The Poem

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 571

Marina Tsvetayeva’s “You, walking past me,” written in 1913 but unpublished until 1976, is a short lyric poem of sixteen lines divided into four stanzas.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.

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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 passerby completely misses.

In the second stanza, the “heroic passion” arouses a tone of regret as the narrator recalls a passion that has been spent in casual movements, chance encounters. Having burnt away, this life, lived so intensely, has left her with an “incinerated” heart.

The stranger who has been the addressee of the first two stanzas disappears from the narrator’s orbit of perception as her attention turns to the train flying away into the darkness. The train carries away “the sleep at the station,” perhaps by waking passengers asleep at the station with its noise, or by carrying away sleeping passengers. Like the stranger, the train is in the position of the indifferent interlocutor, a fleeting presence that is incapable of gaining any knowledge about the narrator. These two images—of the passing stranger and the speeding train—seem to encompass a certain element of urban life that many people have experienced: brief encounters and ephemereal moments when one is keenly aware of one’s estrangement from those who are so physically close.

The wish expressed in the first stanza—“if you only knew”—is rearticulated in the last two lines of the third. This time, however, it is directed toward the train, and the narrator adds that even if her interlocutor “knew” something about her, he would not be able to comprehend exactly her true situation. There is, thus, at once a desire to invoke the other’s curiosity and draw attention to the self, and a resignation to the fact of the other’s limitations.

With this statement, which links the third stanza with the fourth, the reader realizes that the poet is making a distinction between knowing and experiencing. Although one can approach and gain knowledge about the other, one will remain ultimately cut off from her or his innermost experiences. The stranger will never know what causes the narrator’s speech to be abrupt or why there is so much “menacing” pain within her.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 506

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 curls like the light-colored hair on her head, but fills the inside of her head with dark pain. These contrasts between outside and inside, dark and light, tie together other contrasting images and ideas, such as those of fire and the night, heroic passion and ravishing charms, on the one hand, and a life full of “nothing” on the other.

The second group of contrasting metaphors originates in the movement of the stranger walking past the narrator. The words “walking past” in the first line of the poem seem to suggest a contrast between the movement of the passerby and the stasis of the narrator. The “chance shadow” and the “rustle” in the next stanza stir up memories of past affairs that have stopped, like the heart, on “nothing.” In the third stanza, the “train flying in the night” moves away from the “sleep” at the station, duplicating the earlier movement of the stranger away from the narrator, as well as his ignorance of the deep passion that marks her life. Finally, the “perpetual” movement of the cigarette smoke sharpens, through contrast, the “abrupt” endings of her speech.

Through thus adding layer upon layer of sharp contrasting images, the poem arrives at a meaning caught amid these oppositions. The gap between the “you” and the “me” of the poem’s title is given multiple representations through these various contrasting metaphors, moving the reader toward the suggestion that the meanings of the poem are to be found in the seams between these metaphorical edges.

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Themes