The Bard of Ukraine
By Yevhen Kirilyuk, Correspondent Member, Academy of Science
Written in 1961
By Ivan Franko;
Published in The Slavonic Review in London, UK in 1924-1925;
Founder of a New Realistic Art
By Petro Hovdya;
Published in Ukraine magazine in Kyiv, Ukraine in 1984;
The Man and the Symbol
by Professor W. K. Matthews, University of London;
Published in the "Forum" Magazine in March 1989;
Taras Shevchenko Bard of Ukraine
By Professor D. Doroshenko, University of Prague;
Published in New York City by the United Ukrainian Organizations
of the United States in 1936;
Shakespeare, Burns & Shevchenko
By Andrew Gregorovich
Speech at the Shevchenko Museum,
Toronto, March 10, 2012
The Bard of Ukraine
By Yevhen Kirilyuk, Correspondent Member, Academy of Science
Written in 1961
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
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
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,
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
By Ivan Franko;
Published in 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.
Founder of a New Realistic Art
By Petro Hovdya;
Published in Ukraine magazine in Kyiv, Ukraine in 1984;
In all, 835 paintings and graphic works created by Shevchenko
over his lifetime have come down to us. Besides, some data on his
other 27-odd works, which have been lost, add to our knowledge of
his legacy as an artist.
Shevchenko's works of art done between 1830 and 1861 are geographically
connected with Russia, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan.
The fact that Taras Shevchenko happened to get to St. Petersburg
and meet highly educated people there who helped free him from serfdom
and who, in his formative
years, pointed out to him the road to true art, can be put down
only to lucky coincidence.
Otherwise, Shevchenko would have shared the destiny of thousands
upon thousands of talented serf artists who either died in their
dreadful slavery without ever being able to develop their artistic
gifts or became the private artists of their petty tyrants, the
In those days Ukraine had not a single art school (one state-run
and two private art
schools appeared only in the mid-1870s). For this reason, among
others, there were very few artists in Ukraine, and most of them
were merely teachers of drawing at one educational establishment
Such a deplorable situation with respect to the development of Ukrainian
art can be
explained first and foremost by the nationalities policy of tsarism
which did everything it could to nip any signs of developing national
culture in the bud. The majority of artists were self-taught painters
(in most cases icon painters) or folk craftsmen who passed down
their ancient artistic traditions from generation to generation.
All this found its reflection in a considerable broadening of the
traditional themes of folk pictures dedicated to Cossack Mamai and
Marusya Bohuslavka, in which echos of the national liberation movement
of the Ukrainian people could be discerned, as well as in the
development of unique Ukrainian folk painting, sculpture, woodcarving,
decoration of clothes and the like.
However, the development of folk art traditions with strongly pronounced
features could not compensate for the absence of highly developed
professional art, literature, music, and theater which reflect the
heights of a people's genius and the best achievements of their
culture. This harmonious merging of Ukrainian folk and professional
art, its all-round and large-scale development and advance became
possible only much later.
A great role in the formation and development of Shevchenko as an
artist was played
by the St. Petersburg Academy of Art and, in particular, by one
of its outstanding representatives, Shevchenko's teacher Karl Brullov.
Briillov's system of teaching was based on the idea that the best
instructor an artist can
have are life, nature, and reality. Judging from Shevchenko's creative
activities, one can see how deeply imprinted on the young artist's
mind was this new truth - previously unheard of at the Academy of
Art - the truth which undermined the foundations of the entire structure
of academic esthetics.
"The great Brullov never allowed himself to draw a single line
without a model, while for him, a person full of creative power,
this might have seemed to be permissible," Shevchenko would
later write in his diary.
"To paint from life" means, naturally, not just copying
reality or man, nor a studio limited in space, but a whole system
of views aimed at creating a generalized artistic image of reality,
which is again based on concrete material from real life.
Shevchenko learned this truth better than any other pupil of Bryulov
and followed it throughout his creative career.
Shevchenko joined the campaign for a new, realistic art with his
painting Katerina (1842), the first work to expose so openly
one of the dark sides of the reality of serfdom and to interpret
an important problem of human relationships on a clearly expressed
social plane. Until then, Russian art - the more so Ukrainian art
- did not have a single painting which so vividly showed the human
tragedy resulting from social inequality and the existing social
Without any reservations, Katerina can also be considered
as the first notable work of the new Ukrainian national art, the
foundations of which Shevchenko began to lay in the mid-1830s, when
he addressed himself to Ukrainian themes and subjects. His first
composition dedicated to a historical theme was the drawing The
Death of Bohdan Khmelnitsky (1836-1837) done before he had been
freed from serfdom and entered the Academy of Art. By that lime,
thanks to his friend Ivan Soshenko, Shevchenko was already familiar
with the Academy's requirements and had made several drawings on
themes from antique history in quite an academic manner, as is evident
from the conventional compositional structure with elements of theatricality
and intentional pathos.
Though the images of Cossack officers and men who are carrying the
kettledrums and military standards into the chamber of their dying
leader, as well as the
images of other characters lack individual traits, the drawing nonetheless
has a certain
psychological mood. The latter is revealed through the gamut of
feelings of different
men - from an overdramatized depiction of the Cossacks' sorrow (one
of them is bending over the table crying; another is kneeling before
the Hetman; still another has pressed himself against Khmelnitsky's
legs) to the calm concentration of the Archimandrite and the mournful
grandeur of the Hetman.
The fact that Shevchenko turned to the image of Bohdan Khmelnitsky
under whose leadership the Ukrainian people were reunited forever
with the Russian people testifies to the artist's deep understanding
of the tremendous historic role played by Khmelnitsky. Shevchenko's
The Death of Bohdan Khmelnitsky - unpretentious and immature
though it is - proves that he entered Brtillov's studio with the
outlook of a patriotic artist who had already seen his calling in
the accurate depiction of his people's life and history. The great
merit of Briillov as Shevchenko's teacher lies in the fact that
he fostered and encouraged his pupil's passion for genre painting
and Ukrainian historical themes in every possible way.
In the early 1840s, several main trends could easily be discerned
in Shevchenko's artistic pursuits - historical, everyday-life and
portrait painting. In 1843-44, he again made sketches for the composition
The Death of Bohdan Khmelnitsky. In the last years of his
life, Shevchenko returned once more to the image of Khmelnitsky,
drawing several sketches for the picture Bohdan Khmelnitsky before
the Crimean Khan. In 1845-47, while in Ukraine working with
the archeographic commission for the study of ancient monuments,
Shevchenko made a large number of drawings from life associated
with historical places (The Bohdan Khmelnitsky Chirch View of
Chihirin from Subotiv Road, and others). Finally, in 1844, he
created one of his finest works - the etching Gifts at Chihirin
After Kateryna, the genre trend in Shevchenko's works was
further developed in the canvas A Peasant Family and In
the Apiary (1843), in the etchings to the album Pictorial
Ukraine, as well as in a large number of drawings and sketches
he did between 1845 and 1847 and during his exile, and in his illustrations.
Shevchenko was also a recognized master of portraiture.
Thus, it can be seen that the pictures depicting the history, the
genres of the past and present of his people were inseparably connected
and complemented one another in his career as an artist. Shevchenko
wanted to popularize the most important events in the history of
the Ukrainian people, to show their mode of life, prominent personalities,
and the natural beauty of his homeland. Neither before nor after
Shevchenko was there a Ukrainian artist who set himself such an
Unfortunately, the artist managed to realize only a small part of
his plans: he created six etchings which made up the first series
titled Pictorial Ukraine.
According to Shevchenko's concept, Pictorial Ukraine was
to be a series accessible and comprehensible to the masses of ordinary
people, first of all peasants. Proceeding from this concept, he
chose the technique of etching which allowed him to make a large
number of prints.
Shevchenko was carried away with the romance of remote times, the
Cossakdom, and the epic struggle of his people for their freedom.
Burial mounds in the steppe and ruins of ancient buildings called
forth in his imaginative mind pictures full of life and expression.
Frequently his drawings and watercolours have mute but eloquent
witnesses of the past: graves, ruins, ancient churches-monuments
of Ukrainian architecture. However, when drawing or painting ancient
monuments, Shevchenko did not depict the past in isolation from
the present. As a true realist, he saw the past through the prism
of the present.
Typical of all Shevchenko's sepia drawings is that, without any
embellishment or falsity he depicts everyday life in the Ukrainian
countryside extremely accurately. The "Little-Russian exotica"
so popular with many artists of those days who painted an imaginary
countryside was alien to Shevchenko.
Like no one else, Shevchenko loved Ukraine and perceived her natural
beauty and the strength and courage of her people, but he never
tried, for the sake of the tangible beauty alone, to depict this
exotica, nor did he ever turn a blind eye to the deplorable life
of the peasants "in that paradise." That is why the first
objects to catch his eye was the squalid dwelling of a poor widow
(A Widow's Cottage in Ukraine) and the serfs' rickety, ramshackle
huts with small windows.
His kindred with the people, the patriotic pride he took in their
great deeds of the past, present and future, as well as his profound
love of Mother Nature occasioned, to a great extent, the uniquely
national flavor of Shevchenko's art, helping him to be a realist
(earlier than any of his contemporaries) and influencing his individual
artistic style. When the czarist government dealt brutally with
the great poet and exiled him to the distant steppes of Kazakhstan,
forbidding him to write and paint, Shevchenko, under extremely difficult
conditions, did not lose a bit of his realistic skill, nor did he
change his outlook on the world. On the contrary, Shevchenko's realism
developed further, while his aspirations found their expression
both in poetry and the fine arts (The Parable of the Prodigal
Shevchenko had all reasons to write after his return from his ten-year
exile: "All this
inscrutable grief, all sorts of humiliation and profanation have
passed by as if not touching me at all. They left not a single trace
on me... It seems to me I am the same as ten years ago. Not a single
feature of my inner self has changed." He remained true to
his principles in his Kazakh series. Here again, he exposed the
same social injustice he saw in Russia and Ukraine. The colonialist
policy of the czarist government evoked strong protest in Shevchenko.
