The Bard of Ukraine

Yevhen Kirilyuk, Correspondent Member, Academy of Science of Ukraine

Taras Shevchenko, the brilliant national poet of Ukraine, is one of the classics of world literature. His all-embracing humanism, deep and genuine folk character, and revolutionary ardour make him comprehensible and close to the hearts of the people of all nations.

Shevchenko lived at time when his homeland was split in two by the Russian and Austro-Hungarian monarchies, and the mass of the Ukrainian people - t he peasantry - was in serf bondage to feudal landowners. The people waged a ceaseless struggle for their social and national emancipation.

Taras Shevchenko (1814 - 1861) was born into a serf family in the village of Moryntsy, in Kyiv Province. He experienced the severity of forced labour from earliest childhood, knew and felt the sad plight of "the poor, unsmiling muhzik", surrounded by the magnificent ever-smiling nature of Ukraine.

He lost his mother before his ninth birthday, his father died two years later. But while the masses of the serfs were illiterate, the orphan waif received an elementary education: in return for heavy task-work the boy did for a sexton, the latter allowed him to attend classes he conducted for boys of more favoured circumstances. Taras early began to display artistic talent. This was not simply the urge to draw, which is common among children, but an overpowering calling. Despite threats and beatings, he drew everything he saw or heard of, using a pencil, charcoal, chalk - whatever he could lay his hands on. Taras dreamed of studying art under a good teacher, but landed in his master's manor instead, first as a kitchen-boy and later as indoor kozachok(servant). When he was forteen years of age Shevchenko was taken away from his native Ukraine by his master, Baron Engelhardt. They lived for some time in Vilnius, where Taras was once cruelly punished for daring to light a candle and draw at a time when his master was away at a ball. Engelhardt later realized that Shevchenko would never make a good servant, and decided to make him his "court" painter.

Shevchenko was seventeen when he arrived in St. Petersburg, then the capital of the Russian Empire. Engelhardt apprenticed him for four years to a painter, Shirayev. In Petersburg he became acquainted with the outstanding artist Karl Bryullov, who was a professor at the Academy of Arts, the noted poet Zhukovsky, the artist Venetsianov, the connoisseur of arts Vyelgorsky, and also his fellow-Ukrainians, the artist Soshenko, the writer Hrebinka and others. They became deeply interested in the gifted serf youth and sought to have him admitted to the Academy of Arts, but he was barred because of his status as a serf. So they bought his release from bondage for a large sum of money, and on April 22, 1838, when he was twenty-four years of age, Taras Shevchenko received his certificate of freedom from serfdom.

In Petersburg, while he diligently applied himself to painting and graduated from the Academy of Arts, he devoted himself with mounting fervour to poetry, which (according to his own testimony) he began to write during the white nights of 1837. And this proved to be his true calling. While he was to be an artist by profession all his life and eventually was awarded the title of Academician in engraving, poetry was always his true passion, in which his artistic brilliance and revolutionary spirit found their clearest expression.

It was in Petersburg that Shevchenko's first Ukrainian verses were born: romantic ballads,lyrical elegies and songs ( The Bewitched, The Wild Wind, The Water Flows Into the Blue Sea and others). In them the poet adopted and developed the chanting style and imagery of the kobzars (folk minstrels). He had often listened to them in his childhiood as they sang dumy, songs of the legendary past of Ukraine, of how the free Cossacks defended their homeland from its enemies, and of the heroic figures of the peasant rebels, the Haidamaki.

As a blind minstrel, plucking at the strings of his kobza, sings of the wide Dnieper River with the pale moon swimming in the sky above it , of the maiden abandoned by her lover, of the spacious steppe dotted with grave mounds under which lie the bones of heroes, of the military campaigns of the Cossacks and of the struggles of the people for freedom and right, so did Taras Shevchenko "talk with the people" in his verses. The struggle of the Ukrainians with their enemies provide one of the main themes in Shevchenko's poetry.

