Eugene Onegin: The Feminine Ending in Russian Verse

We deal here with that most vexing of translation problems, the frequent use of the feminine rhyme (i.e. possessing an extra unstressed syllable) in Russian verse. It's probably best known to English readers through Eugene Onegin, {1} which  is written in strict iambic tetrameters  A   b   A   b   C   C   d   d   E   f   f   E   g   g where the feminine rhyme is shown in upper case. {2}

In fact, as the late Professor Lee has pointed out, {2} the demanding Onegin stanza has been replicated in many translations of the last half century, and was indeed employed in narrative poems by Vikram Seth (The Golden Gate), Diana Lewis Burgin (A Life in Verse), Jon Stallworthy (The Nutcracker),  John Fuller (The Illusionists), Matt Rubinstein (Equinox) and  Jim Blyth (The Length of Love Street). Clearly, the feminine rhyme has been employed in translation and original work. To help answer the question whether it should be employed, we might look at following translations of Eugene Onegin, all borrowed from the Professor Lee's invaluable listing (in case the source be removed in the usual budget cuts: a little simplified).

Pushkin's Eugene Onegin

Pushkin's Text of First Stanza {1}

«Мой дядя самых честных правил,
Когда не в шутку занемог,
Он уважать себя заставил
И лучше выдумать не мог.
Его пример другим наука;
Но, боже мой, какая скука
С больным сидеть и день и ночь,
Не отходя ни шагу прочь!
Какое низкое коварство
Полуживого забавлять,
Ему подушки поправлять,
Печально подносить лекарство,
Вздыхать и думать про себя:
Когда же чёрт возьмёт тебя!»

Translations of First Stanza:

1. Arndt (1963) {3}

“Now that he is in grave condition,
My uncle, decorous old prune,
Has earned himself my recognition;
What could have been more opportune?
May his idea inspire others;
But what a bore, I ask you, brothers,
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,
Shake up the pillow for his head,
Dose him with melancholy bearing,
And think behind a stifled cough:
‘When will the Devil haul you off?’”

2. Arndt (1992) {4}

“Now that he is in grave condition,
My uncle, decorous old dunce,
Has won respectful recognition;
And done the perfect thing for once.
His action be a guide to others;
But what a bore, I ask you, brothers,
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,
Shake 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!’”

3. Beck {5}

“My uncle’s acted very wisely,
to seek his bed when he’s so sick;
his family’s reacted nicely
and he’s most happy with his trick.
He’s set the world a good example,
which others really ought to sample,
but it’s a bore, when night and day
the sick man forces you to stay!
To keep him sweet, as if he’s dying,
give him his daily medicine
and make quite sure that it goes in,
adjust the pillows while one’s sighing:
‘Don’t even think of getting well,
the devil take you, go to hell!’”

4. Bonver {6}

“My uncle, of the best traditions,
When being almost deceased,
Forced men to treat him with distinction,
Which was the best of his ideas.
Yes, his example – to us for learning,
But, Heavens, how it is boring
To sit with him all day and night,
Not having right to step aside!
What a deplorable deception
To entertain the man, half-dead,
To fix a pillow in his bed,
To give him drugs with sad attention,
To sigh and think in deeps of heart:
When will the deuce take you apart?”

5. Briggs {7}

“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?’”

6. Clarke (2011) {8}

“Man of highest principles, my uncle...
When he fell ill in earnest,
he won respect — he couldn’t
have thought of a better way.
His example’s a lesson to others...
But, God! — what a bore
to sit with an invalid day and night,
never moving one step away!
What base hypocrisy
to try to amuse a man half-dead,
straighten his pillows,
solemnly administer medicine,
keep sighing — and think to oneself,
‘Will the Devil never take you?’!”