No less vividly, the artist exposes the dark sides of life in czarist
Russia and the people's lack of rights in his series The Parable
of the Prodigal Son. His drawing Running the Gauntlet,
which he once witnessed, is an indictment of the czarist regime.
It is with great love, empathy and humaneness that Shevchenko treated
the Kazakh people. Kazakh Riding a Horse, Song of a Young Kazakh,
The Kazakh Girl Katya, In a Yurta, Kazakhs by a Fire, Baigushi,
A Kazakh Boy Playing with a Cat -all these works without exception
are permeated with a humanistic spirit asserting the friendship
of two fraternal peoples - Ukrainian and Kazakh.
In developing as an artist, Shevchenko traveled a rather difficult
overcoming barriers - both in life (which prevented him from showing
his full talent) and in his creative work (first of all, the influence
of academic traditions), he embarked on the road of realism right
from the beginning of his artistic career and never left this road.
In taking a democratic, realistic stand and depicting life exactly
as he saw it, Taras Shevchenko was creating a national art of the
people and, as such, was the founder of a new progressive art.
The Man and the Symbol
Personality and reputation are not commensurate terms, for although
they are obviously connected, the connection between them is not organic.
A man may be greater or less than his reputation, and his reputation
may grow or diminish in harmony with the fluctuating fashions of thought.
Essentially a man's reputation is not a projection of his personality,
as the branch is of the tree, but rather a reflection, like his image
in a mirror, and this being so, it is determined by the nature of
the reflecting surface - here the human environment - which is clearly
subject to the influence of place and time. The career of Taras Shevchenko
illustrates all these things, except the ebb of a reputation, for
in the years since his death his fame has grown unabated with the
turbulent growth of Ukrainian self-consciousness. To-day he is still
the symbol of his country's unslaked passion for freedom from tyranny
in all its forms as he once became in the first flush of youthful
by Professor W. K. Matthews,
University of London
Published in the "Forum" Magazine #77 in March 1989
Ukrainian literature in its modern sense begins almost with Shevchenko
in the first half of the 19th century, although its recorded beginnings
go back to the introduction of the Cyrillic alphabet and of Old
Bulgarian literature at Kiev in the 10th. The modern phase is represented
before Shevchenko by Ivan Kotlyarevsky, whose language, unlike that
of earlier Ukrainian authors, exclusively reproduces the contemporary
vernacular. This was also used by another outstanding precursor
of Shevchenko - Hryhoriy Kvitka-Osnovyanenko, as well as by an entire
school of Kotlyarevsky's imitators, all of whom focused their attention
on depicting Ukrainian life and manners. The careers of Shevchenko's
two precursors overlap into the Romantic period, but neither had
the temperament to profit by the emancipating effect of the new
literary fashion. And so it fell to Shevchenko to express Romanticism,
especially its later phase, in Ukrainian literature.
The advent of Shevchenko was sudden and startling and carried the
more responsive of his compatriots off their feet in a wave of fervent
admiration. Such a poet had not been known in Ukraine before. His
vivid, singing, emotional verse, both lyrical and narrative, had
a familiar ring and movement, for it was the language of Ukrainian
folk-song with its recognizable epithets, subtle stressing, and
simple charm of manner. And yet it was not folk-poetry, for the
poet's personality shone through the words with an unmistakable
radiance, and it was the personality of a man who loved his country
not only in the aureoles and heroisms of its past, but even more
in its contemporary state of abject humiliation. This man moreover
was acutely aware of social and national
injustice and was not afraid to indict his people's enemies and
to make them feel
the sting and lash of his tongue. Here apparently was another Burns,
yet, all in all,
Shevchenko was more influential than Burns, for the latter lived
and died in the
Age of Enlightenment, when interest in the lot of the downtrodden
was only just
beginning to win the attention of serious, compassionate men.
The comparison with Burns, whom Shevchenko knew at least by repute,
is instructive. Both men belonged to the peasantry and to a nationality
other than the dominant one; both, as writers, were to some extent
self-made; both wrote partly in the vernacular and partly in an
alien literary language; both were highly emotional, impressionable,
not markedly strong in character; both endured the indignity of
social ostracism; and both died comparatively young. But the differences
between the two poets are probably as considerable as the similarities,
and perhaps the most glaring difference is that of
legal status. This may appear to contradict our statement that both
belonged to the peasantry. But in fact it does not. Although a man
of the people, Burns was a free man, whereas Shevchenko was born
a serf, who obtained his freedom only at twenty-four and only to
enjoy it for nine out of forty-seven years of his life. This is
a fundamental fact in Shevchenko's biography and cannot be too often
or too strongly emphasized. It set the tone of his poetry; it inclined
him to identify himself with the meanest of his compatriots, who
till 1861 were the chattels of mainly Polish and Russian landowners;
it gave him his strong feeling for the soil of Ukraine; and it enabled
him to see clearly the social and national evils which beset his
unhappy country. Shevchenko also differs from Burns in being an
artist not only in words, as Burns was, but with brush and pencil.
Shevchenko the artist was as widely known in his own time as Shevchenko
the poet. And there is a third point in which the two poets are
different: Burns's freedom was never circumscribed and marred by
imprisonment, whereas Shevchenko's freedom was merely a brief interval
in a life of ignominious duress.
Shevchenko, as a man of letters, was known to his contemporaries
by two books of verse - The Minstrel (Kobzar) and The
Haydamaks (Haydamaky). Only a small part of the first, as it
is now constituted, appeared in 1840, two years after his emancipation
from serfdom by purchase through the kind offices of his Russian
friends Zhukovsky and Bryullov. In content it is partly lyrical
and partly narrative, while The Haydamaks (1841) is wholly
narrative; in tone both are predominately lyrical. Both draw on
native folklore as well as on the Romantic balladry of Western Europe,
and there is a great deal in them that come from the poet's own
experience whether direct or vicarious. Thus, for his Haydamaks,
Shevchenko made use of his grandfather's eyewitness stories of the
peasant revolt of 1768 (koliyivshchyna), imbuing them with
the vitality of passionate memory. An expanded edition of The
Minstrel came out in 1860, and since Shevchenko's death early
in the following year other writings of his have come to light.
To-day his complete works include prose as well as verse, and the
prose is for the most part in Russian. Although generally inferior
as writing to his verse, it has the characteristics of his literary
temperament and is valuable as an autobiographical record throwing
considerable light on certain periods of his life. His Diary
(Dnevnik), limited to the crucial years 1857-1858, is particularly
illuminating on the notable change in his psychology which was the
inevitable outcome of ten physically and morally degrading years
of exile in the Kazakh steppe. His correspondence, both Ukrainian
and Russian, covers a much longer period than the Diary, and even
substantial parts of his nine Russian stories (e.g."The Artist"
- Khudozhnik) are apparently little modified transcripts
of his own experiences, their verisimilitude being in some cases
heightened by the use of actual names (e.g. Bryullov's ). On the
other hand his only play Nazar Stodolya which remained for
decades in the repertory of the Ukrainian theatre, has no autobiographical
The core of Shevchenko's literary art was and remains his Ukrainian
verse, and the impact of this on his contemporaries and on succeeding
generations is usually explained by reference to its "national"
character (narodnist'). His poetry has been equated with
Ukrainian folk-songs (pisni) and folk-ballads (dumy),
because they share a common vocabulary and style. The Russian critic
K. Chukovsky avers in one of his pre-revolutionary essays that his
collation of the verse of The Minstrel with equivalents in
Maksymovych's edition (1843) of Ukrainian folk-songs has persuaded
him that there is not a line of Shevchenko's poetry which cannot
be paralleled from the folk-songs. This seems to be an exaggeration
at best, although there can be no doubt that Shevchenko's verse
is permeated with elements of folk-speech. Dobrolvubov, the Russian
radical, reviewing the second edition of The Minstrel (1860),
drew a parallel between Shevchenko and Koltsov and found that the
former had closer and firmer ties with the common people.
Prima facie then it would seem that Shevchenko's verse is
folk-poetry. And yet statistics show that hardly more than fifty
per cent of the total number of verses in The Minstrel are
written in the measures of Ukrainian folk-song and that thirty per
cent of the verses are iambic, i.e. in a metre directly at variance
with the predominantly trochaic movement of the folk-songs. Even
the typical folk-song measures are not used in the manner
of the folk-songs, but as, for instance, the characteristic ballad
"Perebendya" shows, are blended in a very individual fashion.
The Soviet Ukrainian poet Maksym Rylsky, summarizing, in his Shevchenko
commemoration address of 1939, the investigations of philology in
the sphere of Shevchenko's prosody, points out that Shevchenko's
metrical heritage consists of two main patterns of rhythm - that
of the kolomiyka verse (alternating lines of eight and six
syllables, with a general trochaic movement and great freedom in
stressing) and that of the kolyadka verse (lines of eleven
and twelve syllables, with a general grouping into amphibraches
and an equally free stress on either side of a fixed caesura.) The
kolomiyka rhythm may be illustrated by -
Ne zhenysya na bahatiy,
and the kolyadka rhythm by -
Bo vyzhene z khaty. (1845)
(Don't marry a rich bride, for she'll chase you out of
Otak u Skutari kozaky spivaly;
Spivaly serdehy, a sl' ozy lylys'. . .
