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Two Bards: Zhukovsky and Bowring (1).

A SHORT elegy with pronounced Ossianic overtones was written in 1811 by Russia's great poet-translator Vasily Andreyevich Zhukovsky and was published two years later in Vesmik Yevropy. The poem, Pevets ("The Singer" or "The Bard"), (2) which was noticed and discussed by Zhukovsky's poet contemporaries, (3) has recently been praised by a leading Soviet critic, Irina Semenko: "In his magnificent poem 'The Bard,'" she declares, "Zhukovsky took a ready-made subject and established a new standard for the poetry of Russian Sentimentalism." (4) Elsewhere Semenko has called the poem a "magnificent model of the poetry of Russian Sentimentalism" (velikolepnyy obrazets poezii russkogo sentimentalizma), (5) a judgement repeated by Mayya Yakovlevna Bessarab in her book Zhukovsky: Kniga o velikom russkom poete. (6)

Pevets was selected for English translation in his second volume of Specimens of the Russian Poets (1823) (7) by the young scholar John Bowring, who, as Sir John, was to achieve distinction in his lifetime as a linguist, translator, hymn writer, Member of Parliament, lecturer, editor, and diplomat. In the opinion of the noted Soviet literary historian and comparatist Vasily Ivanovich Kuleshov, Bowring's two volumes form the best of the early nineteenth-century anthologies of translations of contemporary Russian literature into the Western European languages, and it was through Bowring's anthologies that such varied figures as Byron, Goethe, and Engels made or deepened their acquaintance with Russian literature. (8)

Ossian, the third-century Gaelic bard who through the Scotsman James Macpherson's "translations" was to become a significant influence upon Zhukovsky, had been "rediscovered" in Macpherson's Fragments of Ancient Poetry Collected in the Highlands of Scotland and Translated from the Gaelic or Erse Language (1760). Macpherson (1736-96), in his prose translations redolent of the King James Version of the Bible, "recreates" a sentimentalized and melancholy world of Gaelic pseudo-myth. In England Macpherson's Ossian aroused the wrath of such formidable arbiters of taste as Dr Samuel Johnson, but, as Ronald Blythe notes: "In Europe it was a very different story. Ossian was a triumph, a strange Celtic sun which suddenly forced the first blossom of European Romanticism...." (9)

Russia, like the rest of Europe, was inundated by the Ossianic wave. As early as 1792, Yermil Ivanovich Kostrov (c. 1750-96) translated a French version of Ossian into Russian. D. S. Mirsky says that Kostrov's popular translation (Ossian, syn Fingalov, bard III v.: Gal'skie stikhotvoreniya, Moscow, 1792; 2nd edn, Saint Petersburg, 1818) is "admirable." (10) Certainly Ossianism helped to mould Zhukovsky's poetic taste. Zhukovsky, according to Yu. D. Levin, used an English edition of Ossian that is still preserved, with other books from his library, at the University of Tomsk. (11) Ts. Vol'pe in the introduction to his edition of Zhukovsky's poems, published in Leningrad in 1939, specifically lists Ossianism among the most decisive influences on the development of the Russian poet:
 Thomson's The Seasons. Gray's "Elegy Written in a Country
 Churchyard," Young's Night Thoughts his melancholy lamentations
 over the grave of his be loved wife, the "Songs of Ossian,'" the
 legendary folk bard of Scotland (the old Scottish legends reworked
 by Macpherson), with his world of misty spectreshades, hovering
 over fields of battle, the poetry of the French elegiac poets
 (Parny, Millevoye, etc.), and finally magical and fairy-tale,
 courtly, and sentimental novels these are the literary phenomena
 which trained Zbukovsky's taste. (12)

It seems evident that Zhukovsky's Bard--although, unlike Ossian, cut off in his prime and resting in a grave shaded by a tree from whose branches are suspended his wreath and lyre (now an Aeolian harp)--is related to Macpherson's venerable Bard. (Pevets was written in 1811, and as late as 1833 Zhukovsky was still fascinated by Ossian, embellishing his translation of Thomas Campbell's Lord Ullin's Daughter with the names of two of the most popular of the Ossianic characters, Ryno and Malvina.) (13)

