The shortest species: how the length of Russian poetry changed (1750–1921)

  • Artjom Shelya Department of Slavic Studies, University of Tartu, Lossi 3, 51003, Tartu
  • Oleg Sobchuk Institute for Cultural Research and Arts, University of Tartu, Ülikooli 16, 51003, Tartu
Keywords: Russian poetry, length, 19th century, 20th century, cultural evolution, complexity, system of poetic genres


The paper studies long-term changes in the length of Russian poetry (1750–1921) to reveal the relation of poem length (counted in lines) to a poetic form and its evolution. The research has shown a dramatic decrease in the mean and median poetry lengths during the 19th century. This decrease was followed by the decline in length diversity, which resulted in short poems (8–20 lines) overpopulating the literature during the age of Modernism. We argue that this transformation towards the short form could be understood in the framework of cultural evolution: Russian poetry struggled to keep its literary niche, while being continuously under the pressure of successful large narratives of the 19th century. Therefore, it was forced to develop complexity while being highly constrained formally (accentual-syllabic verse and rhyme maintained for a long time) by the shrunk length of a lyrical poem.


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