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  Philologica 4 (1997)  
   
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S. E. LIAPIN

DEMYTHOLOGIZING THE RHYTHM
OF THE RUSSIAN IAMBIC TETRAMETER
(Primarily on the Basis of Derzhavin’s Odic Verse)

 
 
 


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Summary

The iambic tetrameter is the most commonly studied Russian verse form. Despite this, scholars’ thinking about the 4-foot iambus is dominated by a whole series of myths. One of them is the myth that eighteenth-century poets preferred to skip stresses on the second foot, rather than on the first: as compared with the theoretical model and “occasional” iambs in prose, the actual poetic line reinforces all three feet, and the second foot more than the first. Another myth tells us that eighteenth-century poets (and Derzhavin first and foremost) were fond of lines with the rhythmic form III (in which the second foot is pyrrhic) and tended to avoid the lines with form IV (in which the third foot is pyrrhic): “<...> wherever Derzhavin used the line of the ‘V serebrianoj svoej porfire’ type, the poet of the new <that is, Pushkin’s. — S. L. > epoch would have written: ‘V svoej serebrianoj porfire’” (M. L. Gasparov). In reality, however, in Derzhavin the frequency of the third form is lower, and the frequency of the fourth is higher than the “natural” (according to theory).

V. E. Xolshevnikov tried to substantiate Derzhavin’s alleged “predilection” for the rhythmic form III by means of an analysis of “isomeric” lines, that is, lines containing the same types of words which are arranged in different orders: Blagoslovliaj sudeb udarSudeb blagoslovliaj udar, V serebrianoj svoej porfireV svoej serebrianoj porfire, Idet ognistaia zariaOgnistaia idet zaria, and so on. Given that the distribution of words is accidental, the proportion of “isomers” of different forms should be approximately equal. In 11 odes of Derzhavin, third- and fourth-form lines proved to be represented almost equally. It means that no rhythmic tendency can be found in Derzhavin. There is, however, a syntactic tendency: disyllabic pronouns and nouns tend to appear in the middle of isomeric lines (Issleduem tvoi deian’ia, Zhelaniem chestej razmuchen), whereas disyllabic verbs tend to appear at the beginning (Proshu velikogo proroka, Voskres otechestva otec).

In toto, the order of words in Derzhavin’s language is absolutely independent of the rhythm, but this word order can create the illusion of rhythmic preferences and aversions. This is the reason why a quantitative study of rhythm can give reliable results only when there is homogeneity of the statistical data. The comparison of Derzhavin’s and Pushkin’s rhythm shows that one can speak of a rhythmic tendency only in the case when material which is heterogeneous in terms of its syntax confirms a general rhythmic regularity (such as, for example, a partial ban on the use of the third form in Pushkin). If the results, based on different excerpts, are qualitatively different (as is the case in Derzhavin), there is no reason to maintain the existence of rhythmic preferences.

The multifaceted analysis of Derzhavin’s iambic tetrameter enables us to infer that all the three rhythmic forms with one pyrrhic are on an equal footing; in Derzhavin, there is no “competition” between lines which contain a pyrrhic on the first, second or third foot: their frequency is close to the “language” (“prose”) norm. However, we consider this feature of Derzhavin’s verse to be rhythmically significant: the main proof of this is the stability of Derzhavin’s rhythm, which is especially indicative against the background of his sporadic experiments with rhythm which anticipated the four-foot iambus of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

 


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