Lauren G. Leighton
Whitman in Russia: Chukovsky and Balmont

Calamnus, Walt Whitman Quarterly International, 22 / June, 1982

In the summer dacha of the late Kornei Chukovsky in the Moscow suburb of Peredelkino there is a marvelous color drawing by the poet Mayakovsky. It depicts a salon filled with the Brahmins of early twentieth-century Russian culture — Bely and Blok are there, and so is Mayakovsky himself. Wriggling through the door, his long legs curling serpentine fashion into a similarly serpentine torso winding around the ceiling, is a star-struck young Kornei Chukovsky, his suit worn and tattered, his homely face smiling, his pockets crammed with papers and books. From his coat pockets two books are falling, one glancing off the poet Valery Bryusov, the other landing straight on the head of the poet Konstantin Balmont. To anyone familiar with Russian literature of the time, the drawing is immediately hilarious because both giants of Symbolism had recently been the subject of reviews by the brash young literary climber, and Chukovsky had devastated Balmont as a translator of Walt Whitman. It is especially funny because Chukovsky had already begun publishing his own youthful translations of Whitman, and the idea of the shabbily dressed, hungry hanger-on attempting to supplant someone as influential as Balmont must have seemed amusing to everyone in that room. But Balmont has largely been forgotten as a translator of Whitman while Chukovsky’s name has become synonymous with Whitman’s in Russian poetry.1

Kornei Chukovsky’s campaign against Balmont as a translator of Whitman (and Shelley) began in 1906 and remained a lifelong concern. Balmont’s version of Leaves of Grass, mistranslated as Shoots of Grass, appeared in 1903 and in a revised edition in 1911. A third version appeared in 1922 under the title Revolutionary Poetry of Europe and America. Walt Whitman. Chukovsky attacked Balmont’s earlier versions of Whitman in a survey of Russian criticism of Whitman, and a sharp polemic with a defender of Balmont — his lover — ensued. Chukovsky continued his campaign in successive early editions of his own translations of Whitman, particularly in the 1923 edition of his study Walt Whitman and His «Leaves of Grass», published under a single cover with his translations under the title The Poetry of Dawning Democracy. His campaign continued thereafter in the various editions of his pioneer study of the art of translation, published under the title The Art of Translation in 1930, 1936, and subsequently, and revised again for publication in 1964 and 1968 as A High Art. Even by the 1930s the question of Balmont as a translator of Whitman had become historical on his own merits, but Chukovsky’s campaign has remained important in Russian letters, first because Whitman has remained a strong influence on Russian poetry, and second because Chukovsky’s criticism is a model of the unending confrontation between professional translators who believe in the integrity of an original text and those poet-translators who freely reinterpret and redesign their subjects according to their own aesthetic notions. It would be difficult to find two Russian men of letters more unlike than Chukovsky and Balmont — Chukovsky admired Chekhov above all other Russian writers and shared the dramatist’s dislike of Symbolism — and their approaches to the task of translating Whitman are equally different. Chukovsky’s campaign against Balmont is therefore a still vital question of Walt Whitman and Russian literature, and is well worth the attention of Whitman scholars.2

Kornei Chukovsky (1883-1969) criticized Balmont as a translator of Whitman on several grounds, but one objection remained constant from start to finish, namely that Whitman could not have fallen into the hands of a poet-translator more unsuitable, in both aesthetics and temperament, than the Symbolist-Decadent poet Konstantin Balmont (1867-1942). Chukovsky was correct in this opinion, for in opposition to the words earthy, boisterous, forthright, and lusty that appear so often in characterizations of Whitman’s poetry, the terms that most readily describe Balmont’s poetry are esoteric, extravagant, exotic, and erotic. Where Whitman’s poetry is simple and direct, Balmont’s is involved and affected. Where Whitman was expansive, Balmont was introverted; where Whitman’s measures are the millions, Balmont’s poetry is personal; his world is internalized, even his large-scale other-world abstractions lead inevitably back to his lyric «I.» Balmont’s poetry is for the very few; mass appeal always eluded him; his intimate poetry is in no way like Whitman’s exuberant singing of the masses. Where Whitman sang of his own country, immersed himself in his own nation, Balmont the man spent much of his life abroad, and Balmont the Neoromantic escapist poet wrote of faraway places-Japan, China, India, Persia, the Crimea and Caucasus, the American West, the France of Baudelaire and Verlaine. Balmont’s poetry is not devoid of a Whitman-like celebration of life and joyous praise of nature, but where Whitman celebrated life successfully, Balmont’s poetry is usually what Soviet critics distrust in Symbolism for its lack of relationship to reality and dislike in Decadentism for its preoccupation with death, insanity, evil, despair, and corrupt sexuality.

Of the four prominent Symbolist «B’s» — Bryusov and Balmont of the first generation, Bely and Blok of the second — Balmont has fared least well in criticism and proved least durable in literary history. By 1906, the year when Chukovsky began his campaign, Balmont was being subjected to critical rejection more and more frequently, and his greatest popularity of the years 1894-1904 declined drastically, never to recover after 1907. Not the least reason for this is the extremity of his experimentation in sound, a feature of his poetry that for a time made him a great sensation in Russia, but soon began to pall on his readers.

Balmont was prolific. During the course of his career he published twenty-five collections of verse. As a translator he was even more prolific. Among the languages from which he translated are Arabic, Assyrian, Chinese, Japanese, Sanskrit, Persian, Georgian, Armenian, Spanish, French, German, and English. Among his subjects in English alone are Marlowe, Blake, Tennyson, Burns, Coleridge, Wordsworth, Byron, Wilde, Рое, Longfellow, and Stevenson, to say nothing of Shelley and Whitman. Omar Khayyam, Rustaveli, Calderon, Lope de Vega, Goethe, Heine, Baudelaire, Mickiewicz, Slowacki — there would seem to be no language too difficult to attract Balmont. Balmont was also extreme in his methodology as a translator — an extreme poet-translator who shamelessly transformed his subjects into himself. Speaking of Balmont as a translator of Shelley, in the canonical 1964 version of A High Art, Chukovsky asserted that Balmont had consistently disfigured Shelley’s poetry and therefore disfigured his face, marked «Shelley’s beautiful face» with features of his own personality: «The result is a new face, half Shelley, half Balmont — a face I would call Shellmont.» Balmont was simply incapable of mirroring an original poet in his translations. In a 1904 review of Balmont’s translations of Shelley, the new and revised three-volume edition of Shelley’s Complete Collected Works in the Translation of K.D. Balmont (1903), the critic E. Degen also charged that Balmont had disfigured Shelley. Crudeness of style is the rule of this treatment of Shelley. Balmont failed to translate many of Shelley’s lines in full, he translated many lines incorrectly, the translations are marred by carelessness and deliberate departures from the original. Balmont’s radical transformation of Shelley to suit his own aesthetics has also been noted by modern critics. The influential theorist of the art of translating poetry E.G. Etkind has observed in his 1963 study Poetry and Translation that Balmont «dilutes Shelley’s concentrated imagery, explicates anything that seems not fully clear to him, equips Shelley with epithets where something seems insufficiently beautiful to him.» His conclusion about one translation is that Balmont’s «literary personality manifests itself here to a very thorough degree — so thoroughly that not so much as a pale shadow of Shelley and his own poetry remains.» The syntax, the structure of the images, the rhythm, the vocabulary, and the development of the similes are totally transformed. «Such interference on the part of the translator might turn his work successfully into the independent writing of his own verses, but it has no relation whatsoever to the art of translating poetry.» As for Balmont’s translations of Whitman, Chukovsky believed that they are even more flagrant examples of a poet who transforms his subject into his twin. «After all, Whitman spent his entire life fighting what we call Balmontism, with its flowery rhetoric, its high-flown ‘ music of words,’ its external prettiness which is in fact worse than monstrously ugly.» Whitman was a declared enemy of the qualities which are the very basis of Balmontism, «and it is this implacable foe that Balmont tried to make over into his fellow poet.»

Balmont’s 1903 edition of Shoots of Grass was heralded by advance publication of selected verses and followed in 1904 by a lengthy essay on Whitman in the prestigious Symbolist journal Scales under the title «Singer of Self and Life. Walt Whitman.» In Balmont’s view, almost all poets are singers of sorrow, only Whitman and Shelley are poets of joy. Whitman was both a poet of joy and a singer of self, «a chaotically youthful, unrestrained, and undisciplined soul … who makes us feel immense expanses.» In the fashion of Russian criticism, Balmont then set out to seek the spiritual essence of Whitman’s poetic personality by enumerating and discussing the kharakteristiki of the poet’s self. Basically Whitman’s poetry, he believed, was a reflection of «a poet of the self, of the infinity of life, of the harmonious link of all the separate parts of the self with the World Whole.» Whitman sang of a self which takes its all from the past, but only in order to make his own time singularly new. Whitman was a singer of a powerful, avidly searching self and filled with a feeling of freedom. Whitman was a new and modern poet because he belonged to a new young nation rushing in chaos toward the creation of new forms of life. Because Whitman felt he was new, he cast off the old; because he was a poet, he cast off the old forms of poetry.

Whitman believed that man is divine, and he was therefore «the singer of both the human soul and the human body.» Whitman was «a poet with the body of a gladiator and the harmonious face of a beautiful animal.» To say only that Whitman was a democrat and a singer of democracy is to give a wrong sense of the man. «Whitman perceived democracy not as a political phenomenon, but more as a form of religious enthusiasm, a free union of thinking men in which each effuses a harmonious magnetism because he is vigorous, sound, and free.» Whitman’s religion is «a cosmic enthusiasm, the inexhaustible earthly rapture . . . that creates ever new linkages among the planets.»

Whitman was known by reputation to Russians well before the appearance of Balmont’s work, but it was only in the early twentieth century that his poetry began to be known directly in translation and criticism. To Chukovsky, it was deplorable that Whitman was becoming known in an acutely Symbolist interpretation, and he was equally appalled at the misinformation being offered to Russians by critics. In 1906 he published a survey of Russian criticism of Whitman in the same journal Scales under the title «Russian Whitmaniana» in which he stated that Whitman was on his way to Russia, but was still misunderstood and seen only on the backroads. «Now it is time for Whitman to become a Russian poet.» On the basis of a wide reading of English sources on Whitman, Chukovsky then set about correcting the most obviously erroneous information to date. For the most part the errors he strove to correct are biographical. Dates are usually given incorrectly — Leaves of Grass appeared first in 1855, not 1865. Whitman did not die a lonely man — he was surrounded by such devoted men as John Burroughs, Conway, Dr. Bucke, and Horace Traubel. William O’Connor did not write a book titled The Good Gray Bucke; it was The Good Gray Poet. Turning to Balmont’s essay, Chukovsky did not object so much to errors of fact, nor even at this time to Balmont’s Symbolist representation of Whitman. Instead he shifted from questions of biography to an attack on the translations of selected verses Balmont had used to illustrate his essay. «To put it bluntly,» Chukovsky began, «Mr. Balmont has not the least feeling for the language from which he translates. In three lines of translation he has made five crude errors — and thanks to these errors he has created a picture of Whitman far removed from the original.» Citing lines from the poem «One’s-Self I Sing»-«Not physiognomy alone nor brain alone is worthy for the Muse;//I say the Form complete is worthier far»-Chukovsky pointed out that where Whitman used the word «Form» in its meaning of «body» Balmont translated it with the Russian word forma, meaning «figure» or «shape,» but not «body.» «Worthy» does not mean «dignity» in these lines; it means «dear.» In his translation of these lines Balmont confused grammatical agreement, took object for subject, missed case, tense, and person, the result being: «Not only face and brain/Are worthy, my Muse has told me./»She has told me that more worthy/Is the Figure in its completion.» In the translation of lines from «Starting from Paumanok» — «I say no man has ever yet been half devout enough,/None has ever yet adored or worship’d half enough» — Balmont interpreted «devout» as «reverential» instead of «pious,» and «adore» as «deify» instead of «pray» or its synonym «worship.» The result is that Whitman seems to be calling for his own deification. In his translation of «Beat! Beat! Drums!» Balmont translated one line-«Through the windows — through doors — burst like a ruthless force» — without the internal rhyme, thereby turning poetry into prose. Moreover, where «force» here means «troops, horde, military mass,» Balmont misunderstood it as «power, strength.» In these and many other misunderstandings of the English language, Balmont ascribed meanings to Whitman of which the poet was not in the least guilty.

Chukovsky’s charges were rebutted not by Balmont, but by Elena Tsvetkovskaya, in a letter to the editor of Scales signed Elena Ts. Well known as a translator in her own right, Tsvetkovskaya is believed to have collaborated with Balmont in his translations of Whitman and other poets, and she had an additional commitment to him in that they had lived together since 1904.3 The tone of her rebuttal leaves no doubt that her defense was motivated by personal feelings. Fully aware that Chukovsky aspired to be Russia’s authority on Whitman, Tsvetkovskaya titled her defense «On Whitman, Balmont, Censorious Criticism, and Conscience. A Note in Proof» and began by accusing Chukovsky of attempting to supplant Balmont as a weed displaces a flourishing plant. To Chukovsky’s accusation that Balmont did not understand the English language, she replied that Balmont already had to his credit «gifted modern translations» of Marlowe, Рое, Shelley, Tennyson, and Blake. Balmont is an accurate translator of Whitman, a most exact mathematician of the word,» and Chukovsky’s criticisms prove that he is himself «ignorant of the English language.»

«If Madame Ts. has a brother, or a husband, or a father,» replied Chukovsky, who relished polemics and was a genius at suggesting personal ridicule while seeming to be critically exasperated, «I would like to take him aside into another room, and this is what I would tell him.» He then proceeded, in an article titled «On the Use of Bromide,» to again remedy what he perceived to be a sickly understanding of Whitman in Russia.

Chukovsky insisted that so far as Balmont the poet was concerned, «I bow before him,» then adding:»… despite much that is weak and repugnant in him, he is for me the creator of a new world, a new heaven and a new earth.» But as a translator Balmont was, in Chukovsky’s view, «an outrage to everyone he has translated — Рое, Shelley, Wilde. They are all Balmonts. The entire system of Balmont’s translation vocabulary is the same.» Every one of his subjects — Tennyson, Рое, or Blake — uses words a la Balmont: kraski-laski-plaski-skazki.

So far as Chukovsky was concerned, Tsvetkovskaya was mistaken throughout her defense of Balmont. One would think from her article that the whole world was conspiring against poor Balmont — that the journal Scales existed solely to destroy Balmont. «She seems to think that because I mentioned Balmont’s little piece among other pieces on Whitman I had the secret intention of ‘alienating and completely doing away with (Balmont).'» And in a final jeer Chukovsky begged Balmont to forgive his inept defender: even though her defense was embarrassing, her intentions were good.

When Chukovsky published his own translations of Whitman’s poetry in 1907, he included the materials developed in the polemic with Tsvetkovskaya and refined them in the 1914 edition to take into account the revised 1911 edition of Shoots of Grass. The question of Balmont as a translator remained a feature of Chukovsky’s study-translation, and an article titled «Whitman and Balmont» occupied a place in the fourth edition of The Poetry of Dawning Democracy in 1919. The question seems not to have become controversial again until the appearance of Balmont’s new version of Whitman’s poetry under the title Revolutionary Poetry of Europe and America. Walt Whitman in 1922. Balmont’s new version was trendy for the early 1920s — very much in keeping with the new Soviet view of Whitman as a revolutionary propagated by Maksim Gorky and A.V. Lunacharsky. The new version was not necessarily a radical departure from Balmont’s previous view, however, and it did not contradict his Symbolist interpretation; for he had already championed Whitman as a revolutionary as early as 1908 in an essay titled «The Poetry of Struggle,» and in 1910 he had published another essay titled «On Enemies and Enmity» in which he characterized Whitman as a poet of war and peace. Nevertheless, despite a strong commitment to the revolution of 1905 and the first revolution of 1917, Balmont never did overcome his reputation as a disengaged Symbolist. He had already left the Soviet Union in 1920, and he soon became an anti-Soviet emigre. By the time his new version of Whitman appeared in 1922, Soviet critics were hostile to him despite the title of his translations. Reviewing the edition in the proletarian journal The Press and Revolution, the critic I. A. Aksyonov charged that Balmont had discredited the «revolutionary significance» of Whitman’s poetry by ascribing unseemly lines to him. If Russians were to believe Balmont, Aksyonov said, Whitman wrote all kinds of unpleasant poetry in praise of the human body. «Why,» he asked, «have such dirty verses been published in our press?» In Aksyonov’s view, the translation was also bad. It was «incomprehensible and inarticulate,» «filled with ungrammatical lexical links,» «archaic,» «nothing but prattle and content-less babbling.» Chukovsky’s response to the 1922 version was different. To him, Whitman was not a revolutionary, but a nineteenth-century American democrat. This was his interpretation of Whitman in the early twentieth century, and it remained his interpretation of Whitman to the end of his life. In a major essay in the 1923 version of Walt Whitman and His «Leaves of Grass» titled «Walt Whitman. Man and Poet» he put forth his own kharakteristiki of Whitman’s «poetry of democracy.» Whitman’s poetry is the poetry of joy, and Whitman does indeed sing the self, but the word «identity» is alien to his poetry; in all his poetry there exists not a single individual personality. Whitman’s poetry is, rather, «the poetry of the masses in their millions, of expanses, of immensity, of vast numbers.» He was a poet of American democracy whose measures are never by the individual, but always by the vastness of the cosmos and demos. Whitman’s poetry is also «the poetry of science,» «the poetry of comradely love,» and the «poetry of the internationale, of the universal brotherhood of peoples.» In almost every respect Chukovsky’s assessment of Whitman was contrary to Balmont’s. Whitman was neither a Symbolist, nor a revolutionary, nor a socialist.

