Poet of Sacrifice

Selected Poems of Marina Tsvetayeva

translated by Elaine Feinstein
Oxford University Press, 108 pp., $8.95 (paper)

“Der Weg von der Innigkeit zur Grösse geht durch das Opfer” (“The way from intense inwardness to greatness leads through sacrifice”).1 These words of the essayist Rudolf Kassner form the epigraph to Rainer Maria Rilke’s fateful poem “Wendung” (Turning Point) of 1914, in which the poet acknowledged that his shortcomings, his inability to love and to form lasting personal relationships were the source and sustenance of his life’s work:

Werk des Gesichts ist getan,
tue nun Herz-Werk
an den Bildern in dir, jenen gefang- enen; denn du
überwältigtest sie: aber nun kennst du sie nicht.
Siehe, innerer Mann, dein inneres Mädchen,
dieses errungene aus
tausend Naturen, dieses
erst nur errungene, nie
noch geliebte Geschöpf.
(Work of seeing is done,
now practice heart-work
upon those images captive within you; for you
overpowered them only: but now do not know them.
Look, inward man, look at your in- ward maiden,
her the laboriously won
from a thousand natures, at her the
being till now only
won, never yet loved.)2

At the time he wrote these lines, Rilke believed himself to be utterly alone. With Kassner’s help, he had come to see himself as “the consummation of that marvelous Narcissus-like lyricism that began in England with Keats.” He did not know that even then, far away in Russia, he had a kindred spirit, a poet who with justification could be described as an “inward maiden” in search of an “inward man.” It is tempting to speculate on the course Rilke’s poetry might have taken if he had known of Marina Tsvetayeva’s existence in 1914. He was to become aware of her only some ten years later, shortly before his death, when he corresponded with her and wrote a remarkable elegy to her. Yet, in a sense, we do not need to speculate: that other, trans-Rilkean poetry was written for him by the “inneres Mädchen,” Tsvetayeva herself. This is a mystery that will never be fully explained, and certainly not by literary critics, commentators, or biographers.

Marina Ivanovna Tsvetayeva was born in Moscow on December 26, 1892. Her father, who came from a poor family, was a well-known philologist and art critic, a professor at Moscow University who also founded the Moscow Museum of Fine Arts (now known as the Pushkin Museum of Visual Arts). He died when Marina Tsvetayeva was twenty-one. Her mother came of Russified Polish-German stock: she was a musician, a pupil of Rubinstein. She died early, when her daughter was only fourteen. Tsvetayeva always maintained that her mother had been a leading influence on her: “Music, nature, poetry, Germany…. One against all. Heroica.”

Tsvetayeva spent most of her childhood and youth in Moscow and nearby Tarusa, but she also traveled with her family to Italy, Switzerland, Germany, and France. These sojourns abroad were in part made necessary by her mother’s turberculosis. During them, Tsvetayeva was educated at Swiss…

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