Out of Cossack They Made a Valet, and out of a Valet a Genius was Made

Van Wyck Brooks ,
Published in the "Ukrainian Life" magazine in March 1940

...Never was there a more exact confirmation of Shelley's belief that poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world than in the life and influence of Taras Shevchenko.

Shevchenko was a serf, born March 9, 1814, near the river Dnieper. While quite young he was set to work as a cook's boy in the village school where he was also obliged to take charge of the Saturday floggings. He ran away, hoping to be able to make his own living as an itinerant painter of icons; then, obliged to return home, he was turned over to his owner's son as a valet. This new master took him along on his journeys about Russia and Poland, and at last, seeing that no amount of brutal treatment could .prevent Shevchenko from stealing pencils and paper for his drawing, conceived the idea of exploiting the boy's talent for his own benefit. It was the custom for proprietors to permit their serfs to carry on trades in the towns and in this way earn revenue for them: in the principal cities of Russia there were merchants, singers, actors, musicians who were still serfs and who, belonging body and soul to their masters, raised large incomes for them by the exercise of their gifts. Thus in 1832 Captain Engelhardt took Shevchenko to St. Petersburg and apprenticed him to a painter and decorator. In six years the young artist won his freedom. The director of the Academy, Briulov, taking a fancy to him because his face was "not the face of a serf," raised enough money to satisfy his master by raffling a portrait which he had himself painted.

Painting, however, soon gave place in Shevchenko's mind to poetry. In 1840 the first collection of his verses appeared; a second volume was issued in 1842. In a little prose work called "The Artist" he tells how one moonlit night in the Summer Garden, where long before in silence and a stolen freedom his other gift had first really come to him, the Ukrainian Muse whispered in his ear. She had been shy, he says, of the sophistication and the false taste that had clung to him from the ribald songs he had been compelled to sing to his master and the marks that his life in hotels and antechambers had left upon him; and he adds that it was the breath of liberty that restored to him the purity of his childhood and made him a poet. He had already become, through his painting, and like Burns in Edinburgh under somewhat similar conditions, a fashionable curiosity; and again, as Burns had attempted to write in classical English, so he had attempted to write in Russian. His Ukrainian poems, however, instantly created a profound impression. In the history of every literature there is a moment when the speech of the people, stamped by some superior genius, is suddenly lifted above itself and becomes a member of the family of literary languages. This was what had now happened with the Ukrainian tongue, which was commonly regarded as a rude and corrupt peasant jargon: it had found its Dante. Not until 1905 did the Imperial Russian Academy of Sciences proclaim the full and independent status of modern Ukrainian among the various Slavonic tongues. Shevchenko had given it this position sixty years before. It was not long, moreover, before he discovered that in reclaiming the language he had reclaimed the self-respect of all those who spoke it.

"To make a valet out of a Cossack," Shevchenko wrote in a brief sketch of his life, "is to tame the Lapland reindeer." What he had done in his poems had been to revive, in the first place, in the minds of his countrymen, a sense of the great life their forefathers had known in the days before they lost their freedom. On these very steppes had lived the Cossacks of old whose descendants, sodden in their poverty, scarcely lifted their eyes between birth and death. Shevchenko described their exploits; he described his own life and how he had "squeezed the slave out of himself"; he sang of the miseries of the present and the possibilities of the future; he scourged the oppressors of the people for their injustice and their brutality and the oppressed for their self-abandonment and their sloth. Furthermore, he universalized the peculiar situation, the characteristic problems of the Ukrainian peasants, by showing how they had recurred among other nationalities and at other periods; he admonished his people, in opening their minds to the experience of humanity in general, not to surrender to their own experience; he reinterpreted the history of culture in terms of their own lives, so that his work was literally a "popular university." By thus invoking the past he had filled the present with an intolerable dissatisfaction, while at the same time creating values for the social and spiritual life of the individual; and the leaven instantly began to work. The close, dim horizon of the Ukrainian peasant expanded little by little; no longer could his round of days remain in its few circumscribed acts and sensations only a degree above that of the brutes; life began to present itself to him as a fresh and stirring adventure; the free man awakened once more in the serf. In a single poet, and to speak quite literally, a whole people had been born again.

For it was now, during the brief period, 1843-1847, of Shevchenko's residence at Kiev, that the other agencies of an enlightened popular existence in Ukraine began to appear. The historian Kostomariv, inspired on behalf of a people whose former life was the augury of an equally great future, began to recount in a series of monographs the most stirring episodes of Ukrainian history during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries: he thus created for his people a genuine past, a human setting, as even our historians might do if they were willing to forget the statistics of American railroading and the sawdust heroes of the public schools and present our Tom Paines as something else than "dirty little atheists." A number of intellectual leaders in various fields formed a society to bring about the emancipation of the serfs, to educate them, to reform the agricultural system and to achieve religious liberty. Just then Shevchenko was arrested and condemned to imprisonment in Siberia, He had been on the point of going to Italy, having been presented with a sum of several thousand roubles to enable him to continue his art studies there; and it is probable that if he had done this he would have: entered the sphere of Mazzini and the other leaders of European liberalism and would thus have given the Ukrainian political movement two generations ago the international importance it has scarcely yet attained. On the other hand, nothing he might have accomplished in Europe could have signified half so much in the spiritual life of his people as the legend of his years in Siberia.
Shevehenko had been charged with "composing in the abominable character"; it was observed in the indictment that his reputation rendered his verses "doubly harmful and dangerous," and on the order for his deportation the Tsar wrote with his own hand: "Must not be allowed to read or write." At the first fortress to which he was sent he was treated with leniency; his commanders permitted him to correspond with his friends, to possess drawing materials and even to spend a part of his time away from the prison. In 1850, however, one of the officers informed against him, his cell was searched and it was discovered that he had in his possession a Bible, copies of Shakespeare and Pushkin, a paint-box and portfolios; thereupon he was transferred to the more remote fortress of Novopetrovsk, with the strict injunction that under no circumstances was he to be permitted the use of pencils, pens, ink or paper. Here, in these "desert wastes of alien snow," he contrived to write a few verses, some pathetic, some filled with undying rage for his lost motherland-

That was beguiled
Into a death-trap with a lie,
Trampled and ruined and defiled.

Then he wrote no more. At last, after ten years, he was released. Forbidden to settle in Ukraine, he returned to St. Petersburg, where he continued to live for a few miserable years as a ward of the Tolstoi family. Turgenev, remembering him, wrote afterward: "We literary men received him with friendly sympathy. But he was cautious and would scarcely ever open out to anyone; he had a trick of slipping past sideways. One seldom saw anything poetical in him; he seemed rough and hardened. The expression of his eyes was mostly sullen and suspicious, but now and then came a delightful smile."
...Thus died Shevchenko, as Burns had died; but in every other than a political sense he had justified the tribute of the Polish writer who said concerning him: "When the people give birth to a great poet, the time of their liberation is at hand." 

["The Freeman," August 10, 1921.]