Poets on Poets

The Epistolary and Poetic Communication of Tsvetaeva, Pasternak, and Rilke

by Olga Zaslavsky (Author)
©2017 Monographs X, 198 Pages


This book provides a thorough examination of how both Marina Tsvetaeva and Boris Pasternak perceived Rainer Maria Rilke’s poetic persona and oeuvre in similar ways, and how, in their perception of Rilke’s role as that of the paradigmatic poet, they had drawn on the specifically Russian poetic paradigm, i.e., the image of Pushkin in the context of Russian literature of the Silver Age. At the same time, both poets’ scrutiny of the sublime, the mundane, and the tragic side of practicing poetic craft in the Soviet Union, as in the case of Pasternak, and in exile, as in Tsvetaeva’s case, generates the discourse of "empathic attunement." By applying "empathic" discourse towards Rilke, both poets’ anxieties about their future, and that of Russian poetry in general, come to the fore.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Author’s Note
  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction
  • Chapter 1. The “Literary Triangle” and the Pushkin Myth
  • Chapter 2. Tsvetaeva and Pasternak: Crossed Lyrical Wires
  • Chapter 3. Tsvetaeva and Rilke: The Lost and Found Paradise
  • Chapter 4. Pasternak and Rilke: Safe Conduct
  • Conclusion
  • Bibliography
  • Name Index
  • Series Index

← vi | vii →


This study is a revised and updated version of the dissertation I completed at the University of Pennsylvania in mid 1990s. Parts of this book have appeared in earlier versions under such titles, as “In Defense of Poetry: Cvetaeva’s Poetic Wires to Pasternak” in Critical Essays on the Prose and Poetry of Modern Slavic Women, ed. by Nina A. Efimov, Christine Tomei, and Richard Chapple (Lewiston, New York: The Edwin Mellen Press), 1998; “Empathic Attunement: Cvetaeva’s and Pasternak’s Literary Tributes to Rilke.” Special Issue: Poetry and Poetics. Russian Literature. (Amsterdam: Elsevier), (1) 2009; “Поэтический ‘треугольник’ Цветаевой, Пастернака и Рильке: оценка в России и на Западе.” Chroniques Slaves(5), Centres d’Etudes Slaves Contemporaines. Université Stendhal-Grenoble 3, 2009. “Lera Auerbach’s Symphonic Interpretation of Tsvetaeva’s poem, Novogodnee” (unpublished AATSEEL ’13 conference paper). I have used a number of published translations to convey the meaning of the original Russian and German in English. The translators’ names are acknowledged in both bibliography and footnotes. In several instances, I have personally translated a number of poetry and prose passages, marked by my initials. ← vii | viii →

← viii | ix →


I am grateful, first and foremost, for the opportunity to have been a part of the Davis Center for Russian Studies at Harvard University, which has enabled me to continue my scholarship and to grow professionally. I am most grateful to my former dissertation advisor, Olga Peters Hasty, currently of Princeton University, for guiding me at the initial stages in understanding the poetry of Marina Tsvetaeva and for her scholarly guidance throughout the years. I am very much indebted to Prof. Peter Steiner of the University of Pennsylvania and to Prof. Nina Perlina, Prof. Emeritus of Indiana University for their scholarly encouragement of my work. Dr. Alexandra Smith has been a source of both invaluable comments and information with regard to my topic. I feel privileged to have corresponded with such authorities in the field of Tsvetaeva studies, as Prof. Veronique Lossky and Dr. Elena Korkina. I feel enormously indebted to the Rilke scholar and a champion of the three-poet correspondence, Konstantin Azadovsky, who answered some of my queries about how the correspondence became available to the general public.

I would like to thank my friends outside of my immediate field, who have expressed their enthusiasm and support for my project. Among those I owe special thanks to Marie-Therese, Sigrid, Irina, Claudia, Domenico, Tanya, Rashid, Lilia, Aline, and Philippe. I owe much gratitude to Edmund Levin ← ix | x → for his careful reading of the final version. My family members, my children, with special thanks to my daughter Maria, deserve to be commended for their help and patience in the course of this project. Also, I would like to acknowledge Alex’s and Michael’s unflagging support during many trying moments of manuscript editing. My parents are to be thanked for having raised me in an atmosphere of literature and music. My mother deserves a special note of gratitude in supporting this project over the years.

