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Bely's Baskets, Roofs, And Rhombuses

Nikolai Vasil'evich Bugaev was a respected mathematician, and he and others like him drew all kinds of extravagant inferences about the connection between mathematics and politics. In such a climate perhaps some of the ideas his son came up with aren't so odd. Bely was a student of the natural sciences for a brief period, and at one time he contemplated the possibility of constructing an exact science of aesthetics. In an essay called "The Principle of Form in Aesthetics" he proposed one approach to the problem.[3] The notion was that the various art forms (music, poetry, painting, sculpture, and architecture) are distinct expressions of something single and universal (which we may call art, for the sake of simplicity). Bely wondered if a set of a priori principles could be discovered that would show why art in a certain instance can manifest itself, say, only as music or only as painting. An exact science of aesthetics would demonstrate that the various art forms are actually subject to a kind of logical necessity, not only in the sense that each an form exists as an art form by logical necessity (before the world existed, one could have predicted that there would be music, poetry, and so on) but also in the sense that any work of art comes by logical necessity to be expressed in the form in which it is expressed.

There's nothing amazing about that idea, and Bely is certainly not the first person to have thought of it. But next he takes it into his head to find a model for his theory in thermodynamics, and he spends the rest of the essay working out the details. If there is a principle of conservation of energy in physics, Bely thinks, then there must be a principle of conservation of creative energy in art. Using terms like quantity, tension, and kinetic creative energy, Bely bombards his reader with equations and calculations that make what he writes look like a chemistry


textbook. The difference between what Bely writes and a chemistry book, though, is in the words between the equations. For example, at one point Bely says:

While composing large-scale artworks, Ibsen, for instance, attempted at first to expend a certain quantity of energy


but then, through corrections in his manuscript, heightened the tension of the expended effort:


This is how Goethe wrote Faust .
(S, p. 189; SE, p. 217)

Of course I've quoted this passage out of context, and some of the terms have been used earlier in the essay. But this is not just a cheap trick to make Bely look like a lunatic. The leap from physics to Ibsen and then to that extraordinary final comment on Goethe, which concludes a whole section of the essay and is never developed further, is every bit as wild when it's read in context.

"The Principle of Form in Aesthetics" was a youthful attempt at something Bely did not pursue in later years. Three years after he wrote it, however, he hit on another angle of the scientific aesthetic, one that was to prove much more fruitful. In 1909 he wrote four studies on poetic meter and rhythm in which he set out a method of verse analysis that combined elementary arithmetic and geometry. The result was a highly relational conception of the poetic work of art. What distinguished his approach in these studies from the one he proposed in "The Principle of Form in Aesthetics" was the role of the researcher. In the earlier study the researcher's task was to find, by purely logical deduction, the principles that precede the existence of any actual works of art. In the verse studies, however, the researcher's task is empirical and descriptive, and the conclusions are based on data taken from real works of art. In the earlier essay the method was deductive; in the verse studies it is inductive.

The first of the studies on meter and rhythm is titled "Lyric Poetry and Experiment" ("Lirika i èksperiment") (S, pp. 231–85; SE, pp. 222–73). Almost half of the essay is given over to a discussion of the empirical, descriptive method and its importance for establishing an exact science of aesthetics. The remainder is devoted to the elaboration of the specific


method of verse analysis Bely will use in all four essays. Russian, like English, has a syllabotonic versification system; a line of Russian verse consists of a fixed number of syllables with a regular distribution of accented syllables. Because the distribution of accented syllables is regular, Russian verse can be divided into metrical feet. Russian verse accommodates a greater variety of feet than English, and all the basic combinations can be easily found: iambic, trochaic, anapestic, dactyllic, even amphibrachic.

