PUSHKIN, SNAPPISH.

Eugene Onegin, like most long works in the nineteenth century, came out in installments, and the seventh chapter did not get good reviews, even from some of the people who had been excited by the earlier ones. As J. Douglas Clayton writes in the first chapter (“The Repainted Icon: Criticism of Eugene Onegin” [pdf]) of his Ice and Flame: Aleksandr Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin:

This wave [of praise] was to crest and break spectacularly with the appearance of Chapter Seven, which was greeted with a chorus of disappointed—or even malicious—criticism… The most severe blow was dealt Pushkin by F.V. Bulgarin in Severnaia pchela [the Northern Bee, a reactionary journal]. Bulgarin, whose 1826 review of Chapter Two had been tentative, but not negative, now launched a vitriolic attack upon Chapter Seven: ‘This Chapter… is blotched with such verse, such tomfoolery that in comparison with it even Evgenii Vel’skii [a bad imitation] seems something like a business-like work. Not a single thought, not a single emotion, not a single scene worthy of attention! A complete fall, chute complete!’

Pushkin, in his response, quoted Bulgarin’s sarcastic verse summary of the chapter:

Ну как рассеять горе Тани?
Вот как: посадят деву в сани
И повезут из милых мест
В Москву на ярманку невест!
Мать плачется, скучает дочка:
Конец седьмой главе — и точка!
['Well, how to allay Tania's grief? Here's how: put the girl on a sleigh and ship her from her beloved places to the Moscow bride market. The mother weeps, the daughter is bored; the end of the seventh chapter: period!']

He then said: “Стихи эти очень хороши, но в них заключающаяся критика неосновательна. Самый ничтожный предмет может быть избран стихотворцем; критике нет нужды разбирать, что стихотворец описывает, но как описывает.” ['These verses are very good, but the criticism they contain is unfounded. The most insignificant subject can be chosen by a poet; the critic's job is not to analyze what the poet describes, but how he describes it.'] This is of course unimpeachable, and to vindicate him against his impatient critics and what I called in an earlier Pushkin post “the kind of person who reads for plot” (and I warn anyone who agrees with a commenter on that post that “detailed analyses of language and translation that pore over each individual feature seem to excite more interest among the author than the reader” that the rest of this long post will consist of just such analysis), I will analyze a couple of stanzas from Chapter Seven (the linked web page has Russian and English en face). The unhappy Tatyana (Tanya for short) has, as Bulgarin says, been dragged off to Moscow by her family, and after a sardonic description of her older relatives we are introduced to the young cousins:


XLVI
Их дочки Таню обнимают.
Младые грации Москвы
Сначала молча озирают
Татьяну с ног до головы;
Ее находят что-то странной,
Провинциальной и жеманной,
И что-то бледной и худой,
А впрочем очень недурной;
Потом, покорствуя природе,
Дружатся с ней, к себе ведут,
Целуют, нежно руки жмут,
Взбивают кудри ей по моде
И поверяют нараспев
Сердечны тайны, тайны дев,
XLVII
Чужие и свои победы,
Надежды, шалости, мечты.
Текут невинные беседы
С прикрасой легкой клеветы.
Потом, в отплату лепетанья,
Ее сердечного признанья
Умильно требуют оне.
Но Таня, точно как во сне,
Их речи слышит без участья,
Не понимает ничего,
И тайну сердца своего,
Заветный клад и слез и счастья,
Хранит безмолвно между тем
И им не делится ни с кем.
XLVI
Their daughters embrace Tanya.
The young Graces of Moscow
at first silently observe
Tatyana from head to foot;
they find her somewhat strange,
provincial and affected,
and somewhat pale and thin,
but really, not bad at all.
Then, submitting to nature,
they make friends with her, lead [her] to their rooms,
kiss [her], tenderly press [her] hands,
fluff up her curls according to the fashion
and confide in singsong voices
their hearts’ secrets, the secrets of maidens,
XVII
others’ victories and their own,
hopes, mischief, and dreams.
Innocent chats flow,
with a light embellishment of slander.
Then, in repayment for [their] prattling,
her heart’s confession
they ingratiatingly demand.
But Tanya, as if she were asleep,
hears their speeches without taking part,
doesn’t understand a thing,
and the secret of her own heart,
a cherished/intimate/hidden treasure of tears and happiness,
she mutely preserves (meanwhile)
and shares it with no one.
(I’ve put “meanwhile” in parentheses because, while that’s the literal translation of “между тем,” the latter phrase is often used so vaguely as not to be worth translating, and this is one of those times.)
In these two stanzas, Pushkin sums up what could be the burden of several chapters of a Jane Austen novel. The novelistic aspect is heightened by running them together, the end of the first and the beginning of the second constituting a single sentence—rare in Onegin, where each stanza is usually a separate entity. The first starts off with a short and simple sentence, taking up a single line. Then comes a single clause running smoothly over three lines, followed by a semicolon and another clause, broken into slightly awkward phrases (“somewhat strange… somewhat pale and thin…”) and ending with the emphatic summing-up “А впрочем очень недурной” [A vprochem ochen' nedurnói], which is hard to translate: the first two words are subtle contrastives, the third means “very,” the last can mean either “not bad” or “not bad-looking.” Then we get the first of the lines that made me sit up and take notice as I read along: “Потом, покорствуя природе” [Potóm, pokórstvuya prirode, 'Then, submitting to nature']. It was not the (perfectly banal) meaning that startled me, but the music, like a horn-call compelling one’s attention, with its interplay of p and r and t and o. Pushkin is saying “Listen to this, it’s important.” This is the start of the eight-line sentence that spans the stanzas, brilliantly varied in its rhythm (Дружатся с ней, к себе ведут,/ Целуют, нежно руки жмут,/ Взбивают кудри ей по моде [Druzhatsya s nei, k sebé vedút,/ Tseluyut, nezhno ruki zhmut,/ Vzbivayut kudri ei po mode]) and ending with one of Pushkin’s characteristic cadences, the line made up of three parallel nouns (Надежды, шалости, мечты [nadezhdy, shálosti, mechtý] ‘hopes, pranks, dreams’). After a two-line followup, there comes another horn-call, beginning with the same word as the first: “Потом, в отплату лепетанья” [Potóm, v otplatu lepetan'ya, 'Then, in repayment for [their] prattling’]. Here we get more play with p and t, but l takes the place of r and a of o (the unstressed o- at the start of otplatu is pronounced a-). We have had the thesis (or, if you prefer musical analogies, the first theme in the tonic key), the babbling of the lighthearted cousins; now we get the antithesis (or contrasting theme in the dominant), Tatyana’s resistance and silence. In response to innocent chatting and ingratiating demands, relentless negativity: she “hears their speeches without taking part, understands nothing,” and shares her secret “with no one.”
The key in this last section is the word заветный [zavetnyi], one of a knot of Russian words that share a root related to Old Church Slavic вѣщати [věshchati] ‘to speak’ and вѣтъ [větŭ] ‘council’: ответ [otvét] ‘answer,’ привет [privét] ‘greeting,’ совет [sovét] ‘council; advice,’ обет [obét] ‘vow,’ and завет [zavét] ‘behest, ordinance; precept,’ originally also ‘will, testament; vow; condition.’ Our заветный is the adjective based on the last, and it originally meant ‘preserved or transmitted in accordance with a testament or a solemn vow’; the entire range of its current meanings, ‘cherished; intimate; hidden, secret,’ is involved here, and it’s one of those words that can’t be satisfactorily translated. But its force, and the force of the powerful last half-stanza, both emotional and poetic (note especially the last line with its five monosyllables, i im ne délitsya ni s kem—very unusual in Russian verse), carries us and Tatyana through the ensuing round of tiresome social events, culminating with her being noticed by the “fat general” (not “old,” pace various translators and operatic productions!) who will marry her and (re)introduce her to our antihero in the next (and last) chapter.
But yes, she goes to Moscow, to the bride market. Nothing else happens in the chapter, if you’re reading for plot.

