Nothing in literature is odder than the way in which the “atmosphere” of poets changes between one generation and the next. This extraordinary correspondence between Pasternak, Rilke, and Marina Tsvetayeva, sensitively fashioned by editorial commentary into a kind of seriocomic drama, seems already fixed in the distant past, light years away from any letters a poet might write today, if indeed he bothered to write letters at all.

Pasternak was a schoolboy of ten when he met Rilke, who in 1900 was paying his second and last visit to Russia, accompanied and looked after by his mothermistress, Lou Andreas-Salomé. Pasternak described the encounter, thirty years later, in his autobiographical work, Safe Conduct, which he dedicated to the memory of Rilke, who had then been dead four years:

On a hot summer day our express was about to leave Moscow’s Kursk Station. Just then someone in a dark Tyrolese cape approached our train window from the outside. A tall woman accompanied him. Father began talking to them about something that aroused the same warm interest in all three, but from time to time the woman exchanged brief remarks with Mother in Russian; the man spoke only German, and though I knew the language well, I had never heard it spoken as he spoke it.

Rilke in fact was so seduced by the Russian language that he had made strenuous and successful efforts to learn it, and had already translated poems and stories into German. He had even written poems of his own in Russian, of which Lou Andreas-Salomé, a native speaker, observed: “Though the grammar is pretty awful, they still somehow are mysteriously poetic.” Rilke’s reverence for all things Russian was so great that he even determined to go and live there with his young wife, Clara Westhoff, but since he could find no prospect of a job the idea was abandoned. He went instead to Paris, where he acted for a time as Rodin’s secretary, and developed the passion for Cézanne’s paintings which forms the subject of the letters written from Paris to his wife in 1907, letters that were probably intended to become a sort of extended critique and appreciation of the painter.

The artist Leonid Pasternak, the poet’s father, introduced Rilke to Tolstoy, whose books he had been illustrating; and Rilke and Leonid corresponded in Russian. The high-minded cosmopolitanism of those days, at least among artists and writers and the intelligentsia, might make us weep for what seems a vanished golden age of European culture. We are cut off from that Eden, out of which they were expelled by revolution and war. Not unnaturally their letters, after they had been blown apart by the explosion, seem full of nostalgia for bygone days; the emotions expressed between each other by these three poets, extravagant as they may now seem, represent a kind of clinging together after the catastrophe, an attempt to keep alive an old civilization of the feelings, in their art and in themselves.

That civilization may have its affected side (“Rilke was a jerk,” as the poet John Berryman crisply put it), but its leisure and interdependence nurtured art in a way that none has done since. Marina Tsvetayeva was not a poet to shrink from contemporary realities, but she insists with the greatest vehemence that the legendary status accorded to Rilke in those postwar years was owed to him because of the way his poetry had created a world of inner reality and inner values. Revolution had brought its own versions of togetherness, still invoked today, and the aspirations of socialism and fascism had been greeted by symbolists like Blok and Yeats with factitious fervor. Rilke stood alone, a baptist of solitude, and Tsvetayeva was no doubt right in claiming that European culture honored him all the more for it.

She herself passionately believed that “writing poetry is in itself translating, from the mother tongue into another, whether French or German should make no difference.”

No language is the mother tongue. Writing poetry is rewriting it…. A poet may write in French; he cannot be a French poet. That’s ludicrous…. The reason one becomes a poet…is to avoid being French, Russian, etc., in order to be everything…. Yet every language has something that belongs to it alone, that is it…. French: clock without resonance; German—more resonance than clock…. French is there. German becomes, French is.

These characteristically brilliant observations were addressed by Tsvetayeva to Rilke in a letter about the book of French poems he had written—Vergers Tsvetayeva—herself German and Polish by origin as well as Russian—was writing to Rilke in German, on whose quality he congratulated her with a mixture of accuracy and delicacy, as he himself had once been congratulated on his letters in Russian by Leonid Pasternak. The idea of all poetry as not national, but always translation into a higher medium, is true for all three poets. Rilke had projected the abstraction of German into the height of his own sense of things, and in his last years wished to embody himself in the form of another language. Tsvetayeva writes that she is “not a Russian poet and am always astonished to be taken for one and looked upon in this light.”


