Percy's Nancy and Zhukovsky's Nina: A Translation Identified (1)

Article excerpt

In April 1808 the Moscow bi-monthly literary journal Vestnik Yevropy (no. 8, p. 272) contained a poem entitled "K Nine" (To Nina), with the notation "From the English," signed "V. Zh."--Vasily Zhukovsky (1783-1852). The English original of Zhukovsky's "K Nine" has until now remained unidentified, perhaps because of the conventionalized nature of the poem and because of Zhukovsky's repeated use of the stock name "Nina" in his poetry. We have now determined that Zhukovsky's original was "A Song" ("O Nancy, wilt thou go with me") by Thomas Percy (1729-1811). It will be our purpose here to consider Percy's "O Nancy" in its context, to juxtapose Zhukovsky's two versions of "K Nine"--his earlier, uncompleted version as well as the Vestnik Yevropy translation--with Percy's original, and briefly to compare the three.

Bishop Thomas Percy today is known primarily as one of the great figures of English pre-Romanticism. His greatest contribution to literature was his ballad collection, first published in 1765, entitled Reliques of Ancient English Poetry. As editor of this collection he performed "his greatest work, the enhancing of popular regard for early English ballads," even though in the three volumes of the Reliques he did not hesitate to mix the old ballads with contemporary ballads and political songs. (2)

Some years before the appearance of the Reliques, however, Percy wrote and published "O Nancy, wilt thou go with me." Written during his courtship of his future wife, Anne Gutteridge, the poem was first published in Volume V| of Robert (1703-64) and James (1724-97) Dodsley's A Collection of Poems in Six Volumes by Several Hands (3) and appeared in 1758, shortly before Percy's marriage in April 1759. (4) Partly as a result of Percy's charming tribute to his wife-to-be and partly as a result of his ability to tame his friend Dr Samuel Johnson, it has been suggested "that the leading characteristics that should be kept in view in dealing with the life of Thomas Percy are his power of achieving two well-nigh impossible feats, that of idealising his own wife and of bullying Dr Johnson." Mrs Percy proudly holds the MS of "O Nancy, wilt thou go with me" in the best-known portrait of her. (5)

We quote Percy's song in its entirety from Dodsley's Collection:

A Song. By T. P***cy

   O Nancy, wilt thou go with me,
      Nor sigh to leave the flaunting town:
   Can silent glens have charms for thee,
      The lowly cot and russet gown ?
   No longer dress'd in silken sheen,
      No longer deck'd with jewels rare,
   Say can'st thou quit each courtly scene,
      Where thou wert fairest of the fair ?

   O Nancy! when thou'rt far away,
      Wilt thou not cast a wish behind?
   Say canst thou face the parching ray,
      Nor shrink before the wintry wind?
   O can that soft and gentle mien
      Extremes of bardship learn to bear,
   Nor sad regret each courtly scene,
      Where thou wert fairest of the fair?

   O Nancy! can'st thou love so true,
      Thro' perils keen with me to go,
   Or when thy swain mishap shall rue,
      To share with him the pang of woe?
   Say should discase or pain befal,
      Wilt thou assume the nurse's care,
   Nor wistful those gay scenes recall
      Where thou wert fairest of the fair?

   And when at last thy love shall die,
      Wilt thou receive his parting breath?
   Wilt thou repress each struggling sigh,
      And chear with smiles the bed of death?
   And wilt thou o'er his breathless clay
      Strew flow'rs, and drop the tender tear,
   Nor then regret those scenes so gay,
      Where thou wert fairest of the fair?

Like Dodsley's Collection itself, Percy's poem, with its theme of the constancy, selflessness, and profundity of a good woman's love, became immediately and enduringly popular. Though it consists of a series of questions, who can doubt that all of its questions are purely rhetorical? Of course Nancy's lasting love for the narrator will sustain her as, without a backward glance, she abandons the flaunting town and embraces the rigours of life in the lowly cot. …