Notes on Prosody and Abram Gannibal

Notes on Prosody and Abram Gannibal

by Vladimir Nabokov

View All Available Formats & Editions

Two appendixes from Nabokov's famous edition of Eugene Onegin: his study of versification in English and Russian poetry, and his "term paper" on Pushkin's Ethiopian ancestor.

Originally published in 1965.

The Princeton Legacy Library uses the latest print-on-demand technology to again make available previously out-of-print books from the


Two appendixes from Nabokov's famous edition of Eugene Onegin: his study of versification in English and Russian poetry, and his "term paper" on Pushkin's Ethiopian ancestor.

Originally published in 1965.

The Princeton Legacy Library uses the latest print-on-demand technology to again make available previously out-of-print books from the distinguished backlist of Princeton University Press. These paperback editions preserve the original texts of these important books while presenting them in durable paperback editions. The goal of the Princeton Legacy Library is to vastly increase access to the rich scholarly heritage found in the thousands of books published by Princeton University Press since its founding in 1905.

Product Details

Princeton University Press
Publication date:
Bollingen Series (General) Series

Read an Excerpt

Notes on Prosody and Abram Gannibal

By Vladimir Nabokov


Copyright © 1964 Bollingen Foundation
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-01760-0



The following notes on English and Russian iambic tetrameters are intended only to outline the differences and similarities between them. Pushkin is taken as the greatest representative of Russian poetry; the differences between his iambic tetrameters and those of other masters of the meter among minor and major Russian poets are matters of specific, not generic, distinction. Russian prosody, which came into existence only two centuries ago, is tolerably well known to native students: some good work has been done by a number of Russian theorists in relation to Eugene Onegin. On the other hand, the huge and ancient English genus is very imperfectly described. I have not been particularly interested in the question, but as much as I can recall I have not come across a single work that treated English iambics — particularly the tetrameter — on a taxonomical and comparative-literature basis, in a way even remotely acceptable to a student of prosody. In my casual perusals,

I have of course slammed shut without further ado any such works on English prosody in which I glimpsed a crop of musical notes or those ridiculous examples of strophic arrangements which have nothing to do with the structure of verse. In other works, muddleheaded discussions of "short" and "long," "quantity" and "equivalence," not only contain various traditional non-sense or subjective illusions of sense but do not afford any systematic notion of the iambic modulation beyond tedious arguments around and around "apostrophization," "substitution," "spondees," and so forth. In consequence, I have been forced to invent a simple little terminology of my own, explain its application to English verse forms, and indulge in certain rather copious details of classification before even tackling the limited object of these notes to my translation of Pushkin's Eugene Onegin, an object that boils down to very little — in comparison to the forced preliminaries — namely, to a few things that the non-Russian student of Russian literature must know in regard to Russian prosody in general and to Eugene Onegin in particular.


If by prosodies we mean systems or forms of versification evolved in Europe during this millennium and used by her finest poets, we can distinguish two main species, the syllabic system and the metrical one, and a subspecific form belonging to the second species (but not inconsistent with certain syllabic compositions), cadential poetry, in which all that matters is lilt depending on random numbers of accents placed at random intervals. A fourth form, which is specifically vague and is rather a catchall than a definite category (not yet having been instrumental in producing great poetry), takes care of unrhymed free verse, which, except for the presence of typographical turnpikes, grades insensibly into prose, from a taxonomic point of view.

Except in one or two special cases, Greek and Latin verse forms are not taken into consideration in the following notes, and such terms as "iambic tetrameter" and so forth are not meant to suggest their ancient application, whatever that was, but are used strictly in reference to modern types of prosody, as convenient and innocuous nomenclatorial handles, instead of such ambiguous terms, in relation to metrical verse, as "octo-syllables," and so forth. A foot is not only the basic element of meter but, in action, becomes the meter itself: a "monometer" is a line of one foot, and so on, to "hexameter," a six-foot line, beyond which the metrical line is no longer felt as a line and breaks into two.

Taken all in all, and with our quest limited to the latter half of the millennium in question, the greatest representative of the syllabic prosody in delicacy and complexity of modulation is certainly the French Alexandrine. The student is generally taught that its three characteristics are: an obligatory equality of syllables (twelve in masculine lines, thirteen in feminine ones), obligatory rhyme (in couplets or in any other arrangement, but with no two different masculine or feminine endings occurring in adjacentlines), and an obligatory caesura after the sixth syllable, which must be accented (or, if this is followed by a final e muet, the latter must be neutralized by an apocopate fusion with the vowel heading the second hemistich). Apart from niceties of instrumentation, which, after all, can be paralleled in other prosodies, but to which the French ear seems to be especially sensitive, a major part in the composition of the Alexandrine is played by a combination of the following elements (of which the first is, of course, a feature of other syllabic lengths as well). It should always be remembered that, whatever prosody is followed, the art of the poet depends on certain contrasts and concords, constraints and liberties, denials and yieldings:

(1) The e muet: the interplay between the theoretical or generic value of the unelided e muet (which is never heard as a full semeion, as all the other vowels in the line are) and its actual or specific value in a given line. The number of such incomplete semeia and their distribution allow endless variations of melody, in conjunction with the neutralizing effect of apocopes in any part of the line. There are two main varieties of e muet, especially noticeable in rhymes (see §13, Rhyme).

