Marina Tsvetaeva was a native of Moscow, a city that played a significant role in her poetry and prose. Together with Boris Leonidovich Pasternak, she is frequently considered a representative of the "Moscow branch" of twentieth-century Russian poetry, as opposed to the "Petersburg branch," which included Anna Andreevna Akhmatova and Osip Emil'evich Mandel'shtam . Still, Tsvetaeva's personality and her creative work transcend any narrow classifications. She was a poet of exceptional intensity and dense verbal texture--as well as a brilliant essayist--and she disregarded the conveniences of any school. In the words of Pasternak, "Tsvetaeva had an active, virile, militant soul, resolute and indomitable. Both in art and in life she had an eager and avid, almost a rapacious need for definition and finality, and in pursuing this she outstripped everyone else" (from Pasternak's Sobranie sochinenii v piati tomakh, 1991). Her post-Symbolist poetics was experimental to a degree: it displayed certain common traits with Russian Futurism, which she valued highly, yet it remained idiosyncratic and distinctive. In her Weltanschauung and spiritual proclivities Tsvetaeva is likely related to Romanticism in the broadest sense of the term.
Marina Ivanovna Tsvetaeva was born on 26 September 1892 to Ivan Vladimirovich Tsvetaev and Mariia Aleksandrovna (Mein) Tsvetaeva. One of four sons of a poor village priest, Ivan Vladimirovich was a self-made man who graduated from the University of St. Petersburg and taught at Moscow University--first as a lecturer in Latin literature, then as a professor of the theory and history of the arts. For more than two decades he devoted himself to the creation of a museum of classical sculpture in Moscow; finally completed in 1912 and now known as the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, it has developed into the best museum in the Russian capital. Tsvetaeva described the fulfillment of her father's lifelong dream in one of her autobiographical essays, "Otkrytie muzeia" (The Opening of the Museum, written in 1933, published in Vstrechi [Encounters], 1934). Ivan Vladimirovich was a widower when he married Mariia Aleksandrovna, a wealthy woman and talented pianist of Baltic German and Polish descent. In addition to Tsvetaeva they had another daughter, Anastasiia (known as Asia). Both Tsvetaeva and her sister became writers, albeit of unequal stature; Asia produced extensive memoirs that serve as a prominent, if highly idealized, source for her older sister's childhood and youth.
Mariia Aleksandrovna was twenty-one years younger than her husband, and although she respected and admired him until the end of her life, their marriage proved to be an unhappy one. The birth of two daughters, rather than sons, disappointed her greatly: even if she apparently came to love Asia, she remained cold and unemotional toward her firstborn child. A disciplinarian who suffered much because of the loss of her career as a musician (which she sacrificed to her familial duties), Mariia Aleksandrovna forced the young Tsvetaeva to practice piano and disapproved of her daughter's early verse. The tense relationship with her mother, described in several of Tsvetaeva's essays, especially in "Mat' i muzyka" (My Mother and Music, written in 1934; published in Sovremennye zapiski [Contemporary Annals], 1935), became the first--and arguably the most fundamental--psychological trauma of her life. At the same time, Tsvetaeva enjoyed the moments when her mother read with the children the works of French and German authors (mainly sentimental and romantic tales). Mariia Aleksandrovna's Polish background became a source of Tsvetaeva's private mythology, which later crystallized around the figure of her namesake, the seventeenth-century Polish adventurer Marina Mnishek.
From her early childhood Tsvetaeva lived an extremely intense emotional and intellectual life. She learned three languages--Russian, German, and French--virtually simultaneously and became particularly attached to German culture. A lifelong fascination with Germany and its poets found ample expression in her work, as in the poem "Germanii" (To Germany, published in Sovremennye zapiski, 1936), written at the beginning of World War I in 1914, in which she boldly praised the country that was a military adversary of Russia. Although Russian literature was largely absent from the readings presented to her by her mother, she discovered on her own the works of Aleksandr Sergeevich Pushkin at an early age. The family spent summers in Tarusa, a small town in Kaluga province, not far from Moscow, where Tsvetaeva was introduced to the life of the Russian countryside. At the age of six she started to attend music classes and generated her first poems, which were childish pieces of verse. "Bad verse is like measles. Better to get it over in infancy," she wrote in the essay "Istoriia odnogo posviashcheniia" (Story of a Dedication, written in 1931, published in Oxford Slavonic Papers, 1964). After receiving some education at home, she was enrolled in first grade at a classical gymnasium in 1901. She had to withdraw the next year, however, when her mother was diagnosed with tuberculosis and advised to go to Italy for the winter.
The family spent three years abroad. At first Marina and Asia lived together with their parents at Nervi near Genoa, where they became friends with a group of Russian revolutionary anarchists. In 1904 they were sent to a Catholic boarding school in Lausanne, Switzerland, and later moved to a similar school in Freiburg im Breisgau, Germany. Tsvetaeva's experiences related to all these places later figured prominently in her poetry and prose.
In 1905 Mariia Aleksandrovna's health deteriorated, and the family returned to Russia, then in the throes of a revolution. They settled in Yalta, the Crimean spa, close to the main theater of revolutionary events on the Black Sea. For some time Marina was enthusiastic about Narodnaia Volia (the People's Freedom Party, an organization of the extreme Left that promoted terrorism) and revolutionary heroes such as Petr Schmidt and Mariia Spiridonova. This fascination subsided around 1908, although Tsvetaeva retained a certain sympathy with the leftist movements of an anarchist and socialist revolutionary bent in her mature years.
Mariia Aleksandrovna died in the summer of 1906. Tsvetaeva attended several schools in Moscow after her mother's death but did not go beyond the seventh grade. At this time she became profoundly interested in history and the theater. After reading Edmond Rostand's drama L'Aiglon (1900; translated as The Eagle, 1921), about the fate of Napoleon Bonaparte's son, she became obsessed with Napoleon and his era--as well as with Sarah Bernhardt, whose performance in the role of L'Aiglon was considered exemplary. Tsvetaeva began translating the work of Rostand, her first significant literary enterprise. In the summer of 1909, with her father's permission, she traveled to Paris alone, ostensibly to study Old French literature at the Sorbonne. The actual reason for her trip was to visit the places connected with Napoleon's memory and to see Bernhardt in Rostand's play. Only the first part of her plan was implemented since the great actress was not performing at that time. Tsvetaeva saw Bernhardt next year, however, when the actress was visiting Moscow on tour. According to Anastasiia's memoirs, Vospominaniia (Recollections, 1971), the poet intended to commit suicide during Bernhardt's performance, but the revolver did not go off.
