The Man and the Symbol

Professor W. K. Matthews, University of London ,
Published in the "Forum" Magazine #77 in March 1989, abridged

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 ardour. 

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. Indeed 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 significance. 

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,
Bo vyzhene z khaty.      (1845) 

(Don't marry a rich bride, for she'll chase you out of
the house), 

and the kolyadka rhythm by -

Otak u Skutari kozaky spivaly;
Spivaly serdehy, a sl' ozy lylys'. . .
(Hamaliya, 1842.) 

(Thus the Cossacks sang in Scutari - the wretches sang, and their tears flowed.)

But these two types of rhythm are subtly varied, and the presence of iambic and anapaestic metres adds to the rhythmic richness of Shevchenko's verse.


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'Allegrosaid 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 before he

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 of
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