The Onegin Stanza & Alexander Pushkin–a Verse Form & its Origins
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It’s easy at moments like this to think that no solution to pressing problems can be found. Things seem cut and dried and the forces opposing reasonable reform stronger than those working for constructive change. Then, at least in RT’s experience, you run across a bit of information or news that makes things seem less bleak.
Pushkin’s story itself is remarkable. Generally considered to be the greatest poet that Russia has produced (and Russian society reveres its poets), Pushkin was born into an aristocratic family, but was himself one-eighth black–a great-grandfather, Abram Petrovich Gannibal (1696–1781), was a Black African page rescued from slavery in Istanbul, educated, and raised by Peter the Great. APG went on to become the General en Chef, in charge of building forts and canals in Russia.
The great-grandson’s story is just as unusual. By the time he was a teenager, Pushkin’s literary talent was recognized, and he graduated in the first class of the prestigious Imperial Lyceum. But Pushkin’s writings acquired a political bent. The Imperial government exiled him from Moscow; during this period, he became a Freemason. The poet was active in the Greek Revolution, but upon his return to Russia was exiled, this time to his mother’s estate. He was released from exile by Czar Nicholas I, but his time in Moscow was nearly as restrictive: he was unable to publish or travel at will (in fact, Pushkin’s play, Boris Godunov, was not published in its original, uncensored form until 2007).
Pushkin was famously sensitive about his honor, and died as a result of wounds inflicted in a duel over his wife’s honor.
Pushkin’s novel in verse, Eugene Onegin, written in Onegin Stanzas, has been hugely influential in Russian literature and cultural life: an opera, a ballet, a play, and several movies are based on it. But Pushkin’s dense language has proven difficult to translate into English, and he has remained relatively unknown in the English-speaking world.
Here, then, is the form for the Onegin Stanza: iambic tetrameter with the rhyme scheme “aBaBccDDeFFeGG”, where the lowercase letters represent feminine endings (i.e., with an additional unstressed syllable) and the uppercase representing masculine ending (i.e. stressed on the final syllable).
And a sample from Eugene Onegin:
My uncle -- high ideals inspire him; but when past joking he fell sick, he really forced one to admire him -- and never played a shrewder trick. Let others learn from his example! But God, how deadly dull to sample sickroom attendance night and day and never stir a foot away! And the sly baseness, fit to throttle, of entertaining the half-dead: one smooths the pillows down in bed, and glumly serves the medicine bottle, and sighs, and asks oneself all through: "When will the devil come for you?" (translator: Charles Hepburn Johnston)
Portrait: Alexander Pushkin; Painter: V.A. Tropinin. WikiCmns; CC 1.0 Public Domain Dedication.