New Russian literature uses two forms of literary speech— prose and verse. The same forms are also characteristic of folklore, where prosaic and poetic genres have developed since time immemorial. In oral popular poetry the text is, as a rule, closely connected with a melody. The performer sings, rather than declaims. But in Russian folklore there was also “oral-speech” verse, for example, the rayeshnik which had an unlimited number of syllables in each line, no fixed stress and compulsory plain rhyme at the end of the line. The term rayeshnik сотё$ from the popular picture theatre (rayek) which used this type of verse. It was also used in the ditties chanted by the showmen at fairs, street-vendors, traders, pedlars, and in particular, by the skomorokhs.
The Russian literary language of the Middle Ages was different. In Old Russian literature verse, i.e., a text divided into lines of equal length, is found only in exceptional cases.13 The few verse works known to Old Russia were written either from Byzantine models or under the influence of oral folk poetry. The influence of Byzantine metrics is obvious in the early Slavonic poems using the principle of syllabic symmetry (a set number of syllables in each line) that were written by Cyril the Philosopher and the early generations of his followers in Greater Moravia and in Bulgaria in the ninth and tenth centuries.14 These include the foreword in verse (proglas) to the translation of the Gospels, and an ABC prayer, which consists of twelve lines with an alphabetical acrostic (each line beginning with the next letter of the Slavonic alphabet), and the services for Cyril and Methodius. The activity of the early Slavonic writers was dictated to a large extent by the idea that the language of the Slavs as a language of religious worship and culture was equal to Greek and Latin. Therefore from the very outset Slavonic literature sought to master all the achievements of Byzantine literature, including the poetic genres.
The literature of Kievan Russia included early Slavonic verse. The scribes preserved and the readers were aware of its syllabic nature. In the twelfth century, however, some major changes took place in the Russian language. The reduced vowels ъ and ь ceased to perform a syllabic function in a weak position. As a result lines ceased to have the same number of syllables. In new translations
from the Greek the metrics of the original was not preserved. The thirteen-syllable lines of the collection of sayings entitled The Wisdom of Menander the Wise in the Slavonic version that appeared in the thirteenth century became lines of different length, ranging from eleven to sixteen syllables. This “translation into prose” was the result not of technical ineptness, but of the aesthetic premise that one should translate the “inner meaning” of the text, without bothering about precese observance of the form.
The author of The Lay of the Ruin of the Russian Land made use of “oral-speech” verse:
О светло светлая и украсно украшена
И многими красотами удивлена еси:
Озеры многыми удивлена еси,
Реками и кладязьми месточестьными,
Горами крутыми, холми высокыми,
Дубравоми частыми, польми дивными…
Oh, most radiant and finely adorned/Land of Russia!/ You are renowned for your many beauties: / You are famed for your many lakes / Your revered rivers and springs / Steep mountains, high hills / Dense oak groves, wondrous plains…
This splendid text shows that Old Russian scribes possessed a sense of poetry. This sense was satisfied by both folklore, which in the Middle Ages was shared by all, and literature. Almost completely ignorant of verse in the modern meaning of the world, Old Russian literature made extensive and exclusive use of rhythm.15
In Metropolitan Hilarion’s Sermon on Law and Grace and the ceremonial rhetoric of Cyril of Turov the rhythm is deliberate and often so consistent that the texts of these authors can be considered as the meeting point of prose and verse. The “braiding of words” of the’ fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, in which words with the same root and similar sounds are repeated like elements of ornament, creating a rhythmical impulse, is also non-prose. The writers of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Maxim the Greek, in particular, used the expression “to compose”, “to braid” and “to weave” verse as synonyms. Thus, in their mind the “braiding of words” was a special form of literary speech different from “ordinary” prose.16
The rhythmic movement is particularly strong in hymnology, where the text and the melody form a single entity. Hymnology is lyrical, because its subject is man’s emotional life, but this lyricism is constricted by the framework of Divine worship. Towards the beginning of the sixteenth century, however, a form of lyricism appeared that was independent of liturgical service but based on the hymnological tradition, the so-called verses of repentance.17 They are no longer directly connected with church services, although still associated with them in subject matter (particularly with the Lenten cycle). In these verses of repentance the themes of sin and repentance, death and the last judgement, of leaving this world for the “beautiful wilderness” prevail:
Прими меня, пустыня,
Как мать чадо свое,
В тихие и безмолвные
Take те, wilderness / As a mother her child / Into your still and silent/Depths…
The verses of repentance very soon became an independent genre. In song manuscripts of the sixteenth century we find large selections of several dozen texts. Then the verses of repentance were swelled by the addition of new works in which secular themes were heard. Thus, during the invasion by the Poles and Swedes, they reflected the theme of defence of the homeland:
Придите, все русские люди,
Верующие и благочестивые,
И храбрые воины…
Против полков языческих,
Не убоимся часа смертного…19
Соте, all ye Russian folk/Faithful and pious/And valiant warriors…/Let us stand, brothers,/Against the pagan hosts,/Let us not fear the last hour…
The verses of repentance are not prose, of course, but nor are they poetry in our understanding of the word. They were not recited, but chanted “in eight voices”, like hymns, and the melody played a very important part. Even the final 5, not normally pronounced, was often marked with a note and, consequently, chanted.
Versification as a conscious form of literary speech, distinct from prose in general and rhythmic prose and hymns in particular, arose in the first decade of the seventeenth century, in the Time of Troubles. In manuscript books of that time we find both folklore metres (rayeshnik verse and accentual verse) and also borrowed Ukrainian-Polish syllabic verse.20 This marks the beginning of the history of Russian poetry of the West-European type.