Sergei Alexandrovich Yesenin (sometimes spelled as Esenin) was born in Konstantinovo in the Ryazan region of the Russian Empire to a peasant family. He spent most of his childhood in his grandparents' home. He began to write poetry at the age of nine. In 1912, he moved to Moscow where he supported himself working as a proofreader in a printing company. The following year he enrolled in Moscow State University as an external student and studied there for a year and a half. His early poetry was inspired by Russian folklore. In 1915, he moved to St. Petersburg, where he became acquainted with fellow-poets Alexander Blok, Sergei Gorodetsky, Nikolai Klyuev and Andrey Bely. It was in St. Petersburg that he became well known in literature circles. Alexander Blok was especially helpful in promoting Yesenin's early career as a poet. Yesenin said that Bely gave him the meaning of form while Blok and Klyuev taught him lyricism.
In 1915, Yesenin published his first book of poems, Radunitsa, soon followed by Ritual for the Dead (1916). Through his collections of poignant poetry about love and the simple life, he became one of the most popular poets of the day. His first marriage was in 1913 to Anna Izryadnova, a co-worker from the publishing house, with whom he had a son, Yuri. (During the Stalinist purges, Yuri Yesenin was arrested and died in 1937 at a Gulag labor camp.)
In 1915 he came to St Petersburg, where he met Klyuev. "For the next two years, they were a team, living together most of the time. Collections of his poetry usually include his three love letters to Klyuev, without specifying to whom they were written.". From 1916 to 1917, Yesenin was drafted into military duty, but soon after the October Revolution of 1917, Russia exited World War I. Believing that the revolution would bring a better life, he briefly supported it, but soon became disillusioned and sometimes even criticized the Bolshevik rule in such poems as The Stern October Has Deceived Me.
In August 1917 Yesenin married for a second time to an actress, Zinaida Raikh (later wife of Vsevolod Meyerhold). They had two children, a daughter, Tatyana, and a son, Konstantin. Konstantin Yesenin would become a well-known soccer statistician.
In September 1918, he founded his own publishing house called "Трудовая Артель Художников Слова" (the "Moscow Labor Company of the Artists of Word.") In the fall of 1921, while visiting the studio of painter Alexei Yakovlev, he met the Paris-based American dancer Isadora Duncan, a woman 18 years his senior who knew only a dozen words in Russian, while he spoke no foreign languages. They married on May 2, 1922. Yesenin accompanied his new celebrity wife on a tour of Europe and the United States but at this point in his life, an addiction to alcohol had gotten out of control. Often drunk, his violent rages resulted in him destroying hotel rooms and causing disturbances in restaurants. This behavior received a great deal of publicity in the international press. His marriage to Duncan was brief and in May 1923 he returned to Moscow. He almost immediately became involved with actress Augusta Miklashevskaya and is rumoured to have married her in a civil ceremony, although he had not obtained a divorce from Isadora Duncan.
That same year he had a son by the poet Nadezhda Volpin. Sergei Yesenin never knew his son by Volpin, but Alexander Esenin-Volpin grew up to become a prominent poet and activist in the Soviet Union's dissident movement of the 1960s with Andrei Sakharov and others. After moving to the United States, Esenin-Volpin became a prominent mathematician.
The last two years of Yesenin's life were filled with constant erratic and drunken behavior, but he also created some of his most famous poems. In 1925 Yesenin met and married his fifth wife, Sophia Andreyevna Tolstaya, a granddaughter of Leo Tolstoy. She attempted to get him help but he suffered a complete mental breakdown and was hospitalized for a month. Two days after his release for Christmas, he allegedly cut his wrist and wrote a farewell poem in his own blood, then the following day hanged himself from the heating pipes on the ceiling of his room in the Hotel Anglettere. He was 30 years old.
After accidentally meeting Yesenin in 1925, Vladimir Mayakovsky noted:
... With the greatest difficulty I recognized Yesenin. With difficulty, too, I rejected his persistent demands that we go for a drink, demands accompanied by the waving of a fat bunch of banknotes. All day long I had his depressing image before me, and in the evening, of course, I discussed with my colleagues what could be done about Yesenin. Unfortunately, in such a situation everyone always limits oneself to talk.
According to Ilya Ehrenburg's memoirs "People, Years, Life" (1961),
Yesenin was always surrounded by satellites. The saddest thing of all was to see, next to Yesenin, a random group of men who had nothing to do with literature, but simply liked (as they still do) to drink somebody else's vodka, bask in someone else's fame, and hide behind someone else's authority. It was not through this black swarm, however, that he perished, he drew them to himself. He knew what they were worth; but in his state he found it easier to be with people he despised.
Although he was one of Russia's most popular poets and had been given an elaborate funeral by the State, most of his writings were banned by the Kremlin during the reigns of Joseph Stalin and Nikita Khrushchev. Nikolay Bukharin's criticism of Esenin contributed significantly to the banning. Only in 1966 were most of his works republished.
