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Marina Ivanovna Tsvetaeva Russian poetess and writer, 1892-1941


Marina Tsvetaeva was born in Moscow on the 9th of October, 1892. She was one of the most original of the Russian 20th-century poets, and at the forefront of both the Acmeist and Symbolist movements in Russia. Her work was not looked kindly upon by Stalin and the then Bolshevik régime, and her literary rehabilitation only really began in the 1960s. Tsvetaeva's poetry arose from her own deeply convoluted personality, her eccentricity and tightly disciplined use of language. Among her themes were female sexuality, and the tension in women's private emotions; she bridges the mutually contradictory schools of Acmeism? and symbolism?.

Her father, one Ivan Vladimirovich Tsvetaev, was a professor of art history at the University of Moscow. He was later to found the Alexander III Museum, which is now known as the [Pushkin Museum]? of Fine Arts. Tsvetaeva's mother, Maria Alexandrovna Meyn, was Ivan's second wife. She had a considerable amount of musical talent but was to be frustrated in her dream of becoming a great concert pianist. Marina had two half-siblings, Valeria and Andrei, who were the children of Ivan's deceased first wife, Varvara Dmitrievna Ilovaisky (daughter of the historian Dmitri Ilovaisky). She also had a full sister, Anastasia, who was born in 1894.

In one of her autobiographical essays, Tsvetaeva gives a powerful description of a difficult and bittersweet childhood. Her mother had longed for a musically talented son; instead, perversely, she considered, she had a daughter with a gift for writing. She vented her frustration by mocking, and occasionally destroying, Marina's early poems. She favoured Anastasia over Marina, though this did not affect the sisters' relationship as one might expect. Tsvetaeva's father was kind, but deeply wrapped up in his studies and distant from his family. He was also still in love with his first wife. She, for her part, had had a tragic love affair before her marriage, and had not forgotten it.

There was considerable tension between Tsvetaeva's mother and Varvara's children, and Tsvetaeva's father maintained close contact with Varvara's family, whose sad story is related in Tsvetaeva's prose piece, 'The House at Old Pimen.' Yet Marina found solace in her love of literature and language, as she recounts in her essay 'My Pushkin.'

In 1903 Tsvetaeva's mother contracted tuberculosis. Because it was believed that a change in climate could help cure the disease, the family travelled abroad until shortly before her death in 1906. Marina and Anastasia attended schools in Italy, Switzerland, France and Germany. Italian, French, and German became as familiar to her as Russian as a consequence. In 1908, Tsvetaeva studied literary history at the Sorbonne?.

After her mother's death, Tsvetaeva gave up the music lessons she despised as a waste of her time and concentrated on poetry. Her first major work was a translation of [Edmond Rostand's]? L'Aiglon; no copy remains. At around this time, her reading of Tolstoy's [War and Peace]? led her into a hero worship of Napoleon. Tsvetaeva studied alone in Paris in 1909. She then attended a series of gymnasia in Russia, without any sort of academic success; by now her consuming interest was in poetry.

During this time, a major revolutionary change was occurring within Russian poetry: the flowering of the [Russian Symbolist movement]?, and this movement was to colour most of her later work. It was not the theory which was to attract her but the poetry and the immense gravity which writers such as [Andrey Bely]? and [Aleksandr Blok]? were capable of generating. Her own first collection of poems, Evening Album, was published in 1910. It attracted the attention of the poet and critic [Maximilian Voloshin]?, whom Tsvetaeva described after his death in 'A Living Word About a Living Man.' Voloshin came to see Tsvetaeva and soon became her friend and mentor.

She began spending time at Voloshin's home in the Black Sea resort of Koktebel, which was a well-known haven for writers, poets and artists. There she became friends with [Andrey Bely]?, whom she described in the essay 'A Captive Spirit.' She also became enamoured of the work of [Aleksandr Blok]? and [Anna Akhmatova]?, although she never met Blok and would not meet Akhmatova until the 1940s. Describing the Koktebel community, the emigré [Viktoria Schweitzer]? wrote: "Here inspiration was born."

