Book review

by David N. Wells

Vyacheslav Ivanov and C. M. Bowra: a correspondence from two corners on humanism
Pamela Davidson

Published by Routledge, 2006-01
ISBN 9780704425705

The starting point for this intriguing volume is the correspondence between the Russian symbolist poet and classical scholar Viacheslav Ivanov and the Oxford classicist, literary critic and Professor of Poetry Maurice Bowra that took place in the years 1946 to 1948. The association between the two men began in 1941, when Bowra discovered some volumes of Ivanov’s early poetry in the London Library; he later included his own translations of three poems in the anthology A Book of Russian Verse, which he published in 1943. Direct personal contact was initiated in 1946, when Ivanov, encouraged by the Oxford Professor of Russian, Sergei Konovalov, contacted Bowra with the aim of enlisting his support for the publication of a new volume of Ivanov’s verse. In this first approach, Ivanov sent Bowra a selection of offprints of some of his recent articles published in German in areas calculated to appeal to Bowra’s own interests – on humanism and religion, Gogol and Aristophanes, and The Lay of Igor’s Campaign – together with his German translations of poems by Baratynskii and Tiutchev on the death of Goethe. He accompanied these offprints with an inscription in Latin distichs, again designed both to flatter Bowra and to link the two writers in a shared tradition of humanistic scholarship. Bowra responded in Latin prose, promising to pursue the publication of Ivanov’s poems, and the two men continued to exchange compliments, books, translations and original poems in Greek until not long before Ivanov’s death in 1949. Bowra visited Ivanov in Rome accompanied by Isaiah Berlin in September 1947 and again in August 1948. Ivanov’s final volume of poetry, Svet vechernii (Evening Light), finally appeared in Oxford, with Bowra’s introduction, in 1962.

Davidson’s commentary on the Ivanov–Bowra correspondence, which she has carefully reconstructed from Bowra’s papers held at Wadham College, Oxford, and from Ivanov’s archive in Rome, includes eighty pages of introductory material in which she meticulously examines all aspects of the broad context in which it was produced. She thus provides a useful summary of Ivanov’s absorption in the humanist tradition from his early classical studies in Berlin under Otto Hirschfeld and Theodor Mommsen, and traces the development in his criticism, translation and original writing from a focus on ‘pagan humanism’ to a more mystical vision of the classical heritage fully integrated with his conception of the Russian national ideal. She provides a parallel account of Bowra’s intellectual career, noting his early exposure to Russian culture during a visit to St Petersburg in 1916, and his energetic pursuit of interests not only in classical studies, but in the field of European literature more broadly. Close attention is given to Bowra’s early translations from Ivanov, which are seen as a successful manifestation of his theory of verse translation, based on faithful reproduction of the meaning and metre of the original, notwithstanding some apparent deficiencies in his understanding of the Russian texts. Full accounts are provided of the two meetings in Rome and Bowra’s subsequent promotion of Ivanov’s work. Davidson emphasises, however, that Bowra did not share Ivanov’s fundamentally relgious view of culture, and sees their correspondence as an instructive dialogue, similar in some ways to the exchange of letters on the cultural tradition which Ivanov and his friend Mikhail Gershenzon had published in 1921 as Perepiska iz dvukh uglov (A Correspondence from Two Corners).

The encounter between Bowra and Ivanov is perhaps a fairly minor episode in the history of European letters, but it has a high symbolic value in that it represents the regeneration of the humanistic tradition in the aftermath of war: the persistence both of a broad, shared European culture after decades of totalitarianism, and the survival of Russian poetry and particularly the traditions of mystical symbolism in spite of attempts by the Soviet authorities to suppress it. Davidson’s elegant book brings this inspiring moment in intellectual history vividly to life.