| Main page | Contents |   Philologica   | Sections | Contributors | Personalia |
  Philologica 3 (1996)  


(On the Sociolinguistic Characteristics of Lomonosov’s Early Versification)


Full text in Russian (HTML) Full text in Russian (PDF)



This work is dedicated to the substantiation of an apparently absurd proposition: the uprising of the Grenadier Company of the Preobrazhenskij Regiment, which took place on the night of 25 November 1741, had a dramatic impact on the fate of Russian versification. The chosen subject is difficult to define except as “vulgarly sociological”: the intention is to demonstrate that the palace revolution which led to Elizabeth Petrovna ascending the throne, directly influenced the rhythmic structure of Russian syllabic-accentual versification.

1. To make this absurd claim clear, it is necessary to reconstruct the evolution of rhythm in Lomonosov’s iambic tetrameters. To do this, all four-foot-iambic verses in his finished works at the minimum length of 6 lines were investigated — circa 6,000 in all. It is known that the initial text of the Khotin Ode (1739) has not come down to us, so the main source for our discussions of the rhythmic peculiarities of Lomonosov’s earliest odes are his two poems dedicated to Ivan Antonovich (summer 1741). They mostly consist of lines with the rhythmic form I (fully stressed lines). In one of these odes, only 6 lines out of 210 contain a pyrrhic foot; in the other, 9 out of 230. With good reason we may surmise that the rhythmic constitution of the Khotin Ode was the same: as Lomonosov himself confirmed, this poem was written in “pure iambic verse”. Thus, fully stressed lines in Lomonosov’s iambic tetrameters of his early period accounted for approximately 95% to 97%, while lines containing two pyrrhics were categorically avoided.

M. L. Gasparov assumed that Lomonosov adhered to this type of rhythm right up to 1743. In reality, however, Lomonosov began systematically to allow pyrrhics in his verses much earlier: from late November or early December 1741. In his Faithful Congratulation on the Occasion of Empress Elizabeth Petrovna’s Ascension to the All-Russian Throne, the proportion of fully stressed lines drops in leaps from 96. 6% to 63. 5%; correspondingly, the number of pyrrhics rises almost tenfold. It is in this ode that the seventh form appears, one which is not found in his earlier poems and in which the second and third feet are pyrrhics. From late 1741 to late 1743 Lomonosov tried several variants of the iambic tetrameter; the first form fluctuates in them between 50% (in Imitation of Psalm 143, 1743) and 85. 4% (in Evening Meditation On the Grandeur of God, 1743). Nonetheless, he never returned to his earlier manner.

In general, the evolution of the rhythm of Lomonosov’s iambic tetrameters progressed as follows. The proportion of stresses on the first two ictuses continuously declined over a period of two decades (to the level of 93. 6% on the first foot and of 75. 1% on the second). The proportion of stresses on the third ictus fell away to 47. 4%, and in the last period it rose again to 55%; this was accompanied by an insignificant rise of the average proportion of stressed feet (from 79. 7% to 80. 9%). Form I dropped from 96. 6% to 23. 2% and then rose to 28. 7%. Form II, which accounted initially for 0. 5%, was fixed at the level of 3% as early as the second period. Form III increased steadily (from 1. 6% to 23. 3%). Form IV reached 48. 2%, and after that its share fell back to 39. 8%. Lines containing two pyrrhics (at first not used at all), accounted in the end for more than 5%; in addition, form VI, which appeared last, is twice as frequent in the later Lomonosov as form VII.

2. Another question concerns the genesis of line forms: why did the early Lomonosov reject pyrrhics and why did he give up lines with four stresses very soon? The complete sway that the first form exercised in the early Lomonosov tends to be explained by the influence of German poetry. However, the role of foreign models was apparently very small. German versification served as the model for all metres of Russian syllabic-accentual verse. Nevertheless, in the early Lomonosov’s iambics over 97% of lines were fully stressed, while in his trochees, less than 33%; in iambus, forms containing two pyrrhics were banned, while in trochee they accounted for 10. 7% from the very beginning. It is most likely that Lomonosov put his own theoretical views into practice: “Pure iambic verses <...> increase the nobility, magnificence and sublimity of the subject”. As far as pyrrhics were concerned, he thought them the marker of lower genres: “I use them <...> only in songs”.

