Who has burned cannot be set on fire.

Sergei Yesenin (1895-1925) described himself in his good times as the ‘last poet of the village’. He came from rural Ryazan to the great Silver Age capital of St Petersburg, and there landed in fame thanks to his exceptional beauty, his elan, and his exotic peasant ways that so charmed the discontented intelligentsia of late Imperial Russia.

He had talent, and he had charisma. He charmed and married the celebrated Isadora Duncan, although their marriage, which shared no common tongue, lasted less than two years. His charisma enabled him to win the favour of Aexander Blok and to stage dramatic poetic performances that outdid Mayakovsky. He established his own school of poetry, called the Imaginist school, that was closer to surrealism than to Pound’s search for Chinese classicisms in Imagism. The final stanza of a 1917 poem that begins as a pastoral conveys something of this striking imagery.

In the misty, resonant grove
I watched yetserday
as a bay moon, like a foal,
harnessed herself to our sleigh.

Yesenin (1917), Penguin Book of Russian Poetry

This extraordinary poet created marvellous songs, and remains widely celebrated in Russia today. There are statues and monuments to him in many places, and it is said that most Russians know at least a few lines of Yesenin by heart. But his story was also exemplary of Russia in the years of the Revolution, the Civil War and the 1920s. Yesenin was a displaced peasant caught in the storm of revolutionary Russia. At first thrilled and excited, he soon discovered the Bolsheviks were a destructive whirlwind with contempt for the simple village life he praised in verse.

Yesenin’s poetic celebration of rural life was itself far removed from Yesenin’s real life. His life fell into a deep whirlpool of alcoholism, debauchery and consorting with the criminal underworld. This life divorced Yesenin from the Revolution, just as it destroyed his three short-lived marriages.

Increasingly his poetry celebrated not the rural village, but the Moscow underworld – criminals, thieves, prostitutes, beggars, and drunks. He is of a temper with Brecht’s Threepenny Opera but less jazzy, and more brutal in his assessment of ‘The Black Man’ that he had become. “I’m ill, I’m very ill” he sang in this poem. He did not know if he was ill because of visions of deserted fields in 1924 or the alcohol “stripping my brain/ like a grove of trees in September.” In the ‘Backstreets of Moscow’ (1922) he celebrated “this overdone city”, so different from his childhood village.

It’s noisy and dirty and drunken
but nobody there drinks alone –
the bartenders buy me a vodka
and the hookers cry at my poems

Yesenin, Backstreets of Moscow

But it was not home, where his old dog no longer waited for him to return. He knew the Revolution and his own choices had stripped him of the peace of his rural home: “God sent me to die in the backstreets/ and I can’t go home any more.”

His drinking veered into deep alcholism. He broke down and was hospitalised. Society and memory and the secret police all harassed him. Suicide beckoned inevitably for this black-marked poet. In December 1925, two days after leaving a mental hospital, Yesenin cut his wrists and wrote a farewell poem in his own blood. But the bleeding did not kill him, so in the morning in the Hotel Angleterre in Leningrad, where four years before he had stayed with Isadora Duncan, Yesenin hanged himself in the icon corner of the room.

The Burning Archive celebrates this light that burned twice as bright, and died twice as fast.

And nothing will rattle the soul,
Nothing will make it tremble —
Who has loved cannot love again,
Who has burned cannot be set on fire.

Yesenin, 1925 translated Anton Yakovlev

Image: Yesenin on his deathbed 1925, Wikimedia Commons

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