»  From Alexander Pushkin's Eugene Onegin


From Eugene Onegin

by Alexander Pushkin, 1799-1837


•  Background

Pushkin's novel-in-verse Eugene Onegin is universally acknowledged to be one of the masterpieces of world literature. Being in verse, it is unfortunately fully accessible only to those fluent in the Russian language, a category that very definitely excludes me.

One must do one's best with these things, though. Prompted by a bilingual friend, I have acquired the verse translations by James Falen, Stanley Mitchell, and Charles Johnston. (My friend ranked the translations in that order by quality.) I shall tackle Vladimir Nabokov's prose translation … any day now.

The only Russian text of Eugene Onegin in my possession is the five stanzas given in Dimitri Obolensky's The Penguin Book of Russian Verse (my edition 1965). This reading is of just those five stanzas. They are stanzas 16-20 of Chapter 3 in Eugene Onegin.

The story so far: Onegin, a worldly young man-about town, has inherited a country estate. Bored with the vapid social whirl of St Petersburg, he retires to his estate to read and contemplate. At a neighboring estate live two young sisters, surname Larin. Tatyana, the older of the two,

 … lacked that fresh and rosy tone
That made her sister's beauty sweeter
And drew all eyes to her alone.
A wild creature, sad and pensive,
Shy as a doe and apprehensive,
Tatyana seemed among her kin
A stranger who had wandered in.

(Falen's translation.) Onegin's friend is courting the other sister. The two men go together to pay a social call on the Larins. Seeing Onegin, and primed by her romantic temperament, Tatyana

… fell in love. For thus indeed
Does spring awake the buried seed.
Long since her keen imagination,
With tenderness and pain imbued,
Had hungered for the fatal food;
Long since her heart's sweet agitation
Had choked her maiden breast too much:
Her soul awaited … someone's touch.


•  Play the reading


•  Text of the poem

… Тоска любви Татьяну гонит,
И в сад идëт она грустить,
И вдруг недвижны очи клонит,
И лень ей далее ступить.
Приподнялася грудь ланиты
Мгновенным пламенем покрыты,
Дыханье замерло в устах,
И в слухе шум, и блеск в очах …
Настанет ночь; луна обходит
Дозором дальный свод небес,
И соловей во мгле древес
Напевы звучные заводит.
Татьяна в темноте не спит
И тихо с няней говорит:

«Не спится, няня: здесь так душно!
Открой окно, да сядь ко мне».
— «Что, Таня, что с тобой?» — «Мне скучно,
Поговорим о старине».
— «О чëм же, Таня! Я, бывало,
Хранила в памяти не мало
Старинных былей, небылиц
Про злых духов и про девиц;
А нынче всë мне тëмно, Таня:
Что знала, то забыла. Да,
Пришла худая череда!
Зашибло …» — «Расскажи мне, няня,
Про ваши старые года:
Была ты влюблена тогда?»

— «И, полно, Таня! В эти лета
Мы не слыхали про любовь;
А то бы согнала со света
Меня покойница свекровь».
— «Да как же ты венчалась, няня?»
— «Так, видно, Бог велел. Мой Ваня
Моложе был меня, мой свет,
А было мне тринадцать лет.
Недели две ходила сваха
К моей родне, и наконец
Благословил меня отец.
Я горько плакала со страха,
Мне с плачем косу расплели,
Да с пеньем в церковь повели.

И вот ввели в семью чужую …
Да ты не слушаешь меня …»
— «Ах, няня, няня, я тоскую,
Мне тошно, милая моя:
Я плакать, я рыдать готова! …»
— «Дитя моë, ты нездорова;
Господь помилуй и спаси!
Чего ты хочешь, попроси …
Дай окроплю святой водою,
Ты вся горишь …» — «Я не больна:
Я … знаешь, няня … влюблена».
— «Дитя моë, Господь с тобою!»
И няня девушку с мольбой
Крестила дряхлою рукой.

«Я влюблена», шептала снова
Старушке с горестью она.
— «Сердечный друг, ты нездорова».
— «Оставь меня: я влюблена».
И между тем луна сияла
И томным светом озаряла
Татьяны бледные красы,
И распущëнные власы,
И капли слëз, и на скамейке
Пред героиней молодой,
С платком на голове седой,
Старушку в длинной телогрейке;
И всë дремало в тишине
При вдохновительной луне.


Dimitri Obolensky's prose translation.

