• Email
  • Print

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 and German boarding schools. She began to write poetry when she was six, not only in Russian, but also in French and German. Her first book of poems was published in 1910, when she was eighteen, a fairly large volume entitled Vecherniy albom (“An Evening Album”). The book was quite widely reviewed, and it attracted favorable attention from such influential and demanding poet-critics as Valery Bryusov, Nikolay Gumilyov, and Maksimilian Voloshin. Tsvetayeva’s early poetry shows the marks of her reading: there are poems about Napoleon, whom she worshiped, about Edmond de Rostand, about the romantic painter Mariya Bashkirtseva. It also contains clear evidence that she read Pushkin and Goethe.

From its earliest beginnings, Tsvetayeva’s poetry had a startling concision and vividness of emotional effect. Much of the greatness of Rilke’s poetry lies in the unity of poetic form and the experience he writes about. A similar unity can be found in Marina Tsvetayeva’s work; but while Rilke’s poems often seem to reach without restraint beyond the immediately personal toward myth, Tsvetayeva’s seem more firmly rooted in the personal, emotional, psychological, physical existence of the poet herself. They take their origins in the lived life of the poet—but they move beyond toward the sacrifice of that life. “Here I am,” she declares, and we have instantly the sense that her words are her flesh and blood:

My poems, written down so soon in life, so early
I did not know I was a poet yet,
Were torn from me like droplets from a fountain,
A rocket’s sparking jet.

Poems stormed from me, invading,
   like some minor devils,
The sanctuary where sleep and in- cense twine,
Their themes made up of youth and death, my poems,
My always unread lines.

Thrown carelessly about the dusty shelves of bookshops,
Untouched, then, now, by any reader’s thumb,
My poems, stored deep like wines of precious vintage,
I know their time will come.3

Tsvetayeva wrote these prophetic lines when she was twenty-one, and their rhythmic assurance and formal discipline are already—so early in her career—the hallmark of her passionate and self-sacrificing art.

Kassner writes that Rilke did not want sacrifice: “He certainly wanted the sacrifice of the Old Testament (the fruits of the field, a lamb or whatever things are dear to human beings), but not that of the New.”4 It is likewise doubtful that Tsvetayeva, if she could have foreseen the path her life was to take, would have willingly gone toward the terrors that awaited her.

In her memoirs, Nadezhda Mandelstam says that she knew of no fate more terrible than that of Marina Tsvetayeva. From a hopeful beginning in the literary Moscow of the pre-1914 and war years, during which time she found and married her husband Sergey Efron and befriended the young Osip Mandelstam, Tsvetayeva’s life fell further and further under the shadow of ominous political events. After the Bolshevik takeover, Efron escaped to the south of Russia and joined the White Army. Tsvetayeva was trapped in Moscow with her two young daughters. She did not see Efron from 1917 until 1922, and did not even know whether he was alive or not. During the Moscow famine of the immediate postrevolutionary period Tsvetayeva’s younger daughter died in the orphanage in which her mother had been forced to leave her. Tsvetayeva and her elder daughter Ariadna lived a life of the most abject poverty, begging (or even stealing) from neighbors, seldom warm, seldom fed. “‘I won’t leave you.’ Only God can say such a thing—or a peasant with milk in Moscow in the winter of 1918,” reads one of Tsvetayeva’s diary notes.

Tsvetayeva’s poetry of the immediate postrevolutionary time is stark, denuded of ornament, directly personal, and yet also addressed to the age and its evil. For her, the White Guards were the “Gordian knot / Of Russian valour,” the “black nails / in the ribs of the Antichrist.” Soviet literary critics like to claim that Tsvetayeva “neither accepted nor understood” the Bolshevik revolution. The truth is, however, that while she did not accept the revolution—how can one accept murder and mass extermination?—she understood it only too well, and was appalled and deeply, personally repelled by what she saw and experienced:

Freedom—a drunken whore sprawl- ing
In a power-maddened soldier’s arms.

The story of Tsvetayeva’s life as an émigré in Prague and Paris during the 1920s and 1930s is one of utter isolation and grief. Rejected by both reactionary and “progressive” émigré circles—even her husband became involved in the pro-Soviet “Return to the Motherland” organization—Tsvetayeva found herself thrown back on her inner resources to an extent that made those resources—of stoicism, vitality, energy—the sole guarantor of her equilibrium and sanity. In a poem written in 1961, toward the very end of her life, Anna Akhmatova testified to this enduring, natural quality of Tsvetayeva’s persistence. Having evoked the shades of Mandelstam and Pasternak, Akhmatova turned to the fourth member of the great “quartet” of twentieth-century Russian poets:

A fresh, dark elder branch
Like a letter from Marina.