(Thus the Cossacks sang in Scutari - the wretches sang, and their
But these two types of rhythm are subtly varied, and the presence
of iambic and anapaestic metres adds to the rhythmic richness of
It must be plain from the foregoing technical details that we have
to do here with more than a simple imitator of folk-songs, who,
as Milton in his L'Allegro said inaccurately of Shakespeare,
"warbled his native woodnotes wild". For like Shakespeare,
another author with a defective early education, Shevchenko was
an uncommonly sensitive and impressionable man, quick to learn,
and able to transform acquired knowledge to his
own use and to give it the stamp of his unique genius. A sober study
of Shevchenko's poetry convinces us of this, even though we can
easily pick out its folk-song
elements. But as we read his "Diary" we continually marvel
at the variety of his interests and information, the maturity of
his understanding, his balanced judgment in the fields of literature
and aesthetics, and his high moral standard.
It is difficult, after reading the Diary and the stories,
to conceive of Shevchenko as the semi-literate peasant of Turgenev's
description, and we may well imagine that in his early St. Petersburg
days, when he unobtrusively laid the foundations of his artistic
technique and wrote the mature sequences of The Minstrel,
he followed literary developments in the intervals of painting.
We learn from his story The Artist that Bryullov, Shevchenko's
teacher and friend, encouraged him to love books and to read poetry
aloud, although he objected to Shevchenko's cultivating verse, because
it interfered with the latter's studies at the Academy of Art.
We have examined the technique of Shevchenko's verse and can now
briefly review its subject-matter. Like the technique which it informs,
this is varied, but can be reduced to a number of dominant patterns.
There is, first, the recurrent theme of the seduced girl, which
obsessed Shevchenko and may have been partly suggested to him by
both Russian and Ukrainian authors, but the obsession of the theme
was due to the fate of his first love, the village-girl Oksana Kovalenko.
Less personal are the historical themes centred in the exploits
of the Cossacks and the haydamaks, which may be resolved
into symbols of the struggle of the Ukrainian people against foreign
oppression. Shevchenko's very life is bound up with the theme of
the exile's longing for his homeland, which is as intense in the
lyrics of his St. Petersburg days as in those which he wrote in
the Caspian steppes.
What drew Shevchenko to the Russian revolutionaries in his latter
days was an unrelenting hatred of established authority - both that
of the landowners and that of the Russian government. These had
been the twin sources of his miseries from his birth. And how intense
those miseries could be we realize, for instance, from the pages
of his Diary, in which he complained on 19th June, 1857:
"If I had been a monster, a murderer, even than a more fitting
punishment could not have been devised for me than that of sending
me off as a private to the Special Orenburg Corps. It is here that
you have the cause of my indescribable sufferings. And in addition
to all this I am forbidden to sketch". To these words he subsequently
adds the scathing remark: "The heathen Augustus, banishing
Naso to the savage Getae, did not forbid him to write or to sketch.
Yet the Christian Nicholas forbade me both".
Is it strange then that Shevchenko's highly-strung nature, prone
to extremes of feeling, as the superlatives in his letters and Diary
show, should have resented such treatment and the many humiliations
of military discipline, which in his case only stopped short of
running the gauntlet? Is it to be wondered at too that after ten
years of exile, broken in health (partly indeed through his own
unwisdom), he should on occasion have been unable to restrain violent
and even obscene outbursts against the powers that had wronged him?
Shevchenko, as we have just hinted, had his moments of weakness
as well as considerable strength of character. Such moments of weakness
led him into contradictions. The warm defender of feminine virtue
confessed in a letter to his physician and friend A. 0. Kozachkovsky
in 1852 that he could not boast even then
"of a very chaste mode of life". In spite of this however
Shevchenko's unchanging dream was of love, marriage, and domestic
felicity in his native Ukraine. This dream continually recurs almost
as a leitmotiv in his verse and it closes the last poem he wrote
Although Shevchenko never married, love played a significant part
in his career, and several of the women he was attracted to, including
the peasant-girl who jilted him towards the end of his life, were
the subjects of his pictures, for Shevchenko was a portraitist as
well as painter of landscapes and historical canvasses. To understand
him completely, as we must, it is necessary to study his work in
that other field of art which he made his own. Here the influence
of Karl Bryullov was of capital importance, even if it did not rise,
except in the earliest phase, to the plane of inspiration. Shevchenko's
careful and accurate draughtsmanship, his attention to detail, and
his ability to seize and reproduce a slightly stylized likeness
were all the results of Bryullov's precept and example. But the
static quality of Bryullov's Classical art found no reflection in
Shevchenko's practice. Between 1838 and 1847 Shevchenko passed through
his period of apprenticeship to art, working mainly at the St. Petersburg
Academy. By 1840 he was already illustrating books with engravings,
and his subsequent visits to Ukraine provided him with practice
in portraiture and with fresh impressions.1847, when he was exiled
to Orenburg, was a critical year in his life. Yet what seemed at
first like catastrophe to the artist was not without its blessings
in the long run.
When Shevchenko was allowed to sketch in 1848 he made admirable
use of his keen vision to solve completely the mystery of light
and shade, which had fascinated him in the sunlight of Ukraine and
now possessed him in the intenser light of the Caspian sands. Bryullov
was no longer at hand to demand exclusive adherence to Classical
and Biblical themes. Shevchenko's natural curiosity was attracted
to landscape and ethnographic detail, although he could still practice
portraiture by depicting at least himself. The work he did in exile
is chiefly in water-colour and pencil. His choice of theme shows
that he had largely outgrown his taste for Romantic and literary
subjects and now prefers, as in his Diary and stories, to
reproduce the seen and the known. Soldiers, the Kirgiz, especially
Kirgiz children, and the sun-scorched arid landscapes, with their
wide expanses, rugged bluffs, and rare vegetation - such things
figure in the exiled Shevchenko's sketches and paintings. Yet when
he returned to the capital in 1858 we find that he had brought with
him a set of illustrations to the parable of the Prodigal Son. These
however are not done, as they might have been, in a Bryullov-style
Biblical context, but are "modernized" and given realistic
touches, like the verse-adaptations of the Scriptures which he made
in his later years. The transition from Romanticism to Realism,
which represents a change in European art and thought in the middle
of the nineteenth century, may therefore be followed as plainly
in Shevchenko's painting as in his literary work.
We began this essay with an attempt to detach Shevchenko from
his reputation and we have considered him apart from it. Let us
now consider him as a symbol, for this is one of the forms which
a man's reputation may invest. All Shevchenko's literary work is
closely bound up with his love and longing for Ukraine. It is only
in the concrete visual detail of painting that his thoughts seem
at times to, be completely removed from his native landscapes and
memories. Now it is the patriotic aspect of Shevchenko's work, especially
of his poetry, which first endeared him to his compatriots and has
since made him the personification of the Ukrainian's thirst for
liberty and independence. One might interpose here that the patriot
Shevchenko of, say, the celebrated "Testament" (Zapovit)
of 1845, in which he calls on his own to bury him and to rise and
break their chains, and, echoing a passage of La Marseillaise,
"to spatter freedom with evil enemy blood", - that this
Shevchenko is only a fragment of a much larger whole, that his patriotism
is only one aspect of his many-sided personality.
Shevchenko's patriotism is that of the artist who is primarily
a man of feeling. With him it is not a shibboleth, but a profound
emotional experience. Nevertheless it has binding power and it can
serve, as Shevchenko knew well himself, as a call to arms. Study
those lyrics in which he speaks of his country not merely as an
object of longing, but as the future home of his liberated compatriots,
shows that he tried to project his sense of national equity into
the future and to visualize this as an age of personal freedom in
the homeland. So we find him, in his "Friendly Epistle to My
Compatriots" (1845), urging them not to seek freedom and brotherhood
abroad, but in their native Ukraine. in their own homes, where they
will find "their own truth, strength, and freedom", and
imploring them to create a new age by embracing one another in brotherhood.
William K. Matthews
School of Slavonic and
East European Studies
University of London
Taras Shevchenko Bard of Ukraine
The book TARAS SHEVCHENKO BARD OF UKRAINE with introduction by
Clarence A. Manning was published in New York City by the United
Ukrainian Organizations of the United States in 1936. That same
book, but named TARAS SHEVCHENKO THE NATIONAL POET OF THE UKRAINE,
with introduction by Geo. W. Simpson was published by the Ukrainian
Publishing Co. of Canada, publishers of the "Ukrainian Voice",
in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada in 1936.
Preface 1 by Clarence A. Manning
Professor, Columbia University, New York
Preface 2 by Geo. W. Simpson
Professor of History,
University of Saskatchewan
In every land and in every literature there is one author who is
the outstanding incarnation of the national genius, one man who
sums up all the past of his nation and stands out like a guide to
the future. Such a man, when he appears, will elevate the language
in which he writes and speaks from an archaistic survival of the
past centuries into a method of speech which is to last in the future.
He is to form the transition from the past glories of the nation
to the future that is to come.
Such a man for Ukraine is Taras Shevchenko, one of the great masters
of world poetry. It is typical of the movements of the early nineteenth
century that the Slavonic world produced three great poets, Pushkin
among the Russians, Mickiewicz among the Poles and Shevchenko among
the Ukrainians. It is interesting also to realize that while the
first two were born of noble and wealthy families, the third, Shevchenko,
was a poor serf. Nevertheless he was welcomed during his periods
of relative happiness by the most distinguished men of the day both
in the capitals of Russia and in his own dearly beloved Ukraine.
It was almost necessary that a man who would express the aspirations
of Ukraine should be a serf. The last vestiges of the independence
of the Cossacks had been suppressed ruthlessly. The vast majority
of the nobles who had survived the debacle had been drawn away from
their country and their traditions to join the dominant powers of
society. It was only the serfs who in their misery remained loyal
to the old dreams of the Cossacks, who remembered the old and glorious
Ukraine, and who preserved the village speech and the local traditions.
