Пушкин - Евгений Онегин / Pushkin - Evgeniy Onegin

2022-10-08 @Literature

As a unified work, not among my favourite Pushkin compositions. Though that shouldn’t mislead. I haven’t read anything inherently bad by the bard, this being no exception.

Alas, I struggle to fit Onegin in any proper category. At ~5500 lines of verse, it’s not your shorter poem nor of epic proportion. It doesn’t even exercise the epic tradition, should we not personify the very grand essence of the broader early 19th century Russian society as the protagonist entity.

But the protagonist here is what they call a Byronic antihero, a superfluous hero, a wandering nobleman of much zest, yet little purpose: a superfluous hero in a superfluous novel. That is, Pushkin classified the work a novel in verse (роман в стихах), not even a poem, owing to the realism permeating the 350+ stanzas, or however many.

Let’s examine that realism. However comprehensive the time period portrayal: the nobility, the countryside, the servitude, the street commerce, the burlesque, the night life, the theatre, literature, travel, landscape, the crystalline winter clime, the minutiae of everyday existence; however comprehensive, I found the actual depth lacking and wanting of a similarly aspiring realism novel.

Upon hindsight (and not without some enlightening perusal of Козьма Прутков) I’m growing increasingly skeptical whether to not even construe such appellations as an extension to the irony.

Now as a poem with the expected elements of terseness, suggestion, refrain, sound lyricism (no pun intended) and Pushkin’s lovingly inexhaustible poetic diversion and self critique, of which the work is hopelessly possessed (the argument for a poem yet strengthened), I can easier account for the shallowness, though still dismayed by the overabundance.

Speaking of diversion, Gogol’s Мертвые Души, of which I only read but half, likewise showcases them in plentiful servings. Interestinglier yet, Dead Souls is considered a poem - a prose poem, however earnestly or ironically. And despite the poetic compound, I still consider that work a novel, the case being the inverse. But that’s beside.

Pushkin’s verse I find as solid as virtually anything of his. And though I’m no Pushkinite, it’s as if once attained maturity, the bard produced a level output throughout, until death: that is, over a period of fifteen-twenty years: full of beauty, zeal, wit, satire and insight.

Which works to great effect across the shorter, more concentrated products engaging any subset of the aforementioned themes: the narrative poems, the fairy tales in verse, the short dramas, the inexhaustible supply of short lyric (ie Бахчисарайский Фонтан or Кавказский Пленник as an exhibit of intense passion midst an exotic landscape; Граф Нулин, Домик в Коломне as exponents of the rural satire; Цыганы, Полтава, Борис Годунов, Анджело for the dramatic …

The disparate fragments of Evgeniy Onegin I could thus easier conceive as a series of shorter poems. Poe produced a similar commentary to the respect of Paradise Lost, though in that case, my views misalign. PL authoritatively respects the notion of an epic poem. It does not inspire any of that awkwardness.

Pushkin was not without Byronic influence: in the case of Evgeniy Onegin, evoking Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage on no rare occasion. (I’ve yet to read but small excerpts of Byron’s long narrative, and having explored less of Byron’s work overall, can’t yet draw the fairest of contrasts.)

Beyond Byron, allusions to notable period (and retrospective) poets are aplenty: from memory, Вяземский (who also slipped into the prologue), Баратынский, Petrarch, Dante and even own writings (ie Руслан и Людмила, Бахчисарайский Фонтан, both of which I far prefer, in their unity).

I think the completion and incorporation of that missing Chapter 8 (Onegin’s travels) and the politically fueled chapter 10, of which only tiny fragments remain, would have considerably strengthened the work: perhaps not to the scale of an epic, but at least the grandeur deserving of its length.

That travel panorama would have made a quality diversion into the exotic landscape. Of the presently published fragments, Onegin explores the Caucasus, Таврид (Krym), Нижний Новгород, Астрахань, beyond which the poet/author/arranger/Pushkin dedicates a series of insightful stanzas to his experiences in Odessa.

Anything at all poetically singular to this opus? That is, not evinced in Pushkin’s other, shorter efforts? Besides the above omissions?

Those strangely missing stanzas encountered throughout most of the eight chapters to some extent, for one. From brief research I haven’t found definitive explanation. But evidence leads to this being a product of no more than Pushkin’s creative cleverness.

Sometimes the missing sections proceed with dotted lines. Elsewhere we find consecutive enumeration (ie IX, X, XI) prefixed to the same stanza. Wicked.

Another singular element I nearly omitted … which I admit elevates the poem on a purely technical level:

Save for an ardent epistolary interchange in verse between two characters, Pushkin invariably wrote the entire work in the famous 14-line Onegin stanzas (iambic tetrameter, particular rhyme scheme, particular male/female ending pattern). The fact he catered his vision to these constraints impresses, though doesn’t influence my overall remarks.

Technically, I’m more taken by what Faerie Queene achieves … in every respect. In particular, Spenser likewise rigidly conforms to a particular stanza pattern, but over the course of 30-35K lines across six books. That, by the way, is an epic worthy of the nomenclature.

Respecting Pushkin: immortal poet, lyricist, satiric, dramatist, romanticist, bard, innovator of the modern language; not the greatest realist; no poet of epic scale. Concerning the realism of the period (mixed with the satirical and meta ingredients), I opt for the prose of Gogol or Tolstoy. Voilà.

Bonus: see the wiki page for my catered excerpts.

Questions, comments? Connect.