Read an Excerpt
A Novel in Verse
By Alexander Pushkin, Anthony Briggs
Steerforth PressCopyright © 2016 Alexander Pushkin
All rights reserved.
He rushes life and hurries through emotion.
"Uncle, a man of purest probity,
Has fallen ill, beyond a joke.
Respected now, and scorned by nobody,
He has achieved his masterstroke
With this exemplary behaviour,
But it would try the Holy Saviour
To tend a sickbed night and day,
And never stir a step away,
Employing shameful histrionics
To bring a half-dead man some cheer,
Plump pillows and draw sadly near,
Indulging him with pills and tonics,
Heaving deep sighs, but thinking, 'Ooh!
When will the devil come for you?'"
These were the thoughts of a young gallant,
Lodged in his dust-blown chaise, whom chance
(Or mighty Zeus) had willed the talent
Of family inheritance.
Friends of Ruslan, friends of Lyudmíla,
Allow me forthwith to reveal a
New hero, for this novel, who
Comes thus unintroduced to you:
Onégin (we were friends for ages)
Was born by the Neva, where you,
Perhaps, dear reader, were born too,
Or maybe ran around rampageous.
I've also had some good times there —
But I can't breathe that northern air.
With worthy service now behind him,
His father lived from debt to debt.
Three balls a year soon undermined him.
He was as poor as you can get.
Fate saved the boy, who was aware of
Madame, and being taken care of,
And her replacement, a Monsieur.
The child was frisky, though demure.
Monsieur l'Abbé, a Catholic father,
Not keen to weigh Yevgeny down,
Taught him by acting like a clown.
Morals seemed irksome; he would rather
Chide him for the odd naughty lark,
And walk him in the Summer Park.
Rebellious youth came in due season —
A season full of hopeful dreams
And gentle sadness — ample reason
To give Monsieur the sack, it seems.
Onegin now, devil-may-care-style,
Copied the very latest hairstyle
And came out like a London fop
To see society. Tip-top
In spoken French (no less proficient
In speech and writing), he could dance,
And with the utmost nonchalance
Perform a bow, which was sufficient
To show him in a pleasing light
As a nice lad, and very bright.
We've all of us been taught in smatters
Of this and that, done bit by bit.
Not that our education matters:
We shine despite the lack of it.
Onegin was esteemed by many
(Judges as hard and strict as any)
As an enlightened clever dick.
He had evolved the happy trick
Of butting in on French or Russian
With flippant comments here and there
Delivered with an expert air,
While dodging any deep discussion.
He could bring smiles to ladies' lips
With epigrams and fiery quips.
Although we've lost the taste for Latin,
He knew enough of it to read
An epitaph and render that in
Some Russian form, we must concede,
To mention Juvenal, and, better,
Write Vale, signing off a letter.
He knew by heart — or sort of did —
The odd line from the Aeneid.
He didn't know — having no patience
To learn in any deep degree —
The world's historiography,
Yet he remembered, from the Ancients,
A fund of jokes and tales for us
From our times back to Romulus.
Lacking high passion, too prosaic
To deem sounds more than life, he read
What was iambic as trochaic —
I couldn't get it through his head.
Homer, Theocritus he slated,
But Adam Smith was highly rated
By this self-styled economist,
Who knew it all: how states exist,
How to transform them, make them wealthy,
And why they have no need of gold
If they have things that can be sold —
The product is what keeps them healthy.
His father couldn't understand,
And went on mortgaging his land.
I cannot run through this man's learning
In full, but there's one field in which
He had a genius so discerning
It was incomparably rich.
This, since his youth, had proved so serious
It brought him toil and joys delirious,
Intruding withday long distress
Into his anguished idleness:
Yes, tender passion, that same science
Which Ovid sang and suffered for,
Languishing sadly more and more,
After such bright days of defiance,
On a Moldavian plain, where he
Pined for his long-lost Italy.
Early he learnt to sow confusion,
To hide his hopes, show jealous spite,
To build trust, then to disillusion,
To brood and droop with all his might,
To spurn with pride, or turn obedient,
Cold or attentive, as expedient.
He could be silent, malcontent
Or passionately eloquent;
In missives of the heart, offhanded.
While yearning with a single dream,
How self-dismissive he could seem!
His glances could be fond or candid,
Reserved or forthright — or appear
To gleam with an obedient tear!
Changing at will, today, tomorrow,
He could fool innocence by jest,
Alarm with artificial sorrow,
Flatter the easily impressed,
Pick up the early signs of ardour,
Press pure young creatures ever harder
With passion, and use all his wit
To foil reluctant girls with it.
Urging commitment by entreaty,
Catching at heartbeats, he would thrill
And harass them with love until
He winkled out a secret meeting,
And when he got the girl alone
What silent lessons was she shown!
Early he taught himself to ravage
The feelings of accomplished flirts,
And when he felt the need to savage
His rivals in pursuit of skirts
His vicious language was appalling.