(2) The interplay between the prosodically existing pause in mid-line and another pause, or pauses, or absence of pause, proceeding from the inward rhythm or logical sense, or irrational lilt, of the line. Especially beautiful effects have been achieved by the so-called romantics after the pedestrian eighteenth century had all but stamped out French poetry. This kind of acrobatic shifting back and forth across the constant caesura! ha-ha is something not duplicated in English or Russian iambic pentameters (of the blank-verse type), in which the artificial caesural pause after the second foot is triumphantly sung out of metrical existence by a Milton or a Pushkin. In the French Alexandrine the caesura is well adjusted to the rhythm of human breath in slow reading, while, on the other hand, secondary pauses owing to "shifts" allow for precipitated or delayed exhalations.

(3) The enjambment or nm-on, a fertile source of modulation, which is too well known from its presence in English iambics to need any explication here.

(4) The rich rhyme (which is especially beautiful when enjambed, just as the caesural pause is especially enhanced when sense glides across it). It is imitated by the Russian rule of rhyme, which will be discussed later.

The metrical system, on the other hand, is based first of all on a regular recurrence of rhythm within a line of verse, in which foot stress tends to coincide with accent (word stress), and nonstress with nonaccent. This recurrence is seen as a sequence of similar feet. Each such foot can consist of either two or three divisions (semeia), one of which is stressed by the meter but not necessarily by the syllable of the word coinciding with it. This stressed division is called the ictus, while the unstressed divisions are called depressions. Mathematically, only five kinds of feet can exist: the iamb, the trochee, the anapaest, the amphibrach, and the dactyl.

For the final foot to be complete, the presence of one semeion is sufficient, provided it is an ictus. Conversely, the identity of the meter is not affected by any number of unstressed syllables coming after the final ictus of the line. This final ictus and these additions to it are called "terminals." A line terminating in an ictus is called "masculine"; a line terminating in one unstressed syllable is called "feminine." If the terminals of two, not necessarily adjacent, lines correspond in sound, the result is a "rhyme." The rhyme is masculine if the ultima of the last word of the line is stressed and coincides with the ictus. It is feminine if the penultimate coincides with the ictus, and "synthetic" or "long" if it is the ante-penultimate that is stressed.

The samples given below illustrate the five combinations (of one ictus and one or two depressions) mathematically possible within the limits of one metrical foot. The first two are masculine tetrameters: (1) iambic and (2) trochaic; the rest are masculine trimeters: (3) dactylic, (4) amphibrachic, and (5) anapaestic.

(1) The rós- | es áre | agaín | in blóom
(2) Róses | áre a- | gáin in | blóom
(3) Róses a- | gáin are in | blóom
(4) The roses | agaín are | in blóom
(5) And the rós- | es agaín | are in blóom

An example of pausative or cadential verse using the same words would run:

And again the rose is in bloom

which the metrically trained ear hears as three anapaests with one missed depression in the second foot causing a little gasp or pause, hence the term.

And a syllabic line would be:

De nouveau la rose fleurit

in which the e of rose is a type of depression that cannot be rendered in English, German, or Russian.

An iambic foot cannot be illustrated by a word unless that word is part of a specific iambic line. An iambic foot can be illustrated by signs only insofar as these signs are made to express the maximal four variations in which an iambic foot actually appears in verse:

[??] regular beat
[??] scud (or false pyrrhic)
[??] tilted scud (or false trochee)
[??] false spondee

To the discussion of these we shall now turn.

An ordinary iambic foot (i.e., one not affected by certain contractional and rhymal variations) consists of two semeia, the first semeion being called a depression ([??] or [??]) and the second an ictus (- or [??]). Any such foot belongs to one of the following types (with the basic metrical stress marked -, and the variable word accent '):

(1) Regular foot, [??] (unaccented nonstress followed by accented stress); e.g., "Appéase my gríef, and déadly páin" (Earl of Surrey, The Lover Describeth His Restless State).

(2) Scudded foot (or false pyrrhic), [??] - (unaccented nonstress followed by unaccented stress); e.g., "In expectátion of a guést" (Tennyson, In Memoriam, VI) and "In lóveliness of pérfect déeds" (ibid., XXXVI).