In the winter of 1909 both sisters struck up an acquaintance with Ellis (Lev Kobylinsky)--a minor Symbolist poet of Andrei Bely's circle--and Vladimir Nieländer (in Russian transliteration, Nilender), a literary translator who belonged to the same milieu. They played a significant role in Tsvetaeva's life by introducing her to the world of Russian and French modernist poetry and thus contributing to the gradual change of her literary tastes. Nieländer was also instrumental in acquainting her more closely with works of ancient Greek literature and philosophy. Moreover, she entered into a complicated emotional relationship with both men. This experience is reflected in Tsvetaeva's first book of verse, Vechernii al'bom (Evening Album, 1910), which she published at her own expense.
Vechernii al'bom bears the strong influence of the young Tsvetaeva's readings, which included much second-rate poetry and prose. Whereas now it strikes one as a juvenile work, full of romantic and sentimental imagery often bordering on kitsch, at the time of its publication Vechernii al'bom 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 "Novye sborniki stikhov" (New Verse Collections) in Russkaia mysl' (Russian Thought), expressed some reservations concerning Tsvetaeva's domestic themes and commonplace ideas, nevertheless recognized her as an "undoubtedly talented" author capable of creating "the true poetry of the intimate life." Nikolai Sergeevich Gumilev wrote enthusiastically about Tsvetaeva's spontaneity and audacity and concluded in his 1911 article "Pis'ma o russkoi poezii" (Letters on Russian Poetry) in Apollon (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." As early as 1911 Tsvetaeva's poems were included in an anthology of contemporary Russian poetry (Antologiia, 1911) together with the work of Aleksandr Aleksandrovich Blok, Bely, Viacheslav Ivanovich Ivanov, and other major authors.
Tsvetaeva's first collection consisted of three sections: "Detstvo" (Childhood), "Liubov'" (Love), and "Tol'ko teni" (Just the Shadows). The first two parts are based on Tsvetaeva's early experiences and vividly present scenes of life in a middle-class home of Russian intellectuals, in the Russian countryside, as well as in various western European towns and spas; the last part consists mainly of poems about historical and literary figures--including, of course, Napoleon. The poems "Charodeiu" (To a Sorcerer, written 1914; published in Neizdannoe: Stikhi. Teatr. Proza, 1976) and "Byvshemu charodeiu" (To a Former Sorcerer) tell of Tsvetaeva's enchantment with Ellis, while many other poems are love letters to Nieländer. In some respects her casual poetic diary reminds one of the confessional, aphoristic prose practiced at that time by Vasilii Vasil'evich Rozanov. In terms of technique Vechernii al'bom reveals her considerable mastery of traditional syllabotonic meters (verse in which the number of stressed syllables in each line is the central prosodic trait) and rare stanzaic forms (such as stanzas consisting of five, seven, and twelve lines). Nonetheless, not a hint of the bold enjambments and uncommon logaoedic lines characteristic of her mature poetry is present in this first volume--neither are the complicated sound patterns and morphological experiments that later became Tsvetaeva's trademarks as well.
After the appearance of Vechernii al'bom, Tsvetaeva befriended Maksimilian Aleksandrovich Voloshin, who wrote not only an exceedingly warm review of the book but also a verse of welcome for her. Voloshin, a writer of more considerable stature than either Nieländer or Ellis, replaced them as Tsvetaeva's spiritual mentor. He attempted to supply her with more sophisticated reading fare, introduced her to the Moscow literary community, and invited her to his Crimean retreat at Koktebel', visited by many celebrities of the period. There, in May 1911, Tsvetaeva met Sergei Iakovlevich Efron, an aspiring writer who was one year younger than Tsvetaeva. They fell in love immediately.
Efron's unusual family background suited Marina's Romantic tastes quite well. On his father's side he was Jewish (his great-grandfather may have been a rabbi), and on his mother's side he came from Russian aristocracy. Both of his parents were revolutionaries of an extreme persuasion who had met at a clandestine gathering of terrorists. Their older children (though not Sergei) also had joined the revolutionary movement. In 1911 Efron was already an orphan; his father died in Paris, and his mother had committed suicide in the same city after the tragic death of Sergei's younger brother. Tsvetaeva followed him from Koktebel' to a health resort in the Ural Mountains, where he was treated for the lingering effects of tuberculosis, and then brought him to Moscow, where they rented an apartment.
Tsvetaeva married Efron in January 1912, and their first daughter, Ariadna (known as Alia), was born in September of the same year. The couple remained lifelong companions. Although later Tsvetaeva experienced many tumultuous passions, her emotional involvement with Sergei proved to be the deepest and longest lasting. Her loyalty to him was expressed in a moving poem, "Pisala ia na aspidnoi doske" (I was writing on a slate, written 1920, published 1956), which served as an introduction to her last and never-published book of verse, compiled in Moscow in 1940 while Joseph Stalin was in power. Tsvetaeva adored Efron and considered him a paragon of honesty and nobleness. Although this opinion was not totally unfounded, for all practical reasons Efron ended up a failure, and the marriage was disastrous for both of them.
Shortly after her wedding Tsvetaeva published Volshebnyi fonar': Vtoraia kniga stikhov (Magic Lantern: A Second Book of Verse, 1912), which she dedicated to her husband. Her third collection of poetry appeared under the title Iz dvukh knig (From Two Books, 1913)--actually a selection culled from her first two volumes and augmented by an introduction. Volshebnyi fonar' , in contrast to Vechernii al'bom, did not earn much critical praise. Both Briusov and Gumilev noted that the poet was just repeating herself. As Tsvetaeva admitted in a short autobiography written in 1922, her first two volumes were "in spirit--a single book." Many, though not all, of the poems included in Volshebnyi fonar' were written simultaneously with those from Vechernii al'bom, or even before them. Tsvetaeva's poetics had changed little since the first book. In Volshebnyi fonar' she presents to her readers a diary of sorts that emphasizes momentary moods and the details of everyday life. Like Vechernii al'bom, the second volume features scenes of childhood that are frequently sentimental in tone and saturated with diminutives. Her worldview remains steadfastly Romantic, and she still expresses the opposition of "self" to "world" with considerable energy. Sometimes the book offers a taste of her mature verse, as in the poem "Dikaia volia" (Wild Liberty), yet the technique that Tsvetaeva employs nevertheless harks back to a nineteenth-century brand of poetics.