In 1840 a small book of verse appeared in Petersburg, entitled Kobzar. It contained only eight poems, but that book shook all Russia and the whole Slavic world. Some of his early verses were also published in Yevhen Hrebinka's Ukrainian almanac Lastivka (The Swallow). And in 1841 Shevchenko's biggest work, Haidamaki, an epic poem about the armed struggle of the Ukrainian Cossaks and pesants against Polish feudal gentry in the eighteen century, was published as a separate book.

Shevchenko was firmly rooted in the Ukrainian literary tradition. In his youth he had read the poet and philosopher G. Skovoroda, he knew and deeply appreciated the works of Kotlyarevsky, to whom he penned an elegy, Osnovyanenko, to whom he addresses a poetic message, and others. He also studied the rich treasure trove of advanced Russian literature: Pushkin, Lermontov, Koltsov, Gogol, etc. (It is worth nothing that even in his early period he was also writing poetry in the Russian language.) He was conversant with and learned from the gems of world literature. Thus, he could recite many of Mickiewicz's poems in the Polish original, and tried his hand at translating some of them. He knew Byron's works well. In his foreword to the projected new edition of the Kobzar in 1847 Shevchenko mentions Walter Scott and expresses his high esteem for Robert Burns. In his novel The Artist, written in exile when he had no library or reference book at hand, and in other novels written in that period he mentions Shakespeare (The Tempest, Othello, Hamlet), Defoe's Robinson Crusoe, Richardson's Clarissa Harlowe in the French translation, Oliver Goldsmith's The Vicar of Wakefield, Ossian, Edward Gibbon, Byron, Scott (Woodstock, Kenilworth, The Fair Maid of Perth, Quentin Durward, The Antiquary), Charles Dickens (David Copperfield, Nicholas Nickleby) and others.

But even in his first ballad to come down to us, The Bewitched, Shevchenko was not an apprentice, not an imitator. There was no such period in his work. His early poem Katerina is a peerless work on the life of the people in his own time, just as the poem Haidamaki is an outstanding work on a historical theme. Shevchenko stepped to the forefront of Ukrainian literature from the very start. This was due not only to the young poet's brilliance, but mostly because he was a genuine people's poet. It is characteristic that the title of his first slim booklet of poetry, Kobzar, was later applied to all collections of Taras Shevchenko's poetry and to the poet himself.

Shevchenko was a true people's poet not only because he wrote in the Ukrainian language that was actually spoken by the people, thus laying a solid foundation for the Ukrainian literary language as a whole, and not only by the closeness of the Kobzar to the oral Ukrainian folk poetry (that trait was also common to the Ukrainian romanticists), but mainly because he expressed the thoughts, feelings and aspirations of the broadest sections of the Ukrainian people. At the same time his poetry is imbued with true humanism and internationalism. Let us examine, for example, Haidamaki, in which the struggle of the Ukrainian people against the Polish gentry is graphically described. In order to prevent enemies of the Ukrainian and Polish peoples from exploiting sections of the poem to foment national hatreds, Shevchenko wrote into it a ringing appeal for the unity and friendship of the Ukrainians, the Poles and all the Slavic peoples. That appeal had nothing in common with reactionary Pan-Slavism, which masked the expansionist policy of the Russian autocracy. In that same Haidamaki the young poet spoke in Aesopean language of Tsar Nicholas I, the gendarme of Europe, saying: "the executioner rules". Nicholas's censors passed those lines, but when the Kobzar was being republished in 1860 the "liberal" censors of Alexander II detected "sedition" in them and crossed them out.

When in 1843 Shevchenko returned to Ukraine after fourteen years' absence, he heard his own songs and ballads from the lips of peasants and minstrels. Shevchenko visited his native district and saw his relatives and friends still bearing the heavy yoke of serfdom. He traveled a good deal through Ukraine and was shocked by what he saw there.

On his return to Petersburg in 1844 Taras Shevchenko became acquainted with a number of free-thinking Russians who later formed the secret political circle of M. Butashevich-Petrashevsky. He became a consistent revolutionary democrat, an active fighter against serfdom and autocracy. In the poem The Heretic (about the great Czech patriot and reformer Jan Hus) and other works Shevchenko developed still further the theme of Slavic unity and brotherhood. In the poem The Caucasus he enlarged this theme to call for the joint struggle of all the peoples of the Russian Empire against the autocracy. He openly attacked the whole feudal-autocratic order (A Dream, 1844) and called for a people's revolution (To the Dead, the Living and the Unborn, The Cold Ravine, My Testament). Tsarist censorship ruled out the possibility of having his works published, so the poet neatly wrote them out by hand in an album entitled Three Years (1843-45).

