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  Philologica 8 (2003/2005)  
   
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M. I. SHAPIR

SEMANTIC LEITMOTIFS OF
THE MOCK-HEROIC OTTAVA RIMA
(Byron — Pushkin — Timur Kibirov)

 
 
 



 

Summary

1. It is generally thought that Pushkin laid the foundation for the Russian mock-heroic ottava rima with his Little House in Kolomna (1830). But Pushkin had forebearers in the genre, the most important of which, it is thought, was Barry Cornwall. Conventional scholarly wisdom has it that “the influence of Byron on Little House in Kolomna” bore “a more superficial character” (V. M. Zhirmunskij). However, this point of view can be explained only by the lack of detailed comparisons of Pushkin’s narrative poem with Beppo and Don Juan.

Besides the few dozen highly convincing textual correspondences (such as the comparison of the versifier to Napoleon), these works reveal a deep similarity on a broad range of textual levels. Byron and Pushkin both create burlesque parodies of an epic genre characterized, in part, by the octave. Both authors “turn inside out” conventional poetic mythology, deflate it with everyday life, combining canonical poeticisms with “prosaic” vocabulary and phraseology. Just like Beppo and Don Juan, Little House in Kolomna parodies the traditional themes of the epic poem (war, wandering and love).

Along with the rehashing of high models, self-parody plays an important role: Little House in Kolomna is tied to Pushkin’s early works in the same way as Don Juan and Beppo are tied to Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage and Byron’s oriental poems. In Little House in Kolomna researchers have found paraphrases from Ruslan and Liudmila, Eugene Onegin, Count Nulin and Poltava, but much has not yet been noted in this regard. This article examines new examples of the parodic transposition of images and motifs from Ruslan and Liudmila, Eugene Onegin and, most importantly, Gypsies — the plots, characters, conflicts and texts of which are travestied in Little House in Kolomna.

2. Beppo and Don Juan differ from pre-Byronic mock-heroic poems in several respects: the organization of plot and composition, narrative tone and devices, themes and style. But the most important difference is the unusual combination of all these features, which are all appropriated in Little House in Kolomna.

The most important feature Pushkin appropriated is the insignificance of the fabula: it is neglected and wanes into an “empty” anecdote. In burlesque octaves à la Byron, the story always hinges on an erotic adventure (as in Beppo and Little House), or several such adventures (as in Don Juan). The direct source of the story in Little House is the obscene folk tale Marfutka the Farm Hand. But Pushkin’s interest in this folk tale was piqued by Byron, who combined the form of the epic octave with the motifs of adultery, masquerade, cross-dressing and transvestism. The genetic duality of Little House in Kolomna is reflected in the “moral of the story” provided in the poem’s finale. The first part of the moral (<...> Hiring a cook on the cheap is dangerous <...>) is indirectly linked to folklore: You shouldn’t be so cheap, Priest (Pushkin, The Tale of the Priest and his Hired Hand Balda, 1830). The rest of it comes from Byron, who says that, for men, the compulsion to shave is the same kind of penance as parturition is for women (Don Juan, XIV, xxiii— xxiv).

A set of characteristic narrative devices was developed in comic poems of the Byronic type. The most important of these devices are the lengthy “introductory remarks” and “unexpected digressions” (V. Ia. Briusov), as well as the conversational intonation and speech addressed directly to the reader, which serve to create an atmosphere of artless chat. The reduction of plot to nearly total insignificance is aggravated by ellipses and retardations; poets who, it sometimes seems, have nothing “of importance” to say even acknowledge that they themselves do not know the story anyway. The poets’ insistence that they want nothing more than to finish what they started as quickly as possible, even as they engage in such voluminous asides, confounds the reader.

Byron and Pushkin call their poems gay and merry, but often their laughter thinly veils other emotions: melancholy, sadness, depression, anger. A central feature of this kind of burlesque is the discordant combination not only of incompatible styles, but also of incompatible emotions. Meanwhile, the poet is obliged to imbue the work with the characteristic features of the comic, and therefore declares war on melancholy — a war which takes the same forms.

Yet another feather of the Byronic travesty is that it is metaliterary: it can be said of both Don Juan and Little House in Kolomna that this is, in many respects, poetry about poetry. The poetic introspection of Byron and Pushkin is rooted in their strikingly similar literary biographies: after the delighted reception their early works received, both were confronted with an audience whose ardour had cooled, with the incomprehension and perfidiousness of the critics, whose attacks are reflected in the poems. The authors’ reply to those who demand edification, profit, and a lofty aim from art is also linked to literary polemic. Byron and Pushkin both insist on the right to choose their subjects freely, and both ridicule moralizing.

