A short note on Bylina: Russian poetry

Bylina is a type of Russian epic folk-song and often associated with a historical event or movement. The term bylina is of academic provenance and came into use in the 1830s; the peasants use the word starina (‘what is old’). These songs are mostly about the exploits of the bogatyrs, warrior heroes at the court of Prince Vladimir (978-1015) in Kiev, and the very earliest examples may pre-date Vladimir’s era. For many centuries they belonged to oral tradition. People were beginning to write them down in the 16th and 17th c. Possibly the first collector was an Englishman, Richard James, who was chaplain to the English embassy in Moscow in 1619. The main garnering belongs to the 19th c. when, anyway, there was widespread interest in Europe in collecting and studying these ballad and epic forms of verse. In fact, many byliny still belong to oral tradition among peasants, particularly in areas where literacy is minimal.

Byliny vary in length from, say, a hundred lines to a thousand or more. There are two basic categories: (a) the heroic, concerned with deeds of valour; (b) the romantic, concerned with love, deceit, infidelity, magic and wealth. The former far outnumber the latter. Traditionally, they are sung or chanted, without musical accompaniment, by specialist narrators/singers called skaziteli (ʻnarrators”). Some skaziteli are blind and in many respects are close kin of the Anglo Saxon scopes, the Scandinavian skalds and the South Slav guslari. Like these bards of honoured and ancient vocation, the skaziteli are often poets as well as reciters, and a skilled one will amplify, embellish and improvise on traditional material with words, phrases and lines of his own devising. The verse tends to be free, with a pattern of a fairly fixed number of stresses and considerable flexibility in the number of unstressed or ‘slack’ syllables. Rhyme is occasional. Strong, plain similes, of the ‘white as a swan’, ‘brown as a berry’, ‘fresh as a daisy’ ilk, are a conspicuous feature. Fixed or Homeric epithets are frequent and obligatory. Incremental repetition is also common; as are periphrastic figures, and figures comparable to the kenning of skaldic and Old English verse.

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