Selected Criticism

Russia and Other Slavic Countries, Whitman in
Bidney, Martin
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

Whitman's importance in twentieth-century Russia is immense, and in other Slavic countries substantial: the populist vigor of his verse, its nondogmatic spirituality, and the bold energy of its innovative techniques have helped make him beloved. Many editions of Kornei Chukovsky's often revised Russian translation of Leaves of Grass (from 1907 to the posthumous version of 1970) have sold in huge numbers, especially in wartime, while Whitman's poetic influence has been felt most notably by the futurists Velimir Khlebnikov and Vladimir Mayakovsky.

The third (1860) edition of Whitman's book was the first to be noticed in Russia when an anonymous reviewer in Annals of the Fatherland mistook the work for a novel, but Leaves of Grass was not noticed again until 1882, in a translation of John Swinton's lecture on Whitman which appeared in Foreign Herald. When N. Popov reviewed Whitman's book in the following year, he not only compared the poet to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's Faust and John Milton's Satan but further alarmed the censors with praise for "This Compost." Whitman's ability to attain "rapture through the lessons of putrid corpses" seemed dangerously decadent: the reviewer was jailed, the magazine suspended. When part of this review was translated and published in the American journal Critic (16 June 1883), Whitman, who read it, was convinced that Popov must be a pseudonym of Swinton.

Ivan Turgenev, author of Fathers and Sons (1859), tried to translate Whitman's "Beat! Beat! Drums!" but left his failed attempt unfinished (the manuscript was discovered in Paris in 1966). In 1890 Count Leo Tolstoy wrote to his friend L. Nikiforov suggesting that the latter translate some Whitman, but nothing came of this. In an Encyclopedic Dictionary article of 1892, Z.A. Vengerova saw Whitman as wholly outside all European literary tradition, but I.V. Shklovsky (pseudonym Dioneo) opposed this view in his "Oscar Wilde and Walt Whitman" (Russian Riches 1898). In 1899 V.G. Bogoraz (pseudonym Tan) published a poem, generally known as "Song of Labor and Struggle," with the subheading "From Walt Whitman." A member of the radical "People's Will" group who had suffered imprisonment and exile, Bogoraz sought to evade the censors by attributing his own poetical offspring (written in strictly regular meter and rhyme) to the American bard.

Though Whitman's death in 1892 was extensively reported in Russian newspapers, it was still dangerous even to translate him. Konstantin Balmont's 1905 selections were confiscated and most copies destroyed; Kornei Chukovsky was taken to court in 1905 and again in 1911, when his book of translations was destroyed by court order. In 1913 at least four Russian cities banned public lectures on Whitman's life and poetry.

Balmont (called by Osip Mandelstam the Father of Russian Symbolism) and Chukovsky were Whitman's most eager and influential Russian proponents. Chukovsky also inaugurated the rigorous scholarly investigation of Whitman criticism in his 1906 article, "Russian Whitmaniana" (in The Scales). Here he insists on accuracy in biography, thoroughness in bibliography, and faithfulness in translation. Chukovsky correctly criticizes Balmont for regularizing Whitman's meter and generalizing his diction, and he points to outright errors in the Balmontian renditions. Chukovsky's critique, extended in succeeding years into a fierce attack on Balmont's temperament and opinions, is marred by excessive zeal from the start, as when he insists that "human form" must be translated as "human body" because Whitman is using the word "form" to refer to the body. But Chukovsky's accurate Whitman translations are rightly honored and deservedly endure.

Chukovsky and Balmont are both fine essayists on Whitman, and often their insights are either identical or mutually complementary. In My Whitman (1966) Chukovsky defines Whitman's unique visionary attribute as a continual awareness of the infinity of time and space. This somehow allows Whitman to reconcile materialism and idealism. Whitman is as scientific-minded as Bazarov, the "nihilist" of Turgenev's Fathers and Sons whose perspective is shaped by such books as Ludwig Büchner's Force and Matter. Yet Whitman expresses with equal fervor idealistic sentiments like those of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel or Ralph Waldo Emerson. Chukovsky sees in the poet's all-in-oneness a perilous obliteration of individuality: in the Whitman world of "identity" we could hardly distinguish Nikolai Gogol's comical Korobochka from Tolstoy's tragic Karenina. But Chukovsky still admires what he calls "cosmic enthusiasm," a phrase Balmont had borrowed from J.A. Symonds to describe the Whitman world view.

Balmont, building on metaphors he found in Symonds, sees Whitman as Leviathan, Yggdrasil, earth-titan, eagle. In "Polarity" (1908, later used as preface to his 1911 Shoots of Grass) Balmont contrasts Edgar Allan Poe's self-preoccupation to the Whitman emphasis on self-transcendence; for Balmont Whitman is an oceanic poet, a sea-beast immersed in the larger element. (In Marine Phosphorescence [1910] Balmont movingly re-creates "As I Ebb'd with the Ocean of Life" in a meditation on the Russo-Japanese War, with mounds of the dead in Manchuria tossed up by the Ocean of Night.) As all-inclusive poet of the plenitude of Being, Whitman is like Yggdrasil, the mythic Norse World Tree, but he is also like the creative-destructive Broad-Axe. In White Summer Lightnings (1908) Balmont sees the earth-titan Whitman as "building" utopian future cities of friendship. Balmont not only acknowledges the homosexual element in this friendship but praises Whitman for expressing it with naturalness and conviction. Finally, Balmont sees Whitman as a soaring eagle, rising above his era with prophetic insight, so that his American poems of 1860 illuminate the Russian revolution of 1905.

