Sergei Yesenin lived a short life. Over barely thirty years, he wrote hundreds of beautiful poems in both short and epic verse, along literary prose and a vast collection of letters containing his thoughts on spirituality, philosophy, religion, Russia and the Revolution, reviews of cultural happenings throughout Russia and foreign countries, and his take on the greatest works of world literature. In 1914, he wrote, “I do not live in vain.” His brief, bright life left has left a deep mark on Russian literature and in every human heart.
Sergei Aleksandrovich Yesenin was born October 3rd, 1895, in the village of Konstantinovo, in the Kuzminskaya Parish of Ryazan’ province. He moved to Moscow in 1912, settling in at 24 Bolshoy Strochenovski Pereulok (the current home of the Yesenin Museum of Moscow.) His first publications came after his move to Moscow – pastoral poems in a children’s magazine.
Although he found work and companionship at Sytin’s typography, audited courses at Shaniavsky University, and joined the Surikov literary-musical circle, the young poet found Moscow’s literary scene to be lacking. In 1915, Yesenin left Moscow, and his civil marriage to Anna Izryadovna, for St. Petersburg.
Upon arrival in the Northern capital, Yesenin met with Alexander Block, whose approval led to introductions to famous poets like Gorodetsky, Klyuev, Gippius, Merezhkovsky, as well as to to publishers. Yesenin’s poems began to be published in respected St. Petersburg poetry journals. He started getting invited to literary salons. His first collection – “Radunitsa” – was published in 1916.
In 1917, he married Zinaida Reich, who would go on to become one of the best-known actresses of the Soviet stage.
Yesenin initially welcomed the Revolution of 1917, expecting that it would bring about a “peasant paradise.” He wasn’t uncritical of the revolution’s bloody cost. In his poem “Mares’ ships,” he wrote “With oars of severed hands/you row into the country of what’s to come.” 1917-1918 saw Yesenin completing “Otchar,” “Advent,” “Transformation,” and “Inonia.”
1918 brought him back to Moscow. Here, with Marienhof, Shershenevich, Kusikov, and Gruzinov, Yesenin founded the Imagist movement, from the English “image,” a poetry style distinguished by its use of complex metaphor.
Yesenin’s take on Imagism was that a poem couldn’t simply be a “catalog of images,” that the imagery should be meaningful, should communicate something. In his essay “Life and Art,” the poet insisted on sense and meaning within the image.
The highest expression of his Imagism, in his own estimation, was “Pugachev,” which Yesenin worked on in 1920-1921.
In the Fall of 1921, Yesenin met Isadora Duncan, the American founder of modern dance. They married on May 2nd, 1922. Together, the spouses toured Europe and America. While abroad, Yesenin worked on the cycle “Moscow Taverns,” the dramatic poem “A Country of Scoundrels,” and the first draft of “The Black Man.” “Hooligan’s Testament” was published in Paris later that year. In Berlin, in 1923 – “The Poems of a Rowdy.”
Separating from Duncan, the poet returned to Moscow in August, 1923.
His late creative period (1923-1925) saw Yesenin taking creative flight. The cycle “Persian Motifs,” written during a trip to the Caucasus, is a true masterpiece of lyrical poetry. His last spouse, Sophia Tolstaya, whom he married in 1925, witnessed the birth of many works: “Poem of 36,” “The Song of the Great Campaign,” and the collection “On Russia and the Revolution.”
This last creative period was characterized by a particularly philosophical bent. The poet was looking back on his life’s path, thinking about its meaning, trying to make sense of the events that so transformed his homeland, to find his place in the new Russia. Often, he thought about death. After finishing the final draft of “The Black Man,” upon sending it to his friend Pyotr Chagin, Yesenin wrote, “I am sending you “Black Man.” Read and think, what are we fighting for, lying in bed?..”
Sergei Yesenin’s life was severed in St. Petersburg, on the night of the 27th to the 28th of December, 1925. The poet is buried at Vagankovsky Cemetery, in Moscow.