Rhythm, Meaning, and Interpretation in Brodskij’s Iambic Verse

Nila Friedberg, University of Toronto

One of the oldest debates in the analysis of verse is the debate between a purely literary and a purely linguistic approach to poetry. Scholars of metrics typically study the formal aspects of poetic composition (Belyj 1910, Tomaševskij 1929, Taranovskij 1953, Gasparov 1974, Bailey 1975), whereas literary scholars may wonder whether these linguistic formalisms have any relevance to our understanding of poetry (Attridge 1982).

In recent years, there have appeared a number of fruitful analyses of verse which have demonstrated that meter can contribute to the interpretation of meaning (Tarlinskaja 1993, Wachtel 1998). Meter is not a mere formal arrangement of syllables into weak and strong positions; meters carry strong semantic associations with the topics that they have been used for.

In this paper I contribute to the issue by discussing the correlation between rhythm and meaning in Brodskij’s iambic verse. As has been shown by Lotman (1999), Brodskij sometimes employs a sub-variety of iambic rhythm which is quite distinct from the one used in the Russian iambic tradition. In the Russian tradition, the most frequently used rhythmical type is the one where the last strong position in the line is filled by a stressed syllable, the second to last strong position is filled by an unstressed syllable, whereas the third strong position from the right edge is filled by a stressed syllable (Belyj 1910, Taranovskij 1953). This tendency, which Taranovskij (1953) called the Law of Regressive Accentual Dissimilation, is illustrated in (1) (X indicates a stressed syllable; x—an unstressed syllable):

(1) Kog-da ne v šut-ku za-ne-mog (xX xX xx xX; Puškin, in Belyj 1910)

In the traditional Russian verse, the rhythm in (1) is significantly more frequent than the “heavy-ending” rhythm in (2). In (2), the last two feet are filled by stressed syllables:

(2) Kak pra-ved-ni-ki v trud-nyj čas (xX xx xX xX; Brodskij, transl. of Donne’s “Valediction: Forbidding Mourning”)

On the other hand, in some of Brodskij’s poems, the “heavy ending” rhythm in (2) is significantly more frequent than the rhythm in (1).

I argue that the majority of Brodskij’s poems employing the “heavy ending” rhythm, have something in common thematically. They either constitute:

(a) Translations from a foreign language, such as translations of Donne’s “Valediction: Forbidding Mourning” or Marvell’s “A Nymph Complaining to the Death of her Fawn,” and “Eyes and Tears”);

(b) Poems influenced by English metaphysical poetry (Smith 1999), such as “Pen′e bez muzyki” (1970);

(c) Poems written during Brodskij’s exile to the village of Norenskaja in 1964–65 (e.g. “Novye stansy k Avguste”, “On znal čto èta bol′ v pleče …”, “Na smert′ T. S. Èliota”, “Einem Alten Architekten in Rom”, “Odnoj poètesse”);


(d) Poems written in emigration (e.g. “Pjataja godovščina” (1977), “Bjust Tiberija” (1985), “Reki” (1986), “Muxa” (1985), “Vzgljani na derevjannyj dom” (1988), “Arxitektura” (1990–91), “Otvet na anketu” (1993), “Pamjati NN” (1993), “Ritratto di Donna” (1993)).

Thus, all instances of this unusual rhythm can be called “the rhythm of exile,” where exile is defined as either literal (being sent to Norenskaja) or metaphorical (imaginary dislocation to a foreign land).

I further show that the destroyed Regressive Dissimilation not only correlates with meaning, but also allows one to date some previously undated poems. The poem “Poxož na golos golovnoj ubor …” is classified in Komarov’s edition of Brodskij (1998) as written “roughly in the 1960s.” This poem, which predominantly uses the “heavy ending” rhythm, is most likely to have been written in 1964–65, since this is the period when Brodskij tended to violate the Law of Regressive Dissimilation.