The reference is to Tsvetayeva’s poem “The Elder” (sadly not included in Elaine Feinstein’s selection). With a Nietzschean tenacity and nobility Tsvetayeva turned to face the darkness that surrounded her:

Is it true, God, that you even tried to borrow from Job?
Well, it didn’t come off.
   Still. We are. Outside town.

Beyond it! Understand? Outside! That means we’ve passed the walls.

Life is a place where it’s forbidden to live. Like the Hebrew quar- ter.5

Poems about doomed love affairs, doomed friendships, doomed kinship become increasingly, like the one from which I have just quoted, poems about what Kassner calls “die Überwindung der Kunst durch die Kunst” (“the over-coming of art through art”). Ordinary human experience is suddenly left far behind. In 1934, Tsvetayeva wrore to her Czech friend Anna Tesková:

Becoming human by means of marriage or love—by means of another person—and necessarily a man—has no value for me…. Marriage and love more often destroy the individual; they are an ordeal. That was Goethe’s opinion and Tolstoy’s. And an early marriage (such as mine) is a total catastrophe, a blow delivered for a whole lifetime. I don’t believe in this sort of cure.

Significantly, the only being to whom Tsvetayeva formed a lifelong relation was one she never met—Rainer Maria Rilke. Rilke became for her a symbol of the possibility of a new myth, a new greatness, the “inward” man. An attempt by Tsvetayeva and Pasternak (who had many literary connections in Germany) to bring Rilke to Russia met with no success. Following hard on their brief correspondence, Rilke’s death in 1926 was a blow from which Tsvetayeva never fully recovered. Her “New Year’s Letter” to him of 1927, written shortly after she had received the news of his death, is a letter to another world, the world beyond that is prefigured in every line of her poetry, and of his:

When you were in Russia, you discerned
The other world in this. Well-oiled transition!
I smile in stealth in the pronuncia- tion
Of “life” and “death.” My smile’s touched by your own.
I say “life,” “death” with foot- notes added on,
Two asterisks (the night I hope is near:
Instead of my brain’s lobes, a hemisphere
Of stars)6

The “stars” of this poem are an obvious reflection of those in Rilke’s long elegy to Tsvetayeva of 1926:

O die Verluste ins All, Marina, die stürzenden Sterne!

Tsvetayeva’s return to Russia in 1939 and her suicide there in 1941 must be seen in the context of her relation to Rilke, which was at one and the same time an inner, secret relation to fate, death, and eternity.

Elaine Feinstein’s translations of Marina Tsvetayeva’s poetry have been widely praised since they first appeared in 1971. The present volume contains an additional twenty-four pages of poems. These are welcome, though one might have hoped that a substantial revision and expansion of the book would have made room for poems which are not to be found in the Soviet editions of Tsvetayeva’s poetry. As it is, the additions—mostly chosen from Tsvetayeva’s later work—come without exception from the “Soviet canon” of Tsvetayeva and do nothing to counter the officially accepted Soviet view of the poet: as an émigré, miserably unhappy amid the evils of life in the West, and inexorably drawn toward her homeland (“Home-sickness”).

It cannot be denied that the initial impression to be gained from the experience of hearing Feinstein’s versions read aloud is that of a faithful rendering into the English of the meaning of the original poems. Yet unfortunately this initial impression is misleading. If one studies Feinstein’s book carefully, reading both introduction and notes, not only does one discover that Feinstein knows no Russian; she also makes, it would appear, substantial claims for her translations, maintaining that they are “transformations” (she borrows the term from Octavio Paz) of the original, achieved through the reworking of literal versions. In her “Note on Working Method” at the end of the book, Angela Livingstone asserts that “All this material [i.e., semantic, phonetic, and metrical description of the Russian text prepared for Feinstein’s use] was… changed into poetry by Elaine Feinstein.”