Back in Ukraine Shevchenko joined the secret political Society of Cyril and Methodius, in which he advocated a consistently revolutionary policy. In 1847 the society was exposed and its members were arrested and taken to Petersburg for trial. The cruelest punishment of all was meted out to Shevchenko. He was made a soldier and banished to distant Orenburg, the tsar personally adding to the sentence: "forbidden to write and to paint". From Orenburg Shevchenko was sent to the Orsk battalion.

By banishing him and making him a soldier (the term of army service at that time was twenty-five-years), the tsar strove to kill the poet and artist in Shevchenko. But Shevchenko continued to write his freedom-loving verses both in the dungeon of the Third Department (political police) in Petersburg and in the Orsk fortress. The poet fashioned miniature notebooks, wrote his works in them in the tiniest of handwriting, and kept them concealed in the legs of his boots.

There were humane people even among the officers. Captain-Lieutenant Butakov took Shevchenko along as an artist on an expedition to explore the Aral Sea in 1848, i.e., he disobeyed the tsar's orders. On his return to Orenburg the poet lived in private quarters and wore civilian clothes.

Shevchenko's poetry of the exile period reached a higher stage. In the brown, sun-baked steppe he nostalgically recalled his distant Ukrainian homeland, the wide, free Dnieper and the boundless black earth plains, the people and their sad lot. Again and again he conjured up his homeland's glorious past, its plight during the years of serfdom, and visions of the better days to be. He dreamed of a peasant rising, of final victory over the tsars and feudal gentry. In The Princess, Marina, P.S. (Pavlo Skoropadsky) he described typical feudal masters, in Marina, The Outlaw and If It Should Chance he presented types of the people's avengers. In Kings he openly called for the overthrow of the Russian autocracy. In exile he continued to champion friendship among the nations, he made friends with Polish revolutionaries and addressed his poem To the Poles to them; he devoted many warm, friendly lines to the local Kazakh people, and also painted them.
In 1850 the poet was arrested again on charges laid by an officer, returned to Orsk for trial and then banished still farther away, to Novopetrovsk fortress on the Mangishlak Peninsula on the eastern shore of the Caspian Sea (today Fort Shevchenko). During this second period of his exile Shevchenko wrote a number of novels in Russian, hoping to get them published in periodicals. Some of the novels have the same plots as his poems The Servant Woman, The Outlaw and The Princess, while others - The Musician, The Artist and The Journey - have new plots. They contain much autobiographical material. Not one of the novels by Kobzar Darmohrai (Shevchenko's pseudonym) was published during the author's lifetime.

Shevchenko was not immediately amnestied, as were other political prisoners, after the death of Nicholas I. He was released from banishment only after long and insistent intercession on the part of his Russian friends. Even then he was long denied entry to the capital and was forced to wait at Nizhny Novgorod.

When he learned that his release had been granted, Taras Shevchenko started his Diary, a wonderful human document which provides us with a living portrait of the implacable revolutionary and the significance of the development of engineering and science, which would inevitably bring an end to the old order.

On his return to Petersburg, Shevchenko drew close to the outstanding public figures of that time, the Russian revolutionary democrats Chernyshevsky and Dobrolyubov, and the Polish revolutionary democrat Sierakowski.

In his last years Shevchenko's poetry reflected the flames of the peasant revolts, the revolutionary situation in the pre-reform Russia of 1859-61. The poet widely utilized Biblical settings and imagery for his passionate denunciation of the rulers and calls for a revolutionary uprising (The Neophytes, Maria, numerous "imitations" of Isaiah, Jezekiel and others). In the poem I'm not Unwell Shevchenko appeals to the people not to the place their hopes in the reform promised by the tsar, but to win their freedom with the axe. He dreamed of a republican form of government. In The Half-Wit he asks:

When will we greet
Our own George Washington at last
With the new law of righteousness?