The time elapsed between my initial interest in this project and the completion of this manuscript has afforded me some unique opportunities: to listen to outstanding conference papers and, occasionally, engage in direct conversation with their authors: the scholars, K. Azadovsky, E. B. and E. V. Pasternak, and a major celebrated poet, Joseph Brodsky, involved in interpreting this unique correspondence. I feel grateful and fortunate to have witnessed such unique moments of literary history in the making.

Permissions to quote excerpts from the following texts are gratefully acknowledged:

Barnes, C. Boris Pasternak. The Voice of Prose. New York: Grove, 1986. Reprinted by permission of C. Barnes.

McDuff, David (trans.). Marina Tsvetaeva, Selected Poems. Newcastle upon Tyne: Bloodaxe Books, 1991. Reprinted by permission of Bloodaxe Books.

Ciepiela, C. The Same Solitude. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2006. Permission to quote from C. Ciepiela’s translation of M. Tsvetaeva’s From the Sea granted by C. Ciepiela.

Mitchell, S. (trans.); Robert Hass (intro.). Rilke, R. M., The Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke. New York: Random House, 1982. Reprinted by permission of S. Mitchell and by permission of Random House.

Naydan, M. (trans.). Marina Tsvetaeva, Wires. After Russia. Ann Arbor: Ardis Publishers, 1992. Reprinted by permission of M. Naydan.

Pasternak, B. Полное собрание сочинений в 11 томах. Москва: Слово, 2004. Permission to quote from E.V. Pasternak.

Wettlin, M., Arndt, W., and Gambrell, J. (trans.). Boris Pasternak, Marina Tsvetaeva, Rainer Maria Rilke: Letters Summer 1926. New York: NYRB, 2001. Permission to quote from Walter Arndt’s translations of Tsvetaeva and Rilke reprinted by permission of W. Arndt estate.

The author gratefully acknowledges scholarly advice received from Professors Sibelan Forrester (Swarthmore), Karen Evans Romaine (University of Wisconsin-Madison), professors Michael Wachtel (Princeton University) and Barry Scherr (Dartmouth College) during the permissions process.

← x | 1 →


August 31, 1941 marks a tragic date in the life of Marina Tsvetaeva, one of the supreme poets of the twentieth century. Tsvetaeva hanged herself on that date in a small town of Elabuga, one of the evacuation posts in the Soviet Union during World War II.1 She was hoping to free her son, Georgy (Mur) Efron, from her tormented existence.2 Tsvetaeva was driven to a tragic end in an epoch when many lives were brought to ruin. She left behind a rich legacy of long and short poems, prose works, and numerous letters.3 A Russian poet, first and foremost, she was well-versed in European languages (German and French) from early childhood and pursued literature written in those languages with fascination and love. Caught in an epoch between the Russian Revolution and World War II, in different parts of Russia, Europe, and, Russia, once more, she had experienced periods of enormous poetic upheaval and productivity along with moments of near-suicide and despair both in exile and in her own country. The year 1926—which brought her in contact with two other poetic luminaries, the Russian-born Boris Pasternak and the Prague-born German poet, Rainer Maria Rilke, was one of her most productive.4 It was less so for Boris Pasternak, who, at the time, felt tormented by doubts about his validity as a lyric poet. In fact, it was Pasternak, who initiated the three-sided dialogue between Tsvetaeva, Rilke, and himself out of personal and poetic necessity.5 ← 1 | 2 → The correspondence ended abruptly because of Rilke’s illness and eventual death from leukemia. Yet, a few months before he succumbed to his illness, he was still capable of responding to Tsvetaeva both with letters and with a long poem dedicated to her. Having immersed himself in things Russian almost three decades earlier, Rilke was happy to hear from two young Russian poetic talents of such magnitude. Overall, besides a significant number of letters, this communication brought forth outpourings of poetry and prose, such as Tsvetaeva’s and Pasternak’s apostrophes (poetic dedications to a distant addressee) to each other and Rilke’s Elegy to Marina Tsvetaeva-Efron [Elegie an Marina Zwetajewa-Efron, 1926].6 Following Rilke’s passing, Tsvetaeva composed her apostrophe to him, the long poem A New Year’s [Новогоднее, 1927], her prose piece Your Death [Твоя Смерть, 1927], and, finally, Pasternak wrote his long prose piece, dedicated to Rilke’s memory, entitled Safe Conduct [Охранная Грамота, 1930].7