Tsvetaeva continued to write prolifically throughout the years of World War I and the revolution in Russia, although she did not publish a new book until 1921. Around 1919 she prepared a collection titled Iunosheskie stikhi, 1913-1915 (Youthful Poems, 1913-1915), which was published in its entirety only in 1976 (in Neizdannoe: Stikhi. Teatr. Proza [Unpublished: Poems. Theater. Prose]). She divided her time between literary activities and love affairs. One of the most significant experiences of her life was an open involvement with Sofiia Iakovlevna Parnok, a talented lesbian poet, to whom Tsvetaeva dedicated her cycle of poems "Podruga" (The Lady Friend, written 1914-1915, published 1971). Tsvetaeva later developed the themes of homoerotic love and androgyny in her essay "Lettre à l'Amazone" (Letter to an Amazon), written in 1932 and published in 1979 as Mon frère féminin: Lettre à l'Amazone (My Female Brother: Letter to an Amazon), and in a work of prose fiction, "Povest' o Sonechke" (The Story of Sonechka, written 1937, published 1976). Tsvetaeva's relationship with Parnok ended early in 1916, but before their breakup they made a trip to Petrograd (formerly St. Petersburg), where Tsvetaeva met major literary figures, including Mikhail Alekseevich Kuzmin, Sergei Aleksandrovich Esenin, and Mandel'shtam. She and Mandel'shtam had a affair that continued until the summer of 1916 and sparked an exchange of several poems, which were crucial in their respective creative legacies.
Iunosheskie stikhi emphasizes Tsvetaeva's break with childhood and her initiation into the life of a mature woman. It includes her first long narrative poem "Charodei," which addresses her and her sister's involvement with Ellis, as well as poems dedicated to Efron and Parnok. As in her previous books, there are poems inspired by literary and historical figures: "Baironu" (To Byron), written in 1913, first published in the journal Severnye zapiski (Northern Notes) in 1915, and collected in 1971; "Vstrecha s Pushkinym" (A Meeting with Pushkin), written in 1913, first published in the periodical Dni (Days) in 1924, and collected in 1965; and "Generalam 12 goda" (To the Generals of 1812), written in 1913, first published in Severnye zapiski, and collected in 1965. Although Tsvetaeva stays faithful to her romantic worldview and diction, which occasionally degenerates into mannerism, her verse in Iunosheskie stikhi is condensed and has clarity and dramatic import. Some of them rank among the best in her lyric poetry as a whole, such as "Moim stikham, napisannym tak rano . . ." (My poems, written so early . . . , written 1913, published 1956), which in a 1933 letter to Iurii Pavlovich Ivask Tsvetaeva defined as "a formula--in advance--for my entire auctorial (and human) fate." No less emblematic for her are the poems "Idesh', na menia pokhozhii . . ." (You pass by, resembling myself . . .), written in 1913, first published in Severnye zapiski in 1915, and collected in 1965, and "Legkomyslie!--Milyi grekh . . ." (Flippancy!--A sweet sin . . .), written in 1915 and published in 1961 in Tarusskie stranitsy (Tarusa Pages). Imaginative, often poignant conceits are expressed here in energetic lines full of nervous vibrancy. Rhythmically, the poems are more inventive than in the first two books and frequently border on the experimental; in these lyrics she starts to employ logaoedic meters, tonic versification, and unusual rhymes.
Tsvetaeva's poems of 1916 form the book Versty: Stikhi: Vypusk I (Mileposts: Poems: Issue One, 1922); the poems of 1917-1921 are collected in Versty: Stikhi (Mileposts: Poems, 1921). Both books mark a qualitative change in Tsvetaeva's writing. Whereas she continued to employ Victorian diction in large measure in Iunosheskie stikhi, her writing was free of artificiality in both Versty collections. In the poems of these two collections Tsvetaeva writes as a mature and profoundly innovative poet. She finds her inimitable tone in a colorful mixture of styles and poetic devices. Aware of the achievements of all three schools of Russian modernist poetry (Symbolism, Acmeism, and Futurism) and influenced by all of them, as well as by the so-called peasant poets, she nevertheless remains independent. Her mature poetics may be best described as expressionist: as a rule it concerns the extremes of the human condition--extravagant and ecstatic states of the mind and the soul. The themes of temptation, transgression, the breaking of taboos, and romantic theomachy (a battle against God) assume a privileged place. One also should note Tsvetaeva's inclination toward the dramatic genre: in Versty and later volumes she dons several verbal masks and writes monologues, dialogues, and choruses. Most frequently, she stylizes her lyrical persona as a vagabond--a woman full of spontaneity and passion and a defiant sinner. Her favorite masks are those of beggar, convicted criminal, sorceress, adventurous lady of a noble yet mysterious lineage, and religious pilgrim or nun (with strong overtones of the Russian sectarian underground).
A lyrical diary published in strictly chronological order, Versty: Stikhi: Vypusk I embodies poems that tend to coalesce in cycles, such as "Stikhi o Moskve" (Poems about Moscow), "Stikhi k Bloku" (Poems to Blok), and "Stikhi k Akhmatovoi" (Poems to Akhmatova). These traits are largely preserved in Tsvetaeva's subsequent collections. Both volumes of Versty are marked by an extraordinary power and directness of language. The ideas of anxiety, restlessness, and elemental power are emphasized on a lexical level. Tsvetaeva draws on many archaisms, colloquialisms, and "regionalisms" and refers to folk songs, folk ditties, and Russian poetry of the eighteenth century. Critics have also noted the intensity and energy of verbs in her poems and her fondness for dark colors. Her interest in language shows through the wordplay and linguistic experiments and conceits of her verse. On the level of imagery, archetypal and traditional symbolism prevail (night, wind, open spaces, and birds, for example), and she is inspired by the architectural and religious patrimony of Moscow, perhaps because of the work of Karolina Karlovna Pavlova, one of her favorite poets. Tsvetaeva's lyric dialogues with Blok, Mandel'shtam, and Akhmatova center on the themes of Russia, poetry, and love; in her verses to these poets she imitates, to a degree, their styles yet at the same time stresses her own individuality. Although syntactically the poems in both books of Versty are simple, she makes use of a full range of logaoedic, accentual, and free verse and incorporates certain folk meters (as well as traditional syllabotonic patterns). A testimony of a profound inner experience, the two Versty collections contributed to the establishment of Tsvetaeva as one of the few leading poets of her era. Virtually all of the poems in these two books became immediate classics.
