Natalya's Letter: The Feminine Ending in Russian Verse

This is the second article on that most vexing of translation problems, the feminine rhyme in Russian verse. We have looked at its use in Eugene Onegin and here we concentrate on the Natalya's letter part, which is likewise 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.

Pushkin's Natalya's Letter

If we look at three versions readily available on the Internet:

1. Kline 2009

‘I write – what more is there to say? a
How shall I add to my confession? B
I know it’s in your power today a
To punish me with your derision. B
Yet had compassion a part to play a
In your thoughts, you would wait, d
And not abandon me to fate. d
At first I wished to stay quite silent, E
Thus, you never would have heard f
Of shame or misery, one word. f
 If I’d reserved a hope, content E
To see you but once a week, g
Be in your presence, hear you speak, g

Utter a few words of greeting, H
And then, while you were gone, i
Have that to think, and think, upon, i
Day and night, till our next meeting. H
You’re unsociable, they say j
That the country bores you, sadly; K
And we….don’t shine in any way, j
Although we welcome you, so gladly. K {1}

This is not really verse but 'free verse'. i.e. prose, which conveys the content well (see below), but does not sufficiently support and shape the narrative. The rhyme scheme is not Pushkin's, moreover, and the rhymes themselves can be contrived ('sadly'/'gladly') or approximate ('silent'/'content').

2. Ledger 2009

I write this to you - what more can be said? a
What more can I add to that one fact? b
For now I know it is in your power x
To punish me contemptuously for this act. b
But you, keeping for my unhappy lot c
Even one drop of sympathy d
Will not entirely abandon me. d
At first I wished to remain silent; E
Believe me, my shame, my agony, e
You never ever would have heard. f
As long as hope remained preserved f

That rarely, even once a week, g
I'd see you in our country house, h
To hear your voice, to hear you speak, g
To say a few words, and then, and then i
To think, and think, and think again i
All day, all night, until the next meeting. J

But it is said you are unsociable, k
And in this backwater all is tedious to you, l
While we… well here we shine at nothing, M
Although we're glad to welcome you. l {2}

The rhyming is incomplete, largely abandons Pushkin's scheme and does not use feminine rhymes. As verse, it's rather a disaster: stumbling lines and unconvincing rhymes, but there are good phrases occasionally: For now I know it is in your power, we shine at nothing.

3. Johnson 1977

I write to you - no more confession A
 is needed, nothing's left to tell. b
 I know it's now in your discretion A
 with scorn to make my world a hell. b

 But, if you've kept some faint impression A
 of pity for my wretched state, c
 you'll never leave me to my fate. c
 At first I thought it out of season D
 to speak; believe me: of my shame e
 you'd not so much as know the name, e
 if I'd possessed the slightest reason D
 to hope that even once a week f
 I might have seen you, heard you speak f
 on visits to us, and in greeting G
 I might have said a word, and then h
 thought, day and night, and thought again h
 about one thing, till our next meeting.G
 But you're not sociable, they say: i
 you find the country godforsaken; J
 though we... don't shine in any way, i
 our joy in you is warmly taken. J {3}

The rhyme scheme follows Pushkin's (see below), the text is believable and the rhymes are generally acceptable. The metre is uncertain in places, however, and there are a few choices we should question (hell, warmly taken) but the more general point is that the verse is still not really shaping the narrative.

Bearing these problems in mind, we now need to check the prose sense of the opening lines. We start with the Russian text, noting the rhyme scheme of the tetrameters (A is a feminine rhyme, b is a masculine one). Tatiana's famous letter starts:

Я к вам пишу – чего же боле? A
Что я могу еще сказать? b
Теперь, я знаю, в вашей воле A
 Меня презреньем наказать. b
Но вы, к моей несчастной доле A
 Хоть каплю жалости храня, c
Вы не оставите меня. c
Сначала я молчать хотела; D
Поверьте: моего стыда e
 Вы не узнали б никогда, e
Когда б надежду я имела D
 Хоть редко, хоть в неделю раз f
 В деревне нашей видеть вас, f
Чтоб только слышать ваши речи, G
Вам слово молвить, и потом h
 Все думать, думать об одном h
 И день и ночь до новой встречи. G
Но, говорят, вы нелюдим; i
В глуши, в деревне всё вам скучно, J
А мы… ничем мы не блестим, i
Хоть вам и рады простодушно. J
The uncorrected machine translation is:

 I write to you - what more the same?
 What can I yet to tell?
 Now, I know of your will
  Me despicable punish.
 But you, of my unhappy share
 Although a drop of pity storing,
 You will not leave me.
 At first I wanted to be silent;
 Believe me: my shame
 You would never know,
 If I had hope
 Although rarely, at least once a week
 In our village to see you,
 Just to hear your speeches,
 You have the floor to say, and then
 All thinking, thinking about one thing
 And day and night until a new meeting.
 But, they say, you are unsociable;
 In the backwoods, in the country you are bored,
 And we ... we do not shine anything,
 Although you are happy and simple.

