No scholar of modern times has done more to revitalize the study of what has come to be called “the human sciences”—and particularly the science of language—than Roman Jakobson; and it is good to have this summary of his career, in the form of question-and-answer sessions with his former student and then wife, Krystyna Pomorska. The sessions took place in 1980, two years before Jakobson’s death. First published in French, the dialogues are now made available in English—the language in which Jakobson wrote most of his works after coming to the United States in 1941.

But Jakobson was a formidable polyglot, who published first in his native Russian and could shift easily into French, German, and Czech, among others, as the occasion required. Tzvetan Todorov, who first heard him lecture in Bulgarian, and then got to know him well, has estimated that he could command about twenty languages—all of the Slavic group, all of the Romance group, and most of the Germanic family.1 Indeed, his writings are so scattered, exist in so many languages, and cover so many disciplines that the condensed overview of his activity offered by the present volume is more than welcome.

All the same, these dialogues are not as illuminating as they might have been—for a perfectly comprehensible and easily forgivable reason. Books composed of conversations with well-known representatives of thought are a form much cultivated by the French, who delight in the thrust and parry of verbal controversy; and these works are at their best when the questioner probes at the weak spots of whatever ideas and positions are being offered. Examples of such successful dialogues, where the subject was forced to stretch or defend his own views, are the conversations between Lévi-Strauss and Georges Charbonnier, or the more recent dialogues between Raymond Aron and two young ex-Maoists who had taken part in the febrile spring uprising of 1968 in Paris.2

No such challenge, of course, is posed here to Jakobson by his wife; it is, touchingly, rather the opposite that occurs. For when, occasionally, she feels that he has not given himself enough credit on one or another score, she supplements his account by her own. The result is rather a celebration than a conversation or true dialogue. But since the emphasis remains strictly on Jakobson’s work, which there are reasons enough to celebrate, the tone does not become too adulatory. And since he is allowed to speak at length, and uninterruptedly, on all the phases of his multifarious activities and interests, the book has the additional value of providing some final thoughts on the issues that preoccupied him all his life and have had such momentous consequences for contemporary culture.

Jakobson was, if one must place him in some conventional category, by profession a linguist. But he had a bold and wide-ranging speculative mind, which was constantly seeking to extend the limits of his linguistic inquiries and to examine their relations with other spheres of culture. He was anything but a narrow specialist, and he combined, to an unusual degree, a passion for scientific exactitude, for precision and clarity of thought, with an equal passion for Slavic literature, history, and folklore, avant-garde painting and poetry, and the technique of the cinema. Readers of his work will be constantly surprised by the breadth of his range of reference, and by the startling ingeniousness of a mind capable of seeing relationships that nobody had previously suspected to exist. It is little wonder that, touching as he did on so many fields (and even creating the new discipline of neurolinguistics), the name of Jakobson should gradually have become known far beyond the field of his major professional preoccupation.

Some of Jakobson’s fame, to be sure, may be attributed to historical chance. It was an accident, but a very happy one, that he was teaching in the same École Libre des Hautes Études, founded in New York during the last war by French and Belgian refugees, where Lévi-Strauss was also giving courses in anthropology. Each attended the other’s lectures, and Lévi-Strauss, as a result, began to see how Jakobson’s linguistic views could help him to solve some of the anthropological problems he was then wrestling with.3 It was this encounter that gave birth to French structuralism.

Before very long structural linguistics was projected into the limelight as the key science for our time, whose postulates could furnish a new foundation for the study of culture much as Darwinian evolution had done for the latter half of the nineteenth century. Such an influence would scarcely have been possible, however, if Jakobson had not already worked out his linguistic theories at a philosophical level that made their general implications readily apparent. And Jakobson himself, in addition to his researches on linguistics, carried on a steady activity all his life as a cultural essayist and literary critic, whose writings are accessible to an audience of nonspecialists, and whose theories raise fundamental issues in aesthetics and literary criticism. Indeed, during his last years he devoted much of his attention to applying linguistics to the interpretation of poetry, and this effort gave rise to more public controversy than perhaps any other feature of his activity.


