I’ve been rereading Evgenii Onegin and appreciating more than ever the line-by-line brilliance of the poetry. When I was young and foolish and first studying Russian, I thought of Pushkin as a romantic; the first poem of his I read, the anthology piece “Я вас любил” (“I loved you [once]; perhaps love has not entirely been extinguished in my heart…”), seemed to me (a hormone-soaked adolescent) a passionate declaration, and it sank instantly into my long-term memory. I still love the poem, but I realize now that it’s not romantic at all. Pushkin, despite being born into a generation that was besotted with Anne Radcliffe, August Lafontaine, and other conjurers of dank vaults, far-off lands, and improbably chaste romances, was at heart as much a classicist as Walter Savage Landor, and “I loved you” is quite comparable to Landor’s own anthology piece “Rose Aylmer.” Both take a powerful human emotion and distill it into eight perfectly balanced lines, unforgettable compounds of vowels, consonants, and rhythms. Note that the point is not to “express” the emotion (which is what we’re all desperate to do as hormone-soaked adolescents writing terrible poetry) but to distill it, to extract from it an essence that will power the engine of a great poem. Pushkin, of course, is a far greater poet than Landor, and he is not only a classicist; his Mozartean combination of classical expression and frequently romantic sensibility can be found in English poetry only in Coleridge. What Nabokov calls “the extraordinary lines, among his greatest, that Pushkin added in 1824, four years after its publication, to the beginning of Ruslan i Lyudmila” (‘By a sea-cove [stands] a green oak,/ on that oak a golden chain,/ and day and night a learned tomcat/ walks on the chain around [the oak]…’) is the only thing in any language I know that can be set beside Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan.”
What I would like to do is to take a stanza from Chapter 2 of Evgenii Onegin (I will provide Cyrillic, transliteration, and literal translation) and try to explain how it works in terms that would not offend the easily offended Nabokov, and then to take a bit of Nabokov (in Russian) and show that it works in a similar fashion; hopefully we’ll all learn something in the process. Here is the stanza (II.28):
Она любила на балконе
Предупреждать зари восход,
Когда на бледном небосклоне
Звезд исчезает хоровод,
И тихо край земли светлеет,
И вестник утра, ветер веет,
И всходит постепенно день.
Зимой, когда ночная тень
Полмиром доле обладает
И доле в праздной тишине,
При отуманенной луне,
Восток ленивый почивает,
В привычный час пробуждена,
Вставала при свечах она.
Here’s a transliteration; stress is on the penult unless marked:
Oná lyubila na balkone
Preduprezhdát’ zarí voskhód,
Kogdá na blednom nebosklone
Zvyózd ischezaet khorovód,
I tikho krai zemlí svetleet,
I vestnik utra, veter veet,
I vskhodit postepenno den’.
Zimói, kogdá nochnaya ten’
Polmirom dole obladaet
I dole v prazdnoi tishiné,
Pri otumánnenoi luné,
Vostók lenivyi pochivaet,
V privychnyi chas probuzhdená,
Vstavala pri svechákh oná.
And a literal translation:
She loved on the balcony
to anticipate the rising of the dawn,
when on the pale (sky above the) horizon
the stars’ ring-dance disappears,
and quietly the edge of the earth brightens,
and the herald of morning, the wind, blows,
and gradually rises the day.
In winter, when the night’s shadow
possesses half the world longer,
and longer in idle silence
by (the light of) the misted moon
the lazy East sleeps,
awakened at the accustomed hour
she would get up by (the light of) candles.
The first thing to note is that the wonderfully flexible “Onegin stanza” of fourteen lines (ababccddeffegg) is here, unusually, divided in half, with a strong break after line 7 (the more common break is after line 8, so that rhymes are kept together). In fact, when you get to line 8 it almost seems that a separate poem is beginning; after the stately description of the sunrise in the first seven lines (oddly reminiscent of the mood and rhythm of MacLeish’s “You, Andrew Marvell“: “To feel the always coming on/ The always rising of the night… And strange at Ecbatan the trees…”) comes the abrupt “Zimói…” [‘In winter…’], which turns out to introduce another perspective on her early rising. The whole thing is as circular as the khorovód (which Nabokov uncharacteristically mistranslates “choral dance”); it starts and ends with the word oná ‘she,’ and she gets up in the last line to go out to the balcony of the first (“A way a lone a last a loved a long the riverrun”).