7. Clough {9}

—“When Uncle took to his bed
it was clearly going to be no joking matter
(he’s a gentleman of the most punctilious principles).
O yes, he’s made me respect him —
couldn’t have thought of a better way —
sets an example to the rest of us. . .
but my God! What a bore it all is!
Sitting with a sick man day and night,
not being able to step outside his room
(the crafty bastard’s arranged it all),
trying to amuse a near corpse, shaking up its pillows every few minutes,
bringing it medicine with a suitably long face —
but inwardly sighing, privately thinking
‘When is the Devil coming to collect you?’—”

8. Corré {10}

“My uncle, long a prince among
The upright, got so very ill.
But honors of the highest rung
He asked for, and he got his fill.
His model men came to adore.
But, oh my goodness! what a bore
To sit with uncle night and day,
And never from his bedside stray!
What an awful, low-down scene
His half-dead person to amuse,
Arrange his pillows, and to choose
Lugubriously his medicine,
While sighing in sad undertones:
‘When will old Nick consume your bones?’”

9. Deutsch (1936) {11}

“My uncle’s shown his good intentions
By falling desperately ill;
His worth is proved; of all intentions
Where will you find one better still?
He’s an example, I’m averring;
But, God, what boredom—there, unstirring,
By day, by night, thus to be bid
To sit beside an invalid!
Low cunning must assist devotion
To one who is but half-alive:
You puff his pillow and contrive
Amusement while you mix his potion;
You sigh, and think with furrowed brow—
‘Why can’t the devil take you now?’”

10. Deutsch (1943) {12}

“My uncle always was respected;
But his grave illness, I confess,
Is more than I could have expected:
A stroke of genius, nothing less.
He offers all a grand example;
But, God, such boredom who would sample?—
Daylong, nightlong, thus to be bid
To sit beside an invalid!
Low cunning must assist devotion
To one who is but half-alive:
You smooth his pillow and contrive
Amusement while you mix his potion;
You sigh, and think with furrowed brow—
‘Why can’t the devil take you now?’”

11. Deutsch (1964) {13}

‘My uncle always was respected,
But his grave illness, I confess,
Is more than could have been expected:
A stroke of genius, nothing less!
He offers all a fine example.
But, God, such boredom who would sample
As day and night to have to sit
Beside a sick-bed — think of it!
Low cunning must assist devotion
To one who is but half-alive;
You puff his pillow and contrive
Amusement while you mix his potion;
You sigh and think with furrowed brow:
“Why can’t the devil take you now?”’

12. Elton {14}

‘When Uncle, in good earnest, sickened
(His principles were always high),
My own respect for him was quickened;
This was his happiest thought,’ said I.
He was a pattern edifying:
– Yet, heavens! how boring, and how trying.
To tend a patient night and day
And never move a step away!
And then – how low the craft and gross is! –
I must amuse a man half-dead,
Arrange the pillows for his head,
And bring, with a long face, the doses
And sigh, and wonder inwardly,
‘When will the Devil come for thee?’

13. Emmet & Makourenkova {15}

“My Uncle based life’s regulation
“On high ideals; when he fell ill,
“His bearing forced our admiration,
“One could not dream of better still,
“A model posed to tutor others;
“But God Almighty, what a bother,
“A bedside watch by night and day,
“Without a chance to step away!
“How filled with shame and gross deception
“To entertain the living dead,
“To smooth the pillows at his head,
“While sadly bringing pill and potion,
“To sigh, and think with hidden woe:
“When will the devil come for you!”

14. Falen {16}

‘My uncle, man of firm convictions . . .
By falling gravely ill, he’s won
A due respect for his afflictions—
The only clever thing he’s done.
May his example profit others;
But God, what deadly boredom, brothers,
To tend a sick man night and day,
Not daring once to steal away!
And, oh, how base to pamper grossly
And entertain the nearly dead,
To fluff the pillows for his head,
And pass him medicines morosely—
While thinking under every sigh:
The devil take you, Uncle. Die!’

Hobson {17}

15. My uncle, honest fellow, seeing
That he was now a dying man,
Required my last respects, this being
His best, indeed, his only, plan.
The plan may be worth imitating;
The boredom is excruciating.
Sit by a sick-bed night and day
And never move a step away.
With what low cunning one tries madly
To amuse a man who’s half alive,
Adjust his pillows, and contrive
To bring his medicine to him sadly,
Then sigh while proffering the spoon,
‘Let’s hope the devil takes you soon.’