In mock-heroic octaves, particular units of metalanguage are often foregrounded: the reader encounters a great many terms from poetics and rhetoric, and questions of poetic technique are discussed in some depth. Byron and Pushkin proclaim their inability to versify, but these disingenuous lamentations serve only one purpose: to sharpen the reader’s interest in form. Only in this context can the author fully demonstrate the poetic virtuosity that enables him to perform technical feats of exceptional complexity. Both poets are perfectly well aware of their powers, which — despite the rhetorical figures of self-deprecation — somehow inadvertently breaks through in their verse.

3. The powerful impulse Pushkin got from Byron had almost nothing to do with the poetic structure of Little House in Kolomna: to explain the origins of the poem’s stanzaic form, we must return to Russian soil.

The octave was introduced into Russian poetry by Feofan Prokopovich (1730), but his example did not influence later Russian translators of Tasso’s octaves. Relying on German models, Zhukovskij became the founder of the Russian iambic octave. He broke the rule of alternance: different feminine rhymes clash with one another on the interstanzaic boundaries of his octaves. The first to avoid this by dissimilating adjacent stanzas was Del’vig, in his epistle To My Friends (1817), written just before graduation from the Lycée. It consists of two octaves, the key feature of which is that Del’vig follows the rule of alternance: the first octave starts with a masculine line, and the second starts with a feminine.

In alternating feminine and masculine rhymes in the first line of each stanza, Pushkin constructed the octaves of Little House in Kolomna according to the schema projected by Del’vig and later rejected by Katenin (1822). However, he appropriated only Del’vig’s stanzaic structure; stylistically, generically and thematically, Little House in Kolomna carries on the tradition of the mock-heroic ottava rima — of English poetry and, before it, Italian poetry. But a few years before Pushkin set about writing Little House, Mixail Zagorskij (1804—1824) had already managed to combine burlesque semantics with the intonation of casual conversation in iambic pentameter octaves, strictly adhering to the alternance on stanzaic boundaries.

In one of the variants of the introduction to the “bogatyr long poem” Il’ia Muromec (1820—1824), which Zagorskij’s early death prevented him from finishing, the young poet crossed both evolutionary lines of the octave: the elegiac and meditative line associated with Goethe, and the epic line associated with Ariosto. (Zhukovskij served as the Russian intermediary for the first, and Pushkin’s Ruslan and Liudmila brought the second line to the Russian public.) However, in the last stanzas of the introduction, Zagorskij abruptly changes tone, and instead of fluid, lofty epos, we see a self-parody, the intonation of which presages Little House in Kolomna. In Zagorskij’s treatment the mock-heroic octave, something completely new to Russian poetry, acquired an emotional multifariousness that is astounding by virtue of both the breadth of its stylistic range and the ease with which it crosses from theme to theme. The poet rapidly descends from elegiac heights to jokes, the inspired bard turns into an incorrigible chatterbox, invocations of Imagination are exchanged for abuse of the Muse, and choice Slavonicisms and poeticisms are crowded out by vulgarisms and pejoratives.

Little House in Kolomna is filled with allusions to Zagorskij, starting with the disrespectful invocation of the Muse, who is instructed to stay put: But what’s with you, Muse, hold on! (Zagorskij) — Sit down, Muse: keep your shirt on, // Keep your feet under the table! don’t squirm, frisky! (Pushkin). Both Il’ia Muromec and Little House in Kolomna contain words highly untypical in ottava rima, such as kanape ‘settee’ and dura ‘silly woman’ (in both poems the latter, directly or not, characterizes the Muse).

4. Though Little House in Kolomna was a critical and commercial failure, it soon began to inspire imitations and brought about a whole “family” of narrative poems written in octaves: from Lermontov’s The Aul of Bastundzhi (1833—1834) to Timur Kibirov’s Crappers (1991). Crappers is built as a parody on the epic poem and includes the genre’s brand: the introduction outlining the subject of the poem and the invocation. Though the poet intends to sing the praises of crappers, he turns for help to the Muse of epic poetry, just like the author of Eugene Onegin. Such low subject matter in mock-heroic octaves was dictated by the Byronic tradition: “a versifier may take up the most inconsequential subject” (Pushkin).

