Shevchenko, Taras 1814 - 1861
Ukrainian poet and artist
Ukraine's most outstanding Romantic poet and artist, Shevchenko remains the central figure in Ukrainian literature where he enjoys the high standing of a national bard. His reputation as the "people's poet" not only reflects his humble origins but is above all ensured by the fact that in his poetry he expressed his nation's innermost aspirations, becoming its spokesman, leader, and prophet.
Shevchenko's biography readily lends itself to the Romantic notion of the link between a poet's native land and his Muse. Shevchenko ascended to the summit of Ukraine's literary hierarchy from the most humble beginnings. By birth not only a peasant but a serf, he spent his formative years as a domestic servant, traveling extensively with his master. His artistic talent became a key to his liberation: in 1838 his friends and benefactors from St. Petersburg artistic circles raised the money to buy his freedom. Thereafter Shevchenko rapidly acquired prominence on the Ukrainian literary scene. He became famous as the result of the publication in 1840 of his first verse collection, Kobzar (The Minstrel) and in 1841 of his epic poem Haidamaky (The Haidamaks).
Ukrainian readers and intellectuals welcomed Shevchenko both as a poet of extraordinary genius and as a powerful voice of Ukraine's national consciousness. He was seen as a spokesman for the Ukrainian nation, even as its long-awaited messiah. According to his critic and friend Kostomarov, "Shevchenko's muse tore away the veil from national life… Taras' muse cracked open subterranean crypts that for centuries had been fettered by a myriad of locks and seals." (Chyzhevskyi, 1997: 498)
Russian critics, however, did not view Shevchenko's poetry in the same light. While some of them appreciated his poetic talent, many expressed regret that he had preferred the "peasant dialect" of his native land to the Russian language, which they considered more sophisticated and suitable for poetic use. The most militant criticism of Shevchenko's poetic output came from the influential Russian critic, Vissarion Belinskii (1811-1848), who believed that there could not and should not be an independent Ukrainian literature and that Ukrainian writers should write in Russian. Most of the Russian intelligentsia shared this opinion. Nor was this standpoint alien to the Ukrainian intellectual elites, many of whom viewed Ukraine as part of Russian Empire. While they proclaimed their love for Ukraine, their first loyalty was to the country they considered their true fatherland, Russia. Shevchenko defied this opinion by his uncompromising plea for Ukraine's independence. He identified with Ukraine completely, viewing Russia as nothing less than Ukraine's oppressor, adversary and historical usurper of its nationhood. This opinion is voiced in his works Rozryta mohyla (The Plundered Grave, 1843), Chyhyryne, Chyhyryne (1844), Velykyi L'okh (The Great Crypt) and others. Separatist motifs are prominent in Shevchenko's poetry, as is his symbolic representation of Russia as a tyrant and a traitor. His oft-stated belief in Ukraine's eventual liberation was accepted by his compatriots as a prophesy.
When Shevchenko made his appearance on the literary scene, the heyday of the Western European and the Slavic Romantic movements had passed. At that time Ukrainian historical and ethnographic materials were widely employed and popularized by Ukrainian (Metlynskyi, Markevych), Russian (Ryleev, Pushkin, Gogol) and Polish writers (Zaleski, Goszchynski), who made them an integral part of the Romantic aesthetics of Slavdom. Shevchenko relied both on the European and Slavic inheritance of Romanticism. He paid tribute to the traditional Romantic themes of the fantastic (Prychynna (Bewitched) 1837), madness (Vid'ma (The Witch) 1858), Sova (Own) 1844), suicide (Kateryna (Catherine) 1838), incest (Vid'ma, Kniazhna (The Princess) 1847), and infanticide (Haidamaky (The Haidamaks). Yet the metaphysical themes and mysticism characteristic of early German Romanticism were foreign to Shevchenko. Nor did he care for disenchanted romantic individualists. On the other hand, he celebrated heroic fighters against oppression who strove to achieve national and social liberation and justice (Honta, Zalizniak, Ivan Pidkova). Civic themes such as these were part and parcel of his historical works. His historical pieces glorify Ukraine's past yet point to Ukraine's need to fight for freedom and envision its future as an independent entity. The presence of folkloric motifs is another trademark of Shevchenko's oeuvre. Shevchenko's Romantic aesthetics meant that his Ukrainian themes are profoundly symbolic. Yet his symbolism draws on sui generis Ukrainian imagery and lore. His poetic works are populated by folk archetypes such as the poet-minstrel (kobzar, banduryst), the seduced and abandoned woman (pokrytka), the heartbroken mother, the orphan, the Ukrainian warrior and fighter for freedom - the Cossack.
On par with folk themes and motifs, Shevchenko widely used folk linguistic means. Commenting on the intimate relationship of Shevchenko's poetry with folk tradition, his critics note that he did not simply paraphrase or imitate folk poetry, rather "the language of folk poetry seemed to be native to him" (Chyzhevskyi, 1997: 498). His favorite genres - the song, the ballad, the historical poem - show the clear influence of traditional Ukrainian models.
Shevchenko's Russian legacy traditionally belongs to both Ukrainian and Russian literatures. Yet, as it was convincingly shown by G. Grabowicz, it was Shevchenko's Ukrainian poetry that represented his genius at its best. The critic argues that Shevchenko's Russian output is controlled, cerebral and therefore lacking in the freedom essential for true artistic expression.
