The Eugene Onegin Guide – Bonus post: Onegin as a demon

An extra blog post in which I explore the relation between Pushkin’s well known poem A Demon and his masterpiece Eugene Onegin.

I originally intended to save A Demon and its relevance for Eugene Onegin for the conclusion of this series, but it turned out that there was so much to tell and philosophise about, that I felt it deserved a separate blog post.

The poem A Demon

The poem was written in the autumn of 1823, a few months after Pushkin had started to write in Eugene Onegin. In chapter 8 the relevance of the poem becomes clear, as the first four words of chapter 8 are exactly the same as the first four words of A Demon: ‘В те дни, когда’, ‘in days when’ in the Falen translation, literally ‘in those days when’. In stanza 12 Pushkin makes a direct reference to the poem and links Onegin to the demon: ‘or even Demon of my pen’ followed in the next line with ‘Eugene, (to speak of him again)’.

In the poem a still young, pure and idealistic poet (Pushkin) is visited by a demon. This demon mocks all the pure and beautiful things that inspire the poet and causes him to doubt his talents. He personifies that little voice in your head that tells you that you’re not nearly as good at something as so and so, so why should you even start to write, study, do anything? He’s the main cause of your procrastination habits and writer’s block. The demon stands opposite the muse, the bringer of inspiration and motivation. Luckily for us Pushkin overcame his demon and continued to write.

The Poet – Muse – Demon triangle

You could say that Eugene Onegin is an elaboration (or processing) of the poet-muse-demon idea: the poet is the narrator / Pushkin; the muse is the narrator / Pushkin’s muse and Tatyana; and Onegin is the demon.

Pushkin assumes that the reader is familiar with his other work and private life. The hint he gives by starting chapter 8 with the same words as his well known poem, would have been picked up by the reader of that time: the demon (Onegin) will make his appearance. Only this time the four words are followed by the entrance of the muse first and Onegin appears later. Seven beautiful stanzas long praises Pushkin his muse, clear proof that she has conquered over the demon and is now his faithful ally.

Onegin became at some point in his youth bored and disillusioned (1:38) and the narrator, who was then in a similar life phase (1:45) (or possibly even infected by Onegin (1:46)), became friends with him. To escape their daily spleen they are planning to go travelling together. Due to the unexpected death of Onegin’s uncle, the narrator has to go alone. The narrator manages to find inspiration again, but Onegin is soon bored again. Now the naive Lensky becomes his friend. This goes well for a while, but eventually Lensky will bring out the worst in Onegin, which results in him killing Lensky, as foreseen in Tatyana’s dream.

Pushkin created some kind of alter ego with Lensky; a stylised version of his young self, full of poetic ideals, but also a lot of commonplaceness. Even the choice of his muse, Olga, is too predictable: ‘But glance in any novel – you’ll discover her portrait there; it’s charming, true; I liked it once no less than you, but round it boredom seems to hover’ (2:23). Pushkin lets Lensky take all the demon’s (Onegin’s) negative impact and even sacrifices him to the demon.

The naive Lensky fails to see that Onegin is a demon and allows himself to be tricked into jealousy by him. This failure shows his incapability to grow as a poet. In addition to this his choosing Olga as his eternal muse is a sign that he does not really have what it takes. And so he has to die as a young poet.

Onegin does not deserve Tatyana, who is a true and good muse, because he is no poet, and because of his incapability to grow out of this phase of imitation and negativity. Even if he eventually shows some capability of having real feelings for Tatyana, this is too little too late.

The muse, Tatyana, conquers. Onegin is left behind defeated while she leaves the room with her head held high (8:48). And so Pushkin has successfully turned his demon into a muse and a masterpiece was born.

*****

I hope to see you all on Sunday for the grande finale!

I used the following works for this blog post:

Through the magic crystal to Eugene Onegin – Leslie O’Bell

The author – narrator’s stance in Onegin – J.Thomas Shaw

The muse and the demon in the poetry of Pushkin, Lermontov and Blok – Pamela Davidson

The poem ‘A Demon’ was translated by James Falen

Text and photos © 2020 Elisabeth van der Meer

13 thoughts on “The Eugene Onegin Guide – Bonus post: Onegin as a demon

  1. Oh Elisabeth, you have answered the question that had been hovering in the back of my mind. Everything, it seemed to me, linked to the muse, but when there is a muse there is often the opposite. Now, I understand. Thank you for this most excellent post. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Thank you, Rebecca. I also feel that this was the missing piece of the puzzle. It certainly explains a lot. And it’s a comfort to know that even a genius like Pushkin struggled with completely human things such as ‘lack of inspiration’.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Thank you for this enhancing post to the Eugene Onegin series, Elisabeth! How often we forget that a demon ‘muse’ is always lurking in order to mock the beautiful and to paralyze creativity.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. This is almost a Jungian interpretation of the novel’s characters as different aspects of the artist’s persona and even of the outside forces that be! Or do you think that such outside forces do not exist, but that rather each of us is the portal for channeling both the good (inspiration) and bad (demons)?

    Liked by 2 people

  5. I found it fascinating to view the novel like this. Personally I do not believe that something like inspiration is an outside force. I don’t think that Pushkin believed that either, although he speaks about the muse and demon as outside forces in his work, but I have always interpreted that as a nod to Greek mythology. So the poem was a poetic and very classical way of expressing a period where he lacked inspiration. I think it’s more than likely that Eugene Onegin was based on the same demon idea, but over the course of the eight years that it took to write it started to lead a life of its own.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Amazing, Elisabeth! I absolutely love Lermontov’s Demon, but had no idea that Pushkin has a poem of the same name too 🙂 Thank you for this discovery 🙂
    Hope all is well.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I was so fascinated when I read about Pushkin’s poem, that I felt that it deserved a separate post. Apparently it was this poem together with a poem about an angel that inspired Lermontov to write his Demon 😊
    All good here and I hope with you too! 🤗

    Liked by 1 person

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