World Literature

Marina Tsvetaeva

 

BORN: 1892, Moscow, Russia

DIED: 1941, Elabuga, Russia

NATIONALITY: Russian

GENRE: Poetry, fiction

MAJOR WORKS:

Mileposts: Poems: Issue I (1916)

Mileposts: Poems: Issue II (1921)

‘‘Downpour of Light’’ (1922)

Craft (1923)

After Russia (1928)

 

 

Marina Tsvetaeva. The Granger Collection, New York. Reproduced by permission.

 

Overview

Along with Anna Akhmatova, Osip Mandelstam, and Boris Pasternak, Marina Tsvetaeva is included in Russia’s ‘‘poetic quartet,’’ a group of important authors whose works reflect the changing values in Russia during the early decades of the twentieth century. Tsvetaeva’s central interest as a poet was language, and the stylistic innovations displayed in her work are considered a unique contribution to Russian literature.

 

Works in Biographical and Historical Context

A Childhood of Privilege and Poetry. Marina Ivanova Tsvetaeva (also transliterated as Tsvetayeva, Cvetaeva, and Zwetaewa) was born in Moscow to art history professor Ivan Tsvetayev and concert pianist Mariya Meyn Tsvetayeva. Tsvetaeva grew up in Moscow in an upper-middle-class family distinguished for its artistic and scholarly pursuits. Her father was the founder of the Museum of Fine Arts, and her talented and accomplished mother encouraged Marina to follow a musical career. Attending schools in Switzerland, Germany, and at the Sorbonne in Paris, Tsvetaeva preferred writing poetry.

Two Books, Marriage, and Several Affairs. In 1910, when Tsvetaeva was eighteen years of age, her first collection, Evening Album, was privately published. This volume received unexpected attention when it was reviewed by the prominent critic Max Voloshin and the poets Nikolay Gumilyov and Valery Bryusov, all of whom wrote favorably of Tsvetaeva’s work. In 1911, Tsvetaeva published a second collection of poetry, The Magic Lantern, and the following year was married to Sergey Efron. Throughout the marriage Tsvetaeva pursued romantic attachments with other poets, following a pattern of infatuation and disillusionment she had established in adolescence.

Russian Civil War. During the Russian civil war, which lasted from 1918 to 1921, Tsvetaeva lived in poverty in Moscow while her husband fought in the Crimea as an officer ofthe czarist White Army. The Russian civil war was complicated by the presence of several opposing military factions, but had as its primary antagonists the Bolshevik, or Red, Army—which had a broad mandate following the 1917 Workers’ Revolution—and the czarist White Army, desperately struggling to reestablish the old political order. Tsvetaeva wrote prolifically during this time, composing poetry, essays, memoirs, and dramas. But the anti-Bolshevik sentiments pervading many of these works prevented their publication. During a famine in 1919, the younger of her two children died of starvation, and in 1922 (the year after the Bolsheviks won the civil war and the year their leader, Vladimir Lenin, died), Tsvetaeva immigrated with her surviving child, Ariadna, to Germany. There—after five years of wartime separation—she rejoined Efron.

Adamant Pro-Soviet Stance. While Tsvetaeva’s family was living in Berlin, and later Prague, where her son, Georgy, was born in 1925, she began to publish the works she had written during the previous decade. These found favor with Russian critics and readers living in exile. Moving to Paris, Tsvetaeva continued to write poetry, but her changing politics brought her into disfavor. Tsvetaeva’s reputation among other emigre writers began to deteriorate—largely because of her refusal to adopt the militant anti-Soviet posture of many emigres, and her husband’s pro-Soviet activities (Efron had at this point changed sides so completely as to have become a Communist agent).