16. Hofstadter {18}

“My uncle, matchless moral model,
When deathly ill, learned how to make
His friends respect him, bow and coddle —
Of all his ploys, that takes the cake.
To others, this might teach a lesson;
But Lord above, I’d feel such stress in
Having to sit there night and day,
Daring not once to step away.
Plus, I’d say, it’s hypocritical
To keep the half-dead’s spirit bright,
To plump his pillows till they’re right,
Fetch his pills with tears veridical —
Yet in secret to wish and sigh,
‘Hurry, dear Uncle, up and die!’”

17. Hoyt {19}

“My uncle’s ruled by utmost honor:
When taken seriously ill,
He got himself to be respected,
And nothing better could devise.
His case for others is a lesson,
But God, how boring to be sitting
With a sick person day and night,
Not moving even one step off.
What despicable calculation
To keep a half-dead man amused,
Glumly his medicine to serve him,
To set his pillows straight for him,
To heave a sigh and to reflect,
When will the Devil take you off?”

18. Johnston (1977) {20}

‘My uncle – high ideals inspire him;
but when past joking he fell sick,
he really forced one to admire him –
and never played a shrewder trick.
Let others learn from his example!
But God, how deadly dull to sample
sickroom attendance night and day
and never stir a foot away!
And the sly baseness, fit to throttle,
of entertaining the half-dead:
one smoothes the pillows down in bed,
and glumly serves the medicine bottle,
and sighs, and asks oneself all through:
“When will the devil come for you?”’

19. Kayden {21}

“My uncle was the soul of honor
And, when at last he took to bed,
He had the sense to make his kin
Respect his smallest wish, in dread
Before his disapproving gaze.
But Lord above! what fearful boredom
To tend the sick all day and night,
And never move for days and days!
What pitiful dissimulation
A dying man to entertain,—
Arrange the pillows for his head,
Prepare his medicine, then feign
A sigh of grief and wonder why
The devil takes his time to die.”

20. Kline {22}

‘My uncle, what a worthy man,
Falling ill like that, and dying;
It summons up respect, one can
Admire it, as if he were trying.
Let us all follow his example!
But, God, what tedium to sample
That sitting by the bed all day,
All night, barely a foot away!
And the hypocrisy, demeaning,
Of cosseting one who’s half alive;
Puffing the pillows, you contrive
To bring his medicine unsmiling,
Thinking with a mournful sigh,
“Why the devil can’t you die?”’

21. Kozlov (1994) {23}

‘My uncle keeps to honest systems:
By falling ill, yet not in jest,
He made me love him with insistence
And couldn’t find some better test.
Well, his example gives a lesson;
But goodness me, it’s quite distressing
To sit with him all day and night,
Not stepping out of his sight.
And what insidiousness you show
When you amuse a man half dead
Arrange the pillows in bed
Then sadly give him drugs in sadness, though
You sigh, not speaking of your will,
When will the devil come for him!’

22. Kozlov (1998) {24}

“My uncle keeps to honest systems:
By falling ill, if not in jest,
He made me love him with insistence
And couldn’t find some better test.
Well, his example gives a lesson;
But goodness me, it’s quite distressing
To sit with him all day and night,
But staying always in his sight.
What perfidy you are displaying
When you amuse a man half-dead
Arranging pillows in his bed
Then sadly give him drugs, delaying
You sigh, not speaking of your dream,
When will the devil come for him!”

23. Ledger {25}

“My uncle, a most worthy gentleman,
When he fell seriously ill,
Constrained everyone to respect him,
Couldn’t have done better if he tried.
His behaviour was a lesson to us all.
But, God above, what crashing boredom
To sit with the malingerer all day
Not moving even one footstep away.
What demeaning hypocrisy
To amuse the half-dead codger,
To fluff up his pillows, and then,
Mournfully to bring him his medicine;
To think to oneself, and to sigh:
When the devil will the old rascal die?”

