Russian Versification: Reading the Poetry

Early Poetry

Though we are most familiar with its novelists and short-story writers, the glory of Russian literature to Russians is their poetry. It did not suddenly begin with Pushkin, however, but goes back to the eleventh century, when the Byzantine influence combined with old Slavonic to create highly literate tales — part prose, part  poetry — that urged Kievan unity in the face of Turkic invasion. The greatest work is the 12th century Lay of Igor's Conquest, but a courtly culture continued throughout the Middle Ages, one which has come down to us as byliny: heroic folksongs. In later medieval times these byliny were sung by skomorokhi, fraternities of wandering minstrals, but Russian written poetry seems to have emerged independently in the middle seventeenth century, in ways that are still obscure, no doubt influenced by byliny and the skomorokhi, but with a syllabic versification imported from Poland. {1}

The later, urbane and cosmopolitan poetry, which could hold its own against European examples, owed much to the westernising reforms of Peter the Great (1689-1725). Indeed the first poets were court officials, beholden to the tsar for patronage and any liberty to write at all. Competent didactic poetry and satire was being written by the mid 18th century, and these forms were regularised by Lomonosov (1711-65) and given their greatest expression by Gavrila Derzhavin (1743-1816) and Aleksandr Radishchev (1749-1802). {1,3}

Brief History

Not surprisingly, late eighteenth century poetry tended to the serious, uplifting and civic-minded. Such state-sponsored poetry ceased in the early nineteenth century, however, and was replaced by Salon-influenced aristocrats, who wrote on more personal matters for their friends. Nikolai Karamzin brought poetry closer to the spoken idiom. Konstantin Batiushkov drew on Italian models, and Vasily Zhukovsky on German models, but the great poet of the epoch, and indeed of all epochs, was Aleksandr Pushkin. Though continually assailed by censorship, from Pushkin's golden pen poured out a great mass of work, from insults to religious verse, from love poems to fairy tales, and from comedy to tragic works, all with a great surface clarity that was only approached by Evgenii Baratynsky. After Pushkin's early death, the golden age of Russian poetry enjoyed a brief flowering in Mikhail Lermontov and then gave way to prose writers, many deservedly famous. There were still outstanding poets in the nineteenth century, but they worked independently, not as tight-knit groups with common aims. Nikolai Nekrasov wrote socially-engaged poems on the monstrous suffering of the Russian poor. Fedor Tiutchev wrote in the more speculative vein of Romanticism. Afanasy Fet withdrew to his estates and wrote in an introspective verse in the 'art for art's sake' manner. {1}

The 1890-1920 period is called Russia's 'Silver Age' though, excepting the incomparable Pushkin, its poetry is not inferior to the previous 'Golden Age'. Valery Briusov wrote in the Symbolist vein of European Decadence. That Symbolism took a religious turn in the poetry of Zinaida Gippius. Vladimir Soloviev's philosophic and mystical poetry was the inspiration of three outstanding poets who sought to transcend the physical world: Aleksandr Blok, Andrei Bely and Vyacheslav Ivanov. Mikail Zuzmin was not a Symbolist but had similarly wide-ranging interests and talents. Two movements came to the fore after 1910: Acmeism (a neoclassical form of modernism) and Futurism. The great poets of Acmeism were Anna Akhmatovna and Ossip Mandel'sham. The Futurists embraced technology and/or a neo-primitivism: Aleksei Kruchenykh, Velimir Khlebnikov and Vladimir Mayakovsky. Independent of these movements, but also rising from the ferment of the Revolution were Boris Pasternak and Marina Tsvetaeva, both producing linguistically brilliant, challenging and emotively compelling work.{1}

Political orthodoxy and then the Stalin years asphyxiated poetry. Some poets emigrated but found little of a receptive audience. Some remained in Russia, being persecuted by the state (Akhmatova) or murdered (Mandel'shtam). Tsvetaeva spent hard years as an émigré, returning at last to Russia where, obscure and destitute, she took her own life. Poetry continued to be written under the communist regime, of course, but is of mixed quality. A more unofficial poetry emerged after Stalin's death, however, with Evgeny Evtushenko, and from the seventies appeared many avant-garde practitioners, of whom the best known to western audiences may be Joseph Brodsky. Censorship disappeared with the fall of the Soviet Union, but poets also lost their dissident status, being forced to compete with more popular forms of entertainment. As in the west, contemporary poetry in Russia retains a small but devoted readership. {1}


