With a single drop of ink for a mirror, the Egyptian sorcerer undertakes to reveal to any chance comer far-reaching visions of the past. This is what I undertake to do for you, reader.
Tatyana, in her low cut gown,
Steps out of doors and trains a mirror
Upon the moon to bring it nearer.
Eugene Onegin V. 9. 4-6
The hour of fate has struck at last
The poet stops and silently his pistol drops.
Eugene Onegin VI.30 13-14
Pushkin is to the Russian language and culture what Shakespeare is to the English; and Eugene Onegin is his masterpiece, the central work of Russian literature, from which all other works have their genesis. Composed between 1823 and 1831 (a period of seven years, four months and seventeen days, as calculated by Pushkin himself), this novel in verse has been retained in the memory of all literate Russians, and has exercised an incalculable influence on subsequent Russian poets and novelists. Most readers know how Pushkin’s death in a duel at the age of 38 is prefigured strangely in the novel by the death of his character, the poet Lensky, in a duel. In modern criticism, looking for connections between the author and their work is regarded as naïve, passé and ideologically suspect. However, like Eliot’s Egyptian sorcerer, and Tatyana using her mirror to find the face of her future lover in the moon, mirrors and books have been used since they were invented, as mediums for divination and seeing. In this case, the composition of Eugene Onegin was so intimately tied up with Pushkin’s circumstances; and its final form bears such striking similarities with Pushkin’s fate, that the book may be seen as a mirror of the poet’s life and death. It is so full of the most strange and haunting coincidences and foreshadowings, that it is possible to regard it as a mirror into the future, a fatidic dream book for the divination of omens and signs.
Let’s begin by looking at the building blocks of the poem/novel. The poem consists of eight chapters, or cantos, containing varying numbers of stanzas. The Onegin Stanza, as it is called, invented by Pushkin himself for the purposes of this novel, consists of 118 syllables arranged in 14 lines of iambic tetrameter rhyming ababeecciddiff (vowels represent feminine rhymes -the last syllable of the line is unstressed, and consonants represent masculine rhymes -the last syllable of the line is stressed). The stanza is in effect a sonnet, with the first three quatrains representing all the various possible combinations of four rhymes: (abab interleaved, eecc separated, iddi sandwiched), followed by a rhyming couplet, to finish the stanza with a twist or a bang, rather like the final rhyming couplets in a Shakespearian sonnet. Here is an example, the opening of canto 5 in which Pushkin describes the first snowfall of a Russian winter:
The fall that year was in no hurry,
And nature seemed to wait and wait
For winter. Then in January,
The second night, the snow fell late.
Next day as dawn was just advancing
Tatyana woke and, idly glancing,
Beheld outdoors a wondrous sight:
The roofs, the yard, the fence –all white;
Each pane a fragile patter showing;
The trees in winter silver dyed,
Gay magpies on the lawn outside,
And all the hilltops soft and glowing
With winter’s brilliant rug of snow-
The world all fresh and white below.
(trans: James Falen)
Despite – or perhaps because of – the crystalline strictness of its form, the Onegin Stanza is wonderfully flexible in Russian, allowing Pushkin to build blocks of meaning within or across the different quatrains inside the stanza. The Onegin Stanza liberated Russian poetry from foreign structures – especially French, which was the language of government and literature in the Russia of the time - creating a form that was as intrinsically Russian as iambic pentameter is intrinsically English and iambic hexameter intrinsically Greek, and which, for the first time, gave the Russian language new flexibility and strength. Prince Mirsky writes of the Onegin Stanza: it depends on the adequacy of rhythm to intonation and on the complex texture of sound. Pushkin’s style is Byronic: witty, elegant, lightly satirical, charming. The first canto buzzes and fizzes like champagne, but the style gradually darkens and mellows like red wine, until the last canto contains moving reflections on the passing of youth and aging.
