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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Sir John Bowring (1792–1872)
Critical and Biographical Introduction
 
“IT will be the height of my ambition,” once wrote Sir John Bowring to a friend, “to do something which may connect my name with the literature of the age.”  1
  This desire was accomplished; for the distinguished linguist, scholar, and diplomat of England rendered genuine service to literature by his translations of Slavonic and Oriental verses into the English tongue. These were more than translations: they were studies of the national song. Bowring was one of the first scholars to appreciate the beauty, the importance, and the charm of the traditional ballad and lyric; those faithful records of the joys, sorrows, superstitions, and history of a people. In the various East-European languages wherein Bowring’s researches bore such valuable fruit,—embracing Bohemian, Polish, Russian, Hungarian, Serbian, and Bulgarian,—the race-soul of these nations is preserved: their wild mythology, their bizarre Oriental color, their impassioned thought, their affections and traditions, and often the sorrows and ideals learned during centuries of vain wanderings and heavy oppressions. In this rich and romantic field, which has been assiduously cultivated since his time, Bowring was a pioneer.  2
  John Bowring, born on October 17th, 1792, came of an old Puritan family, long identified with the woolen trade. “In the early days,” he tells us, “the Exeter merchants were mostly traveled men with a practical knowledge of other tongues, and the quay at Exeter was crowded with the ships of all nations.” Thus his imagination was kindled by the visible links to far-away countries, and from intercourse with the emigrants of various nations he acquired the foundation of his brilliant linguistic attainments.  3
  In 1811 he went to London as clerk to a commercial house, which sent him to Spain in 1813, and subsequently to France, Belgium, Holland, Russia, and Sweden. Immediately on his return to London he published the first of his translations, “Specimens of the Russian Poets” (1820). In 1822 he published a second volume of Russian verse and a translation of Chamisso’s whimsical tale ‘Peter Schlemihl’; and when in 1824 his friend Jeremy Bentham founded the Westminster Review, Bowring became one of its editors. He contributed to it numerous essays on political and literary topics, one of which, on the literature of Finland, published in 1827, first brought the poetry of that country into notice. In 1849 he was sent on a mission to China; in 1854 was made plenipotentiary and knighted, and remained in China during the Taeping insurrection, being made governor of Hong Kong. In 1859 he resigned the post.  4
  With the exception of negotiating commercial treaties for England between the Hawaiian court and various European States, the remainder of his life was spent quietly in the pursuit of literary pleasures. Even in his old age he translated fugitive poetry, wrote essays on political, literary, and social questions of the hour, and frequently delivered lectures. He died November 23d, 1872, in Exeter, within sight of his birthplace under the shadows of the massive cathedral. “In my travels,” he said, “I have never been very ambitious of the society of my countrymen, but have always sought that of the natives; and there are few men, I believe, who can bear a stronger or a wider testimony to the general kindness and hospitality of the human family when the means of intercourse exist. My experiences of foreign lands are everywhere connected with the most pleasing and the most grateful remembrances.” In 1873 Lady Bowring published a ‘Memorial Volume of Sacred Poetry,’ containing many of his popular hymns; and in 1877 his ‘Autobiographical Recollections’ were published, with a memoir by his son.  5
  Sir John Bowring was a natural linguist of the first order. He knew and spoke over a hundred languages, and affirmed that he often dreamed in foreign tongues. His friend Tom Hood humorously referred to his gifts in the following verse:—
  “To Bowring! man of many tongues,
  (All over tongues, like rumor)
This tributary verse belongs
  To paint his learnèd humor.
All kinds of gab he knows, I wis,
  From Latin down to Scottish—
As fluent as a parrot is,
  But far more Polly-glottish.
No grammar too abstruse he meets,
  However dark and verby;
He gossips Greek about the streets
  And often Russ—in urbe.
Strange tongues—whate’er you do them call;
  In short, the man is able
To tell you what o’clock in all
  The dialects of Babel.
Take him on Change—in Portuguese,
  The Moorish and the Spanish,
Polish, Hungarian, Tyrolese,
  The Swedish and the Danish:
Try him with these, and fifty such,
  His skill will ne’er diminish;
Although you should begin in Dutch,
  And end (like me) in Finnish.”
  6
  Bowring was a member of many learned societies, and had honors and decorations without stint, including the Order of the White Elephant, the Swedish Order of the Northern Star, and the Order of Kamehameha I. His publications are a ‘Russian Anthology,’ ‘Matins and Vespers,’ ‘Batavian Anthology,’ ‘Ancient Poetry and Romances of Spain,’ ‘Peter Schlemihl,’ ‘Servian Popular Poetry,’ ‘Specimens of the Polish Poets,’ ‘Sketch of the Language and Literature of Holland,’ ‘Poetry of the Magyars,’ ‘Cheskian Anthology,’ ‘Minor Morals,’ ‘Observations on Oriental Plague and Quarantines,’ Manuscript of the Queen’s Court: a Collection of Old Bohemian Lyrico-Epic Songs,’ ‘Kingdom and People of Siam,’ ‘A Visit to the Philippine Islands,’ ‘Translations from Petőfi,’ ‘The Flowery Scroll’ (translation of a Chinese novel), and ‘The Oak’ (a collection of original tales and sketches). He also edited the works of Jeremy Bentham. Of his translations, the ‘Servian Anthology’ has been the most admired for the skill and ease with which the wild beauty of the poems, and their national spirit, has been preserved. At the time of its publication, the collection of Serbian popular poetry called ‘Narodne srpske pjesme’ had just appeared, and was the first attempt to put into literary form the ballads and lyric songs sung by the wandering minstrels and the people.  7
 
 
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