Chukovsky also included in his 1923 study an essay titled «Whitman in Russian Literature» in which he continued his campaign against false information about Whitman in Russia. The essay includes the materials published in the polemic with Tsvetkovskaya, and Chukovsky repeated many of his earlier criticisms, but he added a serious charge of plagiarism. He exposed Balmont’s interpretation as a rehash of English-language criticism and scholarship: Whitman the singer of his new, energetic people, Whitman the poet who casts off old forms, Whitman the poet of body and soul, the poet of infinity, the poet of harmonious links between the self and the universal whole — these are commonplace assessments of Whitman by Burroughs, O’Connor, Bucke, Traubel, Howe, and others. More seriously, two of Balmont’s most seemingly original characterizations were taken from John Adding-ton Symonds’ Walt Whitman: A Study. The notion of Whitman as «a poet with the body of a gladiator» was taken directly from Symonds’ description of Whitman as a tall man «with the frame of a gladiator.» So also were the phrases «religious enthusiasm» and «cosmic enthusiasm» used by Balmont to characterize Whitman’s perception of democracy as «a free union of thinking men who are vigorous, sound, and free.» In proof of this assertion Chukovsky presented excerpts from Balmont’s 1904 essay alongside Symonds’ original English assessments showing that the formulae are identical.

Turning to Balmont’s translations of Whitman, Chukovsky’s criticisms of 1923 are almost identical to those included later in his The Art of Translation and A High Art, the definitive 1964 version, Balmont’s translation is archaic: the Old Church Slavic word stiag is used for «banner,» the old form mleko is used for «milk» instead of the modern moloko. Many other words are also so archaic that they cannot be found in most dictionaries. The translation is «dandified» in Balmont’s own manner: it contains such outright Balmontisms as «the music of kissing words.» Balmont introduces cheap rhymes: «With the winds we shall whirl,/ With the immense wind we shall swirl.» Balmont mixes up English words: «winds» for «wings.» Balmont is careless: he translates «lilacs» as «lilies,» thereby inventing lilies that grow on bushes. Where Whitman’s poetry is geographically and mathematically precise, Balmont introduces vague references. More important than specific criticisms, however, is that Chukovsky’s objections here and throughout his campaign demonstrate his unrelenting contempt for poet-translators who, like Balmont, and in fact like far too many poets who translate other poets, impose their own aesthetics and thus their own poetic personalities on their subject. He did not believe that «only a poet can understand a poet.» But in order to understand Chukovsky’s objections to poets who translate poetry, it must first be appreciated that he was not a dogmatic critic of the art of translation and his objections to poet-translators are not founded on a preference for literal fidelity. Quite the contrary, one chapter of A High Art is titled «Imprecise Precision» to demonstrate one of Chukovsky’s most important teachings, namely, that literalism has no more place in the art of translation than arrogant aesthetic reinterpretation.

To Chukovsky, a poet who can overcome his own aesthetic preferences and enter freely — of his own will and out of respect for a fellow poet’s dignity — into another poet’s world is perhaps the finest possible translator. Even here he was not so dogmatic as to be incapable of appreciating fine translations of poetry even when they depart significantly from the original.