When John Bowring undertook to translate Zhukovsky's impersonal Ossianic mood poem, he deliberately set about trying to sharpen and define it. In so doing, he altered--not for the better--the whole impression the original makes upon the reader. In addition to his intentional changes, Bowring also makes some obvious mistranslations. His deliberate changes, other than his alteration of the rhyme scheme of the first four lines of each stanza from abba to abab, may be classified under the following categories:

1) introduction of images of "darkness" and "brightness" throughout;

2) multiplication of Zhukovsky's images of "rest" and "sleep";

3) insertion of "storm" images;

4) addition of words bearing obviously religious overtones;

5) poeticization of Zhukovsky's clear-cut and laconic phrasing, which sometimes leads to discordant, jarring notes.

Bowring made two major mistranslations in his version of The Bard. Unfortunately, one is in the first line, where he converts Zhukovsky's dernovy kholm ("sod mound") into "thorn-crown'd heap." Apparently he confused the Russian dyorn ("turf," "sod") with the German Dorn ("thorn"); he knew German well. In line 7 he seized upon the alternative meaning "ashes" for the Russian word prakh instead of "dust," and, evidently not understanding the word sokryla, he completed the English cliche with "scattered."

The most consistent alterations to Zhukovsky's diction occur in Bowring's obsessive use of the opposition of light and dark, absent in the original. These are "dark wood" in line 1; "so dark, so dull" in line 14; perhaps, by extension, "tir'd sun" in line 25; "melancholy brightness" in line 26; "brighter land" in line 31; "to darkness" in line 36; "though misty" in line 39; and "twilight's feeble ray" in line 46. Bowring also extended Zhukovsky's three references to "sleep" (lines 14 and 23 of the original). Examples are "lingering" and "rest" in line 2, "as if in sleep" in line 3, "minstrel's bed" in line 6, and "all slumbers ... silently" in line 21.

Another innovation--again not an improvement--is Bowring's introduction of "storm" imagery. In lines 10-11, "driven / By life's first gales o'er seas of misery" represents such a liberty with Zhukovsky's poem, as do lines 33-34, "the sky / O'erclouded--the storm raging." While Zhukovsky's original is free from religious overtones, Bowring evidently felt the necessity of inserting such references. "Holy strain" in line 18, perhaps "infant purity" in line 9 and "pure love" in line 19, "shrine" in line 25, "brighter land" in line 31, and "joy's abode" in line 39 all introduce a religious--vaguely Christian--mood absent in Zhukovsky's spare and lean poem. Other gratuitous changes on Bowring's part are the use of the words "thoughtless" and "carelessly" in lines 44 and 45 respectively, and the conversion of Zhukovsky's penultimate line "I lira vtorit im unylo" ("And the lyre echoes them mournfully") into "Some spirit bids the harp-strings say."

The two last categories of changes made by Bowring, the addition of religious colouring and the deliberate poeticization of Zhukovsky's crisp, economical, and concrete diction, are explicable in terms of Bowring's own traits as a man and a poet: 1) Bowring, who was personally a devout man and the author of many hymns--the still popular "In the Cross of Christ I Glory" among them--would have been inclined to reinforce any evidence of piety that he imagined he perceived in the original poem; 2) Bowring, though an excellent translator, seemingly felt a compulsion to dress up his original to make it more "poetic." In another of Bowring's translations from Zhukovsky, the rooster of the original, for example, becomes Chanticleer, and the interjections "Lo" and "List," though absent in the same original, are liberally distributed in Bowring's translation. (14) It is clear that Wordsworth's Preface to Lyrical Ballads had not freed Bowring from the trammels of poetic diction.

