Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Marina Tsvetayeva is one of the four great Russian poets of the twentieth century. The other three, all Tsvetayeva’s contemporaries—Boris Pasternak, Osip Mandelstam, and Anna Akhmatova—are better known in the West, not least because of the almost insurmountable difficulties of translating Tsvetayeva’s peculiar poetic genius. Her poetry is difficult not because it is obscure or esoteric—on the contrary, it is passionate and direct speech—but because much of its expressiveness relies on verbal association, on sound compressed, contracted, and then released with tremendous energy. Although she was established and acknowledged as a major talent by the time she left Russia in 1922, Tsvetayeva never easily fit into any school or movement.

Selected Poems of Marina Tsvetayeva is a small volume intended to give the English-speaking reader some sense of Tsvetayeva’s life’s work. Poet and novelist Elaine Feinstein has based her versions on literal, nonpoetic translations done by Russian-speaking scholars and translators, and out of an enormous body of work (Tsvetayeva wrote more than two thousand lyric poems) has chosen mostly shorter lyrics and arranged them in chronological order. Although Tsvetayeva’s precocious adolescent verses, first published in 1908, own praise and recognition even during the literary boom of Russia’s prewar years, Feinstein begins with her more mature work of 1915 and 1916. Moving from old themes (her own...

(The entire section is 493 words.)


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

The grand nineteenth century Russian literary tradition, be it in poetry or prose, did not include women. Russian literature had no Jane Austens, George Eliots, or Emily Dickinsons. It was not a matter of ignoring major talents: They simply did not exist, and even the minor talents were few and far between. Except for sentimental album-verse for domestic consumption, and diaries and personal correspondence (which might eventually become a memoir), Russian women did not write. Social upheaval and cultural change in the last decades of the century finally gave women entry into places hitherto closed: universities, laboratories, political parties, and —this time as participants, not hostesses—literary circles.

Marina Tsvetayeva, like other women artists emerging from the Silver Age of Russian culture, was faced with the stereotypes of the breathless, high-strung “lady writer.” More important, she was faced with a great void. There were sympathetic and perceptive portraits of women in the Russian tradition, but there were no portraits by them, no direct expression of a female point of view.

Tsvetayeva went beyond theme and imagery to establish a point of view that was independent of male point of view rather than a reaction to it. She rewrote the whole of female mythology. Her voice begins and ends in isolation, demanding, asserting, lamenting, rejoicing openly and unironically, her points of departure being her own self and the sound of...

(The entire section is 402 words.)


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Heldt, Barbara. Terrible Perfection: Women and Russian Literature. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987. Heldt first gives an overview of women as characters in Russian fiction and poetry, and then looks at some women writers, including Tsvetayeva, in detail.

Karlinsky, Simon. Marina Tsvetayeva: The Woman, Her World, and Her Poetry. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1985. A study intended for the general reader, emphasizing the cultural and historical factors affecting the poet.

Schweitzer, Victoria. Tsvetayeva. Translated by Robert Chandler and H. T. Willetts. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1992. A definitive, meticulously researched literary biography by a leading Tsvetayeva scholar. It includes copious biographical notes on the people, both famous and obscure, surrounding Tsvetayeva.

Taubman, Jane. A Life Through Poetry: Marina Tsvetayeva’s Lyric Diary. Columbus, Ohio: Slavica, 1989. A sympathetic and insightful treatment of Tsvetayeva’s lyrics. Taubman uses biography to illuminate the art but never confuses the two.

Tsvetayeva, Marina. Art in the Light of Conscience. Edited and translated by Angela Livingstone. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1992. Eight essays on poets and poetry written between 1922 and 1932. They range from close analysis of a translation to comparisons of individual poets, types of poets and types of minds—all written with the same energy and laconic expressiveness that is the essence of Tsvetayeva’s poetry.