It is against this background that Shevchenko lived out his hard
and unhappy life, for he typified in his own existence the sufferings
of his native land and the hardships which all the sons of Ukraine
had to undergo. But Shevchenko is not merely a martyr or a victim
of the powers under whom he lived and suffered. He summarized and
embodied the past of Ukraine but also he was living just at that
very moment when the ideals of the future were being forged in the
fire of adversity. He spoke for the future of his land as well as
for the past, for the future liberty and freedom that were to come
as well as of that glory which had faded. Yes, Shevchenko became
the very embodiment of the ideals and the aspirations and the dreams
of every Ukrainian patriot. He believed in his country, and although
seventy five years have passed since his untimely death and his
ideals have not been realized, there can be no doubt that the Ukrainian
spirit which Shevchenko voiced, will continue to struggle for its
aspirations until it finally meets with success and Ukraine will
appear again among the recognized nation of the world.
Clarence A. Manning, Ph. D.
Assistant Professor of East European Languages
It is a pleasure to introduce to English-speaking readers this
sketch of the life of Taras Shevchenko by Professor D. Doroshenko
of the University of Prague. The author is one of the outstanding
contemporary Ukrainian historians. He himself played an active part
in the stirring political life of these times so that his scholastic
training and academic outlook have been tempered by this experience
in practical politics and diplomacy.
The subject of the sketch, Taras Shevchenko, was the greatest of
Ukrainian poets in the Nineteenth Century. He was born in 1814,
the year when Czar Alexander I entered Paris with the allied armies
who had defeated and overthrown Napoleon. He died in 1861, the year
when Czar Alexander II issued his famous Decree providing for the
emancipation of the serfs in Russia. Both dates are significant.
The French Revolution followed by the emergence and overthrow of
Napoleon marks a definite stage in the rise of nationalism which
was to become one of the dominant political tendencies of modern
times. Shevchenko was a national patriot and no single factor has
been more potent in the rallying of Ukrainian opinion around the
national ideal than his poetry. The Emancipation Decree of 1861
was a concession to the rising tidal wave of public opinion in the
Western World which demanded personal freedom and fuller opportunities
for the great mass of people living in ignorance and poverty. Shevchenko
was born a serf. He knew intimately the sufferings and tragedies
of his people and his poetry is suffused with a feeling of glowing
sympathy for the oppressed and deep indignation directed against
Shevchenko belongs to the line of romantic poets and is nearest
akin to the Scotch poet Robert Burns. Indeed there are many points
of similarity. Both spoke the voice of common humanity yet both
are national representatives
Both wrote in the language of the common people full of homely touches,
with moving glimpses of the life of cottage, village and countryside.
Both appealed to strong patriotic emotions. Wherever Scotch people
are found there will also be found Burns' collected poems and in
all probability also a Burns' Society. In the same way Shevchenko
Societies have been established wherever Ukrainian people live and
every year Shevchenko's birthday is celebrated by the reading of
his poems and speeches. These recall the deeply pathetic career
of a highly gifted man who was born in poverty, who struggled to
achieve a mastery in painting, who learned to express himself in
unsurpassable poetry, who was moved by the wrongs of his people,
who was arrested because of the first modest attempt he made to
organize Ukrainian scholars, and who spent the greater part of his
mature adult life in exile far from the people and surroundings
The life of Shevchenko must attract, therefore, all those who love
a noble career, fine poetry and elevating sentiments. It is of special
interest to those who wish to understand better the culture and
patriotic fervor of the largest politically-submerged national group
in Europe, the Ukrainians.
Saskatoon, 2nd January, 1936
Geo. W. Simpson,
Professor of History,
University of Saskatchewan.
Before we write about Shevchenko, the national poet of Ukraine,
let us say a few words about his native country, that was better
known in Western Europe about two centuries ago, than it is now.
The latter may appear a paradox, but to be convinced of its truth
it is only necessary to read the books of quite a number of travellers
and historians, French, English, Dutch, Italian and German, who
wrote at that time about Ukraine. The first of these and the best
known was Guillaume Levasseur de Beauplan, author of the Description
de l'Ukranie (1660). The first English translation of this very
interesting and reliable book appeared in 1704. Among the historians
let us name Pierre Chevalier who wrote, Histoire de la guerre
des cosaques... (1663), translated into English by Edward Brown
in 1672. At the same time there appeared a series of communications
about the Cossack wars against the Poles in contemporary English
papers such as: The Moderate Intelligencer, The Perfect Diurnal,
Mercurius Politicus, Several Proceedings and others. In the
XVIIIth century the best known work about Ukraine is that of Jean
Scherer, author of the Annales de la Petite-Russie ou Histoire
des Cosaques de l'Ukraine (1788). English travellers such as
Edward Daniel Clarke and Joseph Marshall, historians such as Bernhard
Connor, professor at Oxford and Charles Whitworth, diplomat and
polititian, give in their respective books an account of what they
themselves saw in Ukraine or repeat information culled from other
sources, chiefly French and Dutch.
We shall not here enter into causes why Western Europe formerly
showed more interest in Ukraine in the past than it did in the XIXth
century. No doubt it is because this country disappeared from the
political arena, which we consider to be a great misfortune for
Europe. It is certain, however that in the XVIIth and XVIIIth centuries
there were far more books and information about Ukraine than there
were in the XIXth.
It is interesting to note that travellers who visited the country
and historians who wrote about it were moved not only by the desire
for information but manifested sympathy with the Ukrainian people
and their ardent aspirations for liberty. All readers of Voltaire
know his words in his History of Charles XII of Sweden, about
the Ukrainians, allies of this king against Russia: "L'Ukraine
a toujours aspire a etre libre."
Yet it is impossible to assert that during the XIXth century there
was no mention of Ukraine in European letters. It is enough to name
Prosper Merimee and Alfred Rambaud for France and W. R. Morfill
and George Rolleston, professors at Oxford, for England, and their
articles about Ukrainian folklore and literature in English reviews
*1) in the 1870's and 80's. At present "The Slavonic
Review" edited by the professors of the School of Slavonic
Studies, King's College in London, keep in touch with the national
and literary movement of the Ukrainian people. But to tell the truth,
the Ukrainian problem is among the questions that are the least
known and studied in Europe, though by no means the least important.
The poetical works of Shevchenko occupy quite an exceptional place
in the life of
the Ukrainian people. If the great national poets of West European
nations, whether by laying down new paths in literature or opening
new horizons to thought, have been more or less forerunners of great
moral or esthetic movements and have contributed to the revival
of national sentiment in their native countries, Shevchenko was
in his country the national prophet in the true sense of
this word. His inspired words aroused his people from lethargy from
the torpid inertia into which they had been plunged as a result
of their lost struggle for independence. Shevchenko's passionate
appeal revealed to the Ukrainians the sentiment of national unity,
inspired them with confidence in their national dignity and gave
them the wish to take their place among other nations.
In order to understand the important part that Shevchenko has played
in the history of his people, though he was only a poet and had
no weapons other than his poetic word, it would be necessary to
describe the surroundings in which he was born and grew up, and
which nurtured his poetic genius.
Shevchenko's poetic work bloomed like a marvelous flower that sprang
entirely from its native soil, - soil that had seen so many great
aspirations bloom and fade, such heroic enthusiasm, and which had
been soaked with blood and tears in the course of its tragic history.
Having lost their independence after the Mongolian invasion in
the XIVth century,
the Ukrainians found themselves successively under the Lithuanian
and then the Polish supremacy. In the middle of the XVIIth century
they succeeded in throwing off the Polish domination under the great
Ukrainian Hetman Bohdan Khmelnitski surnamed then the "Cromwell
of the East." To him Oliver Cromwell sent messages with expressions
of friendship and invitations "to stand up against the Papists."
Unfortunately the Ukrainian State, deprived as the country was
of natural frontiers that would protect it against invasions, had
not the peace necessary to consolidate and strengthen itself and
was unable to maintain its independence. After a period of wars,
as terrible in ruin and desolation as was the Thirty Years War in
Germany, and in which the neighbouring states, Poland, Muscovy and
Turkey, participated, Ukraine was divided between Muscovy and Poland
The Dnieper, the principal river of the country was adopted as the
boundary: the right bank was taken by Poland, the left being annexed
It is true that the left bank of the Dnieper (Poltava and Chernyhiv
provinces) retained a wide autonomy, with the Hetman, the army its
own administration, and its finances. Muscovy needed a century and
a half to gradually destroy this autonomy and to reduce Ukraine,
at the end of the XVIIIth century to the status of a Russian province.
The defeat at Poltava in 1709 of the united forces of Charles XII
of Sweden and the Ukrainian Hetman Mazeppa by Peter I served as
a justification to the Russian government for the breach of the
Treaty of Pereyaslav which Muscovy and Ukraine had concluded in
1654. Still, a century and a half of autonomy rendered possible
the development of a national culture. It served later as a basis
for the reconstruction of the historical tradition.
The lot of the provinces on the right bank of the Dnieper, which,
ruined and devastated fell to the share of Poland, was different.
The upper classes of the population were "polonised" and
the lower were enslaved by the landowners. The population remembered
only too well their recently lost liberty and profoundly resented
this oppression. For this reason the XVIIIth century presents a
series of bloody uprisings of the Ukrainians against the Poles.
In the midst of these conflicts Poland ceased to exist. Nevertheless
the annexation of this part of Ukraine by Russia after the partition
of Poland, did not bring ameIioration in the social and economic
conditions of the Ukrainian population. Russia did not follow the
example of Austria and Prussia, which immediately starting reforms
in the annexed Polish provinces, contributed greatly to the prosperity
of these lands. Catherine II, on the contrary, took advantage of
this annexation in order to introduce serfdom in all its vigour
in the part of Ukraine on the left side of the Dnieper, where it
had never existed before that time.
Slavery in Russia has been sufficiently depicted by well known
Russian authors in a series of literary works, so that we need not
dwell long on it here. The oppression of one human creature by another,
the arbitrary power of the owner, the complete degradation of human
dignity and the economic stagnation produced by this social evil
are sufficiently evident. It is possible that in compensation to
the Ukrainians some fairness or equity was shown to them by history.
