Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2302
Article abstract: Tsvetayeva, whose life and work bridged the Bolshevik Revolution, was one of the greatest Russian poets of the twentieth century. Her poetry and her correspondence illuminate the time in which she lived, and her mastery of the technique of writing poetry led to innovative poetic forms and rhythms.
Marina Ivanovna Tsvetayeva was born in Moscow on October 9, 1982, the eldest daughter of Maria Alexandrovna, who was the second wife of Professor Ivan Vladimirovich Tsvetayev. Tsvetayeva had a stepsister, Valeria, who was ten years older, and a stepbrother, Andrei, only two years older. Two years after Tsvetayeva’s birth, her sister Anastasia was born.
Tsvetayeva’s mother was an outstanding pianist who not only had been forbidden to play professionally but also had been forced to marry a man she did not love. Tsvetayeva’s father, a professor of Roman literature and of fine arts at the University of Moscow and director of the Rumyantsev Museum, was more interested in his work than in his children. He was also still in love with his dead first wife. Maria Alexandrovna was determined that her eldest daughter would become a concert pianist. Tsvetayeva was required to practice several hours daily and was punished for reading. Her mother feared that literature might distract her from the piano. Tsvetayeva’s isolation in this family of emotionally detached people undoubtedly provided her with the inner strength that sustained her throughout her life.
At the age of nine, Tsvetayeva began school but was almost immediately removed to accompany her mother, suffering from tuberculosis, and sister to Italy for treatment. The two Tsvetayeva sisters were sent to boarding school in Lausanne, Switzerland, until they all returned to Moscow, where Maria Alexandrovna died in June, 1906.
Ivan Tsvetayeva then sent his young daughters to a boarding school, did not require Marina to pursue the piano, and in 1908 permitted her to study French literature at a Sorbonne summer school. During these years after her mother’s death, Tsvetayeva began to write poetry reflecting her adoration of heroes such as the Russian poet Alexander Pushkin, Napoleon I and his son, the actress Sarah Bernhardt, and the playwright Edmond Rostand. Based on Russian folktales or everyday trivia, written in simple and clear language using traditional Russian meters, these early poems reveal Tsvetayeva’s inherent talent and originality and her skillful use of language.
When Tsvetayeva published her first collection of poetry, Vecherny albom (1910; evening album), she was praised by Nikolai Gumilyov, husband of Anna Akhmatova and the leader of the Acmeist movement in Russian poetry, for her spontaneity and originality and by the eminent critic Max Voloshin. This praise and adulation opened up to Tsvetayeva and her sister Anastasia the society of poets in Moscow and at Voloshin’s dacha at Koktebel in the Crimea. This was a passionate world not only of the mind but also of the heart and spirit, a world with powerful attraction for Tsvetayeva.
Tsvetayeva’s life’s work was her poetry, but that was not her only life’s work. Her energies were devoted to other people as well—lovers, children, husband, and friends. This intercourse was both the source of poetry for her and the source of life. At Koktebel in 1911, Tsvetayeva met Sergei Yaklovlevich Efron. Called Seryozha by his friends and family, he represented to Tsvetayeva a knight in shining armor. In January, 1912, Tsvetayeva and Efron married, and in September their first daughter, Ariadna, was born. Tsvetayeva also published her second book of verse, Volshebny fonar (1912; the magic lantern), but at this time writing was not her first priority. For the moment her family was.
During these years, Tsvetayeva’s husband, Seryozha, was a student at the University of Moscow. When World War I broke out, he was eager to serve, partly for patriotic reasons and partly because Tsvetayeva’s attention was focused elsewhere. As she continued to write in Moscow and the Crimea, Tsvetayeva met and cultivated infatuations with the Surrealist poet Tikhon Churilin and the Symbolist poet Osip Mandelstam as well as pursuing an openly lesbian relationship with Sophia Parnok, who became a poet only later. Even so, her attachment to her husband remained strong.
The 1917 February Revolution, which found Tsvetayeva in the Crimea, initiated a time of great confusion and hardship. Although Tsvetayeva was unconcerned with politics, Efron by chance fought in the White Army against the Bolshevik forces. From 1917 to 1922, Tsvetayeva lived in Moscow with her daughters, struggling to stay alive in the face of economic hardship and widespread famine, while her husband fought in the south on the losing side.
