THE SYNTAX OF THE STANZA IN “EUGENE ONEGIN”
(Analysis by the Chapter)
The aim of this article is to show a possible relationship between the form of one chapter in Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin (its rhythmic and syntactic particulars) and the peculiarity of its contents and its role in the plot dynamics of the poem.
In studying the relations between lines in a poem I relied mostly on syntax. I differentiated four types of relations: 1) strong breaks (at the boundary of independent sentences); 2) medium breaks (for example, in cases of co-ordination and subordination of clauses within the same sentence); 3) weak breaks (for example, between homogeneous sentence elements, in cases of participial and gerundial phrases, parenthesis, and appositions); 4) syntactic links (that is, no breaks at all: enjambements of different strength).
Different types of syntactic relations between lines are not distributed evenly in the Onegin stanza. Strong breaks support the stanzaic composition (4 + 4 + 4 + 2), but the inner structuring of the quatrains is dissimilar: the syntactic formula of the first quatrain is 2 + 2, of the second it is 3 + 1; and the third quatrain is either 3 + 1, or simply 4. A slight rise in strong breaks after line 12 proves that the last quatrain is kept apart from the final couplet, albeit the boundary is vague. Medium breaks only slightly support the structure of the 14-line stanza, and weak breaks do not support it at all.
Many features of the Onegin stanza may stem from the general laws of stanzaic composition. These general laws might be at work in a parody of Eugene Onegin by Vikram Seth (1986). The parody, whose title is The Golden Gate (it is about modern American intellectuals in San Francisco) is fully written in the Onegin stanza. The author of this “novel in verse” does not know Russian, and has never read Pushkin’s original, only Charles Johnston’s fairly close translation. The similarity of the stanzaic structure between Pushkin’s original and Seth’s parody is remarkable (though the closeness of syntactic links between lines in the parody is slightly higher than in the original). Similarly to Pushkin’s original, the syntactic independence of quatrains in The Golden Gate decreases from the first to the third, and the overall frequency of strong breaks decreases towards the end of the stanza.
Comparing rhythm and syntax in Eugene Onegin by the chapter, I found striking phenomena. Most of the chapters display isomorphism between their syntax and the rhyming scheme of their stanzas, particularly in Chapter 3. On the contrary, syntax in Chapter 5 does not support the rhyming scheme of its stanzas: the lines within stanzas are syntactically knit together more strongly than in the rest of the poem, and the proportion of strong breaks after each quatrain is less significant than in the rest of the text. Chapter 5 is, as it were, an uninterrupted stream of speech, segmented only by the division into stanzas.
Chapter 5 stands out within more parameters than one; thus, its stress profile displays practically no difference between the first two feet: the “rarely stressed” first foot is stressed almost as often as the “frequently stressed” second foot (the difference is less than 2%). Such a correlation is untypical of the 1820s. In the rest of the poem the second foot is stressed more strongly than the first, and in Chapter 8 the difference reaches 12%. The particulars of stressing are probably explained by the syntactic and stylistic peculiarities of Chapter 5: the almost equal stressing of the first two feet and the amorphous syntax of the stanza parallel each other and create the impression of an uninterrupted stream of speech.
How can one interpret the singularity of form in Chapter 5?
In my opinion it is most fruitful to link the particulars of form in Chapter 5 with the peculiarities of the contents and with the role of this chapter in the plot of the novel. Chapter 5 is the only part of Eugene Onegin that deals with the supernatural universe of fortune-telling and dreams. Chapter 5 is in many ways pivotal in the plot, it foretells the coming events, albeit not necessarily in their actual order, and symbolically introduces characters that are to play important roles in the development of the story. The images of the dream adumbrate Tat’iana’s journey to Moscow along a wintry road, they foretell her future “intended”, and Lenskij’s death at Onegin’s hand. Before going to bed Tat’iana places a little mirror under her pillow, hoping to find out who her “intended”, her future husband, will be; the first character that appears in her dream is a huge bear, “bol’shoj medved’” (compare the heroine’s first impression of her future husband: “Who? that fat General?”).
The Larins’ long wintry journey to Moscow may parallel Tat’iana’s dream passage, slow and laborious, across the deep snow drifts. At the beginning of this passage Tat’iana meets the bear, who brings her to Onegin; in real life, as in the dream, Tat’iana meets her future husband, who later (at a Petersburg ball) brings Onegin to her. In her dream the bear introduces Onegin as his kinsman; the real-life General also turns out to be Onegin’s kinsman.
Another parallel between the dream and reality is the dream feast hosted by Onegin and Tat’iana’s name-day dinner party. The monsters at the dream feast are making a terrible noise; a similar hubbub occurs at the Larins’ dinner party. In the middle of the commotion appear, unexpectedly, Onegin and Lenskij. Lenskij’s appearance in Tat’iana’s nightmare is described using similar vocabulary; this scene is set in almost identical rhythmical-syntactic clichés and placed in the identical position in the stanza (lines 910).
The semantic structure of Chapter 5, as it were, segments the plot into parts: real life; the dream; and real life again; the latter, however, is foretold and coloured by the dream. Probably, the particulars of form in Chapter 5 play the role of “rhythmical italics”. The latter term is used when a fragment of a verse text deviates from the prevailing rhythm, and the rhythmic particulars might be interpreted as signs of the significance of the contents (though, as a rule, there is no organic link between a theme and a rhythm: it is not the elements themselves that are significant, but their correlation). It is also worth noting that lines with enjambements, so frequent in Chapter 5, are isomorphous with its unique compositional characteristics: as noted by G. O. Vinokur, this is the only chapter in the whole poem whose action is continued, without stopping for a moment, into the next chapter.