Taras Shevchenko

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Panteleimon Kulish (essay date 1861)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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....

(The entire section is 39,981 words.)