The “triangular” correspondence and the literary works, that had emerged as the result, have been translated into all the major languages and interpreted by a number of notable critics and scholars. K. Azadovsky’s name stands out especially among scholars and literary figures who have worked on this topic. Not only did K. Azadovsky bring the letters out of the archives to the reading public both in Russia and the West, but he was also first in enlightening Russian audiences about Rilke’s connection to Russia.8 In the 1970s, in the dead of the Brezhnev regime, Azadovsky related his ideas to live audiences in then Leningrad by giving pubic readings of Tsvetaeva–Rilke letters––a feat of great courage, since introducing anything Western, ostensibly removed from anything Soviet, had been strongly discouraged at the time. His readings were attended by eager literary-minded public, seeking, in the words of Azadovsky himself, this kind of specifically “non-Soviet” discourse habitually suppressed by the authorities. Eventually, Azadovsky was briefly imprisoned on trumped-up charges of drug possession.9 A number of intellectuals, familiar with his lectures, believed that these particular lectures, their Westernizing aura, may have been a strong factor in alienating the authorities.10

At about the same time as the Azadovsky affair was unfolding, Joseph Brodsky, at that point a resident of the United States and, eventually, a 1987 recipient of the Nobel Prize in literature, wrote an extensive commentary on Tsvetaeva’s A New Year’s.11 In his commentary, he emphasized the transformative power of Tsvetaeva’s apostrophe to Rilke: the elegy on the death of Rilke grows into an affirmation of life and of poetry itself. Over a decade later, at a conference dedicated to the centennial of Tsvetaeva’s birth attended by a ← 2 | 3 → number of noted Tsvetaeva scholars that counted K. Azadovsky among those, Joseph Brodsky demonstrated that the intertextual and apostrophic connection between the works of all three poets had lasted until the year 1949, when Pasternak was the only remaining poet out of this “majestic trio.”12 According to Brodsky, the connection among the poems of Tsvetaeva, Pasternak, and Rilke was sustained in Pasternak’s cycle Magdalina—a cycle, included with the poems of Yuri Zhivago. Brodsky sees the first poem of the Magdalina cycle invoking Rilke’s poetics, with the second—invoking that of Tsvetaeva.

On the biographical level, the work of Konstantin Azadovsky has been indispensable to our understanding of the literary triangle; he had gained intimate knowledge of archival material and laid bare the “other voice” of the poets in question.13 His work, however, was additionally sustained by the dedicated involvement of Pasternak’s heirs, son Evgeny (E. B.) and dauther-in-law, Elena (E. V.). Joseph Brodsky’s literary interpretation added his own “other voice” to the existing trio and deepened the reader’s understanding of the purely poetic interplay in the works of these poets.

This study will aim to examine how the three poets/writers in question become each other’s readers. It will examine poetic monologues turned into apostrophes and epistolary dialogues. The study will focus on the poets (Tsvetaeva, Pasternak, and Rilke), who, between the years 1926 (the year of “triangular correspondence” and Rilke’s death) and 1930, the year of the publication of Охранная грамота, found inspiration in the works and lives of one another, and, in the moments of creating letters, poems, and works of prose, dedicated to their addressees, gave, to quote Octavio Paz, their voices of “passions and of visions” to their subjects. My analyses, confined to a select number of literary and epistolary texts, will be directed toward pointing out the tension between the monumental and the marginal, as revealed in the themes and the language of letters, poems, and the prose works in question. A multitude of scholarly works that already exist on the subject has been mentioned in a recent article by A. Achilli.14 The purpose of this book would be to point out the realities and the cultural myths, above all the myth of Pushkin, that, in my opinion, gave birth to and sustained one of the most interesting poetic exchanges of the twentieth century. I have also found that Heinz Kohut’s concept of “empathic attunement” furthers the reader’s understanding of the three poets’ discourse.15 In my analyses, I will thus attempt to draw a connection between the mythological, which I would also call the monumental, and human/empathic aspects of this three-sided dialogue. ← 3 | 4 →

