Review: «J. Thomas Shaw, Pushkin's Poetics of the Unexpected: The Nonrhymed Lines in the Rhymed Poetry and the Rhymed Lines in the Nonrhymed Poetry»

J. Thomas Shaw. Pushkin's Poetics of the Unexpected: The Nonrhymed Lines in the Rhymed Poetry and the Rhymed Lines in the Nonrhymed Poetry. Columbus, Ohio: Slavica, 1994. 369 pp.


It goes without saying that Tom Shaw is the doyen of American Pushkinists. From his translation of the letters through the dictionary of Pushkin's rhymes (now available on the Internet) and innumerable articles, to this last monument of erudition and scholarship, Shaw has set the standard by which all work on pushkin must be measured, and has made Wisconsin the centre for Pushkin scholarship in America.

The book under review is vintage Shaw. It asks the kind of questions posed by his dictionary of rhymes—why do we occasionally find nonrhymed lines in the rhymed work, and why some rhymed lines in the nonrhymed work?—and answers them superbly. The entire work is characterized by a rigour and sensitivity to every nuance of Pushkin's poetics that would be difficult to equal anywhere. Essentially Shaw's approach builds on the insights and techniques of Russian formalism, introducing new and rigorous terminology (e.g., the categories of unexpected nonrhymes in the lyrics) and methods where necessary, but everywhere sensitive to meaning, to the poetic intelligence shaping the texts and informing the decisions. Again and again Shaw uses his formal observations to offer fascinating readings of the texts: e.g. his linking of Mniszek and Varlaam in Boris Godunov.

The book is divided into two unequal parts: the first consists of two chapters devoted to the non-rhymed lines in Pushkin's rhymed poetry, and the seond, consisting of five chapters, deals with the rhymed lines in the nonrhymed poetry. The whole is rounded out with a tantalizing conclusion, and with extensive notes and tables, a rich bibliography, and three indexes. By its nature the book gives, of course, a skewed image of Pushkin, since it treats only those works that depart from the principles of Pushkin's poetics. That is to say, it covers one of the poles of Pushkin's art—that which departed deliberately and wilfully from the formal perfection that seems to characterize the larger part of it. Moreover,  for those of us who like to see Pushkin's œuvre as a complicated spectrum freaching from copleteness through various degrees offragmentariness to sketches contained in various drafts, Shaw has a stern criterion: only those works that Pushkin published (or evidently intended to publish in the available form) in his lifetime are within the pale. Clearly, such rigour is necessary for meaningful analysis; however, it suggests a stronger sense of what is complete and what is incomplete than is perhaps justified overall.

Naturally, there are statements in the book with which one may differ. For example, Shaw considers the last line of Pushkin's letter to his brother of 20-23 December 1824 to be in prose: "Da prishli mne kol´tso, moi Laion." So it would be, if Pushkin stressed the last word "Lion" on the first syllable; however, it is reasonable to assume that Pushkin's English at that time was quite sketchy, and that he stressed it as in Fren on the last syllable: LaiON, so that the last line would be perfect anapaestic trimeter. Since the preceding lines are all rhymed, the example would fit into a pattern Shaw observes elsewhere, where a sires of rhymed lines culminate in a final, unrhymed one. Also, in discussing scene 13 ("Night. Garden. Fountain") in Boris Godunov, Shaw states: "The use of 'thou' is particularly interesting here. Both Marina and the Pretender address each other as 'thou' (na ty) throughout the scene" (235). Shaw is wrong on two counts here. First, when she sees the Pretender for the first time in this scene, Marina addresses him as "vy." In the rest of the scene, it is true, the conversation is "na ty"—but so it is throughout the play, for with the sole exception of the French of Margeret and the German of Rosen, the text conforms to early seventeenth-century Russian conventions, according to which there is no formal "vy" for address, even to the tsar. Thus, Marina's "ty" simply expresses her conformity to Russian speech norms, not at all her "disdain and contempt." The initial "vy" should be understood as part of her foreign, western affectation. Quibbles aside, there are many works whose reading will from now on be affected by Shaw's analysis. For me the highlight of the book is the discussion of Boris Godunov, especially Varlaam's rhymes and the discovery of "Mniszek's sonnet"—the product of careful analysis of both Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet and Pushkin.

The text of this book is in itself an achievement. The intricate system of notation Shaw uses, as well as the problems of transcription and documentation, make the very execution of such an analysis a challenge. It is therefore unfortunate that the text is marred by poor proofreading. I counted at least 101 typos, misquotes, garbled passages, and grammatical errors that a careful rereading could have corrected.

With this volume Shaw has left a legacy of scholarship and collegiality that will long resonate in the field. He frequently, for instance, points out areas that need further study, so that the book is a goldmine for those looking for an interesting thesis or book topic. In particular, his final challenge—to any other Pushkinist so inclined—is contained in the modest claim that "one of the main purposes of this monograph has been to lay the groundwork for the study of the unexpected nonrhymes in Evgenij Onegin" (272). One would have wished to see Professor Shaw himself carry out such a task, for it is difficult to imagine anyone else with the stamina, the erudition, and the methodological inventiveness equal to it.


J. Douglas Clayton
University of Ottawa



Clayton, J. Douglas. Rev. of J. Thomas Shaw, Pushkin's Poetics of the Unexpected: The Nonrhymed Lines in the Rhymed Poetry and the Rhymed Lines in the Nonrhymed Poetry. Pushkin Review 01 (1998): 173-75.


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Vol. 01 (1998)