New Year Letter Themes
by Marina Tsvetayeva

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Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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.

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...

(The entire section is 587 words.)