Russian futurists enjoyed Whitman. Chukovsky says Velimir Khlebnikov liked listening to Whitman's poems declaimed in English, though he knew but little of the language; influence may be seen in "O Garden of Animals!" (1910). Chukovsky read his own translations of Whitman to Vladimir Mayakovsky, whose poems "The Cloud in Trousers" (1915) and "To His Beloved Self, the Author Dedicates These Lines" (1916) show a clear kinship with "Song of Myself." Other poets of the period who learned from Whitman were Mikhail Larionov and Ivan Oredezh.

D.S. Mirsky, whose "Poet of American Democracy" introduces the ninth (1935) edition of Chukovsky's Whitman, finds the essence of the American poet's spirit in "The Dalliance of the Eagles"; he also thinks Whitman's respect for the equality of women and men is unprecedented in poetry (though influenced by the prose of Saint-Simon). Zhanna Ivina, citing the "Calamus" poems, compares Whitman with Marina Tsvetaeva in her "Sapphic purity." Most recently, in "Epos of One's Personal Fate" (1987) O. Aliakrinsky finds in Whitman's compression of time and space a precedent for a modern poetic genre extending from Guillaume Apollinaire and Blaise Cendrars to Yevgeny Yevtushenko's "Mama and the Neutron Bomb."

Though Polish discussion of Whitman began in 1887, a taste conditioned by "realism" delayed Whitman's influence in Poland until the rise of the free-rhythm Skamander poets, whose views are summed up in Julian Tuwim's 1917 "Manifesto of General Love (Walt Whitman)." Stanislaw de Vincenz translated Three Poems in 1921; S. Napieralski did 75 Poems in 1934. Juliusz Zulawski edited translations in 1965, Hieronym Michalski in 1973. Zulawski also published a 1971 Whitman biography, emphasizing Polish contributions to American history.

The great Czech poet Jaroslav Vrchlický began translating Whitman in 1895. The year 1906 saw more renditions, by Vrchlický and also by Emanuel z Lěshradu. The former's translations were attacked by Pavel Eisner, whose own Democracy, Ma Femme came out in 1945. Two more Czech translators, Jiři Kolář and Zdeněk Urbáněk, offered in 1955 a selection of Whitman's poetry and prose. Democratic Vistas has twice been rendered into Czech, and Zdeněk Vančura has written a popular biography of Whitman. A Slovak translation, whose title translates as Salut au Monde! (1956), contains fifty poems (translated by Ján Boor) as well as Democratic Vistas (done by Magda Seppová).

Serbian Book Herald has twice featured Whitman translations (1912, 1920) and also Bogdan Popovich's "Walt Whitman and Swinburne" (1925), reportedly an attack on Whitman's coarseness from A.C. Swinburne's perspective (but that is a puzzle: in William Blake Swinburne praises Whitman highly). Though Whitman extracts in Croatian were published in 1900, 1909–1912, and 1919 by such writers as Borivoj Jevtić, Ljubo Wiesner, and Ivo Andrić, not until 1951 did more extensive Croatian selections (translated by the masterly poet Augustin Ujević) appear in Zagreb. For the Nobel Prize winner Ivo Andrić, Whitman "helps us to forget our own selves and our dark, Slavic sadness" (qtd. in Basic 25). Bulgaria first showed interest in Whitman when Rusi Rusev's "The Literary Judgments of Walt Whitman" appeared in the 1946 Annual of the Faculty of History and Philology at the University of Sofia. Slovenian and Macedonian translations of Whitman also exist. No other nineteenth-century American poet has equaled Whitman's impact in Eastern Europe.


Abieva, N.A. "Nachalo znakomstva s Uoltom Uitmenom v Rossii." Russkaia Literatura 4 (1986): 185–195.

Aliakrinskii, O. "Èpos chastnoi sud'by." Voprosy Literatury 12 (1987): 130–159.

Allen, Gay Wilson. The New Walt Whitman Handbook. 1975. New York: New York UP, 1986.

____, ed. Walt Whitman Abroad. Syracuse: Syracuse UP, 1955.

Allen, Gay Wilson, and Ed Folsom, eds. Walt Whitman & the World. Iowa City: U of Iowa P, 1995.

Basic, Sonja. "Walt Whitman in Yugoslavia." Walt Whitman in Europe Today. Ed. Roger Asselineau and William White. Detroit: Wayne State UP, 1972. 24–26.

Bidney, Martin. "Leviathan, Yggdrasil, Earth-Titan, Eagle: Balmont's Reimagining of Walt Whitman." Slavic and East European Journal 34 (1990): 176–191.

Chukovskii, Kornei. Moi Uitmen. Moscow: Progress, 1966.

____. "Russkaia Whitmaniana." Vesy 10 (1906): 43–45.

Ivina, Zhanna. "With the grandeur of Homer and the purity of Sappho. . . ." Women and Russia: Feminist Writings from the Soviet Union. Ed. Tatyana Mamonova with Sarah Matilsky. Trans. Rebecca Park and Catherine A. Fitzpatrick. Boston: Beacon, 1984. 155–163.

Khlebnikov, Velimir. The King of Time: Selected Writings of the Russian Futurian. Ed. Charlotte Douglas. Trans. Paul Schmidt. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 1975.

Leighton, Lauren G. "Whitman in Russia: Chukovsky and Balmont." Calamus: Walt Whitman Quarterly International 22 (1972): 1–17.

Mayakovsky, Vladimir. The Bedbug and Selected Poetry. 1960. Ed. Patricia Blake. Trans. Max Hayward and George Reavey. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1975.


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