One of the greatest denunciators of the social and national oppression
of the Ukrainians, whose invectives dealt slavery the most effective
blow, was born under the thatched roof of a destitute peasant-serf.
It was in the province of Kiev, cradle of Cossack liberties, where
among the population there still dwelt the memory of the exploits
of the Cossacks, and where the contrast between the heroic past
and the present misery was only too poignant.
Taras Shevchenko, the younger son of a poor peasant serf, was born
on March 9, 1814, in a village, in the province of Kiev. He lost
his mother at the age of nine and his father a few years later.
On his death-bed the father of the future great poet, in bequeathing
his poor possessions uttered, we are told, these prophetic words:
"To my son Taras I leave nothing. He will not be an ordinary
man: he will turn out either someone very great, or a great scamp,
thus in either case my legacy will be of no account to him."
We cannot but admire this intuition of a father, who despite his
drudgery, for daily bread, guessed the chief characteristics of
his son. At an early age, little Taras showed a desire for instruction
and a strong inclination to draw.
But neither the schoolmaster of his native village with his primitive
methods of teaching, nor the local icon-painter, an inveterate drunkard,
from whom the young Taras hoped to learn the elements of the art
of painting, could satisfy, him. When he asked the steward of the
estate for permission to apprentice himself to a painter in another
district, he was ordered into the kitchen of the manor-house as
a scullion. From the kitchen the young Taras passed to the antechamber
into the personal service of his owner. In this capacity he followed
him first to Warsaw, then to Vilna and lastly to St. Petersburg.
There, Taras already a youth of eighteen, at last obtained permission
to be apprenticed to a painter and decorator. His owner, flattering
himself with the hope of employing his own artist on his estate,
decided at last to make use of this talent for drawing. But the
new master, little more that a house-painter, was a selfish man
who only exploited his pupils by hiring them out for his own benefit.
As for the art of painting, he could not teach Taras anything that
the latter did not know himself.
No wonder the that the young artist looked out for himself, visiting
picture-galleries, spending frequently those well known clear summer
nights of St. Petersburg, in the public park, the Summer Garden,
drawing the statues of mythological gods and goddesses. There, quite
by chance, he made an acquaintance which was decisive for his future
and preserved to Ukraine her greatest poet. One of the students
of the St. Petersburg Academy of Arts, Soshenko, noticed Shevchenko
thus sketching. Ukrainian himself, Soshenko recognized a compatriot
in this poor youth, miserably clad, became interested in him and
finally introduced him to the famous artist Karlo Briulov, then
Director of the Academy of Arts. The latter, having found the young
Taras decidedly gifted, encouraged him to pursue his work. But Shevchenko
could not be received as a student in the Academy, as it was not
open to serfs; on the other hand, his owner would not hear of letting
him free without the usual money. Professor Briulov raised the necessary
sum by raffling a portrait of the poet Zhukovski which he had painted
for this purpose. Shevchenko was bought out of serfdom, received
in the Academy of Arts, and became one of Briulov's favourite pupils.
Thus the poor apprentice to a house-painter joined the society of
cultured men, made friends with artists and authors, especially
in the Ukrainian colony of St. Petersburg, and set himself to complete
his more than rudimentary education. He was by that time already
twenty-four years old, negotiations with his owner having been long
At this time Shevchenko was for the first time visited by his poetic
Muse. As he himself said later, it was in Briulov's studio that
he would let himself be carried away by his imagination, far away
into his native land. The natural beauty of the Ukrainian landscape,
images of his native village, reminiscences of the historic passed
appeared before his dreaming eyes. Before him passed the tragic
shadows of the Ukrainian Hetmans, his native steppes strewn with
high burial mounds, the whole heroic past of Ukraine; his own native
land appeard to him as a beautiful, melancholy image. His poetic
imagination wove and embroidered the fabric of his first poems.
The modest youngster hid his first poetic efforts. Their discovery
was due to an accident, as was his gift of drawing. A young Ukrainian
landowner, on a visit to St. Petersburg, gave the funds necessary
for the publication of the first volume of Shevchenko's poems which
appeared in St. Petersburg, in 1840, with the title of Kobzar,
"The Bard", as wandering minstrels in Ukraine were called.
This volume and those which followed were received with great enthusiasm
in his native country, and made the name of the author immediately
celebrated in Ukraine. When, during his summer holidays he visited
his country, he was received with enthusiasm and recognised and
celebrated as the national poet. The oldest aristocratic houses
were opened to the former serf, the best representatives of the
country gentry sought his friendship. People much in the public
eye desired to have their portraits painted by him. He won the affection
of one of the greatest ladies of the country, Varvara, daughter
of Prince Repnin, Governor General of Ukraine, and was hospitably
received by the prince at his family seat. We know now more about
this love from Varvara Repnin herself, from her letters to Charles
Eynard, a Genevan patrician and friend of her parents, whom she
met during their stay in Geneva, and who remained for a long time
a kind of spiritual guide to her. These letters have been only recently
In 1845 Shevchenko received his diploma, left the Academy and was
appointed teacher of drawing at the University of Kiev. This was
the happiest time of his life and the future seemed to be opening
favourably before him. He planned a journey to Italy to study art.
But fate had something other than happiness in store for him. Above
the head of the poet began to gather black threatening clouds and
it was not long before the storm broke. In Kiev, Shevchenko made
friends with a number of Ukrainian patriots having at their head
Kostomariv, professor of history at that University. This group
of lofty idealists set themselves the task of disseminating ideas
of moral perfection, patriotism and humanitarian principles among
the young generation. Their practical aim was: the advocation of
religious liberty, the education of the people and the abolition
of serfdom. As they believed in the power of Christian morals and
evangelical truths, for their motto they chose the words from the
Gospel: "Know the truth and the truth will set you free."
In honour of the Apostles of the Slavonic lands, this society was
called the Brotherhood of SS Cyril and Methodius. It was of course
a secret society, but the government was soon informed of its existence.
In the eyes of the police it became, "a seditious and dangerous
body," all its members were arrested, brought to St. Petersburg
and imprisoned in the fortress of SS Peter and Paul. An inquiry
was opened, followed closely by the Tsar Nicholas I himself. The
members of the society |were accused of wishing to separate Ukraine
from Russia, of overthrowing the autocratic power, and Shevchenko,
as a popular author of patriotic poems, was considered especially
dangerous. He was sentenced to banishment and to military service
for life without promotion, as a common soldier, in a little garrison
hidden on the Asiatic frontier of Russia. The Tsar having added
with his own hand to the sentence "with the express prohibition
of all writing and drawing."
Shevchenko gave a vivid image of his feelings during imprisonment
in the poem written in the fortress of SS Peter and Paul in St.
I care not, shall I see my dear
Own land before I die, or no,
Nor who forgets me, buried here
In desert wastes of alien snow;
Though all forget me, -better so.
A slave from my first bitter years,
Most surely I shall die a slave
Ungraced by any kinsmen's tears;
And carry with me to the grave
Everything; and leave no trace,
No little mark to keep my place
In the dear lost Ukraina
Which is not ours, although our land.
And none shall ever understand;
No father to his son shall say:
-Kneel down, and fold your hands and pray;
He died for our Ukraina.
I care no longer if the child
Shall pray for me, or pass me by.
One only thing I cannot bear:
To know my land, that was beguiled
Into a death-trap with a lie,
Trampled and ruined and defiled ...
Ah, but I care, dear God; I care!
(Transl. by E. L. Voynich)
Also in the fortress was written the following short poem where
in the person of the "Reaper" the poet gives us the image
of Death, as merciless destiny that spares no mortal:
Through the fields the reaper goes
Piling sheaves on sheaves in rows;
Hills, not sheaves, are these.
Where he passes howls the earth,
Howl the echoing seas.
All the night the reaper reaps,
Never stays his hands nor sleeps,
Whets his blade and passes on...
Hush, and let him be.
Hush, he cares not how men writhe
With naked hands against the scythe.
Wouldst thou hide in field or town?
Where thou art, there he will come;
He will reap thee down.
Serf and landlord, great and small;
Friendless wandering singer, -all,
All shall swell the sheaves that grow
To mountains; even the Tsar shall go. *2)
And me too the scythe shall find
Cowering alone behind
Bars of iron; swift and blind,
Strike, and pass, and leave me, stark
And forgotten in the dark.
(Transl. by E. L. Voynich)
Thus, like a second Ovid the Ukrainian poet dragged out long years
in exile in a desert and forlorn country, in the humiliating positions
of a common soldier. The prohibition to write and draw was his greatest
torture. For having made a few sketches of this desolate landscape,
Shevchenko spent eight months in prison and was tranfered to a still
more lonely garrison on the Aral Sea.
It was only after the death of the Tsar Nicholas I, following the
Crimean War defeat, that Shevchenko's friends obtained his release.
But his health was undermined. He lived only four years more and
died on March 10, 1861, in St. Petersburg, a few days only before
the publication of Tsar Alexander II manifesto abolishing serfdom.
Cruel fate had not allowed to the poet the supreme joy of seeing
his life's dream accomplished.
His despair and loneliness of this time are very poignantly rendered
in one of the
last poems written shortly before his death:
Thy youth is over; time has brought
Winter upon thee; hope is grown
Chill as the north wind; thou art old.
Sit thou in thy dark house alone;
With no man converse shalt thou hold,
With no man shalt take counsel; nought,
Nought art thou, nought be thy desire.
Sit still alone by thy dead fire
Till hope shall mock thee, fool, again,
Blinding thine eyes with frosty gleams,
Vexing thy soul with dreams, with dreams
Like snowflakes in the empty plain.
