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A Poet’s Tragedy

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.

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