At the time of the February revolution, Tsvetaeva was in Moscow and expecting her second child; a second daughter, Irina, was born in April 1917. Notwithstanding her Romantic and rebellious mindset, she was disappointed with the revolutionary events. In accordance with her tendency to be on the side of the vanquished, she felt an instant sympathy for the deposed Tsar Nicholas II and especially for his son, Aleksei. In general she considered politics an abomination, and the liberal democratic politics of the Provisional Government clashed with her individualistic mood and aesthetic tastes. Efron, who had been studying at a military school since 1916, was now serving in the army. In early October 1917 Tsvetaeva went to the Crimea, where she witnessed the excesses of the revolutionary soldiers. On her journey back to Moscow she learned about the October coup and the street fighting in both Russian capitals; Efron's regiment had been defending the Kremlin, which, the press reported, was destroyed. She found her husband unhurt, however; he had received permission from the new Communist authorities to depart for southern Russia. Thus, she immediately left for the Crimea again, this time in the company of her husband (their daughters were left in the care of relatives).
At the Voloshins' house in Koktebel', Efron and Tsvetaeva came to a decision: he would join the White Army, while she would go home and bring the children to the Crimea. Yet, the second part of the plan proved to be unfeasible; Tsvetaeva and her daughters became stranded in Moscow under Bolshevik rule.
She found herself under circumstances of extreme adversity, caused by economic devastation and political terror. This situation was exacerbated by her ignorance of Efron's fate. In 1918 Tsvetaeva got a job as a filing clerk at the People's Commissariat of Nationalities (which Stalin headed at the time) but soon found herself incapable of doing office work. Characteristically, she never learned who her top superior was. In the winter of 1920 Irina, her younger daughter, died of malnutrition. Tsvetaeva herself often went hungry and had to walk barefoot. Still, she continued to write. Her poems of the revolutionary period compose the volume Lebedinyi stan: Stikhi 1917-1921 gg. (The Swans' Demesne: Poems of 1917-1921), which remained in manuscript form until 1957.
Lebedinyi stan is a powerful book of political poetry that documents the events and moods of the February and October Revolutions, both of which occurred in 1917, and the Russian Civil War, which lasted from 1918 to 1921. The message of the collection is clearly and resoundingly pro-White (the titular swans symbolize the White Army, in which Efron was serving) and anti-Bolshevik (Red Army), yet the poet mourns for everybody who has perished in the struggle. Tsvetaeva recited the poems of Lebedinyi stan at literary evenings before a mixed audience, which more often than not included members of the Red forces: thus, in her opinion she was fulfilling her duty as the wife of a White officer. For some reason her reckless courage did not result in her arrest; that she remained free might exemplify the relative tolerance of the regime at the time, but Tsvetaeva herself, perhaps correctly, believed she avoided arrest because of the power of poetry--its rhythm and sound captivated an audience regardless of the content (her readings were always a great success). The poems of Lebedinyi stan that endure as indisputable masterpieces include "Noch.'--Nord-Ost--Rev soldat--Rev voln" (Night. North-Eastern wind. Roar of soldiers. Roar of waves, written 1917); "André Chénier" (written 1918); "Budu vysprashivat' vody shirokogo Dona . . ." (I will question the waters of the wide Don, written 1920); "Okh, gribok ty moi, gribochek, belyi gruzd'!" (O mushroom mine, little mushroom, mushroom white! written 1920); and the final piece in the collection, "S Novym Godom, Lebedinyi stan!" (Happy New Year, Swans' Demesne! written 1920). All of these poems have a tragic tonality, epigrammatic density, and abundant references to folklore and both Old Russian and world literature.
At this time, Tsvetaeva's connection with the theater world provided her with some bright moments. In late 1917 and early 1918 she met a group of young actors studying under Evgenii Bagrationovich Vakhtangov, a well-known modernist reformer of the Russian stage. These people included Pavel Grigor'evich Antokol'sky (who was also a poet), Iurii Aleksandrovich Zavadsky, and Sofiia Evgen'evna Gollidei (Holliday). They worked at the so-called Third Studio (an experimental branch of the Moscow Art Theater). Friendships with them, punctuated by love affairs--sometimes ephemeral, sometimes passionate--helped Tsvetaeva to overcome her despair and to survive in the years of the civil war. She wrote several cycles of poems dedicated to actors; these cycles, such as "Komed'iant" (The Comedian, initially published mainly in Sovremennye zapiski [Contemporary Annals]) and "Stikhi k Sonechke" (Verses to Sonechka, partially published for the first time in Russkie zapiski [Russian Annals], in 1938), are generally lighthearted and marked by stylization. Moreover, she produced six verse plays for the Third Studio to stage (although none of them actually was): Metel' (The Snowstorm), Fortuna (The Goddess Fortuna), Prikliuchenie (An Adventure), Feniks (The Phoenix), Chervonnyi valet (The Jack of Hearts), and Kamennyi angel (The Stone Angel). The first three were published in 1923 (Metel' in Zveno [Link], Fortuna in Sovremennye zapiski, and Prikliuchenie in Volia Rossii [Freedom of Russia]); the third act of Feniks appeared as a separate book in Moscow in 1922 under the title Konets Kazanovy (The End of Casanova), and the entire text was published in Prague in 1924 in Volia Rossii; the last two came out only in 1974 (in Novyi zhurnal [New Journal]) and 1976, respectively. Of uneven value, yet lively and structurally simple, the plays are variations on Romantic and mythological themes and are written in transparent verse that successfully mixes the exalted with the colloquial. Prikliuchenie and Feniks are based on the life of Giovanni Giacomo Casanova, who was one of Tsvetaeva's favorite historical and literary figures; Prikliuchenie in particular develops the well-known episode from Casanova's memoirs in which he describes his love affair with the androgynous French musician Henriette. Fortuna , regarded as the best of the plays, is a dramatization of the memoirs of Duc de Lauzun, another celebrated eighteenth-century seducer who supported the French Revolution but was executed during the Reign of Terror. Like the plays about Casanova, Fortuna refers to Tsvetaeva's private experiences, yet, at the same time, presents a caustic commentary on the revolutionary era. (At one point, Tsvetaeva's attempt at collaboration with another famous reformer of the theater, Vsevolod Emil'evich Meierkhol'd, failed when he accused her, not without reason, of a counterrevolutionary attitude.)