Certainly one of the major reasons for Jakobson’s impressive scope, and his openness to the widest cultural perspectives, was his early contact with the explosion of Russian avant-garde art in the first quarter of the present century. Much to the astonishment—and perhaps amusement—of his staider scientific colleagues, the mature Jakobson always attributed the highest importance to his immersion in this bohemian climate when he was a young man; and he continues to do so in the present book. When not much older than an adolescent, he had been an intimate friend of the mysterious and vagabond Futurist poet Velimir Khlebnikov (whom he continued to call “the greatest Russian poet of our century”), a poet who had not only sought “the philosopher’s stone” by creating neologisms that would transform all Slavic words into one another, but also dreamed of finding “the unity of world languages in general.”4 Much better known was another close friend, Vladimir Mayakovsky, who, for a time before his suicide, came to be regarded almost as the Bard of the Bolshevik revolution. Jakobson was equally intimate with the Suprematist painter Kazimir Malevich and other young experimental painters then at the start of distinguished careers, such as Mikhail Larionov and Natalya Goncharova.

Jakobson remained faithful to these companions of his youth: in an informative afterword, Pomorska includes a vivid portrait of his visits, when he returned to the Soviet Union after 1956 as an international celebrity, to the last survivor of the Futurist group, Alexis Kruchenykh, with whom the twenty-year-old Jakobson had once published a joint volume of poetry under a pseudonym, and with a punning title. Kruchenykh was then living in abject poverty in Moscow, but remained an impenitent Futurist to the end, continuing to incarnate some of the jesting, irreverent, high-spirited, but at the same time intensely dedicated atmosphere of the bygone years before the First World War.

Those were the years, Jakobson recalls, when “Russian Futurist poetry… was beginning to take hold”; and this “blossoming of modern Russian poetry followed the remarkable developments of modern painting, in particular French postimpressionism and its crowning achievement, Cubism.” Russian culture at this time, as Jakobson rightly observes, had “acquired a truly worldwide significance”; it was not only imitating Western developments, but carrying them forward along original lines. Moreover, the Russians were beginning to think about these problems theoretically to a much greater extent than their European counterparts, and to place them in a broad scientific-philosophical frame. In an interview given in 1978 to a French questioner, Jakobson stressed precisely this point. The French avant-garde of the 1920s, he said, had been pursuing much the same artistic path as the Russians; but while the French “limited themselves to the arts and literature,” the aspirations of the Russian avant-garde also “flowed into science.”5

Jakobson may well have been thinking of himself here, and of the anomalies of his own career, but his remark is more than just another example of the retrospective illusion. For if we turn back to his article “Futurism” (1919), a defiantly youthful manifesto in the aggressive style of Futurist polemics, we find a defense of Cubism coupled with extensive quotations from two Russian expounders of Einstein’s theory of relativity.6 Since time and space no longer had fixed determinants, and the category of substance had lost all meaning, reality could only be represented, as the Cubists were showing it, from multiple points of view simultaneously. Remembering those exciting days, Jakobson here comments:

Such important experiments as non-objective abstract painting and “supraconscious” (zaumnyj) verbal art, by respectively cancelling the represented or designated object, strikingly raised the problem of the nature and significance of the elements that exercise a semantic function in spatial figures on the one hand, and in language on the other.

It was from this cultural climate that Jakobson took his point of departure, and his first important work—a study of Khlebnikov’s linguistic innovations—contained one of the most intransigent declarations of early Russian Formalism. “Poetry,” he declared, “is language in its aesthetic function,” which means that it is “nothing other than an enunciation aiming at expression” and controlled solely by its own immanent laws. In poetry, the function of language as communication is reduced to a minimum, since poetry “is indifferent with regard to the object of the enunciation.” These words represent Jakobson’s recasting, in terms of linguistics, of the attitude toward language common to much modern experimental poetry, at least beginning with Mallarmé (whose work Jakobson knew and loved, and who is cited twice in this essay). And it would be only a slight exaggeration to say that, in some sense, he spent much of his formidable intellectual energy attempting to provide the formalist aesthetics of modernism with scientific respectability.


Jakobson emigrated to Czechoslovakia in 1920, and there became one of the animators of the famous Prague Linguistic Circle. His distinctive linguistic theories were developed during these years, and the direction they took was clearly an outgrowth of his previous poetic orientation. Traditional linguistics at that time, except for the work of a few isolated precursors such as Saussure and Baudouin de Courtenay, the Polish linguist teaching in Russia, had been concerned either with tracing historically the form of language changes, or with analyzing the physiological basis of sound production (phonetics). “They studied language,” Jakobson wrote in Six Lectures, “but never stopped to ask how it satisfies cultural needs.” As an erstwhile Russian Futurist, Jakobson was also fascinated with the sound level of language—but of course from an entirely different point of view. For him, the sound level of language was important primarily as a shaper of poetic significance.