24. Liberson (1975) {26}

“My uncle is a clever man—
“By getting seriously ill,
“He knew I’d be his faithful fan,
“Worthy heir of a worthy will.
“But what a chore to please a patient,

“To fix his pillow, smile and sigh,
“To amuse him, so frail and ancient
“And yet to think: when will you die?”

25. Litoshick {27}

My uncle was a man of virtue,
When he became quite old and sick,
He sought respect and tried to teach me,
His only heir, verte and weak.
He had the fun, I had the sore,
But gracious goodness! what a bore!
To sit by bedplace day and night,
Not doing even step aside,
And what a cheep and cunning thing
To entertain the sad,
To serve around, make his bed,
To fetch the pills, to mourn and grim,
To sigh outloud, think along:
‘God damn old man, why ain’t you gone?’

26. Lowenfeld {28}

“ My uncle, man of rules, most honest,
When he fell ill beyond all joke,
Respect for himself forced upon us
(Better than that could not be hoped)
Let others learn from his example,
But Lord, how deathly dull to sample
The patient’s sickbed night and day,
And never take a step away!
What execrebly base dissembling
To keep someone half-dead amused,
Prop up his pillows, sadly brood,
With melancholy bring him medicine,
Sigh — as you ask yourself — all though —
When will the Devil come for you!”

27. Mitchell {29}

My uncle is a man of honour,
When in good earnest he fell ill,
He won respect by his demeanour
And found the role he best could fill.
Let others profit by his lesson,
But, oh my God, what desolation
To tend a sick man day and night
And not to venture from his sight!
What shameful cunning to be cheerful
With someone who is halfway dead,
To prop up pillows by his head,
To bring him medicine, looking tearful,
To sigh – while inwardly you think:
When will the devil let him sink?

28. Nabokov (1964) {30}

“My uncle has most honest principles:
when he was taken gravely ill,
he forced one to respect him
and nothing better could invent.
To others his example is a lesson;
but, good God, what a bore to sit
by a sick person day and night,
not stirring a step away!
What base perfidiousness
To entertain one half-alive,
adjust for him his pillows,
sadly serve him his medicine,
sigh—and think inwardly
when will the devil take you?”

29. Nabokov (1975) {31}

“My uncle has most honest principles:
when taken ill in earnest,
he has made one respect him
and nothing better could invent.
To others his example is a lesson;
but, good God, what a bore
to sit by a sick man day and night,
without moving a step away!
What base perfidiousness
The half-alive one to amuse,
adjust for him the pillows,
sadly present him the medicine,
sigh—and think inwardly
when will the devil take you?”

30. Phillipps-Wolley {32}

A perfect life without a flaw,
Till sickness laid him on his bed,
My grandsire lived: himself a law
By which our lesser lives were led.
Respect from all (or high or low),
The best he knew, or cared to know!
Yet, oh, my God! how slow to spread
The pillows for the sick man’s head:
What prostitution of one’s wit
To raise a smile on lips half cold,
With downcast eyes his medicine hold.
All day, all night, beside him sit,
And sighing to oneself still muse
“When will the Devil take his dues?”

31. Portnoi {33}

“My uncle was a man of most honorable principles,
When he was taken seriously ill,
He made everyone respect him,
And couldn’t have had a better plan.
His example is a lesson for others;
But, oh my God, what a bore it is
To sit at the sick man’s bedside day and night,
Not moving a step away!
What a low dishonesty it is
To entertain a half-dead man,
To adjust his pillows,
To solemnly serve him his medicine,
To sigh and to say to oneself,
‘When will the devil take you?’”

32. Radin & Patrick {34}

“My uncle’s verse was always upright
And now that he has fallen ill
In earnest he makes one respect him:
He is a pattern for us still.
One really could not ask for more—
But heavens, what a fearful bore
To play the sick-nurse day and night
And never stir beyond his sight!
What petty, mean dissimulation
To entertain a man half-dead,
To poke his pillows up in bed,
And carry in some vile potation,
While all the time one’s thinking, ‘Why
The devil take so long to die?’”

