In the Caucasus (На Кавказе), Sergei Yesenin

On the Caucasus Mountains, Lev Lagorio, 1879
On the Caucasus Mountains, Lev Lagorio, 1879

Yesenin travelled to the Caucasus in 1924, and wrote this poem in Tblisi. Is this self-mocking? He was certainly at a low ebb: he had returned from a disastrous trip to America with Isadora Duncan without her in 1923, and was sinking ever deeper into alcoholism. He was reassessing his view of the Revolution, which he had welcomed, but grown disillusioned with. Now he aspired to be a revolutionary poet, but probably felt himself to be in Mayakovsky’s shadow. He might succumb to the notion that, like Pushkin and Lermontov, he could draw on the Caucasus for inspiration; on the other hand, Griboyedov had met a grizzly end there. Is his reference to Klyuev – who had been, many believe, Yesenin’s lover, as catty as it seems? I’m not sure what the answers are, but I find it all very fascinating…

One or two explanations: I found it impossible to retain “Parnassus” in the first line of the first stanza; the references in the stanzas about Lermontov are to “A Hero of Our Time”; Griboyedov (a poet, playwright, composer and diplomat) was murdered with the entire Russian embassy in Tehran in 1813; the Mossel’prom is a constructivist building in Moscow for which Mayakovsky coined the slogan “Everything for everyone — at Mossel’prom”; Klyuev is described as “the little deacon of Ladoga” – Ladoga being the lake in Karelia where the Valaamo monastery was (and now is again) – but “Karelian” fitted the metre.

The Russian bard since ancient times
Has yearned for countries strange and distant,
And most of all Caucasian climes
Have strangely lured with mist insistent.

Here Pushkin, flamed with passion, wrote
With outcast’s lonely sad complaining:
“Do not, my beauty, single note
Of Georgian song sing, sadness feigning.”

And Lermontov, in jolly screed,
Of Azamat he has related,
Who in exchange for Kazbich-steed
Instead of gold his sister traded.

His face was sad, of jaundiced hue
Just like the fevered rivers’ yellow,
As bard and officer he drew
His gun, and felled was by his fellow.

And Griboyedov’s buried here,
Our tribute to the Shah of Persia,
Beneath the mountain lay his bier,
He sleeps to dirge of horn and zither.

And circumstance now finds me here,
Arrived I did, not knowing reason:
Perhaps for home to shed a tear,
Or fathom when’s my mortal season.

Whatever! Thinking now I’m found
Of all my great departed forebears.
For healed they were by guttural sound
Of all your vales and savage waters.

They from their foes were running here,
From comrades too they swift departed,
They wanted footsteps’ sound to hear
And see from heights ways yet uncharted.

To flee from woes I’ve made my choice,
I’ve said farewell to artsy clusters,
Because matured has poet’s voice,
Now great and epic themes it musters.

For Russian ardour’s sweet to me.
There’s Mayakovsky and his gaggle –
But quite the greatest one is he –
He sings of Mossel’prom’s new haggle.

Karelian deacon Klyuev, proud,
His lines are like a padded jacket,
I read them yesterday aloud –
And caged canary ceased its racket.

I have no words for others’ lure,
But under frigid sun they’ve ripened.
They lack the knowledge, that’s for sure,
To sully page in quest for stipend.

Forgive me that I, Caucasus,
To you so casually have spoken,
Instruct my Russian verse to ooze
As dogwood juice from berry woken.

So when to Moscow I return,
I might contrive in loveliest verses
Then to forget grief’s needless burn
And all bohemian friendship’s curses.

Alone again I then might quote,
At end old Russia not disdaining:
“Do not, my beauty, single note
Of Georgian song sing, sadness feigning.”


Издревле русский наш Парнас
Тянуло к незнакомым странам,
И больше всех лишь ты, Кавказ,
Звенел загадочным туманом.

Здесь Пушкин в чувственном огне
Слагал душой своей опальной:
«Не пой, красавица, при мне
Ты песен Грузии печальной».

И Лермонтов, тоску леча,
Нам рассказал про Азамата,
Как он за лошадь Казбича
Давал сестру заместо злата.

За грусть и жёлчь в своем лице
Кипенья желтых рек достоин,
Он, как поэт и офицер,
Был пулей друга успокоен.

И Грибоедов здесь зарыт,
Как наша дань персидской хмари,
В подножии большой горы
Он спит под плач зурны и тари.

А ныне я в твою безглядь
Пришел, не ведая причины:
Родной ли прах здесь обрыдать
Иль подсмотреть свой час кончины!

Мне все равно! Я полон дум
О них, ушедших и великих.
Их исцелял гортанный шум
Твоих долин и речек диких.

Они бежали от врагов
И от друзей сюда бежали,
Чтоб только слышать звон шагов
Да видеть с гор глухие дали.

И я от тех же зол и бед
Бежал, навек простясь с богемой,
Зане созрел во мне поэт
С большой эпическою темой.

Мне мил стихов российский жар.
Есть Маяковский, есть и кроме,
Но он, их главный штабс-маляр,
Поет о пробках в Моссельпроме.

И Клюев, ладожский дьячок,
Его стихи как телогрейка,
Но я их вслух вчера прочел —
И в клетке сдохла канарейка.

Других уж нечего считать,
Они под хладным солнцем зреют.
Бумаги даже замарать
И то, как надо, не умеют.

Прости, Кавказ, что я о них
Тебе промолвил ненароком,
Ты научи мой русских стих
Кизиловым струиться соком.

Чтоб, воротясь опять в Москву,
Я мог прекраснейшей поэмой
Забыть ненужную тоску
И не дружить вовек с богемой.

И чтоб одно в моей стране
Я мог твердить в свой час прощальный:
«Не пой, красавица, при мне
Ты песен Грузии печальной».

Translation by Rupert Moreton

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s