As a result, his next important work—a study of the differences between the metric systems of Czech and Russian poetry—

brought out the role of rhythmic variations that is played in Czech versification by such significative elements as the contraposition of long and short vowels. All of this obliged me to work methodically at the systematization of the phonic elements of language.

Jakobson’s attention thus became focused on phonemes, the smallest sound-segments of words which, though they mean nothing by themselves, allow the meaning of the word to be differentiated from all other words in the same language. Phonemes, of course, had been noted before in linguistics, but nobody had really centered on them, or considered all their theoretical implications. It was Jakobson—along with his boyhood friend Nicholas Trubetzkoy, then teaching at the University of Vienna—who firmly established, in place of old-fashioned phonetics (which Jakobson labels as “prelinguistic”), the new discipline of phonology, “the linguistic study of sounds, the study of sounds in the light of the work they perform in language.”

The analysis and systematization of phonic relations were carried on initially only for the sounds of vowels. Soon, however, Jakobson turned to the consonants, which were of particular importance to him because Russian Futurism, reacting against the preference for vocalic euphony among the Symbolists (Russian and otherwise), had particularly stressed that consonants were the backbone of poetic language. As Pomorska reminds Jakobson, “In your youth, you wrote verse based on the strangest combinations of consonants.”

Even though Trubetzkoy expressed some skepticism about the possibility of systematizing the consonants, since so diversified a mass of physiological data had been accumulated concerning them, Jakobson pressed ahead, aided by “X-ray pictures of spoken sounds and their measurements,” which “made it possible to outline the major articulatory prerequisites of the most characteristic acoustic differences within the consonantal pattern.”

On this basis, and by a rigorous logical analysis of the differential properties of various classes of phonemes, Jakobson succeeded (at least to his own satisfaction, if not to that of linguists of other persuasions) in working out twelve binary oppositions that are sufficient to analyze all known languages and may be thought of as linguistic universals.7 Examples of such oppositions are vocalic versus non-vocalic, tense versus lax, grave versus acute, etc., which are defined in terms of their acoustic correlates in speech production. In this way—though Jakobson never makes such a comparison himself—he realized the poetic dream that had haunted Khlebnikov of discovering the roots of a universal language.

Forced to flee Czechoslovakia in 1939, Jakobson first went to Denmark and Norway. He worked indefatigably with linguists in both countries, and plans were broached for a phonological atlas of the world that would have clarified many of the questions raised by his theories; but the occupation of Norway put an end to this project, and Jakobson finally found refuge in Sweden. Here, since Swedish linguists showed no interest in phonology, and since he could take advantage of the wealth of medical literature in Stockholm, he embarked on a path-breaking linguistic study of aphasia, that is, the loss of the power to use words correctly, and its relation to the process of language acquisition by children.

Jakobson merely remarks that this was “a project I had cherished for many years”; but once again we can note the continuing influence of his early Futurist enthusiasms. For in their determination to free art and literature from conventional canons, the Futurists had organized exhibitions of children’s art and published poems and stories by children; even more, they had imitated the aphasic deformations of children’s language in their own poetry.8 Jakobson discovered, or confirmed his conjecture, that “a mirror-image relationship” existed “between phonological losses in aphasia and the order of acquisitions of distinctive oppositions by children.” In his later years, Jakobson worked very closely with neurologists on the question of aphasia, found some remarkable correlations between his own linguistic typology of aphasic impairments and neurological discoveries about the topography of brain lesions, and was an important force in establishing the necessity of such collaborative efforts.9

Upon arriving in the United States in 1941, Jakobson was introduced by Alexander Koyré to Lévi-Strauss, who had never heard of him but wanted to learn something about linguistics. (Koyré, also of Russian origin, but a French national, was a great historian of philosophy who became an even greater historian of science.) In the preface he wrote for Six Lectures, thirty years later, Lévi-Strauss recalls the powerful impression that Jakobson made on him. His “innovatory ideas.” he writes, “were all the more convincing in that Jakobson’s exposition of them was performed with that incomparable art which made him the most dazzling teacher and lecturer that I had ever been lucky enough to hear.”

