“We Rented to the Lenins,” Partisan Review, Vol. 6, No. 3, Spring 1939

Krupskaja_1890  Krupskya


“We Rented to the Lenins,” is a sort of ‘human interest’ anecdote by a Swiss cobbler and his wife who rented space in their house in Zurich to Lenin and his wife, Krupskya,  in 1917.  As the editors note, this unusual piece for PR contains ‘naive and shrewd comments’ about the Lenins’ domestic life in exile.  It also gives us a portrait of Lenin’s wife, Krupskya, who was his colleague, carer, and a serious writer-revolutionary herself.




For those of you who are reading on a Saturday morning, here is something that also sheds some light on Krupskya, written after her death by Leon Trotsky:

Leon Trotsky

Krupskaya’s Death

(March 1939)

Written: 4 March 1939.
Source: New International [New York], Vol. V No. 4, April 1939, p. 117.

“IN ADDITION TO being Lenin’s wife which – by the way, was not accidental – Krupskaya was an outstanding personality in her devotion to the cause, her energy and her purity of character. She was unquestionably a woman of intelligence. It is not astonishing, however, that while remaining side by side with Lenin, her political thinking did not receive an independent development. On far too many occasions, she had had the opportunity to convince herself of his correctness, and she became accustomed to trust her great companion and leader. After Lenin’s death Krupskaya’s life took an extremely tragic turn. It was as if she were paying for the happiness that had fallen to her lot.

Lenin’s illness and death – and this again was not accidental – coincided with the breaking point of the revolution, and the beginning of Thermidor. Krupskaya became confused. Her revolutionary instinct came into conflict with her spirit of discipline. She made an attempt to oppose the Stalinist clique, and in 1926 found herself for a brief interval in the ranks of the Opposition. Frightened by the prospect of split, she broke away. Having lost confidence in herself, she completely lost her bearings, and the ruling clique did everything in their power to break her morally. On the surface she was treated with respect, or rather with semi-honors. But with the apparatus itself she was systematically discredited, blackened and subjected to indignities, while in the ranks of the YCL the most absurd and gross scandal was being spread about her.

Stalin always lived in fear of a protest on her part. She knew far too much. She knew the history of the party. She knew the place that Stalin occupied in this history. All of the latter day historiography which assigned to Stalin a place alongside of Lenin could not but appear revolting and insulting to her. Stalin feared Krupskaya just as he feared Gorky. Krupskaya was surrounded by an iron ring of the GPU Her old friends disappeared one by one; those who delayed in dying were murdered either openly or secretly. Every step she took was supervised. Her articles appeared in the press only after interminable, insufferable and degrading negotiations between the censors and the author. She was forced to adopt emendations in her text, either to exalt Stalin or to rehabilitate the GPU. It is obvious that a whole number of vilest insertions of this type was made against Krupskaya’s will, and even without her knowledge. What recourse was there for the unfortunate crushed woman? Completely isolated, a heavy stone weighing upon her heart, uncertain what to do, in the toils of sickness, she dragged on her burdensome existence.

To all appearances, Stalin has lost the inclination to stage sensational trials which have already succeeded in exposing him before the whole world as the dirtiest, the most criminal and most repulsive figure in history. Nevertheless, it is by no means excluded that some sort of new trial will be staged, wherein new defendants will relate how Kremlin physicians under the leadership of Yagoda and Beria took measures to expedite Krupskaya’s demise.

But with or without the aid of physicians, the regime that Stalin had created for her undoubtedly cut short her life.

Nothing can be further from our mind than to blame Nadezhda Konstantinovna for not having been resolute enough to break openly with the bureaucracy. Political minds, far more independent than hers, vacillated, tried to play hide and seek with history – and perished. Krupskaya was to the highest degree endowed with a feeling of responsibility. Personally she was courageous enough. What she lacked was mental courage. With profound sorrow we bid farewell to the loyal companion of Lenin, to an irreproachable revolutionist and one of the most tragic figures in revolutionary history.”

March 4, 1939

Next Week:”The Anatomy of the Popular Front,” by Sidney Hook





“Life on a Battleship,” Wallace Stevens

The second poem of Stevens in the Spring, 1939 issue of Partisan Review, “Life on a Battleship,” was one of the few that he left out of his Collected Poems of 1954, as he had left it out of Parts of a World, the volume he next published in 1942.   There have been  recent attempts to admire it, or at least, to prove Stevens’s engagement the topics of politics and art, politics and literature, Stalinism and Trotskyism that the Partisan Review had been addressing from 1937 through WWII.  Since the 1960s there has been even more urgent and complex arguments to grant to lyric poets the credentials of political activism and political understanding. You won’t have missed it, I am certain.  And its just as true that poets aiming to address political topics have flourished over the last 70 years, keeping up with the human and natural crises that require elegiac as well as sharp-edged lyricism.

