A Dialogue between Hope and Despair

Gray Hair

It is – ashes of treasures:
losses, insults.
It is – ashes, before which
granite – to dust.

It is – dove, nude and cheerful,
without spouse alive.
It is Solomon’s ashes
over vain human lives.

It is – time’s (that’s eternal)
pale death.
It is – angel at your doors-
if shack is burned!

Not being choked by the furniture,
lord of dreams and of days,
as a wall of the flame –
spirit of my grey hair!

And I don’t feel betrayed
by my years.
Early grayness is a victory
of ultimate powers.

Sept. 27, 1922

(Transl. by Victor Enyutin*)

The challenge for translators and interpreters of this poem is the change of meter from anapest to iamb or trochee in the 1st, 3rd, and 5th stanzas where the first and third lines are offered in anapest but the second and fourth lines in iamb or trochee. Only the 2nd and 4th stanzas are created completely in anapest.

Of course, between the meter used by the poet’s inspiration and intuition, and the semantics nesting inside the very poetic form, there is a gap, because the meter is semantically multi-dimensional, and it’s necessary to build the interpretational bridges to understand the poet’s intuitive grasp of a unity between feeling and meaning, which coexist and cooperate/collaborate within the organism of a poem.

Let’s start with a more obvious phenomenon – with semantic conflicts/contradictions between singular lines, between double lines and, sometimes, inside the lines of the poem. This may eventually lead us to the discovery of an internal, organic necessity of a metrical clash between anapest and iamb or trochee.

In the 1st stanza the semantic contradiction starts right in the first line – that is between “ashes” and “treasures”. The commonsense meaning of grey hair as ashes of our withering vitality Tsvetaeva radically reverses in the second line (by putting both lines into semantic conflict) – what she defines as treasures are losses and insults, not our youth. The clash between third and fourth lines is even more intense. Now we are going into the semantic antagonism between “ashes” and “dust”, between dying and being dead. Tsvetaeva compares the ashes of living/dying and dust of being always dead, dead as a granite statue that is alive only as a work of art – symbolically, metaphorically, through the incredible effort of the artist. Why “granite” will “commit suicide” just because it “sees” the gray hair of a living person? Is the granite (art) “feeling shame” in front of life? We’ll return to this.

In the first line of the 2nd stanza, Tsvetaeva compares grey hair with dove (image of resurrected ashes?), but the epithet “cheerful” about dove is immediately problematized in the second line suggesting the “unnatural” solitude of the dove (a pop-symbol of amorous ties). This semantic contradiction is repeated in/associated with the next metaphor of gray hair – the wisdom of King Solomon confronting the frivolous complains of vain people about one another. The loneliness of the dove is associated with the wisdom of the king trying to mediate between the opposing interests of the citizens, but the health and cheerfulness of the dove – with Solomon’s gray hair! Early gray hair is expression of health and strength – the celibate dove is transformed into king of wisdom. Ashes – power of vitality (dove) – power of wisdom (King Solomon).

The first and second lines of the 3rd stanza are again in contradiction semantically and metrically! The eternal (without end) historical period is dead (frozen) time. Here metrical opposition registers the contrast between the absence of historical change, the inability of an epoch to die and the naturalness of its resurrection in new form of social life. What follows is the contradiction between the first two lines and the second two (third and fourth lines). The menacing reality of the times frozen in its cruelty (Stalin’s indiscriminate purges) is in drastic incompatibility with “angel at our doors“– the more cruelty is inflicted on us the more we are open to god’s love. Irreconcilability between evil and good becomes a mark of encouragement for those who suffer innocently. Again, like in the previous two stanzas, the contradiction is resolved through the paradox of hope. If the 1st stanza sees “losses and insults” as treasures, and the 2nd compares “ashes” with wisdom and strength, the 3rd stanza addresses socio-political causes of human torment.

The 4th stanza refers to a noble poverty and calls “ashes” (gray hair) the “lord of dreams and days” and the “flame of the spirit”. The semantic opposition between “being suffocated by accumulated things” and the ability to orient our life and direct our dreams resolves itself in the second two lines through metaphorizing “ashes” as a spiritual flame. Ashes as gray hair resurrect as a dove, as wisdom, then personify the death of historical epoch that must die, and then become the flame of destruction and rebirth (can inflame us with spiritual vitality).

In the 5th stanza we again see how iamb (intonationally) reduces the wider breath of the anapest. This last stanza is the “conclusion” – semantic resume of the whole poem. The metaphoric associations dominating the previous four stanzas (give place for a conceptual generalization). The semantic contradiction between the first two and second two lines becomes rhetorical. The first two lines become just preparation for the triumphal statement of the last two. What we already saw in the fourth stanza – where semantic conflict between the first line and following three lines disappears because of the praising, panegyric effect, in the fifth stanza is repeated in a more conceptual form (what was in the fourth stanza still achieved through metaphors, here, in the very end of the poem, becomes a finalizing formulation).