We see that the meanings of the translations are indeed correct, but only if we round out what is rather plain and limited in the prose transcription.

So we come to a parting of the ways, between the more faithful academic rendering that transcribes only what's on the page, and the more literary one that tries to breathe life into the rendering and make it a pleasure to read. In all these Russian pages I am concerned with literary matters, and would myself accept very wide departures from the literal if they will make the text come alive. Indeed, just as the writer of historical romances has to fashion something convincing, not quite contemporary but not hopelessly antique, for her dialogues, so we have to fashion something, it seems to me, where the words and rhyme schemes convey the hopes, aspirations and fears of a living person.

In fact it's not so difficult, and restraint is needed.  Tatiana is inexperienced, but not simple-minded. She knows the risks she runs in disclosing her feelings, and indeed suffers for the indiscretion: she makes a brilliant marriage eventually, but to a much older man, and those girlish hopes and fancies have to be left behind, which even a remorseful Onegin cannot afterwards recover. So, with this in mind, and adopting some of Johnson's rhymes, we can write:

I write to you, and this confession A
has little left in it unsaid. b
No doubt it makes a poor impression, A
you may well scorn me, so ill-bred b
as venture on this indiscretion. A

But, if there's pity in you, think c
of how I feel, and do not shrink c
from giving grounds for hoping, seeing D
I never wanted you to know e
how far this girlish heart would go. e
My simple wish? To will your being D

round the village once a week f
or so, to see you, hear you speak f
of something fuller in your greeting, G
yes, something other you might say, h
and altogether, night and day, h
resolve upon another meeting. G

But you’re, they say, unsociable, i
and do not like this rural isolation, J
and we, of course, are awfully dull i
but pleased you grace our invitation. J

A TTS (text to speech) recording of the Russian is:

Avoiding the Feminine Ending

So the answer is: yes, the Onegin stanza can be made into convincing dialogue, though the above probably needs more art and shaping. But, rather than employing the English feminine rhyme, however, which has an extra syllable tacked on, we could perhaps employ the French one. The alexandrine always consists of exactly twelve syllables, and each syllable of the alexandrine is a sounded vowel. The neutral e is not sounded when occurring at the line end, but lengthens the preceding vowel/syllable. A similar rule applies to the third person plural present tense ending of 'ent. Lines ending in e or ent are termed feminine. Other lines are masculine. Though they may end with the same sound, feminine and masculine lines do not rhyme. A feminine line can only rhyme with another feminine line, and a masculine line rhyme with masculine one. French classical verse is written in alternating pairs of masculine and feminine lines.Thus Racine (Phèdre, IV. 6):

   Par do nneUn Dieu cru el | a per du ta fa mille : 4 2 | 2 4 f
   Re co nnais sa veng ean | ceaux fu reurs de ta fille. 3 3 | 3 3 f
Hé las ! du cri mea ffreux | dont la hon te me suit 2 4 | 4 2 m
Ja mais mon tri ste coeur | n'a re cuei lli le fruit. 2 4 | 4 2 m

English is not a quantitative language, but does distinguish between long and short vowels. The short vowels are in bat, bet, bit, got and gut. The long vowels are in laid, beat, bite and suit. Dipthongs are long: mark, idea, wear, poor, hire, boy, our, lawyer, prayer. Vowels can be lengthened by the addition  of some consonants: measure, hatch, badge, siege. Rewriting Tatiana's speech with these quieter rhymes:

I write this letter: you will see A
there's very little left unsaid. b
At your discretion you can be A
contemptuous, curbing one ill-bred b
enough as flout propriety. A

But if you have some pity, think c
how much it shames me, do not shrink c
from all association: these D
were thoughts I did not mean to tell. e
Indeed for me it would be well e
to have what silence guarantees: D
a naturalness in greeting us f
as, round our village we discuss f
some this or that, and how it goes. G

My night and day is ever gone h
in just supposing, passing on h
to what new meetings might disclose. G
But you’re, they say, unsociable, i
or rustic setting is to blame, J
and we, no doubt, are awfully dull i
but glad to see you just the same. J

But there are still difficulties. Long vowels and diphthongs vastly outnumber short vowels, which makes finding appropriate rhymes difficult and time-consuming. The verse itself is rather flat and undistinguished.  The difference between long and short vowels will not be apparent to most readers, which means we're making a lot of effort for little effect.