Wallace Stevens met and admired Philip Rahv and the two poems in the Spring 1939 issue of PR,  must be counted among those of a lyric poet who aims at contemporaneity.  But where “I knew a Woman who had more Babies than That,” makes a ironises and makes “wild” as Harold Bloom said of the poem, the political external world, “Life on the Battleship” begins in the now but abstracts from it not ideas of reality but of a false comedy of the arrogant captain.

Here it is: see what you think of it. Let me know.


I. The rape of the bourgeoisie accomplished, the men
Returned on board the “Masculine”. That night,
The captain said,
“The war between classes is
A preliminary, provincial phase,
Of the war between individuals. In time,
When earth has become a paradise, it will be
A paradise full of assassins. Suppose I seize
The ship, make it my own and, bit by bit,
Seize yards and docks, machinery and men,
As others have, and then, unlike the others,
Instead of building ships, in numbers, build
A single ship, a cloud on the sea, the largest
Possible machine, a divinity of steel,
Of which I am captain. Given what I intend,
The ship would become the centre of the world.
My cabin as the centre of the ship and I
As the centre of the cabin, the centre of
The divinity, the divinity’s mind, the mind
Of the world would have only to ring and ft!
It would be done. If, only to please myself,
I said that men should wear stone masks and, to make
The word respected, fired ten thousand guns
In mid-Atlantic, bellowing, to command,
It would be done. And once the thing was done,
Once the assassins wore stone masks and did
As I wished, once they fell backward when my breath
Blew against them or bowed from the hips, when I turned
My head, the sorrow of the world, except
As man is natural, would be at an end.”

II. So posed, the captain crafted rules of the world,
Regulae mundi, as apprentice of
First. The grand simplifications reduce
Themselves to one.
Of this the captain said,
“It is a lesser law than the one itself,
Unless it is the one itself, or unless
‘the Masculine’, much magnified, that cloud
On the sea, is both law and evidence in one,
As the final simplification is meant to be.
It is clear that it is not a moral law.
It appears to be what there is of life compressed
Into its own illustration, a divinity
Like any other, rex by right of the crown,
The jewels in his beard, the mystic wand,
And imperator because of death to oppose
The illustrious arms, the symbolic horns, the red
For battle, the purple for victory: But if
It is the absolute why must it be
This immemorial grandiose, why not
A cockle-shell, a trivial emblem great
With its final force, a thing invincible
In more than phrase? There’s the true masculine,
The spirit’s ring and seal, the naked heart.
It was a rabbi’s question. Let the rabbis reply.
It implies a flaw in the battleship, a defeat
As of a make-believe.

III. Second. The part
Is the equal of the whole.
The captain said,
“The ephebi say that there is only the whole,
The race, the nation, the state. But society
Is a phase. We approach a society
Without a society, the politicians
Gone, as in Calypso’s isle or in Citare,
Where I or one or the part is the equal of
The whole. The sound of a dozen orchestras
May rush to extinguish the theme, the basses thump
And the fiddles smack, the horns yahoo, the flutes
Strike fire, but the part is the equal of the whole,
Unless society is a mystical mass.
This is a thing to twang a philosopher’s sleep,
A vacuum for the dozen orchestras
To fill, the grindstone of antiquest time,
Breakfast in Paris, music and madness and mud,
The perspective squirming as it tries to take
A shape, the vista twisted and burning, a thing
Kicked through the roof, caressed by the river-side.
On “the Masculine” one asserts and fires the guns.
But one lives to think of this growing, the pushing life,
The vine, at the roots, this vine of Key West, splurging,
Covered one morning with blue, one morning with white,
Coming from the East, forcing itself to the West,
The jungle of tropical part and tropical whole.”


The first and second rules are reconciled                                                                                                  In a Third: The Whole cannot exist without/The parts(part IV continues on this photo)


Next Week: “We Rented to the Lenins”

Wallace Stevens, “The Woman That Had More Babies Than That,” Partisan Review, Vol. 6, No.3

Our next stop in the Winter, 1939 issue of PR is a poem by Wallace Stevens, “The Woman That Had More Babies Than That,” one of two that make up the set of Stevens’s contribution to this issue.   It is mid-summer here in London, 35 degrees, and its too hot to do much in the way of research or anything else, and the pavements are burning, but its a perfect day to think about thirst, water and the sea…and about Stevens, and William Carlos Williams, and W.B. Yeats, and the poetic consideration of Nature’s barriers.