For him Washington was a symbol - president of a republic established on the basis of a constitution.
A notable page in Shevchenko's life was his friendship with the prominent British actor Ira Aldridge, an American Negro by origin, who came to Petersburg in 1858 to perform in several Shakespearian plays. Enthralled by his magnificent performance, Shevchenko and his friend greeted Aldridge with such enthusiastic applause that it evoked protests from prudish theatre-goers. Soon the Ukrainian poet-artist and the Negro actor met at the home of F. Tolstoi, the vice-president of the Academy of Arts, and became fast friends. Shevchenko painted a portrait of Aldridge, which bears the latter's autograph. Tolstoi's daughter wrote of this friendship in her memoirs: "These two individuals had more in common than just similar traits of character; in his youth one had been a serf, while the other was a member of a despised race; both experienced much bitterness in life, and both passionately loved their unfortunate peoples."

At this time, too, Shevchenko joined Turgenev, Saltykov-Shchedrin, Dostoevsky, Marko Vovchok and others in an angry public protest against anti-Semitic diatribes in the journal Illustration.

In 1859 Shevchenko was finally permitted to revisit Ukraine, where he again saw his relatives, who were still in serf bondage. He was soon arrested on charges of "blasphemy", however, and ordered to return at once to Petersburg.

Ten years of prison and exile had undermined the poet's health and he died when he was but forty-seven years of age. Shevchenko was buried in Petersburg, but later his remains were disinterred and borne to Ukraine, as he had willed in My Testament, and he was buried on May 22, 1861 on a hill overlooking the Dnieper near the city of Kaniv, where he had dreamed of settling with his family. Mourners carried handfuls of earth in their hands to the grave, building a high funeral mound over it. In 1939 a magnificent monument was erected on this spot. Shevchenko's grave has become a veritable shrine.

The beloved bard of the Ukrainian people is deeply honoured in Ukraine. His works are published in millions of copies in the various languages of the former USSR. There are several Taras Shevchenko museums and many monuments in the country; many cultural institutions and enterprises bear his name, which has also been given to localities, squares and streets in cities. Shevchenko prizes are awarded annually for outstanding contributions to literature and the arts.

Shevchenko is also widely known in other countries. His works were noted abroad already in the 1840s. His poems were translated into Polish (1860), Czech (1860), Bulgarian (1863), Serbian (1868), German (1870) and French (1876). Spanish periodicals wrote about him in the last century. A large number of translations of various works of Shevchenko has appeared in English.

A summary of an article on Shevchenko by E. Durand in the Paris Revue des Deux Mondes for 1876 was published that same year in the New York The Galaxy (Vol.22) and a still more extensive one in the London journal All the Round, which was edited by Charles Dickens (1877, Vol.18, No.440, pages 220-24).

The British Slavist W. R. Morfill (1834-1909) did much to popularize Shevchenko. In 1880 he informed the English-reading public through an article in The Westminister Review (London) of the publication of the Kobzar in two volumes in Prague. Morfill read Shevchenko and works about him in the Russian, Ukrainian and German languages, himself visited both Eastern and Western Ukraine, and wrote an extensive article about him, entitled Cossack Poet in Macmillian's Magazine (1886), including a prose translation of two of Shevchenko's poems. And in 1902, in a review of an anthology of Ukrainian literature, printed in The Athenaeum (London), he dealt at length with the Kobzar, including a poetic translation of sections of My Testament.

A very valuable contribution was made by Ethel Lillian Voynich in her book Six Lyrics From the Ruthenian of Taras Shevchenko, published in London in 1911 as one of the Vigo Cabinet Series. The author of The Gadfly was particularly successful in translating the intimate-lyrical poems and her excerpt from The Princess is a model of profound penetration into the meaning of Shevchenko's imagery, creating correspondingly distinctive and poetical images in the English language. She also wrote a foreword, in which she presented a detailed biography of the poet, enlivened with quotations from his diary and the novel The Artist, which she interpreted to be wholly autobiographical, and expressed high esteem and appreciation of Shevchenko, whom she likened to the bard of Scotland, Robert Burns, as a national poet. Ethel Voynich's translations of Shevchenko were reprinted many times in the English-speaking countries.

