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This article is taken from PN Review 159, Volume 31 Number 1, September - October 2004.

Tsvetaeva's Last Days Elaine Feinstein

While writing the biography of the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova over recent months, I have become increasingly preoccupied by the differences between her character and that of Marina Tsvetaeva, whose poems I translated many years ago. Both women must be counted among the greatest European poets of the twentieth century. Their temperaments, however, are markedly disparate. Akhmatova kept her dignity even in the face of tragedy; Tsvetaeva showed her emotions nakedly. Akhmatova's poetry is marked by a classic restraint; Tsvetaeva's by a constant pressure to invent new forms. Most of Tsvetaeva's poems use difficult syntax, wild metaphors and frequent leaps over what can be easily understood. Her pages are filled with dashes and spattered with exclamation marks. Akhmatova, in contrast, is bare, bony and precise.

It would be hard to say which of them led a more difficult life. Tsvetaeva went into exile, and suffered poverty, humiliation and neglect; Akhmatova refused to leave Russia and was rewarded by the cat-and-mouse attention of Stalin, a ban on publication and the imprisonment of her son and second husband. For all Akhmatova's beauty and an imperial presence which led men to fall in love with her even in old age, her deepest relationships ended unhappily; Tsvetaeva once declared that, although she knew she would be the most important figure in the memoirs of her male friends, she had `never counted in the masculine present'.

Akhmatova's second husband Nikolai Punin, and her only son, Lev, were both in the ...

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