33. Sharer {35}

“My uncle ought to be respected:
As soon as he was gravely ill,
He told his kin they were expected
To be attentive to his will.
One must obey when fate is calling.
But, Lord, what can be more appalling
Than through the day and through the night
To be the ailing man’s delight?
How wearisome and unaesthetic
To have a helpless patient fed,
To tiptoe softly round his bed,
Be sensitive and sympathetic,
And think, while trying to console:
‘When will the devil take your soul?’”

34. Simmons {36}

“Heigh ho, what a fatigue, and what a bore,
To sit all day beside a dying man,
And only steal away when he doth snore,
And for the half-dead some amusements plan;
To give him medicine; his brow to fan;
To think when you his crumpled pillow shake,
‘When will the devil this old devil take?’
My uncle lives a life of rectitude,
An honest man, if ever there were such,
But given much, I fear, to platitude —
It seems to me he utters them too much;
But when this fever his old bones did touch
Upon his relatives he forced respect;
On his example others made reflect.”

35. Spalding {37}

“My uncle’s goodness is extreme,
If seriously he hath disease;
He hath acquired the world’s esteem
And nothing more important sees;
A paragon of virtue he!
But what a nuisance it will be,
Chained to his bedside night and day
Without a chance to slip away.
Ye need dissimulation base
A dying man with art to soothe,
Beneath his head the pillow smooth,
And physic bring with mournful face,
To sigh and meditate alone:
When will the devil take his own!”

36. Stone {38}

“My uncle makes a big production
of being ill, and truth be told,
I’d offer him just one instruction:
‘Give up the ghost — you’re weak and old!’”

37. Thomas {39}

‘Now that my uncle’s truly dying
He seems more decent than before.
You have to praise the way he’s trying
To keep a grip, if nothing more.
A fine example to us all, but
The thought of what I face – appalling!
Sitting with him by day and night,
Not venturing as step outside!
What boredom, what a base betrayal,
To entertain a man half-dead,
Plump up the pillows by his bed,
Sigh, with a spoon held to his frail
Old lips, while thinking to yourself,
When will the devil take you off!’

Rhyme, particularly the feminine rhyme is clearly a hurdle. It can be overcome, or, more exactly, be exployed successfully –  as in numbers 11, 14, 18, 31 and 32 – but  the others present problems. Numbers 19, 24 and 36 do not respect the form. Numbers 4, 6, 7, 17, 28, 29 and 31 do not employ rhyme. In numbers 1, 2, 4, 5, 8, 12, 14, 16, 21, 27, 30, 34 and 35 the rhyme is contrived, and in numbers 13, 19, 21, 22, 23, 25, 26, 32 and 37 the rhyme is uncertain. There are issues of tone in numbers 3, 7 and 34. And so on. But the issue is not whether the feminine rhyme can be employed in translation of Russian verse, but whether it should be. Are other features — an easy naturalness of expression, sincere emotion,  compelling force — being sacrificed for a feature not intrinsic to English verse? Even the most successful examples above are a little mannered, acceptable in the good-natured, half-humorous introduction to Eugene Onegin, but perhaps less so in the more serious sections, e.g. Tatiana's letter.

The translator must simply decide to use or not to use feminine rhymes, basing the decision not on outdoing other translators' ingenuity, but on whether the feminine rhyme really enhances the rendering.

In place of this:

My uncle who, except when jesting,
Maintained himself an honest man
In falling ill has stooped to testing
Our fond regards when this began.
And what a lesson he has taught us:
Lord, what boredom he has brought us!
From the malingerer night and day
Be not allowed one step away:
What shows more cunning and is meaner,
Than feigning to a man half dead,
Bring medicine, pillows, soothe the head
And, grieving, wear a glum demeanour
While sighing, if the heart spoke true,
When will the devil come for you? {41}

We could write:

My uncle was an honest man
But not in jest has fallen ill,
So testing us when this began
On how we would regard him still.
And what a lesson he has taught:
And,  Lord, what boredom he has brought!
From the malingerer night and day
Be not allowed one step away:

What shows more cunning, feint and guile,
Than feigning to a man half dead,
Bring medicine, pillows, soothe the head
And wear a glum demeanor all the while
In sighing, if the heart spoke true,
When will the devil come for you? 