Shevchenko is known primarily as a poet, yet he was also a talented painter. He continued drawing throughout his life and left an impressive collection of more than 800 pieces.
Shevchenko's aspiration for an independent Ukrainian literature was not his only concern. He cherished Slavophile and separatist ideals, which he expressed not only in his poetry but also in his allegiance to the federalist and messianic program of The Brotherhood of Saints Cyril and Methodius. The Brethren championed Romantic ideals of the liberation of Slavic nations, blending them with Christian mysticism. When in 1847 members of this secret society were arrested, Shevchenko attracted the wrath of the authorities not only because he belonged to the Brotherhood but also because of his direct and harsh criticism of the Russian government. His satirical poems as Son (Dream), Velykyi L'okh (The Great Crypt), Kavkaz (Caucasus) all dated 1845, which comprised his new, as yet unpublished collection, Try lita (Three Years), were regarded as particularly seditious. Shevchenko received the harshest punishment of all the Brethren. He was sentenced to serve for life as a private in a remote area of the Russian Empire and was forbidden to write or paint. Yet he did not cease writing. The cycle V kazemati (In the Casemate, 1847) was written during his trial; an adaptation of a Kazakh tale U Boha za dveryma lezhala sokyra (God had an ax lying behind the door, 1848) was one of the first poetic works he wrote in exile.
Shevchenko was released in 1857, two years after the death of Tsar Nicholas I. Since he was not allowed to live in Ukraine, he returned to St. Petersburg, where he continued his creative activity. To this period belong his long poems (Neofity (Neophytes, 1857), Iurodyvyi (The Holy Fool, 1857)); poetic adaptations of Scriptures; revisions of his earlier works (Vid'ma (The Witch, 1858)); and a number of novelettes (e.g. Khudozhnik (The Artist, 1856), Bliznetsy (The Twins, 1855)).
Despite the continuous suppression and mutilation of his work, first by the tsarist and then by the Soviet censorship, Shevchenko became a cult figure in Ukrainian literature and culture. His importance to Ukraine is unparalleled. Not only was he Ukraine's first modern author, the creator of Ukrainian literary language and a key figure in Ukrainian national revival, he was also instrumental in the evolution of Ukraine's national self-consciousness and political awareness. Through his poetry Romantic ideals endure in modern Ukrainian literature and thought.
Born 9 March, 1814 in the village of Moryntsi, Kyiv region in a serf family. From 1828 a houseboy of his owner, P. Engelhardt. Travels to Vilnius and Warsaw (1828-1831). In St. Petersburg is apprenticed to a painter I. Soshenko. On April 22, 1838 the artist Karl Briullov sells his portrait of the poet Zhukovsky and uses the money he receives to buy Shevchenko's freedom. Enrolls in the Academy of Fine Arts, 1838. Kobzar (Minstrel) is published, 1840. Travels to Ukraine, 1843. Publishes an album of drawings, Zhivopisnaia Ukraina (Pictorial Ukraine), 1844. Graduates from the St. Petersburg Academy of Fine Arts, becomes a member of the Kiev Archeographic Commission, 1845. Joins The Brotherhood of Sts. Cyril and Methodius, 1846. Arrested and exiled, 1847. Part of a military expedition to the Aral Sea, 1848-1849. Release from the military service, 1857. Died 10 March, 1861 in St. Petersburg.
Kobzar, Sanktpeterburg: V tipografii E. Fishera, 1840
The Kobzar of the Ukraine: selected poems of Taras Shevchenko, translated by Alexander Jardine Hunter, 1922
Poetical works. The Kobzar, translated by C.H. Andrusyshen and Watson Kirkconnell, 1964
Song out of darkness: selected poems, translated by Vera Rich, 1961.
Poezii: u dvokh tomakh, edited by V.IE. Shubravs'koho, 2 vols, 1988
Povne vydannia tvoriv, edited by Pavlo Zaitsev, 15 vols, 1934-38
Avtoportrety Tarasa Shevchenka, Kyiv: Mystetstvo, 1973
Shevchenko, Taras (transl.), Davydovi psalmy: davn'oslovians'ki teksty, ukraïns'ki pereklady, Kyiv: Vydavnytstvo "Dim, Sad, Horod", 2000
Chyzhevskyi, Dmytro, A History of Ukrainian Literature: From the 11th to the End of the 19th Century (translated by Dolly Ferguson, Doreen Gorsline, and Ulana Petyk) with An Overview of the Twentieth Century, by Luckyj, George S. N., New York and Englewood, Colorado: The Ukrainian Academy of Arts and Sciences and Ukrainian Academic Press, 1997.
Grabowicz, G. George, The Poet as Mythmaker: A Study of Symbolic Meaning in Taras Shevchenko, 1982
Luckyj, George S. N., Between Gogol' and Sevcenko; polarity in the literary Ukraine: 1798-1847, Munchen: Verlag, 1971
Luckyj, George S. N. (ed.), Shevchenko and the Critics 1861-1980, Toronto, Buffalo, London: University of Toronto Press and the Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies, 1980.
Luckyj, George S. N., Young Ukraine: The Brotherhood of Saints Cyril and Methodius in Kiev, 1845-1847, Ottawa, Paris: University of Ottawa Press, 1991.