Zukovskij's First Translation of Gray's "Elegy" (1)

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Vasilij Andreevic Zukovskij, in a note accompanying his 1839 translation of Thomas Gray's "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard," makes some interesting comments concerning both the 1839 version and his 1802 translation of the "Elegy": (2)


Thomas Gray's "Elegy" "has been endlessly reprinted, illustrated, translated, imitated, annotated, parodied, learned by heart and recited...." (3) It is, in short, universally recognized as a masterpiece of English literature even by those who speak of its so-called platitudes. The publication of Zukovskij's 1802 translation of Gray's "Elegy," according to D.S. Mirsky, has "more than once been declared to be the birthday of Russian poetry." (4) It would seem to be worthwhile to study Zukovskij's first translation of Gray's "Elegy" in comparison with Gray's poem itself because of both the excellence of the original poem and the significance of Zukovskij's first translation. Though Zukovskij's 1839 translation doubtless merits attention in its own right, the present paper will, therefore, be concerned only with a comparison of Zukovskij's epoch-making 1802 translation with Gray's original.

There are two principal observations that we wish to make concerning Zukovskij's treatment of the "Elegy" in his 1802 translation: (1) Zukovskij, like Gray, does not sentimentalize; his translation remains perfectly true to the objective tone and spirit of the original. Where Gray stands aloof from his subject, however, Zukovskij involves his reader personally in the fates of his village Hampdens, Cromwells, and mute inglorious Miltons. (2) Zukovskij strives to make concrete Gray's typically eighteenth-century abstractions, personifications, and poetic diction and to vivify Gray's languid opening stanzas.

The theme of Gray's "Elegy," as Frank H. Ellis has observed, depends upon contrasting the ruling classes with the farmers of the hamlet. This overall contrast is achieved through a specific contrast of the burial customs of the two groups. The theme, however, concerns more than just "Death the Leveller"; the point of the poem is that "men are everywhere pretty much alike and social rank is a mere lottery, a matter of chance.... Talent and ability are distributed among the classes.... The poem ascribes no moral superiority to the peasants. Their progress in vice and virtue is simply limited by lack of scope." The "Elegy" is not at all bathetic. Gray understands that there are both good and evil, joy and sorrow among the peasantry as among the gentry. Gray sees, moreover, that Fame--Remembrance--is craved by the humble as it is craved by the proud. (5) Though the "Elegy" prepared the way for the sentimental view of the virtues of rural existence and the humble life that was to have so great an influence in English literature, Gray himself, then, does not at all surrender to the temptation to sentimentalize.

Zukovskij perceives exactly what Gray is getting at, and he does not disturb the balance that Gray achieves and maintains in the development of his theme. We may note, however, one striking instance of Zukovskij's reshaping and expanding in order to lay heavier stress on the sub-theme of "Death the Leveller" and to achieve greater concreteness of imagery:

Gray: Can storied Urn or animated Bust Back to its Mansion call the fleeting Breath? Can Honour's Voice provoke the silent Dust, Or Flatt'ry sooth the dull cold Ear of Death! (6)


Where Gray devotes only four lines to rhetorical questions dominated by Neo-Classical abstractions, Zukovskij feels that the point to be made requires expansion, and he uses six lines, only two of which are given over to a rhetorical question, to prepare for the powerful final two lines. Though Zukovskij's lines faithfully reproduce Gray's objectivity, they do not reproduce the detachment which Gray achieved through the rhetorical question and the personifications. …