Ultima Thule

In ancient times the northernmost region of the habitable world - hence, any distant, unknown or mysterious land.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Taras Shevchenko's lasting legacy

By Aussiegirl

Taras Shevchenko (1814 - 1861) is the pre-eminent poetic genius and spiritual father of Ukraine. All his life he dreamed that one day Ukraine would finally breathe free, in its own land, governed by its own good people. He is revered by his countrymen even to the present day. His poetry is known by one and all, and even illiterate peasants knew whole reams of his works by heart, as so many of them were set to music and became part of the folk song culture sung on a daily basis.

As a matter of fact, my mother tells me a charming and touching story about her grandfather and his reverence for Shevchenko. When religion was forbidden in the Soviet Union, icons that used to grace one corner of every Ukrainian household disappeared. One day as a young girl, my mother, who was steeped in atheism at school, came across her grandfather kneeling and saying his prayers in front of a portrait of Shevchenko that hung on the wall of his room. She mocked him and said, "Grandfather, that's Shevchenko, not an icon, why are you praying to him?" And he answered, "Shevchenko is a holy man, my child, and it is fitting to pray even to him." She tells me that years later during the war, when he was unable to find papers to roll his beloved cigarettes, he smoked up the pages of the Bible, but never dared to touch the Kobzar, Shevchenko's comprehensive tome of poems.

Shevchenko was born a serf. His freedom was purchased by the sale of an auctioned portrait by some noblemen and artists who recognized his talent. He received a first-class education, and was a skilled and talented artist. But his heart drew him to the pen and to the words which burst forth from his good and noble heart. He couldn't bear to see any injustice in the world. He loved all humanity and the dignity of each person, and he devoted his work, his life, and ultimately his freedom to this cause.

Shevchenko lived but a few short years in freedom before he came afoul of the authorities for his impassioned poetry that championed the downtrodden Ukrainian people. He lived in exile, forbidden to own paper or even pen by the Tsar's personal decree. He was never allowed to live in Ukraine again. He died in St. Petersburg in 1861, awaiting the Tsar's signature ending the hated serfdom that still enslaved his people and his family. His body was borne to Ukraine for burial as he requested, and along the way thousands of ordinary Ukrainians stood and gave him honor.

Such is the power of power of poets who threaten kings, who bring down empires, who feed the human soul.

Shevchenko is unique among men and their relationship to their nation, perhaps because Ukraine's history is quite unusual. But the unmistakeable theme of his life is the universality of man's striving for equality, dignity and freedom. It is this spark of divine fire that God has placed in each human heart that has echoed through the centuries, from the days of Socrates and even earlier. The desire for freedom and justice rings though the ages, and it is immoral that we should possess this gift and willingly give it away today, when we have everything to lose, and nothing to gain. Yet countless individuals throughout history gave everything, including their lives, for values such as this.

And craven and feckless politaicians bargain away our freedom for a few votes or dollars and a few moments in front of the cameras. How quickly the many who are weak displace the noble sacrifices of those who have pointed the way for us. Alas, it's always easier to follow the low road, and much, much harder to scale the heights of the road which leads to justice and right. I suppose it is the lot and the history of mankind, writ over and over again.

I include a translation of his last poem, written in St. Petersburg shortly before his death.

Shevchenko's Last Poem

Should we not then cease, my friend,
My poor dear neighbour, make an end
Of versifying useless rhymes?
Prepare our waggons for the time
When we that longest road must wend?
Into the other world, my friend,
To God, we'll hasten to our rest...
We have grown weary, utter-tired,
A little wisdom we've acquired,
It should suffice! To sleep is best,
Let us now go home to rest...
A home of gladness, you may know!

No, let us not depart, nor go --
It is early still,
We shall yet take walks together,
Sit, and gaze our fill,
Gaze upon the world, my fortune,
See how wide it spreads,
Wide and joyful, it is both
Bright, and of great depth!
We shall yet take walks my star,
On a hill climb high,
And take our rest together..... And
Your sister-stars, meanwhile,
The ageless ones, will start to shine,
Through the heavens glide...
Let us linger then, my sister,
Thou, my holy bride,
And with lips unsullied we shall
Make our prayer to God,
And then set out quietly
On that longest road,
Over Lethe's plumbless depths,
Waters dark and swarthy,
Grant me then thy blessing, friend,
With thy holy glory.
While this and that and all such wear on,
Straight let us go, as the crow flies,
To Aesculapeus for advice,
If he can outwit old Charon
And spinning Fate... And then, as long as
The old sage would change his purpose,
We would create, reclining there,
An epic, soaring everywhere
Above the earth, hexameters
We'd twine, and up the attic stairs
Take them for mice to gnaw. Then we
Would sing prose, yet with harmony
And not haphazard.

Holy friend,
Companion to my journey's end,
Before the fire has ceased to glow,
Let us to Charon, rather, go!
Over Lethe's plumbless depths,
Waters dark and swarthy,
Let us sail, let us bear
With us holy glory,
Ageless, young for evermore...
Or -- friend, let it be!
I will do without the glory,
If they grant it me,
There on the banks of Phlegethon,
Or beside the Styx, in heaven,
As if by the broad Dnipro, there
In a grove, a grove primaeval,
A little house I'll build, and make
An orchard all around it growing,
And you'll fly to me in the shades,
There, like a beauty, I'll enthrone you;
Dnipro and Ukraina we
Shall recollect, gay villages
In woodlands, gravehills in the steppes,
And we shall sing right merrily.

February 14-15, 1861
St. Petersburg
Translated by Vera Rich


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