Onegin Stanzas

One (Onegin) thing leads to another. It started with my sister’s participation in the Vancouver Opera‘s production of Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin. This led to renting the Kirov’s version of Eugene Onegin (wonderful, especially Lensky’s duel aria), and then reading the intro to Hofstadter’s translation of the original novel in verse by Alexander Pushkin. As it turns out, this translation was not universally well-received, so I am going to try Falen instead for the actual text, but Hofstadter’s introduction has been a good start. I learned that Pushkin, and especially Eugene Onegin, is to Russian literature what Shakespeare is to English literature, and then some. Even now most Russians have various portions of Pushkin committed to memory, if not the whole of Eugene Onegin, a novel of 366 “Onegin stanzas” (plus a couple of letters with varying rhyme schemes). One of my interests is the human capacity for memorization, so underused and undervalued in technological societies, so I was delighted to learn this.

Also interesting is the structure of the Onegin stanza, a sonnet based on iambic tetrameter, with the rhyme scheme: aBaBccDDeFFeGG. The lower case letters indicate a “feminine” rhyme, in which the next to last syllables are stressed and the last syllables are the same (e.g. “burning” and “turning”), and the upper case letters are “masculine” rhymes, where the last syllables are stressed. This means that the “feminine” lines are 9 syllables instead of 8. (No jokes about trying to get the last word in, OK?!) Hofstadter also mentions a new novel in Onegin stanzas called The Golden Gate by Vikram Seth, some verses of which are available online. One stanza caught my attention, and prompted this post with its long explanation:


Why, asks a friend, attempt tetrameter?
Because it once was noble, yet
Capers before the proud pentameter,
Tyrant of English. I regret
To see this marvelous swift meter
Deamean its heritage, and peter
Into mere Hudibrastic tricks,
Unapostolic knacks and knicks.
But why take all this quite so badly?
I would not, had I world and time
To wait for reason, rhythm, rhyme,
To reassert themselves, but sadly,
The time is not remote when I
Will not be here to wait. That’s why.

—Vikram Seth, The Golden Gate

I believe the theme is: If you want something done at all, you might have do it yourself! Seth cheats a bit with “tetrameter” and “pentameter,” but perhaps that is the joke.

I wonder if anyone has ever tried blogging in verse?

3 comments on “Onegin Stanzas

  1. J.D. says:

    I always seem to have the strangest coincidences with the stuff you post here, Sylvia. I just watched a biography of Tchaikovsky from Netflix last night and planned a trip to the library to seek out a copy of Eugene Onegin in the next couple of days!

  2. I've always enjoyed Charles Johnston's translation of Onegin. It's the one ('Johnston's luminous translation,' The Golden Gate 5.5) that inspired Vikram Seth to write his 'novel in verse' in Onegin stanzas.

  3. Sylvia says:

    You're right, Philip, Hofstadter mentions that also. Everyman's has a nice little “pocket poets” edition of the Johnston translation that I might pick up as well.
    Nice blog you have! I envy your architectural heritage. We don't build anything to last over here. Everything is temporary. It's a bit unsettling.

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