Conclusion? I prefer the versions employing the feminine rhyme, which seem a little livelier. The result needn't be burlesque, provided we write decent verse and choose sensible, everyday words for the feminine rhymes. I don't personally see a need for more translations, but new versions of Eugene Onegin would doubtless use the feminine rhyme as we have now come to expect Pushkin's rhyme scheme will be followed.

Why Rhyme At All?

But why use rhyme at all? Most of today's poets don't, and we are trying to create somethings that reads as fresh and contemporary. After all, rhyme is only a shaping device, something that pulls the stanza into line, and give the constituent words their autonomy in that other world we call art. Looking at two renderings of Pushkin's poem Remembrance.

Воспоминание 1828

Когда для смертного умолкнет шумный день  6a
  И на немые стогны града   4B
Полупрозрачная наляжет ночи тень,  6a
  И сон, дневных трудов награда,  4B
В то время для меня влачатся в тишине  6c
  Часы томительного бденья:  4B
В бездействии ночном живей горят во мне  6c
  Змеи сердечной угрызенья;  4B
Мечты кипят; в уме, подавленном тоской,  6d
  Теснится тяжких дум избыток;  4e
Воспоминание безмолвно предо мной  6d
  Свой длинный развивает свиток:  4e
И, с отвращением читая жизнь мою,  6f
  Я трепещу, и проклинаю,  4g
И горько жалуюсь, и горько слезы лью,-  6f
  Но строк печальных не смываю.  4g {42}

One by Evelyn Bristol:


When for mortal man the noisy day does end 6
   And when the city squares are silent, 4
Half in transparency night's shade comes down to rest, 6
   And sleep, reward for each day's labor — 4
For me that is the time when in the silence drag 6
   The hours of my tormenting vigil: 4
An idleness at night more lively burns in me 6
   The constant bites of my heart's serpent 4
My daydreams roil, and in my mind, crushed down with grief, 6
   Crowd thoughts excessive and too weighty, 4
Then does my memory in silence before my eyes 6
    Unwind a scroll that seems unending; 4
And with revulsions deep, as I do read my life, 6
    I tremble and I curses utter, 4
And bitterly complain, and bitter tears I weep, 6
   Nor wash away one line of sorrow.  4  {43}
And another by Maurice Baring:


When the loud day for men who sow and reap 5a
 Grows still, and on the silence of the town 5b
 The insubstantial veils of night and sleep, 5a
 The meed of the day's labour, settle down, 5b
 Then for me in the stillness of the night 5c
 The wasting, watchful hours drag on their course, 5d
 And in the idle darkness comes the bite 5c
 Of all the burning serpents of remorse; 5d
 Dreams seethe; and fretful infelicities 5e
 Are swarming in my over-burdened soul, 5f
 And Memory before my wakeful eyes 5e
 With noiseless hand unwinds her lengthy scroll. 5f
 Then, as with loathing I peruse the years, 5g
 I tremble, and I curse my natal day, 5h
 Wail bitterly, and bitterly shed tears, 5g
 But cannot wash the woeful script away. 5h  {44}

We see immediately  how much powerful  and effective is the rhymed version, licences notwithstanding — pentameters throughout, no feminine rhymes. And Maurice Baring will have known what he was about: he was a distinguished man of letters, fluent in Russian, more than familiar with the country and its literature. Professor Bristol's version, on the other day, does exactly what her most useful book intends: provides translations that accurately convey the sense, rhythm and the stanza shape.

Summing up so far, I'd suggest:

1. The feminine rhyme should be retained where it makes a positive contribution to the translation.
2. Rhyme, essential to Russian poetry, should also feature in translations.
3. More important than matters of rhyme, feminine or otherwise, is verse craft (of which rhyme is only one small part.)

With that in mind, it seems to me that both our section of Tatiana's letter (to make it  crisper and emotionally effective) and Remembrance (to respect the 6 4 stanza shape and feminine rhymes) should be rewritten.

