“The spirit of pure beauty does not live with us…”

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January 3, 2017 by AK

I doubt that Zhukovsky was deeply taken in by Thomas Moore’s oriental romance, with the likely exception of the Peri poem. But the “Lalla Rookh” fête in Berlin undoubtedly made a lasting impression on him, as if a furtive draft from some ethereal world had followed Princess Alexandra into this – as if, briefly reincarnated as an impossible flower of Kashmir, she had accidentally unlocked some secret door.

Less than a month after the Berlin event, Zhukovsky wrote a poem, Lalla Rookh, which includes the line “A genius of pure beauty.” This line is now familiar to every Russian schoolkid as Pushkin used it in the 1825 love poem Nabokov called an “overrated madrigal to Anna Kern” (see Nabokov’s comment to the beautiful but unpublished Stanza XXVIIb, Chapter 8, of Evgeny Onegin).

John Bayley renders the relevant stanza from Zhukovsky as:

Ah! The spirit of pure beauty does not live with us, only visits us sometimes from the heavenly height.

Simplifying and inevitably bastardizing Zhukovsky’s fine poem, I shall nevertheless add a rough translation of its beginning:

Sweet dream, the soul’s captor,
A fair guest from on high, 
A gracious visitor
Of the subcelestial realm,
I relished you 
For a minute, but wholly:
You appeared here as a good messenger 
Of the heavenly to me.

About the same time, Zhukovsky translated a poem by Hedwig von Stägemann, one of his Berlin acquaintances. The original title, An die Grossfürstin Alexandra als Lalla Rookh, became An Appearance of Poetry as Lalla Rookh in Russian. (Better known by her married name, Hedwig von Olfers, the author was the daughter of painter and salonnière Elisabeth von Stägemann, the mother of author Marie von Olfers and grandmother of illustrator Sibylle von Olfers.) It is no wonder that Zhukovsky ended up translating (also in 1821) only one tale in verse from Thomas Moore’s Lalla Rookh, the story of an exile from celestial realms, The Paradise and the Peri. Naturally, the program notes for the April 2016 Moscow performance of Schumann’s Das Paradies und die Peri used Zhukovsky’s translation.

The last known mention of the 1821 pageant in the poet’s private papers dates back to 1843, when he settled in Düsseldorf with his young wife, Elisabeth von Reutern – the year when Schumann composed his first oratorio.


1 comment »

  1. […] come across an English translation of Zhukovsky’s comment on his 1821 poem, Lalla Rookh – not a Russian version of Thomas Moore’s long work but a lyrical essay […]

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