A Guide to Poetry #2: Verse Forms #7: The Onegin Stanza

The Pushkin Sonnet, also known as the Onegin stanza, is a verse form created by Russian poet and novelist Alexander Pushkin for his novel in verse, Eugine Onegin. It is a more unusual sonnet than the English or Italian, and rarely used.

It again has 14 lines, but they have a peculiar rhyme scheme of aBaBccDDeFFeGG. The lower case letters denote lines with feminine endings in Russian, which is hard to replicate in English. It is not, however, impossible. We learned earlier how Shakespeare might make a pentameter feminine by adding an extra unstressed syllable to the end. Here, we’ll just ensure a masculine line ends with a stressed syllable and a feminine with an unstressed.

Example

The only poet/novelist to use the Onegin stanza in English that I could find is Vikram Seth. He doesn’t actually stick to tetrameter, either, though he does keep to the masculine/feminine scheme.

 

It’s Friday night, the unfettered city

Resounds with hedonistic glee.

John feels a cold cast of self pity

Envelop him. No family

Cushions his solitude, or rather

His mother’s dead, his English father

Retired in his native Kent,

Rarely responds to letters sent

(If rarely) by his transatlantic

Offspring. In letters to The Times

He rails against the nameless crimes

Of the post office. Waxing frantic

About delays from coast to coast

He hones his wit and damns the post.

 

It should be noted that this, like any example from, Eugine Onegin, is part of a larger narrative and is not a single poem. However, since it ends with a couplet, I see no reason why it can’t potentially stand alone.

 

Let’s give it a go!

 

To whom I speak, I will speak softly

When I tell of the only breeze

That splits the boughs and passes roughly

Through woods of hearts, not woods of trees.

 

Betrayal’s den, it gives no quarter,

Nor to thickets of Sorrow’s daughter.

 

For jealous thoughts, it does not stop,

And down solitude’s timber chops.

 

When pain has grown its fearful bracken

Around your soul, across your heart;

Before its constriction can start,

Because of this, you’ll feel it slacken

 

And now that we draw to the end

The wind I speak of is your friend.

Laurence Thompson, 16th December 2011

 

Closing thoughts

Oh shite, what a sentimental poem. I think I can be forgiven for this, because the Onegin stanza is almost fucking impossible to write! I’ve stuck reasonably tightly to iambic tetrameter, throwing in an extra end syllable for feminine endings, but Christ, that ridiculous rhyme scheme on top was bloody hard. No wonder Seth varied up the metre. I have new-found respect for the man as possibly the most skilled English-language novelist going if the whole of The Golden Gate is like that!

As usual, the final version of the poem will be found in the anthology, to be posted at a later date. I think the sentimentality is actually enhanced by the tetrameter (more thoughts on this vs pentameter can be found here), and reduced slightly by the rhyme scheme.

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Laurence Thompson

Laurence Thompson is an English writer. He is almost certainly drunk.

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