Taras Shevchenko Essay - Critical Essays

Shevchenko, Taras


Taras Shevchenko 1814-1861

(Also transliterated as Ševčenko) Ukrainian poet.

Considered the national poet of Ukraine, Shevchenko virtually created a Ukrainian literary language by resisting Russian political and cultural impositions. His first collection of poetry, Kobzar (The Minstrel, 1840), earned him the nickname "the Ukrainian Pushkin." Active in the Ukrainian nationalist movement for independence from tsarist Russia, Shevchenko remained a symbol of resistance for Ukrainian nationalists even after his death. In addition to his importance for Ukrainian literature, he also influenced Russian literature through contemporary translations of his poetry into Russian. In 1964, during the sesquicentennial of his birth, Shevchenko was honored both by anti-communist Ukrainian nationalists, for his resistance to Russian dominance, and by the Soviet government, for his political resistance to the tsar.

Biographical Information

Born a serf in a province of Kiev and orphaned at a very young age, Shevchenko endured a childhood of deprivation and abuse. After an apprenticeship as an icon-maker, he was taken into the service of a landowner named Engelhardt to work as an interior decorator. In 1832 he was sold to a painting contractor in St. Petersburg as an indentured servant. Six years later, his freedom was purchased by the painter Bryullov and the poet Zhukovsky, who recognized Shevchenko's poetic and artistic talents. He entered the Academy of Art in St. Petersburg, where he studied painting with great success and also began writing the poems that would appear in his first published collection two years later. He returned to the Ukraine in 1843, painting an album of life in that area. After completing his studies at the Academy in St. Petersburg, he again went to the Ukraine as the commissioned artist of an archeological team studying Ukrainian relics. Shevchenko voiced his protests against Russian oppression in strongly nationalist poems, which he circulated in manuscript form. In 1847, when he was about to be appointed to Kiev University, he was arrested for his unpublished anti-tsarist poetry and for membership in the secret "Brotherhood of Saints Cyril and Methodius," an outlawed society that advocated Slavic union based on independence from Russia. Shevchenko was exiled to penal army service in central Asia and prohibited from writing or painting, although sympathetic superiors often overlooked the prohibition; it was during the period of his exile that Shevchenko wrote his nine novellas in Russian. He was pardoned and released in 1857, but his health was broken and he was never free from police surveillance. Shevchenko returned to the St. Petersburg Academy in 1858, where he edited his army memoirs and continued to paint. After a year in the Ukraine he went back to St. Petersburg in 1860, and was helping to establish a periodical on Ukrainian affairs when he died in 1861.

Major Works

Although Shevchenko wrote two long poems, two plays, and nine novellas in Russian, they are considered of a lesser quality than his Ukrainian works, especially his first published collection of poems, Kobzar (The Minstrel), which appeared in 1840. Other poems, such as Haidamaki (Free Cossacks, 1841), and dramas, such as Nikita Haidai, were published in journals, but the majority of his poems were circulated privately in manuscript form. Most of his political poems remained unpublished until after the Revolution of 1905, and although he wrote most of his work in Ukrainian, none of his poetry was published in that language until the publication of his collected works beginning in 1939.

Critical Reception

Shevchenko's The Minstrel found a mixed reception in Russia. While praising his poetic talents, critics felt he would have done better to exercise them in Russian rather than in his native Ukrainian. Some Russian intellectuals, including the noted critic N. A. Dobrolyubov, supported his resistance to Russian repression. Shevchenko's principal detractor was V. G. Belinsky, who faulted the poet for trying to develop a specifically Ukrainian literature; Belinsky thought that Ukrainians should write in Russian to be appreciated by a wider audience. While most Russian intellectuals resisted Ukrainian separatism and considered Ukrainian romanticism representative of a lesser literature, Shevchenko endorsed a nationalistic development of Ukrainian literature on the same scale critics such as Belinsky advocated for Russian literature. The question of the relationship of Shevchenko's work to Russian literature has been clouded by the official Soviet interpretation of literary history, which insisted on the primacy of Russian literature over the other national literatures of the USSR.

Principal Works

Kobzar (poetry) 1840

[The Minstrel, 1964]

Haidamaki (poetry) 1841

Nikita Haidai (drama) 1841

Nazar Stodolja (drama) 1843

Zivopisnaja Ukraina (etchings) 1844

[The Pictorial Ukraine] Xudoznik (novel) 1887*

[The Artist published in Taras Schevchenko Selected Works, 1961(?)]

Povne zibrannya tvoriv 10 vols. (poetry and paintings) 1939-64

Taras Shevchenko: Tvory (poetry and prose) 1959-62

Poems; Poésies; Gedichte (poetry) 1961

Taras Schevchenko Selected Works (poetry and prose) 1961(?)

Selected Works; Poetry and Prose (poetry and prose) 1963

Povne zibrannya tvoriv 6 vols. (poetry) 1963-64

The Poetical Works of Taras Shevchenko (poetry) 1964

Selected Works (poetry and prose) 1964

*Written in 1856


Panteleimon Kulish (essay date 1861)

SOURCE: "Why Shevchenko Is a Poet of Our People," in Shevchenko and the Critics: 1861-1980, edited by George S. N. Luckyj, translated by Dolly Ferguson and Sophia Yurkevich, University of Toronto Press, 1980, pp. 57-63.