By far the most common of Russian meters is iambic tetrameter, and it is the one Bely concentrates on. Bely was struck by something that no one had paid much attention to before, although it was perfectly obvious. Russian words generally contain only one accent each, and many of them are quite long. In fact, the average proportion of accented to total syllables in Russian prose, it was later shown, is 1 to 2.8.[4] This means that it is impossible to write truly iambic verse in a sustained way without resorting exclusively to the use of short words. What actually happens in Russian verse, of course, is that a great many positions that should be occupied by an accented syllable are not; so when we describe a particular set of verses as being written in iambic pentameter, we are not speaking with strict accuracy. In a given line of iambic pentameter there are likely to be one or more pyrrhic feet (both syllables unaccented). This tendency leads to the capital distinction Bely makes between meter and rhythm. Meter is the regular pattern a poem is meant to conform to, and terms like iambic pentameter describe it. Rhythm, by contrast, is the actual pattern we find in a poem. Since poems don't conform to the ideal pattern of a meter, their rhythm is really a pattern of violations. Bely called these violations either half-accents, because we tend to give a slight accent to a position in a verse that should be accented even when no accented syllable occurs on it, or accelerations, because in these half-accented positions the lack of a full accent has the effect of speeding up our reading.

The interesting part of Bely's analysis comes next. He decides that a good way to characterize the rhythm (not meter) of a poem is to draw a graph showing all the lines of verse and the four feet in each line. He places a dot in every position where there is a violation (an acceleration) and then forms designs by connecting dots that occur either in the same line or in consecutive lines. Any poem has numerous lines that are metrically regular, and dots are not connected over these, so the figures formed by this connect-the-dots game are usually small. Bely, carried away with enthusiasm by his pictures, then names them. If one line of


verse contains a single acceleration and the following line contains two, we get an upright triangle. If the first line contains two and the next line one, we get an upside-down triangle. There are crosses, roofs, rhombuses, baskets, M 's, Z 's, and many other patterns.

Of course, a descriptive system like this must rest on the assumption that the geometric figures correspond to something perceptible to a listener or reader. An upright triangle, for instance, must come across as a rhythmic pattern of gradual acceleration, since it consists of a line with only one acceleration followed by a line with two. And when we say that baskets and rhombuses are particularly frequent in the verse of a certain poet and so are characteristic of that poet's rhythm, we must be using the words baskets and rhombus only as a kind of shorthand for something we can hear when we listen to the verse of the poet in question.

But after a short while Bely seems not to care much about whether his system corresponds to anything the listener hears, and his account of rhythm and versification is given over to charts and pictures. One has to ask at this point what the object of Bely's study really is. Toward the end of "Lyric Poetry and Experiment" Bely uses his geometric figures to make a distinction between "rich" rhythm and "poor" rhythm. Rich rhythm is characterized by a relatively large number and variety of geometric figures; poor rhythm is characterized by a relatively small number and variety of them. At one point, having charted the rhythmic patterns of selections from several poets, he says: "Comparing the examples of rich rhythms with the examples of poor rhythms, we see that the rhythmic figures for the rich rhythms are distinguished by greater complexity. The lines here are broken rather than straight, and simple figures join together here to form a series of complex figures" (S, p. 271; SE, p. 260). Remember that broken lines and straight lines correspond to something that should ultimately be perceptible when we listen to or read the poetry in question. But Bely largely stops talking about that and focuses instead on the designs themselves, which have now become a measure of the worth of a poet's verse. The second of Bely's four essays, "Toward a Characterization of the Russian Iambic Tetrameter" ("Opyt xarakteristiki russkogo cetyrexstopnogo[*] jamba") (S, pp. 286—330), consists almost entirely of statistical charts and descriptions of geometric figures. For example, we read this passage: "The roof is one of the most typical rhythmic devices. Pushkin uses it less often in his Lyceum poems than subsequently. Thus in 596 lines of verse from the years 1814 and 1815 only two roof figures occur. In a corresponding number of lines


of verse from the years 1828 and 1829 we encounter the device in question 8 times. Could this be accidental? When I take another 596 lines of iambic tetrameter from the poems of 1824–1827, I find the corresponding device 6 times. I conclude from this that the more frequent use of this figure by Pushkin corresponds to a strengthening of his rhythm" (S, p. 309). And Bely goes on to provide statistics for the occurrence of the "roof" in other Russian poets.

This is not at all to say that Bely's system is without value. In fact, he pulls off a real coup in "Lyric Poetry and Experiment" by showing that his scientific definition of rich rhythm is borne out by common notions of the worth of poets. He takes a selection of Russian poets ranging from great to mediocre and examines 596 lines of verse by each, adding up for each poet the total number of geometric figures. It turns out that those with the greatest number are those commonly considered to be the greatest poets, and those with the lowest number are those most Russians would agree are second-rate or worse (S, pp. 273–75; SE, pp. 263–65).