Psychologically the three poets and their relations present a strange picture, full of touching incongruities and misunderstandings; yet the way in which they communicate, in their loneliness and their longing to reach a fellow spirit, has something noble about it. Strongest of the three, Tsvetayeva is also the leading spirit of the correspondence and the most tempestuous; possessive, and yet also evasive, her love reaches out to both men, requiring its own sort of devotion in return. Physically she has suffered the most from the upheaval of war and revolution, living with her two small children as a penniless exile in France, unable to get her poems published even in émigré magazines because of her sympathy with Mayakovsky and the poets of the revolution. She had been separated for years from her husband, Sergei Efron, who had joined the Whites, but she remained doggedly loyal to him and they eventually came together in Prague. An ambivalent figure, he flitted to and fro in France, leaving her to cope with a family in a garret. (“No woman among your acquaintances and friends lives like that,” she wrote to Rilke, “or would be capable of living so. Not to sweep any more—of that is my kingdom of heaven.”)

There are sinister and tragic portents, too, behind her indomitable will to write poetry and keep in touch with her poets. Involved in the betrayal of émigrés, her husband was to become a finger man for the OGPU and be eventually liquidated by them. She herself would return to Russia, because her son and daughter so much wished to, and die miserably by her own hand, in desperate poverty and estranged from her son, who was killed in the army. Only her daughter Ariadna survived, after years in the camps, to edit her mother’s work and write a memoir.

Rilke in 1926 had only a few months to live. Since the war he had been a recluse in the ancient diminutive chateau of Muzot in Switzerland, still supported by his faithful retinue of princesses, and with his reputation growing as the premier European poet. No doubt he was flattered by Tsvetayeva’s ardent if ambiguous advances, which were cries for help and comfort as much as declarations of poetic love. (“Rainer, if I say to you that I am your Russia, I’m only saying (one more time) that I care for you. Love lives on exceptions, segregations, exclusiveness. Love lives on words and dies of deeds.”) Intensely jealous, Tsvetayeva felt each of her poets as her own dream possession, and their sense of her must be exclusive to her. This could make her remarkably insensitive. Rilke was reticent about himself and his health, but she had no idea how ill he was, and continued to bombard him with love letters, which he eventually gave up answering. When he died of leukemia at the end of 1926 she was as puzzled and hurt as a child.

Pasternak revered Rilke, treasuring in his wallet till the end of his life two generous letters he received from him. About Tsvetayeva he was indifferent when they first met in Moscow during the chaos of the revolution, falling in love later first with her poetry and then with the poet by correspondence. Their letters afford a rich psychological contrast—his laborious, tortuously self-obsessed, yet with a kind of honest solidity like wood or stone; hers crackling with critical intelligence and wit, and with her own brand of egocentric love sparkle—a contrast which embodies at a domestic level the qualities of their poetry. Pasternak is constantly vowing to fly from his wife and child and join her in France. She wants him to belong to her but only at a distance. Jealous of his wife, she also looks down on her as a mere sleeping partner, incapable of what Pasternak calls their own “penchant for suffering.” He is rather humorless but she can be very funny. (“Men shoot themselves for the lady of the house, not for a mere guest in the house.”) They ardently discuss each other’s poetry, though often giving the impression that the other doesn’t understand it.

Translating and explaining tactfully, the editors are of particular help here. Pasternak is having trouble with his long poem Lieutenant Schmidt, a celebration of the pre-revolutionary hero who had attempted to take over the Black Sea fleet at the time of the Potemkin mutiny. Tsvetayeva has no patience with this, not because she doesn’t approve of heroes and revolutions but because poetry is too lofty to take such matters with the kind of documentary seriousness Pasternak is attempting. She keeps telling him that it is he, the poet, who matters, not the martyred lieutenant. Nor does she grasp that Pasternak’s aim was discreetly to go against the then conventional and accepted style of portraying the heroic revolutionary, and attempt to show Schmidt with sympathy, but as a very ordinary man in a confused and complicated situation.