It is difficult to convey the flavour of Russian verse. Rhyme retains a key role, even in Modernist works. The position of the caesura (a pause in the syntax or logic of the sentence) can be a defining feature. Feminine lines (ending - u) are common, and the verse is more fluid and delicately patterned than strict English measures allow. There are indeed several systems of versification, reflecting the nature of the Russian language itself and the influence of foreign traditions (notably the German and Polish). {1}

Lay of Igor's Conquest

Не лепо ли ны бяшет, братие, начяти старыми словесы трудных повестий о полку Игореве, Игоря Святославлича! Начати же ся той песни по былинамь сего времени, а не по замышлению Бояню! {3}

(Is it not foolish for us, brethren, to begin in the manner of ancient lays the difficult stories about Igor's campaign, Igor the son of Svyatoslavich! rather let us begin this song in accordance with events of our own time, and not on the plan of Boyan!)


Не бумажные листочки расстилаются,
Расстилается сын перед батюшком,
Он и просит себе благословеньица:
«Ох ты, гой еси, родимый, милый батюшка! {4}

(Not a damp oak on the ground, / Not paper leaves spread out, / The son is stretched out before the father, / He asks for a blessing: / "Oh, you, dear father, dear father of mine!)

Syllabic Verse

Syllable verse is based on the number of syllables in a line, no more than that. Unlike syllable verse in English, a twentieth century variety of free verse, syllabic verse was a brief eighteenth century phase that was superseded by the syllabo-tonic system that is still largely in use today. {1}


The syllabo-tonic system is superficially similar to our own sense of meter with its regular pattern of stressed (-) and unstressed (u) syllables. There are seven constituent 'feet' making up metre in Russian poetry: {1}

Iambic: u -
Trochaic: - u
Dactylic: - u u
Amphibrachic: u - u (ternary metre)
Anapaestic: u u -
Pyrrhic: u u
Spondee: - -

How a Russian word is stressed has to be learnt or looked up in the dictionary, however: it is not disclosed by simply inspecting the word. {2} Russian words may or may not have a stressed syllable, but never have a secondary stress. One word, of whatever number of syllables, can therefore have no more than one syllable stressed. Our English word 'secondary', for example, carries a secondary stress on the third syllable: se con da ry. In Russian that would have to be se con da ry. In English we could write an acceptable tetrameter as: It has / a sec / on da / ry stress. But in Russian, at best, we could only write: It has / a sec / on da / ry stress. In fact many Russian words carry no inherent stress at all, so the same line in Russian might run as: It has / a sec / on da / ry stress. Just one syllable is stressed in the whole line. {1}

It was to avoid such metrically shapeless lines that the convention arose of giving an unvoiced stress (accent in Nabokov's terminology) to syllables: It has / a sec / on da / ry stress, where only sec is heard on reading aloud. The others are 'sensed' or 'heard' only in the mind. But, however artificial the convention, there had to be rules. Only verbs, nouns, adjectives and adverbs could carry an unvoiced stress, and then generally on the second syllable of the word. Prepositions and conjunctions couldn't carry an unvoiced stress, but personal pronouns could. To add to the complications, it was possible for lines to end with an unstressed syllable, the so-called feminine lines (- u). Such lines are very common in Russian verse, which has borrowed a convention from the Polish language, where most words end with an unstressed syllable. It was even possible for lines to end with two unstressed syllables (- u u), though they would generally have to rhyme. Those extra unstressed syllables do not change the terminology, however, and a tetrameter plus pyrrhic ending (u u), for example, is still counted as a tetrameter. Acceptable tetrameters can have 8, 9 or 10 syllables, therefore, and anything from 0 to 4 voiced stresses. That being the case, it is sometimes difficult to discern the metre immediately, but some lines in a poem will usually have their full complement of voiced stresses, and their metres will give the metre of the whole poem. {1}

The tetrameter in this passage from Pushkin's 'The Prophet' has  a regular meter of 4 stresses to the alternate masculine and feminine lines, but the rhythm, — i.e. the stresses actually realized or voiced — is much more variable. Only line 2 has all four stresses realized. Lines 1 and 4 have three stresses realised, and line 3 only two. {5}

Духовной жаждою томим,
В пустыне мрачной я влачился,
И шестикрылый серафим
На перепутье мне явился.

( Languishing with spiritual thirst, / I dragged myself through a gloomy desert, / And a six-winged seraph / I came to at the crossroads.)