More important, Lévi-Strauss himself was then lecturing on kinship systems, and struggling to organize the “stunning multitude of variations” in the material that had been accumulated by ethnographers in the field. Jakobson’s demonstration of how a limited number of phonemes, defined according to their mutually opposite—or “binary”—relations to each other, could be used to organize the multiplicity of phonic data into a coherent language system provided the anthropologist with the clue that he was seeking:

However much ideas such as those of the phoneme and of the prohibition of incest might seem incongruous, the conception which I was to form of the latter was inspired by the role assigned by linguists to the former. Just like the phoneme, which though it has no meaning of its own serves as a means by which meanings can be found, the incest prohibition seemed to me to be the link connecting the two domains hitherto held to be divorced from each other. To the articulation of sound with meaning there would thus correspond, on another level, that of nature with culture. And just as the form of the phoneme was the universal means, in all languages, whereby linguistic communication is established, so the incest prohibition, which, if we limit ourselves to its negative expression, is also found universally, also constitutes an empty form which is nevertheless indispensable if the articulation of biological groups into a network of exchanges whereby they can establish communication is to be both possible and necessary.

Lévi-Strauss later followed the same guideline in his studies of mythology, inventing the neologism “mytheme,” on the analogy of phoneme, to designate the smallest unit of meaning in mythic discourse.

These are the elements from which mythic discourse is constructed, and they also are entities which are at one and the same time oppositive, relative, and negative; they are, to use the formula applied by Jakobson to phonemes, “purely differential and contentless signs.”

Whether such mythemes can be distinguished with the same relative precision as phonemes, which are, after all, used to construct a language already known, is of course a much debated issue; but it was Jakobson, in any case, who paved the way for this daring attempt to unravel the mystery of human culture.

Once he was established in the United States, Jakobson continued to pursue the many lines of research he had already initiated in technical linguistics, in the application of linguistic ideas to literature, and in other fields as well. Folklore had always interested him, he observes, ever since, as a schoolboy, he and his friends had gone out to collect songs and stories from the people in the immediate vicinity of Moscow. Folklore was also very popular with the Futurists, who saw in the glossolalia of some of the Russian religious sects a precursor of their own “supraconscious” use of language. Jakobson had studied examples of the Russian oral epic with the members of the Moscow Linguistic Circle as far back as 1915, and continued to do so in the intervening years. In 1929, he had written an article, “Folklore as a Specific Form of Creation,” arguing against using categories taken from the written literary tradition to analyze oral literature. A whole volume of his Selected Writings is devoted to “Slavic Epic Studies”; and during his first years in this country he labored at a new edition of The Lay of the Host of Igor, the twelfth-century Russian epic whose authenticity had been questioned, finally producing a restored text with a historical commentary of enormous erudition.10

It is obviously impossible to follow Jakobson through all the many facets of his extraordinary career, each one of which would have been enough to occupy the entire life of any ordinary mortal. But the rise of French structuralism as primarily a literary movement, despite the initial impetus given by Lévi-Strauss, focused increasing attention on Jakobson’s more strictly literary ideas. Also, he, too, addressed himself more and more frequently to literary criticism and the interpretation of poetry. This was, in a sense, a return to his origins; but he was now far from being the brash young Formalist who had refused to regard poetry as anything but a set of linguistic devices, and who had insisted, surely hoping to irritate his elders, that “to incriminate the poet with the ideas and feelings [expressed in his work] is just as absurd as the behavior of the medieval public which beat up the actor who played Judas.”

By 1928, Jakobson had already broadened his perspective, as is plain from the famous theses that he wrote, in collaboration with Jurij Tynjanov, while the latter was on a visit to Prague. Jakobson was then occupied with the problem of phonological change, and he addressed the same issue of change in relation to literature. The theses maintain, to be sure, that it is necessary to clarify the immanent laws of what is called “the literary series”; but these laws are now said to be “intimately linked to other historical series,” such as politics, economics, philosophy, religion, and all the various dimensions of culture, so that there is no clear-cut opposition between the synchronic (static) study of language or literature and its diachronic (dynamic or historical) study. “Every synchronic system contains its past and its future, which are inherent structural elements.” Even though the stress still remains on literature as a system, of crucial importance is the recognition that “while the discovery of the immanent laws of literary history (or language) allows the characterization of each concrete literary change…it does not offer the possibility of clarifying the rhythm of evolution or the choice of the path taken by such evolution in the presence of several theoretically possible paths of evolution.” In other words, only the correlation of the literary series with other aspects of culture can explain historical movement.