This alternative to the English feminine rhyme could be useful on occasion, therefore, but in general the translator has to 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.

The Russian for the remainder of the letter is:

22. Заче́м вы посети́ли нас? l
В глу́ши|глуши́ забы́того селе́нья K
Я никогда́ не зна́ла б вас, l
Не зна́ла б го́рького муче́нья. K
Ду́ши|Души́ нео́пытной волне́нья K
Смири́в со вре́менем (как знать?), m
По се́рдцу я нашла́ бы дру́га, N
Была́ бы ве́рная супру́га N
30. И доброде́тельная мать. m
Друго́й!.. Нет, никому́ на све́те O
Не отдала́ бы се́рдца ́ я! p
То в вы́сшем суждено́ сове́те... O
То во́ля не́ба: я твоя́; p
Вся жизнь моя́ была́ зало́гом Q
Свида́нья ве́рного с тобо́й; r
Я зна́ю, ты мне по́слан бо́гом, Q
До гро́ба ты храни́тель мой... r
Ты в сновиде́ньях мне явля́лся, T
40. Незри́мый, ты мне был уж мил, u
Твой чу́дный взгляд меня́ томи́л, u
В душе́ твой го́лос раздава́лся T
Давно...нет, это был не сон! v
Ты чуть вошел, я вмиг узнала, W
Вся обомлела, заплыла W
И в мыслях молвила: вот он! v
Не правда ль? Я тебя слыхала: X
Ты говорил со мной в тиши, y
Когда я бедным помогала X
50. Или молитвой услаждала X
Тоску́ волну́емой души́? y
И в э́то са́мое мгнове́нье z
Не ты ли, ми́лое виде́нье, z
В прозра́чной темноте́ мелькну́л, a
55. Проникнул ти́хо к изголо́вью? B
Не ты ль, с отра́дой и любо́вью, B
Слова́ наде́жды мне шепну́л? a
Кто ты, мой а́нгел ли храни́тель, C
И́ли кова́рный искуси́тель: C
60. Мои́ сомне́нья разреши́. d
Быть мо́жет, э́то всё пусто́е, E
Обма́н нео́пытной души́! d
И суждено́ совсе́м ино́е... E
Но так и быть! Судьбу́ мою́ f
Отны́не я тебе́ вруча́ю, G
Пе́ред тобо́ю слёзы лью, G
Твое́й защи́ты умоля́ю... f
Вообрази́: я здесь одна́, h
Никто́ меня́ не понима́ет, I
70. Рассу́док мой изнемога́ет, I
И мо́лча ги́бнуть я должна́. h
Я жду тебя́: еди́ным взо́ром J
Наде́жды се́рдца оживи́ k
Иль сон тяжёлый перерви́, k
Увы́, заслу́женный уко́ром! J
Конча́ю! Стра́шно перече́сть... l
Стыдо́м и стра́хом замира́ю... M
Но мне пору́кой ва́ша честь, l
79. И сме́ло|смело́ ей себя́ вверя́ю...M

Translation should be in the earlier vein, with the feminine rhymes but aiming for heartfelt, simple expression, i.e. something that a young Russian woman could conceivably write:

22. Why did you visit us, pay call l
on such a wretched isolation? K
I’d not have known you then at all, l
nor felt that wild exhilaration K
become the heart's deep laceration. K
I could have found some other you, m
in time, to friendship acquiescing, N
have made a wife, and thence, progressing, N
30. been found a virtuous mother too. m

Another? No, there’s no one ever O
in this wide world to take your place: p
by Heaven I am yours forever, O
and bound to you by Heaven's grace. p
We walk a conjoined path together: Q
my life till now is as this heart. r
What God has made we can’t untether, Q
the grave alone will tear apart. r

For you appeared to me in dreaming, T
40. invisible, but dear to me; u
that torment was my destiny, u
and in my soul your words were teeming . . . T

And from the first those thoughts have stayed, v
when in you walked, not wild delusion W
45. but adding to my stunned confusion: W
I saw the man for whom I prayed, v
and heard him also while attending X
to what was silence, pure and whole, y
as in my prayers, and likewise bending X
50. to clothes of poor folk I was mending: X
in pain and rapture was my soul. y