This trochaic tetrameter comes from Pasternak's Hamlet. {6}

Гул затих. Я вышел на подмостки.
Прислонясь к дверному косяку,
Я ловлю в далёком отголоске
Что случится на моём веку́.

(The rumble ceased. I went out on the stage. / Leaning against the door jamb, / I catch in a distant echo / What will happen in my time.)

Dactylic is the commonest of the ternary meters: Fet {7}

Буря на небе вечернем
Моря сердитого шум
Буря на море и думы,
Много мучительных дум

(The storm in the evening sky / Sea angry noise / Storm on the sea and thoughts, / Many painful thoughts —)

This amphibrachic comes from Lermontov's The Angel {8}

По небу полуночи ангел летел,
      И тихую песню он пел;
И месяц, и звёзды, и тучи толпой
      Внимали той песне святой.

(In the middle of the night the angel flew, / And he sang a quiet song; / And the month, and the stars, and the clouds by the crowd / We listened to that holy song.)

Blok's To the Muse provides this anapaestic: {9}

Есть в напевах твоих сокровенных
Роковая о гибели весть.
Есть проклятье заветов священных,
Поругание счастия есть.

(There are in your tunes the secret / Fateful death of the message. / There is a curse of the covenants of the sacred, / The blasphemy is of happiness.)

Some further variation was allowed. Iambic lines could start with a spondee (- -). Some lines have stresses on the first and fourth syllables, an arrangement that Nabokov termed a 'tilt'. Most importantly, words that do have an inherently stressed syllable, however, must retain that stress when put together as verse: that inherent stress cannot be masked or lost by arranging words astutely. {1}

Russian verse is therefore less regimented by metre than English. Conversely, rhyme is more important, strictly observed until recently, even by Revolutionary and Modernist poems. Rhyme needs a stressed vowel and adjacent consonant (but can be followed by one or two unstressed syllables that do not have to rhyme). Rhyme is based on sound, not letters, moreover, vowels notwithstanding. The rules governing rhyme were also stricter at first, matching by parts of speech: a noun had to rhyme with another noun, for example. Such rules were relaxed in the nineteenth century, and consonant pairs (e.g. d/t) could also serve in rhymes if devoiced, but rhyme still had to make meaningful connections.

Clearly, the syllabo-tonic system is a convention, highly artificial, but one that has served well for two centuries of Russian poetry. {1}

Accentual Verse

Accentual verse is defined on the number of realized stresses, i.e. regardless of the overall number of syllables. Most poets from the 18th century to the present used the syllabo-tonic system, but accentual verse also occurs, particularly in the 20th century. Dol'nik verse is a transitional form where accentual verse scans as syllabo-tonic. {1} Blok's dol'nik can be very regular: {10}

Крыльцо Ее словно паперть.
Вхожу — и стихает гроза.
На столе — узорная скатерть.
Притаились в углу образа.

На лице Ее — нежный румянец,
Тишина озаренных теней.
В душе — кружащийся танец
Моих улетевших дней.

(Her porch is like a church's porch. / I enter and the storm subsides. / On the table is a patterned tablecloth. / The icons lurk in the corner. // On Her face there is a gentle blush, / The silence of illuminated shadows. / In soul — a whirling dance / My days gone by.)

Though this may seem to have syllabo-tonic lines, there are difficulties in so reading it. Line 2 could be amphibrachic trimer (stresses on syllables 2,5 and 8) and lines 4 and 6 as anapaestic trimeter (stresses on syllables 3, 6 and 9). But none of the other lines fit this pattern, and it's best to simply count the stresses: it's accentual verse with some similarities to a syllabo-tonic form.

Rhymeless Verse

Rhyme is crucial to Russian verse: the so-called free verse, lines without rhyme, is a late development. Nonetheless, there was also blank verse, used in the late 18th to early 19th century, where the lines do not rhyme, but where the caesura plays a leading role. Whatever its place in one line must be reproduced in all lines. {1} In this example from Pushkin's Boris Godunov the caesura comes after the second foot: {11}

Ещё одно, /  последнее сказанье –
И летопись / окончена моя,
Исполнен долг, /  завещанный от бога
Мне грешному. / Недаром многих лет
Свидетелем /  господь меня поставил
И книжному / искусству вразумил;

(One more, last narration – / And the Chronicle is over, / Duty fulfilled,  bequeathed from God / I am a sinner.  Not for many years / Did he place me as a witness / And enlightened me in the art of books;)

