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...
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