During these years on her own, Tsvetayeva’s physical strength was tested by hunger that eventually led to the starvation death of her second daughter, born in April, 1917, and her emotional stamina was tested by the uncertainty about politics and Efron. Neverthelesss, she continued to write and to love passionately. Sophia Holliday, Pavlik Antokolsky, and other actors aroused her attention as she wrote verse plays. In 1920, she read her poem “Tsardevitsa” (1922; czar maiden) at the Palace of the Arts, home of the Moscow Writers’ Union, and the following year she read poems from Lebediny stan (swan’s encampment), which were composed between 1917 and 1921 but not published until 1957. The Lebediny stan poems praised the White Army, and, in Bolshevik Moscow, reading them was a considerable risk. Since 1916 Tsvetayeva had also been writing a series of poems dedicated to the great Russian Symbolist poet Aleksandr Blok. These poems, Stikhi k Bloku (1922; verses to Blok), were published in Berlin in 1922, a year after Blok’s death.
The Bolshevik victory was consolidated in 1921, and liquidations of counterrevolutionaries began. Tsvetayeva was ecstatic to learn that Efron had survived the civil war and had escaped to Prague, where a sympathetic Czech government provided subsidies to a number of Russian émigrés. Tsvetayeva applied for a passport to leave Moscow in the spring of 1922 just as her poetry was beginning to be published; Vertsty I (1922; mileposts I) appeared and was greeted enthusiastically by Moscow writers, including Boris Pasternak.
On May 15, 1922, Marina and her daughter Ariadna, or Alya, as she was called, arrived in Berlin, where they found a sizable Russian émigré population, three daily newspapers, five weeklies, and seventeen Russian publishing houses. Tsvetayeva worked feverishly and productively in spite of the harsh living conditions while she waited for Efron to arrive from Prague. During these months in Berlin, Tsvetayeva began a passionate correspondence with Pasternak that continued to fuel her creativity during the next years.
In August, Tsvetayeva, Efron, and Ariadna settled in Prague, where Efron received a government stipend to attend the university and Tsvetayeva received an allowance for her own writing. She entered the literary life of Prague and continued to write, while taking care of her husband and daughter even as she began to separate from them both emotionally and psychologically.
At thirty Tsvetayeva was entering her most vibrant and productive period both as a writer and as a lover. During the years in Prague, Tsvetayeva produced all the remaining poetry—lyrics, long poems, and verse drama—ever to be published during her lifetime. It is significant that during these years she continued the stimulating correspondence with Pasternak, initiated another equally sensual, although in the end platonic, correspondence with Aleksandr Bakhrahk, a critic in Berlin, and lived through a grand passion, certainly not platonic, with Konstantin Rodzevitch in Prague. Rodzevitch loved Tsvetayeva as she had always dreamed of being loved, but he could not live with the intensity of her passion or without the economic security that Tsvetayeva could not give him. In the end, Tsvetayeva transfigured the misery of this love affair into two poem cycles that are the most sophisticated of her lyric poetry: Poema gory (1925; poem of the mountain) and Poema konca (1926; poem of the end).
These poems and the epic poem “Molodec” (1924; the swain) show that Tsvetayeva had refined the intuitive and creative uses of language that had been apparent in the earlier Versty I poems: the mixture of meters in one poem and even in one line; the unusual rhythms and elliptic imagery; the verblessness, syntactic ellipsis, and one-word sentences; the use of archaisms and eighteenth century Russian words and images reminiscent of the Russian Symbolist and Acmeist poets as well as the use of colloquial, uneducated, and peasant speech forms characteristic of a peasant genre of poetry. Tsvetayeva’s mature style, concise with an almost mystical bond between the shape and sound of a word and the object it designates, places her in the company of the European Futurist poets of the early 1920’s while the musical richness and complexity of her verse ensures her uniqueness.
In February, 1925, Tsvetayeva and Efron’s son was born and named Georgi after the patron saint of Moscow. Desperate to make a living, Efron moved his family to Paris. Although Tsvetayeva’s poetry was well received, and Efron and Ariadna were able to get jobs on newspapers soon after their arrival, the émigré community began to distrust the Efrons. Efron became involved with a reformist Bolshevik group sympathetic to Bolshevism. In 1928, Tsvetayeva welcomed the Bolshevik Russian poet Vladimir Mayakovsky to Paris. A long poem about the civil war written in 1929 managed to offend both monarchist émigrés and revolutionary sympathizers. In 1932, Efron and Ariadna joined the Union for Repatriation of Russians Abroad; members were widely suspected of being Soviet agents. The Efrons were further tainted by Tsvetayeva’s meetings with Sergei Prokofiev, a visiting Soviet composer, and Boris Pasternak, who came to Paris as a delegate to a Communist-sponsored Congress of Writers in Defense of Culture. Although art not politics was the subject of the conversations, the émigré community punished Tsvetayeva’s political naïveté by refusing to publish her poetry and her prose. Living in Paris became more difficult as the Efron resources diminished. In 1937, Ariadna was finally granted a visa to return to Moscow; gladly she left Paris. Soon after that, Efron was accused of involvement in the assassination of a Soviet agent who had renounced Bolshevism. He, too, left for the Soviet Union.