Sit thou alone, alone and dumb;
Cry not for Spring, it will not come.
It will not enter at thy door,
Nor make thy garden green once more,
Nor cheer with hope thy withered age,
Nor loose thy spirit from the cage...
Sit still, sit still! Thy life is spent;
Nought art thou, be with nought content.
(Transl. by E. L. Voynich)
According 'to the wish expressed in his poem "The Testament,"
his remains were transported into Ukraine and buried on a steep
bank of the Dnieper River near the town of Kaniv. From the top of
the cliff a glorious view embraces the vast steppes spreading beyond
the mighty river. A high mound of earth was piled on the grave of
the poet. The iron cross that surmounts it dominates the country.
In summer-time it serves as a beacon to thousands of pilgrims who
come from all parts of Ukraine to render homage to the memory of
the great national poet An Englishman *3) writing about it
said: "The tomb of the poet is the object of special
reverence among his countrymen, the Mecca of the Ukrainian patriots."
Dig my grave and raise my barrow
By the Dnieper-side
In Ukraina, my own land,
A fair land and wide.
I will lie and watch the cornfields,
Listen through the years
To the river voices roaring,
Roaring in my ears.
When I hear the call
Of the racing flood,
Loud with hated blood,
I will leave them all,
Fields and hills, and force my way
Right up to the Throne
Where God sits alone;
Clasp His feet and pray
But till that day
What is God to me?
Bury me, be done with me
Rise and break your chain,
Water your new liberty
With blood for rain.
Then, in the mighty family
Of all men that are free
Maybe sometimes, very softly
You will speak of me?
(Transl. by E. L. Voynich)
Such was the life of the poet. What were his works? Shevchenko left
a volume of poems entitled Kobzar, a name familiar to every
Ukrainian. This volume is a kind of poetic microcosm or an enchanted
mirror wherein Ukraine as a whole finds its reflection-its past
and its present. After the appearance of this volume "young"
Ukrainian literature took its place among the other Slavonic literatures.
We said "young" Ukrainian literature. It is a purely
conventional term that does not mean that Ukrainian literature began
at this date, nor in the year 1798, the publication of the Eneida
by Kotliarevski which is considered the starting point of the modern-
period in Ukrainian literature, of its renaissance." The origin
of Ukrainian literature goes back to the XIth century. The Muscovites,
or the Great-Russians, were at that date a nation in formation and
also made use of this literature. This is the reason why Russians
even now appropriate to themselves the origins of Ukrainian literature
as being theirs as well as ours.
The ancient Ukrainian literature can boast of many a brilliant
and immortal page, among which are the Chronicles of Kiev, Volhynia
and Galicia, as well as the epic of the "Expedition of the
Prince Igor." But this literature made use of an artificial
language based mostly on the Slavonic idiom used by the church and
distinct from that spoken in the country. In its successive development
this language, exposed to different influences, underwent different
changes and developed, but always kept its exclusively learned character
as distinct from the vulgar tongue. It is under the conditions of
this linguistic parallelism that the spiritual life in Ukraine went
on for several centuries: State and Church, Law and Learning used
this artificial language, the people used the other.
The written literature was couched in the former whereas it is
in the latter that the people have created their wealth of unwritten
tradition, especially the beautiful epics known as "Dumy of
the Cossacks" about which Professor W. R. Moriill; and G. Rolleston
wrote with such enthusiasm.
It is at the end of the XVIth century that the Muscovites adopted
the literary Ukrainian language. And not only the language but also,
as it is now admitted by the Russians themselves (for instance prince
Trubetzkoi, professor at the University of Vienna), the Muscovites
renounced their own literary tradition in order to adopt that of
the Ukrainians and then transferred it to their own ground, such
as was cultivated in the principal cultural centre of Ukraine, the
Academy of Kiev. Under Peter I the literary Ukrainian language became
the official language of the Russian Empire, but detached itself
from its prototype under the influence of spoken Russian.
In Ukraine, the land of its origin, this old artificial language
and its literature fall into disuse during the XVIIIth century.
Kiev is superseded by St. Petersburg and Moscow and becomes a provincial
place. Young Ukrainians prefer the newly founded Universities of
St. Petersburg and Moscow to the old Academy of Kiev. Literary and
scientific forces are also attracted now towards the capital of
the empire. In the future there would be an official and literary
language in the Russian Empire common to both Russians and Ukrainians,
and two popular idioms for everyday use - the Russian and the Ukrainian.
If this came to be realised, there would be for Ukraine, after
the downfall of her political as well as cultural independence,
the complete disappearance of the Ukrainian nationality. But this
danger was averted by the vitality of the historic tradition in
Ukraine, fortified by the great modern idea that came from the Occident
that of a nation as a distinct unit. At the same time as the pillars
of the Ukrainian State collapsed, when the Hetmanate and the Cossack
constitution were abolished, the Ukrainian people received a new
medium to express their national individuality: Ukrainian authors
abandoned their ancient artificial language, refused the Russian
and adopted the living Ukrainian tongue spoken by the common people.
Ivan Kotliarevski, in 1798, was the first to introduce this language
in literature and thus opened a new period of the Renaissance of
the Ukrainian literature.
At the beginning of the XIXth century Ukrainian authors were innovators
in the matter of the language but also by introducing new ideas.
They gave to modem Ukrainian literature a wholesome and democratic
impulse and introduced human feeling.
Thus Gregory Kvitka as early as 1829, long before George Sand and
Auerbach, introduced into literature the simple life of a peasant
and discovered sincere and noble sentiments under the thatched roof.
Romanticism found warm adherents among Ukrainian writers; still
Ukrainian literature was weak and obscurely buried far from the
Igreat world. There was the treasury of folklore while the glorious
past of the Cossacks was in itself a source of inexhaustible inspiration
for a poet. The heroic epos of the Cossack period of the XVI-XVIIIth
centuries comprises the so called Dumy, long epic poems or
short ballads recited with the accompaniment of the "kobza"
or "bandura." Some of them have been preserved up to our
time and sung by popular bards-kobzars or bandurists. A number of
these poems were taken down and published in the 70's of the last
century. They excited great interest among European scholars and
were a fertile source of inspiration to the poets who lived at that
time when in the Ukrainian literature as everywhere else the romantic
feeling was supreme. We could draw here an analogy with the Scottish
Border Ballads that were such a source of inspiration to no lesser
a man than Sir Walter Scott, the "Wizard of the North."
But in order to draw inspiration from these Measures, to throw a
bridge between the past and present, briefly to build up the poetical
synthesis of national aspirations, there was needed a poet of genius.
A genius alone could give to the young Ukrainian literature the
right to influence the life of the Ukrainian people, and this could
not be expected from more modest talents such as Kvitka, Kotlarevski,
Artemovski, Hrebinka and others. That genius was Taras Shevchenko.
At the beginning of his poetical career Shevchenko was under the
influence of Romantic literature, Russian and Polish. Without doubt
he began by imitating the romantic poets he knew: Mickiewicz and
Zhukovski: but this imitation is only superficial, for Shevchenko
has his own means of expression and treats his romantic subjects
in his own manner. The wealth of Ukrainian folklore was to him an
inexhaustible source of subjects and themes. Popular superstitions
and customs relating to the sun, moon, stars, rainbow, the fantastic
world of fairies, pixies, witches, and goblins interwoven with love
adventures, furnished him abundant matter which he worked up into
In Shevchenko's ballads, such as "The Bewitched," "The
Poplar-tree," "The Drowned," could be found analogies
with the early poems of Mickiewicz and the ballads of Zhukovski.
But he is independent of them when dealing with the beliefs of the
Ukrainian people, which he succeeds in rendering into poetry preserving
to perfection their spirit and form, whereas the ballads of Zhukovski
are quite artificial works and have nothing, except their names,
in common with the Russian poetic spirit.
Besides the fairy world of the Ukrainian folklore, Shevchenko's
early poetical works are deeply rooted in the glorious and tragic
memories of Ukraine. We find here an intense patriotic feeling.
The past of Ukraine was to him not only a source of sad memories
and melancholy meditations, but an open wound that continued to
This conception of Ukrainian history was nourished in him by contemporary
historical writers, especially by the anonymous work widely read
at that time "The History of the Ruthenians" [Istoria
Rusov]. The German traveler Kohl who visited Ukraine in 1838 speaks
of this book as most widely known in all classes of society. According
to the opinion of Prof. Drahomaniv, no book, with the exception
of the Bible, had: a greater influence on the poet. Besides the
written documents Shevchenko found for himself as a source the oral
traditions. He was a native of that part of Ukraine where had taken
place the most dramatic events of the Cossack wars and of popular
insurrections. Many memories and popular songs relating to those
events and their heroes were preserved in his surroundings. The
powerful imagination of the poet created an image of the past, a
kind of a heroic poem: the image of a people proud and independent,
fighting for their liberty first against the Turks and Poles and
then against Muscovite absolutism and tyranny. The Ukrainian nation
succumbed exhausted in these wars. The descendants of free Cossacks
were dragging the heavy chains of serfdom. The shadows of the national
heroes fighting for the Ukrainian national liberties revived in
his imagination. In his ears resounded the clamor and uproar of
battles. He becomes the bard of the Cossacks and recalls their past
glory. In the poems such as "Nalivaiko," "The night
of Taras" he shows their struggles against the Poles; in "Hamalia,"
"Ivan Pidkova" he spreads before us wild frescoes of the
Cossacks' campaigns against Constantinople and the Turks. In his
epic poem "Haidamaky" he records the fury of the popular
rising of 1768 where cruel and dramatic episodes abound.
His poetical interpretation of Ukrainian history is in keeping
with the historical conceptions of his time. In the historical and
ethnographical works of his contemporaries, Markevich's History
of Ukraine, Sreznevski's The Antiquities of the Cossack Zaporozhians,
writings of Kulish and Kostomarov-everywhere we see the same glorification
of the Cossack Zaporozhians, the Hetmans and the Otamans.