Comments

  1. A man and his wife arrive late at the stadium for a football match and take their seats.
    The wife says to the neighbouring spectator, “What’s the score?”
    “Nil-nil”
    “Oh good, we haven’t missed anything!”
    [joke may not work with U.S. sports]

  2. A.J.P. Crown says:

    And you see, for me that joke succinctly sums up the utter pointlessness of all sporting events, but I expect some people would see it differently.

  3. Well, life itself could be considered pointless, if you want to get right down to it.

  4. A.J.P. Crown says:

    Yeah, well there’s pointless, as in life, and then there’s COMPLETELY pointless, as in watching other people play sports.

  5. It’s post like these that make up the core chapter of this wonderful dissertation of yours, hat. Now if we only could get the dissertation committee together… Tell you what – AJP, you go check the bars. I’ll try the massage parlors.

  6. Ah, but there’s a warm glow of self-satisfaction that comes off a crowd that has just enjoyed an entertaining nil-nil draw, a glow that says: “We are the sort of people that don’t come to matches for the goals, for the victory or defeat, but to appreciate the sporting ability put on display for us … we spit at your recorded highlights, your televised goals round-ups. Give us more nil-nil draws like that!”

  7. A.J.P. Crow says:

    No, you check the bars, I’ll do the massage parlors.

  8. John Emerson says:

    Whine, whine. As if a 135-134 basketball game is more interesting. Shut up and eat what’s on your plates. Those who sneer at God’s plan will be having a rude awakening one day.

  9. John Emerson says:

    Whine, whine. As if a 135-134 basketball game is more interesting. Shut up and eat what’s on your plates. Those who sneer at God’s plan will be having a rude awakening one day.

  10. I had a rude awakening just the other morning. Goddam cats.

  11. I suspect the set of those who read for plot overlaps extensively with that of those who denigrate the nil-nil draw.

  12. A. Crow(n) says:

    Slightly on topic as MMcM would say, did совет mean council before the word was taken over for political purposes? It makes Supreme Soviet sound slightly less creepy if it also meant supreme council.

  13. Yes, that word has a sad history. It meant ‘council,’ and when workers’ councils were formed during the 1905 Revolution they were naturally called sovet, and they were quickly dominated by political radicals. When similar groups were formed in 1917, they were consciously seen as continuations of the earlier ones, and they represented the radical populist movement as against the liberalism of the government. The Bolsheviks used the slogan “All power to the Soviets” (i.e., the local councils of workers, peasants, and soldiers, which were very popular), and when they took power they gutted the Soviets themselves but kept the name for its popular connotation, thus turning a symbol of popular, bottom-up direct democracy into one of brutal authoritarianism. It’s a damn shame. You can get more background here and here (the 1905 edition).

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