When George Crabbe's poem The Borough first appeared in 1810, it proved immediately popular. A collection of twenty-four verse "Letters," it was reprinted that year and five times in the following five years; since then it has reappeared several times in conjunction with other poems of Crabbe. One of its narrative Letters in particular, "Peter Grimes," has proved especially popular and has often been anthologized. In fact, in 1945 Benjamin Britten (with Montague Slater as librettist) wrote an opera about its hero, and in 1971 Michael Marland wrote a further dramatic version of the poem. (2)
Crabbe's story is about a man, Peter Grimes, who lived in a Suffolk coastal town. As a boy he rebelled violently against his pious father, and as a youth, in order to pay for his cards and ale, he "fish'd by water and he filch'd by land." (3) As a grown man, seeking to exercise complete control over a human soul, he secured three apprentice boys in succession and abused them horribly, until he became responsible for each boy's death. At length the town ostracized him, and, compelled to live alone by the "bounding marsh-bank and the blighted tree" (174), he gradually went mad. In his madness he ran, terror-stricken, till seized and taken to the parish poorhouse. There, "a lost, lone man, so harass'd and undone" (256), with sympathetic women crowding about his death-bed, he described the visions he had had of his father and two of the boys who came to him repeatedly and tried to lure him to his death. Finally he paused in his story, then "cried, / 'Again they come,' and mutter'd as he died" (374-5). The most striking aspect of the story is that while exposing Peter's cruelty unflinchingly Crabbe somehow manages by the end of the poem to arouse a surprising amount of charity for him.
There is indeed something fascinating about "Peter Grimes" and about the man it describes. It is not surprising, therefore, that the poem has been repeatedly reprinted, or that it has been adapted in various forms. What may be surprising, however, is that "Peter Grimes" made an appearance in nineteenth-century tsarist Russia, through the efforts of three leading Russian men of letters.
Aleksandr Vasil'evic Druzinin (1824-64), a prominent writer, critic, and specialist in English literature, introduced George Crabbe (1754-1832) to Russia in the 1850s with his critical biography of the English poet. Crabbe's work, which Druzinin said was not known either in Russia, Germany, or France, exactly illustrated (he believed) his own critical theory that art should not be subjected to the needs of society, but should instead describe reality. (4) Crabbe was the "first toiler in the field of moving his native literature closer to the depiction of actual life" (pervyj truzenik na poprisce sblizenija svoej rodnoj slovesnosti s izobrazeniem dejstvitel'noj zizni). Nor was Crabbe's importance confined to English literature: he was instead "the most natural writer of our century" (o samom natural'nom pisatele nasego stoletija). (5) To support this judgement and the various analyses he made of Crabbe's works, Druzinin supplied translations of several excerpts. His labours must have stimulated interest in Crabbe, for two other noted translators soon began publishing Russian versions of the English poet. Nikolaj Vasil'evic Gerbel' (1827-83) translated portions from poems earlier than The Borough, (6) as did Dmitrij Egorovic Min (1818-85), who then proceeded to publish a translation of the whole of "Peter Grimes" in 1862. (7) A few years later Gerbel' reprinted "Piter Grajms" along with other of Min's translations (and his own) in his anthology of English poets, Anglijskie poety v biografijax i obrazcax.
It was particularly appropriate that Min should translate "Peter Grimes." (8) He published much original poetry in leading literary journals and proved so acceptable a translator that, after translating Crabbe (and Schiller's "Das Lied von der Glocke" in 1856), he proceeded to publish translations of Byron's Siege of Corinth (1873, 1875), part of Byron's Don Juan (1881), Shakespeare's King John (1882), and Dante's Inferno (1885). …