So, we have the first three stanzas where all the semantic oppositions are realized through metaphors, and are real, and then the fourth and fifth stanzas where this opposition (here between the first line and the following three) is negated in the text – “Not being choked by the furniture” – fourth stanza, and “It is not a betrayal” – fifth stanza) and prepares us for the final apotheosis of the assertion of the presence of the “ashes” on the human head as a victory of human spirituality over the destructive powers of life in factual world.

And now – why the necessity exists of iambic or trochaic reduction of anapest’s wide breathe? In all three stances when iamb or trochee intervenes, the semantic function of these interventions seems different. In the first stanza – it helps to emphasize the abrupt contrast between the gray hairs as ‘ashes” of “treasures” and what made them to exist (“losses” and “insults”) – between first and second lines, and between these “treasures” in life and their imitation in art – between third and fourth lines.

Tsvetaeva not only created poetry like she lived her life but she lived like she created poetry – for her the creative aspect of life and existential aspect of creativity are two halves of the same process of living spiritually. Tsvetaeva (in her letter to A. Teskova, Paris, Dec, 30, 1925) wrote that she has no love for life as such, that for her life begins to have significance, to acquire meaning and weight, only when it is transformed into art. But she was not only open to but willing and capable of welcoming art in life, directly as an existential (intra-existential) creativity, like living poetry. Her life very often was a culmination of this poetic inspiration within life. That’s why, it seems, “granite” in the first stanza turns into “dust” in front of the “ashes of the treasures” – these ashes are alive art of a creative triumph over the powers of a fallen world, “painting” of the creative inspiration on the canvass of the very human existence as the “meaning and weight” of bodily life of the soul. In Tsvetaeva’s poem (symbolic) human art (“granite”) salutes the alive art of a meaningful life.

In the second stanza – the absence of iambic or trochaic reduction of anapest’s intonation celebrates the similarity between naturalness (dove as a metaphor of “ashes of treasures”) and human wisdom (the third and fourth lines). But in the third stanza the moral contradiction between being unjustly prosecuted and being innocent is so intense that the difference between anapest and trochee (second line) and anapest and iamb (fourth line) becomes an underhand opportunity to emphasize the moral incompatibility between a monstrous (in its absurdity) social repression and goodness of those who were prosecuted without being guilty. The metric change is necessary to emphasize the monstrosity and existential perversion of Stalin’s repressions.

In the fourth stanza the assertion of human spirituality over appropriation and possession of property is unambiguous enough. There is no real semantic contradiction (the first line negates it) – it means that iambic/trochaic reduction as an additional (formal) accent is not needed. But in the last – fifth stanza, the iambic reduction (in both, second and last lines) is not connected with the clash of semantic motifs, but with the transliteration of metaphoric language into a conceptual one. Reduction in the very “poeticity” of language (from metaphoric to conceptual) finds correspondence in reduction from anapestic intonation to iambic. But in all the cases this reduction is perceived as such because anapest is always coming first, in a previous line and creating a frame of reference.

The whole poem is a kind of registration of a semantically intense arguments between despair (passively reacting on/corresponding to the revolting conditions of the factual world), and hope. Let’s try to mark lines of the poem as comparatively based on emotion of hope or on that of despair. 1st stanza – first line: hope, second: despair, third and fourth: hope (because of “granite’s” admiration for “ashes”). 2nd stanza – first line: hope, second: refused despair, third: hope, fourth: refused despair, victory over it. 3rd stanza – first line: despair, second line: despair, third line: hope preceding/preventing despair, fourth: despair overcame in advance. 4th stanza – first line: refusal/overcoming of despair, second: hope, third: hope, fourth: hope. 5th stanza – first line: refusal of despair, second: refusal of despair, third line: triumph of hope, fourth line – confirmation of the triumph of hope. We have eleven lines that can be classified as an expression of hope, and nine – as an expression of despair. How is it possible to have almost a draw between hope and despair? How is the very survival of human specie possible in this situation? It looks that it is possible because of the existence of special categories of our relations with hope and despair. There are cases of despair which are not completely despair but attempts to overcome it – the second line of the 2nd stanza can be classified as a refusal of despair, and so is the fourth line (of the same stanza). Then there is a category of despair which is overcame in advance – the last line of the 3rd stanza and the first line of the 4th stanza. And then we also have another category – of the refusal to give in to despair: the first and the second lines of the last, 5th stanza. It is because of these moods in the poem where human spirit tries to overcome despair – we can claim that in spite of almost a draw between hope and despair, hope can get the upper hand in our classification!

*Because of the difficulties to translate Tsvetaeva’s metric shifts in 1st, 3rd and 5th stanzas, I sometimes used trochee where Tsvetaeva used iamb, and iamb where she used trochee. In the second line of the 1st stanza, Tsvetaeva in Russian uses iamb while I in English – trochee. In the fourth line of the 1st stanza she uses trochee, while I – iamb. In the second line of the 3rd stanza, Tsvetaeva uses trochee, and I followed. In the fourth line of the 3rd stanza, Tsvetaeva and I both used iamb. In the second line of the 5th stanza, Tsvetaeva uses trochee, while I – iamb. In the fourth line she used iamb, and I was trying hard to do the same.