(3) Tilt (or inversion), [??]-(accented nonstress followed by unaccented stress); e.g., "Sense of intólerable wróng" (Coleridge, The Pains of Sleep), "Vaster than Émpires and more slow" (Marvell, To His Coy Mistress), and "Perfectly pure and góod: I fóund" (Browning, Porphyria's Lover).

(4) False spondee, [??] (accented nonstress and accented stress); e.g., "Twice hóly wás the Sábbath-béll" (Keats, The Eve of St. Mark).


We speak of an "accent" in relation to a word and of a "stress" in relation to a metrical foot. A "scud" is an unaccented stress. "An inextinguishable flame" has two accented and two unaccented stresses.

When inverse a weak monosyllabic word (i.e., one not accented inspeech) or a weak syllable of a long word happens to coincide with the stressed part (ictus) of a foot, there results a modulation that I term a "scud."

If an accented syllable in speech be notated ', and a stress accent in verse [??], then a scud is marked -.

The unstressed part of a foot is marked v (for which a "depression" is the best term).

The verse quoted above is notated: [??]

A scud can occur in any foot of any metrical line but is far more frequent in double-semeion meters or "binaries" (iambs and trochees) than in triple-semeion meters or "ternaries" (anapaests, aniphibrachs, and dactyls). We shall be mainly concerned with scuds in the iambic tetrameter.

Weak — i.e., scuddable — monosyllables may be described as follows:

Monosyllables that are of comparatively minor importance (articles, prepositions, etc.), unless especially emphasized, and that are not usually rhymed on, are counted as scuds equivalent to unaccented but metrically stressed syllables in longer words (actually, this is truer of English than Russian, because in Russian verse a scud provided by a monosyllable is a trifle less fluid than one provided by a polysyllable — which, of course, has no secondary accent in Russian). Between a typical weak monosyllable (such as "the") and an indubitably accented one (such as querulous "why"), there are gradations and borderline cases ("while," "when," "had," etc.), which may be termed "semiscuds." To determine them depends so much upon context, and is often so subjective a matter — in reference to random lines, at least — that one is not inclined to furnish a special mark for them (say, [??]). I have disregarded them in my percentile calculations. Semiscuds are not frequent enough in either English or Russian to affect numerical results when dealing with relatively small samples (say, fifty lines per poet). A special study of scuds, however, should take into account the fact that if we examine such Russian or English dipodies as:

eyo toski, which means, and is accented, "of her distress" i on ubit, which means, and is accented, "and he is killed"

we cannot but notice that if these syllables are iarobized, the first ictus in each case is somewhat less strongly emphasized than in:

nemoy toski, which means, and is accented, "of mute distress"

i Dzhim ubit, which means, and is accented, "and Jim is killed."

Among indubitably scudded monosyllables the most obvious ones are: "a," "an," "and," "as," "at," "but," "for," "from," "if," "in," "like," "of," "on," "or," "the," "to," etc.

The scudding of such particles as "all," "no," "not," "was," etc., is a question of context and individual taste.

Similarly, in Russian, obvious and unquestionable scuds are: dlya ("for"), do ("till"), i ("and"), na ("on"), ne ("not," a word that should never be accented in good Russian), no ("but"), ot ("from"), po ("along"), pod ("under"), u ("at"), etc., whereas the scudding of bïl ("was"), net ("no"), etc., depends on context and elective intonation.

When we turn to polysyllabics, the first thing we notice is an important accentual difference between English and Russian, and this has a definite repercussion on the frequency of pure scuds. In Russian, a polysyllabic word, no matter how long (provided it is not a blatantly artificial compound with the seam showing), can bear but one accent, and consequently a word of any length can bear only one stress accent in verse. Neither neveroyátneyshie ("most improbable," pl.) nor vikarabkavshiesya ("scrambled out," pl.) has more than one accent. The first can easily be woven into a mellifluous iambic tetrameter (in which the last word means "dreams"):

neveroyátneyshie sni

whereas the shortest measure into which the second may be crammed is a somewhat bumpy trochaic pentameter:

vikarabkavshiesya koti

(which means, in prose, "the cats that have scrambled out").

In English polysyllabic words, on the other hand, there may occur a secondary accent, especially in American speech, but still there are numerous long words that have only one accent, such as "guárdedly" or "considering." The secondary accent is found, for example, on the third syllable of the following word, when pronounced the American way: "matrimony"; but in British parlance, and thus in poetry written by Englishmen, it should be scanned "matrimony." In the various examples of verses given further I shall disregard secondary accents when not intended by an English author, but the fact remains that a number of ordinary compounds, constantly recurring in poetry, do bear the ghost of an additional accent, with a resulting semiscud, such as "overmúch" or "semidiámeters," whereas their Russian counterparts, chereschúr and poludiámetrï, are strictly single-accented.


Excerpted from Notes on Prosody and Abram Gannibal by Vladimir Nabokov. Copyright © 1964 Bollingen Foundation. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Write a Review

and post it to your social network


Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews >