Academic journal article Style

Verse Structure and Literary Tradition: The Interaction between Rhyme and Stress in the Onegin Stanza

Academic journal article Style

Verse Structure and Literary Tradition: The Interaction between Rhyme and Stress in the Onegin Stanza

Article excerpt


Rhythm and Rhyme

Across the world's folklore and literary traditions, the principles of verse organization take a bewildering variety of forms, ranging from parallelism and alliteration to regulation of syllabic length and complex stanzaic structures. (1) This formal diversity notwithstanding, it is typologically common across cultures to draw the distinction between maximally organized and less-organized varieties of marked ("literary") language, which roughly maps on the opposition between "verse" and "prose" in Western literatures. This distinction appears to be fundamental to the artistic use of human language, even though it can be complicated by ties of common descent, such as those uniting Slavic folk systems of versification, or historical influences that connect national literary cultures, as in the case of the borrowing of Classical Greek meters by the Romans. (2) Cross-cultural ubiquity of verse might lead us to downplay the evidence of literary history, foregrounding instead universal aspects of cognition; it also poses the problem of fit between languages and metrical systems, that is, of the extent to which the prosody of a particular language favors or rules out particular forms of verse organization. (3) Indeed, over the past decades, theory of verse has largely become a province of phonologists, while linguistics at large has moved closer to cognitive science and away from the study of literary forms and their evolution.

The very nature of the data, nevertheless, demands that the most challenging problems in verse theory be confronted with the combined ammunition of literary-historical and structural-linguistic methodologies. In this article, we address one such problem--the interaction between rhythm (stress patterns internal to the poetic line) and rhyme (repetition of line endings)--on the basis of an in-depth statistical study of the Onegin stanza, a poetic form that developed within Russian syllabo-accentual system of versification in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In particular, we explore how different principles of metrical organization interact (a) within a particular literary work, (b) in a stanzaic form that evolves as part of a literary tradition, and (c) in a literary system viewed as a whole. Our approach to the use of scientifically verifiable methods in the humanities is in line with the Russian tradition of poetics, which has been open to statistical methods since the 1920s. (4)

In spite of substantial advances in the study of stress-based meters in traditions such as English and Russian and a well-established consensus on the typology of rhyme across European traditions, very little is known about how rhythm and rhyme are related. (5) As we endeavor to show, etymology, in this case, is less deceptive than it might appear. Both rhyme and rhythm are related to Latin rhythmus, itself a borrowing from Greek (Brogan 1053). As Emile Benveniste shows, the Greek term [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] was the principal means of conceptualizing form in Archaic lyric poetry and pre-Socratic philosophy and, only beginning with Plato, assumed the meaning "form of movement," particularly of recurrent movement. (6) Sprouting from this fundamental concept of form, the terms rhyme and rhythm, across European languages, came to denote aspects of formal organization that were associated with new vernacular systems of versification, as opposed to Classical prosody (Gasparov, A History 97-98). (In Greek and Roman literary cultures, stress patterns and parallel line endings were not an essential part of verse; the latter was, however, relevant for rhetorical prose.)

The fine-grained analysis of the inner dynamic of the Onegin stanza promises more than an insight into the interaction between basic constituent formal features of European postclassical verse. It offers a glimpse into the workings of what Mikhail Bakhtin describes as "genre memory," referring to the life of literary forms as symbolic structures that persist over centuries and millennia, accumulating meanings of which the author employing these forms is not fully aware (109-37). …

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