Analysis: Marina Tsvetaeva’s “In Praise of the Rich”

A portrait of Marina Tsvetaeva, author of "In Praise of the Rich"

Distrusting as she was of the Soviet Union and its adherent Communists (and the Bolsheviks, before them), the great Russian poet Marina Tsvetaeva nevertheless wrote some devastating verse that was, at least in part, sympathetic to their anti-bourgeoise principles. Yet, even in her critique, there are unexpected depths averse to easy politicization. Take, for example, the excellent and ironic “In Praise of the Rich” which subtly (and not-so-subtly) effaces its subject whilst taking the form of an ode:

In Praise of the Rich

(translated by David McDuff)

Herewith, having warned you beforehand
That between us is many miles’ space,
That I am one of the riff-raff,
And in life have an honest place:

Under the wheels of all excesses,
Host to hunchback and cripple, queer fish…
Herewith I shout from the rooftops,
Declare it — I love the rich.

For their root that is rotten, decrepit,
From the cradle growing its wound,
Their hands moving in unconscious habit
From their pockets, and to them returned.

For the softest requests that their mouths make,
Each obeyed like an ordering cry,
And because they won’t get into heaven,
And won’t look you straight in the eye.

For their secrets — by special delivery,
Their passions — by courier post,
For their nights, which are foisted upon them,
(Even kissing and drinking are forced!)

And because in their cotton-wool yawning,
Their gilding, their counting itch
They can’t buy me, impudent upstart,
I affirm that I love the rich.

Never mind that shine, of the shaven,
That wined, dined look (I wink and it’s mine),
It’s that sudden look of the craven,
Those eyes with their doggy shine,

Doubting…
are the scales set at zero?
Are the weights not perhaps loaded short?
Because of all the world’s outcasts
These are the sorriest sort.

An unpleasant fable informs us
How some camels pass through needle eyes.
…For their look of “To death I’m astonished,”
As they plead their infirmities

Like bankruptcy. “I’d have lent…Been glad to”
…For their quiet words, mouthed with a twitch:
“I counted in carats, was a brother…”
I swear it: I love the rich.

There are a few translations available to read online, and I struggled for a short while to lock one down for analysis. Elaine Feinstein’s book is indispensable, and offers a great selection of the poet’s oeuvre, but I found her translation of “In Praise of the Rich” to be much looser, oddly enjambed, and not as accessible as McDuff’s – even if hers is a more faithful rendering of the original Russian, at least in a literal sense*. Granted, its plainspoken quality has a directness (as if homespun) that McDuff’s more obviously lyrical translation misses, but if English-friendly accessibility is paramount, here, then his version gets the nod.

The speaker is distanced from the rich, and the gap is quite large, but already a paradox emerges since in spite of this distance, the speaker declaims an affection (from the rooftops, no less) for them. More than affection: love. Now, the accoutrements of Soviet agitprop are all present: the poor speaker’s “honest” place, contrasted with the rich, their crushed plight underneath the wheels of excess, and the next two stanzas exacerbate further:

For their root that is rotten, decrepit,
From the cradle growing its wound,
Their hands moving in unconscious habit
From their pockets, and to them returned.

For the softest requests that their mouths make,
Each obeyed like an ordering cry,
And because they won’t get into heaven,
And won’t look you straight in the eye.

“From the cradle growing its wound” is wonderful turn-of-phrase, and the concluding image of that stanza is a nice psychological snapshot. Whatever the speaker’s “love” consists of it does not appear to be able to hide these glaring flaws. However, an unexpected tinge of sympathy enters, especially in the fourth stanza. Where one might expect a straightforwardly ironic takedown, Tsvetaeva chooses, instead, to soften the blows. “For the softest requests that their mouths make / Each obeyed like an ordering cry” introduces the idea of mere misunderstanding, rather than tyranny. The invocation of the Rich Man and Lazarus fable, from Luke’s Gospel, offers the chance for sympathy [Luke’s Rich Man is directly critiqued, yes, but his plight is, at least, pitiable] and the last line, while pointing to a superiority complex, also points to possible insecurity – building upon the image of hands moving in/out of pockets despite the fact of their wealth. This paradox becomes clearer in the following stanzas:

For their secrets — by special delivery,
Their passions — by courier post,
For their nights, which are foisted upon them,
(Even kissing and drinking are forced!)