Tsvetayeva was nonetheless right in seeing that this kind of thing went against the root of Pasternak’s nature and talent. In a magnificently reverential letter to Rilke in German, beginning “Great, most beloved poet!” and introducing and pleading the cause of Tsvetayeva, Pasternak wrote: “I am indebted to you for the fundamental cast of my character, the nature of my intellectual being. They are your creations.” If one makes allowances for what Dr. Johnson called “the mutual civilities of authors,” that is fundamentally true. Like Rilke and Cézanne, Pasternak embodied that rarest of qualities in an artist, the complete absence of the division—so marked in Pushkin or Byron, Keats or Rubens—between one side of himself and another, the total concentration on art as the world and self, and on the world and self as art.

It is this concentration that Rilke is exploring, in his own characteristic and peculiar fashion, in his letters about Cézanne. They are themselves extraordinarily peaceful and concentrated, seeping with the sense and recognition of Cézanne’s colors, in nature as on canvas, colors which seem a part of Rilke himself, of the words and paper (he often wrote his poems on blue paper), and of his wife Clara to whom the letters are addressed.

Rilke remarks that in an art gallery he usually finds the paintings less real than the people looking at them, but that in the Cézanne room at the Salon d’Automne, “all of reality is on his side,”

…in this dense quilted blue of his, in his red and his shadowless green and the reddish black of his wine bottles. And the humbleness of all his objects: the apples are all cooking apples and the wine bottles belong in the roundly bulging pockets of an old coat.

This is the same impression that he was afterward to record in poetry.

Doch als du gingst, da brach in diese Bühne
ein Streifen Wirklichkeit durch jenen Spalt
durch den du hingingst: Grün wirk- licher Grüne,
wirklicher Sonnenschein, wirklicher Wald.

(Thus, when you went, there sprang to this theater a streak of reality through the gap you went through: green of real green, real sunshine, a real forest.)

Cézanne’s aim of réalisation became Rilke’s own, and Rilke revered him too as a model for himself, a model of exemplary devotion to the life of art. The Rilkean ego melts, as it were, into the color of Cézanne, so that it does not seem egocentric of him to state that the “raptness” he must achieve in order to be in his poetry means that he must never again be “delighted and awed” except by his own work. As Cézanne said of his own life, he must remove himself from everything that could “hook him,” in order to devote himself entirely to that realization of things that his master had achieved.

Reading between his lines must have been a sobering experience for Clara, his wife, for the letters are an oblique statement by Rilke of how he means to live, and must live, in the cell of his art. And yet they are suffused with an affection and understanding that seem to be supplied as much by her as by him; they seem to belong to her in a very deep sense, as Rilke said (sometimes diplomatically, no doubt) that all his works belonged to the person who had inspired them. They are also quite unaffected; they are suffused instead with Cézanne’s almost brutally humble instinct for the nature of matter. His apples, as Rilke says, are neither ugly nor attractive, his still lifes “refusing any kind of meddling in an alien unity.” He was struck by the expression used by a friend of his, the painter Mathilde Vollmoeller, who remarked that Cézanne sat in front of nature “like a dog, just looking, without any nervousness, without any ulterior motive”; and he echoes it when he writes to Clara about his desire sometimes to keep a quiet bookshop where no business takes place, just with a dog sitting in front of the books, “good-natured, or a cat that makes the stillness around them even greater by brushing along the rows of books as if to wipe the names off their backs.”

Both collections are admirably translated and presented. It is particularly valuable to have the Letters on Cézanne singled out and in print again, for most of the editions of Rilke’s correspondence published in English shortly after the war do not appear to be any longer available.

This Issue

December 5, 1985