Saturday, August 04, 2012

Alexander Pushkin, Eugene Onegin


Opening Passage:

"My uncle always was respected;
But his grave illness, I confess,
Is more than could have been expected:
A stroke of genius, nothing less.
He offers all a grand example;
But, God, such boredom who would sample?--
Daylong, nightlong, thus to be bid
To sit beside and invalid!
Low cunning must assist devotion
To one who is but half-alive:
You smooth his pillow and contrive
Amusement while you mix his potion;
You sigh, and think with furrowed brow--
'Why can't the devil take you now?'"

Summary: Eugene Onegin, a spoiled city boy, inherits an estate from his uncle; he is at this point about twenty-five or so and the wild sociality and dissipation in which he has spent his life has begun to pall into cynicism. In the country he becomes friends with an eighteen-year-old poet, Vladimir Lensky. Lensky is affianced to a girl named Olga Larina, and takes Onegin to have dinner and meet her. There Onegin is introduced to Tatyana Larina, who begins to fall in love with him. She eventually writes a love letter to him and he lectures her on the impossibility of their having a relationship. Lensky manages to lure Onegin to a country ball under false pretenses; the irritated Onegin flirts and dances with Olga. Lensky, outraged, demands a duel. Onegin kills him and leaves the country. Tatyana, who manages to get in and look at Onegin's library and the marginalia in his books, comes to the conclusion that he is little more than a Byronic imitator. The book ends with Eugene and Tatyana meeting later in life; Tatyana is a princess, married to an old prince, and Eugene realizes the value of what he took for granted.

As I have said before, the problem has to be solved in order to have good narrative verse is to reconcile the apparent inconsistency between the movement of narrative and the stillness of verse. Prose at least admits of being more narrative-friendly than verse because in prose the form of the language can take a secondary place to merely informing. Attention does not have to linger on details of how things are said; it can keep the story flowing by moving on to the next bit of information. This is not the case with verse; with verse, every bit of language demands a bit of attention. In longer narrative verse there is a great danger of the narrative stalling. Pushkin's solution to this problem involves three elements:

(1) iambic tetrameter verse with a rhyme scheme that can carry a conversational sound
(2) an extremely simple story
(3) regular digressions

The first of these allows for a relatively quick verse. There is a great danger of this corrupting the verse into little more than a verse imitation of prose, but Deutsch, the translator in this case, manages to avoid this, so Pushkin certainly does.The second and third are somewhat more complicated issues. The story is a very simple one, but it would be a mistake to think that this means it moves swiftly. It is really rather remarkable; the book is rather less than two hundred pages long, written in verse stanzas, and in my edition rather heavily illustrated, but it still manages to move with that inimitable Russian glaciality. It would be interesting to compare Eugene Onegin on this point with Byron's Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, with which it otherwise has many similarities: more things happen in the first two dozen stanzas of Byron's poem than happens in the whole of Pushkin's poem. However, it keeps going, and part of this is that with a very simple story it's easier to avoid being bogged down in anything. Digressions are a somewhat paradoxical element; they constantly occur and technically slow the story itself down. But each digression actually contributes something, thus moving the story forward somehow, and the many digressions break it up in such a way that it does not seem monotonous -- and in verse, as with time, diversity makes things seem to go quicker. While the story moves slowly, then, it does not stop.

I can't speak for its accuracy, but the Deutsch translation in the Heritage Press edition I was reading was poetically quite good -- very few infelicities, and when I compared it to other translations found online, Deutsch's translation was fairly consistently better as poetry, or at least as narrative poetry. However, I have come to the conclusion that trying to replicate the Onegin stanza in English is an extraordinarily bad idea. The rhyme scheme for an Onegin stanza is AbAbCCddEffEgg, where the capital letters are feminine rhymes (respected, expected) and the lower-case letters are masculine rhymes (brow, now). The problem is that this means that there are three pairs of feminine rhymes in for every fourteen lines, and this is far too many for English. In English verse, feminine rhymes are only used for two kinds of tasks: variety and comedy. You will use feminine rhymes sparingly to give variety to a series of masculine rhymes. Or you will use them to give a humorous cast to the poem. To use them in this quantity in a long poem in English makes the poem sound like a mix between an endless series of limericks and Dr. Seuss, and no amount of ingenious vocabulary choice and felicitous expression is going to get around that. Onegin stanzas in English would be quite good for light comic verse. They simply cannot carry the weight of a serious poem of this length.

