• Print

A Poet’s Tragedy

Marina Tsvetaeva
Marina Tsvetaeva; drawing by David Levine

Marina Tsvetaeva is the most Russian of poets in the same sense in which Hardy could be called the most English of poets, or Whitman the most American. Paradoxically Russia’s greatest poet, Pushkin, is not, in the obvious sense, very Russian. Of course a Russian poetry-lover would rightly say that this is a meaningless observation, but it does none the less remain true that Shakespeare and Pushkin are not placed by their nationality. Other poets are, and Tsvetaeva is one. It alters the case not at all—in fact it confirms it—that her family origins were also part Polish, part German: the most intensively English persons often come from Ireland, and American expatriates have been known to be more French than the French.

The Russianness of Tsvetaeva’s poetry and prose—singularly direct and forceful as they are—consists in an obvious authenticity of the emotions. Everything is felt instantly and strongly; everything is strashny and vesely—terrible and joyful—and yet about this directness there is nothing histrionic, sloppy, or self-indulgent. It can however be contemptuous. Isaiah Berlin has remarked on the “emotional superiority” implicit in the Russian outlook.

…a sense of the west as enviably self-restrained, clever, efficient, and successful, but also as being cramped, cold, mean, calculating, and fenced in, without capacity for large views or generous emotion, for feeling which must, at times, rise too high and overflow its banks…and consequently condemned never to know a rich flowering life.

The flowering of life is immensely strong, immensely spontaneous in Tsvetaeva’s poetry, but that goes with an equally extraordinary precision and technical skill, an originality which was discerned by some of her poetic contemporaries but both in émigré circles and the Soviet establishment not fully recognized until the present decade.

But she has always been a poet’s poet. Her first privately printed poetry, Evening Album, came out in 1910 when she was eighteen, and the young Pasternak was at once struck by the poems of her second collection, Versty I, written after Russia had been two years at war. He probably did not read them until the chaotic civil war years, when Tsvetaeva was producing her series of poems about the White Guard in Southern Russia, Lebednii Stan, The Demesne of Swans, which now appears for the first time in an excellent bilingual edition with a scholarly apparatus and notes.

What impressed Pasternak, one supposes, was the absence of preciousness, of littérature in the sense in which it had obtained a stranglehold on symbolist and post-symbolist poetry. For Yeats, life existed to end up in a poem, and why not? But art must always try to crawl under the net of its own artifice. Probably it takes a poet, at the outset, to see how another poet has done it. Yeats made his style stark and brutal, saluting the arrival of the Savage God. Alexander Blok used meter and style in The Twelve to take the poem into the streets, among brutal, illiterate revolutionaries. But no one is deceived. Their poems remain as upstage as ever, which is not to say they are not marvelous and magical. “Gaiety transfiguring all that dread,” writes Yeats, and a contemporary and friend of Blok observed that terrors and splendors for him were what could be made terrible and splendid in poetry.

Tsvetaeva’s poems are not like that. Even her very great and elder contemporary Akhmatova can write of “joy and terror at the heart” without making the reader feel that these are anything but the emotions that the poet is working on. Brodsky compares her to Auden: a surprising judgment but one sees why. Both had very strong moral convictions—a rare thing among poets—which ultimately control their poetry, rather than the poetry creating by itself an image and likeness of the poet. Principle in both of them anticipates poetry. Tsvetaeva’s passions, hatred of injustice, anarchy, and corruption, profound admiration for duty, honor, loyalty, and trust, are as it were the standard strong feelings, but they seem to belong to her as a person not as a poet, even when she is writing poetry. Nothing could be less modish than her feelings or her poems, which may explain why they have never quite fallen in with, or been discovered by, followers of poetic fashion, like the recent ones for confessions, suicides, the violence of nature, “The Savage God.” Tsvetaeva’s suicide cannot be seen as Sylvia Plath’s could, as an aspect or requirement of her art.

