The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Marina Tsvetayeva’s “You, walking past me,” written in 1913 but unpublished until 1976, is a short lyric poem of sixteen lines divided into four stanzas. Like many of the poems written during Tsvetayeva’s twenties, it evokes a mood of loneliness and estrangement from the world. The title of the poem, which is also its first line, addresses a stranger who is to remain largely unaware of the narrator’s state of mind. This indifferent crossing of paths sets the tone for the rest of the poem.

The first-person narrator speaks directly to an unidentified “You,” a device that Tsvetayeva uses in many of her poems. The second-person pronoun refers to a stranger walking past the narrator, but it could also easily refer to the reader. This identification of the reader with the stranger through the word “you,” which is sustained throughout the poem, gives it a special appeal, making the reader aware of his or her immutable estrangement from the poet’s condition. Like the stranger who remains untouched by the pain and loss that the narrator has experienced, the reader, although reading about this experience, will never really know the poet’s anguish.

The stranger who walks past the narrator—not toward her—merely passes through her orbit, blind to a life that has expended itself on nothing, just as he is unaware of her “dubious witchcraft.” There is an unnamed energy and intensity in her thoughts that perhaps the...

(The entire section is 571 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Tsvetayeva is known for her unique use of imagery. In this poem, the images are, if not unusual, certainly crucial to the meaning of the poem. It is through images and metaphors, rather than verbs, that the poem achieves a progression of meaning. It is possible to isolate two groups of images, both of which are built around certain types of contrasts. The first group evokes sensations of the heating and cooling of passion, as well as a contrast between light and dark: images, that is, of fire, ash, incineration, smoke, and the dark night. The second group is constructed around the contrast between movement and stasis: a passerby, a train, a rustle, the movement of the smoke, and sleep.

The image of fire adds to the mystique of the narrator’s “dubious witchcraft” in the first stanza. The sorcery of the female narrator, although enigmatic, is, like the metaphor of the fire that represents it, a “wasted” energy. Images of intense energy continue into the second stanza, where the narrator tells us of her “heroic passion.” The fire that was introduced in the first stanza now turns to cool ash as it is transformed into the “incinerated” heart of the narrator. In the third stanza, heat has been replaced by the cool of the night, although the presence of the speeding train does something to disturb that cool stillness. In the final stanza, the fire and the ash have eventually given way to smoke: The smoke rising from the narrator’s cigarettes...

(The entire section is 506 words.)