Chapter One will be devoted to describing the role of the Pushkin myth, as perpetuated by the poets of the Silver Age, as the myth that connects both Russian poets to Rilke.16 The Russian myth leads to what I would call “monumental” discourse, reflected in both poets’ apostrophes to Rilke: both Russian poets create a monument to Rilke out of poetry and prose dedicated to him. At the same time, both poets’ scrutiny of the sublime, the mundane, and the tragic side of practicing the poetic craft both in the Soviet Union, as in the case of Pasternak, and in exile, as in Tsvetaeva’s case, generates what I would term the discourse of “empathic attunement.” By applying “empathic” discourse toward Rilke, both poets’ anxieties about their future and that of Russian poetry, in general, come to the fore. The outcomes of this “empathic” approach play out differently in each case—with Tsvetaeva more inclined toward the renunciation of the present and the everyday, and Pasternak—anxious about the future of Russian poetry and decrying the death of yet another poet he admires, Vladimir Mayakovsky. Chapter Two will discuss Tsvetaeva and Pasternak’s poems, dedicated to each other, and the resulting effect of both poets’ respective self-presentations via those apostrophes. Chapter Three will be devoted to the Rilke–Tsvetaeva apostrophes—Rilke’s Elegy to Marina Tsvetaeva–Efron (1926), Tsvetaeva’s apostrophe to Rilke, A New Year’s (1927) and her prose piece Your Death (1927). Chapter Four will consider Pasternak’s long prose piece, Safe Conduct (1930), dedicated to the memory of Rilke, as the conclusion to this complex literary relationship.


1. See Victoria Schweitzer Быт и бытие Марины Цветаевой. ЖЗЛ. (Москва: Молодая Гвардия 2002), 563.

2. The poet was spending her last days in Elabuga, where she was evacuated from Moscow in the summer of 1941 with her son and a group of writers at the onset of World War II on Russian territory.

3. With the onset of the Krushchev era and beyond, Tsvetaeva’s memory was honored in Russia with several museums dedicated to her, with monuments, and various artistic tributes. In 1982, a small planet, discovered by two Russian women astronomers, was named after her. Cf. http://ru.wikipedia.org/wiki/Цветаева,_Марина_Ивановна. Also, cf. Catherine Ciepiela, Alexandra Smith, (eds.), “Marina Cvetaeva and Her Readers,” in Russian Literature (Amsterdam: Elsevier, 5.15.2013), 493–496.

4. See three major editions of the three-way correspondence in German, Russian, and English listed in the Bibliography.

5. Ibid. Tsvetaeva and Pasternak had begun to write to each other in 1922, far in advance of the three-sided correspondence. See Elena Korkina, Irina Shevelenko, (ed.). Марина ← 4 | 5 → Цветаева, Борис Пастернак. Души начинают видеть: Письма 1922–1936 годов. Москва: Вагриус, 2004.

6. Overall, the number of letters in the latest edition of the triangular correspondence approaches forty, with twelve letters from Pasternak to Tsvetaeva, thirteen (the editors mention eighteen from that period but only thirteen are included)—from Tsvetaeva to Pasternak, nine—from Tsvetaeva to Rilke, and six—from Rilke to Tsvetaeva. There was also one pivotal letter from Pasternak to Rilke, with Rilke reciprocating with a single letter. The history of the publication of the letters, including the mention of Ariadna Efron’s role (the daughter of Marina Tsvetaeva) is described in detail in the introduction to Дыхание лирики; Letters: Summer 1926, see especially pp. 26, 27; and in Rainer Maria Rilke und Marina Zwetajewa: Ein Gespräch in Briefen.


X, 198
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2017 (October)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, Oxford, Wien, 2017. X, 198 pp.

Biographical notes

Olga Zaslavsky (Author)

Olga Zaslavsky received her Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania. Currently a Center Associate at the Davis Center for Russian Studies and a lecturer at the University of Massachusetts Boston, Zaslavsky works on modernist mythologies of Russian and European modernism. She has taught at numerous colleges and universities across the United States, including the University of Pennsylvania, Boston University, and Brown University. She has published and given papers on a wide range of topics that includes Russian poetry, prose, theater, music, and film. Her publications have appeared in Russian Literature, Chroniques Slaves, SEEJ, and the Encyclopedia of Contemporary Russian Culture. In 2009 she contributed an article to the collection Literature in Exile of East and Central Europe, published by Peter Lang.


Title: Poets on Poets