This is one of those poems that seems incomprehensible in hindsight, bit which was probably quite mainstream in the 1930s. There are some in this vein by Neruda, for example. It is a poem written on the death of a Russian Communist official, probably murdered on Stalin’s orders, who has himself been responsible for numerous deaths and atrocities. Today we would think it is probably good for the world that such folk get bumped off, but at that time there was still the notion of Communism as a force for good and the personalities of Communist leaders were almost venerated.
So the death of Kirov would have seemed a natural subject for a gifted English poet with Communist sympathies, as was John Cornford. And there is some pathos in the subject matter when we know that Cornford went on to be killed in the Spanish Civil War as a very young man, not quite 21, fighting against Franco’s forces.
Sergei Mironovitch Kirov
Nothing is ever certain, nothing is ever safe,
To-day is overturning yesterday’s settled good.
Everything dying keeps a hungry grip on life.
Nothing is ever born without screaming and blood.
Understand the weapon, understand the wound:
What shapeless past was hammered to action by his deeds,
Only in constant action was his constant certainty found.
He will throw a longer shadow as time recedes.
Rupert John Cornford
The poem only refers to the incident which inspired it in the title. The body of the poem describes the constant turmoil, instability and violence of a revolution such as Kirov was a main player in. It accepts that people suffer and die to bring about the new world, “nothing is ever born without screaming and blood”. The poem also seems to recognize that action itself, with all its destructive power, could become an end in itself, such that the cycle of violence is self-perpetuating. Despite this bleak and terrible message, the poem Is clearly meant to be in praise of Kirov and his like, with the last line implying that his legacy and reputation will grow as time passes. This is the tragic illusion of that generation. I wonder what would be the equivalent today? Poems in praise of Osama Bin Laden, perhaps?
The Poetry Dude