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  • The Semantic Aura of Pushkin’s Trochaic Tetrameter
  • Mikhail Gasparov
    Translated by Michael Wachtel

The following discussion will concern the semantics of a poetic meter. This field, located at the intersection of formal study of verse and general poetics, has in recent years been the subject of rather intensive elaboration, and it has been shown to have considerable potential. In the works of Yuri Levin and Mikhail Lotman one sees the beginnings of a transition from observations to interesting generalizations. Up until now scholars have investigated meters that are less frequent and, as a result, more distinctive and noticeable. In this article we will examine the trochaic tetrameter, a meter that was widely used. In the 1820s it was the third most common meter, after the iambic tetrameter and the free iamb (rhymed iambic lines of different lengths), and in the 1830s it was the second most common (after the iambic tetrameter). This means that the trochaic tetrameter was sufficiently multifaceted to serve varied poetic themes, yet not so very broad as to become completely neutral from the perspective of semantics, as was the iambic tetrameter in Pushkin’s time. (It is essential to say “in Pushkin’s time,” because nowadays iambic tetrameter that is rhymed and astrophic, so ordinary then, will be perceived as very strongly marked semantically; it will be read as a stylization of Pushkin.)

The distinctive quality of the trochaic tetrameter is its connection to song: this connection can be found in syllabo-tonic trochees and their syllabic analogues in various European languages and can presumably be explained because songs, in order to make the rhythm stand out, prefer a meter with a strong beat on the first syllable, without an anacrusis—in other words, a trochee rather than an iamb.

This connection with song varies in the following approximate ways. First of all as a folksong, and not only in short lyrics, but also in epics. In all Eastern European syllabo-tonic systems the trochee is felt to be opposed to the iamb, being a national meter, a meter “of the folk” as opposed to a borrowed or bookish meter. Secondly, simply as song without reference to specific content, whether happy or sad, elevated or everyday. Thirdly, especially as a song of light content and, more broadly, any light poetry, especially humorous poetry. Fourthly, as a song of Anacreontic content [End Page 55] (the “eight-syllable Anacreontic line” is related by sound to the trochaic tetrameter) and, more broadly, of any thematics related to antiquity. It was against the background of precisely these associations that Pushkin developed his own trochaic tetrameter. This means that any time he turned to this meter he unavoidably aroused in the mind of his readers this sphere of thematic, emotional, and stylistic expectations, and he had to maneuver, neutralizing some of them and strengthening others so that they would contribute to the semantics, adding matter not directly expressed in the text.

Up until now there has been only one attempt to understand the semantics of Pushkin’s use of this meter. This came as a digression in Valerian Chudovsky’s essay “A Few Statements about Russian Verse,” which was written in that author’s characteristically impressionistic manner and elevated style:

Pushkin, an absolute and wise ruler in the iamb, looked at the trochee as a neighboring region that did not always submit to him. He would make various forays to take charge of it, and he achieved quite a bit, but nonetheless, dissatisfied, he would abandon it for a while… He was clearly pursuing a variety of goals with it. At the beginning he did not recognize that the trochee could be given a special impact… In 1827 the “insignificant” quatrain “Gold and Tempered Steel” («Золото и булат») led him to reconsider the trochee, to apply it to material things, to concretization, materialization… A new phase was “Raven Flies to Raven” («Ворон к ворону летит»)… where the poet discovered a new type of expressivity by having the trochee convey fear, anxiety… Another new phase came with his travel to the Caucasus in 1829 with “The Don” («Дон») and “Delibash” («Делибаш»)… He had now discovered what was distinctive about the trochee, but its specific expressive quality was purchased at the...


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