On June 15, 1939, Tsvetayeva, with her son Georgi, followed her husband to Moscow—Tsvetayeva resigned but full of foreboding and Georgi eager to see his homeland for the first time. Shortly after their arrival, both Ariadna and Efron were arrested and sent to prison; Tsvetayeva’s sister Anastasia had already been sent to a camp. Although Tsvetayeva was not arrested, she had difficulty getting anything but menial work even with the assistance of Pasternak. She and her son could find no suitable lodging. With the German invasion on June 22, 1941, Tsvetayeva became increasingly concerned about Georgi’s safety and decided to emigrate to the Tatar region.
The burden had become too heavy. Rejected by the Writers’ Union, without work or a place to live, with her husband and daughter far away in prison—by this time, Efron had been shot, although Tsvetayeva did not know it—she decided that her rebellious son would be better off without her. On Saturday, August 31, 1941, at the age of forty-eight in the village of Yelabuga in the Tartar Autonomous Republic, Tsvetayeva, lonely and exhausted, hanged herself.
Throughout her life, Marina Tsvetayeva was passionately devoted to poetry and to people. During years of unbelievable hardship, she continued to write and to develop her poetic style without regard to politics or to fame. She wrote because she could do nothing else. Her poetry was personal, confessional, and both intuitive and intellectual in the way she used words. The passion she needed to inspire her creative soul she acquired from human relationships through conversation and correspondence.
After the death of Joseph Stalin in 1953, Tsvetayeva’s sister and daughter were freed from the concentration camps. Tsvetayeva’s friends arranged to have her writings, all banned in the Soviet Union, published in New York. From that time on, her work has appeared in Russian-language journals published abroad. Her poetry began to appear in anthologies within the Soviet Union in 1956 and to circulate secretly among the Russian population in manuscript. During the 1960’s and 1970’s, Tsvetayeva emerged as one of the poets most beloved by Soviet youth.
Feinstein, Elaine. A Captive Lion: The Life of Marina Tsvetayeva. London: Hutchinson, 1987. A popular biography with annotation and a selected bibliography, this work draws on material from scholars and presents Tsvetayeva as a humanist and feminist interested in art, not politics.
Hingley, Ronald. Nightingale Fever: Russian Poets in Revolution. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1981. An excellent collective biography of four contemporary Russian poets (Akhmatova, Pasternak, Mandelstam, and Tsvetayeva) in the context of their time. Includes a bibliography and notes.
Karlinsky, Simon. Marina Cvetaeva: Her Life and Art. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1966. The early version of the definitive biography divided into a biographical section and one of Tsvetayeva’s poetry.
Karlinsky, Simon. Marina Tsvetaeva: The Woman, Her World, and Her Poetry. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1985. A revised, updated, and definitive biography based on the poetry and prose of Tsvetayeva as well as the memoirs of her relatives. Material about her life and her writing are integrated in the text. Includes an excellent bibliography and notes.
McDuff, David. “Marina Tsvetayeva.” Parnassus: Poetry in Review 12-13 (1985): 117-143. Good analysis of the poetry as it relates to biographical information about Tsvetayeva.
Pasternak, Boris, et al. Letters, Summer 1926. Edited by Yevgeny Pasternak, Yelena Pasternak, and Konstantin M. Azadovsky. Translated by Margaret Wettlin and Walter Arndt. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1985. The correspondence between Tsvetayeva, Pasternak, and Rainer Maria Rilke during the last year of Rilke’s life. Discussion of poetry illuminated by the passion of relationship.
Proffer, Ellendea, ed. Tsvetaeva: A Pictorial Biography. Translated by J. Marin King. Introduction by Carl R. Proffer. Ann Arbor, Mich.: Ardis, 1980. An excellent collection of annotated photographs of Tsvetayeva throughout her life.
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