When it comes to the Russian poetry of the last century, Osip Mandelstam, Anna Akhmatova, and Boris Pasternak are reasonably familiar names, but not Marina Tsvetaeva, who is their equal. Because she is extraordinarily difficult to translate, her work is almost unknown, and even when it becomes available it makes little impression. She seems foreign and beyond reach with her elliptical syntax and her unusually tangled metaphors. There’s also the sheer volume and range of her writing. One of her long poems, for instance, celebrates Lindbergh’s transatlantic flight, while others derive their plots from fairy tales. She has hundreds of poems, a number of near epic length in addition to a fair amount of prose, including memoirs, diaries, and letters, as well as several plays in verse. Not everything she wrote is, of course, first-rate, but a lot is. Is she as good as Eliot or Pound, one may ask for the sake of comparison. She is as good as they are, and may have more tricks up her sleeve as a poet.
Her life makes for an unusually gripping story, which several fine biographies of the poet published in the last twenty years have recounted in great detail. Tragic lives, of course, cannot be compared in their degree of awfulness. Even in normal times one can’t be sure how much the mess people make of their lives is due to failings of character and strings of bad luck, and how much to the circumstances in which they found themselves. When it comes to men and women who lived through decades of wars, revolutions, and exile, it gets harder to know whom or what to blame. As Tsvetaeva said in a poem, “I fear that for such misfortune the whole of/Racine and the whole of Shakespeare is not enough!…”
Marina Tsvetaeva was born in 1892 in Moscow and grew up in an atmosphere of culture and refinement. Her father was a classical philologist who taught at Moscow University and was the founder of one of the city’s important museums. Marina’s mother was an accomplished pianist who wanted her daughter to be a musician. In 1902, on the advice of her doctors after being diagnosed with tuberculosis, she withdrew Marina and her younger sister from school and traveled to Italy in search of a cure. The family returned to Russia in 1905, where the mother died a year later. Marina attended school in both Russia and Paris, where she started writing poetry and translating from French. A collection of her poems, Evening Album, was published in 1910 and well received. Her verses were romantic and sentimental, as was to be expected from an adolescent, but she also was said to have brought in this connection a new and bold intimacy to Russian poetry.
In 1912 Tsvetaeva married Sergei Efron, who came from a well-known family of encyclopedia publishers and political radicals. He was younger than she was. That same year she brought out her …