Tuesday, 9 April 2013

Kornei Chukovsky: Mayakovsky and Nekrasov (1952)

Nekrasov devoted all his powerful talent to the service of contemporaneity. "Contemporaneity" was one of his favorite words. The vast majority of his verses were topical reactions to burning questions of his day.

On this plane it is interesting to compare Nekrasov with a poet of our own era, Vladimir Mayakovsky, who, like Nekrasov, gave all his "resounding strength" to the service of contemporaneity. This is one of the most important links uniting the critical realism of Nekrasov with the socialist realism of Mayakovsky.

It is Mayakovsky's unremitting concern for the future which brings him so close to his great 19th-century predecessor. Nekrasov had no other heir who looked from the present out into the future with such passion, such avid curiosity. However, for the "peasant democrat" of the 60s only the very distant future could present itself in a rosy light whereas the immediate future loomed before his imagination in the gloomiest and most agonizing images ("My poor child! Do not look ahead!" "Fate had prepared for him... consumption, exile grim"). For Mayakovsky, the poet of the Soviet era, it was an indisputable, totally unassailable certainty that the nearest Soviet tomorrow would be rich in joys hitherto unknown to man.

Glory I sing
To my land
as it is
But glory threefold--
To my land as it shall be.

His poem Good! has, with some cause, been called prophetic. The same epithet could be applied to most of his other verses. In each case he was reaching out militantly towards the future and the "comrades of later generations" were invisibly present in almost everything that he wrote.

"As the living to the living"--that was how Mayakovsky spoke to the generations who were to succeed him, and were it not for this organic link with posterity he would never have become the favorite poet of the Soviet people who, from the first days of October, infected him with the high enthusiasm of their fight for the future, for this was the first people in the world to make constant thought of the happiness of their near and far descendants the guiding principle of all their labors and endeavor. It fell to Mayakovsky's lot to express his nationwide, Soviet enthusiasm.

Yet even as we remember this we should not forget that, in those distant years, in the forties and fifties of the preceding century, when Nicholas I's government considered the very thought of any future transformation of life subversive, when the ruling classes, persecuting every thing that was new, set out to teach the people that everything was planned ahead for the next thousand years and would remain unchanged until the World's End, there appeared a people's tribune, gifted with a vivid feeling for the future, unwearying in cultivating this feeling in his readers. This feeling he imbibed from the moods of the frustrated peasantry, who were just beginning to awake to their revolutionary struggle.

Mayakovsky was more fortunate than Nekrasov: his faith in a joyful tomorrow was conditioned by all the qualities and achievements of the new order, whereas Nekrasov's faith was founded solely on his hope in the miracle-working powers of the people. He was constantly aware of these powers and it is they which suggest the image of Russia:

.. .In her broad breast
There wells a living and unsullied flood--
A people's strength as yet untapped....

... He prophesied confidently of that same era which Mayakovsky had the good fortune to behold in his own life.

The common factors between Mayakovsky's and Nekrasov's poetry have not gone unnoticed by the critics. Victor Pertsov, for instance, in his monography Mayakovsky: Life and Work, emphasises the harmony between the lines from Cloud in Trousers:

We will redye Mondays and Tuesdays
With our blood-making them holidays!

and the famous verses Poet and Citizen:

Forward to face the guns for country, glory,
For all that you hold dear, revere as good....
Forward to pay the final debt of honor,
You will not die in vain; the cause will prosper
Whose roots are nurtured with free-flowing blood....

Pertsov writes that Mayakovsky's poem bears a generic resemblance to Nekrasov's in so far as it is "a direct apostrophe to the persecuted and deprived," and by its fidelity to "the ideas and civic traditions of the great Russian literature."

Indeed, strong civic feeling is characteristic of both poets. Mayakovsky, like Nekrasov, was totally absorbed in contemporary events. Like Nekrasov, he was unfailingly moved by "the heat and burden of the day." Even his insights into the future were, like Nekrasov's, conditioned by the demands of the moment. After, in 1917, he had cried out, apostrophising the revolution: "Be then glorified fourfold, oh, Blessed One," he was faced with the challenge of weeding out from the "Blessed" present remnants of the hateful past. Hence his gallery of satiric images. Nekrasov, in his time, had drawn up a similar gallery (liberals, wealthy peasants, bureaucrats, bankers, stock-brokers, etc.) in spite of the fact that at that time the growth of the new was still barely perceptible and the old order appeared still so powerful and menacing that sometimes it seemed as though it would abide forever. When Mayakovsky wrote of himself:

I, a sewageman,
a water-carrier
By the revolution called up and mobilized,
Went to the front,
straight from the refined rosariums
Of poetry,
a hard-to-please Madam-and worldly-wise,

it is unlikely that he fully realized that every line might be applied to his great predecessor. Nekrasov also felt himself to have been "mobilized and called up" from his youth, from the time of Belin sky; the proof of this is in his work and he himself confirms it when he compares his service to the people to a soldiers' at the front:

But I have served them well--my own heart tells me so....
For though not every soldier harms the foe
All must go to the wars! And fate decides who wins....

When Mayakovsky says that he has left "the refined rosariums of poetry," we cannot but remember that Nekrasov traveled precisely the same road and often contrasted himself with the "sweet singers" who were the product of refined, privileged culture. Mayakovsky's attacks on aesthetic, symbolist lyrical poetry, cultivated in the hot-house conditions of just such a privileged circle of readers, echo, often in the most minute details, the attacks made by Nekrasov, the democratic peasant's poet of the sixties, on the "sweet-stringed" poetry of the drawing-room romance, written to flatter the taste of sheltered aesthetes. In the heat of his polemics against the defenders of "pure art" Nekrasov, to emphasise his contempt for their aesthetic canons and tastes, called his own verse "dour," "clumsy," "halting." Mayakovsky said the same thing--and for the same reasons--about his own verse in his fight against the decadent poetry of "the old world":

Not for romance or ballads
or such stuff it is
That we've cast anchor here--
Our verse and rhymes may sound somewhat roughish
To the well-polished ear. ...

An extract from Kornei Chukovsky's 1952 work Nekrasov's Craftsmanship, providing an analysis of the thematic and stylistic similarities in the poetry of Nikolai Nekrasov and Vladimir Mayakovsky.

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