Though having, in his early poems, idealized the past of Ukraine,
Shevchenko could not but feel the contrast existing between the
glorious heroic times and the present sad condition of the population.
In his early poems we see already his profound sympathy for the
victims of serfdom and with the precarious conditions of the life
of the peasants. He pities especially women's lot, the least protected
from social injustice and the arbitrary power of the lord. The image
of young girls seduced and abandoned haunts Shevchenko's poetical
work from his earliest poems. He gives us a whole succession of
tragic heroines of this type. In his first long poem "Katerina"
he shows us the tragic lot of a young Ukrainian peasant girl seduced
and abandoned by a Russian officer. She becomes a mother, incurs
the scorn of her village and is repudiated by her parents who send
her to Muscovy to join her seducer. Poor "Katerina" finds
the end of her troubles at the bottom of a pond and her infant son
is picked up by beggars and becomes a guide to a blind wandering
"Katerina" was followed by a series of similar poems
and ballads: "The Nun Marianna", "The Witch,"
"The Waternymph," "The Lily," "The Princess,
"Petrus," "Marina," "The Vagabond."
All these poems, his best perhaps in regard to their artistic form,
deal with the tragic conditions created in the Ukrainian villages
by the arbitrary power of the serf-owner over his subjects. The
unhappy lot of young women who were victims of the debauchery of
their lords moves the poet in particular. And lastly, a long poem,
"The Servant," describes the life of a mother who, after
having exposed her child in order to be found by a rich and childless
peasant-couple, enters their service and brings up her own son.
On her death-bed she confesses to him that she is his mother. By
purity of form, simplicity, almost biblical grandeur and the profoundly
human idea of the expiation of an involuntary fault by a life of
work and humiliation, this poem, it seems to us, could rank beside
the masterpieces of world literature. "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 women to a full
human life." Thus says the modern Ukrainian poet Ivan Franko.
Since his first visit to Ukraine, in 1845, we see a marked change
in Shevchenko's poetical work. Before this he knew only that part
of Ukraine subject to Polish domination. Now he visited the Ukraine
of the Hetmans, that part of the country which preserved for more
than a century its comparative independence and its national aristocracy.
These Ukrainian nobles greeted Shevchenko now as their national
But the impression made on Shevchenko by the social conditions
here was no better: there also the past glory of the free Cossacks
was no more, and the people were also enslaved. The Ukrainian nobles,
bought over by the Russian government with privileges, and rights
over their own countrymen, had forgotten the national traditions,
forgotten the glorious past of their country, and 'were wallowing
in crass materialism. The poet saw his native country in a different
light, far different from the idealized image that he saw in his
dreams in far away St. Petersburg. Everywhere he now saw oppression,
the humiliation of human dignity, the demoralization that even the
best representatives of the dominating class no more noticed, but
which painfully shocked him, the former serf. From this moment nothing
could wipe out the heartrending image of this hell to which a once
so beautiful land was reduced.
Everything leads us to think that during this visit to Ukraine
Shevchenko made friends with some of the enlightened and cultivated
representatives of the Ukrainian nobility and under their influence
his political and social opinions underwent a change.
He no longer viewed the historic past of Ukraine in the same idealized
fashion. The idealization of the Cossack epoch gave place to a more
critical view that sees the causes of the present misfortune in
the errors and faults of the national heroes themselves. Whereas
before Shevchenko directed the point of his weapon against Poland
and the intrigues of the Jesuits, his chief enemy is now to him
the power that swallowed Poland as well as Ukraine: it is Russia,
exactly Russian Tsarism. It is to the absolutism of the Russian
Tsars that he now
ascribes the causes of all misfortunes that befell Ukraine. It was
Catherine II that introduced serfdom in hitherto free Ukraine at
the end of the XVIIIth century. The Russian Tsars destroyed the
ancient liberties of the Ukrainian people. All his wrath, all his
indignation are now concentrated on two chief representatives of
Russian Tsarism - Peter I and Catherine II. A series of poems, most
powerful and violent, are directed against these two monarchs, who,
in the eyes of the poet, embody Russian despotism and tyranny.
The most perfect works of the poet, from the literary aspect, belong
to this period until his imprisonment in 1847. Among his political
poems "The Dream" and the "Caucasus" perhaps
express his political opinions best.
"The Dream" is a fantastic satire, inspired in form perhaps
by Dante, but wholly original in content. He sees himself transported
in a dream from Ukraine to St. Petersburg and shows us the panorama
that opens before his eyes: the Russian capital built in the midst
of swamps and marshes on the bones of thousands and thousands of
workmen who perished in the most unhealthy working conditions on
this poisonous soil. The next scene is an audience at the Tsar's
and is drawn with expressions of the bitterest sarcasm. He shows
us also the shadows of the Ukrainian Cossacks who, ordered in numbers,
as punishment from their native land to the building works of St.
Petersburg, found also their death in the swamps; and the shadow
of the Hetman Polubotok who died in the fortress of SS. Peter and
Paul for having defended before Tsar Peter the rights and liberties
of Ukraine. All these tragic shadows accuse the Tsar of cruelty
and deceit. The monument of Peter I set up by Catherine II, with
the inscription on it: "To the
First from the Second," that was glorified as a symbol of the
greatness of the Russian Empire, victorious and invincible, by the
Russian poet Pushkin in his poem ,,The Rider of Bronze," wakes
in the heart of the Ukrainian poet quite different reflections:
"This is the "First" who crucified our Ukraine,
And the "Second" gave the finishing stroke to the victim."
In the poem "The Caucasus," Shevchenko does not linger
over the beauties of the landscape that captivated the Russian "Byronists"
Pushkin and Lermontov. He dwells no more on battles and romantic
episodes of the war with the natives, that furnished so many happy
subjects to those two poets. To Shevchenko, as to Shelley, the Caucasian
mountains are the place where:
"From the dawn of the world
The eagle tortures Prometheus:
Every day pierces his breast
Tears out the heart..."
-the symbol of sufferings of the human race for the aspiration
to the divine fire of liberty for which so many heroes have given
The indignation of the poet turned against the Russian Tsars, particularly
Nicholas I and his system of imperial expansion which extinguished
every spark of liberty on the expanses of the Russian Empire: "from
Moldavia to Finland in all tongues, all keep the silence of happy
contentment," says Shevchenko in derision. He accuses further
the Tsars of "having spilt a sea of blood and enough tears
to drown therein all the Tsars and their descendants."
The poet scourges this cruel political system that knows nothing
better than "to
build prisons and forge chains." He does not stop there, he
accuses the whole of contemporary civilization with its hypocrisy,
cupidity, this spirit of false Christianity that the Tsars, under
the guise of bringing civilization, wish to introduce into their
vast empire from the newly conquered Caucasus to the unlimited,
But the poet is no pessimist, he does not lose hope, he is certain
that: "The spirit
is immortal and free in spite of the tyrants, and human speech cannot
be stifled." He is sure that "liberty will rise from the
dead, though in the meantime there are flowing rivers of blood."
When we think that this burning poem was written at the time of
wars for the conquest of the Caucasus, wars that roused the enthusiastic
patriotism of Russian poets and of Russian population on the whole,
we can understand the impression this poem made on his contemporaries.
It was also one of the reasons for the cruel persecution of our
poet by Tsar Nicholas I.
Shevchenko bore all his life this hatred of Tsarism. He preserved
it during the years of exile and returned as the same enemy of despotism.
A number of his last poems concern despots, tyrants, autocratic
rulers not only in Russia but everywhere in the world. This hatred
that he bore towards Tsarism is only equal to his hatred of slavery:
to him these two phenomena were intimately related.
The introduction of serfdom in Ukraine, as late as the end of the
XVIIIth century, met with considerable opposition. In Ukrainian
literature the starting point of the moral protest against it was
"The Ode on the Desolation of Slavery," written in l787
by Count Kapnist, a Ukrainian patriot who sought abroad, namely
in Prussia, support for the national aspirations of Ukraine. In
Russia public opposition to serfdom was begun by Radishchev's Travel
from St. Petersburg to Moscow, published in 1790. In the works
of a Ukrainian poet of the beginning of the XIXth century, Hulak
Artemovski, we find also a satire on the conditions created by the
introduction of serfdom. The Brotherhood of SS. Cyril and Methodius,
as we have already seen, had for their immediate object propaganda
against serfdom. Shevchenko especially fought against it and contributed
much to its abolition by influencing liberal public opinion which
at that time directly after the Crimean War defeat and the death
of Nicholas I, played for a certain time an important part and induced
the young Tsar Alexander II to initiate liberal reforms. The influence
of some of Shevchenko's poems in bringing about the abolition of
serfdom could be compared with the effect of the publication of
Uncle Tom's Cabin on the anti-slavery campaign in the United
Together with the Bible, Shevchenko's favourite reading
was Shakespeare, especially after having seen Aldridge in St. Petersburg
one of the best known Shakespearian actors of the time. He was a
mulatto from the United States, and was introduced to the London
stage through Kean. The two former slaves became friends and Shevchenko
left a record of this friendship in his various sketches from "Othello,"
where Aldridge played the leading part and also his portrait in
As an apostle of liberty and an enemy of all kind of oppression,
Shevchenko goes beyond the narrow limits of his country and those
of the Russian Empire. In his poem "The Heretic or John Huss"
he gives us the glorification of the Czech reformer, champion of
religious tolerance. John Huss is represented not only as a religious
reformer but as a prophet of social equality. The culminating point
of the poem - the death of Huss at the stake -- is the real glorification
of the victory of spirit over the body. The poem "Neophytes"
brings us to Rome in the first centuries of the Christian era and
shows us a Roman mother, who hitherto indifferent to religious matters,
becomes converted to the new faith in the arena, over the torn body
of her son, a Christian martyr.