Into these stanzas Pushkin packs the whole of Russian life: peasant children blowing on their fingers to keep them warm, balls and theatres in St Petersburg, the churches and streets of Moscow, summer gardens, meals, family gossip, the contents of a dressing table, midnight conversations with his old nanny, digressions on the beauty of feet of Russian girls, the classical influence on contemporary poetry, the state of the roads, libraries and books…and dreams and divinations. The story concerns 5 characters: Onegin, the hero, a Petersburg dandy; his young friend, Lensky, a poet; Lensky’s fiancée, Olga; Olga’s sister, Tatyana, who falls in love with Onegin, and who is spurned by him; and ‘Pushkin’ himself, a friend of Onegin, who relates the events after they have happened.
Nabokov called the 8 cantos a ‘colonnade’, but they are more like a mirror, in which the first half of the poem/novel is reflected in the second half. The first word and the last word of the whole piece are the same. Cantos 1 and 8 are set in St Petersburg, cantos 2 and 7 have material set in Moscow, cantos 3 and 6 focus on the beginning and tragic end of the relationship between Onegin and his friend Lensky, and cantos 4 and 5 focus on the relationships between Onegin and Tatyana, and Lensky and Olga. The whole book, therefore, acts as a mirror of itself. The mirror line of the novel, its mathematical heart, the exact halfway point of its total of 5523 iambic lines –whether by design or coincidence- is this:
Mysteriously all objects/Foretold her something (Nabokov)
All objects either scared or charmed her/With secret meanings they’d impart (Falen)
Some mundane sight would set her fretting/Foretelling secretly some fact (Hofstadter)
All objects held a secret content/Proclaiming something to be guessed (Mitchell)
Each object held a secret message /For her instruction (Johnston)
EO V.5 6-7
suggesting to the bibliomancer that the book holds the secret of Pushkin’s death. Canto 5, in which this strange kernel is placed, is packed with instances of divination, fortune telling, and prediction, a kind of catalogue of Russian soothsaying techniques: a cat on the stove foretells visitors, a hare crossing the road is bad luck, as is seeing the moon over the left shoulder and encountering a priest in a doorway; methods for fortune telling adumbrated in the canto include pouring boiling wax into water and telling the future from the shapes made thereby; gazing at the moon with a mirror; sleeping with a mirror under the pillow; drawing rings from a bag; singing old peasant songs. Tatyana and her nurse plan to spend the whole night before Tatyana’s name day locked in the bath house ‘conjuring’, but Tatyana chickens out at the last minute and goes to bed, where she has a strange dream, which foretells in uncanny detail the events of the next day. After her dream, Tatyana consults the dream book of Martyn Zadek, a personage whom Pushkin tells us ironically in a note is a worthy person who never wrote divinatory books, and who, according to Nabakov was the pseudonym of an anonymous writer whose dream books were very popular all over Europe during the late 18th century. At any rate, an image of bibliomancy takes place at the center of the novel.
Tatyana’s dream has the same relationship to the events of her name day party and the subsequent duel, as Eugene Onegin has to the subsequent events of Pushkin’s life. Both the dream and the book are products of (subconscious) fantasy, and portray a preoccupation with the workings of fate; both weirdly foretell the future; both contain alignments of details which can be regarded either as uncanny coincidences or as vatic signs if the interpreter but knows how to read them. This may not be a valid method of literary criticism, but it’s worth remembering that Pushkin himself was very superstitious and a strong believer in the power of fate and omens. He had the habit of dating his poems not with the date they were composed but with dates that had personal significance for him. For example, his poem The Prophet was dated September 8th 1826, the date of his first meeting with Tsar Nicholas 1st, a highly significant encounter for Pushkin’s life. The first draft of the first stanza of Eugene Onegin is dated May 9th 1823, which was the anniversary of the date on which he was expelled from St Petersburg and sent into exile. He once took a long and inconvenient detour on his travels through Russia because a hare had crossed his path; he was a compulsive gambler, especially of card games which involved chance rather than skill or strategy; and most importantly for his reputation among his ordinary readers, he had a great love, respect and belief in the traditional superstitions of the Russian people.
Let’s look at some of these correspondences in more detail, focussing first on Pushkin’s duel, and the duel in canto 6.
