I've got a lot on my mind.I've got a beaver on my chin.

Mayakovsky and Nekrasov

Kornei Chukovsky


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.
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.

It is really startling how greatly this declaration resembles that which, under different social conditions and in different words, Nekrasov pronounced in his poetry: the same contempt for "the well-polished ear," the same struggle for the acceptance of new, democratic forms of verse, however "dour" or "rough" so long as they carry the full weight of popular feeling. Also, since Mayakovsky went much further than Nekrasov in "toughening up" his verse, in the use of "rough," "un-poetical" and even "anti-poetical" words and thus directly continued his work in this respect, so we, who have been subjected and are still subject to the influence of Mayakovsky, "the agitator, the loud-mouthed ring-leader," read Nekrasov with quite other eyes: the bold prosaisms which so shocked some of his contemporaries no longer strike us as offending against normal poetic practice. Readers who had been brought up on old-world aesthetics long felt all this as an invasion of poetry by the prosaic lexicon of the workaday world. However, after Mayakovsky had entered literature and opened out boundless perspectives for the widening of poetic vocabulary, after his full-tongued lyric vigor had proved the feasibility of introducing any conversational phrase into poetry, the "prosaisms" of Nekrasov were no longer felt so forcibly as in days gone by.

Thirty years ago the author of this study had a long talk with Mayakovsky in an attempt to establish a clear picture of his attitude to Nekrasov. Mayakovsky spoke of his distinguished predecessor with great sympathy and singled out one peculiarity of Nekrasov's work which he described thus: "As a poet, he was a jack-of-all-trades. And that is just what poets who aspire to serve revolution ought to be."

According to Mayakovsky, such poets are obliged to form the convictions and direct the will of their readers through every literary genre they are able to master. I asked Mayakovsky to write down this thought for me. He wrote it like this:

"What I like about (Nekrasov) now is that he could write anything, and especially vaudevilles. He would have been good in ROSTA1."

Nekrasov's mastery of various genres was the quality which particularly endeared him to Mayakovsky who was himself distinguished by such abundant versatility as the author of tragedies, mysteries, fantastic comedies, drama, agitki (propaganda plays), ROSTA posters, narrative poems, trade advertisements, film scripts, marches, children's verses, etc.

One way and another, "Nekrasov and Mayakovsky" is an extremely fruitful, topical and wide theme. In spite of all the vast difference between the epochs which produced these two poets, their kinship is evident.

Translated by Anne Richards

1ROSTA--Rossiyskoye Telegrafnoye Agentstvo (Russian Telegraph Agency), for which Mayakovsky worked as an artist and poet composing political posters--Tr.


Kornei Chukovsky [1992-1969]. Writer, children's poet, critic, literary scholar, translator, and editor. Began his career as a foreign correspondent in London, then as a writer for the symbolist journal Vesy. In 1905, he edited a short-lived satiric journal called Signal. In 1906, at Gorky's invitation, he edited the children's section of the publishing house Parus, and in 1918 he became head of the Anglo-American department of the publishing house World Literature. He composed several studies on the poet N.A. Nekrasov, including Nekrasov's Craftsmanship (1952), and he edited a 12-volume edition of Nekrasov's complete works. He translated the works of Walt Whitman, Mark Twain, G.K. Chesterton, Oscar Wilde, Fielding, Arthur Conan-Doyle, O. Henry, Kipling, and others. His numerous fairy tales in verse for children--such asMukha-mukha tsekatuka and The Crocodile Who Swallowed the Sun--remain popular in the 21st century.

Nikolai Nekrasov [1821-1878]. Poet, writer, and publisher. He began his career in 1840 with some romantic poems, which were not very popular. Following the advice of the critic Belinsky, Nekrasov switched to "civic poetry" in which he described with great compassion the suffering of the Russian peasant. Between 1846 and 1866, Nekrasov was co-owner and chief editor of the journal Sovremennik, which became Russian's leading literary journal, publishing works by Dostoevsky, Turgenev, Tolstoi, Belinsky, Chernyshevsky, and Dobrolybov, as well as by Nekrasov himself. Many of his contemporaries--used to the elegant verse of Pushkin and Lermontov--were shocked at Nekrasov's use of stark realism of detail, new rhythms, and earthy language. Perhaps his best-known work is Who Is Happy in Russia?, which describes the journey of seven peasants who wander throughout Russia in a fruitless search for a happy man.

Vladimir Mayakovsky. Oh, come on. Do I really have to tell you?

Return to: SovLit.net

Address all correspondence to: editor@sovlit.net

© 2012 SovLit.net All rights reserved.