What traps he set for them to fall in!
But you, good husbands, did not tend
To spurn him. He was your close friend,
As was the foxy spouse, whose story
Had had its Casanova days,
And codgers with their snooping ways,
And the fine cuckold in his glory,
So smug, so satisfied with life,
Pleased with his table and his wife.
[13, 14] 15
He often lay abed while thumbing
Through notes brought in. What have we here?
More invitations! They keep coming.
Three soirées to attend. Oh dear,
Then there's a ball, a children's party ...
Which will be graced by my young smarty?
Where will he start? It matters not.
He'll easily get round the lot.
In morning dress he sallies yonder,
Beneath his Bolivar's broad brim.
The boulevardier born in him
Will stroll abroad and widely wander
Till his unsleeping Bréguet's chime
Announces that it's dinner-time.
Later he mounts his sledge in darkness.
"Drive on!" he calls. The frost, it seems,
Has daubed his beaver collar's starkness
With silver dust until it gleams.
He speeds to Talon's place, not sparing
The horses, sure to find Kavérin.
Inside, corks pop. The foam, the fizz
Of Comet wine, the best there is!
Bloody roast beef will soon restore him,
With truffles. Young folk are so keen
On this fine flower of French cuisine!
And Strasburg pie is waiting for him
Between a living Limburg cheese
And golden pineapples. Yes, please.
And now the glasses need refilling
To slake the chops' hot fat — but hey!
The Bréguet now alerts them, shrilling —
The new ballet is under way.
He was the theatre's closest stickler.
With actresses no one came fickler;
He loved the nice ones (any age),
And was a regular backstage.
He hurried there. With free demeanour
The liberals there will shout hurrah
To celebrate an entrechat,
Boo Phèdre or call out Moëna
Or Cleopatra. (In a word,
They shout to get their voices heard.)
O magic realm! There, in his season,
A brilliant satirist was seen,
That friend of freedom, bold Fonvízin,
And the mercurial Knyazhnín.
There Ozerov shared an ovation,
The tears and plaudits of the nation,
With young Semyónova, and then
Katénin brought to life again
The spirit of Corneille so splendid.
There comedies, good Shakhovskóy's,
Swarmed through and filled the house with noise,
And Didelot to fame ascended.
There, there, at a much younger age,
I spent my early days backstage.
Where are you now, my lost goddésses?
Oh, hear my melancholy call.
Are you the same, or have successors
Emerged to supersede you all?
Can I still hope to hear your chorus?
Terpsichore, will you dance for us
That doleful, Russian, soulful dance?
Is no one left for my sad glance
To recognize on that drab staging?
Must I allow this alien set
To disillusion a lorgnette
That finds their frolics unengaging?
Am I to yawn at everyone,
Silently ruing what is gone?
House full. We see the boxes gleaming,
The pit and stalls a seething world.
On high, the heckling gods are teeming,
The curtain zooms up, sweetly swirled.
Watching the magic bow, suspended,
Surrounded by a crowd of nymphs,
There stands — Istomina. We glimpse
Two tiny feet twirling together,
One circling, one upon the boards,
And then she skips and flits and soars,
Puffed like a soft aeolian feather.
She twines, untwines, spins at the hips.
Her tiny toes touch at their tips.
Everyone claps. And, having tangled
With toes of people where they sit,
He peers across, his glasses angled
At unknown ladies opposite,
Taking things in on every level —
Clothing and faces that bedevil —
Onegin's still dissatisfied.
Exchanging bows on every side,
He gives the stage some small attention,
But soon, distracted and withdrawn,
He turns back, saying with a yawn,
"It's time to put this lot on pension.
Ballet! I've taken all I can —
And Didelot's such a boring man!"
There's many a cupid, devil, dragon
Still clomping on the boarded floor,
And footmen still, with coats to sag on,
Sleep wearily beside the door.
Much foot-stamping is in the offing,
Blown noses, hissing, clapping, coughing,
And still at every end, it seems,
Inside and out, a lantern gleams.
Chilled horses stand, pawing the whiteness,
Irked by their harnesses and reins,
While drivers, cursing near the flames,
Beat their cold hands. And yet, despite this,
Onegin's gone. Is that so strange?
Oh, no, he's driving home to change.
Shall I describe, with qualm and scruple,
The hidden room of peace and rest
Where this man, fashion's model pupil,
Is dressed, undressed and then re-dressed?
Every last whim and freak of fancy
And London-born extravagancy
Exchanged across the Baltic seas
For timber and for tallow, these,
Along with goods hailing from Paris,
Where trade and good taste are on hand
To make things for our pleasure, and
Where luxury with fashion marries —
No one had more of these things than
This eighteen-year-old thinking man.