And at this moment, as I write, z
aren't you still foremost in my sight? z

In darkness even, I could hear, a
55. at my headboard, through my slumber, B
words of love I cannot number, B
and hope was with them, quiet and clear. a

My guardian angel: would you leave me, C
have your whispered words deceive me? C

60. Resolve the matter, tell the truth: d
this may be all an aberration, E
inexperience that comes with youth, d
who's destined for some other station . . . E

Well, be it so! You are my fate. f
65. I’m wholly under your direction. G
I place myself in your protection G
though bitter tears may come too late, f

Imagine how alone I stood h
where no one had the least conception I
70. of my thoughts and my dejection, I
of silences then kept for good. h

So now I wait. Your words approaching J
may, of course, revive my hope k
but just as likely give you scope k
75. to censor with more earned reproaching. J

I daren’t reflect on what I’ve done, l
but though it's tears I may be reaping, M
my honour here you cannot shun l
that I've entrusted to your keeping. M

This needs a little more work, but illustrates the problem. It is always possible to replicate rhyme schemes, but the labour can be immense, even self-defeating, making us toil away at ingenuity rather than recreate the living poetry.

Dispensing with the Feminine Rhyme

A more sensible approach might be to do away with the feminine rhyme altogether, avoiding such contrivances as 'leave me/deceive me', 'conception/dejection', 'reaping/keeping', etc. So, making the piece simple and direct, with rhyme, voice cadences and stanza shapes supporting the narrative:

I write this letter: you will see
there's very little left unsaid.
It's clearly in your gift to be
disparaging of one ill-bred
enough as scant propriety.

But if some pity can be stirred
you will not leave my call unheard.
I'd, firstly, never meant to tell
how far this girlish heart would go
10. or even let my interest show
but simply trust that all go well.

I’d barely see you once a week,
around our village, hear you speak,
would hold forth naturally and then,
in greeting you, have every right
to think on further, day and night,
towards the hour we’d meet again.

But you’re, they say, unsociable:
our rural solitude’s to blame,
20. and we, of course, are awfully dull,
but pleased to greet you all the same.

Why did you visit us, or even deign
to know us in this rustic place?
I’d not have met you, nor would pain
have left its heart-tormenting trace.
Just inexperience, is it? Start
of new adventures for the heart?
It could have been some other you
where I in time would find a friend,
30. and be good wife to, doubtless end
as well-regarded mother too?

But, no! There’s no one here on earth
I’d give my heart to, see as cause
for that high court to prove its worth.
It's Heaven's will that I be yours.

My life till now was golden shod
with faithfulness conjecture gave.
I know that you are come of God
to be my guardian to the grave.
40. You’ve long appeared to me in dreams,
and, though invisible, took form
that winning words at once were warm
and close inviting . . . are, it seems . . .
For though it came as from afar
immediately that voice was true,
a man walked in, and that was you.
My whirling mind said, here you are!

But I had heard you, so I swear,
in quiet speaking to the core
50. when I was helping with the poor,
or close delighting in my prayer,
and in that tumult knew my soul
was one with yours, complete and whole.

In darkness even I could see
you whisper words that by my bed
were love and joy to me ahead.
Were not these proper hopes for me?
My guardian angel, aren’t you, who
would never tempt with things not true?

60. Enough is said, so speak the truth.
Comes this from made-up, idle source,
or some confusion sprung from youth,
when future takes a different course?

Suppose that’s so, does not my fate
depend on what I’m telling you?
In tears I languish: what you do
protects me, surely, in this state?

Imagine me alone instead,
who lacks a friend to hear her out,
70. whose burdened mind gives way to doubt
and to the grave bears thoughts unsaid.

So now I wait. Your words approach
which maybe will revive my hope
but just as likely give you scope
for needful censure and reproach.

I dare not read what’s written here
for shame, and consternation too:
my honour’s forfeit: all too clear
the self that I entrust to you.

Conclusion? The second version is neater and more natural, but also rather flat. The feminine rhyme gives a more self-conscious verse, where the reader is continually being asked to pause and admire the skills on display. The poetry appears in the interaction between the natural and artifice, just as Pushkin's society had to observe the social niceties without losing sight of the hopes, fears, joys and heartache, etc. that real people possess. We have to create a style that fosters both aesthetic and emotive shaping, therefore, realizing that wrong notes in either area will be damning in art at this level.

References and Resources

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