➢ Lensky spends the night before the duel composing verses and reading them out, Like Delvig at a drunken feast says stanza 20. Delvig, who was Pushkin’s oldest and closest boyhood friend, had died on exactly the same day as the fictional Lensky -January 14th (but in 1831- Canto 6 was written in 1826 and is set in 1821).
➢ The wake that Pushkin and his friends held for Delvig took place on 27 January, the day of Pushkin’s own fatal duel, but 6 years prior to it.
➢ The pistols used in the Onegin-Lensky duel –manufactured by Lepage (EO VI.25.12)- were the same make as the pistols used in Pushkin’s duel. On the morning of 27th January 1837, once it was clear that the duel would go ahead at 4.30 that afternoon, Pushkin’s second had rushed out into the streets to find a pair of pistols he could borrow. The only ones he could find at such short notice were also by Lepage.
➢ As he was leaving the house to go to the duel, Pushkin noticed that the temperature had dropped. Uncharacteristically ignoring the Russian superstition that it is ill-omened to recross the threshold at the start of a journey, Pushkin returned to the house to get a thicker overcoat.
➢ While the seconds were priming the pistols, they realised the only paper they had with them to wad the balls was a lottery ticket.
➢ D’Anthes, Pushkin’s opponent, fired first, just as Pushkin was raising his pistol to take aim, exactly how Lensky is felled by Onegin in the novel.
➢ Both poets lay bleeding into the snow in a cold January.
Now, whether one believes these to be startling coincidences or signs fatefully but unconsciously placed by Pushkin’s prescient genius into his masterpiece, the fatidic parallels between art and life continue. One of the great mysteries of Pushkin’s final duel (he fought 4 altogether in his life) is why he did eventually fight it. There is not space here to go into the details surrounding the duel, the reasons for it, the withdrawal and reissue of the challenge, but, suffice it to say that Pushkin’s friends and contemporaries were, and subsequent commentators, including Akhmatova, have been puzzled by the way Pushkin himself insisted on going through with it, almost suicidally, even when a way out consistent with the demands of honour had been offered.
Again, Eugene Onegin provides portents, if we look at the wider correspondences between the poem and Pushkin’s life. In canto 6 after Lensky’s death, the narrator, ‘Pushkin’ (writing in 1826 about 1821) meditates on the loss of a young poet, and what might have been. Two alternatives are offered. First, the narrator laments what might have been lost to the world by the death of a poet in the very springtime of his life and song, assuming that this gift would have continued:
It may be he was born to fire
The world with good, or earn at least
A gloried name; his silenced lyre
Might well have raised, before it ceased,
A call to ring throughout the ages…
His martyred shade perhaps has carried off forever
Some sacred truth, a living word…
(EO VI.37. All following translations by James Falen)
The second alternative hints that, perhaps, had the poet grown old, his gift might have deserted him:
Or maybe he was merely fated
To live amid the common tide;
And as his years of youth abated,
The flame within him would have died.
In time he might have changed profoundly
Have quit the muses, married soundly…
A few stanzas later, ‘Pushkin’ confesses that, like this second alternative to Lensky’s fate, he feels the poetic gift leaving him:
The years to solemn prose incline me
The years chase playful rhyme behind me
And I –alas- I must confess-
Pursue her now a good deal less.
My pen has lost its disposition
To mar the fleeting page with verse
in a self-identification with Lensky. This is in fact what happened to Pushkin: towards the end of his life, after his ill-fated marriage, he did stop writing poetry and turn to prose, writing short stories, tales, a history of the Pugachev rebellion, a historical novel, and criticism for his journal The Contemporary. He also spent much time in the state archives researching a biography of Peter the Great, which was never started. None of these projects was well received by the public; and indeed, as the 1830s wore on, Pushkin and his circle of ‘gentlemen poets’ came to be regarded as yesterday’s men by the younger generation of more socially aware critcs and writers such as Polevoy, Nadezhdin, and the Moscow Schellingians. Poetry ceased to play an important role in Russian literature (until it was revived again at the turn of the century), and prose took over.
