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Purposes of the hexameter

October 3, 2013

As a follow-up to yesterday’s post, here’s a quick typology of Russian hexameter poems. Many of them have titles, but I quote the first line to show the meter; follow the link for the title and full poem. Some of the Fet poems may have the additional purpose of making erotic images respectable (or, conversely, of urging us to look for something erotic in the innocuous poetic language). In the dates it looks like there are flare-ups in popularity in the 1830s-1840s and again in the 1890s-1920s with the modernists, but that probably reflects which poets I’ve read as much as what’s out there.

My working theory is that there are four broad ways Russian poets use hexameters:

  • NEOCLASSICAL. Poems on properly classical themes, poems commenting on others’ neoclassicism, jokes based on classical commonplaces.
  • STATEMENTS ABOUT ART. Poems that make an ostensibly universal argument about aesthetics, often treating ancient and modern artists as of a single, continuous species.
  • TIMELESS SCENES. Poems on supposedly unchanging phenomena like love, nature, and human psychology, often with imagery and realia equally appropriate for the classical and modern worlds.
  • CONTRASTS OF CULTURES. Russian vs. classical culture, or paganism vs. Christianity, or the ancient vs. the modern. These can be explicit or implicit, with one side of the contrast represented only by the distinctive meter, and can be serious, comic, or in between.

A1. Poems on classical themes

Fet: “Ярко блестящая пряжка над белою полною грудью” (1842; story of Sleep/Hypnos and Pasithea)

A2. Poems that mock others’ neoclassicism

Pushkin: “Внук Тредьяковского Клит гекзаметром песенки пишет” (1813?, an epigram on a poet who writes in hexameters instead of plain iambs, ending with “The iamb left the rhymester cold, whereas he will chill the hexameters”)

Pushkin: “Крив был Гнедич поэт, преложитель слепого Гомера” (1830, “Lame was Gnedich the poet, arranger translator of blind Homer,” mentioned by Alexej Dischenko yesterday; Languagehat convinced me “translator” is better than “arranger”)

Mandel’shtam: “Катится по небу Феб в своей золотой колеснице —/ Завтра тем же путем он возвратится назад” (the link has several other such jokes from the 1910s; this one translates to “Phoebus rides through the heavens in his golden chariot/ Tomorrow he will go back the same way.”)

A3. Poems commenting on neoclassicism without mockery

Pushkin: “Слышу умолкнувший звук божественной эллинской речи” (written 1830, “I hear the long-silent sound of divine Hellenic speech”)

B1. Universal statements about art, without specific ancient or modern figures

Viacheslav Ivanov: “Все песнопевцам от Муз: и наставничий жезл, и, с цевницей” (no later than 1902; timeless statement on art invoking Muses)

B2. Statements about art that emphasize continuity between ancients and moderns, often via a trip to the sculptor’s studio

Pushkin: “Грустен и весел вхожу, ваятель, в твою мастерскую” (1836; in the sculptor’s studio Zeus, a satyr, Apollo, and Niobe coexist with Russian military heroes Barclay and Kutuzov, but Del’vig, friend of the arts, is absent)

Fet: “Тщетно блуждает мой взор, измеряя твой мрамор начатый” (1847; the poet speculates on what statue the sculptor’s marble work in progress may become – only possibilities given are or may be classical)

A. K. Tolstoi: “Тщетно, художник, ты мнишь, что творений своих ты создатель!” (1856; Wikisource quotes AKT writing to his wife “It is very strange to elaborate a theory in verse, but I think I shall be able to manage it. Since this subject demands much analysis, I chose the hexameter — the easiest lines… but at the same time this poem is giving me a great deal of trouble — it is so easy to fall into pedantry.” The Greek sculptor Phidias and Homer coexist with Goethe and Beethoven in this argument that potential works of art exist and have always existed, and artists do not create them but discover and reveal them by closing themselves off from the everyday world.)

C1. Timeless scenes, often with unnamed maidens and youths

Pushkin: “Юношу, горько рыдая, ревнивая дева бранила” (1834-35; a jealous girl, bitterly sobbing, scolds a boy who abruptly falls asleep on her shoulder, which causes her to smile and shed silent tears)

Fet: “Слышишь ли ты, как шумит вверху угловатое стадо?” (1842; poet addresses beloved, speaking entirely in terms of seasons, animals, fire, and things that could exist in 19c Russia or the classical world)

Kuzmin: “Сердце, любившее вдоволь, водило моею рукою” (1913?, “A heart that has loved enough guided my hand/ The name I will conceal; my heart is jealous.”)