At Koktebel, Tsvetaeva also met the ill-starred Sergei Yakovlevich Efron, a cadet in the Officers' Academy. She was 19, he 18: they fell in love instantly and were married in 1912.

Like all the loves of her adult life, Tsvetaeva's love for Efron was extremely intense, bordering on the pathologically obsessive. This did not however preclude her from having affairs, including one with [Osip Mandelstam]?, which she celebrated in a collection of poems called Mileposts. At around the same time, she also became deeply involved in an affair with the lesbian poet [Sofia Parnok]?, whom she addressed in a cycle of poems which at times she called 'The Friend,' and at other times 'The Mistake.'

Tsvetaeva and her husband lived in the Crimea until the revolution, and had two daughters: Ariadna, or Alya (born 1912) and Irina (born 1917). Then, in 1914, Efron volunteered for the front; by 1917 he was an officer stationed in Moscow with the 56th Reserve.

Tsetsaeva was to witness the Russian Revolution at first hand. On trains, she came into contact with ordinary Russian people and was shocked by the mood of anger and violence. She wrote in her journal: "In the air of the compartment hung only three axe-like words: bourgeois, Junkers, leeches".

After the 1917 Revolution, Efron joined the Tsar's White Army, and Marina returned to Moscow in the hope of meeting him there. Tsvetaeva was trapped in Moskow for five years. During the famine one of her daughters died of starvation. She wrote six plays in verse and narrative poems, including The Tsar's Maiden (1920), and her epic about the Civil War, The Swans Encampment, which glorified those who fought against the communists. These poems would be her most overtly political work. The cycle of poems in the style of a diary or journal begins on the day of Tsar Nicholas II's abdication in March 1917, and ends late in 1920, when the anti-communist White Army was finally defeated. The 'swans' of the title refers to the volunteers in the White Army, in which her husband Sergei Efron was fighting as an officer.

Tsvetaeva suffered terribly in the Moscow famine. Her father had died in 1913, her sister had remained in the Crimea, and she had no way to support herself or her daughters. In 1919, she placed Irina in a state orphanage, believing that she would be better fed there. Tragically, she was mistaken, and Irina died of starvation in 1920.

There are rumours that Tsvetaeva abused her younger daughter. At least one friend reported that Tsvetaeva used to tie Irina to a chair while she and Alya went out. In her biography of Tsvetaeva, Lily Feiler suggests that Irina may have had a genetic defect; at age two, she could hardly walk or talk. Perhaps the circumstances of her birth, her country in turmoil and her father far away, caused Tsvetaeva to resent her. Whatever the reason, Tsvetaeva certainly seems to have been indifferent to her, especially when you consider her affection toward Alya. The child's death, however, caused Tsvetaeva great grief and regret. In one letter, she said, 'God punished me.'

During these years, Tsvetaeva was sustained emotionally by a passionate friendship (biographers differ on whether it was anything more) with the actress Sofia Gollidey. She wrote several plays for her friend, including 'Knave of Hearts,' 'Snowstorm,' 'Adventure,' 'Fortune,' 'Stone Angel' and 'Phoenix.' Years later, on learning of Gollidey's death, she would remember her in the essay 'Sonyechka's Story.'

In 1921, after three years of silence, Tsvetaeva finally received word from her husband. He was alive and living in Germany. In May 1922, Tsvetaeva and Alya left the Soviet Union and were again reunited with Efron in Berlin. While still living in Moscow, Tsvetaeva had published work in the Paris émigré journal Contemporary Notes. In Berlin, she published the collections Separation, Poems to Blok and The Tsar Maiden.

