The Poem

“Poem of the End,” composed in 1924, is a poetic sequence of fourteen lyrics describing the end of an affair between the poet, Marina Tsvetayeva, and her lover Konstantin Rodzevitch. Although the poem is autobiographical, it is not necessary to know much about the relationship to understand the poem, which is universal in the intensity of its emotion. As the lovers meet, walk along a river, and pass places they once frequented, the poet struggles with her lover’s decision to break off the relationship, and the structure of the poem reflects this struggle. Much of the poem is written in first person, and the “I” functions as referent to both the poet and the persona. It is often difficult to tell who is speaking, the poet or her lover, indicating that the parting is difficult for both; the two are still very much in love, but the lover is driven away by the intensity of the poet. The ambiguity of the speaker’s voice, however, also suggests that their conversations may be imagined or remembered.

In the opening lyric, the lovers meet, and the poet becomes suspicious of her lover’s demeanor, the “menace at the edges of his/ eyes.” When the lover suggests going to a movie, the poet insists on going home, but, in the second poem, “home” turns into “houses/ collapsing in the one word: home,” and the lover’s house on the hill appears to burst into flame as the poet finds her love self-destructing. The third lyric provides a contrast in...

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Forms and Devices

“Poem of the End” is not easily translated because Russian is an inflected language and because Tsvetayeva uses many innovations that cannot be rendered into English. Russian, unlike English, employs case endings so that meaning is more independent of placement than in English, in which objects regularly follow verbs that are preceded by subjects. Tsvetayeva takes advantage of Russian inflection, deviating from standard word order, a feature that cannot be translated. English translations cannot adhere to the rhyme schemes and metrical patterns of the original either. Therefore, some of the power and innovation of the poem are lost in translation.

Structurally, “Poem of the End” is very complex. Tsvetayeva employs a stream-of-consciousness technique to take the reader into the poet’s psyche. Her style is characterized by dashes, refrains, spaces between words, odd line breaks, and enjambment (run-on lines) to create new, jolting meters. For example, in the sixth section, she imitates the struggle to control her tears with the lines “So now must be no/ so now must be no/ must be no crying” and continues to repeat “without crying” in the next six stanzas. Although she does not repeat the phrase in the final stanza of the section, the reader expects to hear the phrase and is invited to supply it. Such refrains connect the poetry yet provide a contrast to the pervasive ellipses of her style. Additionally, Tsvetayeva varies the meter from section to section to show mood swings and shifts in focus. Such stylistic contrasts and variations maintain both syntactic and semantic tension throughout the work.

Tsvetayeva’s metaphors contribute to this tension, jolting the reader from one image to another, as in the following line, which begins as a rhetorical question but ends with a startling comparison: “who shall I tell my sorrow/ my horror greener than ice?” She frequently shifts between colloquial and formal diction, between classical allusions and description of her surroundings, often ending with a disturbing image. In the third section, for example, she alludes to the lush hanging gardens of the Assyrian princess Semiramis, then describes the river along which she and her lover walk as “a strip as colourless/ as a slab for corpses.”