The Song of Igor's Campaign

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Critical Overview

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The Song of Igor's Campaign had an influence on Russian literature long before it was rediscovered in 1795. The manuscript known as the Zadonshchina, which commemorates the victory in 1380 of a Russian army over the Mongols, is based on the earlier epic in structure and poetic detail. The Zadonshchina was written about 1385.

In the modern era, The Song of Igor's Campaign has had an influence on Russian literature that is felt to the present day. It has been called a national classic, the greatest achievement of the Kievean period in Russian literature (1030-1240). The anonymous author has been called the equal of Alexander Pushkin (1799-1837), Russia's greatest poet. Pushkin himself had plans to translate the epic into modern Russian, although he never fulfilled his desire. Poets of the Romantic era were inspired by the Song's lyrical beauty and depth of feeling. In the nineteenth century, Nikolay Gogol used imagery taken directly from the Song in his short stories.

The reputation of the epic continued to grow in the twentieth century. Scholars spent much time on research, trying to produce the most accurate text possible. This was necessary because the one extant manuscript and the first printed version of 1800 contain many corrupt or obscure passages that have proved difficult to elucidate.

The Song of Igor's Campaign was first translated into English in 1902, by Leo Wiener, and again in 1915, by Leonard A. Magnus. Another translation appeared in 1943, by Bernard Guilbert Guerney, who wrote of the epic: "It is not only higher in poetic content but infinitely more readable than the Nibelunglied and the Chanson de Roland [Song of Roland]." Vladimir Nabokov made a fourth translation in 1960, and called the work "a magnificent literary masterpiece." Nabokov's literal translation is considered to be the most accurate, although Nabokov sacrifices some of the poetic devices of the original, such as the frequent alliteration.

In the Soviet Union, Soviet poet Pavel Antokolsky, as quoted by Kuskov, wrote in Pravda in 1938, "[The Song of Igor's Campaign] is an eternally flowering trunk extending branches laden with fruit into the future. Therefore we hear direct and indirect echoes of this work in many monuments of our culture and art."

In 1941, Russia was invaded by the German Nazis. During those dark times of World War II, The Song of Igor's Campaign struck a deep chord with the Russian people. They were inspired by the epic's call for Russia to unite to defeat the enemy.

It is unlikely that The Song of Igor's Campaign will ever fall into disfavor or lose the reverence with which the Russian people regard it. Many educated Russians know parts of it by heart. In 1980, Russian literary scholar Vladimir Kuskov called it an "immortal work of Russian and world literature." It has frequently been translated into modern Russian in many different forms of prose and poetry, including free verse and more structured forms of meter and rhyme.

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