Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 546
On the surface, “Poem of the End” is a journey, a simple walk along a river in Prague, but it is also a psychological journey, and this is where the meaning of the poem resides. For Tsvetayeva, who believes the poet holds an exalted position, ordinary life means death; she is incapable of conventional emotion, and it is her intensity that has caused the break with her lover. The end to which the poem refers is both the ending of the affair and the poet’s rejection of ordinary life. As the cycle moves between detailed descriptions of Tsvetayeva’s physical surroundings and her mental landscape, these endings become apparent.
The poem reveals its meaning through images of banality and death, which are introduced in the first poem. In the opening line, the poet waits for her lover beneath a sign, “a point of rusting/ tin in the sky,” and when her lover arrives, he is as “on time as death is.” In the seventh stanza, these images combine: “life is/ at death point.” This repetition of the word “point” suggests that the rusting tin signifies not just a shabby café but death as well. In the third and fourth segments of the cycle, Tsvetayeva again juxtaposes themes of death and tawdriness, this time using separate poems for each. In the third poem, the river, traditionally a symbol of life, is described as “a slab for corpses,” and references to death recur throughout the third lyric. In the next poem, the locale shifts abruptly to a café, perhaps a flashback to the café where the lovers met; here the poet examines the banality of ordinary people. She returns to this juxtaposition in the twelfth poem, saying “Life is only a suburb” and, four stanzas later, “Life is a place where it’s forbidden/ to live.” The poet goes on to identify herself with the Jews: As a poet she is an alien, an outsider, and to live she must exile herself from ordinary life and its ordinary affairs. Her love must fail because she is a poet, someone too intensely emotional to succeed at conventional love.
Tsvetayeva’s break with the conventional is reflected throughout “Poem of the End” in her innovative structure, which also functions thematically. In order to rise above the deathlike river and the deadly towns and suburbs, she must not follow “a path for/ sheep.” Instead, she must soar beyond traditional modes of expression. By employing stream of consciousness, using unconventional punctuation and line breaks, and varying the meter, Tsvetayeva demonstrates that she has rejected the conventional: ordinary love, ordinary life, ordinary verse.
In spite of the poet’s commitment to existing on a higher plane, the poem ends somberly: “And into the hollow waves of/ darkness—hunched and level—/ without trace—in silence—/ something sinks like a ship.” This final stanza suggests that the poet fears failure, that her voice will not be heard, that she herself will disappear in silence without a trace. In fact, when “Poem of the End” was first circulated, it was not well received by critics, perhaps because of its stylistic innovation. However, it has since come to be considered one of Russia’s finest psychological poems and the best example of Tsvetayeva’s mature style.
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