Other Aspects

Enjambment is more common in later Russian verse, and stanzas may or may not wholly enclose the meaning. Russian verse also uses a poetic diction, rather grand in 18th century verse when poets were court officials, and employed church slavonicisms. French and polite society came to influence word choice in the nineteenth century, but diction could be close to the vernacular by the close of the century. Much depends on the poet and topic. Nekrasov incorporated common words and expressions in his civic verse of social conscience, but Tiutchev employed a more elevated diction. Assonance and rhetoric is as common in Russian verse as English, but poets like Batinshkov could employ hiatus (similar conjoining vowels) to obtain melodious effects. The elaborate Russian case system allows a freer word order than is possible in English. {1}

Vladimir Nabokov's Contribution

Russian delights in long words of six or seven or more syllables, where English does not. {12} Polysyllabic words in fact create all kinds of problems in English verse, and are studiously avoided. {13} In notes to his Eugene Onegin translation, Nabokov reserves the word 'stress' for the underlying (i.e. not necessarily voiced) unvarying pattern of the iambic rhythm, and uses the word 'accent' to describe where the accent falls in speaking a line. Nabokov also recognises what he calls a 'scud' and 'tilts'. A scud is an unaccented stress (a common feature of Russian verse). Tilts are various patterns of accented and unaccented syllables: a 'duplex tilt', for example, is a disyllabic word where (unusually) the accent falls on the first syllable in ordinary speech. He also contrasts English and Russian tetrameters as follows:


1. Scudless lines are more common than scudded lines.
2. Sequences of scudded lines are short.
3. Scuds are frequently associated with weak monosyllables, duplex tilts, and scudded rhymes (in the final foot)
4. Scuds in feet 1 and 2 occur about as frequently as in foot 3; scuds in foot 4 are rare. The line is weighted accentually towards its end.
5. Feminine rhymes are scarce, insipid, or appear as burlesque.
6. Elisions are relatively common.


1. Scudded lines are much more common than scudless lines.
2. Scuds often form linked patterns from line to line, often in sequences of twenty or more lines. Sequences of scudless lines rarely occur in sequences longer than two or three lines.
3. Scuds are frequently associated with the unaccented syllables of long words; there are almost no duplex tilts. Rhymes are not scudded (i.e there is no scud in the final foot).
4. Scuds in foot 3 are by far the most common. The line is weighted accentually towards its beginning.
5. Feminine rhymes are as frequent as masculine ones.
6. There are strictly speaking no elisions of any kind.

Linguistically, the details are complex and contested, with some authors arguing that Russian has an intrinsic trochaic metre: 'a trochaic foot underlies the Russian metrical structure and emerges in both default stress and rhythmic alternations.' {14}

Transcription Services

Online translation services that also provide a transcription of the Russian, (i.e. an approximation in English letters of how the Russian words sound), are useful for beginners, but should be used with caution. Their coding may not capture all the pronunciation rules. Спасибо can be transcribed as 'spasibo', for example, because the coding does not recognize that the Russian unstressed ‘о’ is pronounced as an ‘a’. To put the matter more exactly, these are transliteration services rather than transcription.

Russian words are generally pronounced as written, but, ignoring some complications, is also subject to these rules:

Stress is heavier than in English, and harder to predict. As noted above, the stress pattern for a word has to be learnt or looked up in the dictionary. Different forms of the same word may have different stress patterns. Рука for ‘hand’  is stressed on the last syllable (ruka) , but the plural, Руки, is stressed on the first (ruki).

Hard and soft consonants sound quite different to the Russian ear, and the ъ and ь indications are usually transcribed, often as  " and '. The letters е ё и ю я and ь make the preceding consonants soft, except when these preceding consonants are ж ц and ш, which are always kept hard (i.e. with no 'y' sound). The voiced consonants б в г д ж з turn into unvoiced equivalents consonants when appearing at the ends of words, and if they come immediately before an unvoiced consonant, i.e. к п с т ф х ц ч ш щ. The voiced consonants then sound as a p, f k t sh and s respectively. Similarly, the unvoiced consonants become voiced when appearing immediately before б г д ж or з.

Pronouns are read as though joined to the following word.

Pronunciation of the vowels о е and я changes according to whether are stressed or not. An unstressed o sounds like a. An unstressed e sounds like an unstressed и. The vowel я in the syllable before the stressed syllable also sounds rather like и.

