Syllabotonic Versification

The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Syllabotonic Versification


a type of accentual versification based on the regular alternation of strong, or stressed, syllables and weak, or unstressed, syllables. The meters of syllabotonic versification are binary and ternary. The binary meters are trochaic meter, in which an unstressed syllable occurs between two stressed ones: —U—U — U (Búria mglóiu nébo króet), and iambic meter: U—U—U— (Porá, porá, rogátrubiát). The ternary meters have two unstressed syllables between the stressed ones. Examples are the dactylic meter: —U U — U U (Vý ryta zástupom iáma glubókaia), and the am-phibrachic: U — U U — U (Idét vdokhnovénnyi kudésnik), and theanapestic: UU-U U (Zavelikoedélo liubví).

The names of the meters come from classical versification, in which long and short syllables alternated in analogous order. The inner structure of binary and ternary meters is identical; they differ only in the anacrusis, the rhythmic beginning measured by the number of unstressed syllables preceding the first stressed one. In trochaic and dactylic meter there is no anacrusis, in iambic and amphibrachic meter it is one syllable in length, and in anapestic meter, two syllables in length.

Russian verse theoreticians of the 18th and 19th centuries divided syllabotonic verse into uniform feet, such as the trochaic foot (—∪ǀ—∪ǀ—∪ǀ). However, the theory of feet in verse failed to take into account a distinctive feature of Russian verse: in trochaic and iambic verse the stresses do not fall on every strong syllable, and only the final syllable is always stressed. For example, in the line Vozliúb-lennaia tishiná the metric stress is omitted in the second and third feet: ∪ —ǀ∪—ǀ∪—ǀ∪—ǀ. This is because in Russian an average of approximately every third syllable is stressed, whereas iambic and trochaic feet consist of two syllables. Occasionally a weak syllable may be stressed, resulting in an additional stress. When this occurred, prosodists often made use of an auxiliary foot, either the pyrrhic (∪ ∪) or the spondee (— —), which could replace one of the original feet. Thus, in the line Zdés’ v mire rasshiriát’ naúki (— —ǀ ∪ ∪ ǀ ∪—ǀ ∪—ǀ ∪), the first foot is a spondee, the second a pyrrhic, and the others iambs.

Most modern Russian prosodists have rejected the theory of feet, although they continue to use its terminology for the sake of convenience. Pyrrhics give rhythmic variety to Russian iambs and trochees. In ternary meters the average number of stresses corresponds approximately to the number of strong syllables. For this reason metric stresses are rarely omitted, whereas additional stresses are not uncommon.

In Russia, syllabotonic versification was theoretically established in the 1730’s by V. K. Trediakovskii and M. V. Lomon-sov and introduced into poetry at the same time. It replaced the system of syllabic versification that had been used since the mid-17th century. Russian poets now used lines with two to six strong syllables (feet). As a rule, either all the lines of a poem had the same number of feet, or the length of the lines alternated regularly.

A variety of syllabotonic verse is free iambic verse, which is usually written in iambs and is marked by an irregular alternation of lines containing one to six feet. The fables of I. A. Krylov and A. S. Griboedov’s Woe From Wit were written in this type of verse. V. V. Mayakovsky’s poems written in free iambic and trochaic verse have lines containing as many as ten feet.

Syllabotonic versification is distinctive in various languages. In German, polysyllabic words may have several stresses, with a stress occurring on an average of once in every two syllables. For that reason pyrrhics are rare, and rhythmic variety is created by the alternation of stresses with varying emphasis. English contains many monosyllabic words, and consequently binary meters in that language contain numerous additional stresses. In languages with fixed stress, syllabotonic versification is becoming increasingly rare and irregular in form. For example, in Czech iambic verse a stress on the last strong syllable is not obligatory, and in Polish poetry the stress is often shifted from a strong syllable to a weak one. Such syllabotonic verse may be considered a transitional form approaching syllabic verse.


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The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.