One of the favourite subjects of the poet, the love of a mother
for her child, is often to be found in Shevchenko's works. He attains
the highest point in "Maria," with the touching image
of the Virgin where her life is treated in the simple ingenuous
manner of the popular apocryphal
legends. "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, the
great idea of human love which is the foundation of Christianity."
According to the opinion of Alfred Jensen, a Swede scholar, author
of one of the
latest biographies of our poet, "Taras Shevchenko has been
not only a national poet, but also a universal genius, one of the
lights of humanity."
In the last decade of our century there appeared a number of research
works on the advanced views of the poet and on the influences that
contributed to the formation of his political opinions. After a
thorough study of his works, his letters and the books he read,
the conclusion was arrived at that Shevchenko was more highly educated
than was hitherto supposed. He read widely in Russian and Polish
and had extensive knowledge of history and foreign literatures.
With the intuition of a genius he resolved the most complicated
questions. Vasyl Shchurat, a Ukrainian scholar in Lviv, has shown
that Shevchenko was well read in all that was published abroad by
the Polish emigrants after the defeat of the Polish rising in 1830.
Some said that this influence on the poet should not be exaggerated,
but still his hatred of the Tsars was more or less nourished from
It is certain that having joined the "Brotherhood of SS. Cyril
and Methodius," Shevchenko's sympathy for liberty was certainly
deepened. But in my opinion sufficient emphasis was not laid upon
the fact that Shevchenko, during his visits to Ukraine much frequented
the society of Ukrainian nobles among whom at that time there were
persons holding advanced liberal views on politics, and interested
in all social questions. In fact his closest friends were among
the members of the Ukrainian aristocracy: Lizohub, Tarnovski, Princess
Repnin, Count de Balmain, General Kucharenko, who did not abandon
him during the hardest times of his exile; their letters, their
anxiety about him and the steps they took on his behalf in order
to alleviate his misfortune prove their solicitude. They appreciated
him especially as a national poet and their influence on him was
Can we, as is only too often repeated by Communists to-day, consider
Shevchenko as an ideologist of the social revolution? Evidently
not. Those who assert it quote certain passages especially from
the testament" where the poet appeals to his countrymen ,,to
break the chains"... They do not wish to understand that Shevchenko
was far from desiring a bloody revolution, but that he foresaw it,
menacing the dominating classes unless they made the decision to
set their serfs free. He appealed to the whole Ukrainian nation,
nobles and peasants, entreating the nobles to renounce their privileges
and trying to bring about a good understanding between the classes.
"Brothers, embrace the feeblest among you,
That the mother may smile through her tears."
It is with these lines that Shevchenko closes his "EpistIe
to my countrymen, living, dead and unborn." He began this epistle
with a severe admonition to the Ukrainian nobles:
"Repent! Be human,
Because a calamity will befall you:
The enchained people will soon break their chains.
The judgment will come. The Dnieper and the hills will speak,
And by hundreds of rivers will flow to the blue sea
Blood of your children ...
There will be no one to help:
A brother will repudiate his brother
And a mother - her child.
Clouds of smoke will hide the sun from you
And your own sons will curse you for ever."
It is evident that this prophetic evocation of revolutionary horrors
- which we see to day - was not in the least Shevchenko's desire.
To attribute to him sympathy with the events generally produced
by social upheavals, would be an error. The same error was committed
by Polish critics when they accused the poet of having approved
of the horrors he described in the "Haidamaky", because
he drew a powerful image of this popular rising of Ukrainians against
It was not in the least in Shevchenko's nature to incite to cruel
actions prompted by the spirit of vengeance. It would be an error
to consider his Muse as an instrument of violence. It is necessary
to remember that Shevchenko was a profoundly religious man; that
the Bible was his favourite book especially during the years
of exile and that this influence left a marked stamp on his poetical
work. Not only did he take biblical texts as mottos for several
of his poems, but he also left translations and paraphrases of a
number of Psalms and fragments of the Prophets. His whole work is
deeply impregnated with a sincere faith in God as the supreme ideal
of justice and goodness.
The idea of love and mercy runs through Shevchenko's poetic work
from one end to the other. His most cruelly abused characters, his
martyrs, his most tragic heroes forgive their oppressors and tormentors.
In the "Neophytes" the Christian martyrs forgive Nero;
the unhappy man in "Vagabond" forgives the seducer of
his sweetheart, the squire of their village, though he had an opportunity
of satisfying his craving for vengeance. This high idea of mercy
puts the work of Shevchenko on the highest level that human sentiment
Kulish, one of the Ukrainian literary critics and historians, himself
a poet of merit, said about our poet: "the whole beauty of
Ukrainian poetry, was revealed to Shevchenko alone," wishing,
no doubt, to say that no one penetrated as deeply as he the mysterious
sources of the poetical treasure of the Ukrainian people and transformed
in such a consummate manner the popular themes and devices of their
folklore. The whole wealth of the popular poetry, from the ancient
epics of the XIIth century relating the expedition of Prince Igor,
down to the Dumy rhapsodies of the Cossacks, and charming lyrical
folk-songs, found its synthesis in the poetical work of Shevchenko.
His power of expression, sweetness, tenderness and delicacy of sentiment,
his wealth of images and rhythmic harmony-all is to be found there,
and therein lay the secret of his magic power over all those who
A beautiful appreciation of Shevchenko was given by Ivan Franko
in an article written on the centenary, of the birth of the poet,
but printed only in 1924, ten years later, in the Slavonic Review:
"He was a peasant's son and has become a prince in the realm
of the spirit.
"He was a serf, and has become a Great Power in the commonwealth
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 his 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: Taras Shevchenko,
Slavonic Review, VoL 3, 1924, London).
Shevchenko's poetical works exercised a powerful influence on Ukrainian
literature and the Ukrainian national movement. A. Grigoriev, the
well known Russian literary critic, called Shevchenko "the
last bard and the first great poet of a great new Slavonic literature."
These words convey some idea of the place that Shevchenko occupies
in Ukrainian literature. On the other hand, Kulish, speaking at
the burial of the poet, said: "all that is really noble in
Ukraine will gather under the banner of Shevchenko."
His volume of verse, the Kobzar, has been, since its first
appearance, the most widely read book in Ukraine. It is a kind of
national Gospel. The memory of the poet is the object of exceptional
veneration, and the day of his death (which is a day after his birthday)
has ever since been celebrated as a national holiday.
On this day there is no place in his native country where a church
service is not celebrated. Meetings, lectures and concerts are held
in his memory with recitation of his poems, many of them having
been put to music by our best composer Lysenko. This is often done
not only in towns but also in small provincial places even in villages.
Thousands of schools, libraries, popular reading-rooms and theatres,
not only in Ukraine, but also in the Ukrainian colonies in America
and Asia, are named after him, including the Scientific Society
in Lviv, Galicia, which was the most important scientific body in
Ukraine before the founding in 1918 of the Ukrainian Academy of
Science in Kiev.
The grave of the poet is an object of pious pilgrimages. As early
as 1876 Emile Durand, a French scholar visiting Ukraine, wrote:6)
,,The grave of the poet is
never solitary. As soon as the first sunbeams in the spring have
melted the snow
that covers the country, pilgrims of a new fashion, merry lay pilgrims,
come from all sides and stop at the foot of the barrow. They make
their meals in the open air sitting on the grass, recite and sing
the poems of the poet according to their free fancy. It would be
impossible to find elsewhere a poet to whom the almost illiterate
crowd would thus render homage such as is usually reserved for sanctuaries
This homage has increased considerably since then. The war and
subsequent events have hindered the erection of the monument of
Shevchenko in Kiev for which considerable sums have been collected
by popular subscription. Is it necessary to say that the most lasting
monument to the poet is erected in the hearts of his countrymen
The popularity of Shevchenko and his influence is not limited to
his native country. In 1860, in his lifetime, his poems were translated
into Russian by the best Russian poets. Several new editions and
translations have since appeared, not only in Russian, but also
in Polish, Bulgarian, Serbian, Czech and other languages. Bulgarian
literature especially was influenced to a great degree by the poetical
work of Shevchenko. The Bulgarians had fought so long for their
national independence, that they, more than others, found sympathy
with his ideas so characteristic for the aspirations of national
Besides the translations into Slavonic languages, there are also
those in French German, English, Italian, Swedish. In England there
appeared in the Westminster Review (1880), in the article
of W. R. Morfill "The peasant poet of Russia," a biography
of Shevchenko, and in 1911 a collection of Shevchenko's poems in
a beautiful translation by E. L. Voynich with a biography of the
poet. A. J. Hunter published in Winnipeg 1922 a volume of his excellent
translations of Shevchenko s poems with biographical fragments and
in 1933 there appeared, also in Winnipeg a volume of Ukrainian
Songs and Lyrics translated by Honore Ewach, a young and very
promising poet, that contains half a dozen of Shevchenko's short
lyrical poems; about twenty very good translations appeared in the
Ukrainian Weekly, New York, 1933-36, mostly by V. Semenyna.
The name of Shevchenko is to his countrymen a symbol of national
sentiment and of aspirations to national independence. Likewise
his work is, for a foreigner who would wish to know the life, the
soul and the spirit of the Ukrainian people, a true mirror which
marvelously reflects the spiritual image of Ukraine.
*1) The Athenaeum, The Saturday Review. The Westminster Review.
*2) Change of metre as in original.
*3) W. R. Morfill.
*4) Ivan Franko: Taras Shevchenko. Slavonic Review. Vol.
3. London 1924/25 p. 116.
*5) Ivan Franko: Taras Shevchenko. Slavonic Review etc.
*6) In the Revue des deux Mondes.
Minor corrections have been made to the text.
Shakespeare, Burns & Shevchenko
By 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.”