Pronunciation varies a little with dialect, and several common words have simplified pronunciations. In the Moscow dialect, Что (what) is pronounced ‘shto’. его (his) is pronounced yevo. Пожалуйцта (please) is often pronounced pa-zhal-sta. Здравствуйте (hello) is pronounced  zdra-stvooy-tye. Сегодня (today) is pronounced sve-vod-nya. Радио is prounced ra-dee-o because of foreign origin. And so on: this is only an introduction.

A Further Note on Rhyme

As the rules governing rhyme become more complicated in later Russian poetry, it may better to set  them all out more fully here.

Rhymes may be masculine (stress on the last syllable, feminine (stress of the second syllable) or dactylic (stress on the third syllable from the end). Two rhyme types commonly occur in the same poem, but rarely all three. (There is also the hyperdactylic rhyme where the stress comes before the third syllable from the end, but this is rare.) Masculine rhymes ending on a vowel must match on the vowel, and on the preceeding consonant. Other rhyme types must match on the vowel stressed and all that follows it.

Rhyme in eighteenth century syllabic verse was exclusively feminine. It rhymed и with ы, but not а with or о, nor и unstressed with е. The rhyme of е with ё was also rejected, though was sometimes relaxed in later syllabic verse.

Poetry in the nineteenth century, particularly from the 1830s, was based on the Moscow pronunciation and so allowed а  to rhyme with unstressed о,  е  to rhyme with и and unstressed я, and o to rhyme with ё.  The identity of а  о  and ы after a stress in a close syllable was also accepted, but these are generally case endings. Hard and soft consonants could not rhyme. Nor could the rhyme be truncated (i.e. a word ending in a consonant could not rhyme with one ending in a vowel: взором does not rhyme  with скоро).

Rhyming in the mid nineteenth century was generally more flexible, and the phonetic identity of vowels was only strictly observed when those vowels were stressed.

Modern poets, especially those writing after 1920, have been much more flexible, indeed versatile. Rhymes have been truncated, so that встречей will rhyme with вечер, for example. Feminine rhymes can end with different consonants:  собан and добым. Rhymes have become closer to assonance, therefore, the more so with consonants than vowels. A few poets (but only a few, like Mayakovsky) have also rhymed words where the stress does not fall on the same syllable counted from the line end. In practice, this has produced two rhyme combinations: dactylic + feminine and hyperdactylic + dactylic. Very occasionally, ever the virtuoso, Mayakovsky altogether disregarded the final syllable. The result of this flexibility has been richness rather than disorder, however, especially in the possibilities for consonants before the stressed vowel. Many matches introduce a touch of humour, of course, and in that category is also the broken rhyme: иитересней rhyming with сентябре с ней.

Unrhymed verse belongs to four categories:

1. Translations from German and English classics, especially plays.

2. Imitation of classical metres like the hexameter and elegaic couplets: never very popular.

3. Imitations of folk poetry, i.e. bylina and popular songs.

4. Occasional work by individual poets, e.g. Zhukovsky and Nekrasov (in Who is Happy in Russia).

Modern poets (Blok, Akhmatova and Kuzmin in particular) will also write lines where the stresses are more variably distributed, which turns verse into a rhythmic prose.

Examples and Individual Traits

Russian verse is far too various to illustrate all its forms, but here are a few examples:

Vasily Trediakovsky spent his extravagant student days in Paris, but could still compose stirring patriotic pieces: {15}

Россия мати! свет мой безмерный!
Позволь то, чадо прошу твой верный,
Ах, как сидишь ты на троне красно!
Небо российску ты солнце ясно!

( Mother Russia! my immeasurable light! / Allow me to ask, who am your faithful child / Oh, how you sit so well on the throne! For Russians you are the sun in the clear sky!)

Lomonosov's ode to the battle of Khotin is in the grand style: fairly regular and solemn: {16}

Восторг внезапный ум пленил,
Ведёт на верьх горы высокой,
Где ветр в лесах шуметь забыл;
В долине тишина глубокой.

(The sudden delight captivated my mind / Conducts me to the peak of high mountains, / Where the wind has forgotten to make a noise / In the valley the silence is deep.)

Pushkin could write memorably in any style, here in the opening to his love poem Awakening iambic dimeters, all faultlessly rhymed: {17}

Мечты, мечты,
Где ваша сладость?
Где ты, где ты,
Ночная радость?
Исчезнул он,
Весёлый сон,
И одинокий
Во тьме глубокой

( Dreams dreams, / Where is your sweetness? / Where are you, where are you, / Night's joy? / It's gone / a happy dream / I am alone / In the darkness of the deep )

Batiushkov makes much use of hiatus, consecutive vowel sounds where (contra Nabokov above) syllables tend to be elided, yet with harmonious results: {18}

 От волн Улеи_и Байкала,
От Волги, Дона_и Днепра,
От града нашего Петра,
С вершин Кавказа и_Урала!..

(From the waves of Uleyi and Baikal, / From the Voldga, the Don, and the Dnieper, / From the city of our Peter, / From the peaks of the Caucasus and the Urals!)

Lermontov's Cossak Lullaby is a stylized folk song: {19}

Спи, младенец мой прекрасный,
Тихо смотрит месяц ясный
     ‎В колыбель твою.

(Sleep, my beautiful child, / Lullaby. / The bright moon looks quietly / Into your cradle.)

Nikolai Nekrasov was very different: an easy fluency, and colloquialisms, prosaisms and vulgarisms of popular speech and folklore that were better used than by other poet in the 19th century. But rhymes can be somewhat approximate. He was also fond of ternary rhythms, which have great variety. Here the metre is fairly regular, though line 1 has a final pyrrhic, and first syllable in line 3 is accented, i.e. the line carries four accents. {20}

Вот парадный подъезд. По торжественным дням,
Одержимый холопским недугом,

Целый город с каким-то испугом
Подъезжает к заветным дверям;

(Here is the main entrance. On solemn days, / Obsessed with the slave's illness, /A whole city with some kind of fright / He drives up to the cherished doors;)

Afanasy Fet's nature poems can be deceptively simple: simple description without verbs, pronouns, adverbs, elaborate syntax and grammatical complexities. The poetry works by repetition: rhythm, sounds and images. The rhymes are often over-emphatic: {21}

Буря на небе вечернем,
Моря сердитого шум
Буря на море и думы,
Много мучительных дум

(A storm on the evening sky, / The noise of the angry sea — / A storm on the sea and thoughts, / Many painful thoughts )

Rather similar is Tiutchev's These poor settlements, which uses trochaic tetrameters, only nouns in nominative and genitive cases and a complicated words order: {22}

Эти бедные селенья,
Эта скудная природа —
Край родной долготерпенья,
Край ты русского народа!

(These poor villages, / This sparse nature — / The land of native patience,  / You realm of the Russian people! )

Vyacheslav Ivanov is often seen as the forefather of Russian Symbolism: {23}

Как осенью ненастной тлеет
Святая озимь — тайно дух
Над чёрною могилой реет,
И только душ легчайших слух

(Just autumn rains smoulder / The holy winter  — the spirit secretly / Over the black grave, / And only the souls of the lightest hearing )

Aleksandr Blok took many liberties with the standard iambic. {24} Lines 4 and 5 have all the stresses realized. In line 6 the first potential stress is unrealised; in line 2 the second potential stress is unrealised; in line 8 the the third potential stress is unrealized. Line 1 begins with a spondee (- -), and 7 has a stress on syllables 1 and 4 (Nabokov's 'tilt'). begin with a stressed syllable

Ночь, улица, фонарь, аптека,
Бессмысленный и тусклый свет.
Живи еще хоть четверть века —
Все будет так. Исхода нет.

Умрешь — начнешь опять сначала
И повторится все, как встарь:
Ночь, ледяная рябь канала,
Аптека, улица, фонарь.

(Night, a street, a lantern, a pharmacy, / A senseless and dim light. / Live for another quarter century — / Everything will be this way. There is no way out. // If you die, you'll begin again from the start, / And everything will repeat as it did long ago: / The night, the icy ripple of a canal, / A pharmacy, a street, a lantern.)

The stress in line 1 of Mandel'shtam's first poem in his collection entitled Stone {25} falls on the first syllable:

Звук осторожный и глухой
Плода, сорвавшегося с древа,
Среди немолчного напева
Глубокой тишины лесной. . .

because important (Sound cautious and deaf) — it was in fact a personification of the poet himself. The full translations runs: A sound cautious and deaf / The fruit that fell from the tree / Among the unceasing melody / deep silence in the forest. . .

Mayakovski could use a stressed verse where the unvoiced syllables could vary widely, leaving  the reader somewhat bewildered by the patterning. In fact there are four accents to the line, if lines 1 and 2 are counted as a single line: {26}

Вашу мысль,
мечтающую на размягченном мозгу,
как выжиревший лакей на засаленной кушетке,
буду дразнить об окровавленный сердца лоскут:
досыта изъиздеваюсь, нахальный и едкий.

