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The Poetic Frisson of Archaism

Continuing a theme broached in an earlier post (“Sprig of Palestine,” June 25, 2010), I want to point out the stylistic power of archaisms in a poetic text, this time in one by the greatest Russian poet, Pushkin. Here is the poem, “Elegy,” written during Pushkin’s most productive period, the so-called Boldino Fall of 1830:

ЭЛЕГИЯ

Безумных лет угасшее веселье
Мне тяжело, как смутное похмелье.
Но, как вино – печаль минувших дней
В моей душе чем старе, тем сильней.
Мой путь уныл. Сулит мне труд и горе
Грядущего волнуемое море.

Но не хочу, о други, умирать;
Я жить хочу, чтоб мыслить и страдать;
И ведаю, мне будут наслажденья
Меж горестей, забот и треволненья:
Порой опять гармонией упьюсь,
Над вымыслом слезами обольюсь,
И может быть – на мой закат печальный
Блеснёт любовь улыбкою прощальной.

There are two archaisms in this lyric poem, one morphological, the other phonetic. The fifth word of the first line in the second stanza, drúgi ‘friends [pl.]’, was already archaic in Pushkin’s own time, the normal nominative plural form of drug ‘friend’ being the same as the present-day one, viz. druz’já. Pushkin uses the archaism here because the word is syntactically in the vocative case (“oh, friends”), which had already disappeared from Russian except for relics (like Gospodi ‘Lord’ and  Bozhe ‘God’) but which ipso facto comports well with the elevated style of the whole poem.

The second archaism, already receding in frequency even in Pushkin’s time, occurs in the rhyme word of the penultimate line, viz. pechál’nyj ‘sad’ in the accusative case. In contemporary standard Russian pronunciation, this case does not rhyme with instances of the oblique cases (here, the instrumental): proshchál’noj ‘farewell’ [adj.] has a schwa for the post-tonic (unstressed) desinential vowel, whereas the direct cases (nominative and accusative) have a so-called barred i for the Cyrillic ы (transliterated y). For Pushkin, however, the accusative and the instrumental cases did rhyme, both having the schwa post-tonically. Hence, in order to preserve stylistic/poetic fidelity in reading this poem (out loud or silently), one must pronounce the word pechál’nyj with a schwa in the final syllable.

The effect of both instances of archaism is the same despite their disparate origins: a stylistic frissson, a heightened feeling of poetic texture, a fleeting but potent realization that in uttering these words one is reproducing––for the nonce––the speech of its author in just those respects where his differs from ours, thus joining Pushkin in the artistic pleasure of his creation.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

[Addendum on a personal note: As I silently declaimed Pushkin’s poem this morning while looking out on the glistening Vermontian snowscape, I thought of what my mother tongue means to me psychically. This put me in mind of another immigrant’s musings, Nabokov’s final sentence in the afterword to Lolita (“On a Book Entitled Lolita”): “My private tragedy . . . is that I had to abandon my natural idiom, my untrammeled, rich, and infinitely docile Russian tongue for a second-rate brand of English, devoid of any of those apparatuses . . . which the native illusionist, frac-tails flying, can magically use to transcend the heritage in his own way.”]

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