Two Bards: Zhukovsky and Bowring (1)

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

Two Bards: Zhukovsky and Bowring (1)


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


A SHORT elegy with pronounced Ossianic overtones was written in 1811 by Russia's great poet-translator Vasily Andreyevich Zhukovsky and was published two years later in Vesmik Yevropy. The poem, Pevets ("The Singer" or "The Bard"), (2) which was noticed and discussed by Zhukovsky's poet contemporaries, (3) has recently been praised by a leading Soviet critic, Irina Semenko: "In his magnificent poem 'The Bard,'" she declares, "Zhukovsky took a ready-made subject and established a new standard for the poetry of Russian Sentimentalism." (4) Elsewhere Semenko has called the poem a "magnificent model of the poetry of Russian Sentimentalism" (velikolepnyy obrazets poezii russkogo sentimentalizma), (5) a judgement repeated by Mayya Yakovlevna Bessarab in her book Zhukovsky: Kniga o velikom russkom poete. (6)

Pevets was selected for English translation in his second volume of Specimens of the Russian Poets (1823) (7) by the young scholar John Bowring, who, as Sir John, was to achieve distinction in his lifetime as a linguist, translator, hymn writer, Member of Parliament, lecturer, editor, and diplomat. In the opinion of the noted Soviet literary historian and comparatist Vasily Ivanovich Kuleshov, Bowring's two volumes form the best of the early nineteenth-century anthologies of translations of contemporary Russian literature into the Western European languages, and it was through Bowring's anthologies that such varied figures as Byron, Goethe, and Engels made or deepened their acquaintance with Russian literature. (8)

Ossian, the third-century Gaelic bard who through the Scotsman James Macpherson's "translations" was to become a significant influence upon Zhukovsky, had been "rediscovered" in Macpherson's Fragments of Ancient Poetry Collected in the Highlands of Scotland and Translated from the Gaelic or Erse Language (1760). Macpherson (1736-96), in his prose translations redolent of the King James Version of the Bible, "recreates" a sentimentalized and melancholy world of Gaelic pseudo-myth. In England Macpherson's Ossian aroused the wrath of such formidable arbiters of taste as Dr Samuel Johnson, but, as Ronald Blythe notes: "In Europe it was a very different story. Ossian was a triumph, a strange Celtic sun which suddenly forced the first blossom of European Romanticism...." (9)

Russia, like the rest of Europe, was inundated by the Ossianic wave. As early as 1792, Yermil Ivanovich Kostrov (c. 1750-96) translated a French version of Ossian into Russian. D. S. Mirsky says that Kostrov's popular translation (Ossian, syn Fingalov, bard III v.: Gal'skie stikhotvoreniya, Moscow, 1792; 2nd edn, Saint Petersburg, 1818) is "admirable." (10) Certainly Ossianism helped to mould Zhukovsky's poetic taste. Zhukovsky, according to Yu. D. Levin, used an English edition of Ossian that is still preserved, with other books from his library, at the University of Tomsk. (11) Ts. Vol'pe in the introduction to his edition of Zhukovsky's poems, published in Leningrad in 1939, specifically lists Ossianism among the most decisive influences on the development of the Russian poet:

   Thomson's The Seasons. Gray's "Elegy Written in a Country
   Churchyard," Young's Night Thoughts his melancholy lamentations
   over the grave of his be loved wife, the "Songs of Ossian,'" the
   legendary folk bard of Scotland (the old Scottish legends reworked
   by Macpherson), with his world of misty spectreshades, hovering
   over fields of battle, the poetry of the French elegiac poets
   (Parny, Millevoye, etc.), and finally magical and fairy-tale,
   courtly, and sentimental novels these are the literary phenomena
   which trained Zbukovsky's taste. (12)

It seems evident that Zhukovsky's Bard--although, unlike Ossian, cut off in his prime and resting in a grave shaded by a tree from whose branches are suspended his wreath and lyre (now an Aeolian harp)--is related to Macpherson's venerable Bard. (Pevets was written in 1811, and as late as 1833 Zhukovsky was still fascinated by Ossian, embellishing his translation of Thomas Campbell's Lord Ullin's Daughter with the names of two of the most popular of the Ossianic characters, Ryno and Malvina. …

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