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Introduction to rhyme: its history and theory.

The present book was written some fifty years ago. It belongs to the heyday of Russian Formalism, even though by then I was critically opposed to the dogmas of rigid formalism. Thus, at issue in the book is not formalism as a scientific theory, but rather problems of form, particularly those problems that are indispensable for the analysis and interpretation of poetry. Such problems of form make up just one part of the interpretation of the poetic whole, but they will consistently be treated as an expression of meaningful content. Rhyme also belongs to the expressive forms of poetry; through its relation to the whole, rhyme becomes an important element of a text's poetic style and thereby achieves its special status and meaning in the system of its linguistic means of expression.

The basic idea of the book is summarized in its introductory chapter. The schoolbook theory understands rhyme as the complete phonetic identity from the final stressed syllable to the end of the line in two or more lines of verse. This traditional conception thereby treats the typical form of so-called "pure" end rhyme (toenaja koneenaja rifma) of recent times. In contrast to this, I understand rhyme as every phonetic repetition (zvukovoj povtor) that claims a functional (in other words, structural) meaning in the metrical composition of a poem.' From a phonetic perspective rhyme can represent a complete or partial repetition of sound, depending on the predominant artistic norm; it appears as alliteration or assonance, as consonance or vocalic harmony. It does not always stand at the end of the line: one finds initial rhyme alongside end rhyme, and internal ("middle") rhyme, even though the placement at the end of a line claims greater compositional meaning, since end rhyme designates (serves as a marker of) the line's boundary, and likewise its structural relationship to the remaining lines (the stanzaic structure).

This broad conception allows us to pursue the phonetic processes of "canonization" and "decanonization" (kanonizacija i dekanon-izacija) of pure rhyme in its historical course. The older--especially folk--stages of classical literatures (2) commonly show different forms of impure rhyme; but modern poetry also delights in using these same means to produce a desired phonetic dissonance (similar to modern music). It was precisely this varied use of impure rhyme in contemporary poetry (Aleksandr Blok, Mayakovsky) that prompted me to revise the dominant theory of rhyme.

Since this general conception accounts not only for rhyme's classical, complete, and "finished" forms, but also its incomplete "embryological" primary stages (" embrional'naja rifma"), it is possible to pursue the emergence and early development of rhyme in modern European languages. It certainly cannot be denied that external impulses and influences have played a role that should not be overlooked (such as the influence of medieval Latin liturgical verse on the rhymed gospels of Otfrid and his followers), but the spontaneous development in the same direction [toward a more regular rhyme], principally from older forms of rhythmic-syntactic parallelism, is no less important. To examples from Russian bylina--which, as will be shown, contain on average over thirty per cent of (mostly "embryonic") rhymes, which earlier research had overlooked--is added a similar development of rhyme in Old Turkish epic folk poetry. (3)

On this basis, I attempt to develop a comparative historical theory of rhyme as an otherwise neglected part of a general comparative historical theory of verse. The subject matter discussed is, first and foremost, the history of Russian verse; not only because the work was first intended for the Russian reader, but also because the Russian language, due to its polysyllabism and its free accent, offers the greatest abundance of verse and rhyme forms. The Russian context presents only one point of departure for a historical account that compares similar or different verse forms in other modern European languages, most importantly German, English, French, and Italian. In this way, general functional laws in the development of rhyme come to light, as well as linguistically and historically contingent differences.

These distinctions are principally based on a difference between national languages that is found in their structure: in prosody (the relationships of accents and syllables in accentual and syllable-counting verse). Verse is not "violence over language" ("nasilie nad jazykom"), as the old dictum of the Russian formalists goes, (4) but rather an aesthetically and historically contingent selection made from the phonetic material of a national language, with which the native poetic tradition and foreign models can accomplish their effects only within the framework of the given possibilities of the rhytmizomenon ["that which has been brought into rhythm," i.e., pre-poetic speech]. (5)