(Your thought / dreaming of a softened brain, / like a servant run to fat on a greasy couch, / I will tease against the bloodied rag of my heart, / I, brash and caustic, am getting rid of satiety.)

Diction also varies considerably, from Tiutchev's Day and Night: {27}

На мир таинственный духов,
Над этой бездной безымянной,
Покров наброшен златотканный
Высокой волею богов.

(On the world of mysterious spirits, / Above this anonymous abyss, / A veil woven of gold is thrown / By the high will of the gods.)

Pasternak's Without a Name: {28}

Пошло слово любовь, ты права.
Я придумаю кличку иную.
Для тебя я весь мир, все слова,
Если хочешь, переименую.

(The word 'love' is banal, you are right. / I'll come with another name. / For you I am the whole whole world, all the worlds, / If you like, I'll rename it. )

Manderl'shtam often used an iambic hexameter in poems about antiquity. In this last stanza of  'Sleepless' only line 2 has its full six accents: {29}

И море, и Гомер - всё движется любовью.
Кого же слушать мне? И вот Гомер молчит,
И море черное, витийствуя, шумит
И с тяжким грохотом подходит к изголовью.

(And the sea and Homer — everything is moved by love. / But whom shall I to listen to? And Homer is silent / And the Black Sea, in motion, makes noise / And with a heavy crash approaches the head. )

Anna Akhamatova's I don't ask for love carried on a long tradition of lost love in this apparently artless piece, so naturally that it seems autobiographical: {30}

Я не любви твоей прошу.
Она теперь в надёжном месте.
Поверь, что я твоей невесте
Ревнивых писем не пишу.

(I don't ask for your love. / It's now in a safe place. / Imagine me as your fiancée / I don't write jealous letters. )

Marina Tsvetaeva's An Attempt at Jealousy is much less accepting, and the verse less regular: {31}

Как живётся вам с другою, —
Проще ведь? — Удар весла! —
Линией береговою
Скоро ль память отошла

(How's life with another woman, — / Easier, after all? — Beat the oars! — / Along the shore-line / Soon the memory's gone )

In Paris, as poster-boy for the new Soviet regime, Vladimir Mayyakovsky wrote of his homesickness for mother Russia: {32}

В авто,
последний франк разменяв.
— В котором часу на Марсель? —
                   провожая меня,
во всей
           невозможной красе.

(In the car, / the last franc is exchanged. / 'What time is the last train to Marseilles?' / Paris runs / seeing me off, / in all / its impossible beauty. )


Much on this page is drawn from Michael Watchel's excellent introduction. The further section on rhyme is based on B.O. Unbegaun's Russian Versification (OUP, 1956). For copyright reasons, the English prose translations are mine.

1. Wachtel, M. The Cambridge Introduction to Russian Poetry. C:U.P. 2004
2. Novikova, N. Stress & Vowel Reduction in Russian - 4 Major Pronunciation Rules.
4. Илья Муромец и Соловей-разбойник
5. Pushkin, A. The Prophet.
6. Гул затих. Я вышел на подмостки (Борис Пастернак)
7. Буря на небе вечернем... (1842)
8. По небу полуночи. Римский-Корсаков. Лермонтов
9. К Музе.
10. Blok, A. Unnamed poem.
11. Pushkin, A. Boris Godunov.
12. Nabokov, V. Notes on Prosody and Abram Gannibal. Princeton University Press, 2015.
13. Wikipedia authors. Notes on Prosody. Accessed March 29, 2018.
14. Lavitskaya, Y. (2015) Prosodic Structure of Russian: A Psycholinguistic Investigation of the Metrical Structure of Russian Nouns. PhD. thesis, University of Konstanz.
15.Trediakovsky, V. (1727) Verses in Praise of Russia.
16. Lomonosov, M. (1751) Ode to Her Majesty Empress Anna Ioannovna.
17. Pushkin, A. Awakening.
18. Batiushkov, K. (1814) Passage over the Rhine.
19.  Lermontov, M. (1840) Cossak Lullaby.
20. Nekrasov, N. Reflections at the Main Entrance.
21. Fet, A. A Storm on the Evening Sky.
22. Tiutchev, F. These poor settlements.
23 Ivanov, V. Winter Crop.
24. Blok, A. Night, a street, a streetlight, a pharmacy.
25.  Mandel'shtam, O. (1908) Stone.
26. Mayakovsky, V. A Cloud in Trousers.
27.  Tiutchev, F (1839)  Day and Night.
28. Pasternak, B. Without a Name.
29. Mandel'shtam, V. Sleepless.
30. Akhmatova, A. I Don't Ask for your Love.
31.Tsvetaeva, M. An Attempt at Jealousy.
32. Mayakovsky, V. (1925) Parting.

