poetry

Sergei Yesenin: Tragedy And Poetry

The prominent Silver Age poet was never far from controversy.

“My Russia, wooden Russia! I am your only singer and herald”

Sergei Yesenin was born in the village of Konstantinovo in Ryazan Region on Oct. 3, 1895. From the window of his house, he could see a church and the hilly bank of the Oka River – all of which he would often recall in his poems.

He began writing poems as a child, and when he left school, he headed to conquer the literary world of Moscow, where he published his first poems.

Soon, in search of fame, he moved to St. Petersburg, where he attended literary salons wearing traditional clothing, bast shoes or felt boots, with sheets of his poems wrapped in a rural headscarf.

The stunt – canny self-promotion in an age well before the PR industry – worked brilliantly, and the self-taught village poet with a mop of golden curls became incredibly popular. In 1916, he had the opportunity to perform to the family of Emperor Nicholas II.


“Infamy has come to me, / That I am an abuser and scandalmonger”

Yesenin also earned notoriety as a troublemaker. He was closely involved with the literary scene and often teased other poets. His best-known literary duels were with another famous poet, Vladimir Mayakovsky.

With his love of rural space, Yesenin did not accept his counterpart’s revolutionary and industrial poems. Mayakovsky, however, urged him not to waste his talent describing nature and dedicate it to Bolshevism instead.

During a public poetry reading Yesenin told Mayakovsky that he would not give “his” Russia to him: “Russia is mine! And you are an American!” To that, Mayakovsky replied sarcastically: “Take it, here you are! Eat it with bread!”

“Many women loved me, and I loved more than one, too”

Love is the second major theme in Yesenin’s work. A handsome ladies’ man, the poet had four children from his numerous affairs. His first common-law wife, Anna, gave birth to a son, Yuri, in 1914, but Yesenin left his family for St. Petersburg and only rarely visited the child.

In 1917, he married the beautiful actress Zinaida Reich, who gave birth to a daughter, Tatyana, and a son, Konstantin. The separated two years later, and Reich soon married the renowned director Vsevolod Meyerhold, becoming one of Moscow’s most famous actresses.

The poet’s second official wife was the American dancer Isadora Duncan. She was 18 years older than him and neither spoke the other’s language. Their marriage was full of endless scandals and lasted about two years. The poet accompanied Duncan on tour in Europe and America, where he would perform at parallel literary events.

Sofya, Yesenin’s third wife, was Leo Tolstoy’s granddaughter, Sophia Andreyevna Tolstaya. The poet married her a few months before his death, and this was also an unhappy marriage. “Everything here is too filled with the ‘great old man,’ it is choking me,” Yesenin complained while living in Sofya’s home. It is Tolstaya who did a lot to preserve his legacy and left memoirs about him.

“Silly heart, don’t beat …”

Yesenin greeted the 1917 Revolution with enthusiasm and the hope that Russia would be transformed, but he soon saw the hunger, destruction and terror in the country, and began describing apocalyptic scenes: “the garden of skulls” and “rabid glow of corpses.”

In his long poem, “Pugachev” – about the famous rebel and impostor who organized a mass revolt against Catherine II – Yesenin turns to the theme of confrontation between power and the people. The Land of Scoundrels, another long poem, would continue this theme.

In 1924, a year before his death, in the poem. “The Return Home,” he describes a ravaged village with its poor wooden houses and a calendar portrait of Lenin hanging instead of an icon. Seeing Yesenin as an ideological and cultural danger, the authorities harassed the poet, bringing arbitrary court cases against him.

In 1925, nervous breakdowns, alcoholism and pressure from the authorities landed Yesenin in a mental hospital. A month later he was found hanging from a pipe in the Angleterre Hotel in Leningrad (as St. Petersburg was known in the Soviet Union). The previous day, Yesenin had composed his final poem, “Goodbye, my Darling, Goodbye,” in blood:

Goodbye, my darling, goodbye
My love, you are forver in my heart.
This farewell was preordained
As shall be our reunion.

Goodbye. No handshake or fond word.
Let’s not have sadness furrow the brow.
There’s nothing new in dying now
And nothing new in living either.

The official cause of death was suicide, but many alternative versions have been put forward in the last decade. The most common is that the troublesome poet was murdered by the Soviet authorities.

Inna Parfenova writes about literature and culture for Russia Beyond.

The photo shows a portrait of Sergei Yesenin. Provenance and authorship unknown.