[In the following essay, Kulish mourns Shevchenko's death, citing his great impact on Ukrainian culture.]

News of the death of Taras Shevchenko has reached even those of us who live in the country. It is a grievous misfortune that this great poet is no longer with us, and every tear that fell on his grave is blessed in the eyes of God: our accumulated tears have established the worth of this champion of our native word, which alone constitutes our strength as a people, our glory as a people, and alone gives us the right to a separate place among other nations. As long as Shevchenko was with us, we gave him the reverence due a great poet and turned a blind eye to all the mistakes and lapses along his lonely, arduous path; how great was the deed that he performed for us as Ukrainians and what we would be without Shevchenko has only now been fully revealed to us.

Literate townspeople have long neglected the illiterate villagers and their unprinted language; intellectually they embraced strangers, those who, in the vast community of the uneducated, keep together in a small group and, like an assembly of Jewish elders, understand only each other and do not care at all that they have left far behind them countless thousands of the illiterate. Our writers, too, have trailed behind these townspeople and with them written academic books and given themselves airs because they have managed to cast a net over human souls from sea unto sea with a single, bookish, academic language. These great writers and creators of the written word did not care that because of this net all our ordinary people appeared tongue-tied. They did not care that for these simple people there was no path to literature other than renunciation of the simple and easily understood native word. When our country people put their children in Russian schools, it was the same as sending them to the Russian army for because of this illusory education the numbers of those who speak as we do, look at God's world as we do, and live among the peasantry as we do grew smaller.

The townspeople were muddying our common sense and unsullied taste with their books and then, behold, there came into our simple cottage a little man, dressed in our fashion, seemingly sharing our customs and our language, who slowly spelled out the words of who knows what kind of verses about some Aeneas. It looked as if we should rejoice! The man is writing verses in our language! But hardly! God save us from versification like that! Soon some of us realized what sort of wonder that was. 'Just look at this man closely,' they began to say. 'He is a little gentleman from town dressed up like us. Look: he has the bearing of a gentleman and his character is entirely that of a gentleman. He simply imitates us with his words and holds us up to ridicule. He is making fun of our customs, of our native land, of our simplicity in not having genteel tastes—imagine that!—not having genteel whims and spurning genteel bonbons. Look: his Aeneas says such things about his own mother in public that it makes you want to run out of the house; listen to the way he derides our customs, how he mangles our Ukrainian language. The gentlefolk have presented us with the kind of mirror that, when a simple man looks into it, he cannot even recognize himself.'

This was the judgment handed down by our wise people on these verses and every clear-thinking soul turned away from this Aeneas dishevelled in God only knows what fashion. But then Kvitka's 'Marusia' dropped in on us for a visit. Dear heart, how lovely and dignified you seemed to us after that Trojan gypsy! It was our soul nestled against God's breast speaking in our language. It was the first book to breathe the same spirit as the word of our blessed Teacher. Kvitka cast upon us simple folk the same gaze as that great lover of man. We were amazed at how brightly our image as a people shone forth, even though a plowman's sweat had settled upon it like a thick layer of dust. We gazed deeply with Kvitka into the soul of our simple folk and wondered where its inexpressible depth came from.

We were pondering this when suddenly Shevchenko called out loudly all over Ukraine. It was as if all the folk songs and all human tears had spoken in unison. He raised our silent memory from the grave, summoned up our silent antiquity to judge, and set before it the Ukrainian as he is now, as he has been moulded by history. Who could not make an effort to understand, or feel in his soul that, having bathed in their own blood and endured devastation and conflagration numberless times, our forefathers must have drawn into their souls much from ancient times. Whether he described himself in his meditative poems, or old Perebendia, Kateryna's mother and father, or even Kateryna herself with her sincere feelings of love and her immense torment, Shevchenko immediately demonstrated a unique way of painting portraits in words, for both his own spiritual portrait and this entire family of kindred spirits were all children of our history. He took the sound and structure of his masterful language from those songs and dumy (historical songs) which only we in the country still listened to and understood in our hearts; the soul of our unwritten folk poetry became his muse's soul. His far-reaching embrace encompassed Ukraine with its bloody burial mounds and awesome glory and in his hands the language of the folk songs was transformed into images of what was and is in Ukraine. Our whole people sang of their fate with his lips: his words reverberated wherever our blood had flowed, wherever our bones lay; every heart was awakened by his song.

Kvitka was the first to understand that the poetry of our folk customs was that of a blessed and truly human family. Shevchenko presented us with the poetry of our life as a people. Kvitka surprised us all by revealing the noble, heroic soul of the quiet, meek plowman, of simple village life. Shevchenko allowed us to plumb its mysterious depths, recalled to us our forgotten Ukrainian history, and showed that this meek soul had existed in misery not for days or hours but for centuries and had not become contemptible, did not crouch timidly, had not become the servant of evil, but had retreated deep into itself and, standing among evil people with lowered gaze, silently bided its time, and awaited its fate. Thus, when Shevchenko's fiery poetry illuminated Kvitka's native works, then we realized that Naum Drot is that same folk hero Samiilo Kishka for, living in foreign parts, he endured a test no less demanding than Samiilo's and, suffering through century after century, did not bend, did not allow his steadfast and noble spirit to be diminished in stature.