In the brilliant literary criticism that Jakobson wrote during the 1930s, he was too powerful a creative thinker to allow himself to be constricted by theoretical preconceptions. Griefstricken at the suicide of his old friend Mayakovsky, and enraged at the chorus of condemnatory stupidities uttered by official Party hacks, he quickly wrote “On the Generation That Squandered Its Poets,” an intensely moving litany to the riches of the past that he had once known, and that had been wasted by the prodigal hand of Russian history. Jakobson refers to this essay—one of the finest accounts of modern Russian poetry that exists—in the present book, but cites only a part of the following revealing passage:

We threw ourselves toward the future with too much passion and avidity to be able to retain a past. The ligature of time was torn. We lived too much for the future, thought of it too much, believed in it, we no longer had the sensation of an actuality that was sufficient unto itself, we lost the feeling for the present.

Summarizing, fifty years later, what he had depicted as Mayakovsky’s “personal mythology,” he speaks of “the monolithic myth of the poet, a zealot in the name of the revolution of the spirit, a martyr condemned to cruel and hostile incomprehension and rejection.” And he recalls that Mayakovsky himself wrote: “The massacre was over…. Alone above the Kremlin, the shreds of the poet waved in the wind like a red flag.” The article itself has a much larger, more magisterial canvas, documenting the constant recurrence of the theme of suicide in Mayakovsky’s poetry, where the immensity of individual desire, extending even to the unquenchable craving for a literal personal immortality, is allied to a hatred of the quotidian that Jakobson sees as peculiarly Russian, and that Mayakovsky more and more came to identify with the world emerging from the Bolshevik revolution. Art and life in this instance cannot be disentangled, and the old Formalist Jakobson speaks, with perceptible pathos, of “the atrocious agony” of suddenly discovering “the transparency of the [poetic] pseudonym, when the phantoms of art, wiping out the frontiers, cross over into life, like the young girl in an old scenario of Mayakovsky, who is kidnapped from a film by a mad painter.”

Jakobson wrote several other essays during these years (one devoted to the Czech romantic poet Mácha, another to the symbolism of the molevolent statue in Pushkin’s poetry, a third to the prevalence of metonymy in Pasternak) to illustrate the intricacies of the relation between art and life. In each case, he attacks, “the vulgar conception of poetic fiction as a mechanical superstructure on reality, as well as…the equally vulgar dogma that I call ‘antibiographism,’ which rejects any relation between art and its personal and social background.” For Jakobson, a poet’s life was not an independent variable in relation to his art. The intermixture of the two was so manifold and subtle that the boundaries between them inevitably became blurred on closer inspection.

It was impossible to tell, Jakobson argued, whether Mácha’s diaries and letters were “truer” than his verses; Pushkin’s myth of the demonic statue not only appears in three poems, but in his letters and the events of his own life as well. Similarly, the use of metonymy in Pasternak, where the personality of the poet seems to dissolve in the contiguous context of the world surrounding him, can, he argued, easily be linked to a certain passivity in his character and to the powerlessness of the social milieu from which he came. But Jakobson also insists on placing Pasternak in the literary tradition of his time, which imposed its imperatives on all poets independent of their volition. What Jakobson wished to safeguard is the complexity of the relation between art and life, the multiple ways in which they interact; no mechanical juxtaposition, no model of “base” and “superstructure” along positivist or Marxist lines, can portray this relation adequately. Jakobson’s attempts to do so are immensely suggestive, and these penetrating contributions to the theory of literary biography have not received the attention they deserve.