Pushkin's Remembrance

Stanza shaping in Remembrance brings even more problems. Rephrasing Baring in 6 4 lines is straightforward:

When this, the clamorous day for men who sow and reap, 6a
    grows still, and on the silent town 4b
there fall the insubstantial veils of night and sleep, 6a
    respite from labour, settling down 4b
as one by one across the silence of the night 6c
    come burning hours that drag their course, 4d
 until the overwhelming darkness brings the bite 6c
     of all the serpents of remorse; 4d
 Dreams seethe about me; hurtful infelicities 6e
     beset my over-burden soul. 4f
Vile memories then plague my eyes, and noiselessly, 6e
     unwind their ever-burdening scroll 4f
so that dark horror occupies those loathsome years. 6g
     Trembling, I curse my natal day, 4h
and weep repeatedly, but know no bitter tears 6g
     can wash that sorry script away. 4h

But introducing a feminine rhyme on the tetrameter line entails all kinds of adjustments and rephrasings:

When the loud day for those who sow and reap 6a
     Grows still, and on the empty places 4B
Of the city drift the insubstantial veils of sleep, 6a
Loom to watchfulness, and then the wailing night 6c
     More brims with hours, where each tormenting 4D
Ache of consciousness assumes the serpent’s bite 6c
     Of long remorse, and unrelenting 4D
Seethe the frightful dreams and infelicities. 6e
     Around me is the night uncoiling 4F
Its dreadful scroll of dark and wounding memories, 6e
      noiselessly, and soul besoiling. 4F
And then with grief and loathing I peruse the years, 6g
       To see my life as misbegotten, 4H
  But know my sins, for all the tears, the bitter tears,
      stay uneffaced and unforgotten. 4H

But that wanders from the sense a little, and is clearly badly forced. The problem lies in the abstractions and circumlocutions that the feminine rhyme so often introduces. Eugene Onegin, being a blend of the sentimental and the Byronic, can take the round-about, insinuating and slightly humorous tone, even where, towards the end, the poem becomes sombre and elegaic, but any touch of humour in Remembrance is fatal. That poem demands to be fully modelled, heart-felt and direct, which any feminine ending in the final line will weaken. No doubt better renderings are possible, but that last problem will always remain.

As though in confirmation, the distinguished Imagist poet, Babette Deutsch, working with her husband, Avrahm Yarmolinsky, produced something that doesn't respect Pushkin's rhyme scheme properly, doesn't employ feminine rhymes, and doesn't reproduce the 6 4 line form. The failures show how very difficult a full translation of Russian verse can be: {50}

When noisy day at last is quieted
And on the hushed streets of the town,
Half diaphane, night's shadow lies, and sleep,
The wage of toil, is handed down,
Then in the silence how the hours drag out
My weary vigil; then up start
Snakes of remorse nocturnal torpor wakes
To livelier flame that stings the heart.
Dreams surge and eddy; anguish crowds the mind
With wounding thoughts that press too close;
In silence memory unrolls for me
A scroll as long as it is gross;
I read and loathe the record of the years,
And shake, and curse the grim display;
My groans are bitter, bitter are the tears
That wash no sorry line away.

One answer may be to forget the experimental Modernist approaches and build sentences that replace images with argued sense:

When the loud day for those who sow and reap 6a
     grows silent, on the city sowing, 4B
in squares and streets, the insubstantial veils of sleep, 6a
     our toil's respite, there comes the growing 4B
vigil of our waking hours. And then the vast, still night 6c
     brings hours that drag their hard, tormenting 4D
course, and consciences will feel the serpent’s bite 6c
     of harsh remorse, and unrelenting 4D
press of dreams and fretful infelicities. 6e
     An ever-lengthening scroll's uncoiling 4F
with hurtful episodes and hateful memories, 6e
      without a sound, but soul besoiling. 4F
  Then, though with grief and loathing I peruse the years, 6g
       and curse my natal day's occasion, 4H
  there is no flood of tears, of bitter, bitter tears, 6g
      removes a single line's contagion. 4H

We have evaded the inherent weakness of the feminine line concluding the couplet, but at some cost, many would argue. The verse meanders, lacks proper shaping, and строк печальных
 means sad lines, not 'line's contagion'.