In Russian I have no doubt that things are quite different. From what little I've heard of Russian, I suspect that feminine rhyme stands out less. Also, I very much doubt that the Russian language has been built up in its use of feminine rhymes the way English has, simply as a matter of history. There was a great episode of Cheers in which one of the characters, despondent over an unfaithful lover, says that she used to take great comfort in translating Russian poetry, but that now even Karashnikov's "Another Christmas of Agony" doesn't lighten her mood: "Mischa the dog lies dead in the bog. The children cry over the carcass. The mist chokes my heart, covers the mourners. At least this year we eat." Part of the joke is that this really is a tiny bit like what Russian comic verse, indeed, Russian comic anything, usually sounds like to English speakers. I am not sure that 'light comic verse in Russian' is an oxymoron, but there is no possible way humor plays the same role in Russian language conventions that it does in English language conventions, nor is Russian literary humor, which tends dark and black, the same as English literary humor, which tends light and silly. As he was wrestling with this verse novel (which took him eight years to write) Pushkin said that he was choked with gall; the author of the introduction to my edition tries to take issue with this, but Pushkin is quite right. There is plenty of humor in the book, but it is very bitter and biting, vodka in strong coffee, not sugar in light tea. But with all the feminine rhymes it sounds like it's supposed to be lightly funny and silly that Lensky gets into a jealous snit and ruins everyone's life by getting himself killed. This is just not right.

So I would strongly recommend anyone translating this work in the future to avoid the temptation of a true Onegin stanza. This does raise the problem of what would work better. My first estimation would be that you could get something that would not be too far off, but would have an English sound that would fit the story better, if you changed the feminine rhymes into imperfect rhymes. Half-rhyme or slant-rhyme can get you much farther in English; it draws less attention to itself; and it doesn't have the extensive association with silly play that feminine rhyme does. Perhaps you could still allow feminine rhyme, but on a much smaller scale.

Favorite Passage: This is stanza xi from Chapter Five. I've given two other versions, to compare. The second is Johnston's, and the third is Roger Clarke's prose version.

She dreams. And wonders are appearing
Before her now, without a doubt:
She walks across a snowy clearing.
There's gloom and darkness all about;
Amid the snowdrifts, seething, roaring,
A torrent gray with foam is pouring;
Darkly it rushes on amain,
A thing the winter could not chain;
By a slim icicle united,
Two slender boughs are flung across
The waters, where they boil and toss;
And by this shaking bridge affrighted,
The helpless girl can do no more
Than halt bwildered on the shore.

She dreamt of portents. In her dreaming
she walked across a snowy plain
through gloom and mist; and there came streaming
a furious, boiling, heaving main
across the drift-encumbered acres,
a raging torrent, capped with breakers,
a flood on which no frosty band
had been imposed by winter's hand;
two poles that ice had glued like plaster
were placed across the gulf to make
a flimsy bridge whose every quake
spelt hazard, ruin and disaster;
she stopped at the loud torrent's bound,
perplexed... and rooted to the ground.

As she slept, Tatyána had an eerie dream. She dreamt that she was walking over an expanse of snow, encircled by a dreary fog. In front, among the snowdrifts, there swirled a seething torrent, whose dark and foam-flecked waters had not been clamped in winter's chains. Two sticks held together with ice had been laid across the stream to form an unsteady and perilous footbridge. Confronted by this thundering chasm Tatyána stopped short in utter perplexity.

Recommendation: The characterization is quite good and the story, while simple, is told well. Recommended, although you probably should read it at a more leisurely pace than was required for me to finish it in a week.


  1. As for the Onegin Stanza in English: some chums of mine have been composing a group epic about the great fire of Seattle using that form, since Seattle burned on June 6, 1889, the day Pushkin died. (You have to scroll down a few pages to find the beginning, but it is fun to read.)

  2. So that's what they were doing; I was vaguely wondering, on occasions when I'd click a link to them, what they were doing with the apparently random poems about apparently random events; it makes much more sense now.


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