Always alert to new advances in linguistics, Jakobson kept abreast of the theories of communication that emerged after the Second World War. During the 1950s he began to rework his ideas by showing their relation to codes and to the process of receiving and sending messages. In his classic article “Linguistics and Poetics” (1960), he reformulated some of his key principles from this new perspective. “A sender,” he wrote,

sends a message to receiver. In order to be received, the message requires, first, a context to which it refers (this is what one calls, in a somewhat ambiguous terminology, the “referent”), a context understood by the receiver, and which is either verbal or capable of being verbalized; then, the message requires a code, which is common, in whole or in part, to the sender and receiver (or, in other terms, to the coder and decoder of the message); finally, the message requires a contact, a physical channel and a psychological connection between the sender and receiver that permits them to establish and maintain communication.

Each of these six features gives birth to a different linguistic function; but while these functions can be theoretically distinguished, it would be difficult to find pure examples of any in an actual message. “The diversity of messages lies not in the monopoly of one or another function, but in the differences of hierarchy between them.”

One of Jakobson’s aims in this essay—given as a concluding speech at an interdisciplinary conference of linguists, anthropologists, psychologists, and literary critics—was to persuade his audience of the importance of studying the poetic function of language. This he defined, quite in line with his earlier notions, as “placing the accent on the message itself for its own sake,” or, to use his old terminology, “language in its aesthetic function.” But Jakobson no longer insists on any sharp separation between poetry and ordinary language; rather, he stresses quite the opposite—the subordinate use of the poetic function in all sorts of other messages. Taking one of the political slogans of the time (“I like Ike”), he gives a sparkling and amusing analysis of the sound-pattern to show how it conveys the image of a loving subject (“I”) enveloped by the loved object (the repetition of the vowel and consonant sequence, with “I” now included in “Ike”). It is in this way that the poetic function of language reinforces the effectiveness of the political slogan.

In its pure state, however, the poetic function brings such expressive aspects of language itself to the foreground, and Jakobson defines this process by means of his frequently used distinction between metaphor and metonymy: the first based on relations of similarity or equivalence, as in “All the world’s a stage,” the second on relations of contiguity, as when we say “White House” for the president. “The poetic function,” he wrote, “projects the principle of equivalence from the axis of selection on to the axis of combination.” The axis of selection is the choice of a range of alternative words for any particular message; the axis of combination is the grammatical sequence required by whatever language is being used to convey the message in a coherent form. So that, in poetic language, the choice of words is governed by relations of symmetry and dissymmetry, or metaphorical linkages, which take precedence over the syntactical structure required to convey the meaning of the message with maximum clarity and efficiency. The use of parallelisms in folk poetry, where the same basic idea is repeated several times in the same rhythmic form, but with new examples, is an instance of relations of symmetry governing the axis of combination.

This “law of projection,” as it has come to be called, provides a fundamental insight into poetry, particularly of modern poetry, and will certainly remain as one of the foundations of the poetics of the future. But while Jakobson’s thesis was immediately accepted as throwing a flood of light on the linguistic underpinnings of poetic creation, his attempt to apply it to particular poems aroused a great deal of opposition. Some of this, as he claimed, simply sprang from the narrowness and prejudice of old-fashioned humanists, who resented a “scientific” intruder into their privileged domain; but since some of his critics were also distinctly sympathetic to his efforts, not all could be brushed off with the charge of bias. The only chapter of Dialogues in which he seems embattled is the one devoted to what he called “the poetry of grammar and the grammar of poetry” (also the title of one of the volumes in his Selected Writings). Jakobson usually treats opposition to his theories with the superior affability of a grand seigneur; but in this instance he becomes acrimonious. Perhaps the failure to carry his point, at a late stage of his career, proved to be particularly galling.

What happened, as he tells us, was that after “Linguistics and Poetics,” “I concentrated on the distribution and artistic function of the different grammatical categories within single poetic works and was surprised to observe from the outset the symmetry and regularity of grammatical oppositions among the most diverse poets, from every period and every language.” No explanation is offered here of the relation between this endeavor and his “law of projection”; but it is clearly stated in an article also dating from 1960:

One may propose that, in poetry, similarity is superimposed on contiguity, and therefore “equivalence is promoted to the rank of a constitutive principle of the sequence.” In these conditions, every repetition of the same grammatical concept capable of attracting attention becomes an effective poetic device.

Hence it is not only word choice but also grammatical structure itself, in all its multiform varieties, that is dominated by equivalence.11

Jakobson’s method is difficult to illustrate briefly because it depends on a careful and exhaustive detailing of minutiae; but to give some idea, we may take the following passage from his analysis of Shakespeare’s sonnet number 129, “Th’expence of Spirit in a waste of shame.”