Russian Versification: Resources


1. Existing Web Resources - Russian and English.
2. Maintaining Russian On Your Own: Reading.
3.  Russian Language: Useful links.
4. Unbegaun, B.O. (1956) Russian Versification. O.U.P.

Dictionaries, etc. (A few of many)

1.  An online Russian keyboard.
2. Online dictionaries showing the stressed syllables.
3. Listing of such dictionaries.
4. Russian-English dictionary: Lexilogos:
5. Cambridge Dictionary: English-Russian:
6. Russian-English Dictionary: PONS:
7. Russian Online Dictionary
8. Russian Online Dictionary
9. Russian Thesaurus: listings:
10. Russian Thesaurus.
11. Wiktionary.
12. Russian Grammar Overview.

Commercial Translation Software

1. Translation Software and Services. 18 products compared.
2. Quora.
3. Softonic.
4. Top 12 Most Popular Translation Software.
5. Top Russian Language Software in 2018 for New Russian Learners.
6. Russian Grammar.
7. Interactive Russian Online Reference.
8. Wikibooks Russian.

Stress and Pronunciation

1. Guide to Russian Pronunciation.
2. 5 Minute Russian Pronunciation Guide – Quick Intro.
3. Ultimate Russian Pronunciation Guide.
4. Силлабо-тоническое стихосложение.

Russian Poetry (in no particular order)

1. Bowra, C.M. (1943) A Book of Russian Verse. Macmillan.
2. Yarmolinsky, A. (1962) An Anthology of Russian Verse 1812-1960. Doubleday.
3. Obolensky, D. (1976) The Heritage of Russian Verse. Indiana University Press.
4. Auty, R. and Oblonski, D. (1978) An Introduction to Russian Language and Literature. C.U.P.
5. Chandler, R., Dralyuk, B and Mashinski, I. (2015) The Penguin Book of Russian Poetry. Penguin.
6. Stanton, G. (1993) Contemporary Russian Poetry: A Bilingual Anthology. Indiana University Press.
7. Bristol, E. (1991) A History of Russian Poetry. O.U.P.
8. Nabokov, V. (2008) Verses and Versions: Three Centuries of Russian Poetry. Harcourt.
9. Cornell, R. A Reference Guide to Russian Literature. Routledge, 2013.
10. Skuratovsky, G. (2012) Echoes of the Russian verse. CreateSpace
11. Chandler, R., Dralyuk, B. and Mashinksi, I. (2015) The Penguin Book of Russian Poetry. Penguin.
12. Bowra, C.M. (1971) A Second Book Of Russian Verse. Praeger
13. Wachtel, M. The Cambridge Introduction to Russian Poetry. C:U.P. 2004
14. Titus,J. (2015) Poetry Reader for Russian Learners: Bilingual Edition.  Yale University Press.
15. Watchel, M. (1999) The Development of Russian Verse Meter and its Meanings. C.U.P.
16.  English Rhythms in Russian Verse.
17. Watchel, M (2006) Development Of Russian Verse. C.U.P.
18. Unbegaun, B.O. (1956) Russian Versification. O.U.P.
19. Obolensky D. (1962) The Penguin Book of Russian Verse.
20. Russian poetry.
21. Russian poetry in english.
22. Russian legacy.
23. From the Ends to the Beginning: A Bilingual Web Anthology of Russian Verse.
24. Russian Poetry: Read in Russian by Larissa Gatova
25. Poems of the Russian Classics.

Most poems can be found by an Internet search of the first line etc. of the Russian text.

Online Free Russian Courses

1. Russia Plus
2. Russian lessons
3. Russian for everyone
4. Russian for Free

Russian Poetry Recordings

1. Stage readings of Russian poetry.
2. Russian literature recordings in Real Audio and MP3 format.Александр_Сергеевич_Пушкин
3. Golden Stihophone. Old recordings and some modern readings.
4. Russian Audiobooks.
5. Voices of Russian Poets and Writers. Old recordings by 20th century figures: Also at:
6. Audiobook of Russian Poetry.