Love's anguish impels Tat'yana, and she goes into the garden to abandon herself to sadness; suddenly she lowers her gaze, and feels too languorous to walk on … Her bosom heaves, her cheeks are suffused with a sudden flame, her breath grows faint, … there is a noise in her ears, and flashing in her eyes … It is night; the moon is patrolling the distant vault of heaven, and the nightingale in the darkness of the trees strikes up its sonorous melodies. Tat'yana, sleepless in the dark, talks softly to her nurse:

"I can't sleep, nanny, it's so stifling here! Open the window, and come and sit by me." — "What is it, Tanya, what's the matter with you?" — "I feel depressed; let's talk about the old times." — "What about, Tanya? I used to remember not a few old tales and fables about evil spirits and maidens; but now all is dark in my mind, Tanya: I have forgotten what I knew. Yes, bad times have come! My memory's gone …" — "Tell me, nanny, about your own early years: were you ever in love in those days?"

— "Whatever next, Tanya! At that age we hadn't even heard of love; if there had been any talk of it, my late mother-in-law would have been the death of me." — "But how did you get married, nanny?" — "Such, it seems, was God's will. My Vanya, my dear one, was younger than I, and I was thirteen. For about two weeks, the match-maker called on my family, and at last my father gave me his blessing. I wept bitterly for fear; they wept as they unplaited my hair, and sang as they led me to church.

And so they brought me into a strange family … But you aren't listening …" — "Oh, nanny, nanny dear, my heart aches, I am so miserable, I feel like crying, sobbing! …" — "My dear child, you're not well; the Lord have mercy and save you! What is it you want, tell me. Let me sprinkle you with holy water … — you're burning hot …" — "I'm not ill: I'm … oh, nanny … I'm in love." — "God preserve you, my child!" And, as she prayed, the nurse made the sign of the cross over the girl with her frail old hand.

"I'm in love," she whispered again sorrowfully to the old woman. "My dearest, you are not well." — "Leave me alone: I'm in love." Meanwhile, the moon was shining with a languorous light and lighting up Tat'yana's pale beauty, her hair falling loose, her teaars, and the old woman in her long warm jacket, with a kerchief on her grey head, sitting on a bench before our young heroine; and all things slumbered in silence beneath the inspiring moon.

Falen's verse translation.

The ache of love pursues Tatyana;
She takes a garden path and sighs,
A sudden faintness comes upon her,
She can't go on, she shuts her eyes;
Her bosom heaves, her cheeks are burning,
Scarce-breathing lips grow still with yearning,
Her ears resound with ringing cries,
And sparkles dance before her eyes.
Night falls; the moon begins parading
The distant vault of heaven's hood;
The nightingale in darkest wood
Breaks out in mournful serenading.
Tatyana tosses through the night
And wakes her nurse to share her plight.

"I couldn't sleep … O nurse, it's stifling!
Put up the window … sit by me."
"What ails you, Tanya?" — "Life's so trifling,
Come tell me how it used to be."
"Well, what about it? Lord, it's ages …
I must have known a thousand pages
Of ancient facts and fables too
'Bout evil ghosts and girls like you;
But nowadays I'm not so canny,
I can't remember much of late.
Oh, Tanya, it's a sorry state;
I get confused …" — "But tell me, nanny,
About the olden days … you know,
Were you in love then, long ago?"

"Oh, come! Our world was quite another!
We'd never heard of love, you see.
Why, my good husband's sainted mother
Would just have been the death of me!"
"Then how'd you come to marry, nanny?"
"The will of God, I guess … My Danny
Was younger still than me, my dear,
And I was just thirteen that year.
The marriage maker kept on calling
For two whole weeks to see my kin,
Till father blessed me and gave in.
I got so scared … my tears kept falling;
And weeping, they undid my plait,
Then sang me to the churchyard gate.

"And so they took me off to strangers …
But you're not even listening, pet."
"Oh, nanny, life's so full of dangers,
I'm sick at heart and all upset,
I'm on the verge of tears and wailing!"
"My goodness, girl, you must be ailing;
Dear Lord have mercy. God, I plead!
Just tell me, dearest, what you need.
I'll sprinkle you with holy water,
You're burning up!" — "Oh, do be still,
I'm … you know, nurse … in love, not ill."
"The Lord be with you now, my daughter!"
And with her wrinkled hand the nurse
Then crossed the girl and mumbled verse.

"Oh, I'm in love," again she pleaded
With her old friend. "My little dove,
You're just not well, you're overheated."
"Oh, let me be now … I'm in love."
And all the while the moon was shining
And with its murky light defining
Tatyana's charms and pallid air,
Her long, unloosened braids of hair,
And drops of tears … while on a hassock,
Beside the tender maiden's bed,
A kerchief on her grizzled head,
Sat nanny in her quilted cassock;
And all the world in silence lay
Beneath the moon's seductive ray.

Mitchell's verse translation.