More significant than the changes involved in the religious overtones and poetic diction, however, is Bowring's use of images of rest and sleep, gale and storm, and light versus darkness. In Ossian, whom he had obviously studied diligently, Bowring found such images in abundance. When Bowring encountered Zhukovsky's Pevets his own Ossianic tendencies were stimulated and focused by the restrained and muted Ossianism of the Russian poem. Perhaps fearing that Zhukovsky's Ossianic echoes would be lost upon his English readers, Bowring took pains to make them more conspicuous. He had already identified copious examples of Ossianic echoes involving light-dark imagery and storm imagery elsewhere in Zhukovsky, for he had quoted many such passages from Ossian in his notes to his earlier translation of Zhukovsky's Aeolus's Harp, published in 1821. "It will immediately occur to the readers of Ossian," says Bowring, "that the personages, sentiments, and scenery of this poem [Zhukovsky's Aeolus's Harp] are derived from him." (15)

The following passage from The War of Inis-Thona: A Poem illustrates the kind of Ossianic images of brightness, darkness, sleep, and dream that Bowring probably had in mind as he was translating Pevets:
 How great was the joy of Ossian, when he beheld the distant sail of
 his son! It was like a cloud of light that rises in the east, when
 the traveller is sad in a land unknown; and dismal night, with her
 ghosts, is sitting around in shades! ... Daughter of Toscar, lake
 the harp, and raise the lovely song of Selma; that sleep may
 overtake my soul in the midst of joy: that the dreams of my youth
 may return, and the days of the mighty Fingal.... And ye shall have
 your tame, O sons of streamy Morven! My soul is often brightened
 with song; I remember the friends of my youth. But sleep descends,
 in the sound of the harp! pleasant dreams begin to rise! Ye sons
 of the chace, stand far distant, nor disturb my rest. The bard of
 other times holds discourse with his fathers, the chiefs of the
 days of old! Sons of the chace, stand tar distant! disturb not
 the dreams of Ossian! (16)

Ossian's famous address to the sun in Carthon: A Poem also supplies examples of images of light and darkness, as well as of tempest and storm, and would no doubt have impressed itself on Bowring:
 O thou that rollest above, round as the shield of my fathers! Whence
 are thy beams, O sun! thy everlasting light? Thou comest forth, in
 thy awful beauty; the stars hide themselves in the sky; the moon,
 cold and pale, sinks in the western wave.... the moon herself is
 lost in heaven: but thou art for ever the same; rejoicing in the
 brightness of thy course. When the world is dark with tempests;
 when thunder rolls, and lightning flies; thou lookest in thy beauty,
 from the clouds, and laughest at the storm.... Thou shalt sleep in
 the clouds, careless of the voice of the morning. Exult then, O sun,
 in the strength of thy youth! Age is dark and unlovely; it is like
 the glimmering light of the moon, when it shines through broken
 clouds, and the mist is on the hills; the blast of north is on the
 plain, the traveller shrinks in the midst of his journey. (17)

In Pevets Bowring correctly recognized a subtly Ossianic mood piece, but in his undiscriminating enthusiasm he exaggerated the Ossianism that he found and reworked Zhukovsky's poem to its detriment as he tried to fit it to his own concept. Zhukovsky himself, though he remained true to the letter and spirit of the poems he translated, almost invariably enriched them in translation. It is ironic that he did not fare so well at the hands of his own translator. Bowring, though perhaps the finest of the early nineteenth-century European translators of Russian poetry, was no Zhukovsky.

The Two Versions: Zhukovsky and Bowring


 Through the dark wood seest thou that
 thorn-crown'd heap,
 That o'er the lingering rivulet seems to
 Where the still stream glides by, as if in
 And scarce a leaf is by the zephyr prest:
 There hangs a harp-a garland, see!
 That heap--it is a minstrel's bed:
 There are his ashes scattered--
 Bard! woe is thee!

 His soul was lovely--infant purity
 Dwelt in his heart--a fleeting pilgrim,
 By life's first gales o'er seas of misery,
 Sighing and longing for death's silent
 That haven reach'd he speedily;
 He sleeps death's sleep--so dark, so
 His life was short, but sorrowful--
 Bard! woe is thee!

 He sang the song of friendship loud and
 But ah! the friend is gone;--his holy
 Breathed of pure love--'twas sad,
 though exquisite,
 For he knew nought of love but love's
 deep pain!
 All slumbers now--all--silently,
 Young bard! With thee--thy
 music's breath
 Is still--still'd by the frown of
 Bard! woe is thee!