It was simply the end of the road, a long and agonizing one. Like most Russian writers of the time Tsvetaeva had a sheltered and happy childhood. Her father was professor of art history at the University of Moscow, and her mother, who came from both German and aristocratic Polish stock, was a lover of art and a talented pianist, a former pupil of Rubinstein. She was educated at boarding schools in Switzerland and Germany as well as Moscow and later studied French poetry in Paris and attended lectures at the Sorbonne. Precocious, her verses had already attracted attention from Russian poets such as Gumilev (Akhmatova’s husband), the symbolist Bryusov, and Max Voloshin, who ran a kind of permanent house party for young writers at his home in Koktebel on the Crimean coast. It was there at the age of eighteen that Tsvetaeva met Sergei Efron, who was a year younger than she and also hoping to become a writer. She made her decision in a typically firm and forthright manner. “I resolve that no matter what I will never part with him, and I [will] marry him.”

Efron could be a character out of Conrad’s Under Western Eyes: he would fascinate any great novelist. He was also the right choice for Tsvetaeva, at least in so far as she conformed to the description given by Nadezhda Mandelstam in Hope Abandoned.

She was absolutely natural and fantastically self-willed…cropped hair, loose-limbed gait—like a boy’s—and speech remarkably like her verse. Her willfulness was not just a matter of temperament but a way of life. She could never have reined herself in, as Akhmatova did. Reading her verse and letters now I realize that what she always needed was to experience every emotion to the very utmost, seeking ecstasy not only in love, but also in abandonment, loneliness, and disaster.

Of course nobody, least of all a genius, quite conforms to that sort of stereotype. But the wish to shock, the bobbed hair, the cigarettes, the adolescent affairs—these are certainly the hallmarks of the period and were being tried out by strong-minded young women everywhere, by Katherine Mansfield in New Zealand and London, by the heroines of Lawrence’s The Rainbow and Women in Love. Incorrigibly novelistic as we are we could see Tsvetaeva as incubated in such emancipated fictional fashion worlds as those of Artsybashev’s Sanin, or Bely’s, or Remizov’s, Lawrence’s too if we transpose to an un-Russian key—but then entering and growing up into the real thing, into a work of Dostoevsky or Conrad.

The most touching photograph in the remarkable collection that Ardis have put together for their pictorial biography of Tsvetaeva shows her with Efron in the spring of 1911. With his childish good looks and party clothes, her soft hair and pince-nez and sturdily chubby features, they look like Hansel and Gretel, young lovers in a fairy tale. Four lustrous eyes gaze at the camera with stern concentration and melting candor. The features could be those of young revolutionaries from the Eighties of the previous century, but the look is wholly different, both gentler and more determinedly egotistical.

Their first child, christened Ariadna, was born a year later, and a second daughter in 1917. In the meantime Mandelstam had fallen in love with Tsvetaeva and pursued her from Petersburg to Alexandrov before giving up. Both commemorated the abortive affair in poetry, Tsvetaeva in the lyrical diary of Versty I. After the Bolshevik coup Efron got away to the south and joined the White army; she was caught in Moscow during the famine with the two children, and the younger died of malnutrition in the orphanage where she had been compelled to leave her. From 1917 to 1922 she never saw her husband or knew if he still lived. She wrote in her diary: “If God performs a miracle and leaves you among the living, I shall serve you like a dog.”

When she heard from him they agreed to emigrate together, and met in Prague, moving to Paris after a few years. Although Tsvetaeva had written a passionate and beautiful poem cycle celebrating the cause of the White army she was not accepted or thought well of among the émigré sects. Though her sentiments were orthodox, even xenophobic, they sensed that her art was in its own way revolutionary. Good poetry has in any case its own ways of refusing to identify wholly with “us,” as against “them,” and perhaps nobody was ever so conscious of “us” and “them” as a Russian at that time. Number 36 of the Swan poem cycle gives us Tsvetaeva’s own kind of poetic individualism, which her adored Pushkin would have appreciated. A “winged soul” is indifferent to class warfare, to the arrogance of the haves, and to the envy of the have-nots. “I have two foes in the world, twins inextricably interrelated—the hunger of the hungry and the glut of the glutted!” And though that sentiment would have got past the authorities in the Soviet Union, the technique, like Mayakovsky’s, was too avant-garde for the growing conservatism of the new Red orthodoxy.