Earlier I said that Jakobson gave Bely credit for inspiring him to undertake the analytic study of verse. Jakobson makes his remarks in the "Retrospect" to the fifth volume of his Selected Writings .[5] It is testimony to Bely's true importance in our story that Jakobson, writing not too long ago, begins the "Retrospect" with a discussion of the very essays I've been talking about. Jakobson disputes Bely's rather exaggerated view of his own importance in the history of verse studies, but he goes on to say that "beyond any doubt, Belyj's inquiry was the first to throw light on the Russian iambic tetrameter, its manifold accentual variations, and significant modifications which this favorite Russian measure underwent from the eighteenth to the early twentieth century. He discerned diverse and formerly unnoticed particulars and posed many questions of wider scope" (SW, 5:569). After this, Jakobson tells of how he himself attempted to apply Bely's method when he was still a teenager. He tells of the critique that another Russian symbolist poet, Valerii Briusov, wrote of Bely's verse studies in 1910. Jakobson mentions the work of the Moscow Rhythmic Circle, which Bely founded and which made certain advances over Bely's pioneering work. And he describes his own role in this history, how the Moscow Linguistic Circle, of which he was a member, systematically revised the work of both Bely and Briusov in 1914 (SW, 5:570).

I can't help thinking, however, that the true legacy of Bely's work is to be found not in Jakobson's studies on versification, meter, and rhythm


but instead in the study of Baudelaire's "Les Chats" that Jakobson coauthored with Lévi-Strauss. On the surface Jakobson and Lévi-Strauss's study appears to be completely different from Bely's verse studies. Jakobson and Lévi-Strauss are analyzing a poem, to be sure, but the focus is almost exclusively on the grammatical characteristics of Baudelaire's verse rather than on such purely formal aspects as the occurrence and position of accentual irregularities. But if we take a closer look, we see that the method and the results are quite similar. Jakobson and LéviStrauss, toward the end of their essay, after having found many different patterns by which the poem may be organized according to grammatical features, say this: "As we now reassemble the pieces of our analysis, let us try to show how the different levels on which we have situated ourselves blend together, complete each other, or combine, thus giving the poem the character of an absolute object."[6] Their idea was to take the poem apart and put it back together again, and the two authors have done so several times over. The result is a whole new object, something different from the poem we started with, something better, something to replace the poem. What we end up with is a wondrous relational web that ties together all the different related points, a kind of transcendent schema that leaves Baudelaire's cats, with the "mystical pupils of their eyes" and their "fecund loins . . . full of magical sparks," in complete obscurity.

This is exactly what Bely had done, too, only he did it in 1909. He was a structuralist long before Jakobson and his friends ever dreamed of the kind of analysis that we see in the Baudelaire study and even before Jakobson began using the concept of structure in his earlier writings. Bely has taken thousands of lines of poetry and replaced them with boxes, rhombuses, baskets, roofs, crosses, and zigzags. He's forgotten what all the poems were about. There's nothing about the poor clerk whose fiancée has drowned in a Petersburg flood, nothing about the cheap pathos of the death of a peasant, nothing about the Georgian beauty singing her sad songs. Just baskets.

When it comes right down to it, Bely is also doing the same thing he did in "The Emblematics of Meaning." He's insisting that all the things around us that signify something are just surfaces hiding an essence. Bely never wants to sound too much like a religious man (how could he, coming from the home he came from?), so he always calls the essence something nonreligious. In "The Emblematics of Meaning" it was "value." In the verse studies it is a geometric system, a relational abstraction, a structure.


I'm not saying that Jakobson learned structuralism from Bely or that we can trace a line directly from "Lyric Poetry and Experiment" to the essay on "Les Chats." What I am saying is that the method was there for Jakobson to see at a time when his ideas were only beginning to take shape, that the method is really the same as the one that Jakobson was to follow later, and that Bely's essays have been largely unknown for decades, whereas Jakobson's writings are known the world over. Would there have been literary structuralism without Bely? Of course. The most ardent Bely enthusiast would never be so audacious or foolish as to claim otherwise. But structuralism might well not have been the same had it not been for him.

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