Stalinist Terror, World War II, and Suicide. Efron and daughter Ariadna returned to Russia in 1937. Tsvetaeva, who was being treated with indifference by Russian expatriates in Paris, followed in 1939 with son Georgy. At that time, artists and intellectuals, especially those with ties to the West, were at risk under the extremist policies of Joseph Stalin—which included paranoid and, even worse, deeply arbitrary torture and execution of suspected enemies of the state. The family was reunited only briefly in Moscow before Efron and Ariadna were both arrested and Efron was charged with anti-Soviet espionage.

When German troops attacked Moscow in 1941, breaking the Nonagression Pact that Stalin had secretly signed with German Nazi leader Adolf Hitler at the outset of World War II (1939-1945), Tsvetaeva and Georgy were evacuated to the village of Elabuga in the Tatar Republic. Despondent over the arrest and possible execution of her husband and daughter, denied the right to publish, and unable to support herself and her son, Tsvetaeva took her own life.

 

LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES

Tsvetaeva's famous contemporaries include:

Charles de Gaulle (1890-1970): A French general and the leader of the Free French Forces, he founded the French Fifth Republic and became its first president.

Vladimir Mayakovsky (1893-1930): A Russian poet and playwright, he is considered one of the forerunners of Russian Futurism.

Pablo Neruda (1904-1973): A Chilean poet and writer and political Communist; his 1971 receipt of the Nobel Prize in Literature caused much controversy.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1882-1945): An American politician and the thirty-second president of the United States, he was so popular with the people he was elected to the office for four terms.

Edith Stein (1891-1942): A Carmelite nun and German philosopher, she became a martyr of the Catholic Church upon losing her life at Auschwitz.

 

Works in Literary Context

Russian Influences. Tsvetaeva’s writings were significantly influenced by those of her contemporaries and by the events surrounding the Russian Revolution. Yet she remained largely independent of the numerous literary and political movements that flourished during this tumultuous era, perhaps because of the strength of the impressions left on her by her eclectic reading interests. Evening Album (1910), for example, bears the strong influence of the young Tsvetaeva’s readings, which included much second-rate poetry and prose. In Mileposts: Poems: Issue I (1916), she is inspired by the architectural and religious heritage of Moscow, perhaps because of the work of Karolina Karlovna Pavlova, one of her favorite poets.

Tsvetaeva’s numerous affairs, which often did not involve sex, were also apparent influences; she considered these essentially spiritual in nature, and they are credited with providing the highly charged emotion of her poetry, as well as inspiring poems dedicated to Osip Mandelstam, Aleksandr Blok, and Rainer Maria Rilke. Tsvetaeva’s lyric dialogues with Blok, Mandelstam, and Akhmatova in Mileposts center on the themes of Russia, poetry, and love. While she based her poems predominantly upon personal experience, Tsvetaeva also explored with increased detachment such philosophical themes as the nature of time and space.

Russian Folk Style. Tsvetaeva developed poetic traits early on that are largely preserved in her subsequent collections. Both volumes of Mileposts are marked by an extraordinary power and directness of language. The ideas of anxiety, restlessness, and elemental power are emphasized with language, as Tsvetaeva draws on common regional speech and refers to folksongs and Russian poetry of the eighteenth century. Her interest in language shows through the wordplay and linguistic experiments of her verse. Scholars have also noted the intensity and energy of verbs in her poems and her fondness for dark colors. On the level of imagery, archetypal and traditional symbolism prevail, for example, in her use of night, wind, open spaces, and birds.

In the early 1920s, Tsvetaeva experimented with narrative verse. She adapted traditional Russian folktales in The King-Maiden (1922) and The Swain (1924). In the volume After Russia (1928) she fused her early romantic style with more regional diction. As the 1930s progressed, Tsvetaeva devoted more energy to prose than to poetry. In such memoirs as ‘‘Captive Spirit’’ and ‘‘My Pushkin’’ (both published in Contemporary Annals in 1934 and 1937, respectively), she recorded her impressions of friends and poets. In a prose style characterized by stream-of-consciousness narrative technique and poetic language, Tsvetaeva expressed her views on literary creation and criticism in such essays as ‘‘Art in the Light of Conscience’’ and ‘‘A Poet on Criticism’’ (both published in Contemporary Annals in 1932).

