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…

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