She herself put her dilemma pungently. “In the emigration they began (enthusiastically!) publishing me, then, on reflection, they withdrew me from circulation, sensing it was not in-our-line but from-over-there. The content seemed to be ‘ours,’ but the voice—theirs!… For those on the Right it is Left in form. For those on the Left it is Right in content.” When Mayakovsky came to Paris she attended one of his readings at the Café Voltaire. When journalists asked her afterward what the recital made her think of the present Russia, she replied, “That strength is over there.” She meant, which was true, that the best Russian poets were still in Russia, and it was their strength which was lacking among the poets of the emigration. But the comment was held to be pro-Soviet, and her work, on which her family depended for its small income, was boycotted from all the émigré magazines.

The same spirit of division obtained in the family itself. Efron, to whom she remained wholly loyal, had himself acquired Soviet views; their daughter and the son born to them in Czechoslovakia, now growing up, followed their father’s example and wished like him to go back to Russia. They were desperately poor; at one time Tsvetaeva wrote that their only income was the four or five francs a day their daughter earned by making bonnets. This Dickensian touch was no doubt strictly accurate, though it is clear from the many photographs in the Pictorial Biography that things were not always so bad and that help of some kind was usually forthcoming. None the less it seems that simple poverty was one factor in her family’s wish to leave for the workers’ paradise that Soviet propaganda depicted, despite the many disillusioned letters they had from friends who tried it.

There were other factors too. Efron, who was partly Jewish (his family were connected with the famous Efron-Brockhaus encyclopedia), had never been a convinced “Orthodox,” and his experiences on the supply lines of the White army had not been such as to promote chivalric faith. It is touching that Tsvetaeva herself gloried in her husband’s mixed ancestry and wrote a poem about his handsomeness, his face “narrow as a sword” and eyes “beautifully without purpose”: “In his face tragically intermingle two ancient bloods.”

In him I am faithful to chivalry,
To all of you who lived and died without fear!
In times of fate such men
Write verses—and go to the block!

Efron, one imagines, was not always disposed to follow this model and the liberation of Russian Jews in the early idealist days of the revolution may itself have had an appeal for him. “If only you knew,” his wife wrote to a friend, “how ardent, magnanimous, profound a young man he is.” Though they were a loving couple Efron’s answer to this was to cultivate on the side his own style of individuality and dedication. One feels in him the odd presence of a wary, unspontaneous, perhaps bewildered man, weakened by illness and privation—he was a consumptive of long standing—and wanting to exhibit his own talents as a story-writer. That may have something to do with his becoming involved in the most sinister of stories. Without telling his wife, he had joined in 1932 an organization known as “The Union for the Return to the Fatherland.” He became a full-time official of what increasingly became a Soviet front organization—the name significantly changed to “Union of Friends of the Soviet Fatherland”—and was secretly recruited by the European department of the OGPU.

In September 1937 the Swiss police discovered a bullet-riddled corpse in a country road near Lausanne. It proved to be that of a defected OGPU agent who had been murdered by his former comrades on orders from above. Investigation clearly pointed to Efron as having helped to organize not only this killing but that in France of Trotsky’s son Andrei Sedov. Efron had to disappear, and he did so via Republican Spain, ending up in the Soviet Union. Not long afterward he was arrested in the purges and summarily shot, presumably because he knew too much. His daughter Ariadna, who had earlier returned to Russia and become a devoted supporter of the regime, was sent into the Gulag and re-emerged in the Fifties—a crumpled photo in the Pictorial Biography shows a haggard woman with huge staring eyes. The eloquence of the photographs in this book is positively creepy. The last ones of Efron himself, in Paris and the Crimea, present a tragic yet strangely tranquil face, barely recognizable as that of the rather passive little dandy whom Tsvetaeva had carried off.