C2. Nearly timeless scenes, but with an explicit classical reference in addition to the meter

Fet: “Долго еще прогорит Веспера скромная лампа” (1842; theme is a sunset, with evening personified as Vesper)

Fet: “Любо мне в комнате ночью стоять у окошка в потемках” (1847; night and nature imagery with Diana in line 11 of 12)

C3. Nearly timeless scenes, but with clues that suggest a modern setting

Fet; “Каждое чувство бывает понятней мне ночью, и каждый” (1843; a book, a bell in the distance, several enjambments, including from line 1 to line 2, the omitted caesura in line 7, and a higher than usual frequency of “feminine caesuras” ¯˘ǁ˘ in the third foot all give the poem an ambiguously modern feel)

D1. Implicit contrast between classical culture and Russian culture

Pushkin: “Юноша, полный красы, напряженья, усилия чуждый” (1836)

Pushkin: “Юноша трижды шагнул, наклонился, рукой о колено” (1836)

D2. Implicit contrast between classical culture/paganism and Christianity

Tsvetaeva: “Заповедей не блюла, не ходила к причастью” (the long lines aren’t standard hexameters, as one foot is missing after the caesura and in one case there’s an extra syllable, but the short lines are regular “pentameters” from elegiac couplets; the poet declares she will continue sinning passionately until her death, and calls on her fellow criminals, all the earth, to meet the Last Judgment with her, 1915)

D3. Explicit contrast between classical culture and Russian culture

Viacheslav Ivanov: “В Рим свои Tristia слал с берегов Понтийских Овидий” (1892; Zeus and Perun are side by side, along with centuries of Roman/Italian culture, as Ivanov explicitly reverses Ovid’s Tristia into “Laeta” and writes from Rome to cold Pontus)

D4. Explicit contrast between classical culture/paganism and Christianity

Merezhkovskii: “Путник с печального Севера к вам, Олимпийские боги” (1891; in Rome, in the Pantheon, the poet introduces the ancient gods to his God, Jesus Christ, and muses about pagan/Christian, life/death, material/spiritual conflicts within people)

D5. Implicit contrast between the classical and modern worlds, not necessarily to comic effect

Mandel’shtam: “Если грустишь, что тебе задолжал я одиннадцать тысяч,/ Помни, что двадцать одну мог я тебе задолжать” (“If you are sad that I borrowed eleven thousand from you/ Remember that I could have borrowed twenty-one,” 1920-21)

Kuzmin: “Не переводятся гости у нас, уж так повелося” (a poem from the 1928 cycle Lazarus, with a twentieth-century setting despite the New Testament allusion)

D6. Contrast between the world of books, poetry, and scholarship, aligned with the classical meter, to direct experience of life and beauty

Fet: “Скучно мне вечно болтать о том, что высоко, прекрасно” (1842; the beloved addressee is better than old books, and artists can appreciate beauty as bees can flowers)

Fet: “Друг мой, бессильны слова, – одни поцелуи всесильны” (1842; poet admits to writing poetry with many rhymes and meters, but prefers “the rhymes of shared kisses, the tender caesura of lips, the free verse of love”)

6 Comments leave one →
  1. October 4, 2013 9:17 am

    “Крив был Гнедич поэт, преложитель слепого Гомера” (1830, “Lame was Gnedich the poet, arranger of blind Homer,”

    I’m pretty sure преложитель is just an obsolete word for ‘translator.’

    • October 4, 2013 9:40 am

      I was on the fence about what to do with that one, and I think you’re right. I’d like a slightly archaic way of saying “translator,” but “arranger” is not that.

  2. October 4, 2013 9:45 am

    Yeah, there’s “remenour,” but that’s a little too archaic — it hasn’t been used since the 14th century. This is one of those cases where you have to sprinkle in a bit of archaism elsewhere if you want to convey the effect.

  3. October 6, 2013 3:31 pm

    Erik, have you looked at konstantin Vaginov’s hexameters? They date from the 1920s so should be within your timeframe but they tend to be somewhat irregular metrically.

    • October 6, 2013 3:54 pm

      I haven’t – in fact I’ve never read any of his poetry, though I loved Козлиная песнь. Thanks for the suggestion!

      • October 18, 2013 3:28 am

        There are three or four only but at least one of them is very good.

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