In 1931 a Paris-based Russian literary journal polled the numerous authors who had left Russia for emigration, asking them a single question: "What is your attitude toward your works?" Marina Ivanovna Tsvetaeva, poet, essayist and critic, answered by quoting a poem she had written in 1913:
To emphasize the permanence of her opinion, she added a second date and signed her answer "1913-1931." Later, she called the lines "a formula for my auctorial fate."
The next ten years, Tsvetaeva's final decade, justified her pessimism. Initially welcomed by Russian writers and readers living in emigration, she now faced exasperated editors of the ever-fewer emigre journals who judged her new poetry incomprehensible and therefore unpublishable. Her perennial lack of money lapsed into outright poverty, yet she was the sole support of her husband, daughter, and son, who lived on her public readings and private begging.
As divisions within the emigration sharpened, the emigre community in Paris ascribed political overtones to Tsvetaeva's artistic solitude. Ominous changes occurred within her family. Misinformed about Stalin's Russia, her daughter returned to the Soviet Union. Her husband became an undercover Soviet agent and participated in a political assassination. Left with her son to face the opprobrium of the emigre community when her husband was exposed, Tsvetaeva followed her daughter; she and her son returned to the Soviet Union in 1939. There she wrote no new poetry, found no defenders, lost everyone but her son to arrests and execution, and finally surrendered her few remaining hopes to the cowardice and indifference of poets and writers who could have helped her. She committed suicide in 1941 in the wake of the German invasion and her evacuation from Moscow to Elabuga.
Seen in a broader perspective, however, Tsvetaeva's art and life belie the prophesied neglect. Her earliest publications were recognized and appreciated - and first of all by other poets, that most demanding audience. Early tributes came from Valery Bryusov, Maksimilian Voloshin, and Osip Mandelshtam. Later, Boris Pasternak, Rainer Maria Rilke, and Anna Akhmatova joined the ranks of her admirers. Today, that peer recognition is sustained by the poet Joseph Brodsky, foremost among Tsvetaeva's many champions. It can even be said that Tsvetaeva has regained popular appeal: among the new waves of emigres from the Soviet Union, her life has won her as much esteem as has her work, for, in an era when so many languished in exile, and so many others capitulated to oppressors, Tsvetaeva wrote and lived as if isolation and torment were the very nectar and ambrosia of her godless, ungodly age.
Tsvetaeva is first of all a poet-lyricist, not only because the sheer volume and quality of her lyric poetry is remarkable, but also because her lyrical voice remains markedly audible in her narrative poetry, her prose, and her letters. Her lyric poems fill ten collections; the uncollected lyrics would add another, substantial volume. Her first two collections indicate their subject matter in their titles: Evening Album (Vechernii al'bom, 1910) and The Magic Lantern (Volshebnyi fonar', 1912). The poems present cameo scenes of a childhood and youth passed quietly in the nursery, study and ballroom of a professorial, middle-class home in Moscow. The viewpoint is intimate but never trivial or banal; the poems reveal the young poet's mastery of the five standard syllabotonic verse meters and her inventiveness in devising uncommon stanza forms, traits of versification that persist in her later poetry alongside her characteristic innovations: the logaoedic lines and the inter-stanzaic enjambements.
The full range of Tsvetaeva's talent developed quickly and made itself evident in two new collections which share the same title: Mileposts (Versty, 1921) and Mileposts: Book One (Versty, Vypusk I, 1922). Three hallmarks of Tsvetaeva's mature style emerge in the Mileposts collections. First, Tsvetaeva dates each of her poems and publishes them, with a few exceptions, in strictly chronological order. All the poems in Mileposts: Book One, for example, were written in 1916 and form a kind of diary in verse. Secondly, there are cycles of poems which fall into fairly regular chronological sequence among the single poems, evidence that certain themes sought sustained expression and variation. One such cycle, in fact, announces the theme of Mileposts: Book I as a whole--the "Poems on Moscow." Two other cycles are dedicated to poets, the "Poems to Akhmatova" and the "Poems to Blok," which reappear, further amplified, in a separate volume, Poems to Blok (Stikhi k Bloku, 1922). Thirdly, the Mileposts collections reveal the essential dramatist in Tsvetaeva, her ability to don verbal masques, to speak as another character, to merge the dramatic and the lyric in monologues, dialogues, choruses, and one-sided perorations.
