Marina Tsvetayeva Tsvetaeva (Efron), Marina (Ivanovna) - Essay


(Poetry Criticism)

Marina (Ivanovna) Tsvetaeva (Efron) 1892–1941

(Also transliterated as Tsvetayeva, Cvetaeva, and Zwetaewa.) Russian poet, essayist, dramatist, critic, and autobiographer.

Tsvetaeva is recognized as one of modern Russia's "poetic quartet," along with Anna Akhmatova, Osip Mandelstam, and Boris Pasternak, who acted as poet-witnesses of the country's changing values in the early decades of the twentieth century. Their lives and art were influenced by one another and by the cataclysmic political and social upheavals occurring in Russia at the time. Tsvetaeva is often likened to her three contemporaries—to Pasternak for an intense love of Moscow, to Akhmatova for shared feminist concerns, and to Mandelstam for tumultuous emotions. Her central interest as a poet was language, and she used a terse, often verbless construction, with an energy described as taut and virile. Her experiments with syntax and rhythm are considered a unique contribution to Russian literature.

Biographical Information

Tsvetaeva grew up in Moscow, a member of an artistic, scholarly, upper-middle-class family. She privately published her first volume of verse, Vecherny albom (Evening Album), in 1910. This collection received unexpected attention when it was reviewed by the prominent critic Max Voloshin and the poets Nikolay Gumilyov and Valery Bryusov, all of whom wrote favorably of Tsvetaeva's work. In 1911 Tsvetaeva was married to Sergei Efron and the following year published a second collection of poetry, Volshebny fonar (The Magic Lantern). During the Russian Civil War, which lasted from 1918 to 1921, Tsvetaeva lived in poverty in Moscow while her husband fought in the Crimea as an officer of the Czarist White Army. Although she wrote prolifically during this time—composing poetry, essays, memoirs, and dramas—the anti-Bolshevik sentiments pervading many of these works prevented their publication. During a famine in 1919 the younger of her two children died of starvation, and in 1922 Tsvetaeva emigrated with her surviving child, Ariadna, to Germany to join Efron after five years of wartime separation. While the Efrons lived in Berlin and Prague, Tsvetaeva began publishing the products of her previous decade's labor; these found critical favor with émigré writers and publishers. Moving to Paris, Tsvetaeva continued her poetic writing in times marked by physical and emotional hardship. She was unable to sustain her early acceptance by other émigré writers because of her marked independence, her emotional intensity, and the political sympathies of her husband, who had become involved with the Communist party. Tsvetaeva refused to adopt the militant anti-Soviet posture of many émigrés. In the late 1930s Tsvetaeva's son entreated her to

follow her husband and daughter who had already returned to Russia. The poet and her son arrived in Moscow in 1939 to an extreme political situation of totalitarian dictatorship. Artists and intellectuals were automatically suspect and Tsvetaeva was especially endangered by the political activities of her husband, who had been arrested and executed. When German troops attacked Moscow in 1941 Tsvetaeva and her son were evacuated to the village of Elabuga in the Tartar Republic. Tsvetaeva, denied the right to publish, was unable to find acceptable work there or in nearby Christopol where a colony of writers had gathered. Three weeks after her evacuation, she took her life.

Major Works

Tsvetaeva's first two volumes of verse, composed almost entirely before she was eighteen years old, are considered works of technical virtuosity, and their occasionally immature themes do not obscure Tsvetaeva's mastery of traditional Russian lyric forms. Departing sharply from her earlier romantic style, Vyorsty I marks the beginning of her mature verse. In this collection, which shows a development in rhythmic control and restraint, she experimented with unusual meters and paranomasia, a technique of associating words with the same or similar roots. Remeslo (Crafts), the last volume of poetry Tsvetaeva completed before her emigration, is praised for its metrical experiments and effective blending of folk language, archaisms, and Biblical idioms. Although she generally rejected the practices of contemporary poetic schools, Tsvetaeva did share the Russian Symbolists' refined poetic craftsmanship and the passion for clarity and detail practiced by such Acmeist poets as Mandelstam and Akhmatova.