And because in their cotton-wool yawning,
Their gilding, their counting itch
They can’t buy me, impudent upstart,
I affirm that I love the rich.

            What’s this? Marina Tsvetaeva’s speaker not only sympathizes the reader to the rich, but also paints them as seeming victims: it’s as if their revelries are conducted without consent. “For their secrets — by special delivery / Their passions — by courier post” are very good lines that mute the rich’s private pleasures even while describing their privileges. The next stanza is a curious status inversion. The “impudent upstart” is both punching up and looking down at his/her wealthier counterpart, and still the love persists. Note how Tsvetaeva makes her paternalism of the rich double-edged, not settling for a simple (i.e. boring) critical portrait of, one assumes, the bourgeoise.

            Never mind that shine, of the shaven,
That wined, dined look (I wink and it’s mine),
It’s that sudden look of the craven,
Those eyes with their doggy shine,

Doubting…
are the scales set at zero?
Are the weights not perhaps loaded short?
Because of all the world’s outcasts
These are the sorriest sort.

If the speaker’s sympathy was not clear before, it becomes unavoidable by the eighth stanza. Feinstein’s translation of “In Praise of the Rich” not only calls out their outcast nature, it calls them “orphans”. Their bereavement is almost childlike. Marina Tsvetaeva’s equating of the rich with dogs (well-phrased in most translations) is particularly compelling – there’s no vitriol, here, only pity. The singsong, ABAB-rhyme scheme McDuff employs in his translation works well, in this regard, as it seems to rise from the paternalism of the speaker. It also mirrors the dual/dueling perspectives of the rich, who are by nature craven yet, simultaneously, are compelled by forces outside of their control.

     An unpleasant fable informs us
How some camels pass through needle eyes.
…For their look of “To death I’m astonished,”
As they plead their infirmities

Like bankruptcy. “I’d have lent…Been glad to”
…For their quiet words, mouthed with a twitch:
“I counted in carats, was a brother…”
I swear it: I love the rich.

The speaker denigrates Christ’s famous proclamation and continues to diagnose the rich’s pathologies. “…infirmities / Like bankruptcy” is another good line, and a humorous phrasing of the rich’s seemingly physiological connection to their wealth. At this point, the speaker’s refrain of love takes on a sinister undertone – especially with the added “I swear it” – as if she/he is also being compelled (by the same nameless force, perhaps?), but, in this case, compelled to constantly reaffirm their affection for the higher class. If true, the critiques take on an air of desperation, not just condescension, pity, and/or sarcasm. Something else seems to be at play, above the pithy observations and reversals, something that does not play favorites.

Marina Tsvetaeva’s ability to combine biting satire with real pathos and her commitment to writing well-rounded character in even a short sardonic poem like “In Praise of the Rich” are but a few of the marks of her greatness. The other notable Russians not named Mandelstam and Pasternak could not replicate these skills with any significant consistency, fixated as they were with the Revolution and its aftermaths. Having just finished a biography of the poet, her stance against the strident politicization of Russian verse and her identification as a poet, first, before anything else, a la Countee Cullen vs. Langston Hughes, are likely indications as to why she was simply a better writer than, say, Mayakovsky, or even those poets she admired, like Aleksandr Blok. Her longer poems showed she could sustain quality beyond ten stanzas, so I’d encourage any reader to seek them (and anything of Tsvetaeva’s) out.

The dismal conclusion of her life on the end of a rope in Yelabuga – as a refugee whose poetic reputation suffered endless attacks for its supposed out-of-datedness, its refusal to step in line with the Party’s demands – is now, thankfully, overshadowed by the resurgence of appreciation for her work, although it certainly deserves even more attention. The effort won’t be without difficulties: the same world that denounced Marina Tsvetaeva’s engagement with the craft of poetry above the pulsations of the political moment is still in motion, and still assails the ambitious poet with as much ferocity as it can muster; to that world, Tsvetaeva (via Feinstein) still has her say:

I have no need of holes
for ears, nor prophetic eyes:
to your mad world there is
one answer: to refuse!

*Alex Sheremet (a native Russian speaker, and a poet himself) provided me with a more literal translation of the poem. His rendition, as well as subsequent comments, helped clarify the issue for my own analysis vis-à-vis McDuff vs. Feinstein’s respective takes on Marina Tsvetaeva.

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