The Problem of Rhythm: Baxtin and Evgenij Onegin

Annette Pein, Harvard University

Both the Formalists and Baxtin viewed rhythm as an essential element of verse. Of the Formalists, Tynjanov was the most systematic in elaborating his view of rhythm as the constructive or dominant factor in verse. Baxtin’s views on rhythm in literary creation have been examined less. For the most part, his view of rhythm as a factor strengthening the hermetic quality of the poetic language appears to stand out in the critical literature, thereby reinforcing the sense of Baxtin’s negative views on verse in the 1930s. In his writings from the 1920s, however, Baxtin discussed rhythm rather differently as an aspect of both architectonic and compositional form. In that respect, rhythm was not limited to verse as it later was.

In fact, Baxtin’s earlier view of rhythm appears to be rather compatible with Romantic views on verse and literary creation in general. For the early Baxtin, rhythm encompassed both, architectonic and compositional form. Architectonic form is emotionally directed, representing the author’s process of creation, whereas compositional form stands for the ordering of material, thereby becoming part of the final aesthetic product. Among Romantic theorists of literature, Coleridge was most explicit in viewing a literary work as both a process and a product of the poet’s mind.

Apparently, Baxtin’s misunderstanding of Romantic thought led to his eventual preference for the novel at the expense of verse, especially when he viewed verse through the prism of Romanticism. Thus, he rather simplistically interpreted the so-called “lyrical” digressions in Evgenij Onegin as “novelistic images of lyrics.” Given the centrality of the digressions for Puškin’s novel in verse, a more insightful understanding of their role may result from a return to Baxtin’s earlier concept of rhythm. Accordingly, the digressions could be conceptualized better as an expression of both the processual nature of the creation of Puškin’s novel in verse as well as the product of his creative imagination. Ultimately, this approach may explain how the digressions became an organizing principle for Evgenij Onegin and why they have been characterized as both lyrical digressions and prosaic chatter.