But it’s the complicated machine made of words nestled within this framework that kept me going back to the stanza until I had it memorized. The first line is almost ostentatiously bland: “She loved upon the balcony” could perfectly well be followed by a description of having tea and looking at the garden, or reading the kind of romantic novels mentioned in the following stanza. (Side note: there’s a funny story here about a teacher who wanted to declaim the opening of this stanza to his tenth-grade class, got as far as “Oná lyubila na balkone”—and couldn’t come up with the second line, leaving an image that aroused the hilarity of his students.) But then we hit the mouth-filling and unexpected verb preduprezhdát’, which now usually means ‘warn’ or ‘notify’—Nabokov translates it “prevene,” saying “I chose to use this obsolete verb in order to stress that the Russian word (a translation of the French prévenir or devancer) is obsolete, too”—and the phrase ‘rising of the dawn,’ which seems to have religious connotations in Russian as it does in English (Genesis 32:24 “And Jacob remained alone; and a man wrestled with him until the rising of the dawn” = “И остался Яаков один, и боролся человек с ним до восхода зари”), and we realize something special is going on.
Notice the pattern of consonants in the first line: n-l-b-l-n-b-l-k-n; without the interruption of the voiceless k (a crunchy crouton), there would be an exact repetition of the b-l-n sequence. Now look at the end of the third line: na blednom nebosklone, n-b–l-d-n-m-n-b-sk-l–n. This is the kind of detail you don’t intellectually notice without the kind of close analysis I’m doing here, but the ear (if you have an ear for poetry) notices, and it makes you want to say the lines over and over. Meanwhile, the third and fourth lines each end with similarly constructed, unusual, resonant words, nebosklón (‘sky-slope’) and khorovód, which produce a sort of quasi-rhyme.
Next come the three lines that remind me of MacLeish:
I tikho krai zemlí svetleet,
I vestnik utra, veter veet,
I vskhodit postepenno den’.
Notice, surrounding the showy alliteration of the middle line (vest- ut- vet- veet), the subtler interweaving of t’s, kh’s, v’s, and s’s in the outer lines, all bound together with the repeated initial I… I… I ‘and… and… and’; the rhythm of the third line, with the “scud” (Nabokov’s term for a stressless foot, with its “expressive delaying note”) in the third foot adding to the impression of finality I mentioned above.
I will mention also the judicious sprinkling of obsolete meanings (preduprezhdát’), words (pochivaet), and forms (dole ‘longer,’ now dol’she); the leisurely, delaying syntax of lines 8-12; and the irresistible sonic puzzle of line 13, which sounds almost like two long words, fprivychnyichás probuzhdená, with a repetition of pr…á and a matching up of the teasingly similar sounds v/b, y/u, ch/zh that make the whole thing into a verbal worry bead you can mutter as a kind of mantra.
Now notice that the entire stanza, to the kind of person who reads for plot, reduces to “She liked to get up early.” This is not the kind of reader Pushkin is writing for, and that goes double for Nabokov, who probably never wrote a sentence he did not roll around in his mouth several times to make sure it produced the effect he wanted. I take, pretty much at random, a fragment of a long sentence from the fourth paragraph of Drugie berega (the Russian equivalent of Speak, Memory): “судя по густоте солнечного света, тотчас заливающего мою память, по лапчатому его очерку, явно зависящему от переслоений и колебаний лопастных дубовых листьев, промеж которых он падает на песок” [‘judging by the thickness of the sunlight, immediately flooding my memory, by its palmate outline, manifestly dependent on the interlayings and vibrations of the laciniate oak leaves between which it falls onto the sand’]. Here’s a transliteration (again, penultimate stresses are unmarked, and I’ve added a few y’s to aid pronunciation):
sudyá po gustoté sólnechnovo sveta, totchas zaliváyushchevo moyú pamyat’, po lápchatomu yevó ócherku, yavno zavísyashchemu ot peresloyénii i kolebánii lópastnykh dubóvykh list’yev, promézh kotorykh on pádayet na pesók…
Very similar things are going on here, though of course without the framework of rhyme and meter. The fragment starts and ends with simple, everyday language (“judging by the thickness of the sunlight … between which it falls onto the sand”); in between, it takes detours through the poetic (zaliváyushchevo moyú pamyat’ ‘flooding my memory’), the archaic (ócherk in the sense ‘outline’ rather than today’s ‘sketch, study’), and the scientific (lápchaty ‘palmate,’ peresloyénie ‘interlaying, interstratification,’ kolebánie ‘vibration, oscillation,’ lópastnyi ‘laciniate’ [OED: “Cut into deep and narrow irregular segments; jagged, slashed”]), all of which are hallmarks of Nabokov’s style in English as well. Note the interplay of sounds: the s’s in sudyá po gustoté sólnechnovo sveta, totchas, the z-shch- in zaliváyushchevo and zavísyashchemu, the l’s in lápchatomu … peresloyénii i kolebánii lópastnykh … list’yev,, the p’s in promézh kotorykh on pádayet na pesók… I could go on, but I hope the point is clear. If you find this kind of verbal play enjoyable, you will get much more out of Nabokov than if you don’t.
For comparison, here is the same fragment in Speak, Memory: “Judging by the strong sunlight that, when I think of that revelation, immediately invades my memory with lobed sun flecks through overlapping patterns of greenery…”