She refused to believe he was implicated in the murders, and when she heard he was in Russia prepared at once to join him there. It was her duty. Recalling the promise she made to herself at the time of their first separation she wrote on the same page of her diary “Voi i poidu—kak sobaka“—“And here am I, about to go—like a dog (21 years later).” This recalls the archetypes of the strong loyal Russian woman and the weak indeterminate man she loves—Pushkin’s Onegin, Turgenev’s Rudin, Chekhov’s Ivanov. But life is worse than fiction: the strength of that “fantastically self-willed” girl, whose loyalty was a kind of superb egotism, was nearly at an end. She was not persecuted in the Soviet Union. The authorities who had destroyed her husband and daughter, converts to the cause, seemed uninterested in one who had been always conspicuously against them. But to fellow writers she was bad news; they kept well away, and she and her son, now aged fifteen, were reduced again to extreme poverty and isolation.

She had been devoted to him as a little boy. Napoleon had always been one of her heroes, and physically her son resembled the great man to an extraordinary degree. “Mur lives torn between my humanism and the virtual fanaticism of his father. He is very serious. His mind is acute, but sober: Roman. He loves the magical too, but as a guest. All hope rests on that forehead. He loves me like his very own possession. And already—little by little—he is beginning to value me.” But that relation seems to have vanished by the time they were back in Russia. Another writer recalled later her bewilderment and loneliness—“she and her son, in my observation, had no common language.” Natural enough, at that age, but in the circumstances tormenting and heart-breaking. She felt that her position and reputation would ruin his life. When war came they were evacuated to Elabuga in the Tartar republic, and there, at the lowest ebb, she decided to carry out what she had long contemplated. “For about a year I have been looking around for a hook…. I think I am already posthumously afraid of myself. I do not want to die, I want not to be. Bitter wormwood.”

When the house was empty she climbed on a chair by the front door, put a rope over a beam and hanged herself. The note she left disappeared into Soviet police archives. Her son joined the army a year later and was killed, aged nineteen. In a strangely touching last postcard from the front he writes he is “absolutely confident that my star will bring me through this war unharmed and that success will certainly come to me.” He has seen dead people for the first time in his life, for “up till now I have refused to look at the dead, even my mother.”

Poets in Russia mourned Tsvetaeva, and felt guilty about her. Pasternak, who had visited her in France and been rather less than forthcoming in advice and assistance, wrote in his autobiography that “the common tragedy of her family exceeded my worst fears” and unhesitatingly answered “I am” when his friend Gladkov asked the rhetorical question, who was to blame? All of us, Pasternak added; but this is the natural display of guilt in a naturally warmhearted society where terror ruled, and where a fellow author would normally have been helped and cherished far more than in any comparable situation in the West. Pasternak described her as “more Russian than any of us…in the rhythms that inhabited her soul, in her tremendous, uniquely powerful language.”

Those rhythms are indeed individual and highly effective, in prose as well as in poetry. Russian critics are perhaps apt to make too much of a mystery of the phonetic or acoustic side of Russian poetry, and the originality of new metrical or sound effects produced by Tsvetaeva or Mayakovsky. Russian poetry is deeply melodious and (as her translator Robin Kemball points out) even at its most modern retains much of the traditional harmony of meter, alliteration, and onomatopoeia. Kemball cites another expert, Simon Karlinsky, who remarks of Tsvetaeva’s mature style that “words are not used to connote or to imply or to suggest: they are selected equally on the basis of their shape, sound, and meaning, each of these qualities being equally necessary for the total impression.”

Well, yes; but the same could be said of almost any good poet in any language: the process is instinctive as well as individual, each poet producing his own kind of linguistic character by his own sense of words. The nature of Russian is apt to make the process more dramatic and emphatic, suited to a long tradition of recital. One feature of Tsvetaeva’s style, on which Karlinsky writes very interestingly, is bezglagolnost—verblessness—a dislike of the verb compensated by a brilliant and characteristic use of inflection, especially dative and instrumental case endings, a tactic beyond the scope of any translator. As Kemball says, her syntax sets more problems than her prosody.

With this in mind he has favored metrical translations, unfashionable today, but in this case probably justified because they give some conception of the vigorous and vivid style of The Demesne of the Swans.

Your temple, so stern and so stately,
You quit for the scream of the square…
—O, Liberty!—Beautiful Lady
Marquis, Russian princes, found fair.

So far we’ve some fearful choir practice—
Communion has yet to take place!
—O, Liberty!—harlot, seductress,
In some giddy-brained soldier’s em- brace!

