'Samuil Marshak's Translations Wordsworth's "Lucy" Poems (1)

By Ober, Kenneth H.; Ober, Warren U. | Germano-Slavica, Annual 2005 | Go to article overview

'Samuil Marshak's Translations Wordsworth's "Lucy" Poems (1)


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


Ironically, William Wordsworth (1770-1850)--"the greatest English poet since Milton" and one whose "historical influence on language, ideas, and manners has been immense" according to the respected scholar of English Romanticism, Carl Woodring--"has been translated to little effect ... relative to a Dante, a Shakespeare, a Bunyan, or a Dostoevsky." (2) One of the relatively few translators of Wordsworth has been Samuil Marshak (1887-1964), quintessential Soviet Russian man of letters of his time. Marshak was a successful poet, translator, political satirist and state propagandist, magazine editor, and author of children's books. Moreover, he was the founder of the state children's publishing house, and in his moving depiction of pre-revolutionary Jewish life in his memoirs he established himself as "a link in the chain of many generations of Russian Jewry." (3)

One of the projects Marshak undertook as poet-translator involved four of the five short lyrics of Wordsworth that posterity has brought together under the rubric of the "Lucy" poems. (These four poems appear below in Appendix A; Marshak's translations, in Cyrillic, appear in Appendix B; our back-translations of Marshak's versions appear in Appendix C.) (4) It should be noted at the outset that much is lost if the reader tends to view the "Lucy" poems as simply traditional "love" poems. The "Lucy" poems are in fact, first of all, as Geoffrey Durrant says, "'lyrical ballads,' each of which tells a verse story and presents it dramatically. To confuse the mode of the 'Lucy' poems with that of the love lyric is to overlook their structure, in which, as in the traditional ballad, a story is told as boldly and briefly as possible.... (5) A comparison of, say, the first stanza of "She dwelt among the untrodden ways" with the first stanza of the traditional ballad "Katharine Jaffray":

   There livd a lass in yonder dale,
   And doun in yonder glen, O.
   And Kathrine Jaffray was her name,
   Well known by many men, O.

and the last stanza of "A slumber did my spirit seal" with stanza 26 of" The Lass of Roch Royal":

   O cherry, cherry was her cheek.
   And gowden was her hair,
   But clay cold were her rosey lips,
   Nae spark of life was there. (6)

demonstrates that Wordsworth follows the folk ballad in his handling of rhythm, structure, and, to a certain extent, theme and imagery, although he--followed by Marshak--uses a variant ballad stanza: a4--b3--a4 b3. (Wordsworth bought a copy of Percy's Reliques of Ancient English Poetry, the great repository of British ballad materials, in Hamburg in 1798 a few months before he started to write the "Lucy" poems during his and Dorothy's sojourn in Germany.) (7)

Secondly, the "Lucy" poems are, as Carl Woodring suggests, elegies. They "are elegiac in the sense of sober meditation on death or a subject related to death," and they "have the economy and the general air of epitaphs in the Greek Anthology.... If all elegies are mitigations of death, the Lucy poems are also meditations on simple beauty, by distance made more sweet and by death preserved in distance." (8) A side-by-side comparison of a poem from the Greek Anthology, the "Epitaph of the Singing-Girl Musa," with both stanzas of "A slumber did my spirit seal" reveals the similarity in tone and structure of the "Lucy" poem, ironic and spare as it is, to the Greek epitaph and thus helps to support Woodring's point:

   Musa the blue-eyed, the sweetly singing nightingale,
   Lies here suddenly mute in this little grave,
   Still as a stone, who was once so witty, so much loved:
   Pretty Musa, may this dust rest lightly upon you. (9)

Though one is not obliged to accept F. W. Bateson's thesis that the figure of Lucy is Wordsworth's device for sublimating his incestuous feelings for his sister Dorothy, (10) it does seem likely that, as Wordsworth's editor, Ernest De Selincourt, suggests, the figure of Lucy is in fact inspired by Dorothy).

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