Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 587

It has been suggested that any poem written as a lament for the dead has a strong autobiographical component. In other words, the poem tells the reader as much about the living poet as it does about the dead person. This is true on several levels in “New Year Letter,” and each level illustrates a major theme of the poem. Tsvetayeva is the first-person heroine of her own poem, addressing Rilke from a number of points of view. First, she writes as a person deprived of a friend whom she never met. She and her fellow Russian poet Boris Pasternak had planned to visit Rilke in Switzerland, but the latter’s sudden death destroyed those plans. In the poem, Tsvetayeva muses on what it would have been like to have had a rendezvous and a chat with Rilke in a poor Paris suburb like the one in which she lives.

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Second, “New Year Letter” is a kind of love poem. Always impulsive, Tsvetayeva in her letters to Rilke had quickly assumed the personal du form of address, and her tone of intimacy and longing had nearly frightened Rilke away. Now, with no chance that a relationship can ever develop between them, Tsvetayeva laments as if for a dead lover, while at the same time admitting poignantly but accurately that “nothing has worked out for us at all.” They were never lovers—indeed, they never even met—but Tsvetayeva feels she knows Rilke so well through his words, and through the things they have in common, that she claims the right to address him as if they had been.

Finally, Tsvetayeva writes as a poet whose main concern is her craft, and who regards Rilke as an inspiration, a symbol, and her own ideal audience—for who but a master poet can fully understand another? In their correspondence and in the poems he wrote for her, Rilke had helped Tsvetayeva through a crisis of insecurity about her work. Living in poverty in Parisian exile, she was often faced with problems of literal survival for herself and her family. Her poetry was constantly threatened by lack of time, energy, solitude, and even an audience, since the Russian political situation had virtually deprived her of readers. Rilke himself had been forced to make difficult decisions concerning the role of poetry in his life; painfully but firmly, he had chosen his art, to the exclusion of family and a life as a normal social being. By his friendship, his example, and the literary fruits of his sacrifice, Rilke had encouraged Tsvetayeva to go on.

For Tsvetayeva, Rilke was also a symbol of all poets. Elsewhere she refers to him as Orpheus, the greatest singer in Greek mythology, and in “New Year Letter” she says of the heaven she imagines for him, “If you’re there, so is verse, in any case,” thus equating him with poetry itself! By writing this “letter” to Rilke, engaging him in a dialogue about his writing and hers, it must have seemed to Tsvetayeva that she was somehow keeping him alive, postponing the time when she must admit his physical death, and therefore both the possibility of mortality and the death of poetry. Throughout the poem, Tsvetayeva echoes themes and images that play a central role in Rilke’s writing: death, love, the angels, God, childhood, poetry. In “New Year Letter,” she has created both a tribute to a loved fellow poet and a promise to go on writing herself, in the face of all obstacles.

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