During her last two years in Moscow, from 1920 to 1922, Tsvetaeva also wrote three long narrative poems published in Remeslo (Craft) in 1923: Tsar'-devitsa (The Maiden-Tsar, 1922), "Na krasnom kone" (On a Red Steed, 1922), and "Pereulochki" (Sidestreets, 1923). Although it follows to a degree stylizations of folktales by Pushkin and Petr Pavlovich Ershov, Tsar'-devitsa reflects a heavy usage of substandard archaic speech and incorporates motifs of incest and androgyny that are by now characteristic of Tsvetaeva's work. Furthermore, in the final section of the poem she seemingly accepts and praises the revolution and revolutionary violence. "Na krasnom kone," a much shorter work, was inspired by her passionate friendship with a young poet, Evgenii L'vovich Lann, and reads like a parable on the imperative nature of art. Though masterfully orchestrated in terms of verbal quality and sound, "Pereulochki" is a virtually incomprehensible love story that is based partly on a motif taken from a Russian folk epic. While none of these works is considered especially successful, together they mark a period of preparation for the great epic poems that Tsvetaeva created during her émigré years.
In November 1920, Efron left Russia with the many surviving soldiers of the defeated White Army. Tsvetaeva had lost track of him in 1918, but in 1921, with the help of Il'ia Grigor'evich Erenburg, she was able to find her husband: he was alive and well in Constantinople and soon managed to reach Prague, where he enrolled in the university there. Tsvetaeva immediately decided to join him and after much trouble was granted an exit visa by the Soviet government. She left for Berlin, together with nine-year-old Ariadna, in May 1922. They stayed in Berlin for a time, since it was a hub for Russian émigrés and had many publishing houses--the output of which often reached Russia and was reviewed there and received positively. Even prior to her departure from Moscow, Tsvetaeva had published in Berlin in early 1922 a couple of poetry volumes of modest size, Razluka and Stikhi k Bloku (Poems to Blok). Razluka includes a short cycle of the same title and the narrative poem "Na krasnom kone." Stikhi k Bloku has two cycles dedicated to the great Russian Symbolist poet, whom she never met. In addition to the 1916 cycle published in Versty: Stikhi: Vypusk I, there is another from 1921, written after Blok's death, which Tsvetaeva took as a terrible blow not only for herself but also for Russia. After her arrival in Berlin, she arranged for the publication of a new substantial collection of lyrics, Remeslo; a smaller volume, Psikheia (Psyche, 1923), which included the well-known cycle "Bessonnitsa" (Insomnia); and a second edition of Tsar'-devitsa.
In Berlin, Tsvetaeva was welcomed by the Russian émigré community as a literary celebrity. Sought by editors and publishers, she was able to secure with her earnings a decent living standard for herself and Ariadna. She maintained a close friendship with Bely, who was enthusiastic about her writing. While in Berlin, Tsvetaeva read Pasternak's poetic volume Sestra moia zhizn' (My Sister Life, 1922), which impressed her enormously; she had met Pasternak more than once in Russia, but neither poet fully realized at those times the significance of the other. Her review of Sestra moia zhizn', titled "Svetovoi liven'" (Downpour of Light), appeared in Bely's journal Epopeia (Epopee) in 1922 and marked her debut as a literary critic; it remains one of the best essays on Pasternak ever written.
Remeslo , like Versty: Stikhi: Vypusk I, is arranged in the format of a strictly chronological diary and features poems written in Soviet Russia from April 1921 to April 1922. As in previous collections, many of these lyrics form monumental cycles, which include "Uchenik" (The Pupil), "Marina," "Georgii," "Blagaia vest'" (Good Tidings), "Khvala Afrodite" (In Praise of Aphrodite), and "Sugroby" (Snowdrifts). The main theme of Remeslo is Tsvetaeva's love for Efron against the backdrop of postrevolutionary Russia--although there are also poems on other personal, as well as philosophical and political, topics. Similar to Versty: Stikhi: Vypusk I, the new collection shows Tsvetaeva as a radically innovative poet of unusual energy and great thematic and formal range. Several years later, in a 1934 letter to Ivask, Tsvetaeva defined Remeslo as "not a turning point [but] a new bend of the river." It follows the patterns of her earlier verse, in its diverse voices and styles, variegated rhythms (frequently based on musical and dance movements), inexact but inventive rhymes, and use of poetic devices of folk incantations and charms. Still, as Remeslo also confirms, her poetry has grown more enigmatic and obscure and borders on Surrealist and stream-of-consciousness techniques. Its ecstatic, Dionysiac element finds expression in unpredictable associations and metaphors; frequent ellipses; words of unusual length and morphological structure; rhythmical staccatos; and emphatic enjambments. All these devices presented a challenge to readers and critics when the volume appeared, and some of them dismissed the poems in it as "hysterical" and "crazy."