The small collection entitled Separation (Razluka, 1922) indicates yet another dimension of the poet's art, for it contains Tsvetaeva's first longer verse narrative, "On a Red Steed" (Na krasnom kone). The poem can be seen as a kind of prologue to three more verse-narratives written between 1920 and 1922. All four narrative poems draw on folkloric plots, language, and iconography, and Tsvetaeva acknowledges her sources in the titles of the two very long works, The Maiden-Tsar: A Fairy-tale Poem (Tsar'-devitsa: Poema-skazka, 1922) and the poem known in English as The Swain which has the subtitle A Fairytale (Molodets: skazka, 1924). The fourth folklore-style poem is called "Byways" (Pereulochki, published in 1923 in the collection Remeslo), and it is the first poem which might not unreasonably be deemed incomprehensible in its otherwise marvelous play on sheer sound.
Tsvetaeva set her collection Psyche (Psikheya, 1923) somewhat apart when she gave it the secondary title Romantika, indicating that the groupings of poems by theme, unlike their counterparts in Mileposts: Book One (and, eventually, later collections) do not have a relevant chronological sequence. The volume contains one of Tsvetaeva's best-known cycles "Insomnia" (Bessonnitsa).
The years of Revolution and civil war brought special hardships to Tsvetaeva; her husband Sergei Efron was a White Army officer and Tsvetaeva was cut off and alone in Moscow while he fought on the Crimean front. These years produced the poems of The Swans' Demesne (Lebedinyi stan, Stikhi 1917-1921, published in 1957) celebrating the White Army. In 1922 Tsvetaeva learned that Efron had survived and had left Russia. She took her young daughter Ariadna (born in 1912--another daughter had died in infancy from the wartime famines) and joined her husband in Berlin, from which city the family migrated first to Prague and later to Paris in 1925, the same year in which Tsvetaeva's son Georgy was born. Thus, Tsvetaeva's last two collections of lyrics were published by emigre presses, Craft (Remeslo, 1923) in Berlin and After Russia (Posle Rossii, 1928) in Paris. These two collections display the heights of Tsvetaeva's lyric power. The outpouring of cycles continues and accelerates. Their expanded thematic and vocal range encompasses the nocturnal secrecy of the twenty-three "Berlin" poems, the pantheistic exaltation of "Trees" (Derev'ya), the stoic renunciation of "Cables" (Provoda) and "Pairs" (Dvoe), and the tragic, proud credo of "Poets" (Poety). Again, the poems betoken future developments. Foremost among these is the voice of "the Greek Tsvetaeva" heard in the cycles "The Sibyl," "Phaedra," and "Ariadne." Tsvetaeva's beloved, ill-fated heroines reappear in two important verse plays, Theseus-Ariadne (Tezei-Ariadna, 1927) and Phaedra (Fedra, 1928), which form the first two parts of an uncompleted trilogy entitled Aphrodite's Rage. The satirist in Tsvetaeva is second only to the poet-lyricist. Several satirical poems, moreover, are among Tsvetaeva's best-known works: "The Train of Life" (Poezd zhizni) and "The Floorcleaners' Song" (Poloterskaya), both included in After Russia, and The Ratcatcher (Krysolov, published in 1925 and 1926 in journal installments), a long, folkloric narrative sometimes considered Tsvetaeva's greatest work. The target of Tsvetaeva's satire is everything petty and kleinburgerlich. Unleashed against such middling, creature comforts is the vengeful, unearthly energy of workers both manual and creative. Thus, in her notebook, Tsvetaeva writes of "The Floorcleaners' Song": "Overall movement: the floorcleaners ferret out a house's hidden things, they scrub a fire into the door... What do they flush out? Coziness, warmth, tidiness, order... Smells: incense, piety. Bygones. Yesterday... The growing force of their threat must be stronger than the climax."
