Shakespeare, Burns & Shevchenko

Andrew Gregorovich ,
Speech at the Shevchenko Museum, Toronto, March 10, 2012

Yesterday was the 198th anniversary of the birth on March 9, 1814 of Ukrainian poet and patriot Taras Shevchenko.  Today is the anniversary of his death on March 10, 1861.

We are here today mainly because of our Ukrainian heritage and especially because of the greatest Ukrainian poet, artist and dramatist Taras Shevchenko. 

Shevchenko, the national bard of Ukraine, and the greatest Ukrainian, has often been compared to Robert Burns, the national bard of Scotland. Born in 1759 and dying at age 37 in 1796 Burns was part of a generation before Shevchenko. It has been said that Shevchenko knew about Robert Burns. Like Shevchenko, Burns was born into a farm family and was called a peasant. Like Shevchenko he was first taught to read and write by a church deacon.

The first book of poetry by Burns was published in 1786 when he was 27 and it was mainly in Scottish rather than English. From their books of poetry both Burns and Shevchenko became very famous and very popular among the common people. Also both entered intellectual circles and had friends in the upper classes and literary circles. 

Every year Scots celebrate Robert Burns Day on January 25 with a dinner and haggis. Every year Ukrainians celebrate Taras Shevchenko with a concert of his poetry put to music and sung by choirs or solo singers close to March 9 or 10. Often they will include bandura player musicians. When the Ukrainian National Anthem was prohibited by Moscow Ukrainians would spontaneously stand when Shevchenko’s Zapovit (Testament) was sung so it served as a substitute for the missing anthem.

Ukrainian communities around the world have spontaneously erected monuments of Shevchenko in many countries such as the United States, Canada, France, Greece and Argentina.  In 1999 I established the world’s first Shevchenko web-site and it has now served over one-third of a million visitors. The Taras Shevchenko Museum web-site on infoukes in Toronto has pictures of over 80 Shevchenko monuments and statues around the world but there are actually many, many more.  By contrast Shakespeare has extremely few monuments. There are two Shevchenko monuments in Canada (Winnipeg and Ottawa) but only one Shakespeare monument which is in Stratford.

Shevchenko’s poem Testament (Zapovit) has been translated into over 140 languages of the world.  Burns is most famous for the New Year Eve song Auld Lang Syne.

There is one huge difference between Burns and Shevchenko. All his life Burns was a free man and his poetry was not suppressed. Shevchenko was born a serf, similar to a slave, and was a free man for only 9 out of his 47 years. 

The Shevchenko Museum in Toronto plans to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the birth of Shevchenko in 2014 by publishing a book of his poetry in Ukrainian, English and French. By coincidence another great writer, William Shakespeare (1564-1616), will be celebrated that year on the 450th anniversary of his birth.

Both Shevchenko and Shakespeare were poets and dramatists of genius, but Shevchenko was also an artist. Shevchenko was mainly a poet with only one play, Nazar Stodolya, to his credit. Shakespeare was mainly a dramatist with 37 plays and 154 poems his lifework. His plays like Hamlet, Romeo & Juliet,and King Lear, are known around the world and performed everywhere including Ukraine. A portrait of Shakespeare is included in the Odessa Opera House.  There is a six volume collection of Shakespeare’s plays published in Ukraine in 1983-86. His 154 sonnets have also been translated and published in Ukrainian although they are not considered as important as his plays.

There is an interesting contrast between these two geniuses of literature. We still don’t know for certain how Shakespeare looked because there is still controversy about all his portraits. By contrast, because Shevchenko was an artist he created a dozen self portraits including his early years before photography was invented or available.  After his 1847-1857 exile in Siberia Shevchenko had ten portraits taken by photographers. We also have the death mask of Shevchenko and the Toronto Shevchenko Museum has one of the three that exist in the world. Shevchenko loved to sing but we do not have his voice because a system of recording had not yet been invented in his time. Many of Shevchenko’s great poems have been put to beautiful music by many composers.

Their lives were as different as you could imagine. Shevchenko was born a serf in the Russian Empire which then dominated Ukraine and he was not a free man until age 24 in 1838. By contrast Shakespeare enjoyed complete freedom his entire life. When I visited Stratford-on-Avon in England in1964 I was surprised at how large his birthplace home was. So Shakespeare was born in a wealthy family compared to Shevchenko. I was pleased to see in a Shakespeare book exhibit that a Ukrainian book was included. Both writers have house museums dedicated to them.

When Shevchenko became a free man he enrolled as a student at the Royal Academy of Art in St. Petersburg and published his first Kobzar book of poetry in 1840. In 1847 he was arrested by the Russian police and exiled to Siberia for ten years. The Russian Emperor, Tsar Nicholas I, himself added to his sentence that he was forbidden to write and paint. But in exile Shevchenko secretly wrote poetry while serving as a soldier in the Russian Army which treated him with brutality. 

In 1857 Shevchenko was free again and lived in St. Petersburg, the Russian capital, because he was not allowed to live in Ukraine. When Shevchenko died on March 10, 1861 there were huge crowds of mourners and prominent people paid homage to him. Finally his body was allowed to return to Ukraine and he was buried in Kaniv by the Dnipro River. Kaniv on the Dnipro River is the Mecca of Ukraine which every Ukrainian would like to visit at least once in their lifetime.

Shakespeare never was persecuted like Shevchenko. He lived a free and comfortable life in London as an actor and dramatist.  The Englishman was never censored by his government while Shevchenko’s poems were censored by the Soviet government especially in the 1930s.

Mark Twain, the American writer, noticed a strange thing about Shakespeare: “When Shakespeare died in 1616, great literary productions attributed to him as author had been before the London world and in high favour for twenty-four years. Yet his death was not an event. It made no stir, it attracted no attention. Apparently his eminent literary contemporaries did not realize that a celebrated poet (dramatist- AG) had passed from their midst. Perhaps they knew a play-actor of minor rank had disappeared, but did not regard him as the author of his Works.”

The English language and the Ukrainian language were influenced by the genius of Shakespeare and Shevchenko. In fact, Shevchenko is credited as the founder of the modern Ukrainian language. The Encyclopedia of Ukraine says: “Shevchenko firmly established the literary Ukrainian language.”

Not only is Shakespeare the greatest English writer he also has world significance. Shevchenko was a patriot and the national poet of Ukraine but he is also a world poet because his themes are both Ukrainian and of world significance. For this reason UNESCO twice, in 1961 and 1964, celebrated Shevchenko internationally around the world. Shevchenko read Shakespeare’s plays and attended some performances. One of his engravings was of King Lear inspired by Shakespeare’s play of the same name.

In 2014, we will commemorate the 200th anniversary of the birth of our great genius the immortal Taras Shevchenko. In his Zapovit Shevchenko commanded the Ukrainian people to win their freedom and independence, which happened in 1991, and he concluded with these words:

 “And in the great new family, the kinship of the free, with a kindly and gentle word, remember also me.” 

We remember.