Byzantine pipes on tables (ambered),
Lay beside porcelain and bronze
And, to delight the truly pampered,
Bottles of perfume (cut-glass ones),
With combs and little steels for filing
And scissors straight or curved for styling
And thirty brushes (various scales)
For treating dirty teeth and nails.
I can't help adding: Jean-Jacques Rousseau
(Loquacious oddball) watched while Grimm
Dared clean his nails in front of him,
And thought it rude of Grimm to do so.
On human rights Rousseau was strong,
But in this instance he was wrong.
You can be an effective person
And still take good care of your nails.
Don't blame the age, the times that worsen:
Fashion's a tyrant to young males.
A new Chadáyev, my Yevgeny
Feared jealous blame and thought it brainy
To dress the pedant, toe to top,
And be what we would call a fop.
Three hours or more he (just between us)
Would spend at mirrors hung about
His dressing room, and then walk out,
For all the world a giddy Venus,
A goddess in men's clothes arrayed,
Departing for a masquerade.
No doubt your interest has been captured
By his toilette and taste. And how
The learned world would be enraptured
If I described his clothing now! ...
This would not be a wise endeavour.
I've been describing things for ever,
But pantalon, Frack, gilet ... Please!
There are no Russian words for these.
I know my poor vocabulary
Is reason to apologize.
It has already, for its size
Too many foreign words to carry.
I say this after having scanned
The expert wordsmiths of our land.
But this we cannot be delayed in.
We'd better rush off to the ball.
In a fast hackney my Onegin
Has hurtled there before us all.
Past many city houses darkling,
Along the sleeping highways, sparkling
With double lanterns, hackneys go
In relays, lighting up the snow
And scattering rainbows. In this setting,
See, here we have a splendid pile
Lit up with oil lamps in fine style,
Its plate-glass windows silhouetting
A group that features, when it stops,
Fine ladies and pretentious fops.
Our hero now flies through the entry,
Darts past the porter and ascends
A marble staircase for the gentry,
Smoothing his hair with finger-ends.
He's in. The room is full of dancers,
The band has thundered, but now answers
With a mazurka danced by all,
While noisy revellers cram the hall.
The boots of cavalrymen jingle
And lovely ladies flick their feet,
Leaving an afterview so sweet
They catch the eye and tease and tingle,
While scraping fiddles in the band
Drown gossip hushed behind the hand.
When we were sporty, yearning creatures
I loved the ballroom well. We knew
No better place for lovelorn speeches
Or handing over billets doux.
You, husbands — each an upright figure —
I conjure you with all my vigour:
Listen to what I have to say.
I'd like to warn you, if I may
And you, mamas, you must be stricter.
Don't let your daughters out of sight.
Use your lorgnette, and hold it tight,
Or else ... God save you ... That's the picture.
I tell you this since I can say
I do not sin like that today.
On various pleasures (some that hurt you)
Much of my life has gone to waste,
But, if they didn't threaten virtue,
Balls still would have been to my taste.
I love the youthful dash and clamour,
The crush, the gaiety and glamour,
The ladies scrupulously dressed.
I love their tiny feet. At best,
In all our land you'll scarce discover
Three pairs of lovely female feet.
But I know two that were so sweet.
And though I'm sad — my day is over —
I can't forget them now, it seems;
They bring me heartache in my dreams.
So, where and when, in the out yonder,
Will you forget them, madman? How?
O tiny feet, where do you wander?
What green blooms do you trample now?
Spoilt by the east, you left no northern
Traces in snows where there is more than
Enough of sadness. Oh, the snug
Touch of an oriental rug!
The luxury! The soft entwinement!
For your sake I forgot the cause,
The thirst for glory and applause,
My homeland, where I knew confinement.
My happy youth was soon to pass,
Like your light traces on the grass.
Diana's bosom, friends, is charming,
And Flora's cheeks are, oh, so sweet,
Terpsichore is more disarming,
However, with her tiny feet.
That foot, a prophesy of pleasure,
A quite inestimable treasure
Of pure, symbolic beauty, stirs
A swarm of yearnings — to be hers.
I love the foot, my dear Elvina,
Beneath a tablecloth's long swing,
Tracing a greensward in the spring
Or on cold winter hearths, still keener
If treading glass-like floors, or if
On beaches by a granite cliff.
Once, on a shore ... A storm was brewing,
And I felt jealous of the waves
That rushed on her in raging ruin,
Collapsing at her feet, like slaves.
Oh, how I longed to know what bliss is
By covering those feet with kisses.
No, not once in the fiery blaze
Of my ebullient younger days
Did I in this way long and languish
To kiss a young Armida, or
Kiss burning pink cheeks and adore,
Or kiss a bosom racked with anguish.
No, never did a surge of lust
Assault my soul with such a thrust.
Excerpted from Yevgeny Onegin by Alexander Pushkin, Anthony Briggs. Copyright © 2016 Alexander Pushkin. Excerpted by permission of Steerforth Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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