The narrator goes on:
Oh dreams! Where has your sweetness vanished?
And where has youth (glib rhyme) been banished?
Can it be true, its bloom has passed,
Has withered, withered now at last?
Can it be true, my heyday’s ended-
All elegiac play aside-
That now indeed my spring has died
(As I in jest so oft pretended)?
And is there no return of youth?
Shall I be thirty soon, in truth?
And so life’s afternoon has started…..
Two things are important here. First, to be sure, mourning lost dreams of youth is a poetic topos common in most European Romantic poetry, and there is no doubt that these stanzas are employing this conventional topos. On the other hand, the text deliberately divorces itself from this conventionality and signals the sincerity of the emotion three times, once by an ironic reference to the glib rhyme, and then in the line All elegiac play aside, and then in the parenthetical: as I in jest so oft pretended, emphasising that this time the sentiment is not conventional, but genuine. Moreover, earlier in the poem (EO III.13) ‘Pushkin’ has drawn the same parallel between the loss of youth and the turn from poetry to prose:
Perhaps, my friends, by fate’s decree
I’ll cease one day to be a poet
When some new demon seizes me,
And scoring then Apollo’s lyre,
To humble prose I’ll bend my pen.
The second important thing to remember here, is that all these verses which appear to describe Pushkin’s sad decline were written in 1826 (or in the case of stanza 3 even earlier in 1824) when Pushkin was at the height of his poetic gift, and long before his life began to unravel. Indeed, 1830, generally regarded as the anus mirabilis of his poetic career, the year in which he produced more masterpieces than any other year of his career, lay four or five years into the future. At the point of writing these vatic lines, he was untroubled by depression, he had not even begun to think of marriage, his work was selling well, his pen was flowing, he had not yet become embroiled in the tiring and dreadfully complex financial affairs of his family, and he was the idol of the Russian reading public and a leading figure in the emerging Russian literary scene, despite his exile. There is no way he could have known how his life was to decline, how things would turn out.
In VI. 43, he says:
…sterner cares now seek admission
and mid the hum and hush of life
They haunt my soul with dreams of strife.
As the 1830s wore on, Pushkin became increasingly harrassed by debt, family cares, the flirtations of his exquisite but flighty (and expensive) wife with the Tsar and with D’Anthes. He complains frequently in his letters that he has no time or energy to write and research due to financial and family worries: For inspiration one must have spiritual tranquillity, and I am not tranquil at all, he wrote to Pletnev in 1835. He was depressed by the negative reaction to his latest works, which did not sell (unsold copies of his book on the Pugachev rebellion lay piled up in the basement of his house), and his relationship with the government –always fraught- was deteriorating. In a portrait painted by Linev in the last year of Pushkin’s life, he looks more like Dostoevsky’s Underground Man: haunted, troubled and defeated; not at all like the Romanticised, Byronic hero/poet of the earlier portraits which were painted of Pushkin at the height of his career. The glorious firebird of Russian poetry had gone.
He wrote in the last stanza of the novel, in 1830, at the peak of his creativity and fame:
Blest is he who rightly gauges
The time to quit the feast and fly,
Who never drained life’s chalice dry,
Nor read its novel’s final pages;
But all at once for good withdrew…
Perhaps a duel, regarded as a form of self murder by the Orthodox Church, seemed to Pushkin a suitable and opportune end to all his troubles. Perhaps he preferred to lie quietly in the tomb like Lensky, visited in homage by readers, leaving his verses to posterity. Perhaps he saw it was time to quit the feast and fly; and perhaps the prophetic gift of his younger days knew this would transpire and warned him in the crystal stanzas of his greatest work.
Oh many, many days have fled
Since young Tatyana with her lover,
As in a misty dream at night,
First floated dimly into sight-
And I as yet could not uncover
Or through the magic crystal see
My novel’s shape, or what would be.
(EO VIII. 50. 8-14)
The interaction of people and books is a strange thing.