As shown by many four-strophe poems in world literature, the outer strophes carry a higher syntactic rank than the inner ones. The inner strophes are devoid of finites, but comprise ten (6 + 4) participles. On the other hand, the outer strophes are deprived of participles, but each of these strophes contains one finite which occurs twice in the coordinate clauses linked by a conjunction: Id1 Th’expensed2Is lustand***lustd3 Is perjurd; IVd1 the world well knowes yet none knowes well. In each of these instances both clauses display a metathesis: Id2 Is lust in actiontill action lust d3Is; IVd1 well knowesknowes well. In the first strophe lust occurs in two different syntactic functions….12

Jakobson applied his vast ingenuity and linguistic learning, in this way, to exhibiting “the distribution and artistic function of the different grammatical categories within single poetic works,” analyzing examples from, on his own count, sixteen languages.

No one had ever before paid such exacting attention to this aspect of poetic form, though Jakobson was fond of citing remarks from Baudelaire, Edgar Allen Poe, and Gerard Manley Hopkins as precursors of his own efforts. There is no question that Jakobson succeeded in establishing the existence of a dense network of such equivalences in the poetry he has treated; but the importance of these relationships for the interpretation of the poetic text is quite another matter. He was fond of arguing that such patterns work in a manner analogous to music, where the experience of the composition can be conveyed without any conscious or abstract knowledge of the underlying form; but such a comparison reveals one of the weaknesses of his own position. For music does not have, in addition to its formal structure, the complication of semantic meaning conveyed by words.

Up until the end, Jakobson was never able to convince his numerous critics that the grammatical relations on which he was concentrating are crucial for the comprehension of the poem and contain the secret of its interpretation. As the best American student of Russian Formalism, Victor Erlich, has recently written of Jakobson’s readings,

Typically, a meticulous linguistic description of the poem would be followed by a sound and perceptive overall interpretation. But more often than not, only some elements of the latter could be shown to depend on, or derive from, the former.13

Jonathan Culler, with whom Jakobson takes irritable issue by name in Dialogues, makes the essential point when he remarks that “poems contain, by virtue of the fact that they are read as poems, structures other than the grammatical, and the resulting interplay may give the grammatical structures a function which is not at all what the linguist expected.”14

Jakobson’s final remarks on this thorny problem seem, at first sight, to be simply a vigorous defense of his own claims; but a closer reading suggests that he may have begun to retreat. “If a critic reads into studies of the grammar of poetry a secret intention on the part of the analyst to reduce poetry to a grammar,” he now says, “he is engaging in idle fantasy. In studying rhyme, no one went so far as to claim that poetry equals rhyme, just as one could never reduce poetry to a system of metaphors, or to a complex of stanzas, or to any other form and its various effects.” A few sentences later, he defends the study of grammatical figures as “an interesting and useful undertaking, independent of the further question of the contributing role of these properties in the general ‘effect’ of the poetic work.” One can hardly quarrel with such a position.

Despite the sorrowful ruminations of “On the Generation That Squandered Its Poets,” Jakobson never renounced his origins in Russian Futurism and never lost that hopeful élan which he noted as one of the characteristics of his own generation.15 It is typical that, in discussing the ideas of Charles Sanders Peirce, whom he considered the greatest American philosopher, he placed particular emphasis on Peirce’s concept of the linguistic symbol, the word, because this is related to an indefinite future. “The word and the future are indissolubly linked,” he writes, and he sees this as “the essence of the science of creative language in general, and of poetic language in particular.” Jakobson himself was always looking toward the future, and it is especially fitting that so much of his work, rather than being closed and definitive, opened up new paths for the future to explore. Pomorska in her afterword quotes a well-known poem of Mayakovsky, “To Comrade Nette—Steamship and Man,” which depicts the poet and Nette, a Soviet diplomatic courier, traveling together in the special railroad car that Nette had at his disposal. To pass the time, they talk of a mutual friend:

One eye crossing at the wax seal you chatted all night of Romka Jakobson….

Many people will continue to carry on this conversation about the physically absent but indelibly present Roman Jakobson, whose vast life’s work will provide inspiration to others for many years to come.

This Issue

April 12, 1984