"Theodyssey" of Vasily Zhukovskij: The Homeric Epic and the Revolution of 1848

Ilya Vinitsky, University of Pittsburgh

Vasilij Zhukovskij's magnificent translation of Homer's Odyssey (1842-49, Duesseldorf-Baden-Baden) belongs to an array of the most notable works of the 1840s. As James Billington justly puts it, this translation, lauded by Nikolaj Gogol', Fedor Tjutchev, and Stepan Shevyrev, was "the most eagerly awaited poetic accomplishment in the late years of Nicholas' reign (after the death of Pushkin and Lermontov)" (347). In his translation, Zhukovskij endeavored to create the Russian Odyssey, artistically equal (if not superior) to the famous English (Pope) and German (Voss) interpretations of this epic.

The proposed paper deals with the political implications and symbolic layers of Zhukovskij's Odyssey. The latter will be considered in a broad literary (conservative neo-classicism in Germany and fierce disputes over Homeric epics of the 1830s-40s), political (European revolutions of 1848), and religious (the neo-platonic allegorical tradition of interpretation of the Odyssey) contexts. I will focus on the crucial second "part" of the epic, describing the return of Odysseus and the slaughter of Penelope's suitors (XIII-XXIV).

Zhukovskij acknowledged that he had translated this part in an incredibly short period of time (less than 100 days) and that he had worked on it con amore. It is noteworthy that his "speedy" translation coincided with the outbreak and collapse of the revolution in Germany. A close "parallel" analysis of Zhukovskij's translation of the final cantos of the Odyssey and his numerous political and philosophical letters of 1848-49 demonstrates that the poet (who was an ardent monarchist and a true Orthodox believer) viewed the stormy contemporary events through the prism of the Homeric epic, which "predicted" the final restoration of the ancient order and severe punishment of insane rebels. Symbolically, Zhukovskij finished his translation the same month when the true European monarchs Friedrich Wilhelm IV of Prussia and Nikolaj I of Russia put a bloody end to the revolutions in Germany and Austria.

The archetypical plot of Homer's Odyssey was interpreted by Zhukovskij as (a) a prophetic tale about the advent of the Truth, (b) a defense of the justice of God in the face of doubts arising from the phenomena of (political) evil in the modern world, the approaching Last Judgment, and (c) the restoration of a lost unity between the King and the people.