Shevchenko is our poet and our first historian. He was the first to inquire of our silent burial mounds what they were and to him alone they gave an answer as clear as God's word. Shevchenko was the first to understand where the glory of our history lay and the reasons why future generations would curse it. Just as the folk song set the tone for his masterful language, so he gave us all the true tone upon which to tune our word. High above us, Shevchenko raised his...

(The entire section is 3047 words.)

W. R. Morfill (essay date 1886)

SOURCE: "A Cossack Poet," in Macmillan's Magazine, Vol. LIII, No. 318, April, 1886, pp. 458-464.

[In the following essay, Mor fill introduces Shevchenko to a western European audience, focusing on his life, his political views, and the idyllic character of his poetry.]

I propose in the following pages to introduce to the notice of my readers a poet whose name has hardly been heard in the western parts of Europe. This is the Cossack Taras Shevchenko, whose funeral in 1861 was followed by so many thousands of his countrymen, and whose grave—a tumulus surmounted by a large iron cross, near Kaniov on the Dnieper—has been called the Mecca of the South Russian...

(The entire section is 4330 words.)

Valerian Revutsky (essay date 1962)

SOURCE: "Ševčenko and the Theatre," in Taras Ševčenko, 1814-1861: A Symposium, edited by Volodymyr Mijakovs'kyj and George Y. Shevelov, Mouton & Co., 1962, pp. 136-52.

[In the following essay, Revutsky discusses Ševčenko's experiences with the opera, his acquaintances in the theater, his drama criticism, and the influence of these experiences on his dramatic writings.]

This subject has been frequently discussed. Almost a century after the birth of the poet V. Bocjanovs'kyj wrote a study "Ševčenko and the Ukrainian Theatre" (1912); in 1925 Petro Rulin devoted an article to this topic; in the symposium entitled Ševčenko ta joho doba he also gave a...

(The entire section is 6543 words.)

George S. N. Luckyj (essay date 1971)

SOURCE: "Ševčenko," in Between Gogol'and Ševčenko: Polarity in the Literary Ukraine: 1798-1845, Wilhelm Fink Verlag, 1971, pp. 128-61.

[In the following essay, Luckyj overviews Ševčenko's life and evaluates his writing and historical importance, claiming that "Ševčenko's role in Ukrainian literature can hardly be overstressed."]

The appearance of Ševčenko must be seen not only in contrast to Gogol' but also to the Ukrainian intellectual milieu of the day. The existence of such a milieu, small as it was, was in itself of cardinal importance. In the 1820's and 1830's a series of issues, centered around the Ukraine, came into the open and there crystallized a...

(The entire section is 14644 words.)

George G. Grabowicz (essay date 1980)

SOURCE: "A Study of the Deep Structures in Ševčenko's Works," in Ševčenko and the Critics: 1861-1980, edited by George S. N. Luckyj, translated by Dolly Ferguson and Sophia Yurkevich, University of Toronto Press, 1980, pp. 481-94.

[In the following essay, Grabowicz claims that the duality in Ševčenko's poetry, which has led to contrary interpretations, stems from his attempts to mediate between the Ukrainian past and future.]

Beginning with the first ambivalent reactions in the Russian press to the first edition of the Kobzar of 1840, and shortly thereafter with the more analytical studies of Kulish and Kostomarov, the critical genre now known as...

(The entire section is 5040 words.)

Ray LaPica (essay date 1981)

SOURCE: "Shevchenko's Nine Russian 'Novels'," in The Ukrainian Quarterly, Vol. XXXVII, No. 1, Spring, 1981, pp. 25-41.

[In the following essay, LaPica analyzes and evaluates the novels that Shevchenko wrote in Russian, summarizing their plots and explaining their significance in his oeuvre.]


Shevchenko's nine Russian "novels" are a literary curiosity of interest to everyone who loves his poetry. The nine works are really long short stories or novelettes rather than novels, and were written during his 10 years in exile in the Caspian Sea region. They were never published during his lifetime. Only one, The Artist,...

(The entire section is 6377 words.)

Further Reading


Dobriansky, Lev E. "The Shevchenko Affair." The Ukrainian Quarterly XX, No. 1 (Spring 1964): 108-17.

Defends the erection of the Shevchenko statue in Washington, D.C., against a disparaging editorial in The Washington Post.

Gitin, Vladimir. "The Reality of the Narrator: Typological Features of Ševčenko's Prose." Harvard Ukrainian Studies IX, Nos. 1/2 (June 1985): 85-117.

Reevaluates Shevchenko's prose pieces in light of their seemingly autobiographical elements.

Grabowicz, George G. "The Nexus of the Wake:...

(The entire section is 407 words.)