 Here, by this shrine, when the tir'd sun
 was setting
 In melancholy brightness, thus he
 His farewell hymn, 'Fair world! thy
 charms forgetting,
 'I leave thee, and for ever!--I adored
 'A wild dream's shade--an ecstasy!
 "Tis past!--Thou lyre! be still--my
 'Is chill'd--I seek a brighter land:--
 'Bard! woe is thee!

 'That wild dream fled--what else is
 left?--the sky
 'O'erclouded--the storm raging--an
 'Yawning around--hopes that just
 smile, and fly
 'To darkness--solid woes, and shadowy
 'Haven of peace! for me, for me
 'Prepare thy welcome, grave, whose
 'Though misty, leads to joy's abode!
 'Bard! woe is thee!'

 Yes! he is fled!--that margic harp is still,
 His footstep-traces now are worn away;
 And sorrow dwells on stream, and vale,
 and hill--
 And silence, save when thoughtless
 zephyrs play
 With the dried wreath that carelessly
 Hangs--or in twilight's feeble ray
 Some spirit bids the harp-string say,
 Bard! woe is thee!

Kenneth H. Ober

University, of Michigan

Warren U. Ober

University of Waterloo


(1) This article is reprinted here with the kind permission of the editors of The Slavonic and East European Review, where it first appeared in The Slavonic and East European Review, 62 (1984): 560-66.

(2) V.A. Zhukovsky, Sobraniye sochineniy v chetyryokh tomakh, vol. I, Moscow and Leningrad, 1959, pp. 109-11.

(3) Ibid., vol. 1, p. 428.

(4) Irina M. Semenko, Vasily Zhukovsky, Boston, 1976, p. 52.

(5) "Introduction," Zhukovsky, Sobraniye sochineniy, vol. 1, p. xiv.

(6) M. Ya. Bessarab, Zhukovsky: Kniga o velikom russkom poete, Moscow, 1975, p. 39.

(7) John Bowring, Specimens of the Russian Poets, "Part the Second," London, 1823, pp. 113-15.

(8) V. I. Kuleshov, Literaturnnye svyazi Rossii i Zapadnoy Yevropy v XIX veke (pervaya polovina), 2nd rev. edn., Moscow, 1977, p. 202.

(9) David Daiches, ed., The Penguin Companion to English Literature, New York, 1971, pp. 405-06.

(10) D.S. Mirsky, A History of Russian Literature from its Beginnings to 1900, ed. by Francis J. Whitfield, New York, 1958, p. 61.

(11) Yu. D. Levin, Ossian v russkoy literature: Konets XVIII--pervaya tret' XIX veka, Leningrad, 1980, p. 113 n: "The Poems of Ossian. Transl. by James Macpherson, Esq. In two vols. A new ed. London, Print. for A. Strahan and T. Cadell, 1796."

(12) V.A. Zhukovsky, Stikhotvoreniya. vol. 1, Leningrad, 1939, p. vi. The translation is ours.

(13) See our article "Zukovskij's Translation of Campbell's "Lord Ullin's Daughter'" (Gerotano-Slavica, 2, Waterloo, Ont., 1977, pp. 303-05).

(14) See our article "The Translator Translated: Zukovskij's 'Svetlana' and Bowring's 'Catherine'" (Modern Language Studies, 12, Providence, R. I., 1982, p. 86).

(15) Specimens of the Russian Poets, 2nd edn., "Printed for Author," London, 1821), p. 76 n. Yu. D. Eevin discusses Ossianic traces in Zhukovsky's Aeolus's Harp in his Ossian v russkoy literature, pp. 111-18.

(16) James Macpherson, The Poems of Ossian, Edinburgh, 1805; reprinted Edinburgh, 1971, vol. 1, pp. 264-67.

(17) Macpherson, op. cit., 1, pp. 342-47.
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Title Annotation:Vasily Andreyevich Zhukovsky
Author:Ober, Kenneth H.; Ober, Warren U.
Geographic Code:4EXRU
Date:Jan 1, 2005
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