In short, Russian translation is difficult, and feminine rhymes should be used with caution, generally on occasions where some detachment or hint of humour is intended by the poet. Even at their best, feminine rhymes create a good deal of trouble for the translator, often without much of a corresponding benefit to the reader, indeed the opposite too often, reeking of contrivance that weakens the emotional effect.


I have not found a really acceptable rendering of the feminine line in Pushkin's Onegin, but it is possible to reproduce the feminine rhyme of Russian verse, e.g. J. S. Phillimore’s translation of Nekrasov’s The Reaped Field {50} The second stanza runs

Surely these cornstalks whisper one to another:
   ‘This Autumn wind, it has a weary sound:
And weary work it is to sink and smother
   Good grain in dust by bending tops the ground.’

The rendering is close and even reproduces the ternary metre of the original.

Ка́жется, ше́пчут колосья друг дру́гу:
"Ску́чно нам слу́шать осе́ннюю вью́гу,

Ску́чно склоня́ться до са́мой земли́,
Ту́чные зёрна купа́я в пыли́!

The fuller line (-uu-uu-uu-) translates to the pentameter in English, however, which greatly eases the search for rymes. The iambic of Onegin has to stay in tetrameters.

Pushkin's Excellence

Pushkin is Russia's greatest poet, widely read in and beyond the country, and commemorated everywhere. Why the enthusiasm, indeed veneration?

Pushkin was not the originator of modern Russian poetry. That honour belongs to Mikhail Lomonosov (1711-65), and his achievements were further developed by Gavril Derzhavin (1743-1816), Vasily Zhukovsky (1783-1852) and Konstantin Batyushkov (1787-1855). Pushkin's early work owes much to the last two, but is distinguished by his greater precision of language, the artistic concentration, the simple and direct approach to experience, the unfailing sense of balance and his humanity. {47} He had an extraordinary ability (and the critical sense) to assimilate other styles, {47} most notably that of Byron in 1820-3, adopting his rhetoric and self-dramatisation, while learning from Zhukovsky's mellifluousness. But Pushkin gradually abandoned that self-conscious style after 1823, creating instead something more direct and vigorous, depending for its effects on the choice and positioning of individual words, and on the interplay of rhythm and intonation. That is the style of Eugene Onegin, and indeed most of his longer poems. Though Pushkin concentrated more on prose after 1830, his verse became more austere and bereft of ornament, gaining in vigour and aphoristic concision. His view of human nature also darkened, with an awareness of mankind's vulnerability to fate, and the threat of power to individual happiness, a theme that underlies his Bronze Horseman.

There is therefore more to Pushkin than technical wizardry. As Evelyn Bristol points out, Pushkin is exceptionally clear on the surface, but also elusive and inscrutable when probed, as he had good reason to be. He was continually in trouble for his 'liberal' views, being transferred from the Foreign Office to Kishinev, then to Odessa, and subsequently to house confinement on a family estate at Mikhailovskoe, near Pskov. On the orders of Nicholas I, Pushkin was released from Mikhalovskoe in 1828, but closely monitored, forbidden to travel or have his works published when too outspoken. In 1831 he married Natalyia Goncharov, — a beautiful but empty-headed creature — 'beauty and the beast' as they were often termed at court — whose flirtations led to the fatal duel of 1837. It's doubtful if the match suited either party: Pushkin's work becomes deeper and more thoughtful after the marriage, but the love poems disappear.  Some of the unpublished poems in fact speak of inner anguish (O God, don't let me go insane of 1836, and a bitter note in his adaptation of Horace's Exegi monumentum.)

Eugene Onegin (1831) is probably his most popular poem in Russia, but is nonetheless a pastiche of classical, sentimental and romantic traditions. {48} Little happens to the protagonists Eugene and Tatiana. The other characters are largely cyphers, and the ending is profoundly dispiriting, as film makers have found. Even without his Byronic pose, Eugene  was not made for marriage, any more possibly than was its self-centred author. 

References and Resources

References can now be found in a free pdf compilation of Ocaso Press's Russian pages.

Russian poem translations on this site: listing.