Taras Shevchenko: Celebrating 200 Years of Literary Excellence
The world’s attention has recently turned to Ukraine due to the political occurrences taking place related to Russia’s annexation of Crimea. The Russian military movements and the separatists’ exchanges of fire have forced the Western world to ask questions about power distribution and dependence on our Eastern neighbour. While the political issues rage and multiply, I would like to turn the reader’s attention from the victimized and oppressed Ukraine, to a country which flourishes and blooms in the context of its cultural and literary heritage.
Admittedly, throughout its history Ukraine has been constantly harassed by neighbouring countries and wrecked by internal conflicts – from its beginnings as the remnant of the Ancient Greek city-states, to its occupation by the Turks, to its incorporation into the USSR, Ukraine has been subject to continuing wars and violence. Despite foreign intervention, Ukrainians have developed far-reaching folklore traditions and a sense of national identity, resulting in a rich and flourishing culture. Its literary tradition date back to the religious anthems sung during festive rituals – celebrating the harvest, the change of seasons, the rights of passage such as birth, wedding and death. However, it was only in the late seventeenth century, with the publishing of Ivan Kotlarevski’s ‘adaptation’ of the “Aeneid” featuring Cossacks instead of Virgil’s Trojan warriors, that Ukrainian literature truly unfurled its wings; it was at this point in time that we see the emergence of striking images of patriotism in Kotlarevski’s adaptation.
Soon after Taras Shevchenko appeared on the country’s cultural arena – a figure considered the founder and father of modern Ukrainian literature. Born into a family of merchant peasants subject to an Austrian landlord, Shevchenko experienced the life of the low classes. Struggling within a framework of basic education in his youth, he became the apprentice of an icon master and eventually started serving at the landlord’s estate, receiving further instructions in the field of art. With his new mentor Shevchenko moved to Petersburg where he became integrated within a circle of artists; with their assistance, he bought his freedom and enrolled in the art academy. In 1830 he witnessed the November Uprising; all the experiences of his youth would resurface in his literary work, affirming a sense of Ukrainian identity which he demonstrates through addressing issues of class immobility, political injustice and social disintegration – thus expressing his patriotic wishes for the betterment for his country and its people.
The necessary question to be posed follows: what makes Shevchenko’s patriotic work superior to that of his predecessors? Have other authors not shown far going praise and devotion to their motherland, in the manner that Kotlarevski has done with his conversion from Roman to Ukrainian? Undeniably, nationalist and historical themes pervaded Ukrainian literature before Shevchenko, but it is Shevchenko’s ability to find a universal expression of his patriotic feelings which deems his work excellence, for the imagery of his poetry focuses on the picturesque landscapes of his beloved homeland – a motive which now may seem so simple, yet was genius and innovatory in its simplicity during his days. “The wide Dnipro roars and moans/ […] a pale moon/ Peeks out from behind a cloud now and then”, ‘paints’ Shevchenko in his poem “The Girl Under a Spell”. The rustic imagery of nature brings his patriotic feelings back to the nature of his love for homeland. The reference to
Ukraine’s biggest river, Dnieper, sustaining life in this region from the very beginnings of civilization, creates the sense of centrality and fundamentality. Our poet may be suggesting with this geographical image that his patriotic feelings parallel that of Dnieper – that they are central, fundamental, and flow straight from his heart, just as the river flows through the heart of Ukraine.
Not only does this suggest and inspire a return to the roots and centre – to the natural patriotism of his audience – but also allows a wide range of readers to identify with his praise of land; for bourgeois and high class landlords land represented their source of social status and power – its praise and respect, and through it the praise of Ukraine, would be easily incited. For citizens from lower classes land was the basic factor insuring survival; the cultivation of crops was the sole occupation for the vast majority of Ukrainians, and therefore just as fundamental and central to their lives as the patriotism Shevchenko was evoking through such imagery. For the first time in Ukrainian history, a poet made his work accessible and relevant to all its classes. We can easily draw a parallel here with W.B. Yeats, the Irish literary Nobel Prize winner, who distinguished himself by making his poetry simple – reaching the simple people of Ireland through his imagery of daily life of, for instance, fishermen, and ever-present nature.
Thus the exceptionality of Shevchenko does not derive solely from his messages of patriotism and rebellion against tsarist Russia, which formed part of many authors’ works throughout the countless years of occupation which Ukraine endured over the years. It is the common ground he managed to find, the plough and sow for his audience. One which bore fertile crops and inspired devotion, love and hope in Ukrainians. In “The Testament” Shevchenko draws to a conclusion his message and will: “When I die, bury me/ On a grave mound, amid the wide-wide steppe/ In my beloved Ukraine. In a place from where the wide-tilled fields/ And the Dnipro and its steep banks/ Can be seen.” In this poem, written during a period of illness when Shevchenko was convinced he would soon die, he finalizes the full meaning of his imagery. Again referring to land and Dnieper, this time not as purely elements of nature and thus source of life, but in a context of death, he demonstrates the constant represented by the homeland.
The country is his final comfort and hope for the future: although he and many other may perish, the land they love and fight for will always remain. He refuses to let his patriotism die with him, and he omnisciently writes “fame is my testament”. From today’s perspective, in the year of his 200th birthday, we can say that he was right: he is now widely accepted as the father of Ukrainian literature and the upholder of its national identity and integrity.