Tag Archives: Alexander Pushkin

November Sonnet No 1 for 2015

November in Sydney: Sculpture by the Sea; jacaranda, coral trees and bougainvillea in startling bloom; moustaches; exams; and here on Me Fail? I Fly! a sonnet challenge.

For the last few years I have set myself the task of writing 14 sonnets for the blog in November. It turns out that my favoured sonnet form isn’t actually a sonnet at all, but the Onegin stanza – the 14-line stanza used by Pushkin in his narrative poem Eugene Onegin and by Vikram Seth in The Golden Gate. It took me a couple of years to realise that I wasn’t even doing that form properly. Now I think I’ve got it. Here goes with my first poem for 2015.

Because this stanza was developed for narrative, and because I have unfinished business with Virgil’s great, weighty narrative, the Aeneid (I studied Book Two  in high school more than 50 years ago), I thought I’d see what happened if I tried pouring some of his lines into Pushkin’s nimble form. It was more fun than I expected. This covers Book 1, lines 1–11 (‘refugee’ is a precise translation; ‘detention’ less so):

Sonnet No 1: Aeneid 1:1–11
War and one man, that’s my story.
A refugee from Homer’s Troy
he started something, built Rome’s glory,
but on the way found little joy.
His boats were stopped, and cruel detention
held him. Courage and invention
won through: he built a dynasty,
brought culture and civility.

It’s here I seek for inspiration:
if we’re to make sense of this world,
what harm was done, what grief unfurled
that one of such sound reputation
was made to suffer, struggle so?
Was there some cosmic rage on show?

For anyone wanting to explore further, here is Dryden’s 1697 translation :

Arms, and the man I sing, who, forc’d by fate,
And haughty Juno’s unrelenting hate,
Expell’d and exil’d, left the Trojan shore.
Long labors, both by sea and land, he bore,
And in the doubtful war, before he won
The Latian realm, and built the destin’d town;
His banish’d gods restor’d to rites divine,
And settled sure succession in his line,
From whence the race of Alban fathers come,
And the long glories of majestic Rome.

O Muse! the causes and the crimes relate;
What goddess was provok’d, and whence her hate;
For what offence the Queen of Heav’n began
To persecute so brave, so just a man;
Involv’d his anxious life in endless cares,
Expos’d to wants, and hurried into wars!
Can heav’nly minds such high resentment show,
Or exercise their spite in human woe?

And if you’re really serious, here’s Publius Vergilius Maro:

Arma virumque canō, Trōiae quī prīmus ab ōrīs
Ītaliam, fātō profugus, Lāvīniaque vēnit
lītora, multum ille et terrīs iactātus et altō
vī superum saevae memorem Iūnonis ob īram;
multa quoque et bellō passus, dum conderet urbem,
īnferretque deōs Latiō, genus unde Latīnum,
Albānīque patrēs, atque altae moenia Rōmae.
Mūsa, mihī causās memorā, quō nūmine laesō,
quidve dolēns, rēgīna deum tot volvere cāsūs
insignem pietāte virum, tot adīre labōrēs
impulerit. Tantaene animīs caelestibus īrae?

Added later: You notice interesting things when you translate something, even as roughly as this. I took out the references to supernatural beings – gods, the muse etc. But that, plus the largely ungendered nature of English, strips out a key bit of patterning. In Latin, nouns are generally either masculine, feminine or neuter. In these 11 lines, the man (virum), and his descendants (patres) are masculine, and almost everything else is either neuter (war, fate, godhead) or feminine (especially the goddess Juno, but also rage, cities and so on). The effect in the Latin is of a masculine figure in a feminine world, much of which is inexplicably hostile to him.

Fry’s Falen’s Pushkin’s Onegin

Alexander Pushkin, Eugene Onegin (1833, translated by James E Falen 1990, narrated by Stephen Fry 2013, Digital October Publishing House)

1eoThis audio book is sheer delight. James E Falen’s verse is fluid, witty, full of charm. Stephen Fry’s reading is superb – unfolding the pleasures of the language with the same infectious relish he brings to his role of BBC game-show host.

Vladimir Nabokov said it was impossible to translate Eugene Onegin into verse that kept the rhyme scheme or the  ‘bloom’ of the original. I know about 3 words of Russian, so I’m in no position to argue, but I’m going to assume that Falen’s attempt approaches the impossible, and  that the poem I’ve just had read to me is essentially Pushkin’s. I now agree with the quasi-mother-in-law who told me in my 20s that reading Pushkin was one of life’s great joys.

I mainly listened to it while driving around the city, which means that for the first couple of hours of it I was negotiating traffic with a slack-jawed grin. Incredibly, the cheerful, witty urbanity of the first parts – where the death of a rich uncle, the ennui of endless Moscow balls, a dilettante’s reading habits, and the passion of a young man who today would be called an emerging poet are all subjects of light, ironic banter – gradually yields to a more serious tone. By the end, the sprightly ‘Onegin stanza’ – shorter lines than Shakespeare, lots of feminine rhymes – has proved suitable for telling of calamity, betrayal and despair. It’s a much smaller story than Anna Karenina, but I’ve got no doubt that Tolstoy knew it well and expected his readers to have read it, and I bet scholarly papers have been written about the relationship between the two works.

I’ve done a tiny bit of research about the translation: Stephen Saperstein Frug’s blog, Eugene Onegin in English Translation, quotes 10 versions of the first stanza, including the one from Charles H. Johnston’s 1977 translation, which inspired Vikram Seth to write The Golden Gate. I’m very glad to have met Onegin in James E Falen’s version, but I recommend Frug’s site if you’re planning to read the poem and shopping around among Englishings. (Nabokov’s version of the first stanza, which ostentatiously avoids trying to sound like verse, manages not to read like English either.)