(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 10)

The lofty musings of gifted solitary poets do not find better expression than in this correspondence between three highly individualistic lyricists who shared, or imagined that they shared, a spiritual and creative affinity. Though the letters cover but a brief interval in the authors’ lives—five months—all three regarded the unexpected contact as miraculous, as preordained, and invested the relationship with a corresponding degree of awe. The glimpses revealed here reach far into their thought processes and biographies, and without the running commentary provided by the editors of the collection, the material would have been inaccessible to anyone but the Slavicist. As it is, letters and notes together form a comprehensible whole.

Rainer Maria Rilke was a renowned and established but already seriously ill poet in the summer of 1926. It is possible that he entered into the exchange for sentimental reasons, for his two visits to Russia in 1899 and 1900 had affected him to such an extent that he termed them the decisive events of his creative existence. In Russia, in its traditional Orthodox festivals and its undeveloped expanses, he discerned a life unspoiled by the vicissitudes of Western ways, and he invested the land with his own vision of a superior, nontechnological future. He spent much time and effort mastering the language; for a time, he planned to settle there altogether but then converted his Russian impressions into verse in Das Stundenbuch (1905; The Book of Hours, 1968). When Boris Pasternak’s father, in exile in Berlin, modestly reminded Rilke in 1925 of their acquaintance during those fabled journeys a quarter of a century earlier, hinting in passing at his son’s admiration for Rilke, the latter responded with words of warm remembrance and encouragement for the budding poet. For young Pasternak, then struggling to make a literary name for himself in postrevolutionary Moscow, the possibility of entering into discourse with Rilke was electrifying. At age ten, he had seen Rilke during a fleeting train station encounter, and, intrigued by Rilke’s enthusiasm for Russia, the boy soon found himself drawn to the poet’s neoromantic worldview. While still in school, Pasternak endeavored to make Rilke known in Russia, translated several of his poems, and throughout his life acknowledged the impact of Rilke’s creative force on his own development.

Among the few Russian contemporaries whom Pasternak considered worthy to be called poets, Marina Tsvetaeva, in exile in France during the 1920’s and 1930’s, occupied first place. (The editors of this collection give her name as Tsvetayeva, but this is not the form preferred by Slavic scholars, nor is it consistent with the transliteration system employed throughout the book.) They had barely met but soon recognized each other as kindred spirits. Both came from artistically gifted upper-class families, shared liberal childhood travel and schooling in Germany, a fluent command of German, a veneration of Rilke, and a refusal to become involved in the political turmoils of the time. Their correspondence, commencing in 1922, continued sporadically until 1935, during which time they never saw each other. Many of their exchanges will not be published until after the year 2000, in accordance with Tsvetaeva’s wishes, so that the selections contained in this book are highly prized for the light they shed on the lengthy and often-mercurial relationship. Pasternak received the news of his family’s contact with Rilke while reading a new arrival of Tsvetaeva’s verse, and this coincidence moved him to include Tsvetaeva in an envisioned poetic union. He even commended Tsvetaeva to Rilke as the more worthy soul mate. His first and only letter to Rilke, as it turned out, written in German, on April 12, 1926, is striking for its somewhat naïve outpouring of sentiment. Pasternak considers himself reborn from death and despair by the happy (he calls it magical) concurrence of hearing from Rilke and Tsvetaeva on the same day. Curiously intersecting the many avowals of love is a wordy hint that he has sheaves of poems lying about, available for Rilke’s perusal, and the repeated request to Rilke to honor Tsvetaeva with an inscribed copy of the Duineser Elegien (1923; Duino Elegies, 1930). The circuitous route by which this missive found its way to Rilke attests the significance which Pasternak attached to the step. He first sent the letter to his father in Berlin, from whence it went to other family members and friends spread throughout Germany, each offering criticism and corrections until Pasternak’s father finally directed the letter to Rilke with a long cover message of his own.

Overlapping these efforts is a frantic epistolary exchange between Pasternak and Tsvetaeva, which provides considerable insight into their beliefs and explains not only why they regarded one another so highly but also obliquely reiterates certain aspects of Rilke’s worldview particularly attractive to the young Russians. All three poets shared a disdain for a reality they saw obsessed with bourgeois material values, bereft of all spirituality. All three believed that contact with truly important human events, such as birth and death, had become impossible in their world and that only the creative poetic spirit was able to bring an understanding of these notions to humankind. Hence, in their view, the craft of poetry represents the highest calling mortals can achieve. Their poetry, consequently, was often abstract, difficult to comprehend, reaching into spheres that were otherworldly, mystical, separate from traditional religious ideas yet utilizing religious symbolism for its own purposes. All three regarded themselves as correspondingly exalted and chosen. Keeping other close human contact at...

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(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 10)

Booklist. LXXXI, June 15, 1985, p. 1431.

The New Republic. CXCIII, September 2, 1985, p. 38.

The New York Review of Books. XXXII, December 5, 1985, p. 3.

The New York Times Book Review. XC, July 21, 1985, p. 8.