In August 1922 the family moved to Prague. Unable to afford living accommodation in Prague itself, with Efron studying politics and sociology at Prague University and living in hostels, Tsvetsaeva and Ariadna found rooms in village soutside the city. In Prague, Tsvetaeva had a passionate affair with Konstantin Rozdevitch, a former military officer.

Her break-up with Rozdevitch in 1923 was almost certainly the inspiration for her great '[The Poem of the End]?', perhaps the single most brilliant and tragic poem of the 20th century. Tsvetaeva never felt comfortable in Czecholslovakia, never felt comfortable with the language or the culture, and this sense of isolation reverberates throughout every line of this most difficult and traumatic of poems. In her correspondence, Tsvetaeva details further this sense of alienation and her desire that her children should learn Russian and not Czech.

At about the same time, a more important relationship began: Tsvetaeva's correspondence with Boris Pasternak, who had stayed in the Soviet Union. The two had never met, and would not meet for nearly twenty years; in fact, Tsvetaeva would pass up several chances to meet Pasternak in Europe. But for a time they were in love, and they maintained an intimate friendship until Tsvetaeva's return to Russia. The last poem Tsvetaeva wrote in Prague was the lyrical satire, The Rat-Catcher.

In 1925 the family settled in Paris, where they would live for the next 14 years. In the same year, their son Georgy was born. She loved him obsessively, as she loved most of the men in her life. (Alya, for her part, was expected to be her mother's helper and confidante, and was robbed of much of her childhood.) However, the child did not return her love. By all accounts, he was a spoiled brat. The older he grew, the more he resented his mother.

In exile, as in Moscow, Tsvetaeva lived in poverty. Her husband was perpetually a student and was never able to hold a job. He also contracted tuberculosis, adding to the family's difficulties. Tsvetaeva received a meagre stipend from the Czech government, which gave financial support to artists and writers who had lived in Czechoslovakia. In addition, she tried to make whatever she could from readings and sales of her work. She turned more and more to writing prose because she found it made more money than poetry.

Tsvetaeva did not feel at home in Paris's circle of Russian émigré writers. Although she had written passionately pro-White poems during the Revolution, her fellow émigrés thought that she was not sufficiently anti-Soviet, and that her criticism of the Soviet régime was altogether too ambiguous. She was widely criticized for writing an admiring open letter to the Soviet poet [Vladimir Mayakovsky]?. After the letter appeared, the émigré paper The Latest News, to which Tsvetaeva had been a frequent contributor, refused point blank to publish any more of her work. She found solace in her correspondence with other writers, including Boris Pasternak, Rainer Maria Rilke, the Czech poetess [Anna Teskova]?, and the critics [D. S. Mirsky]? and [Aleksandr Bakhrakh]?.

Meanwhile, Tsvetaeva's husband was rapidly developing Soviet sympathies. Homesick for Russia, he had joined a movement called the Eurasians, which promulgated the repatriation of émigrés. He dreamed of a return to the U.S.S.R., but was afraid because of his past as a White soldier. Eventually, either out of idealism or to garner acceptance from the Communists, he began spying for the NKVD?, the forerunner of the KGB. Alya shared his views, and increasingly turned against her mother. In 1937, she returned to the Soviet Union.

Later that year, Efron too had to return to Russia. The French police implicated him in the murder of the former Soviet agent Ignaty Reyss in September 1937. After his escape, the police interrogated Tsvetaeva, but she seemed confused by their questions and ended up reading them some French translations of her poetry. The police thought that she might be mad, and concluded that she knew nothing of the murder. (Later it was learned that Efron had also taken part in the assassination of Trotsky's? son in 1936).

Tsvetaeva does not seem to have known that her husband was a spy. However, she was held responsible for his actions and was ostracised in Paris. With the advent of World War II, Europe must have seemed no safer a place than Russia. Tsvetaeva's last major work, 'Poems to Chekia,' was written in response to the German invasion of Czechoslovakia.

By now, Tsvetaeva felt that she no longer had a choice. In 1939 she and her son returned to the Soviet Union.