November 11, 1918: The Poems of Bertram John William Andrews

[In commemoration of the end of the First World War, one hundred years ago, we present a series of poems only recovered in 2015. They are written by Bertram John William Andrews, who died of his wounds on July 31st, 1917 in the Third Battle of Ypres. He was twenty-two years of age. The poems, unpublished, were left with Annie Knox, a girl that Bertram was courting. It was the niece of Annie who found the poems in 2015. There are many famous poets of World War I – but the few verses that Andrews left behind, presented here, also possess a delicacy and fineness of thought that is rare.]

 

Bertram John William Andrews (1895 – 1917)

 

Love and War

A while ago in London town,
I watched the crowds come trooping down
And mark’d the people passing by,
(Such hosts of people passing by)
All speeding on so pensively.
Oblivious of my stare.
Yet all the time I was aware
That one had gone who should be there,
Thus, searching in my memory,
I could not think who it should be
Till, happily,

I saw a soldier home from France
“’Tis he”, I thought, “That merry glance!
“’Tis Cupid who, his bow and dart
“For bomb and bayonet laid apart,
“No longer wars on human heart
“But wages warfare new.
“Yet that,” I ponder’d,” can’t be true.
“The land has lovers still a few.
“Who then can Cupid’s place supply,
“Since still his arrows seem to fly
“unerringly?”

Anon a maiden chanc’d to pass,
A bright and winsome, laughing lass;
Who, as she went, provokingly
Enslav’d mankind and dext’rously
Contrived, their hearts should captive be
To her whom next they view’d.
Now Cupid fights, his ancient feud
Is by his sister still pursued:
But deadlier her artillery
(His bow and quiver idle lie),
Her roguish eye.

Plumstead
August 1916

**********

At Eventide

The scented zephyr whispers down the hill.
The trees droop low to catch his message sweet.
Rippling, it flows from bough to bough until
It tells me, murmuring softly and discreet.
My love is nigh – and all my pulses fill
With longing: while the summer beauties fleet
Unseen, unmarked, before my eyes that strain
For that first glimpse of her whose magic
Stirs my brain.

The summer takes a fresher sweetness now
The flow’rets bloom in colours yet more fair
And those caressing breezes softer flow
And add more radiant perfume to the air.
Enchanted, Nature’s beauties brighter glow.
She dons a magic loveliness more rare.
My love is nigh – the earth becomes more bright,
And learns to show more lovely in my
loved one’s sight.

The brazen sun his boldness finds too gay,
Confronted with that beauty: and apace
Red and asham’d, he hastes to flee away:
And earth, relieved, still finds a newer grace
When he is gone. And in the twilight grey
Ethereal shines that perfect wistful face.
With benediction stars awake high above
And all my heart goes out in strong
Abiding love.

In passion’s colours, scarlet, purple, mauve.
The sun expires: and silver floods the land
All virginal and pure the moonbeams rove
And line with light the earth on ev’ry hand.
There, where the fierce descending Phoebus strove
With Dian’s onrush, now a stately band
White, fleecy clouds, float through the steel-blue sky
On earth is peace, and in my soul, for Love is nigh.

The nestling villages in silence sleep
The little rivers murmur quietly.
Athwart the moonlit hills the shadows creep
And all the night seems full of mystery.
It’s silences my inmost fibres steep
And lull my spirit to an ecstacy.
Cathedral-like the stillness broods, and rest
Sentient of Love, lies like a garment on Earth’s breast.

Gailes
July 1916

**********

Dreams

I dreamed I was a warrior whose cuirass
Shining in splendour paled Apollo’s light.
Massive my shield and fierce it’s polish’d brass
And terrible my helmet’s nodding height.
Within my sword dwelt Slaughter and pale Fright
Ran o’er the lands, submerged neath sable pall,
For with my reeking triumph fell bleak night
And death. Yet all this had I left, to fall
Vanquished before thy feet and own myself thy thrall

And yet again I dreamed: that Music’s pow’rs
Intoxicating, from my fingers flow,
While nations wondered and the woodland flow’d
Entranc’d , in still more perfect beauty glow’d.
At times my strains like shrieking tunes rode
Upon the tempest’s height: at times they fell
With sigh as soft as snow; yet ever strode
As victors o’er men’s natures. But their spell
To thee could not express what all my
Heart would tell.

At last the radiance of pure happiness
Poured on my soul. I dreamed a perfect dream
And Love fulfill’d my life with loveliness
And hid in glory that faint, pallid gleam
Of War’s long stress and Music’s pulsing stream.
“To be thy lover.” Such soft harmony
Lies in those words, which sweeter sounding seem
Than all the magic strains of Faëry.
Ah! loved one, grant it may no more be dream to me.

