Art in the Light of Conscience Critical Essays

Marina Tsvetayeva


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

The themes of Tsvetayeva’s essays often overlap, echoing and complementing one another. Even when written in response to a particular event or statement—“The Poet and the Critic,” for example, is a frontal attack on critic Georgy Adamovich—they overtake the specific event and race on to far-reaching conclusions. In routing Adamovich, Tsvetayeva establishes in general what makes a poet different (different, she emphasizes, not better or “higher”) than other people. Given their essential affinity, what makes poets different from one another? What is the nature of creativity? What is the role and duty of the critic—and the reader? What is the poet’s relationship to the times in which he or she lives, and to time and history?

There is, Tsvetayeva argues, a poet-in-general—and whatever poets share, it is not the prettified “poetic soul” of cliché. “Equality in gift of soul and gift of language” and “indivisibility of essence and form” are what determine who becomes a poet and who does not, but in that equality of gifts all similarities end, just as the likeness between planets—worlds—ends with their definition as such.

In essays on her contemporaries Boris Pasternak, Vladimir Mayakovsky, Osip Mandelstam, and Anna Akhmatova, Tsvetayeva begins with their essential planetary likeness, their essential largeness of being—that is, that in some way poets are too much for themselves, that quantity of soul becomes quality—and then formulates what might be called the natural laws of development on these disparate planets. For example, in “Epic and Lyric in Contemporary Russia,” Pasternak is the lyric and Mayakovsky is the epic: Pasternak absorbs, Mayakovsky explodes; Mayakovsky is a chorus, a collective noun, Pasternak is the solo counterpoint, an adjective; Maya-kovsky is “our measure of power,” Pasternak “our measure of depth.”

Another opposition controls her discussion of “Poets with History and Poets Without History.” Here she contrasts two universal types, what she calls lyric genius and (simply) genius; the former is circular, self-enclosing, innate feeling expressing what it has known from birth, a wave that always returns but always returns different; the latter is linear, never looks back, “an arrow shot into infinity” that discovers its path as it goes along. Akhmatova, Mandelstam, and Pasternak are the lyrics, while Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Alexander Pushkin are the geniuses. What she has in mind here is inner history, inner life; the life and times of a nation are another thing altogether.

Yet in “The Poet and Time,” she rejects facile notions of modernity or progress in art, just as she...

(The entire section is 1104 words.)