The pervasive theme of alienation that becomes apparent through the images and metaphors of the poem reminds the reader that this poem was written during the early twentieth century. The modernist angst—whether it is caused by urbanization and industrialization or by dehumanizing wars and political persecutions—is as present here as it is in the poetry of T. S. Eliot or Edward Thomas. The poet expresses a sentiment of estrangement from the world—even from her immediate surroundings. As in Eliot’s poetry, in the twentieth century, the fires of passion seem wasted on casual encounters, leaving behind only ash and incineration.
Tsvetayeva’s style is, however, much more personal than Eliot’s. The expression of regret for a past spent too quickly and in a rush of intensity is not intended to encapsulate the meaning of an entire civilization or culture, but rather folds inward toward the particular situation of one woman’s isolation. This is perhaps the poet’s strength—that she is able to draw the reader inward into the workings of an individual female psyche to embrace specific sensations.
An awareness of evanescence is characteristic of the poet’s vision. The link between the fleeting moment and the theme of alienation consists in the fact that chance encounters, being transitory, never seem to provide enough time or space for any tangible connections between human beings. Like the loss of the past, these brief contacts are fugitive events that disappear into the distance beyond the narrator’s field of vision. Although romantic brushes are ephemeral, however, the anguish that remains in the heart seems to last, leaving behind a desire—or perhaps an affinity—for sleep, a temporary or permanent rest in the heart of ash.
The spells that the female narrator has cast in the past now leave those who cross her path unenchanted. Her seductive, bewitching charms, which were earlier realized in action, now seem to blow away with the smoke of her cigarette. The narrator remains alone with her “abrupt” speeches, her language cut short by the absence of communication. This is perhaps always at the heart of a poet’s anguish—the fear that the poem will fail to touch the listener, that the poet’s speech is empty of any communicable content.
In early twentieth century life, as addressed in Tsvetayeva’s poem, there is a saturation of superficial knowledge without a concomitant experience of essences. The two interlocutors of the poem—the passerby and the train—epitomize the theme of alienation in their concrete but fleeting presence in the sphere of the narrator’s experience. Like the stranger and the train, which rush away from the meaning of the narrator’s existence without ever arriving at full comprehension, perhaps the position of the reader toward the poem (this or any other) will always be one of a motion toward and then away from it. The estrangement that the poet desires to express is something in which the reader, too, unwittingly participates.
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