In the early 1920s Tsvetaeva experimented with narrative verse, adapting traditional Russian folktales in Tsardevitsa and Molodets (The Swain). Although she continued to write lyrics, her most significant works in the following years were long poems, such as her satire "Krysolov" ("The Pied Piper"). Tsvetaeva developed a new classical style in her verse drama Ariadna, and in the volume Posle Rossii (After Russia), which Simon Karlinsky has called "the most mature and perfect of her collections," she fused her early romanticism with colloquial diction. While she based her poems predominantly upon personal experience, she also explored with increased detachment such philosophical themes as the nature of time and space. As the 1930s progressed, Tsvetaeva devoted more energy to prose than to poetry. In such memoirs as "Plennyi dukh" ("Captive Spirit") and "Moy Pushkin" ("My Pushkin"), she recorded her impressions of friends and poets. In a prose style characterized by stream-of-consciousness narrative technique and poetic language, Tsvetaeva expressed her views on literary creation and criticism in such essays as "Iskusstvo pri svete sovesti" ("Art in the Light of Conscience") and "Poet o kritike" ("A Poet on Criticism").

Critical Reception

After her initial critical success and popularity, Tsvetaeva was largely neglected because of her experimental style and her refusal to assume either a pro- or anti-Soviet stance. However, her works eventually gained a wide audience in the Soviet Union during the post-Stalinist "thaw" of the 1950s. International scholarly interest in Tsvetaeva increased during the 1960s, leading to a heightened appreciation for her technical inventiveness, emotional force, and thematic range. Recent critics regard her works as among the most innovative and powerful Russian poetry of the twentieth century.

Principal Works

(Poetry Criticism)


Vecherny albom 1910

Volshebny fonar 1912

Razluka 1922

Stikhi K Bloku 1922

Tsar-devitsa 1922

Vyorsty I 1922

Psikheya 1923

Remeslo 1923

Molodets 1924

Posle Rossii 1928

*Lebediny stan [The Demesne of the Swans] 1957

Izbrannye proizvedeniya (poetry, drama, and autobiography) 1965

Selected Poems 1971

Selected Poems of Marina Tsvetaeva 1987

Other Major Works

"Poet o kritike" ["A Poet on Criticism" published in The Bitter Air of Exile, 1977] (essay) 1926

Ariadna (drama) 1927

"Iskusstvo pri svete sovesti" ["Art in the Light of Con-science" published in Modern Russian Poets on Poetry, 1976] 1936

Proza (letters and memoirs) 1953

Pisma k Anne Teskovoy (letters) 1969

A Captive Spirit: Selected Prose (essays, criticism, literary portraits, and autobiographical sketches) 1980

Art in the Light of Conscience (essays on poetry) 1992

*This work was written in 1917-21.

Marina Tsvetaeva (essay date 1934)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Poets with History and Poets without History," in Art in the Light of Conscience: Eight Essays on Poetry by Marina Tsvetaeva, translated with Introduction and Notes by Angela Livingstone, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1992, pp. 136-48.

[The following is an excerpt from an article that was originally published in a Serbian journal in 1934. Here, Tsvetaeva differentiates the genius of lyric poets from that of other poets. Lyric poets, she argues, do not, like other poets, seek to gain new experience and self-discovery through their work, but rather they delve again and again into the same experiences in hopes of expressing them more eloquently.]


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Angela Livingstone (essay date 1971)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Marina Tsvetaeva and Russian Poetry," in Melbourne Slavonic Studies, Nos. 5-6, 1971, pp. 178-93.

[Below, Livingstone discusses Tsvetaeva's place within Russian poetry. She points out aspects of Symbolism, Acmeism, and Futurism in Tsvetaeva's verse.]