Percy Paul Selver presented some new translations from Taras Shevchenko in the journal The Ukraine (1914) and in the Anthology of Modern Slavonic Literature (1919), including the poet's autobiography. Selver strove to transmit Shevchenko's wording accurately, but failed to do it in terms of imagery that is specific to the English language.

In 1924 The Slavonic Review published in article on Shevchenko, written in 1914 by the Ukrainian writer and savant Ivan Franko (1856-1916) at the request of R. W. Seton-Watson.

Among contemporary British writers who have translated Shevchenko special mention must be made of Jack Lindsay, whose work was published in the magazine International Literature (Moscow, 1939, November 3).

In the United States of America the first free translation in prose of some lines from The Caucasus appeared in 1868 in The Alaska Herald, a journal of the Russian revolutionary émigrés, published by A. Honcharenko, who wrote Shevchenko's obituary for Herzen's Kolokol (The Bell) in London. In 1916 in New York the Canadian poetess Florence R. Livesay published a book, Songs of Ukraina with Ruthenian Poems, which included a free rewrite of several poems by Shevchenko. The American poetess Edna Underwood also published similar interpretations of three Shevchenko's poems. Percival C. Cundy and Ukrainians living in North America - Zahariychuk, Semenin, Ewach - also rendered some of Shevchenko's works into English, but they did not always adequately or accurately transmit the social content of those poems. The same shortcoming (together with difficulty in preserving the rhythm of Shevchenko's poetry) is noted in translations by the Rev. A. J. Hunter, whose book The Kobzar of the Ukraine was printed in Winnipeg (Canada) in 1922.

At the present time Shevchenko is being translated in Britain by Herbert Marshall, well-known author and translator of Mayakovsky's poetry, and in Canada by John Weir, whose collections entitled Bard of Ukraine (1951) and Taras Shevchenko: Selections (1961) were published in Toronto, and Mary Skrypnyk, whose translation of Katerina appeared as a booklet in Toronto in 1961. Herbert Marshall, John Weir and Mary Skrypnyk took part in the Shevchenko Jubilee Conference at Kanev and Kiev in 1961.

Deep appreciation of the great Kobzar's work was expressed in the article by the British publicist and literary critic Pauline Bentley in the UNESCO Courier (1961, No.7-8) which appeared in the English, French, Spanish and Arabic languages.

Shevchenko's fame is also spreading in the Orient. The secretary of the Vietnamese Writers' Association, Nguyen Hoang Khoan, writes that Shevchenko is well known and highly esteemed in Viet Nam. The Japanese poet Teisuku Shibuiya dedicated his collection of verses Songs in the Field to Shevchenko in 1924. The Kobzar was published in Japanese translation - without rhymes, but with the rhythm of the original, according to the poetical instrumentality of the Japanese language - in 1950, being Volume 12 of the series Masterpieces of World Poetry. A Shevchenko memorial meeting in Tokyo in April 1961 was addressed by Japanese writers and public figures and by Oles Honchar, president of the Union of Writers of Ukraine. Shevchenko is also known in India and China.

As we have already noted, Shevchenko is fairly widely known in the Western Hemisphere. There are two monuments to him and a Shevchenko Museum in Canada. At a Shevchenko memorial meeting in New York in 1961 the American artist Rockwell Kent spoke of his profound admiration of the Ukrainian poet and pride in his works.

"Why is it that something a poet of one language became a poet of all languages, although it is very difficult to translate poetry from one language to another, and the native language is one-half of the poetry?" wrote the Turkish poet Nazim Hikmet. "It is because the other half of the poetry of such a poet as Shevchenko is so national and yet so international and humanistic, so distinctive and yet so universal, that half of the apple of Shevchenko's poetry is to the taste of all peoples."

That is why Taras Shevchenko's fame extends to all parts of the globe. That is why he ranks with the greatest figures in world literature.