Scattered in bookstores, greyed by dust and time,
Unseen, unsought, unopened, and unsold,
My poems will be savored as are rarest wines -
When they are old.
To emphasize the permanence of her opinion, she added a second date and signed her answer "1913-1931." Later, she called the lines "a formula for my auctorial fate."
The next ten years, Tsvetaeva's final decade, justified her pessimism. Initially welcomed by Russian writers and readers living in emigration, she now faced exasperated editors of the ever-fewer emigre journals who judged her new poetry incomprehensible and therefore unpublishable. Her perennial lack of money lapsed into outright poverty, yet she was the sole support of her husband, daughter, and son, who lived on her public readings and private begging.
As divisions within the emigration sharpened, the emigre community in
Seen in a broader perspective, however, Tsvetaeva's art and life belie the prophesied neglect. Her earliest publications were recognized and appreciated - and first of all by other poets, that most demanding audience. Early tributes came from Valery Bryusov, Maksimilian Voloshin, and Osip Mandelshtam. Later, Boris Pasternak, Rainer Maria Rilke, and Anna Akhmatova joined the ranks of her admirers. Today, that peer recognition is sustained by the poet Joseph Brodsky, foremost among Tsvetaeva's many champions. It can even be said that Tsvetaeva has regained popular appeal: among the new waves of emigres from the Soviet Union, her life has won her as much esteem as has her work, for, in an era when so many languished in exile, and so many others capitulated to oppressors, Tsvetaeva wrote and lived as if isolation and torment were the very nectar and ambrosia of her godless, ungodly age.
Tsvetaeva is first of all a poet-lyricist, not only because the sheer volume and quality of her lyric poetry is remarkable, but also because her lyrical voice remains markedly audible in her narrative poetry, her prose, and her letters. Her lyric poems fill ten collections; the uncollected lyrics would add another, substantial volume. Her first two collections indicate their subject matter in their titles: Evening Album (Vechernii al'bom, 1910) and The Magic Lantern (Volshebnyi fonar', 1912). The poems present cameo scenes of a childhood and youth passed quietly in the nursery, study and ballroom of a professorial, middle-class home in
The full range of Tsvetaeva's talent developed quickly and made itself evident in two new collections which share the same title: Mileposts (Versty, 1921) and Mileposts: Book One (Versty, Vypusk I, 1922). Three hallmarks of Tsvetaeva's mature style emerge in the Mileposts collections. First, Tsvetaeva dates each of her poems and publishes them, with a few exceptions, in strictly chronological order. All the poems in Mileposts: Book One, for example, were written in 1916 and form a kind of diary in verse. Secondly, there are cycles of poems which fall into fairly regular chronological sequence among the single poems, evidence that certain themes sought sustained expression and variation. One such cycle, in fact, announces the theme of Mileposts: Book I as a whole--the "Poems on
The small collection entitled Separation (Razluka, 1922) indicates yet another dimension of the poet's art, for it contains Tsvetaeva's first longer verse narrative, "On a Red Steed" (Na krasnom kone). The poem can be seen as a kind of prologue to three more verse-narratives written between 1920 and 1922. All four narrative poems draw on folkloric plots, language, and iconography, and Tsvetaeva acknowledges her sources in the titles of the two very long works, The Maiden-Tsar: A Fairy-tale Poem (Tsar'-devitsa: Poema-skazka, 1922) and the poem known in English as The Swain which has the subtitle A Fairytale (Molodets: skazka, 1924). The fourth folklore-style poem is called "Byways" (Pereulochki, published in
Tsvetaeva set her collection Psyche (Psikheya, 1923) somewhat apart when she gave it the secondary title Romantika, indicating that the groupings of poems by theme, unlike their counterparts in Mileposts: Book One (and, eventually, later collections) do not have a relevant chronological sequence. The volume contains one of Tsvetaeva's best-known cycles "Insomnia" (Bessonnitsa).
The years of Revolution and civil war brought special hardships to Tsvetaeva; her husband Sergei Efron was a White Army officer and Tsvetaeva was cut off and alone in
Similar themes permeate The Ratcatcher. Subtitled "a lyrical satire," the poem is based on a well-known, 13th century German legend. Its hero is the Pied Piper of Hameln who saves a town from hordes of rats and then leads the town's children away too, in retribution for the citizens' ingratitude. As in the other folkloric narratives, The Ratcatcher's story line emerges indirectly through several speaking voices that shift from invective, to lyrical flights, to ironic understatement. Tsvetaeva's polyphony reaches its acme, both in the number of speakers - including the Piper's pipe - and the variety of tones. Varied too is the line length, ranging from three to twelve syllables, and the verbal texture with its neologisms (elsewhere relatively rare), its onomatopoeia, and its dazzling paronomasia, the central device of all Tsvetaeva's mature work.
Tsvetaeva's last ten years in emigration, from 1928 when After Russia appeared to her departure for the
The great prose decade opens with two essays that examine literature in the perspective of history and ethics: "The Poet and Time" (Poet i vremya) and "Art in the Light of Conscience" (Iskusstvo pri svete sovesti), both published in
The depth and originality of "Art in the Light of Conscience" finds a match in Tsvetaeva's two literary portraits of the period, "A Living Word about a Living Man" on the poet Voloshin (Zhivoe o zhivom, 1933) and "A Captive Spirit" on Andrei Bely (Plennyi dukh, 1934). Literary criticism too explores wholly new areas in the short essay on Goethe's and Zhukovsky's "Erlkonig" (Dva lesnykh tsarya, 1934) and in the marvellous long study "Pushkin and Pugachev" (Pushkin i Pugachev, 1937).
Tsvetaeva rightly belongs in the quartet of
"I was immediately tamed by the lyrical power of Tsvetaeva's form, which had become her very flesh and blood, which had strong lungs, had a tight, concentrated hold, which did not gasp for breath between lines but encompassed without a break in rhythm whole sequences of stanzas, developing their innate elements."
And Joseph Brodsky writes of Tsvetaeva's place in her epoch and in Russian literature:
"Represented on a graph, Tsvetaeva's work would exhibit a curve--or rather, a straight line--rising at almost a right angle because of her constant effort to raise the pitch a note higher, an idea higher (or, more precisely, an octave and a faith higher.) She always carried everything she has to say to its conceivable and expressible end. In both her poetry and her prose, nothing remains hanging or leaves a feeling of ambivalence. Tsvetaeva is the unique case in which the paramount spiritual experience of an epoch (for us, the sense of ambivalence, of contradictoriness in the nature of human existence) served not as the object of expression but as its means, by which it was transformed into the material of art."