As with rhyme, so with verse. Within the shared, metrically identical constraints of the so-called iambic verse, Russian iambs show rhythmic alleviation [nonstress] on metrically strong syllables (on average three stresses per tetrameter). This is due to longer word length in Russian. English iambs, because of a corresponding shorter word length, often place a rhythmic burden on metrically weak syllables. The alternation between stress and nonstress appears to be most regular with German iambs (because of the average disyllabism of German words). Here the rhythmic diversity in accord with the character of the language, is achieved by variations in strength of stress. (6)

National rhyme forms also reveal differences that are contingent on the character of a language. Corresponding to the accentual and syllabic conditions of the language, Russian verse permits free use of masculine, feminine, and trisyllabic (dactylic) rhyme, even though the imitation of foreign models (at first Polish, then German and French) for a long time limited these uses. In classical Russian poetry, regular alternation between feminine and masculine rhyme is the norm. The same alternation is predominant in German; trisyllabic endings are rare and carry a secondary stress of variable strength on the final syllable (cf. the hymn in the epilogue of Goethe's Faust Part II, which is modeled on medieval Latin poetry). The norm of regular alternation between feminine and masculine rhyme rests historically on the model of French poetry of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. However, in spite of its preservation in script, the silencing of the e-muet in French pronunciation had resulted in a more or less regular phonetic monosyllabism of verse endings. Modern French "free verse" (vers libre) first arose primarily as a reaction against this conservative written norm. Because of the character of accentuation, dactylic rhymes are absolutely impossible in French.

By contrast, masculine rhymes are predominant in English, feminine rhymes in Italian and Polish. Feminine and even compound trisyllabic rhymes are possible in English, but they are less common, and a regular alternation between feminine and masculine (as in Byron's "Fare Thee Well") is uncommon, and in translations (e.g., from Russian) is criticized as "monotonous" to the English ear. Italian occasionally uses monosyllabic and trisyllabic rhyme (rime tronche and sdrucci-ole in contrast to the dominant plane). Polish can employ monosyllabic words for masculine rhymes in a more or less artful way (all words with two or more syllables are paroxytones); since the middle of the nineteenth century such rhymes, masculine alternating with feminine, have been common. But the canonical rhyme forms in these languages are by and large masculine or feminine respectively, in a way that corresponds perfectly to the prevailing accentual forms of the language. A statistical investigation of the accentual and syllabic conditions available as linguistic material to poets would provide welcome proof. Thus, for example, nearly eighty per cent of the words in prose in Dante's Vita Nuova contain feminine endings, and this holds similarly for the accentuation of modern Italian.

There are also quite a number of examples of rhyme techniques that are based on the character of a national language. Thus "rich rhyme" (rime riche, bogataja rifma), in which the same consonant precedes the stressed vowel, provides a desirable phonetic extension of pure rhyme in French or in Russian, as long as it does not conflict with the linguistic style .of the poetry. In French, rime riche was required by the Romantics, and since then it is still quite popular, perhaps because of the phonetic monosyllabism of endings in modern French. In Russian, rime riche is obligatory in masculine rhymes with an open syllable (okno: vino), but in German, on the contrary, they are called "strained-rhymes" [ruhrende Reime] and rather frowned upon: when stressing the word's root, in many cases such a rhyme carries an undesirably homonymic character (fuhr: erfuhr). This is similarly true for English. In both languages rhymes like me: see or da:sah are very common, but not so in Russian, where they are called "impoverished rhymes" [arme Reime] and are not permitted.

We have established that the "decanonization" of pure rhyme was a general tendency in Russian verse, advancing from the eighteenth to the twentieth century. At its phonetic base lies a weakening, or reduction, of the second vowel in feminine rhymes that is characteristic of Russian pronunciation, and these feminine rhymes seem to be the bearer of the entire development. Only where such a weakening was available could rhymes with a diminished final -j after unstressed vowels (krasnyj: prekrasny and later znamenityj: razbita) become the norm. This weakening also formed the phonetic base for such inexact rhyme forms (netocnye rifmy) in Russian Modernism as plarnja:pamjat' (A. Blok, A. Akhmatova). The final consonant is here in the position of the reduced ultimate syllable, and thus it is greatly weakened.

