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...
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