Tsvetaeva followed her husband to Prague in the late summer of 1922. Efron had a scholarship, and in addition the family lived on a small stipend granted to Tsvetaeva by the government of Czechoslovakia, which went to great lengths to support Russian émigrés. For three years they lived either in Prague or in small villages near the city. Tsvetaeva continued to write and publish, contributing primarily to Volia Rossii, the organ of the Socialist Revolutionary Party. She also completed a new long narrative poem, Molodets (The Swain, 1924), a stylization of a Russian folktale and reminiscent of Tsar'-devitsa in technique as well as in moral ambiguity. Tsvetaeva remained a celebrated poet admired by many, even if attacked by Soviet critics and slighted by literary figures such as Mandel'shtam and Vladislav Felitsianovich Khodasevich. Nonetheless, her circumstances soon started to deteriorate, a development caused mainly by Efron's inability to provide for his family and to undertake domestic chores. Moreover, Tsvetaeva--though a devoted wife full of maternal concern for her husband--was involved in several love affairs simultaneously; sometimes platonic, sometimes not, they became an indispensable stimulus for her writing but also proved to be psychologically taxing.
In the fall of 1922 Tsvetaeva began an affair with Pasternak. In truth the relationship was purely epistolary since Pasternak came to Berlin after Tsvetaeva had departed for Prague; he returned to Soviet Russia in March 1923 before she could arrange a visit to him. Their mutual emotional involvement, which was expressed almost exclusively in letters, reached its peak in 1926 and lasted at least until 1935, when Pasternak visited with Tsvetaeva in Paris, where she lived at that time. In the summer of 1923 she engaged in a new epistolary affair with a young émigré critic, Aleksandr Vasil'evich Bakhrakh, and soon thereafter she began a genuine and complicated relationship with Konstantin Boleslavovich Rodzevich, a fellow student of her husband. This extramarital affair continued from September to December 1923 and was at least as significant for Tsvetaeva as her relationship with Parnok. Her bond with Rodzevich inspired two magnificent narrative poems, "Poema gory" (Poem of the Mountain) and "Poema kontsa" (Poem of the End), both written in 1924 and published in 1926--the former in Versty, a journal that Efron founded in Paris, and the latter in the almanac Kovcheg (The Ark). Later, when Tsvetaeva moved to Paris, an epistolary triangle developed between her, Pasternak, and Rainer Maria Rilke that lasted from the spring of 1926 until Rilke's death later that year. The distinctive correspondence of these three great poets became available for research in 1977 and was published first in English translation in 1985 (as Letters, Summer 1926: Boris Pasternak, Marina Tsvetayeva, Rainer Maria Rilke) and in Russian in 1990 (as Pis'ma 1926 goda: Rainer Mariia Ril'ke, Boris Pasternak, Marina Tsvetaeva). Tsvetaeva dedicated to Rilke one of her best lyrical works, "Novogodnee" (A New Year's Poem, written in 1927; published in Versty in 1928), and the prose essay "Tvoia smert'" (Your Death, written and published in Volia Rossii in 1972).
In February 1925, Tsvetaeva's son Georgii (also known as Mur) was born. In November of the same year she arrived with her children in Paris--then rapidly becoming the center of Russian émigré life. Efron joined the family at the end of December. Their stay in Paris, at first considered temporary, soon developed into a permanent residence. The Czech authorities continued to pay Tsvetaeva a stipend, and she also earned money from her many publications in émigré periodicals, which included Sovremennye zapiski, the most prominent Russian literary journal in Paris. In early 1926 she gave a poetry reading, which became, for the Russian émigré community, the literary event of the year.
This idyllic situation did not last long. Efron started Versty, the title for which he borrowed from Tsvetaeva's collection of poems. Only three issues of Versty appeared (in 1926, 1927, and 1928). Ideologically, Versty was connected with the so-called Eurasianist movement, which tended to absolve Bolshevism by defining it as a manifestation of the Asian element in Russian culture, seen as a source of strength and originality. This journal, as well as some of Tsvetaeva's critical writings, soon resulted in her split with the core of the émigré community. In particular, Zinaida Nikolaevna Hippius accused her of crypto-communism (a hidden attraction to communism), and the younger writers started to speak of Tsvetaeva in an abusive manner. In 1928 she attended a poetry reading given by Vladimir Vladimirovich Maiakovsky in Paris and published an open letter to him that many émigrés interpreted as praise for the Soviet system. In the early 1930s Tsvetaeva again fell into a hard life; although she suffered less from hunger, unlike her years in Moscow after the revolution, she felt more isolated and alone.
During her Paris period, Tsvetaeva published only one book of lyric poetry, Posle Rossii: 1922-1925 (After Russia: 1922-1925, 1928). It was supplemented with works that had appeared in various periodicals. Among these works were two tragedies on Greek mythological motifs: Ariadna (Ariadne), first published as Tezei (Theseus) in the journal Versty in 1927, and Fedra (Phaedra), first published in Sovremennye zapiski in 1928. Several long narrative poems appeared for the first time in print at this time as well: "Krysolov" (The Pied Piper), published in the Prague journal Volia Rossii in 1925-1926; "Poema lestnitsy" (Poem of the Staircase), first published in Volia Rossii in 1926 and collected in 1965; "Popytka komnaty" (Attempt at a Room), first published in Volia Rossii in 1928 and collected in 1971; "Krasnyi bychok" (The Red Steer), first published in Volia Rossii in 1928 and collected in 1971; and "Poema vozdukha" (Poem of the Air), written in 1930, first published in Volia Rossii, and collected in 1971. Another work, the lengthy poem "Perekop," which was based on Efron's civil-war experiences, appeared partially in the almanac Vozdushnye puti (Aerial Paths) and in full only in 1971. Tsvetaeva's "Poema o tsarskoi sem'e" (Poem on the Royal Family), however, did not survive; only its prologue, "Sibir'" (Siberia), found its way into print in Volia Rossii in 1931. The last ten years or so of her emigration, from 1928 to 1939, are usually called the "prose decade," during which time she wrote mainly critical essays, autobiographical pieces, and memoirs about her contemporaries (such as Voloshin, Bely, and Kuzmin). Her turn to prose writing was, in part, imposed by her material circumstances: the production and publication of such writing guaranteed physical survival for her and her family. Still, her prose--even if snubbed by critics such as Dmitrii Sviatopolk-Mirsky--forms an exceptionally valuable part of her literary legacy.