She could not have known the horrors which were in store for her. In Stalin's Russia, anyone who had lived abroad was suspect, as was anyone who had been among the intelligentsia before the Revolution. Tsvetaeva's sister had been arrested before Tsvetaeva's return; although Anastasia survived the Stalin years, the sisters never saw each other again.

Tsvetaeva found that all doors closed to her. Boris Pasternak found her bits of work translating poetry, but otherwise the established Soviet writers refused to help her. Soon after Tsvetaeva's return, Efron and Alya were arrested for espionage. Alya's fiancé, it turned out, was actually an NKVD? agent who had been assigned to spy on the family. Efron was shot in 1941; Alya served over eight years in prison. Both were exonerated after Stalin's death.

In 1941, Tsvetaeva and her son were exiled to Yelabuga, in the Tartar Autonomous Republic. They had no means of support. Georgy blamed his mother for their plight, and constantly nagged her for more money and better clothes. By 31 August, 1941, they had only enough money left for one loaf of bread. On that day, Tsvetaeva hanged herself. The exact location of her grave remains unknown.

Her Work

From a poem she wrote in 1913, in which she displays her propensity for prophecy:

 ''Scattered in bookstores, greyed by dust and time,
 Unseen, unsought, unopened, and unsold,
 My poems will be savored as are rarest wines - 
 When they are old. ''

Conversely, her poetry was much admired by poets such as [Valery Bryusov]?, [Maksimilian Voloshin]?, [Osip Mandelstam]?, Boris Pasternak, Rainer Maria Rilke, and [Anna Akhmatova]?. Today, that recognition is sustained by the poet [Joseph Brodsky]?, pre-eminent among Tsvetaeva's champions. Tsvetaeva is primarily a poet-lyricist, since her lyrical voice remains clearly audible in her narrative poetry.

Her lyric poems fill ten collections; the uncollected lyrics would add at least another volume. Her first two collections indicate their subject matter in their titles: Evening Album (Vechernii al'bom, 1910) and The Magic Lantern (Volshebnyi fonar', 1912). The poems are vignettes of a tranquil childhood and youth in a professorial, middle-class home in Moscow, and display considerable grasp of the formal elements of style.

The full range of Tsvetaeva's talent developed quickly, and was undoubtedly influenced by the contacts which she had made at Koktebel, and was made evident in two new collections: Mileposts (Versty, 1921) and Mileposts: Book One (Versty, Vypusk I, 1922).

Three elements of Tsvetaeva's mature style emerge in the Mileposts collections. First, Tsvetaeva dates her poems and publishes them, with few exceptions, in strict chronological order. The poems in Mileposts: Book One, for example, were written in 1916 and resolve themselves as a versified journal. Secondly, there are cycles of poems which fall into a regular chronological sequence among the single poems, evidence that certain themes demanded further expression and development. One cycle announces the theme of Mileposts: Book I as a whole: the "Poems of Moscow." Two other cycles are dedicated to poets, the "Poems to Akhmatova" and the "Poems to Blok", which again reappear in a separate volume, Poems to Blok (Stikhi k Bloku, 1922). Thirdly, the Mileposts collections demonstrate the startlingly dramatic quality of Tsvetaeva's work, her ability to assume the voices of others, to speak as another character, and her ability to fuse both the dramatic and the lyric in monologues, dialogues, choruses and soliloquies.

The collection entitled Separation (Razluka, 1922) was to contain Tsvetaeva's first long verse narrative, "On a Red Steed" (Na krasnom kone). The poem is a prologue to three more verse-narratives written between 1920 and 1922. All four narrative poems draw on folkloric plots, language, and iconography; Tsvetaeva acknowledges her sources in the titles of the very long works, The Maiden-Tsar: A Fairy-tale Poem (Tsar'-devitsa: Poema-skazka, 1922) and "The Swain", subtitled "A Fairytale" (Molodets: skazka, 1924). The fourth folklore-style poem is called "Byways" (Pereulochki, published in 1923 in the collection Remeslo), and it is the first poem which may be deemed incomprehensible in its otherwise marvelous play on sheer sound.