Similar themes permeate The Ratcatcher. Subtitled "a lyrical satire," the poem is based on a well-known, 13th century German legend. Its hero is the Pied Piper of Hameln who saves a town from hordes of rats and then leads the town's children away too, in retribution for the citizens' ingratitude. As in the other folkloric narratives, The Ratcatcher's story line emerges indirectly through several speaking voices that shift from invective, to lyrical flights, to ironic understatement. Tsvetaeva's polyphony reaches its acme, both in the number of speakers - including the Piper's pipe - and the variety of tones. Varied too is the line length, ranging from three to twelve syllables, and the verbal texture with its neologisms (elsewhere relatively rare), its onomatopoeia, and its dazzling paronomasia, the central device of all Tsvetaeva's mature work.
Tsvetaeva's last ten years in emigration, from 1928 when After Russia appeared to her departure for the Soviet Union in 1939, have rightly been called the "prose decade." It was preceded, however, by two series of prose pieces: a set of short sketches related to the revolutionary and civil-war period from 1917 to 1920, and a set of literary essays dating from 1922 to 1931. The literary work comprises criticism, short tributes to the poets Balmont, Kuzmin, Bryusov, Mandelshtam, and Rilke, and a portrait of the painter Natalya Goncharova.
The great prose decade opens with two essays that examine literature in the perspective of history and ethics: "The Poet and Time" (Poet i vremya) and "Art in the Light of Conscience" (Iskusstvo pri svete sovesti), both published in 1932. In 1933 Tsvetaeva's prose began to draw heavily on her past, although few of the some twenty prose pieces of this period can be called "autobiographical" in the usual sense of that word. Rather, the prose begins from Tsvetaeva's strongly-sensed duty to preserve a vanished past and then plunges beyond autobiography into a mythic recreation of her childhood that serves, in turn, as a metaphor for the genesis and destiny of the poet. This mytho-biography emerges in four long prose pieces. Written separately and published in rather misleading alternation with more conventionally autobiographical short works, "The House at Old Pimen" (Dom u Starogo Pimena, 1934), "Mother and Music" (Mat' i muzyka, 1935), "The Devil" (Chert, 1935), and "My Pushkin" (Moi Pushkin, 1937), present the ancestry and birth of the poet in quasi-autobiographical settings which, although charmingly authentic, function primarily as clues to the literary and mythical constants in which the poet's real life is lived.
The depth and originality of "Art in the Light of Conscience" finds a match in Tsvetaeva's two literary portraits of the period, "A Living Word about a Living Man" on the poet Voloshin (Zhivoe o zhivom, 1933) and "A Captive Spirit" on Andrei Bely (Plennyi dukh, 1934). Literary criticism too explores wholly new areas in the short essay on Goethe's and Zhukovsky's "Erlkonig" (Dva lesnykh tsarya, 1934) and in the marvellous long study "Pushkin and Pugachev" (Pushkin i Pugachev, 1937).
Tsvetaeva rightly belongs in the quartet of Russia's greatest 20th-century poets along with Akhmatova, Mandelshtam, and Pasternak. And Tsvetaeva became conscious of her place very early on. Her correspondence, which comprises about three solid volumes, includes a remarkable exchange of letters with Pasternak and many other letters devoted to literature. Poetry and poets dominate all other themes in Tsvetaeva's work, a trait she shares with her great contemporaries. And other poets have most eloquently characterized Tsvetaeva's particular genius. Thus, Pasternak's praise of Mileposts can be extended to all Tsvetaeva's poetry:
And Joseph Brodsky writes of Tsvetaeva's place in her epoch and in Russian literature: