January 9, 2017 by AK
Until this year, I did not realize how many Russian translations of Thomas Moore’s poetry had been produced in the 19th century, especially its first half. For details, I recommend two investigations into the subject (in Russian): Mikhail Alexeyev’s 1982 article in Literary Heritage (Volume 91, Chapter VIII [warning: a large pdf], pp. 657-824), which I have cited before, and Tatyana Yashina’s 2012 book. A summary of Yashina’s dissertation is available free from the Russian State Library.
It turns out that even Mikhail Lermontov, as un-Moorean a poet as a borderline Romantic could possibly be, was familiar with Moore’s poetry, borrowed a few images from it, and even translated one poem. (At 16: technically, it should be classed with his juvenilia, but he put down some preternaturally mature lines that year, 1830. Having learned some English, Lermontov only read Byron, Moore and Walter Scott in that language, according to a friend.)
Of all those numerous translations, however, very few made it into the Russian canon, or the poetic mainstream – one and a half, as it were. The half refers to Mikhail L. Mikhailov’s 1869 rendering of Peace to the Slumb’rers, a “Catalonian Air.” I don’t doubt the quality of Mikhailov’s poem – he was a gifted translator – and I’m almost certain it influenced the revolutionary dirge genre, but it’s not exactly a well-known piece today.
The one translation that is still remembered is Vecherny Zvon by Ivan I. Kozlov, originally Those Evening Bells (1827), subtitled “Air. – The Bells of St. Petersburg,” first published in 1818. Set to music – presumably by Alexander Alyabyev – it remained a popular song from the 1830s until, I would say, three or four decades ago, when the tradition of family singing seems to have come to an end in Russia. It is part of the standard repertory of Russian choirs, but their audience is not particularly large these days.
Kozlov’s poem sounds so naturally Russian that an anonymous Russian author suggested in 1831 that Kozlov’s version was the original and Moore’s a translation. The claim was not as absurd as it seems today: Kozlov had lived in St. Petersburg since the war of 1812 while Moore was making efforts to follow Russian letters through his Continental friends, primarily Alexander I. Turgenev. Moore’s reading Turgenev’s prose translation of Kozlov’s “air” about the “bells of St. Petersburg” and composing one in imitation of Kozlov for the collection of “national airs” would not have been an impossibility. Of course Moore’s poem predated Kozlov’s so the issue was moot. Moore’s Russian sources, if he used any, remain undiscovered.
This said, Ivan Kozlov’s greatest translation success – arguably – was associated with another Moore, a Scot, and with another graduate of Dublin’s Trinity College. In 1825, Kozlov produced a Russian version of The Burial of Sir John Moore after Corunna, the poem Charles Wolfe had published in 1817 under his initials, C. W. Somehow they got lost or dropped when it was reprinted in London, unauthorized by the author. To Byron, who reportedly delighted in that “ode” in 1821, it must have been anonymous. However, as Thomas Medwin’s Conversations with Lord Byron appeared in 1824, including Wolfe’s poem in full, and the next year a collection of Wolfe’s poems was printed, Kozlov was probably aware both of the Irish poet’s identity and Byron’s (anecdotal) admiration for it.
(Some might protest that Wolfe, the son of a Church of Ireland clergyman, was not a genuine, echt-Irishman like Moore. On the other hand, that clergyman was the godfather, and possibly the biological father, of Wolfe Tone. Charles Wolfe himself wrote in Patriotism:
O Erin! O my mother! I will love thee!
One is reminded of Mickiewicz’s famous invocation: “Litwo! Ojczyzno moja!”)
Lieutenant-General Sir John Moore was killed in 1809 during a successful rearguard action to load the remnant of his army on belated British ships after an unwinnable campaign against Marshal Soult in Galicia, the north-west of Spain. Kozlov’s version leaves an impression of a tight-knit troop of stoic soldiers burying their noble, fearless “chief” in a foreign land. This could have happened anytime, anyplace: there is no mention of the “Briton.” Rather,
Your lonely bed in a strange land
Was made by kindred hands.
Kozlov’s poem was a major, lasting influence both on first-rate poets (see Lermontov’s 1833-34 description of the burial of a fellow cadet) and on lesser masters, none of whom came close to Kozlov’s masterpiece. By the time he completed it, the poet had been blind for four years.