Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Prologue” is an autobiographical poem, enabling the poet to express his beliefs and attitudes. Yet the poem is not exclusively personal. This may sound contradictory, but Yevtushenko has always been convinced of his mission as a poet speaking for his entire generation, not only for himself. Through his own declarations, he crystallizes a set of creeds for a coming generation ready to claim its own place in the sun and unwilling to accept the confines of the past. Perhaps for this reason, “Prologue” is almost like a manifesto, a programmatic poem that can be placed at the head of any collection of Yevtushenko’s poetry.

The themes that pervade the poem all circle around the poet’s need to be free to express himself as he sees fit. The fact that Yevtushenko has had to work for a long time in a highly confining environment has conditioned his approach to his art. For this reason, he is often coy in his allusions, despite his inherent boldness, perhaps so as to see his poems in print. One wonders how his poetry would seem had he been able to say exactly what he wanted, and in the way he wanted to, at the time it was written.

At the same time, it would be wrong to see “Prologue” primarily as an anguished outcry of a poet shackled by an oppressive system. Many of the themes in the poem—the insistence on being different, the ebullience of youth, a thirst for life and joy of living, the confusion of contradictory forces within oneself—could be applied universally. The universality of his themes, coupled with his artistic acumen, have enabled Yevtushenko to outlive the topics of the moment and remain a leading Russian poet for decades.

Yevtushenko’s pronouncement of his kinship with poets Yesenin and Whitman is of interest not only to literary historians but to the general reader as well. That he would be akin to Yesenin is not surprising, for both poets remain faithful to their rural origins while becoming urban poets later in their careers. The kinship with Whitman, plausible though it may seem (primarily because of their mutual closeness to nature), is more surprising; it brings a poet from the American prairies close to a poet from the Siberian taiga.