ИС: The Oxford Magazine
ДТ: May 31, 1962

Thoughts on receiving an Honorary Degree at Oxford1



When I was a lanky, sunburnt youth, I worked as a house-painter's apprentice. In spring and in summer I spent day after day on the iron roofs, painting them with a long-handled brush, painting them blue, or green, or bright red. And I always carried a book with me, a bulky and battered "English self-taught" by Professor Meyendorf.

Before starting work, I used to get a piece of chalk and practise writing on the roof. This is the kind of stuff I copied out of the textbook: 'Does the gardener's two-year-old son love the grandson of his little daughter?'

I had picked the book up in the market, and some pages at the beginning, where the pronunciation was explained, were torn out: that is why I never learnt to speak English. But I did learn to read.

The first book I read was a volume of Swinburne, and I declaimed my favourite lines up there on the roof:

From too much love of living.
From hope and fear set free,
We thank with brief thanksgiving
Whatever gods may be.
Than no man lives for ever.
That dead men rise up never.
That even the weariest river
Comes somewhere safe to sea.

Later I got "The Golden Treasury of English Verse" from a bookbinder friend, and fell in love with William Blake, John Keats, and S. T. Coleridge, with all the passion of my eighteen-year-old heart.

If by some miracle an Englishman could have turned up on the roof beside me and heard me spouting 'The Ancient Mariner' or 'Christabel', he would probably not have recognized his own language; for I pronounced English according to my lights - fantastically wrong, of course - and yet I thrilled to the powerful music of English poetry. I had nobody with whom to share my ecstasy since I had not a single friend who knew a word of English.

From "The Golden Treasury" I learned by heart - and still remember - 'The Last Ride Together", Tennyson's 'May Queen', and 'Tam O'Shanter'. And in the winter, when the roofs were covered with snow and there was no work for roof-painters, I took Boswell's "Life of Johnson" out of the library and spent three months in the company of Sir Joshua Reynolds, of Garrick, Sheridan and Gibbon, who became more real to me than the people I met every day. If Oliver Goldsmith had appeared at the door of my attic I would have known him instantly and welcomed him as one of my own kin.

No wonder that at that time England was revealing itself to my imagination from its most poetic side. And as the very centre of this enchanted England I have always pictured Oxford. I have loved the Isis ever since I learnt that it was on its waters that just a hundred years ago Lewis Carroll told the story of Alice in Wonderland to the three Liddell daughters. And for me Oxford is the town of John Ruskin and Walter Pater, of Swinburne and Oscar Wilde, and of my beloved Hilaire Belloc.

That is why I am infinitely touched that it is the University of Oxford that has conferred such high honour on my modest works. Allow me to regard this as an expression of sympathy for Russian literary studies, and especially for their remarkable development since the Great Russian Revolution.

Anyone familiar with the development of Soviet culture will agree with me that owing to recent Soviet research the great Russian writers Gogol, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Pushkin, Chekhov and many others, are much better known nowadays and are understood with a thoroughness hat would have been impossible forty years ago.

That was not an easy matter, certainly; we have had to overcome a great number of obstacles which for decades lave stood in the way of objective investigation.

Eloquent testimony to the achievement of Soviet literary studies are the seventy volumes of the 'Literary Heritage' ('Literaturnoye Nasledstvo') series, abounding in new and scrupulously accurate information accompanied by notes and commentaries showing deep and sympathetic insight.

In every one of these volumes there is a sense of scholarly inquiry and thorough knowledge which has lever before been attained; and not a single biography.

Not a single literary essay, can now be written without reference to them, whether the subject be Herzen, Nekrasov, Lermontov, Tolstoy, Griboyedov, Shchedrin or other similar figures.

So many mistaken judgments have been reversed in these seventy volumes, so many errors and fallacies set right, that earlier works on the same subjects now seem to be amateurish, superficial, and unreliable.

The Leningrad 'Poet's Library' ("Biblioteka Poeta") with its scholarly editions of Tyutchev, Fet, Polonsky, Maykov, Kurochkin, Dobrolyubov, Minayev, Annensky, Blok, Andrei Bely, Khlebnikov and Valeri Bryusov; the jubilee edition of Tolstoy (90 volumes), the Academy's edition of Herzen (30 volumes), the 20 volume edition of Chekhov, the new edition of Belinsky, the first complete edition of Turgenev's letters - none of these could have been carried out but for the work of a phalanx of gifted and profound scholars devoted to their subject.

The fraternity of those engaged in the study of literature may justly be proud of the names of Mikhail Alekseyev, Sergei Makashin, Semyon Mashinsky, Julian Oksman, Aleksandr Skaftymov, Nicolai Gudzi, Vladimir Zhdanov, Ilya Zilberstein, Sergei Bondi, Boris Bukhshtab, Vladimir Orlov, Irakli Andronikov, and their numerous colleagues.

The achievements of Soviet literary studies are particularly noteworthy in the works of our outstanding translators. Let me mention Samuel Marshak's translation of "Mother Goose" and of Robert Burns, Pasternak's translations of Shakespeare, Tatyana Gnedich's "Don Juan", the translation of "Martin Chuzzlewit" by Daruzes, and Tatyana Litvinov's "Vicar of Wakefield". All these and many others bear witness to the high degree of excellence recently achieved in an art-form which contributes so powerfully towards mutual understanding, sympathy, and friendship between our great peoples.

My own share in this work has been a small one, but whatever I have translated - whether it was Wycherley's "Plain Dealer", "Love's Labours Lost", the "Just-so Stories" or simple nursery-rhymes, - it has always been my greatest desire to inspire my countrymen with sympathy for a people who have given such priceless treasures to the world. And I am convinced that Maurice Baring, Sir Maurice Bowra, Vivian de Sola Pinto, R. M. Hewitt and many other devoted translators of Russian lyrics were actuated by the same motives in regard to their English readers.

Did not Walt Whitman say that poetry was capable of forging stronger links than the ablest of diplomats could?

Korney Chukovsky

1. Introductory remarks to an Ichester lecture on "Nekrasov the Artist' delivered in the Taylor Institution on 23 May, 1962.

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