Byron did not sink to descriptions of latrines and defecation — the leitmotif of Don Juan is the functioning of digestive organs. Pushkin took the next step by introducing the defecation motif into the subtext of Little House in Kolomna and alluding to the corresponding bodily organ with three rhymes in -opa. The same device is used by Kibirov, who found three more rhymes for this tabooed word (zhopa). Incontinence and dyspepsia in his poem become “synonyms” for the lack of poetic restraint and graphomania (Pushkin resorted to similar metaphors). From what would seem to be epigrammatic material, Kibirov constructs the core storyline of a mock-heroic poem, which, like his teachers in this genre, he garlands with a series of anecdotes; but he has a different objective: not to deflate that which is considered poetic, but to poeticize that which is considered lowly, and as a result crappers swell to the dimensions of a geopolitical and sociocultural symbol. Moreover, the fundamental themes that the burlesque inherited from classical antiquity accumulate: three lines in the mock-heroic narrative of Crappers (love, war and wandering) are assembled around the lyrical hero, whose presence allows the author to conflate the Byronic strain with the Goethean strain, and comic semantics with elegiac semantics.

The intonation of casual conversation neutralizes the contradiction between incompatible stylistic forms. The stylistic spectrum of Crappers is even broader than Pushkin’s: Kibirov painstakingly mixes together biblical and poetic language, colloquial speech and vulgarisms, argot and barbarisms, medical, technical, grammatical and prosodic terminology, the language of children and professional jargon, quotations from folklore, from popular songs, from the poetry of both the masses and the elite. As in Little House, this mixture is cemented by the author’s intonation, the lively conversation with his interlocutor: the author drags out the beginning, launches into numerous digressions, suddenly cuts himself off, skips forward and returns. The illusion of interaction is strengthened by the frequency with which the lyrical subject addresses himself to the reader.

At the end of the poem, the principle of a parodic “moral” is subverted: Pushkin just cannot “squeeze out” content (the moral), and, try as he might, Kibirov cannot “squeeze out” form (the line). Kibirov makes liberal use of this sort of inversion, and the form and content of Little House switch places several times in Crappers. It is to “the little boys, as a plaything” that Pushkin leaves the meter he is fed up with, whereas Kibirov abandons to them an ideology he is fed up with. Formally, Little House does end with a moral, but in fact this “moral” is a refusal to offer morals. In Crappers, on the other hand, the moral is absent, but only nominally: the act of opposing the acceptance of Creation to the rejection of social reality comprises the poem’s implicit moral.

5. Crappers gravitates towards centoism. The circle of authors quoted and paraphrased is wide: from chrestomathic classics (Lomonosov, Lermontov, Blok, Mandel’shtam, Pasternak, Dostoevskij, Chexov, Gogol’) to third-rate Soviet poets and folklore.

The most important source of these quotations is Pushkin: Crappers starts with him (the epigraph from Table-Talk) and ends with him (And poor old Pushkin falls out of my hands). Little House and the works associated with it in terms of style and verse are the works most often quoted and alluded to in Crappers. Discussions of prosody, attacks on contemporary critics and periodicals, and a memoiristic intonation are all in the tradition of the mock-heroic ottava rima. Kibirov also employs the repetition of rhythmic-syntactic figures as an intertextual device. For example: <...> Her cousin, Vera  //  Ivanovna (Little House) -<...> tall was his wife, Larisa  // Gennadievna (Crappers), etc. The prosodic anomalies of Little House are exaggerated in Crappers: Kibirov answers Pushkin’s culminating seven-line stanza with one seven-line stanza and two nine-line stanzas.

Eugene Onegin is the second most-quoted work in Crappers. Among the motifs appropriated from Onegin are transitory ones that originate with Byron (such as, for example, the comparison of two alcoholic beverages, one of which is bad for the drinker’s health and thus compared to a female lover). Kibirov’s subtexts also include The Monk, The Gabrieliad, Count Nulin, Mozart and Salieri, The Tale of the Tsar Saltan, The Bronze Horseman and Pushkin’s lyrical poetry...

Kibirov’s hypertrophic intertextuality resonates with the invariable structure of the mock-heroic octave, which was passed down from author to author together a with more or less stable set of formal-semantic leitmotifs. On the surface, Kibirov’s centoism is the child of postmodernism, which proclaimed “the death of the author” and which appropriates alien texts as elements of the author’s own language. The poetic word becomes alienated from the narrator: in a language woven from collectivized texts, the personal utterance is out of place and insincere. In this situation, Kibirov has achieved the near-impossible: while not breaking with the practice of the postmodern, the author of Crappers dared to begin to speak “in his own voice” in the language of lexicalized texts.

 



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