‘loyalty to greatness – to guilt – to grief’: tsvetaeva and the dramatic
There are two things in particular about Tsvetaeva’s verse that make her my favourite. The first is her honesty, which is something that captured my imagination from the very beginning; my introduction to her was Над городом, отвергнутым Петром, where I think it really does make itself felt, and then Подруга (of course..!). I think I appreciate this honesty so much because I personally find it so difficult – with myself, with friends, with everyone. I am impressed and humbled by the way she manages to do it – for she makes it look so easy – and with what eloquence. Honesty always feels like a weakness, to me, and I know it shouldn’t be; I say things and I’m instantly regretful, always afraid I’ve said too much, that no one ‘wants to know’. But when I read Tsvetaeva I can let myself believe that there might be strength in honesty and in vulnerability; that to be truthful with ourselves and with others can enrich our inner and exterior lives.
But anyway. The second thing, which I had thoughts about today, is the scale, the sense of grandeur, the drama she’s able to evoke without being histrionic (though this is a word I feel rather hesitant to use because it seems so often reserved for criticising the work of women; I don’t want to come across as saying ‘she’s not like those silly writers…’). In My Half-Century, which I’ve just finished and which I absolutely loved, Akhmatova briefly writes of their only meeting in the summer of 1941 (oh, to have been a fly on that wall!). Of it, she says:
It is frightening to think how Marina would have described these meetings herself, if she had remained alive and I had died on August 31, 1941. It would have been “a sweet-smelling legend” as our forefathers put it. Perhaps it would have been the lamentation of a twenty-five-year-old love, which turned out to be in vain, but in any case, it would have been magnificent .
I wish I could have read her account of things, of course. In the notes at the back of the book the editor, Ronald Meyer, says of this: ‘Akhmatova refers to Tsvetaeva’s highly developed sense for the dramatic and the ability to transform seemingly everyday events into Poetry.’ That’s it exactly! As much as I adore the poems of Лебединый стан, for example, which speak so powerfully about and bear witness to something much bigger than the individual, I like it just as much when, as he says, the ordinary is made something so grand, our daily lives and relationships. Compare these two poems, for example (translated by Robin Kemball), one about the tsarevich Alexei and one heralding the birth of Tsvetaeva’s own daughter, Irina:
4 апреля 1917
За Отрока — за Голубя — за Сына,
За царевича младого Алексия
Помолись, церковная Россия!
Очи ангельские вытри,
Вспомяни, как пал на плиты
Голубь углицкий — Димитрий.
Ласковая ты, Россия, матерь!
Ах, ужели у тебя не хватит
На него — любовной благодати?
Грех отцовский не карай на сыне.
Сохрани, крестьянская Россия,
Царскосельского ягнёнка — Алексия!
4 April 1917
Pray for the Son – the Dove – the Adolescent,
For the young Tsarevich, for the young Alexis –
Russia, pray, who the true faith confessest!
Wipe those angel eyes now, ponder deeply
Him that fell upon the stones – think meetly
On the dove of Uglich, on Dimitri.
Gentle mother, Russia, kind, caressing!
Is thy heart so hard as not to grace him
With thy loving-kindness, with thy blessing?
Visit not upon the son the father’s trespass.
Russia of the country folk – be his protectress:
Spare the lamb of Tsarskoye Selo, Alexis!
And the second:
8 сентября 1918
Под рокот гражданских бурь,
В лихую годину,
Даю тебе имя — мир,
В наследье — лазурь.
Отыйди, отыйди, Враг!
Наследницу вечных благ
8 September 1918
To clamour of civil strife,
in times that are evil,
I give you a name that’s – peace,
an heirloom – blue skies,
Get thee hence, Satan! – So
preserve, O Redeemer,
from whom all blessings flow,
the infant Irina!
The way that she speaks about her own daughter and the tsarevich (who means so much for Russia symbolically, represents so much of a ‘bigger picture’) is exactly the same to me; the same language, the same invocations and petitions. Why, after all, should we not be talking about our own sons and daughters with the same language? Tsvetaeva’s petitions for divine protection are not somehow less urgent or symbolic because they are for her own daughter ‘rather than’ something ‘bigger’ (if anything I think this would intensify her invocations because they are made more personal); all children, I think, are equal and must be looked upon equally – this goes without saying.
After only saying the other day how rare it is for me to cry at books, I found myself in tears when I first read this second; partly because I knew what Tsvetaeva did not at the time of writing – that Irina’s life would be cut so short, that all she asks for in the poem is not granted – but partly also just because it’s so beautiful. The language, the religious language, is so strong; nothing is held back, and that too is a kind of honesty in its way.
Below the cut, here are some other favourites that ‘do’ the dramatic so well:
14 August 1918
Better, my Lyre, to confess it freely!
It was the great ever stirred our feelings:
masts, battle ensigns, churches, and kings,
bards, epic heroes, eagles, and elders.
Those that are pledged to the realm, like soldiers,
do not confide their Tent – to the winds.
You know the Tsar – do not toy with the hunter!
Loyalty has held us, firm as an anchor:
loyalty to greatness – to guilt – to grief,
to the great crowned guilt – loyalty unswerving!
Those that are pledged to the Khan will serve him
– their oath is not to the horde, but its chief.
We struck a fickle age, Lyre, that scatters
all to the winds! Uniforms ripped to tatters,
and the last shreds of the Tent worn thin…
New crowds collecting – other flags waving!
But we still stand by our word – unwavering,
for they are devious captains – the winds.
24 March 1918
White Guard, your path is set noble and high:
Black muzzles – your breast and temple defy.
Godly and white is the cause you fight for:
White is your body – in sands to lie.
That is no flock of swans in the sky there:
Saintly the White Guard host sails by there,
White, as a vision, to fade and die there…
One last glimpse of a world that’s gone:
Manliness – Daring – Vendée – Don.
30 March 1918
Those spared – will die, those fallen – rise from under.
Then come the sons, remembering days far gone: – And where were you? – the words will roll like thunder,
The answer roll like thunder: – On the Don!
– What did you do? – We bore with grief and cruelty,
Then laid us down to sleep, our last strength gone.
And in the dictionary, over Duty,
The grandsons, looking back, will write: the Don.