Posle Rossii, as well as Versty: Stikhi: Vypusk I and Remeslo, represents Tsvetaeva's lyric poetry at its best. The collection was disparaged by many critics, including Georgii Viktorovich Adamovich and, to a degree, Khodasevich, because of its "illogical," "unmotivated," and "strained" poetics. The book may be defined as a brilliant exercise in biblical and neoclassical style, comparable to the style of John Milton or Jean Racine, and also as a sample of an utterly distinctive poetics founded on interruption and ellipsis, which Tsvetaeva also elaborated upon and intensified after 1928. Posle Rossii consists of poems written from 1922 to 1925 in Berlin and Prague and includes powerful cycles such as "Sivilla" (The Sibyl), "Derev'ia" (Trees), "Bog" (God), "Provoda" (Wires, addressed to Pasternak), "Poety" (Poets), "Magdalina" (Magdalene), and "Dvoe" (Pairs). The book emphasizes Tsvetaeva's frequent use of archaic diction and the vocabulary of eighteenth-century Russian poetry, with its odic intonation, idiosyncratic colloquialisms, and baroque interweaving of Greek and Old Testament cultural codes. There are no political poems in the volume: most of the verses examine philosophical topics (time, space, communication, love, the creative process, death, and forgetting, for example), striving for exact definitions and bringing concepts to their logical limit. Several satirical poems--for instance, "Poezd zhizni" (The Train of Life, written 1923) and "Poloterskaia" (The Floorcleaners' Song, written 1924)--ridicule the pettiness and false orderliness of bourgeois life (a theme also developed in "Krysolov"). Short verses referring to ancient and Shakespearean heroes and heroines (such as Phaedra, Eurydice, and Ophelia) address archetypal themes yet are deeply rooted in Tsvetaeva's personal experience and private mythology. In terms of technique, moreover, she exploits the resources of the Russian language as no Russian poet before her has and constantly strives to break boundaries. Hence, her poetry displays a fusing and joining of words; a breaking down of words into parts; a recurring use of dashes; ruptures in the middle of a phrase; and echoes between one verse and another. Her extraordinary and masterful use of paronomasia and onomatopoeia--as shown in, for example, the poem "Lety slepotekushchii vskhlip" (The blindly flowing sob of Lethe, written 1922, first published in Posle Rossii)--should also be noted.
Ariadna and Fedra form the first two parts of an uncompleted dramatic trilogy based on the myth of Theseus. These tragedies in verse employ the narrative technique of Racine, author of the play Phèdre et Hippolyte (Phaedra and Hippolytus, 1677). Racine's style interacts distinctively with the verbal technique of the mature Tsvetaeva. The plays also reveal Tsvetaeva's sensitivity toward the inner logic of myth and her profound understanding of ritual that are comparable with insights from modern scholarship on mythology. This point is particularly striking if one considers that her only source for the story of Theseus was Gustav Schwab's adaptation of it for juvenile readers. In Fedra she largely "Slavonicizes" the Greek tale, making use of Russian folkloric dirges and incantations, as well as of peasant speech. For this "Slavonicization" the play was censured by critics, including Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov, who stated in a 1929 review in Rul' (The Rudder) that it caused "astonishment and a severe headache." Such rebukes, while no doubt undeserved, induced Tsvetaeva to abandon the completion of the trilogy, and the third play, which would have been about Helen of Troy, was never written.
"Poema gory" and "Poema kontsa," two poems on the tragic experience of love and separation, refer directly to the Bible (the first is saturated with intertextual links with, and echoes from, the Old Testament, while the second harks back to the Gospels). The emotional intensity, highly dramatic quality, and splendid verse of these lyrics won them the status of undisputed classics. "Poema kontsa" includes perhaps the most famous lines ever written by Tsvetaeva: "In this most Christian of worlds / Poets are Jews!" The same concept of the philistine world, which rejects the poet and, in turn, is rejected by the poet, prevails in "Krysolov," another of Tsvetaeva's masterpieces, which uses the thirteenth-century German legend about the rat catcher of Hammeln (Hamelin). The poem also has a political subtext: it juxtaposes the bourgeois universe, represented by the town, with the proletarian army, represented by the rats--both of which are mercilessly mocked. "Krysolov," as has been rightly noted, forms Tsvetaeva's answer to Blok's Dvenadtsat' (The Twelve, 1918). The multivoiced structure of "Krysolov," its dazzling verbal texture, and its splendid lyrical voices, which remind one of German Romantic poetry, impart a musical quality to the work.
Tsvetaeva's other long narrative poems of the émigré period do not reach the heights of the two Prague poems or "Krysolov." "Poema lestnitsy," a misanthropic satire on Parisian life, has elements of melodrama. "Popytka komnaty" refers to the author's complicated relationship with Pasternak and Rilke; full of private associations and confused in its syntactical patterns, it is less interesting than her correspondence with the two poets. "Krasnyi bychok," inspired by the death of one of Tsvetaeva's acquaintances, a young man who had served in the White Army, addresses memories of the civil war in a rather Surrealist vein. "Poema vozdukha," arguably the best of these minor works, is also the most unusual: describing the transatlantic flight of Charles Lindbergh in extremely opaque verse, it takes air--the most "spiritual" of elements--as a basis for a series of arcane metaphors.