Gailes
July 1916

**********

Memories

Some mem’ries cling as the heart grows old
Of happy days in the long ago:
And thoughts drift back, sweet thoughts of gold
None else can know

The passionate scent of your windswept hair,
The charm of your slow-waking smile
Those fathomless eyes of mischief rare;
Still will beguile.

And it may be years will pass away,
And Life wan dim and Death draw nigh;
That glorious dream of a sweet June day
Will never die.

Turnberry
Midsummer 1916

**********

The Ship of Dreams

A vessel sails the midnight air
Merrily, merrily,
With merchandise of treasures rare
In purple majesty.
Bright dreams are all its costly freight
And to the port of souls it glides
To charm, where care was, and make glad.
Its choicest wares make strong the sad.
In stormy souls serene it rides
To give respite where sorrow rode.
Ah! Shining argosy!

That ship casts anchor oft, where I,
My soul in stark dismay
From days dark torment, restless lie:
And lulls that torment’s sway.
From foreign sea and distant land
Float dreams, surpassing Ophir’s waves,
The day’s chief beauties and delight,
The mystic wonders of the night,
The chiefest wealth that vessel bears,
More rich than gems of Samarkand
Or pearls from the Cathay.

Ash Rifle Range
5/9/16

**********

Explanations

That aged one, who still the fire
Of headstrong youth retains:
Who kindles ev’rywhere desire
And binds all men in chains:
Who sometimes hard and cruel would seem
Who makes and shatters many a dream:
For him, harsh master many a ream
I’ve spoil’d and lost my pains
Poor wight!

Each eve old Love comes sailing down
To wake my slumb’ring lyre.
And, for a while, without a frown
With verse he will inspire.
Then, when I think I’m going strong,
He hides his face and all goes wrong.
I’m stranded, so’s my lovely song.
Love smiles and I retire.
Good night!

Gailes
July 1916

**********

Epilogue

Thus has this little book an end:
But, friend,
If you should read its lines and them condemn:
Pray stay your judgment while I crave
Your patience. Though I sing a strain
Of Sentiment, remember once again
It is the best so dull a knave
As I can sing. And if I dare
Exhort you to refrain awhile:
Has one verse pleas’d you, made you smile?
A little then I pay to Ayr,
Which pleasant town I in my heart do bless
For pleasant folk and three month’s happiness

So I retire. I make my bow
Right now
If anyone to jeer still dares
Who cares?

15 August 1916

[Second Lieutenant Bertram J.W. Andrews, Royal Sussex Regiment, 13th Battalion (the South Downs), is buried in Dozinghem Military Cemetery, in Belgium].

 

These poems are provided through the courtesy of Discover War Poets.
The photo shows, “Mud Road to Passchendaele,” by Douglas W. Culham, painted in 1917.

The Crystal Mind: Poems

Glen Gower

There is something growing beneath your skin.
Bristles burst from hidden hearths while stolen feelings
like steely demons scourge the violent hills.
From atop the tower, the blessed Glen Gower
calls the riders in.

 

Changeling

Oh changeling,
you creeping, sleeping tame thing
climb down from that steeple high,
let me gaze upon your face tonight.
Look not backwards, forget my soul,
what you spy there has gone before.
Will yourself up into the clouds,
a desert landscape, a crimson shroud,
beyond the river there lies the key
there lie the waters, those that be.
Move through yourself like a
consuming snake, find the figure,
that geometric mistake.
Point the finger to the sign above,
the chi, the rho, the fallen dove.
This bridge is broken, I cannot sleep,
this dream, a token, to protect and keep.
Oh changeling,
you creeping, sleeping tame thing.

 

Winter Stasis

Soon the crystal mind will shed itself.
Snowflakes hang static in the breathless wind,
the storm in the firmament, the storm within.
What infinite descent will cloud the soul
if not for the pine to root it, to keep it whole?
Such tender frames plague the winter sky,
you can trace the time, the finger guides the eye.
Reverse the fall, feel the ancient breath,
your stinging face, you descend from Seth.
Look there! The sky in it fullness shows
the cathedral vaults, the suspended snows.

 

Just Hush

Often times I tell myself I’ve been thinking too much.
No rush of the river can soften its touch
but relief, relief can be found in an empty cavern
drained of the tide and left untouched.
Just air, just hush, often you say too much.

 

 

Cosmin Dzsurdzsa is the 2016 recipient of the English Society Creative Writing Award for Poetry. His work, both as a poet and a critic, is deeply concerned with the sacred experience. He credits the Symbolist movement and 20th-century Imagism as important influences. Cosmin’s work seeks to engage with the imagination through striking visual representations.

 

The photo shows, “The Awaited,” by Ferdinand Georg Waldmüller, painted in 1860.