Tsvetaeva set her collection Psyche (Psikheya, 1923) apart giving it the secondary title Romantika, indicating that the groupings of poems by theme, unlike their counterparts in Mileposts: Book One (and, eventually, later collections) do not have a chronological sequence. This collection contains one of Tsvetaeva's best-known cycles "Insomnia" (Bessonnitsa) and The Swans' Encampment (Lebedinyi stan, Stikhi 1917-1921, published in 1957) which celebrates the [White Army]?. Subsequently, as an emigré, Tsvetaeva's last two collections of lyrics were published by emigré presses, Craft (Remeslo, 1923) in Berlin and After Russia (Posle Rossii, 1928) in Paris. These collections demonstrate Tsvetaeva's intense lyric power. The outpouring of cycles accelerates. Their expanded thematic and vocal range encompasses the vast and nocturnal secrecy of the twenty-three "Berlin" poems, the pantheistic "Trees" (Derev'ya), the stoic and broken renunciation of "Wires" (Provoda) and "Pairs" (Dvoe), and the tragic, proud credo of "Poets" (Poety). "After Russia" contains the poem "In Praise of the Rich", in which Tsvetaeva's oppositional tone is merged with her proclivity for ruthless satire.

In 1924, Tsvetaeva wrote "Poem of the End", which details a walk around Prague and across its bridges; the walk is about the final walk she will take with her lover Konstantin Rodzevitch. In it everything is foretold: in the first few lines (translated by Elaine Feinstein) the future is already written:

A single post, a point of rusting

tin in the sky
marks the fated place we
move to, he and I

Again, further poems foretell future developments. Principal among these is the voice of "the Greek Tsvetaeva" heard in the cycles "The Sibyl," "Phaedra," and "Ariadne." Tsvetaeva's beloved, ill-starred heroines reappear in two important verse plays, Theseus-Ariadne (Tezei-Ariadna, 1927) and Phaedra (Fedra, 1928), which themselves form the first two parts of an incomplete trilogy entitled Aphrodite's Rage.

The satirist in Tsvetaeva plays second fiddle only to the poet-lyricist. Several satirical poems, moreover, are among Tsvetaeva's best-known works: "The Train of Life" (Poezd zhizni) and "The Floorcleaners' Song" (Poloterskaya), both included in After Russia, and The Rat-catcher (Krysolov, 1925-1926), a long, folkloric narrative. The target of Tsvetaeva's satire is everything petty and petty bourgeois. Unleashed against such dull creature comforts is the vengeful, unearthly energy of workers both manual and creative. In her notebook, Tsvetaeva writes of "The Floorcleaners' Song": "Overall movement: the floorcleaners ferret out a house's hidden things, they scrub a fire into the door... What do they flush out? Coziness, warmth, tidiness, order... Smells: incense, piety. Bygones. Yesterday... The growing force of their threat is far stronger than the climax."

The poem which Tsvetaeva describes as liricheskaia satira, The Rat-Catcher, is loosely based on the legend of the Pied Piper of Hamelin. The Rat-Catcher, which is also known as The Pied Piper, is considered by some to be the finest of Tsvetaeva's work. It appeared initially, in serial format, in the emigré journal Volia Rossii in 1925-1926 whilst still being written. It would not appear in the Soviet Union until 1956. Its hero is the [Pied Piper of Hamelin]? who saves a town from hordes of rats and then leads the town's children away too, in retribution for the citizens' ingratitude. As in the other folkloric narratives, The Ratcatcher's story line emerges indirectly through numerous speaking voices which shift from invective, to extended lyrical flights, to bathos. Tsvetaeva's polyphony reaches its acme, both in the number of speakers (including the Piper's pipe itself), the constant variation of tones, and the diversity of perspectives adopted. The line length ranges from three to twelve syllables, and the verbal texture which is with neologisms (elsewhere relatively rare), its onomatopoeia, and its astounding display of paronomasia, the central device of all Tsvetaeva's later work.

