It’s been said that if one reads the Fatiha (the opening chapter of the Quran), that person understands the totality of that book. Much the same could be said of the first ten verses of Eugene Onegin.
All the themes are here. There’s love, loss, and learning… arrogance, grooming, and indifference.
Pushkin first introduces us to Eugene in the second verse, but really he’s there from the very start.
What folly it is to care for things that are half dead, Pushkin writes. Surely this must be a metaphor for much of Onegin’s calculus. Throughout the journey which is to come, we will see Onegin engage and disengage as he teases his way towards the loss and pain of both others and himself.
Another striking feature of verse two is how global Onegin [the text] has become. Onegin [the man] hails from the Neva, as Pushkin assumes many of his readers must have as well. While Onegin is clearly read in St. Petersburg, this line is especially lovely for someone like me, who writes you today from Maryland, though much of my love for Onegin developed while living in Asia. It is worth noting that I’ve been to the Neva, to Pushkin’s apartment nonetheless, but the text has taken on far more meaning to me since that trip in 1997 than it ever had before that journey.
From here, we learn of Onegin’s learning, while always being reminded that this knowledge somehow makes him different. Even in his skill, as in the events and parties which are to come, Onegin is isolated. His knowledge in economics is used to show how little his uncle knew of the the world. His impressive schooling was forced upon him via game and folly, and all fell to the side once love came to call.
That Pushkin obsessed over Don Juan the way I obsess over Pushkin should surprise no one who reads Onegin. Nabokov says this of Onegin’s mastery of/obsession with love:
what he more firmly knew than all the arts,
what since his prime had been to him
toil, torment, and delight,
what occupied the livelong day
his fretting indolence was
the art of soft passion
This observation is, of course, pregnant. They who are obsessed with love in this way are not romantics. Perhaps they are sociopaths. Perhaps they themselves are the loneliest of sorts (terrified of forever being this way, in fact). But they are not romantics. And so Onegin from the start should be seen as one in conflict even when he is at his best. His cleverness? A facade.
I proposed that a deep knowledge of verses 1-10 could impart an understanding of the story as a whole, and nowhere is this more true than in verse 10. Stanley Mitchell translates it thus, “Loving one thing exclusively, How self-forgetting he could be!” and this certainly speaks to the obsession Onegin felt for love.
However, there’s more. As we approach the final lines of this tale (and long before then if we pay attention), it’s the translation of Douglas Hofstadter that we would be best to keep in mind:
He breathed but love, he loved but love,
And lost himself in quest thereof.
It’ll take us awhile to get there, but the end is tragically the same. Onegin will love. Onegin will lose. The rest is just the most beautiful story ever told.