Such a development is absolutely impossible in English, which is characterized by uniformly masculine end rhyme. And it is also not possible in Italian, where the final vowel in a feminine rhyme does not experience a reduction, or in French and German, where the reduced vowel appears as a uniform -[??] [schwa]. Therefore the dissonance of rhyme sounds that characterizes modern poetry in these languages is generated by means other than those in Russian. In French and German this happens primarily through assonance (as was already available to the folk and archaic national traditions). English poetry, since Wilfred Owen and the Imagists, shows rhymes between inexact vowels, such as wind: land, fist: breast, often with the same supporting consonant before the stressed vowel, as in signs: sins, hall: hell (so-called "pararhymes" or "partial rhymes"). As models for these "consonances" ("konsonansy") were such traditional rhyme combinations as blood: stood, love: move, break: weak, and others. Even though the written form was based on an older pronunciation, and therefore hid the phonemic difference between the corresponding vowels, these consonances might already have functioned as a desirable diversification of the monotonicity of identical monosyllabic rhyme endings.

These sorts of national differences of verse and rhyme forms constitute one of the most important problems for a linguistic theory of translation. In languages like German and Russian, where a great number of verse translations are available, the translator faces the task of providing metrically identical or equivalent (equimetrical) translations. Obviously these translations must be within the framework of the linguistic possibilities at the translator's disposal. (7) Where such possibilities are not at hand, prose translations must make do as a substitute. Thus French, by means of purely syllable-counting (syllabic) meters, cannot reproduce the differences in accent- and syllable-counting (syllabotonic) meters of German, English, or Russian: their iambs, trochees, dactyls, anapests, and so on. Likewise, dactylic rhymes in Russian verse that have been very common since the mid-nineteenth century (Nekrasov, Fet, Bal'mont and others) find no correspondence in French, and to an even lesser degree do compound or polysyllabic rhymes, like those of Mayakovslcy.

Indeed, rendering an original text from a foreign language equimetrically is not about mechanical sameness, but rather about equivalence. The French alexandrine, as is well known, is rendered into Russian, and usually into German as well, not in syllabic form, which does not belong to these languages, but in syllabotonic: as an iambic hexameter couplet with alternating feminine and masculine rhymes and with a caesura following the third foot. However, in contrast to French, this third foot occasionally allows for a lightening of stress (lack of metrical accent ["rhythmic alleviation"]) before the caesura. Compare Racine's Phedre, III, 2:
 0 toi, qui vois la honte || ou je suis descendue,
 Implacable Venus, || suis-je assez confondue!
 Tu ne saurais plus loin || pousser ta cruaute.
 Ton triomphe est parfait, || tous tes traits ant parte. 


In the Russian translation (of S. Shervinsky; unstressed vowels in the third ictus are italicized):
 0 zrjascaja pozor, || v kotoryj ja upala,
 Venera groznaja! || Sebja mne stydno stalo.
 Tvoej zestokosti || vot podlinnyj predel.
 Triumf tvoj zaversen, net pro macha u strel.
 Behold the scandalous || abyss I've since descended,
 Goddess implacable, || I am enough confounded!
 You'd never have the means || to press your cruelty.
 Your triumph is impeccable, || your dreadful face I see. 


All this holds for rhyme as well. Thus the uniformly masculine rhymes of English--which are equally characteristic of all poetic genres--get replaced with those that are natural for the other language: in Russian poetry, the traditional form of alternating feminine and masculine rhymes. The same is true for the uniformly feminine rhymes in classical Italian and Polish poetry, such as the Divine Comedy, Petrarch's sonnets, and the epic or lyric verse from Mickiewicz and Slowacki. The classic Russian translation of the Divine Comedy by the best Russian verse translator, M. Lozinsky, follows this established tradition.

