Leon Trotsky

To the Memory of Sergei Essenin

(January 1926)

Written: January 1926.
Publisher: Pravda.
Source: Fourth International (Paris), No. 4, Autumn 1958, pp. 64–64.
Online Version: Marxists Internet Archive, 2000.
Transcribed: Sally Ryan.
HTML Markup: Sally Ryan and David Walters.

We have lost Essenin, that fine poet, so genuine and of so lovely a freshness. He has gone, of his own will, saying farewell, in his own blood, to an unknown friend – perhaps to us all.

His last lines are striking in their tenderness and gentleness; he left life without crying out that he had been offended, without a “pose” of protest, without slamming doors, but closing them quietly with a hand from which blood was flowing. Because of this gesture, an unforgettable aura of farewell illumines the image of Essenin as a man and as a poet.

Essenin composed the harsh Songs of a Guttersnipe, and gave the coarse choruses of the Moscow taverns that melodiousness that was all his own and that cannot be imitated.

He very often liked to boast of a vulgar gesture, of trivial words, but underneath there throbbed the tenderness of a defenseless soul. By means of this half-feigned coarseness, Essenin was seeking refuge from the harsh period into which he had been born and born, furthermore, in vain, for, beaten by life, on December 27th, without provocation and without complaint, the poet said: “I cannot go on.”

It is necessary to emphasize his “mask” of vulgarity, for this was not merely a form chosen by Essenin, but the imprint made on him by the conditions of our period, which is neither gentle nor tender. Protecting himself from life by this mask of insolence, paying to this “attitude” a tribute that was deep and not incidental, Essenin, it seems, never “felt himself to be of this world” – I say this neither to honor him nor to censure him: indeed, it is by that non-adaptation of Essenin to the world that the poet was lost to us; furthermore, can we cast blame on this great lyric poet whom we did not know how to save for ourselves?

Bitter times, these, perhaps among the bitterest in due history of so-called “civilized” humanity. A revolutionary, born for these decades, is obsessed by a wild “patriotism” for his period, which is his fatherland-in-time. Essenin was not a revolutionary.

The author of Pugachev and the Ballads of the 26 was an inner lyricist. But our period is not lyric: that is the essential reason why Sergei Essenin, of his own will, and so soon, went far away from us and from his times.

Essenin's roots are deeply popular, and like everything about him, his background of “the people” is not artificial: the proof of this lies, not in his poems on rioting, but, once more, in his lyricism:

In the bay thickets, near the hillside slopes, it is soft Autumn... a russet mare tosses her mane.

This image of autumn, as well as many others, surprised at first; they were considered unjustifiably daring; but, forced by the poet to feel the peasant origin of his images, we felt them penetrate deeply into us.

Obviously Fet would not have written so, and Tiuchev even less.

Essenin passed the inspiration coming to him from his peasant origins through the prism of his creative gift and thus made it finer; solidly rooted in him, this peasant background's very solidity was what explains the poet’s special weakness: he was uprooted from the past, and had not been able to sink his roots into the new times. His trips abroad, to Europe and across the ocean, had not been able to “pull him up again.” He assimilated Teheran much more deeply than New York, and the wholly inner lyricism of this child of Riazan found in Persia far more points in common with his peasant origins than he could find in the civilized capitals of Europe and America.

Essenin was no enemy of the Revolution, and it was never even alien to him; on the contrary, he turned constantly toward it, writing in 1918:

O my country. Bolshevik, yes, I am.

He still was saying, in his last years:

And now, in the land of the soviets,
Here am I, one of your most ardent traveling companions.

Violently the Revolution broke into the structure of his verses and his images, which, at first confused, later grew clearer. In the collapse of the past, Essenin lost nothing, missed nothing. Alien to the Revolution? No indeed; but it and he were not of the same nature: Essenin was an inward being, tender and lyrical; the Revolution was “public,” epic, full of disasters; and so it was a disaster that snapped off the poet’s brief life.

It has been said that every being bears within him the spring of his destiny, unwound to the end by life. In this case, that is only partially true. The creative spring of Essenin was unwinding when the period, with its sharp angles, knocked against it – the spring was broken.

There are, however, with Essenin, many priceless strophes, wholly suffused by his times, yet Essenin “was not of this world”; he was not the poet of the Revolution.

I accept everything; everything, as it is, I accept.
I am ready to walk in paths already traced.
I will give my whole soul for our October, our May,
But I will not give my lyre, my beloved lyre.

His lyric spring could have unwound to the end only under conditions where life was harmonious, happy, full of songs, a period when there ruled as master, not rough combat, but friendship, love, and tenderness. This time will come; in our own there are still many implacable and salutary combats of men against men; but after it, there will come other times which the present struggles are preparing; then the individual can blossom into genuine flower, just as then the poetry of each being will bloom. The Revolution, above all, will in lofty struggle win for every individual the right not only to bread but to poetry.

In his last hour, to whom was Essenin writing his letter in blood? Perchance he was calling from afar to a friend who is not yet born, to the man of the future, whom some are preparing by their struggles and Essenin by his songs? The poet is dead, because he was not of the same nature as the Revolution, but, in the name of the future, the Revolution will adopt him for ever.

From the very first years of his poetic work, Essenin, realizing his inherent inability to defend himself, had a tendency toward death. In one of his last songs, he said farewell to the flowers:

Well then, my friends, well, well ...
I have seen you, and I have seen the earth ...
And your funereal trembling
I shall take as a last caress.

Those who scarcely knew Essenin, those who did not know him at all, can only now, after December 27th, understand completely the intimate sincerity of his poetry, almost every verse of which was written in blood from a wounded vein; our bitterness is all the harsher.

Without emerging from his inner domain, Essenin found in the premonition of his coming end a melancholy and moving consolation:

... listening to a song in silence,
my beloved, with another friend,
will perhaps be reminded of me,
as a flower – never to be repeated ...

In our consciences, one thought softens the acute and still fresh pain: this great, this inimitable poet did, according to his temperament, reflect his period and enriched it with his songs, telling, in a new way, of love, of the blue sky fallen in the river, of the moon which, like a lamb, pastures in the sky, and of the never-to-be-repeated flower – himself.

Let there be nothing, in this memory we bring to the poet, that may beat us down or make us lose courage. Our period has a spring stronger than that of each of us, and the spiral of history will unwind till the end; let us not oppose it, but help it, by our conscious efforts of thought and will. Let us prepare the future, let us win for every being the right to bread and song.

The poet is dead, long live poetry!

Defenseless, a child of man has rolled into the abyss. But long live the creative life where, till his last moment, Sergei Essenin braided the priceless threads of his poetry!

L. Trotsky
January 1926

return return return return return

Last updated on: 10 October 2015