Changed into what kind of poetry, may one ask? Tsvetayevan, or Feinsteinian? Joseph Brodsky in a recent interview suggested that “if you could conjure up a combination of Hart Crane and Hopkins, that would be something like Tsvetayeva.”7 There is no evidence in Feinstein’s translations that she has made even the slightest attempt in this direction. If her versions are meant as literal guides to the sense of Tsvetayeva’s poems, well and good. If they claim to have the status of poetry, then one must insist that with a poet of the uniqueness and greatness of Tsvetayeva they must make at least some gesture in the direction of the formal and prosodic qualities of the original. This, with the possible exception of an eccentrically indented preservation of Tsvetayeva’s stanzaic patterns (minus the rhymes), Feinstein’s versions singularly fail to do. And no matter how pleasing the result to English or American ears, one must again, out of respect for Tsvetayeva, insist that this result has little to do with Tsvetayeva’s art, that it is a deception: not a willful one, perhaps, but a deception nevertheless.

For although Feinstein’s versions may look and sound like the kind of poetry to which English and American readers are accustomed, they contain almost nothing of what Kassner calls “Grösse des Mythischen” (“greatness of the mythical”)—to which Tsvetayeva gave ecstatic utterance. Tsvetayeva’s art is one of poetic music—of rhythm, assonance, meter, and above all, rhyme. She wrote to Pasternak:

This world contains its rhymes.
Prise them apart, it trembles.

The importance of rhyme to Tsvetayeva, both symbolically and as a technical device, cannot be overstated. To overlook it is to ignore the very heart, the central meaning, of this artist’s titanic work.

Tsvetayeva’s poems are a blend of metaphysical cunning and daring with a profound tonal dexterity, the like of which I have not found in any other poet. For the nearest aesthetic equivalent to the effect in the original of Tsvetayeva’s collection Posle Rossii (“After Russia,” 1928), one has to turn to the work of a composer: Stravinsky’s neoclassical compositions of the 1920s. It is hard to see how any non-Russian-reader studying Feinstein’s translations could even begin to guess at such a connection.

The argument is frequently raised that what is possible or acceptable in Russian rhyme and meter is not similarly available in English. Thus, Angela Living-stone asserts that “Marina Tsvetayeva’s [voice] is particularly difficult to capture… because her consistent adherence to rhyme and to metrical regularity would, if copied in the English poems, probably enfeeble them.” This seems a dubious claim—surely it is at least worth the effort to try? The fact is that rhyme and meter are unfashionable now among English and American poets. That is altogether another matter. Unusual rhymes and shifting meters (which are much more characteristic of Tsvetayeva than is “adherence to rhyme and to metrical regularity”) are just as available in English as they are in Russian. It is the motivation among poets and translators to go and look for them that is missing.

On at least one important occasion, Feinstein’s lack of Russian and her reliance on literal versions let her down badly. “Poema kontsa” (“Poem of the End”) contains, in its ninth section, the following chilling sequence:

Ya ne bolee chem zhivotnoye,
Kem-to ranennoye v zhivot.

Feinstein renders this as:

I am no more than an animal that someone has stabbed in the stomach.

This is literally correct, although perhaps “wounded” would be more faithful to the original than “stabbed.” Literal correctness, however, is not enough in this, as in many other poems by Tsvetayeva. What Tsvetayeva has written is a pun on the root zhiv (“alive”); zhivotnoye means “an animal,” and zhivot, a word whose close relation to the one for “animal” cannot escape even those who know no Russian, means “a stomach.” A conscientious translator might attempt to make some play with two similarly related English words such as “animal” and “anima.” “Wounded in the anima” is, after all, what Tsvetayeva means.

As an introduction to Tsvetayeva’s poetry, Elaine Feinstein’s Selected Poems goes perhaps halfway to being successful. There is much of Tsvetayeva’s poetry that remains to be translated: “The New Year’s Letter” to Rilke, the “Attempt at a Room,” the “Poem of Air,” to name but a few long and important poems. But, above all, what cries out to be translated is the rhyming language of Tsvetayeva’s poems. Without that, we miss what is distinctive and great about her work.

Letters

Battle over Translation September 23, 1982

  1. 1

    Translated by Michael Hamburger in An Unofficial Rilke (Anvil Press Poetry, London, 1981).

  2. 2

    Ibid.

  3. 3

    My translation.

  4. 4

    Rudolf Kassner, “Erinnerungen an Rilke” in Buch der Erinnerung (Eugen Rentsch Verlag, Zurich, 1954).

  5. 5

    Translated by Elaine Feinstein.

  6. 6

    My translation.

  7. 7

    Quarto, No. 24, December 1981, p. 10.

  • Email
  • Print