Certainly in Russian it is quite possible to render English verse with uniformly masculine rhymes, and Italian with uniformly feminine rhymes. This has been tried on various occasions, as it was in German by August W. Schlegel and the Romantics, who translated Italian poets of the Renaissance "equimetrically" by preserving the rhyme forms of the original. Their outward fidelity to the foreign poetry notwithstanding, such translations possess an exotic tone that the original in no way possessed. This can even occasionally lead to a strange distortion of artistic effect. Zhukovsky's brilliant translation of Byron's "The Prisoner of Chillon" (1822) retains the uniformly masculine rhyme of the original. This translation was admired by Russian critics, including Be-Iinsky, as a distinctive artistic means used by the poet to bring the reader closer to the bleak and melancholic mood of the poetry, even though Byron used a completely neutral and common form of English rhyme. During the period of Lermontov's enthusiasm for Byron (1831-1832), this "English" rhyme form became an appropriate stylistic and expressive medium for his gloomy, world-weary [weltfeindlichen] moods in lyric and epic poetry. (8) Such continuous repetition (monotonicity) of masculine, feminine, and (rarely) dactylic rhyme endings becomes a means of strengthening the expressive and musical effect of a poem in Russian Romantic and neo-Romantic poetry (Fet, Bal'mont).

Then again, uniformly masculine rhyme is elevated to the status of genre marker for the folk ballad bearing the mark of English provenance that emerges following Percy and Herder in German and Russian poetry. After Gleim (1758), one speaks of a "Chevy Chase stanza" in German; on the one hand, Goethe' s "Erlkonig," and on the other Zhukovsky's translation of Walter Scott's famous ballad "The Eve of Saint John" ("Zamok Smal'gol'm," 1824), are superb examples of a genre-specific use of a verse form that in its source text was completely neutral.

So then rhyme in its double contingency--through the national language and, resting upon it, the tradition of national poetry--appears as a stylistic device of the first order in the system of poetry's means of linguistic expression.

This essay, written in German, originally served as the introduction to a new Russian-language edition of Zhirmunsky's 1923 study Rhyme: Its History and Theory (Pucpma: Ee ucmopust u meopust) (Munich: W. Fink, 1970). It is included here as the second installment in a Chicago Review series of previously untranslated essays on prosody by various poets and critics. The editors and translator wish to thank Boris Maslov for his advice.

(1.) On the topic of metrical composition, see Viktor Zhirmunsky, "The Composition of Lyric Poetry," Kornpozicija lirieeskich stichotvorenzj (Petrograd, 1921).

(2.) By "classical" literature or verse Zhirmunsky is referring to high literary tradition, as opposed to folklore and oral-based verse forms.--Trans.

(3.) See Viktor Zhirmunsky, "Syntaktischer Parallelismus und rhythmische Bindung im altturkischen Vers," in Beitrage zur Sprachwissenschaft, Volk-skunde und Literaturforschung. Festschrift fur W Steinitz (Berlin: Akadamie Verlag, 1965), 387-401.

(4.) This formula was put forward by Roman Jakobson in his 0 cheshskom stikhe preimushchestvenno v sopostavlenii s russkim (1923).

(5.) This sentence sets forth the main claim of the introduction and the book as a whole, and also contains Zhirmunsky's primary dissent from Russian Formalism.--Trans.

(6.) See Viktor Zhirmunsky, "Der russisChe und der deutsche Jainbus (Lomonossov und Gunther)," in Slawisch-deutsche Wechselbeziehungen in Sprache, Literatur und Kultur (Berlin: Akademie Verlag, 1969), 436-445.

(7.) This claim is a reformulation of the central claim regarding the rhyt-mizomenon (pre-poetic speech): poetry belongs to language, and therefore poetic forms (meter, rhyme) must conform to already existing linguistic parameters.--Trans.

(8.) Viktor Zhirmunsky, Stich i perevod (iz istorii romantiCeskoj poemy), - "Russko-evropejskie literaturnye svjazy," Shorn. k 70-letiju akad. M.P Alelcseeva (Moscow, Leningrad: Izd-vo "Nauka," 1966), 423-434.

Translated by John Hoffmann
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Author:Zhirmunsky, Viktor Maksimovich
Publication:Chicago Review
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:4EXRU
Date:Jan 1, 2013
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