholy and touching consolation in the premonition of his swift departure from life:
And my beloved, perhaps with
While hearkening in the stillness
to the song
Will think of me as of a meteorically
But the poignant fresh grief of his loss is mitigated by the thought that this excellent, genuine poet reflected our epoch in his own way, has enriched it with songs in which new words are uttered about love, and the blue sky which tumbles in the river, the moon which like a silver lamb grazes in the sky, and the meteorically vanishing flower — all images reflecting himself.
In honoring the memory of the poet, then, let us say nothing that is demoralizing or weakening. The spring imbedded in our epoch is infinitely more powerful than is the personal spring in every one of us. The spring of history will expand to the very end. We must not hamper it, but help it with conscious effort of thought and will. Let us forge the future! Let us forge the future! We will conquer for every man and woman the right to bread and the right to song.
The poet is dead! Long live poetry! A defenceless child broke down into the abyss of death. Long live creative life, into which Serge Yessenin spun, until his last breath, precious threads of poetry!
* Literally ‘fellow-traveller.’
The New Masses was the continuation of Workers Monthly which began publishing in 1924 as a merger of the ‘Liberator’, the Trade Union Educational League magazine ‘Labor Herald’, and Friends of Soviet Russia’s monthly ‘Soviet Russia Pictorial’ as an explicitly Communist Party publication, but drawing in a wide range of contributors and sympathizers. In 1927 Workers Monthly ceased and The New Masses began. A major left cultural magazine of the late 1920s to early 1940s, the early editors of The New Masses included Hugo Gellert, John F. Sloan, Max Eastman, Mike Gold, and Joseph Freeman. Writers included William Carlos Williams, Theodore Dreiser, John Dos Passos, Upton Sinclair, Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, Dorothy Parker, Dorothy Day, John Breecher, Langston Hughes, Eugene O’Neill, Rex Stout and Ernest Hemingway, Artists included Hugo Gellert, Stuart Davis, Boardman Robinson, Wanda Gag, William Gropper and Otto Soglow. Over time, the New Masses became narrower politically and more journalistic in its tone.
PDF of full issue: https://www.marxists.org/history/usa/pubs/new-masses/1926/v01n02-jun-1926-New-Masses-2nd-rev.pdf