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Gasparov on the hexameter (also Uvarov, Gnedich, Kapnist, Viazemskii, and Pushkin)

October 4, 2013

One last post on the Russian hexameter. After reading a bunch of poems and speculating about patterns of when that meter gets used, I thought I’d look up what M. L. Gasparov wrote on the subject:

  • Trediakovskii’s Telemachiad (Телемахида, 1766) was in adapted classical hexameter, and around the same time Sumarokov wrote poems imitating Alcaic and Sapphic stanzas. Then, “having convinced themselves of the theoretical possibility of such imitations, Sumarokov’s generation left them alone, and the Telemachiad was even mocked” (OIRS §30). There is a story that Catherine the Great made people memorize lines of the Telemachiad as punishment.
  • “Just before his death, Radishchev stands up for Trediakovskii in the article ‘Monument to a Dactylo-Trochaic Hero’ [Памятник дактило-хореическому витязю] and imitates him in elegiac couplets in ‘The Eighteenth Century’ [Осьмнадцатое столетие] and in ‘Sapphic stanzas’ […]” Near the beginning of the nineteenth century, Vostokov and Merzliakov experiment with yet other classical meters (OIRS §30).
  • In the 1810s there were high-profile discussions of the virtues of the hexameter versus the alexandrin and supposedly native folk meters. S. Uvarov in his “Letter to N. I. Gnedich on the Greek Hexameter” (Письмо к Н. И. Гнедичу о греческом экзаметре, 1813) argued in favor of the hexameter as approaching “the authentically ancient,” showing “Achilles in his true appearance” rather than in “a French tunic” or “a Russian zipun [‘homespun coat’].” “Uvarov’s opponents were D. Samsonov (1817-1818), who defended the traditional alexandrine as more flexible, and V. Kapnist (1815), who put forward the folk trochaic hexameter as more ‘natural’; in support of Uvarov were Vostokov (1817) and Voeikov (1819), both of whom had experimented with the hexameter themselves […]” (OIRS §60). I don’t know who D. Samsonov was, and am having trouble tracking him down on the internet. This is the same Uvarov who is later Nicholas I’s Minister of Education and credited with the formula “Orthodoxy, Autocracy, and Nationality.”
  • Nikolai Gnedich (1784-1833), who started translating Homer in alexandrines, then began again with the Russian hexameter

    Nikolai Gnedich (1784-1833), who started translating Homer in alexandrines, then began again with the Russian hexameter

    Uvarov’s most important ally was Gnedich (1813, 1818), “whose translation of the Iliad was a watershed in the history of the Russian hexameter. Gnedich began translating the Iliad in alexandrines in 1807 (continuing Kostov’s 1787 translation), but in 1812, under the influence of Uvarov and of Radishchev’s ‘Monument to a Dactylo-Trochaic Hero’ (published 1811), he started his translation over, now in hexameter, and published the first excerpts in 1813 and the full text in 1829” (OIRS §60).

  • “In Russian translations, the hexameter is the only meter for which it is considered good practice to preserve the unequal number of syllables in the feet of the original: 3-syllable dactyls are rendered as 3-syllable dactyls, and 2-syllable spondees as 2-syllable trochees. In the twentieth century it became usual to observe a fixed masculine caesura in translations of Latin hexameters and alternating masculine and feminine caesuras in translations of Greek ones; but neither the subtler difference between the abundance of 2-syllable feet in the Latin hexameter and their paucity in the Greek hexameter, nor the inadmissibility of a word boundary in the middle of the fourth foot, are preserved” (OIES §20).
  • At least in the books I’m looking at, Gasparov doesn’t cover in depth my question of when nineteenth-century poets chose to use the hexameter instead of some other meter (apart from the polemics about translating the classics in Gnedich’s time). He does say that everyone recognizes the hexameter from “translations and imitations of ancient verse” and that a particular early twentieth-century hexameter poem is “saturated with ancient associations” (RSNXXV §138).
  • Said poem, “Into the starry evening they rushed” (В звездный вечер помчались, 1920) by G. Shengeli, is written in hexameters broken graphically into shorter lines (RSNXXV §138).
  • Bonus: here’s an 1853 Viazemskii poem in alexandrines recounting, 40 years later, the polemics over the hexameter. Its epigraph is taken from Pushkin’s The Little House in Kolomna (Домик в Коломне, written 1830), which also talks in verse about meter, and which Alexei K. helpfully mentioned in a comment (see in particular stanza VIIIa which includes “С гекзаметром… о, с ним я не шучу”).

References are to section numbers (not pages) in M. L. Gasparov’s Очерк истории русского стиха (2nd rev. ed., Moscow, 2002), Очерк истории европейского стиха (Moscow, 2003), and Русский стих начала XX века в комментариях (2nd. rev. ed., Moscow, 2001).

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