Tsvetaeva's last ten years in emigration, from 1928 when After Russia appeared to her departure for the Soviet Union in 1939, have been called the "prose decade." It was preceded, however, by two series of prose pieces: a set of short sketches related to the revolutionary and civil-war period from 1917 to 1920, and a set of literary essays dating from 1922 to 1931.

The literary work is comprised of criticism, short tributes to the poets Balmont, Kuzmin, Bryusov, Mandelshtam, and Rilke, and a portrait of the painter [Natalya Goncharova]?. The prose decade opens with two essays that examine literature in the perspective of history and ethics: "The Poet and Time" (Poet i vremya) and "Art in the Light of Conscience" (Iskusstvo pri svete sovesti), both published in 1932. In 1933 Tsvetaeva's prose began to draw extensively on her past, although few of the twenty or so prose pieces of this period can be called "autobiographical" in the usual sense of that word; the prose emanates from Tsvetaeva's duty to preserve a vanished past and then travels beyond autobiography into a mytho-poetic recreation of a childhood which metaphorically relates the future destiny of the poet. This mytho-biography arrives in four attenuated prose works. Written separately and published with more conventionally autobiographical short works, "The House at Old Pimen" (Dom u Starogo Pimena, 1934), "Mother and Music" (Mat' i muzyka, 1935), "The Devil" (Chert, 1935), and "My Pushkin" (Moi Pushkin, 1937), present the ancestry and birth of the poet in quasi-autobiographical settings which, although authentic, function primarily as clues to both the literary and mythical constants in which the poet's real life is lived.

"Art in the Light of Conscience" finds a match in Tsvetaeva's two literary portraits of the period, "A Living Word about a Living Man" on the poet Voloshin? (Zhivoe o zhivom, 1933) and "A Captive Spirit" on [Andrey Bely]? (Plennyi dukh, 1934). Literary criticism too explores wholly new areas in the short essay on Goethe's and Zhukovsky's "Erlkonig" (Dva lesnykh tsarya, 1934) and in the long study "Pushkin and Pugachev" (Pushkin i Pugachev, 1937).

What other poets have said about Tsvetaeva

Boris Pasternak's praise of Mileposts can be extended to all of Tsvetaeva's poetry:

"I was immediately tamed by the lyrical power of Tsvetaeva's form, which had become her very flesh and blood, which had strong lungs, had a tight, concentrated hold, which did not gasp for breath between lines but encompassed without a break in rhythm whole sequences of stanzas, developing their innate elements."

[Joseph Brodsky]? writes of Tsvetaeva's unique place in Russian literature:

"Represented on a graph, Tsvetaeva's work would exhibit a curve--or rather, a straight line--rising at almost a right angle because of her constant effort to raise the pitch a note higher, an idea higher (or, more precisely, an octave and a faith higher.) She always carried everything she has to say to its conceivable and expressible end. In both her poetry and her prose, nothing remains hanging or leaves a feeling of ambivalence. Tsvetaeva is the unique case in which the paramount spiritual experience of an epoch (for us, the sense of ambivalence, of contradictoriness in the nature of human existence) served not as the object of expression but as its means, by which it was transformed into the material of art."


Translators of Tsvetaeva's work into English include [Elaine Feinstein]? and [David McDuff]?.

Sources "Marina Tsvetaeva, Selected Poems" translated by Elaine Feinstein "Tsvetaeva", Viktoria Schweitzer, London 1993 "Hope Against Hope", Nadezdha Mandelstam "Hope Abandoned", Nadezdha Mandelstam "An Essay in Autobiography", Boris Pasternak


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