Taras Shevchenko

Ivan Franko,
The Slavonic Review in London, UK in 1924-1925

He was a peasant's son and has become a prince in the
realm of spirits.
He was a serf, and has become a Great Power in the common-
wealth of human culture.
He was an unschooled layman, and has shown to professors
and scholars newer and freer paths.
He sighed for ten years under the Russian soldiery, and has
done more for the freedom of Russia than ten victorious armies.
Fate pursued him cruelly throughout life, yet could not turn
the pure gold of his soul to rust, his love of humanity to hatred,
or his trust in God to despair.
Fate spared him no suffering, but did not stint with pleasures,
which welled up from a healthy spring of life.
And it withheld till after death its best and costliest prize—
undying fame and the ever new delight which his works call
forth in millions of human hearts

IVAN FRANKO, 12 May, 1914

TOWARDS the year 1840 there appeared in European literature an important and characteristic phenomenon. The simple peasant of the village made his entry into literature. Till then poets and novelists had scarcely seen him, or, if they treated of him in their works, he served them merely as a decoration, as a lay figure, as a colourless grey mass, or at best as something hardly in touch with deeper human feelings. I only need to mention those sentimental and justly ridiculed peasant figures which may be found in the French and German idyllic poets of the 18th century; or, again, the peasant figures of Shakespeare, so true to life and treated with such powerful naturalism, and yet mere episodes, or those of the German 17th-century novelist Grimmelshausen; or, later still, Goethe's Gotz von Berlichingen; and, finally, the tales of Ruthene peasant life which occur in the Polish poet Klonowicz's Latin poem Roxolania (1584)—beautiful, but also mere episodes—and the decorative treatment of peasant figures in such Polish poems as Goszczynski's Zamek Kaniowski and Mickiewicz's Pan Tadeusz. It is only about the year 1840 that works begin to appear in all the various literatures of Europe, in which the peasant figures as the hero and his life is the main theme of interest. In France this new tendency is identified with one of the most brilliant of women writers, George Sand, whose stories, La Mare au Diable, Francois Ie Champi and others, are drawn from French peasant life. In Germany, Berthold Auerbach opens in 1839 the series of his Black Forest Tales (Schwarzwdlder Dorfgeschichten), which have doubtless won more praise than they deserve. At the same time there appeared in Polish such tales as Kraszewski's Ulana and Jermola: while in Russian similar stories appear towards the close of the Forties—notably Turgenev's Zapiski Okhotnika Grigorovich's Antony Goremyka, and Dostoevsky's Poor People. Finally, in Ukrainian literature, then still weak and obscurely buried far from the great world, there appeared as early as 1829 short stories by Gregory Kvitka Osnovyalenko, drawn exclusively from peasant life; and then, in 1840, a figure for which there is no parallel in world literature, with the possible exception of Robert Burns in Scotland—a peasant's son who has spent more than twenty years of his life under the yoke of serfdom. And he does not come forward as the hero of some romance or poem but as a living creator, working and struggling for the downtrodden human rights of an enslaved peasantry and of the long-neglected Ukrainian people, but also as the champion of all the oppressed. Most interesting of all, no sooner had his poems first been printed than this young peasant, so recently a serf, is greeted by the general opinion of his fellow-countrymen as a spiritual leader and the chief ornament of Ukrainian literature. He who only a few years before had to tremble before the angry looks of his master, and was only saved by accident from the knout of the land agent Prachtel, and who was sold after hard bargaining like a pedigree horse for 2,500 roubles, now becomes the leader of a whole people. Such was Taras Shevchenko, the greatest poet whom the Ukrainians have hitherto produced, and in his own way really unique.

Taras was born on March 7, 1814, as the younger son of the serf Gregory Shevchenko, in the village of Moryntsi, the property of the Russified German, Engelhardt. He lost his mother early. He learnt to write from the Church cantor, and at the age of eight started wandering to the neighbouring villages and markets, in search of a master who could teach him to paint. But as he could find none, he returned to his native village and hoped to get the post of herdsman to the commune. Then the old Engelhardt dies, and his son, who had been brought up in a more Polish spirit, gave instructions that a new staff of servants should be collected for him. Thus Taras came into his service, first as kitchen boy, and then as his master's personal valet, and in this capacity travelled everywhere with Engelhardt; then, when his master noticed his eagerness to learn to paint, he was sent to study under the painter Lampi, in Warsaw. But lie had hardly been there a year when, in November, 1830, the Polish Revolution broke out and interrupted his studies. The whole of Engelhardt's retinue was sent to St. Petersburg, and here Taras was left for fully eight years in the studio of the painter Shirayev. But Shirayev was really not so much of an artist as a house decorator, and could not teach Shevchenko anything. Of the work that he did as Shirayev's apprentice it may be worth mentioning the al fresco decorations in the great Petersburg theatre. No wonder that such work and such miserable dependance should have been thoroughly irksome to him. Often he would go secretly into the park in the evenings to draw the wretched mythological statues which he found there. On one such occasion, as he was sketching the group Laokoon, he was found by his countryman Soshenko, and introduced by him to the talented writer Hrebinka, known as the author of Ukrainian fables. Through him Shevchenko's cruel fate came to the knowledge of the famous Russian poet, Zhukovsky, then tutor to the Heir Apparent, the future Alexander II. Soshenko also spoke of his young countryman to Bryulov a professor in the Academy of Fine Arts, to the Court painter, Venetsianov, and others. This group of highly cultured artists and humanitarians tried to improve the lot of the young Ukrainian, who at the first contact with this new and brighter world was overcome by such emotion and melancholy that he thought of suicide, and then fell into so high a fever that he had to be taken to hospital. Meanwhile his patron succeeded in interesting the Imperial family in Shevchenko's fate, and on the initiative of the Empress a raffle was started for Bryulov's portrait of Zhukovsky, all the tickets being disposed of at Court. Venetsianov negotiated with Shevchenko's master, and for the price of the portrait, 2,500 roubles, he was bought out of serfdom. Now at last he could be received in the Academy, which was not open to serfs: and he soon became one of Bryulov's favourite pupils and lived in his house.

At the same time the muse of poetry bestowed her favours upon the poor apprentice. His first efforts date from the period of serfdom, but it was only as a student of the Academy that he laid brush and palette aside and committed to paper the melodious songs which flowed from his soul. In 1840 the young Ukrainian squire, Martos, made Shevchenko's acquaintance during a visit to St. Petersburg, and had his first poems published in a little volume entitled Kobzar of Taras Shevchenko. Kobzar —which may be roughly translated The Guitar Player—had an immense effect upon all educated Ukrainians, and such great personages as Count Tarnowski assured the poet of their friendship and corresponded with him. It is true that in the Russian literature of that period, which was mainly interested in Hegel's philosophy, in Goethe and in art for art's sake, Shevchenko was not favourably received, and his big poem, The Robbers, which appeared in the following year, was severely criticised not only in St. Petersburg, but abroad.

But in the Ukraine the poet's fame grew rapidly, and he, for his part, was filled with longing for the Ukraine, which he had not seen for over 12 years. In 1843 he went home during the holidays. It was an almost triumphal return of one who had left his native village in the corduroy of a page boy. The winter of 1843-4 Shevchenko spent in Petersburg and then, after completing his studies at the Academy and winning a gold medal and the title of a free artist, he returned once more to the Ukraine in the summer of 1844.

This period was the high-water mark of his career, and the happiest time of his life. In the Ukraine he wandered freely from one country-house to another, greeted everywhere with great cordiality. In Kiev he obtained a post at the Archaeological Commission. Here he found himself surrounded by the younger generation, which had already, certainly partly under the influence of his poetry, formed a secret society under the name of the "Brotherhood of Saints Cyril and Methodius", with the clearly expressed aim of educating the people and abolishing serfdom. But early in 1847, on the basis of a denunciation by the student Petrov, the society was discovered, and all its members arrested and transferred to Petersburg. Shevchenko himself was also arrested, since his poems A Dream and Caucasus were found in MSS. with one of his acquaintances. These poems Tsar Nicholas regarded as an insult to himself and his consort, and condemned their author to military service for life, without promotion, and with the express prohibition of all writing and drawing!

After three months in prison in the fortress of St. Peter and St. Paul, Taras was placed in a "kibitka" and sent by forced marches to Orenburg, where he was finally transferred to a remote outpost in the Kirgiz country. In Orenburg and Petrovsk his life was by no means intolerable. In the former place he found a number of intelligent Poles, who received him with sympathy, and he also met with much kindness from his superiors and his fellows in political exile. His fate improved still further when the Commandant of Orenburg, General Perovsky, attached him as sailor to the scientific expedition of the learned Academician, von Baer, who was to explore the coasts of the Sea of Aral, and the uninhabited steppes of Raim. He spent over 18 months in voyages on the Sea of Aral, officially as a common sailor, but in practice entrusted with sketching the various landscapes, and treated virtually as tlie equal of the members of the expedition. When, however, he returned to Orenburg and laid before the Commandant his album of drawings, the latter, with the object of securing an amelioration of his lot, sent a report to Petersburg, and in due course received a sharp reprimand. The album was returned to Shevchenko, and his punishment increased. He was sent to one of the worst penal settlements, Orskaya, on Lake Aral, and here spent six terrible years, in great spiritual oppression and cruel sufferings.

Then Tsar Nicholas died, and under the rule of Alexander II there began a lively literary and social movement. Friends and protectors of Shevchenko, and in particular the President of the Academy of Fine Arts, Count Tolstoy and his wife, secured the poet's liberation from the Kirgiz steppes. After an exile of ten years Shevchenko at last returned to Petersburg, broken in health but unbroken in spirit. Even in these terrible years his muse had not been silent. He wrote a number of prose tales in Russian, of which some have perished, but most were printed long after his death and fill a large volume. He also wrote in this period a number of poems, fresh and clear as pearls, many of them treating of their author's cruel experiences, and certainly belonging to the most exquisite lyric poetry of all time.

In St. Petersburg Shevchenko wrote, in addition to his lyrics, a number of epic poems, the best of which is probably Maria, treating in simple, popular fashion and in a highly impressive and original form the life of the Mother of the Saviour. But his health was broken. He was still dreaming of a peaceful family life on the banks of the Dnieper near the town of Kanev, where a piece of land was being purchased for him when death overtook him in St. Petersburg on 8 February, 1861. Thus Kanev, instead of greeting him among its citizens, could only prepare his grave on a little hill beside the Dnieper.

Shevchenko's poetical work may be divided into four periods, which are fairly distinct from one another. The first is from 1838 till 1843, or from his escape from serfdom till his first return to the Ukraine. In this period we see the poet still under romantic influence. He writes ballads and sentimental reflections, and composes historical tales of varying length, which culminate in the epic Haidamaki, begun in 1838 and published in 1841. From this time also date the beautiful poem Katerina, and another poem which has still not been published in its complete form, called The Nun Mariana. In the second period, which lasts till his arrest in the spring of 1847, we find such political poems as Chihirin, Subotiv, Irshavets, and others. The poet now passes from the national Ukrainian outlook to the social sphere, and raises his powerful voice in defence of the serfs (As a serf she cut the wheat, To my Sister, Marina, A Dream, Letter to my Countrymen, Living, Dead and Unborn). Thus he becomes the prophet of his people, tearing pitilessly aside the veil of political and social despotism. Sudden misfortune brought this activity to a close, and even hid a large number of his poems from public knowledge for many decades.

The third period sees the poet reduced a second time to slavery, and is limited to small lyric poems, partly of a personal character, though resting on a broad political and social foundation, and partly containing highly original and characteristic paraphrases of Ukrainian folk-songs. The fourth period reaches from 1858 till the poet's death. His lyrics, begun under military service, are still continued, but grow stronger and broader, until they swell to the rich harmony of the Hymn, To the Light, which may be called an apotheosis of light, progress and freedom. But the most characteristic feature of this period is the turn which his genius takes towards religious themes (The Neophytes, Kings, Maria, Hymn of the Nuns, etc.)

If the poetry of Shevchenko is to be reduced to a formula, I would describe it as poetry of the yearning for life. A free life, unhindered development of the individual and of all society, such is the ideal to which Shevchenko was true throughout. The sufferings of humanity and injustice towards humanity always moved him with equal force, whether it was the peasant woman driven to the corvee and forced to leave her child under the corn stocks, or the prince's daughter insulted by her own father, or the maiden sold by her mother to a General, or the little Jewess who took vengeance on her own father for the murder of her student-lover. I know of no poet in the literature of the world who made himself so consistently, so hotly, so consciously the defender of the right of woman to a full and human life. The sacrifice of one's own individuality for works of mercy, the surmounting of one's own sorrows and the dedication of all one's strength to the noble dream of the welfare of humanity—this ideal of woman has been left to us by Shevchenko as his dearest legacy. No wonder then that he saw above all in the work of Mary, the Mother of Jesus, the highest moral achievement of mankind, that great idea of human love which is the foundation of Christianity.