Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

It has been suggested that any poem written as a lament for the dead has a strong autobiographical component. In other words, the poem tells the reader as much about the living poet as it does about the dead person. This is true on several levels in “New Year Letter,” and each level illustrates a major theme of the poem. Tsvetayeva is the first-person heroine of her own poem, addressing Rilke from a number of points of view. First, she writes as a person deprived of a friend whom she never met. She and her fellow Russian poet Boris Pasternak had planned to visit Rilke in Switzerland, but the latter’s sudden death destroyed those plans. In the poem, Tsvetayeva muses on what it would have been like to have had a rendezvous and a chat with Rilke in a poor Paris suburb like the one in which she lives.

Second, “New Year Letter” is a kind of love poem. Always impulsive, Tsvetayeva in her letters to Rilke had quickly assumed the personal du form of address, and her tone of intimacy and longing had nearly frightened Rilke away. Now, with no chance that a relationship can ever develop between them, Tsvetayeva laments as if for a dead lover, while at the same time admitting poignantly but accurately that “nothing has worked out for us at all.” They were never lovers—indeed, they never even met—but Tsvetayeva feels she knows Rilke so well through his words, and through the things they have in common, that she claims the right to address...

(The entire section is 587 words.)