 

COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE

Here are a few works by writers who, like Tsvetaeva, also paid homage to their homelands, peoples, and fellow writers in folktales, poems, lyrics, and prose:

Folktales of Greece (1970), a collection edited by Georgios A. Megas. This collection includes such stories as ''Almondseed and Almondella'' and ''Brother and Sister.''

Popular Tales of the West Highlands (1890), a collection by John Francis Campbell. These tales hail from Scotland and include such titles as ''The Tale of the Queen Who Sought a Drink from a Certain Well.''

Vladimir Il'ich Lenin (1925), a tribute poem by Vladimir Mayakovsky. This three-thousand-line poem was a high- styled tribute to Lenin upon his death.

 

Works in Critical Context

After her death Marina Tsvetaeva and her work were virtually forgotten. For many years her name was unmentionable in the Soviet Union. Then her posthumous publications started to appear, and she soon gained recognition as one of the greatest Russian poets of all time. A veritable cult of Tsvetaeva developed in Russia and outside its borders. Today she is an internationally famous poet and the object of many scholarly studies that are on a par with criticism about Pasternak, Mandelstam, Akhmatova, or even classics of the Russian Golden Age. This reputation springs in part from Tsvetaeva’s earlier poetry. Craft (1923), the last volume of poetry Tsvetaeva completed before her emigration, is praised for its metrical experiments and effective blending of folk language, archaisms, and biblical idioms. After Russia (1928) has been deemed by critics such as Simon Karlinsky ‘‘the most mature and perfect of her collections.’’

Demonstrating her literary merit further are both Tsvetaeva’s mature verse and even her first verse work, Evening Album.

Evening Album (1910). Composed almost entirely before she was eighteen years old, Evening Album is considered a work of technical virtuosity. The volume’s occasionally immature themes do not obscure Tsvetaeva’s mastery of traditional Russian lyric forms. At the time of its publication it was noticed immediately by leading critics, who gave the book favorable reviews and emphasized its intimacy and freshness of tone. Valerii Iakovlevich Briusov, who, in his 1911 article ‘‘New Verse Collections’’ in Russian Thought, expressed some reservations concerning Tsvetaeva’s domestic themes and commonplace ideas, nevertheless dubbed her an ‘‘undoubtedly talented’’ author capable of creating ‘‘the true poetry of the intimate life.’’ Further reflecting the critical attitude at the time, Nikolai Sergeevich Gumilev wrote enthusiastically about Tsvetaeva’s spontaneity and audacity, concluding in his 1911 article ‘‘Letters on Russian Poetry’’ in Apollo, ‘‘All the main laws of poetry have been instinctively guessed here, so that this book is not just a book of charming girlish confessions, but a book of excellent verse as well.’’

After her initial critical success and popularity, Tsvetaeva was largely neglected because of her experimental style and her refusal to assume either a pro- or anti-Soviet stance. Recent critics regard her work as among the most innovative and powerful Russian poetry of the twentieth century, with scholars such as Angela Livingstone writing, ‘‘An emotional but not a ‘feminine’ poet, she avoids all mellifluous sentimentality and instead loves, hates, lauds, castigates, laments, marvels, aspires . . . with a kind of unflinching physicality, always pushing passions and stances to the point at which they will be fully revealed.’’

 

Responses to Literature

1. Tsvetaeva and her writing were influenced by the events of the Russian civil war, when the poet lived in poverty in Moscow while her husband fought in the Crimea as an officer of the czarist White Army. Research the Russian civil war. How did it specifically impact the civilians? How is this impact reflected in Tsvetaeva’s work?

2. Tsvetaeva showed anti-Bolshevik sentiments in her poetry, plays, journals, and stories. This fact prevented publication of her writing for several years. Choose a poem by Tsvetaeva that you believe might have had such controversial political messages (you may need to research the Bolsheviks to understand this context). Explain why this poem may have been such a threat, using detailed analysis of passages from the poem to add depth to your position.

3. In her writing, Tsvetaeva has a commitment to folksongs, folk ditties, and Russian poetry of the eighteenth century. Research Russian folk tradition, mythology, or history to get a deeper sense of the people of Tsvetaeva’s writings. How would you characterize the typical Russians of the time? Are they well- depicted in her work? What values do they have that come through in the poet’s writing? What do you learn about Russian tradition from Tsvetaeva’s writing?

4. Tsvetaeva’s work has been praised for its lyricism and ‘‘intuitive’’ grasp of what moves the human soul. Analyze the emotional effects produced by one of her poems that you find particularly striking; explain the different elements of poetry that she brings to bear in creating particular images for and inspiring particular feelings in a reader. Help your reader understand, ultimately, how the poem works.

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Books

Briusov, Valerii Iakovlevich. Sredi stikhov 1894-1924: Manifesty, stat’i, retsenzii. Compiled by Nikolai Alekseevich Bogomolov and Nikolai Vsevolodovich Kotrelev. Moscow: Sovetskii pisatel’, 1990.

Gumilev, Nikolai Sergeevich. ‘‘Pis’ma o russkoi poezii.’’ In Sobranie sochinenii, pp. 262, 293-294. Washington, D.C.: Victor Kamkin, 1968.

Karlinsky, Simon. Marina Cvetaeva: Her Life and Art. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1966.

________. Marina Tsvetaeva: The Woman, Her World and Her Poetry. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985.

Karlinsky, Simon, and Alfred Appel Jr., eds. The Bitter Air of Exile: Russian Writers in the West, 1922-1972. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1977.

Pasternak, Yevgeny, Yelena Pasternak, and Konstantin M. Azadovsky, eds. Letters, Summer 1926: Boris Pasternak, Marina Tsvetayeva, Rainer Maria Rilke. Translated by Margaret Wettlin and Walter Arndt. New York: Harcourt, 1985; reprinted, Oxford University Press, 1988.

Tsvetaeva, Marina, Unpublished Letters. Edited by Gleb Struve and Nikita Struve. Paris: YMCA-Press, 1972.

Periodicals

Burgin, Diana Lewis. ‘‘After the Ball Is Over: Sophia Parnok’s Creative Relationship with Marina Tsvetaeva.’’ Russian Review 47 (1988): 425-44.

Ciepiela, ‘‘Taking Monologism Seriously: Bakhtin and Tsvetaeva’s ‘The Pied Piper.’’’ Slavic Review 4 (1994): 1010-24.

Forrester, Sibelan. ‘‘Bells and Cupolas: The Formative Role of the Female Body in Marina Tsvetaeva’s Poetry.’’ Slavic Review 2 (1992): 232-46.

Gove, Antonina F. ‘‘The Feminine Stereotype and Beyond: Role Conflict and Resolution in the Poetics of Marina Tsvetaeva.’’ Slavic Review 2 (1977): 231-55.

Hall, Bruce. ‘‘‘The Wildest of Disharmonies’: A Lacanian Reading of Tsvetaeva’s ‘Provoda’ Cycle in the Context of Its Other Meanings.’’ Slavic and East European Journal 1 (1996): 27-44.

Heldt, Barbara. ‘‘Two Poems by Marina Tsvetayeva from After Russia.’’ Modern Language Review 3 (1982): 679-87.

Web Sites

Kneller, Andrey. Translations of Marina Tsvetaeva: Selected Poems and Links. Retrieved March 31, 2008, from http://home.comcast.net/~kneller/tsvetaeva.html.

Manevich, Vadim, and Olesya Petrova. Heritage of Marina Tsvetayeva. Retrieved March 31, 2008, from http://english.tsvetayeva.com/.

The World of Marina Tsvetaeva (in Russian). Retrieved March 31, 2008, from http://www.ipmce.su/~tsvet/.