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What do poets do with the Russian hexameter?

October 2, 2013

A while ago the Russian poetry RSS feed featured Pushkin’s 1836 poem “On a Statue of a Boy Playing Babki” (На статую играющего в бабки). It’s four lines in two elegiac couplets, like its companion piece “On a Statue of a Boy Playing Svaika” (На статую играющего в свайку). My intention was to look up how to play the games mentioned. I got as far as learning that babki is a family of games like jacks or knucklebones, played with actual bones (for historical reasons, incidentally, dice are called кости ‘bones’ in Russian, like dominoes in English), and svaika involves trying to throw a spike through a ring on the ground. At that point I got distracted thinking about the so-called Russian hexameter* and who uses it when.

Here’s the Pushkin poem:


Юноша трижды шагнул, наклонился, рукой о колено
Бодро оперся, другой поднял меткую кость.
Вот уж прицелился… прочь! раздайся, народ любопытный,
Врозь расступись; не мешай русской удалой игре.


The statue by N. S. Pimenov that Pushkin saw at an exhibition, which after Pushkin's death was installed in front of the Alexander Palace at Tsarskoe Selo

The statue by N. S. Pimenov that Pushkin saw at an exhibition, which after Pushkin’s death was installed in front of the Alexander Palace at Tsarskoe Selo

A rough prose translation: “The youth thrice took a step, bent over, expertly leant one hand on his knee and raised the throwing bone with the other. Now he has taken aim… be off! disperse, crowd of onlookers, move aside; do not interfere with the rousing Russian game.” As I read it there’s some tension — in the poem, and also in the statue as interpreted by the poet — between the childishness and Russianness of the game (in the word babki, the phrase “rousing Russian game,” and the pose of the statue) on the one hand, and on the other hand the lofty classicalness of the meter, the style in which the statue was executed, and perhaps the very fact of a statue. Maybe this proves that young Russian culture is on the same level as classical culture, or maybe the fact that the statue seems about to come to life and throw the bone shows that Russian culture is so vibrant and connected to its folk roots that it can’t be trapped in classical artificiality. Or both, or something else. In any case the contrast between the Russian and the classical seems key – not nationally specific vs. universal, but one specific cultural form vs. another.

A priori I would have expected the Russian hexameter to go along with Russian treatments of classical themes, like Gnedich’s translation of The Iliad. (Is it just me or does he leave out the mid-third-foot caesura a lot?) And that does happen, but I found more examples of major poets using it for metaliterary mocking of other poets’ neoclassicism (Pushkin, Mandel’shtam), indirect connections to the classical world (Tsvetaeva), shocking or amusing juxtapositions of the modern world and classical meter (Mandel’shtam, Kuzmin), elegant lyrical self-expression (Fet), statements about art (Fet, A. K. Tolstoi). This is getting long, so I’ll save the examples for later.

*The Russian hexameter is an adaptation of the classical Greek and Roman hexameter, which looks like this:

¯˘˘ǀ ¯˘˘ǀ ¯ ǁ˘˘ǀ ¯˘˘ǀ ¯˘˘ǀ ¯ ¯

Six feet, with a caesura (word boundary, not necessarily a pause) somewhere in the middle of the third foot. The feet can be dactyls (¯˘˘) or spondees (¯ ¯). The very last syllable automatically counts as long, and the last foot is always a spondee. The fifth foot is almost always a dactyl, so you hear the end of a line as ¯˘˘ǀ ¯ ¯. In Latin the long and short marks stand for long and short syllables, and in Russian they stand roughly for stressed and unstressed syllables. Extra substitutions are allowed in Russian, though: you’ll see ¯˘ (stressed-unstressed) counting as ¯ ¯ in more than just the last syllable. To make an elegiac couplet, you take one of the hexameter lines above and alternate it with the following “pentameter”:

¯˘˘ǀ ¯˘˘ǀ ¯ ǁ ¯˘˘ǀ ¯˘˘ǀ ¯

In these “pentameter” lines of two 2 1/2-foot hemistichs the last full foot is usually a dactyl (the end of the line tends to be ¯˘˘ǀ ¯), but the others can be spondees.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. October 3, 2013 5:03 am

    Крив был Гнедич поэт, преложитель слепого Гомера,
    Боком одним с образцом схож и его перевод.

    А.С. Пушкин

    • October 3, 2013 1:50 pm

      Замечательные стихи, спасибо, что напомнили! 🙂

  2. October 3, 2013 8:47 am

    Surely this is a pretty much bog-standard (though of course of high quality, being by Pushkin!) example of mock-classical verse, something that thrives wherever there is a sufficient quantity of readers versed in the classics. The Greek Anthology is full of lofty-sounding hexameters describing everyday or ludicrous people and events; there are whole books about this sort of thing. I myself composed a mock-classical lament when a grad-school friend got her hair cut (“Alas, Ianthe, for thy hair!”) and a parody of classical Chinese poetry when a sinologist friend went to Peking (“Around us, ten thousand officials sweated at desks;/ We two, between the green banks, seemed alone in the world.”). I don’t think any special exegesis of form and function is needed here.

    I thank you for drawing my attention to the unusual (obsolete?) adjective мёткий ‘(good) for throwing’; I had been familiar only with меткий ‘well-aimed, accurate.’

    • October 3, 2013 2:10 pm

      That’s a fair enough view, and you’ll probably find my next post unutterably tedious! I love that you’ve written this kind of poetry yourself, and thanks for including the pseudo-classical Chinese example. What meter was “Alas, Ianthe, for thy hair!” written in?

      Mock-epic poems, whether by Pope or V. I. Maikov aren’t necessarily written in (this kind of) hexameter, and meter isn’t the only, or the most common, way for writers to wink at their classically educated readers. To me (and possibly only to me!) it’s interesting why a Russian poet might use the French neoclassicists’ alexandrins for neoclassical purposes, and save the mock-classical Russian hexameter for something else.

      • October 4, 2013 8:35 am

        “…why a Russian poet might use the French neoclassicists’ alexandrains for neoclassical purposes…”

        Speaking specifically of Pushkin’s most famous alexandrine, “Памятник”, it is to some degree a remake of Derzhavin’s alexandrine of the same title (and possibly of Kapnist’s). In his turn, Derzhavin probably looked to Sumarokov’s translations from the French classicists and Knyazhnin’s Russian tragedies for metric guidance.

        Which does not mean the Russian alexandrine was immune to the mock-heroic or burlesque – see Fonvizin’s “Послание.” Also see Pushkin’s “discussion” of that meter in the full version of “Домик в Коломне”.

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