Zukovskij's Early Translations of the Ballads of Robert Southey (1)

By Ober, Kenneth H.; Ober, Warren U. | Germano-Slavica, Annual 2005 | Go to article overview
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Zukovskij's Early Translations of the Ballads of Robert Southey (1)


Ober, Kenneth H., Ober, Warren U., Germano-Slavica


It is generally recognized that Vasilij Andreevic Zukovskij, "the Columbus who discovered for Russian literature the America of Romanticism," (2) won a great part of his reputation through his superb achievement as a poet-translator. One aspect of Zukovskij's contribution to the Romantic movement in Russian literature which requires further investigation, however, is his treatment of the English Romantics, which cannot have failed to exert a significant influence upon the tastes of Russian lovers of poetry during the first three decades of the nineteenth century--and after.

Although we shall be concerned here only with Zukovskij's three earliest translations of the ballads of Robert Southey, it is interesting to follow Zukovskij as he works toward the discovery of the English Romantic poets as a group. In 1802 Zukovskij translated Thomas Gray's "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard," in 1805 Oliver Goldsmith's "The Deserted Village," in 1806 works of John Dryden and Alexander Pope, and in 1808 a poem of James Thomson. After translations of poems by Dryden and Goldsmith in 1812 and a poem by David Mallet in 1814, Zukovskij turned to the English Romantics. In 1813 he discovered Robert Southey, whose ballad "Rudiger" was the first work of English Romanticism that Zukovskij translated. The next year he translated two of Southey's ballads, "Lord William" and "The Old Woman of Berkeley." From Southey, Zukovskij moved on to Lord Byron, two of whose works ("Stanzas for Music--There's not a joy the world can give like that it takes away" and "The Prisoner of Chillon") he translated in 1820 and 1821. In 1821 and 1822 Zukovskij translated works by Thomas Moore (the second part of Lalla Rookh) and Sir Walter Scott ("The Eve of St. John"). He returned to Scott's works in 1831 ("The Gray Brother") and 1832 (Canto II of Marmion), and to Robert Southey's in 1831 ("Donica," "Mary, the Maid of the Inn," "Jaspar," "God's Judgment on a Wicked Bishop," and "Queen Orraca and the Five Martyrs of Morocco"). In 1833 he translated Thomas Campbell's "Ullin and His Daughter," and, finally, in 1839 he re-translated Gray's "Elegy." (3)

Robert Southey, like Zukovskij, was a founder of Romanticism. In 1796, two years before the publication of the Lyrical Ballads of William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Southey's epic poem Joan of Arc had established him as a power to be reckoned with in English poetry. By 1802 Francis Jeffrey, the lion of the Edinburgh Review, had recognized him as one of the "chief champions and apostles" of the new "sect of poets": The Lake School. (4)

Though Southey himself regarded his epics (for example, Joan of Arc, Madoc, and Thalaba) as the works by which he would become immortal, he was also writing meditative lyrics, monodramas, eclogues, historical poems, and inscriptions--and even an incendiary play, Wat Tyler, that was to rise years later to haunt him as Tory Poet Laureate. But his greatest poems of this period were his ballads and metrical tales of the supernatural--sometimes wryly amusing and always macabre. An occasional one of Southey's ballads of the supernatural is marred by an unsteadiness--even a tastelessness--in the presentation of a particularly gruesome incident, but most of his ballads are characterized by the naive power, the laconic understatement, the economy of statement, and the genuine feeling for the supernatural that are the strengths of the folk ballad.

One of the universal characteristics of the Romantic temperament, whatever its incarnation, seems to be a fascination for the ballad. Southey himself was drawn to the ballad partly because of his great admiration for a translation into English of Gottfried August Burger's "Lenore" done in 1796 by William Taylor, who was to become a well-known German scholar and Southey's lifelong friend. It would appear that Zukovskij (who, incidentally, three times translated Burger's "Lenore" into Russian--in 1808, 1812, and 1831) was attracted to Southey both because of Southey's rising reputation and because of his own attraction to the ballad genre.

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