The trouble is that though the meter is the “same” as in the Russian you cannot really divorce meter from everything else in the poetry. In English it is bound to be non-poetry except for the meter and the rhyme, and thus the meter and the rhyme become non-poetry too: what jiggles in English does not appear to do so in its natural Russian.

Iz strogago, stroinago khrama
Ty vyshla na vizg ploshchadei…
—Svoboda!—Prekrasnaya Dama—

The strength of the original, its discipline yet immediacy of response, expresses itself naturally in that forceful alliteration. Like much in this diary of poems, history is a kind of instant feeling: Philippe Egalité of the French Revolution and the aristocratic Decembrists of the Russian bid for liberty in 1825 are brought together with the drunken soldiers and their girls whom the poet had before her eyes in the squares of Petersburg, that town of severe harmonious lines which Pushkin in The Bronze Horseman had celebrated with the same alliterating adjectives.

Liubliu tebya, Petra tvorenie,
Liubliu tvoi strogii, stroinii vid…

[I love you, Peter’s creation, I love your severe harmonious look…]

When she made a fair copy of these poems before leaving for Russia in 1939, Tsvetaeva noted that her friend the poet Balmont, to whom she read the poem during the revolution, said, “I don’t like the way you treat the harlot. Some harlots, well—“ and he turned up his eyes. She replied, “What a great pity I can’t say in answer to that ‘Some soldiers—well.’ ” The rhythm of “To the cadets who fell in Nizhni” comes over very well, and is moving even in translation, a real tribute to Kemball’s version.

Swords held high—
And the bugles sadly sighing—
Bid good-bye
To the dead.
Cap with sprig of green-leaf lying
At their head.

Another poem, glorifying and identifying with the White officers, was read by the author to thunderous applause at a recital in Red Moscow. Not really paradoxical: the poem does not mention the Whites specifically, and the idea of the officer, and officer qualities, was already just as popular—after the first giddy bout of egalitarianism—on the revolutionary side.

Ardis publishers are to be congratulated on the three excellent books under review, all lovingly produced and annotated. Marin King’s edition of the prose and Kemball’s of the Swan cycle are both supplied with a discerning and admirably complete apparatus criticus. This is the more desirable because Tsvetaeva, like many other Russian poets, is extremely allusive, and takes for granted the reader’s familiarity with Russian history and poetry. Her prose does much the same thing, and is in its way as idiosyncratic as her poetry. Her description of Voloshin, in her portraits of contemporary writers, is memorable, and so is her account of her childhood in Germany in “The Tower of Ivy.” (The title, as she tells us, came from her misreading of the name of Rilke’s patroness, the Fürstin von Thurn und Taxis. Thur she connected with French tour, and she knew the botanical name taxus, yew, which she thought meant ivy.)

Her most interesting prose pieces, though, are her reflections on Pushkin, to which like Bryusov she gave the title “My Pushkin,” and still more so her essay on Pushkin’s two versions of the famous eighteenth-century Cossack rebel, Pugachev, one in his history of the rebellion and the other in his historical novel, The Captain’s Daughter. The aesthetic implications of this are profound, and never more so than today, when art prides itself on getting things just as they were, and devoting its artifice to an appearance of factual realism.

Tsvetaeva, an idealist, will have none of this. For her the sober factual account of Pugachev in the history lacks the love with which Pushkin the poet created the portrait in his novel, a love which he made the hero feel for the villain, despite his villainy. For her, as for Pushkin—she quotes his poem “The Hero”—the idea of a hero is more important than any diminishing facts about him.

A truth, by the fact that it is low, is not truth any more, and an elevating lie, by the fact that it elevates us—is not a lie any more. There are no low truths and high lies, there are only low lies and high truths…there are happy cases, when destiny is perfected. What poet writing about Jeanne d’Arc does not adjust the record of the facts?

Hagiography has seen to it that she herself has become one of those “happy cases when destiny is perfected.” In these three books we have both the legend of Tsvetaeva and her history. No doubt the legend has the greater appeal but the history is true too. And in its way as impressive.