Among Tsvetaeva's prose works, several essays on the temporal and ethical dimension of literature, which represent her aesthetic credo, should be recognized: "Poet i vremia" (The Poet and Time, published in 1932 in Volia Rossii), "Iskusstvo pri svete sovesti" (Art in the Light of Conscience, published in 1932 in Sovremennye zapiski), and "Poety s istoriei i poety bez istorii" (Poets with History and Poets without History, published in Serbo-Croatian translation in the Serbo-Croatian periodical Ruski archiv in 1934 and retranslated into Russian after the author's death). Tsvetaeva believed that art and ethics are drawn into an internecine struggle. As a release of overpowering passion, art is a menace for any human being and any society, yet attempts to control art may result in the destruction of both art and ethics. The only way out of the predicament is, in Tsvetaeva's opinion, the self-imposed discipline of language. She also considered the poet both a medium and a victim of history; the poet overcomes history by expressing its rhythm and scale--a judgment corroborated by Tsvetaeva's own fate. The essay "Epos i lirika sovremennoi Rossii" (Epic and Lyric of Contemporary Russia, published in Novyi Gorod [The New City] in 1933) brilliantly juxtaposes Maiakovsky and Pasternak as two different types of poet--extrovert and introvert, respectively. "Dva 'Lesnykh Tsaria'" (Two Forest Kings, published in Chisla [Numbers] in 1934) was dedicated to the problem of poetic translation, while "Pushkin i Pugachev" (Pushkin and Pugachev, published in Russkie zapiski in 1937) opened new vistas in Pushkin studies by, for example, investigating the psychological phenomenon of his fascination with violence. Tsvetaeva's autobiographical sketches elaborated on her private mythology: especially valuable among them was "Moi Pushkin" (My Pushkin, published in Sovremennye zapiski in 1937), an essay on one great poet's response to another great poet and a fascinating commentary on Tsvetaeva's own work. These sketches were supplemented by a series of subjective yet fully convincing literary portraits of poets of the Silver Age: "Geroi truda" (A Hero of Labor, published in Volia Rossii in 1925), "Zhivoe o zhivom" (A Living Word about a Living Man, published in Sovremennye zapiski in 1933), "Plennyi dukh" (A Captive Spirit, published in Sovremennye zapiski in 1934), "Nezdeshnii vecher" (An Otherwordly Evening, published in Sovremennye zapiski in 1936), "Istoriia odnogo posviashcheniia," published in Sovremennye zapiski in 1964), and "Natalia Goncharova" (published in Volia Rossii in 1929), an essay on the female painter. Tsvetaeva's prose is a "poet's prose" and has much in common with the prose of Pasternak, Mandel'shtam, and Akhmatova. Her style of argument is nonlinear, and she is as fond of linguistic play in her essays as she is in her poetry. Nevertheless, her prose writings are far from hazy or psychological and sometimes recall the works of Friedrich Nietzsche or Oscar Wilde in their aphoristic quality. In the context of Tsvetaeva's prose must also be mentioned her extensive correspondence, which has not yet been collected and published in full.
By the second half of the 1920s the Efrons had became isolated from Russian émigré circles. Although Tsvetaeva rejected Bolshevism and thoroughly recognized its stifling nature, she remained supportive of the elemental forces unleashed by the revolution. Besides, her talent was developing so rapidly that most of her readers were unable to adjust their likes and expectations at the same speed. Thus, she gradually lost contact with her Russian audience in Paris. Her attempts to participate in French literary life were largely unsuccessful. After 1928 she wrote less verse than before, even if she was still a prolific poet by ordinary standards. She produced several superb cycles; tributes to Esenin, Maiakovsky, Voloshin, and Pushkin; and individual poems such as "Toska po rodine! Davno . . ." (Homesickness! Long ago . . . , published in Sovremennye zapiski, 1935) and "Kust" (The Bush, published in Sovremennye zapiski, 1936), which belong among her best. Her last significant poetic enterprise was the cycle "Stikhi k Chekhii" (Poems to Bohemia, 1938-1939), an eloquent invective prompted by the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia.
The Eurasianist movement in which Efron had been taking part was infiltrated by Soviet secret services. In the 1930s he moved to a fully pro-Soviet position. He began working for a society ostensibly set up to organize the return of émigrés to Russia and soon became a Soviet spy. Whether Tsvetaeva knew of her husband's involvement with Soviet secret services is not known for certain. Her children, Ariadna and Georgii ("Mur"), became pro-Communist as well. As early as 1931 Tsvetaeva began to discuss the possibility of the family's return to the U.S.S.R. (which, for herself, she found unthinkable). Pasternak, who visited Paris as a delegate for the International Writers' Congress in Defense of Culture (an antifascist and pro-Soviet enterprise, headed by Erenburg), attempted to dissuade the family from such a consideration but failed. In March 1937 Ariadna returned to Moscow, where she found employment as an illustrator. In September, Efron became involved in the political assassination of Ignatii Reiss, a disillusioned Soviet agent, and soon had to flee France for the U.S.S.R. Tsvetaeva was interrogated by the French police but released. On 18 June 1939 she and Mur joined Efron and Ariadna in Russia.
The return to Russia was an absolute disaster for Tsvetaeva and her family. At first they lived semi-incognito, not far from Moscow, in a summer house used by the Soviet secret police, but, as might be expected, they soon became victims of Stalin's terror: Ariadna and Efron were arrested in August and October 1939, respectively. (Tsvetaeva's sister, Asia, who had never emigrated, had been in a labor camp since 1937). Both completely helpless, Tsvetaeva and Georgii were given temporary shelter by Efron's sister and aided by some friends, including Pasternak. At this time Tsvetaeva stopped writing poetry altogether. For sheer survival she worked on translations, some of which have been of lasting value (especially her renderings of the works of Charles Baudelaire, Federico Garcia Lorca, and the Georgian poet Vazha Pshavela). She also translated Russian poetry into French, which she had been doing in Paris. On 8 August 1941, one and a half months after Adolf Hitler's armies invaded the U.S.S.R., Tsvetaeva and Mur left Moscow for a small town in Elabuga, the Tatar autonomous republic. Here she tried to earn a living by washing dishes, but the hardships of her existence overwhelmed her. She despaired over her family's fate and their poverty and became broken by her conflicts with Mur and the callousness of the Soviet writers' community. On 31 August 1941 Tsvetaeva hanged herself. The exact site of her grave is not known. Several months later, also in 1941, Efron was executed in Lubianka prison. Long after Tsvetaeva's suicide, after many years of imprisonment and exile, Ariadna--as well as Anastasiia--returned to Moscow. Georgii was killed, presumably in action, as a Soviet soldier in 1944.
After her death Marina Ivanovna Tsvetaeva and her work became virtually forgotten. For many years her name was unmentionable in the U.S.S.R. Then her posthumous publications started to appear. Proza, a selection of her prose writings, was published in New York in 1953. (Nabokov had been asked to write a foreword for Proza but refused; he claimed that while he valued Tsvetaeva highly as a poet, he could not forgive her connection with the Soviet secret police.) 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, Mandel'shtam, Akhmatova, or even classics of the Russian Golden Age.
From: Venclova, Tomas, and I. G. Vishnevetsky. "Marina (Ivanovna) Tsvetaeva (Efron)." Russian Writers of the Silver Age, 1890-1925, edited by Judith E. Kalb, et al., Gale, 2004. Dictionary of Literary Biography Vol. 295.