Pasternak said that Marina Tsvetaeva achieved just what the Symbolists wanted to achieve and did it better. The early Tsvetaeva was

exactly what all the other symbolists, taken together, wanted to be and couldn't. Where their literary efforts helplessly thrashed about in a world of thought-up schemes and lifeless archaisms, Tsvetaeva soared easily...

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David McDuff (essay date 1982)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Poet of Sacrifice," in The New York Review of Books, Vol. XXIX, No. 6, April 15, 1982, pp. 6, 8-9.

[In this review of Selected Poems of Marina Tsvetayeva, McDuff surveys Tsvetaeva's life and works and reviews Elaine Feinstein 's translations into English of select poems by Tsvetaeva.]

"Der Weg von der Innigkeit zur Grösse geht durch das Opfer" ("The way from intense inwardness to greatness leads through sacrifice" [translated by Michael Hamburger, in An Unofficial Rilke, 1981]). These words of the essayist Rudolf Kassner form the epigraph to Rainer Maria Rilke's fateful poem "Wendung" (Turning Point) of 1914, in which the poet...

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Barbara Heldt (essay date 1982)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Two Poems by Marina Tsvetayeva from 'Posle Rossii,'" in Modern Language Review, Vol. 77, No. 3, July, 1982, pp. 679-87.

[In the following excerpt, Heldt offers an analysis of "Rasshchelina" ("The Crevasse") and "Popytka revnosti" ("An Attempt at Jealousy"), exploring the "specifically female frame of reference in these poems."]

Power is only Pain—
Stranded, thro' Discipline,…
Emily Dickinson, c. 1861

'Rasshchelina' ('The Crevasse') and 'Popytka revnosti' ('An Attempt at Jealousy') exemplify a kind of poetry at which the great twentieth-century writer Marina Tsvetayeva...

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Peter France (essay date 1982)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Marina Tsvetaeva," in Poets of Modern Russia, Cambridge University Press, 1982, pp. 132-58.

[In the following excerpt, France examines subjects, themes, and literary techniques in Tsvetaeva's poetry.]

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Sibelan Forrester (essay date 1992)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Bells and Cupolas: The Formative Role of the Female Body in Marina Tsvetaeva's Poetry," in Slavic Review, Vol. 51, No. 2, Summer, 1992, pp. 232-46.

[In the following excerpt, Forrester explores the relationship between the female body and Moscow architecture, particularly the church, in Tsvetaeva's poetry.]

Like many other Russian women writers, Marina Tsvetaeva did not merely include women's language and physical experience in her poetry; they were central to her concern with poetry and poetic creation. These elements of her work have in recent years evoked an interest from women readers and feminist scholars of Russian literature which is reflected in the...

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Michael Makin (essay date 1993)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Late Poetry," in Marina Tsvetaeva: Poetics of Appropriation, Oxford at the Clarendon Press, 1993, pp. 295-323.

[In the following excerpt, Makin discusses Tsvetaeva's poetic output in her later years, particularly her transition from writing lyrics to long poems or poemy.]

The distinguishing features of the late Tsvetaeva are clearest of all in her lyric poetry. From 1907 to 1925 she completed over 1,000 lyrics. In her last sixteen years she is known to have written fewer than 100: an average of roughly six poems a year. There were, of course, more or less prolific years in both the first and the second halves of her career, but the first half saw the...

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Further Reading

(Poetry Criticism)


Proffer, Carl R. "Marina Tsvetaeva." In Modern Russian Poets on Poetry, p. 20. Ann Arbor: Ardis, 1976.

Selected critical bibliography including translations.


Feiler, Lily. Marina Tsvetaeva: The Double Beat of Heaven and Hell. Durham: Duke University Press, 1994, 299 p.

Study of Tsvetaeva's life and work.

Feinstein, Elaine. A Captive Lion: The Life of Marina Tsvetayeva. London: Century Hutchinson, 1987, 289 p.

Biography of Tsvetaeva by one of the...

(The entire section is 647 words.)