In Chukovsky’s view, «an artistic translation is in all cases a creative act…. Precisely because translation is a matter of art, sweeping rules do not exist…. Everything depends on individual circumstances. In the final analysis the fate of a translation is decided by the translator’s talent, by his intellectual milieu, by his taste, by his tact«. What is important about Chukovsky’s. campaign against Balmont as a translator of Whitman, therefore,, is that his objections to particular errors are aimed not at Balmont’s carelessness in particular instances, but at his failure to honor a poet not like himself. Balmont’s errors are merely symptoms of a larger disease: not simply his failure to convey Whitman’s ideas, images, vocabulary, and syntax, but his inability to convey Whitman’s literary manner, his style, his personality, «the poetic uniqueness of the original.» A poet’s style is his creative personality, his every work is a self-portrait, and when a translator fails to mirror his subject’s personality — his style — he transforms his subject into a monstrosity. In support of this contention Chukovsky quotes Whitman himself on the intimate links between one’s self and one’s style — a writer can never hide himself in his writings. «It is therefore useless for reviewers to criticize a translation merely by noting its slips of vocabulary. It is far more important to catch the pernicious departures from the original which are linked organically to the personality of the translator and which by reflecting the personality of the translator in toto, shunt the original author aside.»

E.G. Etkind has pointed out that when Balmont undertook to translate Whitman, he was anxious not «to vex Russian readers with long lines of amorphous, broken prose.» No Russian reader of the early twentieth century would accept Whitman’s poetry as poetry, and so Balmont saw his task as «the introduction of order into Whitman’s household — to regularize his rhythms, to prune his images, to modify his vulgarities, to lower his shouts to normal speech, to shorten and soften his hyperbole.» When Chukovsky undertook to translate Whitman, on the other hand, he read Whitman’s poetry as a scholar, as a critic and poet. «In translating Whitman, Chukovsky strove to reproduce his prosaic qualities and his cosmism, his vulgarity and chaos, his grandiose exaggeration and his allegorical generalization.» Chukovsky’s Whitman might have seemed strange to Russian readers at first, but he has now been fully accepted as a classic of world literature.

Kornei Chukovsky was an aggressive, even a merciless critic and polemicist. Chukovsky was motivated primarily by aesthetic concerns, and the question of a faithfully translated Russian Whitman was very important to him. The 1966 edition of My Whitman begins with the unabashed confession that «Walt Whitman was the idol of my youth» and he reported that after his first readings of Whitman’s poetry, «I was shaken by the newness of his perception of life and began to see everything around me with new eyes. …» Everything in Whitman’s poetry immediately became Chukovsky’s gospel-«his calls to ecstatic friendship, and his shining hymns to equality, labor, and democracy, and his joyous intoxication with his milieu, and his bold words in praise of the emancipation of the flesh. …» This is why Chukovsky’s rivalry with Balmont remained a crucial matter to him even after Balmont had been forgotten. This is why Balmont’s treatment of Whitman has remained a vital question of Russian literature long after the translations themselves receded into literary history. If it is to Chukovsky’s own translations that we are indebted for a remarkably faithful Russian Whitman, it is thanks to his persistent campaign against Balmontism that a false understanding of Whitman was ended in Russia.

Lauren G. Leighton



1. For a study of Kornei Chukovskii as a translator of Whitman see Larry Gregg, «Kornei Chukovsky’s Whitman,» Walt Whiman Review, XX, No. 2 (June 1974), pp. 50-60. For a study of Chukovskii as a translator, critic and theorist of the art of translation, editor, children’s poet, and liberal intellectual see Lauren G. Leighton, «A Homage to Kornei Chukovskii,» Russian Review, XXI, No. 1 (January 1972), 38-48.

2 For a study of Whitman and Russian literature see Gay Wilson Allen, «Walt Whitman and World Literature,» The New Walt Whitman Handbook (New York, 1975), pp. 308-13 («Whitman in Russia»).

3. Tsvetkovskaia remained with Balmont through his many travels and exiles, leaving the Soviet Union with him in 1920 to settle in Paris. Tsvetkovskaia and their daughter Mirra shared Balmont for many years with his second wife Ekaterina Andreeva and his daughter, the two families living separately.