Tatiana seeks the garden bowers
To grieve in, chased by aching love,
But soon her lifeless eyes she lowers
And loses the desire to rove.
Her bosom lifts, her features redden,
A sudden flame consumes the maiden,
Upon her lips her breath has died,
Her ears with sound, her eyes with light
Are filled … Night comes, the moon's patrolling
The distant space of heaven's dome,
The nightingale sings in the gloam
Of trees, its sonorous accents calling.
Tatiana does not go to bed
But quietly talks to nurse instead:

"I can't sleep here, nurse, it's so airless!
Open the window, sit by me."
"Why, Tanya, what is it?"  "I'm cheerless,
Let's talk of how things used to be."
"Tanya, what things? Once I was able
To keep a store of every fable,
Old tales that, true or false, I'd tell,
Of maidens and of spirits fell;;
But now my mind's grown dark and woolly:
I can't recall a thing. Alas,
It's all come to a sorry pass!
I am confused" … "Nurse, tell me truly
About those years, can you recall
Whether you were in love at all?"

"Tanya, my dear! We never even
Knew what love was in my young day;
Else mother-in-law would have driven
Me out in no uncertain way."
"How did you marry, then?"  "Oh, Tanya,
It seemed to be God's will. My Vanya
Was even younger then than me,
And I was just thirteen, you see.
Two weeks a matchmaker kept coming
To all my kinsfolk, finally
My father blessed me. Bitterly
I wept for fear of what was looming;
While they untwined my braid they wept,
And chanted while to church I crept.

"Into an unknown family taken …
But you're not listening now, I fear."
"Oh, nurse, nurse, I'm unhappy, aching,
I'm sad and sick at heart, my dear.
I'm on the verge of crying, sobbing!"
"You are not well."  "My heart is throbbing."
"Save us, O Lord, have mercy, pray!
What would you like, you've but to say …
Let's sprinkle you with holy water,
You're all aflame" … "I'm not unwell:
I am … in love, nurse … can't you tell?"
"May the good Lord protect his daughter!"
Her ancient hand raised in the air,
She crossed the girl and said a prayer.

"I am in love," again she whispered
To the old woman mournfully.
"You are unwell," her nurse persisted.
"I am in love, go, let me be."
Meanwhile, the moon was radiating
A languid light, illuminating
Tatiana's graces, pale with care,
Her loosened and unruly hair,
Her tears and, there before her sitting,
Upon a bench, the ancient dame
With kerchiefed head, her feeble frame
Into a bodywarmer fitting;
And all beneath the tranquil night
Dozed in the moon's inspiring light.

Johnston's verse translation.

Tatyana, hunted by love's anguish,
has made the park her brooding-place,
suddenly lowering eyes that languish,
too faint to stir a further pace:
her bosom heaves, her cheeks are staring
scarlet with passion's instant flaring,
upon her lips the breathing dies,
noise in her ears, glare in her eyes …
then night comes on; the moon's patrolling
far-distant heaven's vaulted room;
a nightingale, in forest gloom,
sets a sonorous cadence rolling —
Tatyana, sleepless in the dark,
makes to her nurse low-voiced remark:

"I can't sleep, nyanya: it's so stifling!
open the window, sit down near."
"Why, Tanya, what …?"  "All's dull and trifling.
The olden days, I want to hear …"
"What of them, Tanya? I was able,
years back, to call up many a fable;
I kept in mind an ancient store
of tales of girls, and ghosts, and lore:
but now my brain is darkened, Tanya:
now I've forgotten all I knew.
A sorry state of things, it's true!
My mind is fuddled."  "Tell me, nyanya,
your early life, unlock your tongue:
were you in love when you were young?

"What nonsense, Tanya! in those other
ages we'd never heard of love:
why, at the thought, my husband's mother
had chased me to the world above."
"How did you come to marry, nyanya?"
"I reckon, by God's will. My Vanya
was younger still, but at that stage
I was just thirteen years of age.
Two weeks the matchmaker was plying
to see my kin, and in the end
my father blessed me. So I'd spend
my hours in fear and bitter crying.
Then, crying, they untwined my plait,
And sang me to the altar-mat.

"So to strange kinsfolk I was taken …
but you're not paying any heed."
"Oh nurse, I'm sad, I'm sad, I'm shaken,
I'm sick, my dear, I'm sick indeed.
I'm near to sobbing, near to weeping! …"
"You're ill, God have you in his keeping,
the Lord have mercy on us all!
whatever you may need, just call …
I'll sprinkle you with holy water,
you're all in fever … heavens above."
"Nurse, I'm not ill; I … I'm in love."
"The Lord God be with you, my daughter!"
and, hands a-tremble, Nyanya prayed
And put a cross-sign on the maid.

"I am in love," Tatyana's wailing
whisper repeated to the crone.
"My dearest heart, you're sick and ailing."
"I am in love; leave me alone."
And all the while the moon was shining
and with its feeble glow outlining
the girl's pale charms, her loosened hair,
her drops of tears, and seated there,
in quilted coat, where rays were gleaming
on a small bench by Tanya's bed,
the grey-haired nurse with kerchiefed head;
and everything around was dreaming,
in the deep stillness of the night,
bathed in the moon's inspiring light.