If it was not from any desire to imitate the Germans that Lomonosov avoided pyrrhics in the iambus, and he did so in keeping with his own inner feelings and convictions, then it is even harder to understand why he betrayed himself so suddenly and without motivation. It is generally accepted today that Lomonosov’s admittance of pyrrhics was “a surrender to the demands of accentual structure of the Russian language” (Gasparov). This explanation does not appear very convincing to me: had it been so, our investigation of rhythm would have revealed a slow and gradual increase in the proportion of pyrrhics. The real process was totally different: within a year the number of pyrrhics increased almost tenfold. To all appearances, in late 1741 Lomonosov privately revised his theory of versification, and in particular he radically changed his earlier attitude to pyrrhics.

Of course, in late 1741 there were no “tectonic shifts” in the Russian language; but after the November revolt, a new word appeared in the language of the solemn ode. In summer 1741 Lomonosov had glorified Ivan, holding up Anna and Peter as examples — but from now on he had to glorify Elizabeth, each mention of whom entailed one or even two pyrrhics. This name imposed itself right away as the principal and inalienable component of the language of the solemn ode and as the focus of its vocabulary whose other elements, being subordinated to it, were only called upon to reveal, to the highest possible degree, the content of the image and of the concept implied in the name of the monarch. This is the reason why the introduction of Elizabeth Petrovna’s name into the odic vocabulary brought about the radical reconstruction of the whole system of rhythm. When the poet was faced with the word which, as the semantic nucleus of the ode, at the same time automatically entailed a pyrrhic, he also began to skip stresses where he could avoid it. Lomonosov revised his theory because it began to contradict reality: indeed, he could hardly consider lines containing the name of Her Royal Majesty “irregular and only allowed by poetic licence”! Lines with one pyrrhic exchanged their “low” status for “neutral”, whereas lines with two pyrrhics even turned out to be sublime: for some time their number remained not very high simply because they rather naturally became a kind of rhythmic italics, symbolizing the most sublime subject of the laudatory ode: in the four-foot-iambic odes of 1741—1757 addressed to Elizabeth, 42. 3% of lines bearing two stresses instead of four contained the name of the Empress. If one adds here two-pyrrhic lines comprising the sovereign’s titles, as well as those referring to her by means of pronouns, those describing her activity or adjacent to lines belonging to these categories, it will be found that more than half of the lines with forms VI and VII (51. 9%) were directly associated with the image of the heroine of the odes.

After 1757 the proportion of the “Elizabeth” theme in the total amount of two-pyrrhic lines began to drop rapidly: 15% in the odes of 1759 and 1761, and 10. 2% in the odes written in the years after the death of Elizabeth. Nonetheless, the link between rhythm and theme remained; it is only its character that had changed: the semantic link was replaced by the semiotic. At the beginning, forms VI and VII were very rarely used, and in most cases they accompanied the name and the image of the heroine. Later on, the thematic sphere of two-pyrrhic lines expanded; the same rhythmic forms became “homonymic” in relation to each other and to a large extent indifferent to the content they conveyed. But all the same, the blending of melody with word and meaning had already happened. As before, Elizabeth’s name gravitated towards two-stress lines: in the solemn odes of 1745—1763 they cover almost three fifths of the overall number of mentions of the Empress.

The relevance of the correlation established between melody and “the word-theme” is vividly witnessed by the morphology of the rhythm of lines containing the name of Catherine (Ekaterina). Although it is no shorter than Elizabeth, and also bears stress on the fourth syllable, before 1761, two-stress lines comprised only 20% of the overall number of lines with Ekaterina. After Catherine II became Empress in December 1761, the share of two-pyrrhic lines among all mentions of her name rose to 35. 3%; nonetheless, the record Elizabeth’s name set (58. 8%) was not broken. At the same time, in the lines glorifying Catherine, clichés elaborated earlier in the odes addressed to Elizabeth were chiefly used.

The inconvenience which the external form of the name caused to the poet, provides a good psychological explanation for his attention to the inner form: it is very rare for an ode of Lomonosov’s to avoid the popular etymology of Elizabeth’s name. Even during the Seven Years War it is invariably accompanied by the concepts of “quiet”, “peace”, “tranquillity” or “calm”. Characteristically enough, Elizabeth was the only sovereign the origin of whose name Lomonosov revealed: the others, Peter himself included, were not given etymological explications.