Sergei Yesenin's poems are taught to Russian schoolchildren and many have been set to music, recorded as popular songs. The early death, unsympathetic views by some of the literary elite, adoration by ordinary people, and sensational behavior, all contributed to the enduring and near mythical popular image of the Russian poet.
Sergei Yesenin is interred in Moscow's Vagankovskoye Cemetery. His grave is marked by a white marble sculpture.
(translated from Russian by Alec Vagapov)
Stars little stars, you're so high and so clear!
What have you got in you, so fascinating?
Stars, deep in thought, so discreet you appear,
What is the power that makes you so tempting?
Stars, little stars, you're so dense and so solid!
What is it that makes you so great and alluring?
How can you, heavenly bodies, afford it:
Stirring a thirst and desire for learning?
Why, as you shine, are you nice and inviting
Into your wide open arms, on the instant?
Pleasing the heart, so benign and enticing,
Heavenly stars, so remote and so distant!
(translated from Russian by Alexey Artemov)
Good-bye, Baku! So, I shall never see you…
And I’m afraid of fate, my southern land.
The heart is under hand and it’s so near.
And now I feel two simple words: my friend.
Good-bye, Baku! Oh, Turkic sky, good-bye!
The blood is very cold, I’m weak, you see…
But I can promise you, I’ll keep in mind
The tender wave of Caspian great sea.
Good-bye, Baku! Good-bye, my simple song…
For the last time I’ll hug my friend, I’ll stroke
His head. It’s like a golden rose. So long
It’ll nod to me in choking lilac smoke…
Rain is cleaning with wet brooms
Willows' poop in the meadows
Wind, you can spit armfuls of leaves -
I am a hooligan, just like you
I love it when the blue thickets,
Like bulls with heavy step,
Stomachs wheezing with leaves,
Soil the knees of the tree trunks
Here it is, my red flock!
Who could sing to you better than I?
I can see the twilight licking human footprints...
My Russia, wooden Russia!
I am the only one to sing to you
I have fed with berries and mint
The sadness of my beast's poems
Let the night bring the moon's pitcher
Draw up the milk of the birch grove!
Looks like the church near by
Wants to strangle someone with the hands of its crosses!
Something sinister walks the hills,
Drips thief's spite into our garden
But I myself am a bandit and a cad
And by blood — a horse thief
Who ever saw how boil in the night
Legions of the bird-cherry trees?
I was born to the night in the blue roads
To stalk the dark with my knives
Oh, The yellow bush of my head has withered
I got sucked into the poetry prison
Sentenced to turn the grindstones of the verse
In penal servitude of feelings
But don't fret, crazy wind,
Keep spitting leaves in the meadows
The label "poet" won't erase me,
Even in my songs, I am, like you, a hooligan.
(1921, translated from Russian by Alec Vagapov)
I do not regret, and I do not shed tears,
All, like haze off apple-trees, must pass.
Turning gold, I'm fading, it appears,
I will not be young again, alas.
Having got to know the touch of coolness
I will not feel, as before, so good.
And the land of birch trees, - oh my goodness!-
Cannot make me wander barefoot.
Vagrant's spirit! You do not so often
Stir the fire of my lips these days.
Oh my freshness, that begins to soften!
Oh my lost emotions, vehement gaze!
Presently I do not feel a yearning,
Oh, my life! Have I been sleeping fast?
Well, it feels like early in the morning
On a rosy horse I've galloped past.
We are all to perish, hoping for some favour,
Copper leaves flow slowly down and sway...
May you be redeemed and blessed for ever,
You who came to bloom and pass away...
To be a poet — is the same
As when by truth of life
You scar your own tender flesh,
And with the blood of feelings
Caress the souls of others.
To be a poet — to sing freedom,
As you know it best
The song of the nightingale doesn't hurt him -
His song is always the same.
Canary mimicking someone's voice -
Pitiful and silly bauble
The world needs real songs — so sing like only you can
Even if you sound like a frog.
Mohammed has overdone it in the Quran
When he forbade strong drink
That is why the poet will not stop
Drinking wine before he goes to the torture
And when a poet goes to his lover,
And finds her lying with another
He, kept by life-sustaining liquid,
Won't send a knife into her heart.
But, burning up with jealous recklessness,
Will whistle on the way back home
"So what, so I will die a vagabond,
On this earth such fate is also known."
|Original in Russian|
До свиданья, друг мой, до свиданья. Милый мой, ты у меня в груди. Предназначенное расставанье Обещает встречу впереди.
До свиданья, друг мой, без руки, без слова, Не грусти и не печаль бровей,- В этой жизни умирать не ново, Но и жить, конечно, не новей.
| English Translation
Goodbye, my friend, goodbye.
My dear one, you are in my breast.
A predestined parting
Promises a reunion ahead.|
Goodbye, my friend, without a touch of hand, without a word, Don't be sad and do not frown, Dying is nothing new in this life, And living, of course, isn't any newer.
Collection of Sergey Yesenin's Poems in English: