After 1910 a general reaction occurred in Russian literature against the vagueness and obscurity of Symbolism. Acmeism, led by Gumilyov, and Futurism, under Mayakovsky, represented two of the directions taken by this reaction. A third direction was that followed by the so-called “peasant poets.” These writers, led by Nikolai Klyuyev, expounded a mystical faith in the Russian peasantry and worked folklore and religious liturgy into their poems. The greatest of the peasant poets was Sergei Esenin. Beginning as a student of Klyuyev, he soon surpassed his master in the form and content of his poetry.
The term “peasant poet” is extremely apt in Esenin’s case, for he always lamented the passing of traditional Russian life, the village, and the unsophisticated religion of the peasants. In one of his prose works, MARY’S KEYS, published in 1920, Esenin wrote about the origins of Russian art and culture and about the disintegration of Russian religiosity. He felt that without religious traditions the very source of folk art would disappear; whereas the earlier peasant had been able to orient himself in his environment, Esenin now felt that the peasants were uprooted and spiritually lost in an increasingly industrialized world. One critic of Esenin, V. Zavalishin, has said that Esenin knew and understood the meaning of folk art and the peasantry not as a learned scholar but as a man who had lived with them since childhood.
In 1916, Esenin published his first collection of poems, RADUNITSA, a quasi-pagan spring ritual for the dead. These early poems resemble Klyuyev’s work and often glorify the tranquil beauty of nature. In the following year Esenin welcomed the Revolution, but he saw it as a religious and not a political event. He felt that Bolshevism would wear itself out in time and would be superseded by a religious paradise. He saw only one obstacle to this earthly paradise: peasant fear and servility. The poem “Ionia,” written in 1918, urged the peasants toward courage and daring and predicted the advent of a proletarian Eden. Esenin’s religion was that of the Old Believers, a group which had split from the Orthodox Church, ostensibly over the question of whether the sign of the cross should be made with two fingers or three. The Old Believers had since dedicated themselves to dogma and fanatical faith, but Esenin reduced this faith to an earthly scale in such poems as “Returning Home” and “The Comrade.” Before long, however, Esenin realized the Revolution was not strengthening religion but substituting other ideas for it. In the poem “Mare’s Ships,” Esenin finally, though impressionistically, condemned the Revolution for the suffering and death it had caused.
Esenin feared the industrialization brought about by the Revolution. As an outward sign of increasing disillusionment, he founded, along with other younger writers, the Imaginism movement which flourished in Moscow from 1918 to 1920. The Imaginists, asserting that the distinctive nature of poetry lay in its imagery, tended to make their poems collections of word pictures, often far-fetched and exotic when they set coarse and crude images next to pathetic and sublime ones in their search for effects. But far more striking than their theory of literature was the kind of life they led. These writers took up a bohemian life of orgies and scandals, and it is said that Esenin...
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