Thursday, April 05, 2007

A different kind of sonnet -- a National Poetry Month post

When is a sonnet not a sonnet? When it's a Eugene Onegin stanza (also called Pushkin's stanza). Alexander Pushkin, a Russian poet who lived in the nineteenth century, came up with his own fourteen-line rhyme scheme that incorporates all of the variations on sonnet rhyme, some of which you may recall from last year's post on how to write a sonnet.

His rhyme scheme is ABABCCDDEFFEGG. Looks overwhelming until you break it out into component parts -- 3 quatrains (four-line stanzas) and a final couplet.

Quatrain one: ABAB (alternating rhyme)
Quatrain two: CCDD (rhymed coupletes)
Quatrain three: EFFE (envelope stanza)
Final couplet: GG (rhymed couplet again)

Pushkin wrote an entire verse novel, called Eugene Onegin, using this form. If the name Eugene Onegin is familiar to you, it's probably because there's an opera by Tchaikovsky that set the Pushkin story to music. And yet Pushkin is possibly the greatest Russian poet, and is credited as the founder of modern Russian literature. The language of Eugene Onegin was so rich that it took Vladimir Nabokov four volumes to translate its complete meaning into English. The original Russian text, by contrast, is only about 100 pages. Of course, Nabokov's translation completely obliterates the beauty of the original Russian verse, and according to some commentators, the English verse translations don't do it justice either.

Still, here's a stanza so you can see what a Pushkin stanza or Eugene Onegin stanza looks like:

"Now that he is in grave condition,
My uncle, principled old dunce,
Has won respectful recognition
And done the perfect thing for once.
His act should be a guide to others;
But what a bore, I ask you, brother,
To tend a patient night and day
And venture not a step away!
Is there hypocrisy more glaring
Than to amuse one all-but-dead,
Fluff up the pillow for his head,
Dose him with melancholy bearing,
And think behind a public sigh:
Deuce take you, step on it and die!"

Chapter One, Stanza I from Eugene Onegin by Alexander Pushkin, translated by Walter Arndt.


Robert said...

Thanks! Learn something new every day. :)

Kelly Fineman said...

I have yet to write anything using the Pushkin stanza, but I've been itching to give it a try. It certainly sets up an interesting rhyme scheme.