An acrobat on the border of the sea
Observed the waves, the rising and the swell
And the first line spreading up the beach; again,
The rising and the swell, the preparation
And the first line foaming over the sand; again,
The rising and the swell, the first line’s glitter,
Like a dancer’s skirt, flung round and settling down.
This was repeated day by day. The waves
Were mechanical, muscular. They never changed,
They never stopped, a repetition repeated
Continually—There is a woman has had
More babies than that. The merely revolving wheel
Returns and returns, along the dry, salt shore.
There is a mother whose children need more than that.
She is not the mother of landscapes but of those
That question the repetition on the shore,
Listening to the whole sea for a sound
Of more or less, ascetically sated
By amical tones.
The acrobat observed
The universal machine. There he perceived
The need for a thesis, a music constant to move.

Many of you will hear in the first verse paragraph of what Harold Bloom calls Stevens’s  “wild poem”  murmurings of what had become “The Idea of Order at Key West” in his 1936 volume, Ideas of Order. That force of the ocean’s tides is a machine not an organic form, or rather, it has an organic infrastructure of a machinic repetitive activity.  It might also make you think of William Carlos Williams’s repeated cry against Nature in Paterson IV, “Thalassa, Thalassa, the Sea is not our home.” Both Stevens and Williams are in struggle against the claims of Nature’s authority and  instead seek the articulations of speech. For Williams, invention wins:  making rather than growing, on and off rather than more or less, these days, digital rather than analogue.  This argument between the natural organic and the humanly made poetic belongs to William Blake’s tradition as well.  “Where Man is Not, Nature is Barren.”

So we begin this poem with its evocation of the romantic waters, ‘the rising and the swell’ of the waves, at first evoking its beauty and in the pun of ‘the first line’ of both the border etched by the retreating water, and the first line of poetic invention, but soon separating out into an antinomy between flow and articulation.  ‘The woman who has had more babies than that,’ repeats the machinic and regular movements of the water, and which is grating and wearing away the fullness of the oceanic roar in itself.

But she becomes humanised, a mother,  not blind, not machinic,  who knows that her ‘children need more than that’. She protects those who question the repetition on the shore. Like the poet-acrobat, she  listens ‘to the whole sea for a sound’; and the poet-acrobat perceives/The need for a thesis, a music constant to move.’

You may have read, studied, memorised ‘The Idea of Order at Key West,’ and if you read it again now you can hear the movement, the motive to utterance of that more polished poem being formed in this one published in 1939.

Berceuse, transatlantic. The children are men, old men,
Who, when they think and speak of the central man,
Of the humming of the central man, the whole sound
Of the sea, the central humming of the sea,
Are old men breathed on by a maternal voice,
Children and old men and philosophers,
Bald heads with their mother’s voice still in their ears.
The self is a cloister full of remembered sounds
And of sounds so far forgotten, like her voice,
That they return unrecognized.
The old men, the philosophers, are haunted by that
Maternal voice, the explanation at night.
They are more than parts of the universal machine.
Their need in solitude: that is the need,
The desire, for the fiery lullaby.

Now, to the sound of the ‘Transatlantic lullaby (Berceuse)’ Stevens walks on the land, among the ‘central men,’  Emerson’s ‘man of good will and speech and morality, who performs the work of authorising the human as an articulating transformation of natural repetitions in their barrenness into aesthetic form.  And, here, the question which Stevens answers, has been written earlier, by  Yeats, in his 1933, “Among School Children”.

“What youthful mother, a shape upon her lap
Honey of generation had betrayed,
And that must sleep, shriek, struggle to escape
As recollection or the drug decide,
Would think her son, did she but see that shape
With sixty or more winters on its head,
A compensation for the pang of his birth,
Or the uncertainty of his setting forth?”

Yeats’s youthful mothers are first in the grip of the pains and tidal movements of birth, but Stevens brings the old men, ‘breathed on by a maternal voice, Children and old men and philosophers,/ Bald heads with their mother’s voice still in their ears,’ to the continuity and transformation of the maternal sound into its voice, ‘The self
Detects the sound of a voice that doubles its own,
In the images of desire, the forms that speak,
The ideas that come to it with a sense of speech’.

And the old men speak with the voice the ideas that come to them.

If her head
Stood on a plain of marble, high and cold;
If her eyes were chinks in which the sparrows built;
If she was deaf with falling grass in her ears—
But there is more than a marble, massive head.
They find her in the crackling summer night,
In the Duft of town, beside a window, beside
A lamp, in a day of the week, the time before spring,
A manner of walking, yellow fruit, a house,
A street. She has a supernatural head.
On her lips familiar words become the words
Of an elevation, and elixir of the whole.

We can see here how Stevens attributes the power of speech to the nurturing mother, but reserves its transformative ‘thesis’ for the articulations of the Emersonian “Central Man,” and there are some who have complained about that… , but for today, a hot sunny one, in which I am wearing my complacencies in the boudoir, I say,  ‘That was in another era, and besides, the poet’s dead.’

Next Week:  Wallace Stevens, ‘Life on a Battleship’