3. To conjecture on the influence of a coup d’etat on versification, it is necessary to imagine what would have happened with verse if this revolt had not taken place, or if it had met with failure. I think that in such a case Lomonosov would have continued writing iambic verses without pyrrhics for years or even decades. It was, in his own words, “a little difficult” to compose them, but it was still possible, all the more so if the early Lomonosov preferred fully-stressed lines to lines with pyrrhics. “Resistance of the material” per se was not capable of making him give up regular alternation.

The influence of Lomonosov on the metric and rhythmic repertoire of Russian poetry of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries is difficult to overestimate. In particular, it was he who set the “standard” figure for the content of fully stressed lines in Russian iambic tetrameter: 25% to 30%. But if the 1741 coup had not taken place or even if it had been delayed, Lomonosov would not have been motivated to revise the status of pyrrhics and change his poetic allegiance. Taking into account the founding role that he played in the history of Russian verse, it is safe to say that, in such a case, history itself would have gone in another direction. One can hardly prove this, but it is possible to find some “circumstantial evidence”. It is provided by the poet whose versification manner was, much more than anybody else’s, orientated towards the Lomonosov of the early 1740s. This poet is Barkov, or the authors of A Girl’s Plaything to be exact, the collection which contains poems permeated with periphrases from the young Lomonosov. In Barkov the amount of the first form is 20% higher than the average number for the period (52. 8%). Another “archaic” feature of Barkov’s rhythm is his restraint in using two-pyrrhic lines (less than 1. 5%); in his Description of the Dawn and Ode to the Fist Fighter, forms VI and VII are not found at all.

Although the importance of Barkov for the history of Russian versification has not been elucidated as yet, what we already know is sufficient to grant him the role of an “intermediary stage” between Lomonosov and Derzhavin. According to Viazemskij’s memoir, Derzhavin, when he was a soldier, “copied out Barkov’s works”. Apparently A Girl’s Plaything became, for him, a kind of versifier’s manual: it was there (in the odes to Priapus and to a monk) that he found the stanzaic form which, some time later, was successfully used in his poems On the Death of Prince Meshcherskij (1779) and To a Dignitary (1794). It was from Barkov that Derzhavin obtained the fundamental principle of his own poetics — the burlesque combination of the “sublime” odic verse and of a style typified by “low” themes and everyday vocabulary. Derzhavin rewrote Barkov, expunging the obvious obscenities, as he did both in his humorous anacreontea and in his meditative lyric poetry. Incidentally, not only the text, but also the rhythm of the ode On the Death of Prince Meshcherskij is dependent on Barkov; the rhythmic structure of this poem is unusual for Derzhavin: of its 88 lines, 46. 6% are fully stressed and none contains two pyrrhics.

We are faced here with the main trend in the history of Russian poetry: Lomonosov — Barkov — Derzhavin — Pushkin (it is but a step from Derzhavin’s ode on the death of Meshcherskij to the song of the President in Pushkin’s The Feast During the Plague). As The Bronze Horseman inherited the tradition of the solemn ode, so Eugene Onegin absorbed that of the burlesque ode. Thus, in the first chapter of Pushkin’s novel in verse one can readily discern echoes of the mock-heroic images and themes of Derzhavin’s Ode to Felica. Therefore, if Lomonosov had composed fully-stressed iambics for another ten or fifteen years, we would not have had either Onegin or the poem on the Bronze Horseman: their versification form (25% to 30% of fully stressed lines) is inalienably linked to their content. Had the number of first-form lines risen by even half as much again, this would have had a dramatic influence on their vocabulary, phraseology and syntax. If one accepts the logic of Vostokov, approved by Zhirmunskij, it is possible, for instance, to surmise that Russian poetry (just like German), in its search for rhythmic diversity, would have made the transition to accentual (tonic) versification or even vers libre in a shorter space of time.

The fact that a sheer accident, an event which had nothing to do with poetry and which was apparently irrelevant to it, could deeply imprint itself on further literary history is striking. It is most likely that such an event could only play its role because at the moment when the poetic language was swayed by it, this language found itself in a period of turbulent formation, and was experiencing a transition from one system to another. The instability of the new system was connected with its small inert mass: there were as yet very few texts written following the rules of Lomonosov’s syllabic-accentual versification. Subsequently, when the tradition got stronger, much greater social upheavals influenced verse to a much lesser degree.


Full text in Russian (HTML) Full text in Russian (PDF)


|| Main page || Contents | Sections | Contributors | Personalia || Books || About the Editors | Reviews | News ||
Design by © Zina deZign 2000 © Philologica Publications 1994-2017